…The Seattle Times‘ forever-esconced-but-barely-there music crtic, Melinda Bargreen (reviewing Thursday’s Seattle Symphony concert):

When a conductor picks up a microphone to address the audience about the music they’re going to hear, the audience can be pretty sure of one thing: They aren’t expected to like the piece. By the time guest conductor Michael Stern had finished telling Thursday’s Seattle Symphony audience about Varèse’s “Intégrales,” it’s a wonder they weren’t fleeing the hall en masse. With Stern’s every phrase (“A certain weird clarity,” “An assault on the senses”), the impending work loomed more ominously. When the downbeat finally came, and the small wind ensemble plus a whole armory of percussion began to play Varèse’s chaotic motifs and random-sounding outbursts, no one could say we weren’t warned.

Come on now, a piece from freakin’ 1925 gets this kind of write-up in 2008?

Not that she’s the only thing wrong with this picture that is this story. I’ve got to fault Michael Stern for trying too hard to talk the piece up, in effect almost apologising to the audience beforehand. Intégrales, after more than 80 years now, is a piece that doesn’t need any such justification or apology; just shut up, Michael, and play the thing already!

And notice that Sunday afternoon’s “Musically Speaking” version of this concert — i.e., the concert for supposedly explicating and enlightening the classically curious — does away with the Varèse altogether, leaving everyone to safely ruminate (perhaps literally) over just the Victor Herbert and Rachmaninoff.

Sheesh.

26 Responses to “One Thing I don’t Miss about Seattle…”
  1. Bill says:

    Steve – I have to say as a fan (not a musician) I cringe whenever someone feels they need to ‘explain’ the music to me. When do you ever see a rock musician explain to their audience why they should like the next song? There’s sometimes a condescending tone during classical performances that can put people off.

  2. Alan Theisen says:

    “When do you ever see a rock musician explain to their audience why they should like the next song?”

    This next song is off our upcoming album. I wrote it for my girlfriend after she found out we were expecting a baby. I hope you like it…

  3. Chris says:

    Varese and Webern are the classical music equivalent of listening to Kraftwerk–they’ll always sound modern.

  4. David Toub says:

    Steve, this issue is unfortunately commonplace and not limited to seattle.

  5. andrea says:

    point taken mr. theisen, but there’s a difference between “i wrote this song about a bad relationship and it’s on our upcoming record” and a ten-minute lecture with no humor, no nothing. i think she’s right — when a conductor goes up to the mic to explain a piece, it’s a bad sign — and i’m not sure she’s critiquing the piece as much as the whole intro to it. i think it would be sweet if, say, one of the percussionists went up to the mic and said how much he loves playing this piece, it’s gonna knock yer socks off, because that would give the impression that the group was really into what they were playing. that kind of enthusiasm is infectious. a lecture, per se, isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but i want to see and hear some sort of emotional connection other than (or better, along with) this-is-intellectually-pleasing. if you’re going to say more than three sentences about a piece, it better be as stimulating as the music you’re talking about.

  6. Bill says:

    Alan – I definitely don’t mind an explanation of what the music means, but also don’t want a lecture on why I should like it.
    I just noticed that Steve actually made this point himself in the original post. I can’t agree more to ‘just shut up…and play the thing already!’

  7. Alan Theisen says:

    I agree – I don’t want to be lectured to. But if a few sentences (well-written, fun, engaging sentences) occur before a piece is performed, I’m all for it. I don’t think this sort of this is misplaced in a concert setting, whether we’re dealing with new music, classic rock, or Mozart.

    I love the idea of a performer describing his/her emotional AND intellectual reaction to a piece. Why must we always divide the heart from the head?

  8. Jeremy Howard Beck says:

    Hey all,

    I’ve lurked for a long, long time here, and I just want to throw something into the mix.

    I agree wholeheartedly with the main point being made here, but I have to add something: The reason a piece written 80 years ago is still getting this kind of presentation is because–hello–to most people it still sounds like it’s from outer space. They don’t know what to make of it. And guess what, 80 years or 800 years, I bet 90% of that audience had never heard EVEN ONE Varese piece before. Who’s responsible for that is a completely different debate, but I just thought it was a point worth making.

    We have to stop expecting highly experimental music to just magically become accessible after an arbitrary waiting period. Eighty years? A hundred?

    By the way, I love Integrales. I saw Alarm Will Sound perform it with choreography–from memory–at Miller Theater last year, and it was an incredible experience. But then again, it was an all-Varese program, so the audience was already on board.

  9. James Combs says:

    Well, Steve, maybe its a good thing you moved to Houston then, cause I absolutely agree with Melinda and I’ll go one step further: Ban all performances of classical (if we can call it that) created after 1750. We should set a date to be exact about this. Look at it as a sort of trailing stop. 1750-2010. I.e., in 2012-1752, 2020-1760 (if my math is correct). So many positives about that scenerio. Protect the ears of the innocent and rediscover so many composers in the process.

    disclaimer: joke thread

  10. David Toub says:

    We have to stop expecting highly experimental music to just magically become accessible after an arbitrary waiting period. Eighty years? A hundred?

    Well, a lot of music that was once considered over the top is now commonplace. Like Brahms. Mahler. and so on and so forth.

    While perhaps someone so ahead of his or her time like Ives might still be ”out there“ 100 years from now (when we’re just starting to pull out of Iraq under McCain’s scenario), most 20th-century composers should at least be considered less imposing than they are now. Varese wrote some great stuff, but I’m not sure how his music is any more worthy of pre-concert explanation than Aaron Copland’s. And in terms of Copland, I’m hoping that his ”thorny“ serial works finally get their acceptance and due. Maybe in 100 years.

    I just don’t know why music by a bunch of dead white dudes from the 20th century should still be so unknown to concertgoers. I mean, Varese, Schoenberg, Cage, Brown, Webern—none of their music is so complex as to warrant a lesson before a concert. Some of the history behind a Cage piece might be of interest. But necessary? Nope.

  11. Jeremy Howard Beck says:

    Hi David,

    You said: “I mean, Varese, Schoenberg, Cage, Brown, Webern—none of their music is so complex as to warrant a lesson before a concert.”

    Just about every non-trained musician I’ve taken with me to a concert featuring works by Schoenberg or Webern has remarked after the concert that they didn’t “get” the piece. And I don’t think that’s their fault, either. The musical parameters that are presented by the performers as important–pitch, harmony, etc.–are simply incomprehensible to the vast majority of people. I’m sorry, but no one can hear a piece and, without seeing the score, hear a row or its permutations.

    Perhaps we need to start emphasizing different parameters–orchestration, timbre, et. al. When you hear the music that way, Schoenberg’s “Summer Morning by a Lake” and Ligeti’s popular “Atmospheres” and “Lontano” aren’t very different at all.

    An interesting anecdote: I saw a concert at Carnegie Hall featuring the San Francisco Symphony performing, among other works, Webern’s Six Pieces for Orchestra. MTT turned to the audience before beginning, and said, simply, “Webern wrote this piece after his mother’s death.” (I’m paraphrasing, of course. They played the piece, and the audience was apparently very moved. I certainly was, and I would not have been had I not known that. So some explanation–usually emotional–can help a great deal.

    Oddly enough, Cage and Varese seem to be much more accessible to people my age (mid-twenties), who grew up surrounded by similar sounds in popular rock, pop, and electronic music.

  12. James Combs says:

    “Just about every non-trained musician I’ve taken with me to a concert featuring works by Schoenberg or Webern has remarked after the concert that they didn’t “get” the piece.”

    I wonder if they didn’t “get” the piece based on complexity or for the fact of being conditioned to what traditional older classical music offers. Hell, in a hypothetical situaton a student of mine said they didn’t get a piece, I would have more respect for the composer and would want to hear more. I guess people differ, but if something sounds like its from outer space to me, I’ll probably buy it.

  13. Steve Layton says:

    Hi Jeremy, welcome from out of the shadows! That few in the audience have ever heard any Varèse in concert, or all the rest of the “outer space” crowd, is a state of affairs that no amount of pre-performance talk will fix. *Playing* it could have; though practically speaking, that moment is long past. We all know that in those 80 years, the ratio of performances of the Tchaikovsky overture of your choice, to Intégrales and its kin, is almost astronomically unbalanced.

    The standard symphonic and even simply concert experience, is like a big ship that kept moving slower and slower, eventually just dropping the anchor and letting the current sweep on by. The spectres onboard are still sipping champagne, and it still looks so noble and impressive against the sunset; but actually it’s rusting and rotting away, inexorably sinking out of sight. (cue Wallace Hartley and the band…)

  14. David Toub says:

    I’m sorry, but no one can hear a piece and, without seeing the score, hear a row or its permutations.

    You’re right. But big deal. If you need to identify the row to love Webern, then he did a crappy job of writing music. Which he didn’t, in my opinion. And in the case of Varese, there’s not a 12-tone row to be had. Same with Feldman, so not knowing the row doesn’t explain why such music isn’t accepted.

    I think there’s a general perception out there that I’ve heard from others that if you don’t read music or never had training, you can’t get modern music. That’s a shame, and perhaps some of this misperception is a consequence of those wild and crazy days of panserialism and academic music scaring off mere mortals like those in the audience in Seattle.

    In terms of the brief remark before the Webern op. 6, that certainly put the music in perspective. But I’ve loved the op. 6 pieces since I was a teenager, and never knew of the relation to his mother’s death until now. So while such background is always going to be of interest, it won’t make someone like a piece or even ”get it.“

  15. Jeremy Howard Beck says:

    James,

    “Hell, in a hypothetical situaton a student of mine said they didn’t get a piece, I would have more respect for the composer and would want to hear more.”

    You’re entitled to your tastes, as long as you recognize that our (composers) forcing of this paradigm (not reaching people, as opposed to reaching people) onto our performers and listeners is what got us into this mess in the first place.

    I’d rather be understood, any day. It’s so much harder than being obtuse.

  16. Jeremy Howard Beck says:

    David,

    “If you need to identify the row to love Webern, then he did a crappy job of writing music.”

    You have no idea how deeply I wish you had been in my undergraduate music theory classes to say that to my professors. It was all rows, all the time. So the perception that if you’re not trained, you can’t “get” modern music is perpetuated by us (composers) vis a vis academic training. We have to take some of the blame.

    Also, that perception defines “modern” music so narrowly as to be laughably inaccurate. We can all name at least a dozen “modern” (I’d say 1945-1980) composers whose music both has musical integrity and is loved by audiences.

    And when I heard the op. 6, I had actually hated Webern’s music for years. MTT’s comment before the performance humanized the whole thing for me, and I was actually moved by the piece, something no Webern work had done previously. So while it may not be important to you, it was very important for me (and I’ve got a degree in composition under my belt).

  17. David Toub says:

    Jeremy, I think we’re more or less on the same page, except that I think that when composers write honest music that expresses something (as Webern, Varese and many others did, while some folks I would dismiss as overly academic probably didn’t), there will be an audience for it. You have to be careful, in that there’s a fine line between wanting to communicate something to others (which is what we’re all trying to do) and wanting to please an audience (which I could care less about). I write music to communicate with others, for sure, but the only person I need to please is me. If I don’t like it, it’s irrelevant how many others like it.

    But to your original point, I’d hate to think that someone needs to have studied art or music to appreciate one or both. And while the musicology behind a work might be interesting, it shouldn’t be necessary to enjoy a composition. I don’t need to know anything about how Philip Guston created his paintings to like his work. I also don’t need to know anything about 12-tone music to enjoy Webern’s post-opus 16 music. I haven’t sat down and analyzed his scores in years, and even then, these were works I loved prior to analyzing them.

  18. David Toub says:

    You have no idea how deeply I wish you had been in my undergraduate music theory classes to say that to my professors. It was all rows, all the time. So the perception that if you’re not trained, you can’t “get” modern music is perpetuated by us (composers) vis a vis academic training. We have to take some of the blame.

    I’m not surprised at all by this. That’s why apart from some classes on Saturdays in NYC, I avoided music classes like the plague. Didn’t take any in college, although I was required to take two art courses, which were the art equivalents of what you describe (we had to memorize the dates when various works of Japanese art were painted, as if that has anything to do with the art itself, and as if I’d remember it afterwards.). Actually, when I was taking composition in NYC on weekends during high school, the big thing was either Carter or late Stravinsky. At that point, the New Vienna School was still considered ”out there,“ although I certainly did learn something about 12-tone technique, albeit through being taught the first piece in Dallapiccola’s Quaderno Musicale per Annalibera and a little bit of Stravinsky’s serial works (esp. Fanfare for a New Theater). Downtown music was considered beneath contempt, and my bringing in what were then the latest releases by Reich and Glass drew sneers. So the idea of studying row after row after row rather than ”music“ is in keeping with my experience. And if you look at some of the Perspectives on New Music articles by Milton Babbit and a few others dealing with late Stravinsky and selected works by Schoenberg, it is akin to reading papers in theoretical physics or mathematics. Some of this stuff would fit in with a class dealing with Cauchy’s theorem or the recent proof of Fermat’s last theorem…

  19. Steve Layton says:

    An interesting update: for contrast here’s R.M.Campbell — of the rival Seattle Post-Intelligencer — with his own review of the same concert:

    http://seattlepi.nwsource.com/classical/350628_sso09q.html

    To quote: “Certainly, the symphony, led by guest conductor Michael Stern, gave the works their due. The Varese was fierce and intense yet precise and carefully calibrated. All that noise seems rather dated, but the tonal clusters, shifting timbres and short motifs among the winds had their collective appeal.” [...] “Stern gave a small lecture on the Varese. It was patronizing and redundant for this audience. Paul Schiavo’s program notes were more than sufficient as an introduction.

  20. Melinda Bargreen says:

    Hi, guys: I’ve been enjoying this thread, but I would just like to point out to Steve et al. that I’m actually not “barely there” but am pretty much “fully there” in Seattle’s concert halls, with about 300 byline pieces annually on all kinds of music. Believe it or not, I do like a lot of 20th- and 21st-century music; I’m also a published composer (both 20th and 21st century). I don’t think Varese has a lot to show today’s audiences; he actually sounds quaintly old-fashioned, and I think people respond more to scores that are trying to communicate with their listeners on something beyond the breakdown of previous standards of musical structure. But, as we critics always believe, everyone is entitled to his/her opinion, and it’s enjoyable to read yours.
    Cheers, Melinda
    P.S. Be sure to read the full text of the review cited above by my colleague Richard Campbell, including his observation re the Rachmaninoff that the performance’s “many climaxes were enough to satisfy almost anyone.” Now that’s what I call an interesting observation.

  21. James Combs says:

    “I don’t think Varese has a lot to show today’s audiences; he actually sounds quaintly old-fashioned” – Melinda

    Sounding old fashioned can’t be a bad thing and surely he must have a lot to offer on that basis…, considering Mozart, Beethoven, et al, is performed 1000 to .01.

  22. James Combs says:

    1000 to .01 – 1000 being classical and .01 anything beyond 1950. Sorry for the confusion ;)

  23. Marcos Balter says:

    I am a bit confused by some posts in this topic. Anyone can appreciate Mozart because we have had history fully digesting his works for us. We are “familiar with that model,” and therefore more capable of making individual judgments of works within that aesthetic thread. After all, appreciation and knowledge (not necessarily formal, I should stress) are absolutely inseparable. One compares what one hears with what one has heard before in order to make assessments, being it a rock song or a classical piece. For reasons broader than this topic, the music of Varése is not as familiar as Mozart’s. So, what is wrong with offering concertgoers some additional information about his work?

  24. James Combs says:

    Marcos,

    I find no problem with the conductor explaining works to open the performance. However, for some who attend the symphony they have a sort of code, that is if the conductor is explaining the work more than so many sentences, it must be too out there for the “average” concert goer. Obviously obsurd, but what else would you expect from the narrow-minded folks who believe that classical doesn’t offer much from those who breakdown the previous standards of musical structure. “Breakdown the previous standards of musical structure.” That statement made by a critic/composer. wow.

  25. Jeremy Howard Beck says:

    James, you said: “‘Breakdown the previous standards of musical structure.’ That statement made by a critic/composer. wow.”

    That sounds suspiciously close, to my ears, to “these damn kids and their rock and roll music.” It’s a fairly accepted cultural theory that things have to go out of style before they can be back in style. Like the 80s. Whoever thought 80s popular music would be back in style? It sure sounded “quaintly old-fashioned” to me in the late 90s, but here we are. Let’s give Varese (and, yes, Mozart too) the same opportunity. And let’s give Ms. Bargreen a break. She is under no obligation to like everything you like just because she is a critic (or because she is a composer).

  26. James Combs says:

    Jeremy,

    As much as I enjoy reading your posts, I must admit you lost me with the analogy to pop. I believe a direct analogy from popular music to the arts concludes in many ambiguous answers, especially to draw a direct analogy from popular music to a composer born in 1883. The real question is what are people interested in now in the classical world? I think it is reasonable to say people with a genuine interest in the arts are most interested in contemporary classical. With that said, Varese is due some credit as an inventor who contributed to what is considered our contemporary classical age.

    Wiki: He was the inventor of the term “organized sound”, a phrase meaning that certain timbres and rhythms can be grouped together, sublimating into a whole new definition of sound. His use of new instruments and electronic resources led to his being known as the “Father of Electronic Music” while Henry Miller described him as “The stratospheric Colossus of Sound.”

    Hence, I think this is a matter of a composer who deserves exposure and without bias of how classical should be composed according to one’s ideals.

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