Month: February 2009

Spend some time and rock a rhyme / I said, It’s not that easy

Wow, Jessica Duchen sure doesn’t like Handel very much.

But did he compose anything that has the intense, sublime, genuine spirituality of Bach’s St Matthew Passion? Is there a single Handel aria remotely comparable to its heartbreaking ‘Aus Liebe will mein Heiland sterben?’ Not even the beautiful ‘Ombre mai fu’ is on that level. Where in those operas can we find the degree of perception and compassion that Mozart showed in Don Giovanni? And Handel’s pleasant chamber and orchestral works reduce to Muzak the minute you encounter Beethoven’s.

Beethoven said: “Handel is the greatest composer that ever lived.” He was wrong: he deserved that epithet himself. Handel can’t hold a candle to Bach, let alone Beethoven. A one-man baroque-and-roll hit factory, he compromised his art by selling out.

The problem with comparing Handel and Bach is that, while Handel is a flashy composer, the thing he does better than Bach is something distinctly non-flashy: mixed emotions. Irony, regret, resignation—Handel is astonishingly good at this sort of thing.

Bach does the grip of despair extremely well—”Seufzer, Tränen,” for example. But has there ever been a better portrayal of the exhaustion of despair than “Lascia ch’io pianga”? “O sleep, why dost thou leave me?” from Semele is a touchstone of bittersweet. Even “Ombra mai fù” is more than it seems because it’s supposed to be funny—but the sheer, simple beauty of it shows Xerxes’ lovesick loneliness as well. No wonder Beethoven would exalt Handel that way: Fidelio mines much of the same territory (particularly the first act). And no wonder Handel is at his best—something I think he never gets enough credit for—with the complicated characters of older women, usually powerful, but afraid of the passage of time. Give me Alcina over the Marschallin any day. There, I said it.

But opinions are just opinions. (God knows I purse my lips at enough music that other people love not to get too upset over it.) There’s something else about this anti-Handel barrage that’s interesting, though.

Occasionally a gifted director will work magic – David McVicar’s Giulio Cesare at Glyndebourne was a case in point. But in lesser hands these operas can feel interminable, and today they are regarded as sacred country, so cuts are frowned upon.

Duchen seems to be criticizing Handel because his music has a low immunity to bad performance. Perhaps she’s been lucky enough never to sit through a really poor St. Matthew Passion—I have, and trust me, it’s as brutally relativistic an experience of the passage of time as any mediocre Baroque opera. But should that even be a criterion? Is great music, by definition, foolproof? I have a higher tolerance for badly-performed Shostakovich than badly-performed Verdi—but I don’t think that really means Shostakovich is the better composer.

In fact, a lot of my favorite pieces and composers are particularly tricky to pull off in performance: Tippett operas, Sibelius symphonies, Sondheim musicals. Berlioz is a continent unto himself in this regard. A spectacular rendition of Kontakte can convince you of Stockhausen’s asserted greatness, but how many spectacular renditions of that are you likely to get? A first-rate performance of Carter is thrilling—a second-rate performance leaves the audience downright sullen. Is that Carter’s fault? I would be the first to admit that I’m attracted to works of emotional subtlety and ambiguity, and bad performances of those make for long evenings indeed. But if a piece of music has demonstrated its potential to be an amazing experience, I’m less concerned with how often that amazement is likely to happen. Some pieces have a high batting average, but never hit it out of the park. In this case, I prefer the possibility of the long ball.

Word Count

Brownian-motion-like arts-funding update:

  • The House Appropriations Committee has proposed raising the NEA’s annual budget by $10 million for the next fiscal year. (The nitty-gritty can be found on page 183 of the relevant statement for Division E of H.R. 1105.)
  • In the meantime, state arts funding, already in trouble in Michigan, is also on the bubble in South Dakota and Minnesota.
  • And perhaps Louisiana, after Governor Bobby Jindal—who gave the Republican response to President Obama’s economic address last night—prefaced his speech by disparaging arts funding:

    Jindal, tapped to give his party’s response to Obama’s address to Congress on Tuesday night, said he appreciated Obama’s remarks but still had problems with the bill, including funding for the National Endowment for the Arts, “that it’s not apparent to me what they have to do with actually stimulating the economy.”

    Somebody has not been reading this blog. (Though, if early reviews are any indication, Gov. Jindal might reconsider the value of theatrical training.)

  • And then there’s this report from the Los Angeles Times detailing the first family’s arts consumption, with mild speculation as to how that might translate into policy.

The LAT article has an interesting quote at the end, from the director of the Shakespeare Theatre Company:

It sends a good message that the arts count.

That use of the word count has made me raise my eyebrow for a long time. This is because I am a native of not unpleasant and intermittently scenic Niles, Illinois. Tangent: Niles’s Wikipedia page currently imparts this wisdom (click to enlarge):

Amazingly! Anyway, at some point, the village had a contest to determine a village slogan, and the winner was this kid who had his visage slapped across a billboard near my house, along with his slogan: “Where People Count.” Which promptly became an object of mockery for moppet and adult alike. (My mom used to drive by the sign and say, “In Morton Grove they read.”)

According to the OED (yes, I know, argument by etymology, always a suspect maneuver, but then again, it is the Unparalleled Playland That Is The Oxford English Dictionary we’re talking about), this use of count dates only from 1885:

1885 PROCTOR Whist App. 186 Many doubt whether good play really counts much at Whist.

It is the absolute form of definition number 14: “To enter into the account or reckoning”.

Now, this is a minor thing, and, after all, it’s just an offhand comment that I quoted above, but there’s a causality implied here that I think is suspect. Would the arts be less likely to enter into the reckoning if the First Family weren’t reasonably avid patrons? It’s the sort of thing I file in the same drawer as books with titles like Why the Arts Matter. My experience is that, if you’re not answering that in a sentence or two, you’re usually either a) asserting that the audience is bigger than we think, or b) apologizing for the fact that it’s not. In other words, I think asking whether the arts count is the same thing as asking how big a network effect the arts create, and that’s something that I think is irrelevant to artistic value.

On the other hand, I’d hardly call raising the public profile of the arts a bad thing, so even I would categorize this as nit-picking. But I find myself more and more attuned to—and fascinated by—the 20-year linguistic hangover from the last round of major cultural warfare. The arts haven’t been left with a whole lot of room to maneuver right now, and it’s a fine line between realism and diffidence. Like Orwell says, “[I]f thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.”

Theory and Practicing

Reviewing the Manhattan Sinfonietta.
Boston Globe, February 24, 2009.

As soon as I came up with the phrase “mutable sonic orreries” I immediately began tinkering with the idea of starting a steampunk/psychedelica band so that could be the title of our first album. Then I ran the phrase through the Mac’s built-in speech synthesizer a few times, and it sounded goofier every time. So I left it in. Sometimes I have a little too much fun at my job.

The Boston Sound

James Levine (music director) and Mark Volpe (managing director) held a press conference at Symphony Hall yesterday for the primary purpose of highlighting the release of the first four Boston Symphony Orchestra/Levine recordings on the in-house BSO Classics label. The line-up:

  • Ravel: Daphnis et Chloe (CD and download)
  • Brahms: Ein Deutsches Requiem (CD and download)
  • Bolcom: Symphony no. 8/Lyric Concerto (download only)
  • Mahler: Symphony no. 6 (download only)

Levine talked about each recording, and also played excerpts through a surround-sound set-up, which resulted in a rare and entertaining glimpse of Levine the itinerant huckster—

“Did you hear the dynamic range?” [pause] “Did you hear the top-to-bottom range?” [pause] “The left-to-right range—and especially the front-to-back range?”

—and so forth. He’s actually quite good at it.

The CD/download duality is, both Levine and Volpe admitted, experimental—it’s designed to see how various releases sell in the various formats. (The download formats are 320 kbs MP3 and WMA Surround HD—no lossless Mac-compatible options as yet.) The all-BSO structure—an in-house label, distributed through the BSO’s own website—is based on 1) maximizing revenue and, Volpe seemed to hint, 2) a belief that the major labels other orchestras have partnered with (New York and Los Angeles, for example, both release digitally through Deutsche Grammophon) might not be around for the long haul. “It’s basically taking our destiny and putting it into our own hands,” Volpe said, “and not relying on media companies, and partnerships with companies that, in their heyday, were significant, but less and less so, given the new world we’re living in.”

All the releases are live, concert recordings. No doubt this reflects the good-news-bad-news combination of the increasing quality of live recording and the increasing cost of studio recording, but for Levine, it was all good, as he repeatedly expressed a preference for live recording over studio recording, capturing the electricity of a concert hall experience over filling in the repertoire. “I watched this when I was George Szell’s assistant,” Levine said. “The record company said, ‘Dr. Szell, we want to come every week and record a Haydn symphony.’ So they did. Meanwhile, he played the Sixth Mahler… the Siegfried Idyll: no recordings. Simply unbelievable performances.” Levine specifically cast the BSO’s lot with concert recordings. “It shouldn’t come from the old aesthetics of studio recording,” he said. “What one always hoped would happen was that the technology would make it possible to get an exciting enough, vivid enough souvenir of that live feeling you get at concerts.” The BSO had recorded every one of Levine’s programs since he took over as music director, but they held off releasing any of them until the technology caught up with that goal. “I thought, what I want is to release a kind of recording that has certain characteristics that are now possible that were not possible this way before, not at this level,” Levine said, “and even if they were possible, they weren’t the aesthetic of the time, maybe.”

Noticeable was an interesting shift in that aesthetic—Levine seemed eager to use recording to build up the BSO as a unique brand, in both sound and repertoire. (Singular was a word that came up a lot.) In the first four releases, you get the BSO’s long association with French music (Daphnis); its initial at-that-time modern German orientation (Brahms); its Koussevitzky-incubated reputation for new music (Bolcom—the symphony was a BSO commission); and the addition of Levine’s own stamp (Mahler). It’s a throwback to the time—not coincidentally, the time that Levine first came into the business—when orchestras cultivated distinct sonic personalities, before the movement towards homogenized versatility in the 70s and 80s. Levine spent a fair amount of time pointing out how big a part the sound of Symphony Hall itself plays in the new recordings. “Even one of the characteristics of the hall that was really fascinating is preserved there,” he said. “You know that tendency for the upper-middle to be the strongest register in the room? It is—it always is. We could artificially change it, but I didn’t want to.”

The orchestra also took the occasion to release Levine’s concert repertoire for next season (guest conductor programs will have to wait until March). Most noticable was an October-November series of all nine Beethoven symphonies—something the BSO apparently has never done. (Levine revealed that he himself has never gotten around to conducting the Fourth.) Levine sold it as a chance to rethink the symphonies from the ground up, rather than simply tack them on to programs as a rehearsal-management technique, which I thought was pretty good spin, at the very least. The BSO is also honoring retiring harpist Ann Hobson Pilot with a John Williams commission and an October farewell. Other premieres include a baritone/orchestra cycle by Peter Lieberson, a violin/cello Double Concerto from John Harbison, and the American premiere of Elliott Carter’s Flute Concerto. No concert opera from Levine next season, although Mendelssohn’s Elijah gets an airing in the spring.

(You can read the BSO’s press release about the new recordings here.)

Coming up short


Guerrieri: Epitome Rag (2009) (PDF, 5 pages, 313 Kb; MIDI here)

This month’s rag (previously) honors February’s oddball brevity with 28-bar strains in place of the usual 32. It also gets awfully MGM-esque towards the end, which I attribute to a lingering excess of Valentine’s Day candy. (I think Valentine’s Day is a bit of a scam, but chocolate-covered torrone is OK by me no matter how sketchy the pretenses.)

(Word builder: the original title was “Brachylogy Rag.” I am a big nerd.)