Archive for the “Criticism” Category

Just before intermission of the opening concert of the Beyond Cage Festival on October 22, I pulled out my iPhone to see if the Giants were beating the Cardinals for the National League Pennant, and was disoriented to see that it was 9:49pm. It seemed like there must have been a massive network malfunction, because the extraordinary performance of Atlas Ecpliticalis with Winter Music that I and the rest of the audience had fervently applauded could not possibly have gone on for an hour and forty-five minutes. The duration had felt assuredly like a leisurely performance of an early Romantic symphony, say the Beethoven Pastorale, something that was stimulating and enveloping but that never demanded a hint of endurance from the ear or mind.

But it was so, Petr Kotik had just led the Orchestra of the S.E.M. Ensemble, with Joe Kubera and Ursula Oppens simultaneously playing Winter Music, in almost two hours of some of the most resolutely avant-garde music, and the listening experience was such that the sensation of time was lost completely inside the performance. The extraordinary became the unbelievable.

Kotik had already presented this piece twenty years ago, in a historic concert that became a memorial to the recently deceased composer. And he and the ensemble have recorded it twice, on a recently reissued Wergo album and a great and unfortunately out of print Asphodel release, and these are not only the two finest recordings of Atlas but also two of the finest recordings of Cage’s music available. But the concert exceeded these, reflecting the understanding of such a profound work of art that can only come through time spent examining and thinking about it.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments Comments Off

If you were having a conversation with fellow music lovers about the great American composers, Carl Ruggles would not be the first person to come to mind. The “Great American Composer” honor is most often bestowed upon Copland, Ives, or even depending on the company you are with, Bernstein.

Courtesy of SONY Music & Other Minds Records

This is not to say, however, that a popularity contest equates to greatness. An equally adept and creative composer, Carl Ruggles produced a small yet intriguing output of pieces for a variety of ensemble types. It is only fair, then, that when recording the complete works of a lesser known composer such as Ruggles, top-tier musicians should be brought in to lead the process. This recording does not disappoint, and the Buffalo Philharmonic, under the leadership of Michael Tilson Thomas, have produced an earnest and committed recording of Ruggles’ entire catalogue.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments 2 Comments »

In a recent piece for Slate , musicologist Jan Swafford took readers on a little tour of contemporary music that has yielded a fair share of controversy. Mind you, that Slate is publishing a piece on contemporary concert music (or, as Swafford puts it, “contemporary ‘classical’ music, or whatever you want to call it”) for a general readership is a very good thing. But I wonder if we couldn’t do better than Mr. Swafford’s myopic, narrow-minded and patronizing article.

For the record—and right off the bat—let me state that I agree with Mr. Swafford’s ultimate message that “(t)he archetypal avant-garde sensibility was captured in the dictum ‘Make it good or make it bad, but make it new.’ I suggest that it’s time to take that attitude out behind the barn and shoot it. (Emphasis mine.) Standing in the middle of the sometimes interesting chaos and anarchy that is the scene in all the arts, I suggest in its place: Make it old or make it new, but for chrissake (sic) make it good.”

Let’s, by all means, stop worrying about categories and just care about the quality of the work presented. Categories will sort themselves out. This is something for future musicologists to do, not present ones. But Mr. Swafford spends the bulk of his article before this point doing precisely the hair splitting he is decrying (or have I missed the point? Is he really decrying the fact that none of the music he samples—save perhaps his own – is any good?).

Fine, you might say; he’s splitting hairs. Isn’t that his prerogative as a musicologist? Sure, I would say; if only he’d bothered doing more than just cursory research for examples that prove his point.

For example: in his definition of “academic brutalism” he cites an excerpt from Jefferson Friedman’s Eight Songs, a “real colonoscopy of a piece” that consists of transcriptions of songs by “the noise band Crom-Tech” which Friedman made for the Yesaroun’ Duo in 2004. On the basis of this piece alone, Mr. Swafford catalogs Friedman as an “academic brutalist.” While Friedman doesn’t appear to be associated with a university at the present time (shouldn’t an “academic” anything be involved primarily in academia?), a quick glance at Mr. Friedman’s music page on his website quickly reveals that he is far from an academic anything and not merely a “brutalist.” Sure, the particular example of Eight Songs Mr. Swafford cites is pretty brutal, but, from what I can gleam in a quick excursion into Crom-Tech’s work via YouTube, it’s a pretty faithful evocation of the original source material. Given that “aesthetic brutalists” (by way of Xenakis) “want to hurt you” one might be surprised, when one samples, say, Friedman’s 78 or his haunting (and rightly revered) String Quartet no. 2. Mr. Friedman, if anything, would fit in what Kyle Gann would call a totalist style (a problematic label as well, to be sure, but one which I increasingly find useful for music that has roots traceable to minimalism but also welcoming higher degrees of rhythmic and harmonic dissonance as well as influences from rock, pop as well as other “classical” genres), but mostly one is struck by its shear pleasantness. This is incredibly rewarding music to listen to that is far from hurtful and straying far from the pandering banality that can trap all but the most skilled composers of what Swafford calls the “new niceness” (seriously, what about the term Neo-Romanticism fails to apply here?).

I won’t even get into Swafford’s description of a “lecture by a young academic brutalist” whom he refused to name, but who has identified himself to his friends on Facebook (I’ll try to extend some respect to Mr. Swafford by continuing to keep our “young academic brutalist” anonymous in this forum, though I really hope he comes out with a more formal reply to the Slate article than a brief discussion on Facebook).

I’m writing for an audience of connoisseurs here, so it’s a little redundant of me to say that “contemporary ‘classical’ music, or whatever you want to call it” is a LOT of things far beyond the limited and limiting list of malformed categories Mr. Swafford has devised. And, to be fair to Mr. Swafford, I don’t think he’s suggesting that his list is exhaustive or representative of even a majority of the styles of concert music today. But it is disingenuous, patronizing and ridiculous to frame your explanation of the “new noises” in a tone that barely hides your contempt for this music. If this is advocacy, please, stop doing us any favors!

Comments 15 Comments »

We’re saddened to learn of James Levine’s cancellation of the rest of his appearances this season at the Boston Symphony Orchestra and his resignation from the post of BSO Music Director. Levine has been in that position since 2004, but has had to cancel a number of appearances during his tenure due to a variety of health problems. In an interview published today in the New York Times, Levine indicated that he will retain his position as Music Director at the Metropolitan Opera. Apparently, conversations between Levine and the BSO about a possible future role with the orchestra are ongoing.

The BSO plans to keep its season underway with minimal changes apart from substitute conductors. They’re even going to premiere a new work this week under the baton of Assistant Conductor Marcelo Lehninger. In Boston’s Symphony Hall on March 3,4,5, and 8, and at Carnegie Hall in New York on March 15, the orchestra and soloist Christian Tetzlaff will be giving the world premiere of Harrison Birtwistle’s Violin Concerto.

It’s bittersweet that Levine is stepping down during a week when an important commission, one of several during his tenure, is seeing its premiere. I made a number of pilgrimages from New York to Boston (thank goodness for Bolt Bus!) to hear him conduct contemporary music with the BSO,  including pieces by Harbison, Wuorinen, Babbitt, and Carter. He helped a great American orchestra (with a somewhat conservative curatorial direction) to make the leap into 21st century repertoire and was a terrific advocate for living composers.

Many in Boston and elsewhere have complained that by taking on the BSO, while still keeping his job at the Met, Levine overreached and overcommitted himself. Further, when his health deteriorated, some suggest that he should have stepped aside sooner.

I’ll not argue those points. But I will add that, when he was well, Levine helped to create some glorious nights of music-making in Boston that I’ll never forget. And for that, I’m extraordinarily grateful.

***

I’ll admit that I was a bit surprised to hear that Birtwistle was composing a violin concerto, as it seemed to me an uncharacteristic choice of solo instrument for him. After all, the composer of Panic and Cry of Anubis isn’t a likely candidate for the genre that’s brought us concerti by Brahms and Sibelius (and even Bartok and Schoenberg!).

But then I thought again. Having heard his Pulse Shadows and the recent Tree of Strings for quartet, both extraordinary pieces, I can see why he might want to explore another work that spotlights strings. Perhaps his approach to the violin concerto will bring the sense of theatricality, innovative scoring, and imaginative approach to form that he’s offered in so many other pieces.

I’m hoping to get a chance to hear it when it the orchestra comes to New York. No pilgrimage this time. My next Bolt Bus trip to Boston will likely have to wait ’til next season to hear the BSO in its post-Levine incarnation.

Comments Comments Off

They’ve been piling up, my reviews at sandiego.com, to be passed on to you here. Lots of good music heard the past three months:

San Diego Symphony plays Remembering Gatsby by John Harbison (1/15/11)

Harbison has an ear for arresting sonorities, an original way of arranging chords so that one hears harmonies in a completely new way (Stravinsky, Copland, and Britten all had this talent as well). It’s tempting to call him a conservative composer, but his music never sounds like it’s rehashing older styles. He has carved out his own original voice within the classical music tradition, one in which melody and harmony still prevail, but those melodies and harmonies are unique to Harbison. There is an admirable balance between the Apollonian and the Dionysian in his music; musical craft is evident, but it never gets in the way of expression. It’s usually a pleasure to hear his music live, and Remembering Gatsby is no exception to that.

San Diego Symphony premieres new concerto by Michael Torke (11/19/10):

Most concertos are heroic works, a soloist or soloists struggling against the orchestra to prevail. The rhetoric of Cactus is more intimate. Torke employs a chamber orchestra, and his soloists are given lyrical melodies. The harp and violin often initiate a gesture which the orchestra picks up and takes off in its own direction. Arpeggiated chords turn into sonic pyramids in the orchestra, with each note in the violin or harp sustained by a different orchestral instrument. Ostinatos churn along, but never really continue for that long. There is an element of Sibelius here, where the music is continuously evolving, perhaps a trace of Debussy in the unusual diversions taken from the emotional milieus which had been developed, only to be left behind for something else.

California Quartet and Timothy Durkovic play Bolcom’s Piano Quintet (12/4/10):

William Bolcom has written that his Piano Quintet is based on 19th century models like Schumann and Brahms. You might not guess that listening to Bolcom’s Quintet. Bolcom is probably best known for bringing ragtime and popular music styles into the concert hall, with unabashedly hummable melodies. However, Bolcom’s Quintet is in his thornier idiom—it’s unlikely many audience members will leave the concert whistling any tunes from it….Although Bolcom’s harmonies are rather chromatic, there’s always a sense of tonality lurking beneath the dissonances. Melodically, the motives which are imitated and repeated could be plainly harmonized, but the way Bolcom combines them and chromatically shifts them up or down makes the whole sonority seem more dissonant than the individual lines really are.

Coming soon: Reviews of a David Bruce world premiere and an impressive show by the Wet Ink Ensemble

Comments Comments Off

Older readers may recall with fondness Edgar Bergen, a very popular American entertainer who poured his comic routines through ventriloquist dummies named Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd. Edgar so loved the performing arts, that he created an annual celebration to showcase classical music, dance, opera, and theater, which continues and thrives to this very day: the Bergen Festival.

Okay, that’s not really what the Bergen Festival is, but after hearing a modern composer with a strong Chinese musical identity—Bright Sheng—prop up Scandinavian folk tunes on his knee, and manipulate them to entertain the public, the spirit of Charlie McCarthy—a bourgeois puppet in top hat and tails, monocle in place, spouting low vaudeville patois—was in the air…

More about the American premiere of Bright Sheng’s Northern Lights and the world premiere of Anthony Newman’s Sonata Populare here.

I am very interested in reading your views on stylistic appropriation. Does it only creep out older dudes like me, or is it an affront to all contemporary composers? Why or why not?

Comments 2 Comments »

From the cover of Kevin Wood's Luke Gullickson is a composer, pianist, and writer currently working on a Master’s in composition at UT in Austin, Texas. He keeps a blog, Sonatas and Interludes, where he recently pondered how “new age” can reach out and bleed into even the “avant-garde”:

There’s a problem in new pretty piano music. I call it the “new age” problem. The thing is, we’ve been Jim Brickman-d, David Lanz-d, Yanni-d, and now we can’t hear Keith Jarrett the same way anymore. We are all familiar with the warm sounds of new age piano music; it’s been a weird but persistent classification. On the surface, Jarrett’s Köln Concert, the albums of George Winston, and contemporary postminimal piano music by Peter Garland or William Duckworth sound similar, but the genre underpinnings, and their associated politics, are vastly different in each case. The worlds of jazz, pop, and classical, respectively, have merged together into this zone where superficial similarities are in danger of overriding the differences in intent between these disparate artists.

The argument goes a little farther in Luke’s original post, so take a little time to read it all if you’re thinking about commenting.

(Personally, the first-mentioned few make me groan and zone… But I defy anyone telling me Tim Story‘s 2001 Shadowplay isn’t at heart a Po-Mo masterpiece.)

Comments 3 Comments »