[The language of the music of ancient Greece] is a uniquely simple language but one that can find endless possibilities of development. It easily accepts external influences - a new color, a new combination of intervals, a rhythmic pattern - and it has the capacity of continually renewing itself. Those composers who bought into the theory that this ever-evolving system was dead at the beginning of the 20th century were enthusiastic and passionate adolescents, almost all of whom later recanted and got back to writing music, having passed through their tantrum phase. Hindemith, Weill, Copland, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Prokofiev, Bartok, Shostakovich - they all ended up in a very different place from their bang-on-a-can, yell-in-your-face entrance onto the international stage. We don't teach that version of history [today], mind you. We are meant to believe that classical music just got more and more complex and experimental — and continues to. But the only way to accept that idea is to eliminate the data, since this explanation of the 20th century describes a fraction of the music actually composed and listened to. If you were a physicist, and proposed a theory of the Universe that simply ignored 99% of perceivable information, you would be laughed out of the Academy.Yes indeed. Indeed you would. Read the whole article here.
A stranger asks me to write an Aesthetic Statement. He demands my notion of the ideal poem, so he’ll know the secret of my love of some poems and my distaste for others. I feel his pain. Perhaps he wants to prosecute me should I praise a poet who deviates from my Platonic ideal. An aesthetic statement is of little use to a critic unless he’s a lover of manifestos, a maker of quarrels, or a host who treats his guests like Procrustes. Aesthetics is a rational profession for the philosopher, but for the working critic it’s a mug’s game. To write about your aesthetics is no better than revealing your secrets if you’re a magician, or returning a mark’s stolen wallet if you’re a pickpocket.This is must-read stuff — for MSM professionals as well as for us mere blogger amateurs.
How have we allowed this to come about? How has one of mankind’s most glorious achievements [viz., opera] fallen into the hands of this freakish band of directors that seeks only to demean the form in its own narcissistic, solipsistic image? How have we come to be beholden to such as one of the most outré of this ill-begotten breed who can trenchantly assert that he is ‘faithful to Mozart’, a claim that carries as much validity as would Richard Dawkins declaring he is faithful to God? It is my firm conviction that no part of the operatic world, from administrators, to conductors, to singers, critics and audiences can escape censure.*The essay is well worth one's time reading in full. (Our thanks to Opera-L member Peter Bollard for the above Early Music World link.) * To which compare our,
And what sort of respect should be shown singers and musicians — the sine qua non (literally) of an opera performance — who were too cowardly to adamantly refuse to take part in such butcheries? That's right. None at all. They deserve to share the full weight of our censure along with the butchers initially and ultimately responsible for the butchery.
As I have often said and sometimes written, the history of art extends from Anonymous to Untitled, from when only the work mattered to where only the name in the signature does. What reminds me of this is a reproduction in The New York Times (10/16/12) of an untitled painting by Franz Kline, which, at the forthcoming auction, “is expected to bring $20 million to $30 million” and make me sick to my stomach. I recall a time, long ago, when Kline yelled at me at a party, “You are full of shit!”, and I replied, “Maybe, but at least I don’t smear it on canvas and peddle it as art.” Art today is the result of a tacit conspiracy among artists, art historians, art critics, art dealers, nabobs who don’t know what to do with their money, and all the people who don’t know anything about art. And why shouldn’t it fetch that much when the article about the Kline painting notes that one by Clyfford Still, resonantly entitled “1949-A-No. 1” went for $61.7 million? Even Clyfford with a Y should raise a cautionary eyebrow.Read the full text here.
Chaos, as Wagner himself sometimes suggested, is likely to be the rule, rather than the exception, in our world (and in productions of Der Ring des Nibelungen that try to reflect or comment on that world) until another cruel divine order emerges to force things back into unity. Rings devoted to the evils and collapse of Eastern European communism are surely on the drafting boards already, now that Rings devoted to the evils and collapse of capitalism and fascism are becoming routine. Be grateful if you have the opportunity to see a contemporary Ring that is as compelling to look at as it is to listen to; thoughtfully (not narrowly or spitefully) of our time; on the whole generous to Wagner, rather than mean-minded and reductive; one that makes provocative sense, and still seems to grow out of the music, which is (fortunately) larger than all of these postmodern Konzepts put together.Read the full text here.
The artist who fired the imaginations of Baudelaire, Mallarmé, Proust, Joyce, Mann, Cather, Kandinsky, Isadora Duncan, and Eisenstein, among hundreds of others, cannot be summed up in a few adjectives. [...] Wagner must take some of the blame for the reductionist image that prevails in the public mind. It was his spiteful anti-Semitism that has caused so many people to draw a straight line from the “Ring of the Nibelung” to Hitler.Read the full text here.
Next month marks the centenary of the birth of the conductor, musician, visionary, jester, husband and father who bore witness to, and embodies, his time, the core of the 20th century, and whose genius — a word too liberally used nowadays — not only towered over the music-making of his lifetime but radically changed it in ways that are only now becoming clear. [...] [H]e made music of magic and quality, entwining power and clarity, that no other interpreter of his time — not even Karajan, Jansons, Ancerl, Böhm or Bernstein, in what is rightly considered music's golden age — could match. In the studio, Solti revolutionised the science and art of recorded music so as to democratise it at the highest — still unsurpassed — level of atmosphere and sound quality. And in concert, Solti is the only name one can speak in the same breath as those that dominated the generation that preceded him — astride both the second world war and the iron curtain — Evgeny Mravinsky in Leningrad and Wilhelm Furtwängler in Berlin. Solti was the true heir to their legacy on record, and their way of electrifying live performance through blending restless and rigorous perfectionism with explosive spontaneity.Read the full text here.
Few Baroque operas (and all by Handel) have clawed their way from oblivion to the margins of the standard repertoire, a source of chagrin to anyone who loves the period or simply hungers for broader musical experience. The Metropolitan Opera and New York City Opera offered radically different solutions to this lacuna earlier this year. NYCO revived an unknown opera by Georg Philipp Telemann in a beautiful and expertly performed production at El Museo del Barrio. The Metropolitan Opera crafted an entirely new work from music by eight Baroque composers, set to a new libretto in English. The Met’s venture was the riskier proposition, bound to trigger grumbling among Baroque aficionados who resented the missed opportunity to stage an historical work. But while the revival of existing operas such as Telemann’s Orpheus at NYCO contributes more to our musical knowledge in the long run, the Met’s Enchanted Island must also be counted a resounding (and insufficiently appreciated) success.Read the full text here.
Besides having cultivated taste, feeling and a talent for clear observation of all classical musics:Mr. Hunka remarks of the original list that "of contemporary critics, and judging only by what they publish under the guise of criticism, I can count the number of both online and print reviewers who meet [these] qualifications on the fingers of one hand." Word!, re, the above list.
1. The critic should know the greater part of historical and contemporary classical music as written and performed. Added to this, he must be conversant with general literature: novels, poetry, essays of wide scope.
2. He should know the history of classical music from its origins to the present.
3. He should have a long and broad concert- and opera-going experience — of native and foreign ensembles.
4. He should possess an interest in and a familiarity with the arts: painting, theater, architecture and the dance.
5. He should have worked in classical music organizations in some capacity (apart from criticism).
6. He should know the history of his country and world history: the social thinking of past and present.
7. He should have something like a philosophy, an attitude toward life.
8. He should write lucidly, and, if possible, gracefully.
9. He should respect his readers by upholding high standards and encourage his readers to cultivate the same.
10. He should be aware of his prejudices and blind spots.
11. He should err on the side of generosity rather than an opposite zeal.
12. He should seek to enlighten rather than carp or puff.
Too many directors arrive at the opera house these days knowing little or nothing about music. Most come from the spoken theater, focus only on the text and don’t understand how to give the music its space [we would have said, "give the music its due"]. It may seem obvious to you and me, but a brilliant theater director does not automatically translate into a brilliant opera director. If I am a crack racecar driver, that doesn’t qualify me to be an ace pilot as well. I sometimes feel that directors devise all these elaborate concepts because they don’t trust the power of the music and are terrified of boring the audience. Opera is a truly magical art, but the magic originates primarily in the music that we singers [we would have added, "and the conductor and orchestra"] work so hard to communicate.Yes indeed. Peter Gelb, take note.
Peter Gelb has both raised expectations and invited criticism by calling Robert Lepage’s $16 million production of Wagner’s Ring cycle for the Metropolitan Opera revolutionary. He used the word again in a recent interview at his office, as he spoke of the “trials and tribulations” of executing Mr. Lepage’s “superhuman,” technically daunting concept in a repertory theater “against amazing odds.” [...] Despite the technical problems and the stinging barbs the production has received from many critics, Mr. Gelb sees the Lepage Ring as emblematic of his mission to bring the latest theatrical thinking and technology to the Met. “Over all for me, on balance, I think it’s a remarkable experience,” he said. Yet even he is a little worried: “I reserve final assessment until I see how it all works out technically, when presented complete in the space of a week.”To be fair to Mr. Gelb in the matter of his defenses of the Lepage Ring, he at present finds himself in a seriously difficult position: he has to defend his original decision on this staging against the reality of now having on his hands a clear white elephant — a multi-million-dollar white elephant; by far the most costly production in Met history. Back at the planning stages of the project, the Lepage staging must have looked like it would be THE perfect solution for the Met: a staging that used spectacular — yes, even "revolutionary" — new technology to present Wagner's Ring the way Wagner himself conceived it. In one fell swoop, Mr. Gelb must have thought, it would satisfy both "progressives" and "traditionalists" and the Met would be the beneficiary in terms of critical accolades and ticket sales. Unhappily, things didn't work out that way. Neither "progressives" nor "traditionalists" were satisfied, and the critical response from all quarters — both print and digital, professional and amateur — was largely anything but enthusiastic. The problem Mr. Gelb faced in the planning stage was that, because of the nature of the staging, it was difficult, if not entirely impossible, to make anything even approaching a trustworthy assessment of the staging until it was fully a fait accompli, and so, at the time, he had to rely almost exclusively on how the thing looked on paper, so to speak; a hugely risky gamble given the costs involved; a gamble that, as things turned out, Mr. Gelb lost — big time. But, as always in the arts, and particularly in the performing arts, no risks taken is a prescription for stagnation, and so perhaps we all — and that very much includes us — should cut Mr. Gelb just a modicum of slack when it concerns his desperate if impotent defenses of this failed staging. We all can afford to give him that much.
At the end, the manner of my “passing,” as the pious so delicately refer to death, was as much a disappointment to the dewy-eyed acolytes of god-worship as it was to me, although for rather different reasons. For more than a year after I publicly announced in June 2010 that I would begin chemotherapy for esophageal cancer, the stupidest of the faithful either gloated on their subliterate Web sites that my illness was a sign of “God’s revenge” for having blasphemed their Lord and Master, or prayed that I would abandon my contempt for their nonsensical beliefs by undergoing a deathbed conversion. The vulgarity of the idea that a vengeful deity would somehow stoop to inflicting a cancer on me still boggles the mind, especially in the face of the ready explanation supplied for my illness by my long, happy, and prodigious career as a smoker of cigarettes and drinker of spiritsRTWT here. Somewhere, Christopher must be smiling — on several counts.
The Metropolitan Opera has just opened a searingly erotic Don Giovanni, yet the New York Times has dismissed the new production for its “timidity.” Other members of the New York press corps are even more contemptuous. The New York Observer sneers that the “new Don Giovanni is worse than bad: it’s nothing.” And the New York Post calls the staging “dreck.” What has inspired such critical contumely? The riveting production is a faithful rendering of the opera’s music and libretto.RTWT here.
Beethoven was a great, great composer, whom I admire enormously. But for me, music history basically begins with Gregorian chant then goes to the end of 1750 with the death of Johann Sebastian Bach. Then it goes on without me paying much attention until Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky, Bartok and so on. The entire classical and Romantic period is filled with geniuses that I don't listen to and from whom I've learned absolutely nothing.Why are we not surprised?
We are halfway up the steps of the Gleisdreieck platform when I hear a tune that I know like breathing. It’s Bach’s A-minor fugue for organ, BWV 543, twisting in the air. But before you get too anxious about where this is going, let me add that the lines of monumental fugue pouring down the refuse-strewn steps are coming from an accordion. And [my wife] Jane and I know the performer. We’ve been hearing this guy for the last three months. He’s been following us around town like a musical stalker, little snippets as the U-bahn doors open briefly at stations up and down the U9 and U2, chords swelling from the far side of impenetrable crowds mobbing the platforms at Zoo or Alexanderplatz. He’s the phantom of the Berliner Verkehrsbetriebe, and the songs from his subway squeeze box form a ludicrous soundtrack to this city, this time of year, this late in history: pretty, archaic tunes familiar from countless films, melodies that might coax harried commuters to cough up half a euro. [...] He’s up there, in the passage by the ticket machines, seated on a little stool, his back against the oily tiles like he’s some kind of indigent addict. Everything about him shocks me. First of all, he looks about fifteen. He’s a blond, crew-cut, scrofulous, anemic, and slightly lankier E.T. His instrument is an old Russian chromatic-button bayan, a massive thing that must be half his weight. The waterfall of sound issuing from the intricate machine is better than good. It’s pure architecture, big enough to fill this train station with the hint of more livable worlds. The chords form a map of forgotten possibilities, and the long, braided fugue subject unfolds as painfully as any sound you might pick to accompany this scarred place. He heads into the home stretch, that phantasmagoric cadenza. As his arm extends, cuffing the drooping bellows like it’s a willful pet terrier trying to break free, all I can think about is putting him in a story. [...] [T]his Russian busker will never have any stage grander than the bowels of Central European mass transit systems. The guy plays the accordion, for God’s sake. He’s looking at subway stations and wedding receptions for the rest of his life. It doesn’t matter in the slightest if it sounds, down in those resonant tunnels, fuller than the organ in the Berliner Dom. [...] My brain seizes on a line from Broks, the story-telling neuropsychologist that my German students struggled with: “Great music cancels the distinction between the external world and our inner life.” And nothing in evolutionary biology can explain why it does this to us. “Experience is a first-person business,” Broks says. “Science operates in the third person.” Music is — what? A surprise counterpoint between the two. I’m sorry, but in Berlin, pretty Berlin, in the spring, as we stand there listening to the Russian busker play Bach, when nothing in me is strong enough to survive the annihilating past, this music makes me want to know what happens next. A train from Ruhleben thunders in to the platform and disgorges its content. People walk past this one-man band at varying speeds, each making complex real-time cost-benefit analyses, calculating the trade-offs between net present enjoyment and future arrival. The accordionist lays into the bass of Bach’s tremendous final pedal point, herding the profusion back towards tonic. My wife and I stand transfixed. For as long as it takes this man to reach the final cadence, we are here, anyhow, going nowhere, present to the endless unlikelihood of existing at all. —Novelist Richard Powers from his essay, "What Does Fiction Know?"