Month: April 2009

I would’ve made you leave your key


On Sunday, as you might have read, pianist Krystian Zimerman announced from the stage of the Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles that he would no longer perform in the United States, as a protest against American foreign policy.

Before playing the final work on his recital, Karol Szymanowski’s “Variations on a Polish Folk Theme,” Zimerman sat silently at the piano for a moment, almost began to play, but then turned to the audience. In a quiet but angry voice that did not project well, he indicated that he could no longer play in a country whose military wants to control the whole world.

On the surface, it was a rather startling breach of concert decorum, although I think that’s mostly a tribute to how good casual classical music lovers are at willfully ignoring the complicated overtones of an art form that, more often than not, is more politically charged than almost any other. And Zimerman has always been—well, maybe eccentric isn’t the right word in this post-Gouldian age—but certainly an artist who has doggedly followed his own path. And I’ll give him this: he picked a pretty good break-up song.

Most break-up songs in the classical repertoire tend to be of the fairly wistful, regretful variety. But there’s another kind of break-up song that I’ve always liked better, one more prevalent in pop music, that, for want of a less profane term, I think of as “cheerful f***-you” songs. (Sometimes literally, like in Green Day’s “F.O.D.”) They tend to be bright, agreeably driving, with no small amount of bravado—reveling in that liberating, you-can’t-fire-me-I-quit sort of energy. In operatic terms, it’s a song for Marcello and Musetta, not Rodolfo and Mimì.

I’ve been racking my brains trying to come up with a really early example of this type of song—either from, say, Baroque opera (there has to be one in there somewhere) or Tin Pan Alley—but my brain is pretty fried today. Most modern entries, I think, can trace their lineage to either the stripped-down engine of Ray Charles’ “Hit the Road, Jack” or the laconic indictment of Hank Williams’ “Your Cheatin’ Heart.” (Cover versions often blur the categories—on his big-band album Soul on Top, James Brown turned “Your Cheatin’ Heart” into, basically, a Ray Charles break-up song.) For a time, the easygoing style reigned—Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain,” or one of the genre’s touchstones, Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice (It’s Alright),” the sharpness of the knife the song’s laid-back equanimity—but in the post-punk era, the shinier, happier catharsis has prevailed. For some musicians, it’s at the core of their output—the aforementioned Green Day is a good example. A couple days ago, I had occasion to play a fine recent entry in the category, Miller and Tysen‘s very funny “Spring Cleaning,” which has this tempo indication:

in a Ben Folds-ish bangy rocky showtune way

Indeed, Folds’ “Song for the Dumped” makes explicit what seems to be percolating just beneath the surface of a lot of his other songs. In recent years, the category seems to have been increasingly usurped by screechy girl-power anthems—think Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” without the sassy sarcasm or the pipes—though I am completely aware that my own apathy to this latest evolutionary turn can be entirely attributed to the fact that I am not now, nor have I ever been, a teenaged girl.

I think part of the reason that classical repertoire has so little of this kind of thing is that those pieces that use such energy tend to be perceived as commenting on much bigger, march-of-history topics than the domestic snark of a break-up. The Toccata finale to Prokofiev’s 7th Piano Sonata, for example, would make a great break-up song, except that the timing and historical wherewithal of its composition would make that either wildly inappropriate or delusionally self-aggrandizing. Beethoven finales also tend towards the mood, but tradition is that such outbursts have been interpreted optimistically—still, I could imagine that, with different lyrics, the “Ode to Joy” could be a pretty good break-up song.

Szymanowski’s “Variations” don’t completely fit, either, but, under the circumstances, it’s notable how the end of the piece suddenly turns towards what, in pop music, is fertile defiant break-up territory. The Polish theme Szymanowski uses is a brooding, b-minor Andantino, and the variations maintain that dark cast, albeit sometimes with great force:


When Szymanowski shifts into the parallel major, the mood is Chopin-esque and bittersweet:


But the final variation, for the first time in the piece, marries virtuosic power with major-key brightness:


Then, a bit of fugue (marked “Mit Humor”):


… before a high-octane finish:


In a normal context, this is standard virtuoso stuff—flair and inventiveness. But, in light of Zimerman’s pronouncement, the music shows no small number of “cheerful f***-you” attributes: blazing triumph, hurtling energy, poker-faced humor, show-off defiance. If Zimerman really does mean to hit the road, and wanted to make sure we missed him when he was gone, then, from a pop standpoint, he programmed one of the better goodbyes—or, if that’s too good a bye, one of the better fare-thee-wells—in the classical playbook.

Now in the moonlight, a man could sing it


Posting in this space has been pretty spotty as of late, due to the annual Spring Singularity of Practicing Obligations. But those of you in the Boston area can sample some of the fruits of that labor tomorrow, Tuesday, April 28, when I’ll be joining soprano Rebekah Alexander and a handful of other worthies for a Marian-themed program. The action-packed evening—including music by Haydn, Mozart, Wolf, and Messiaen—will culminate with the 1923 version of Paul Hindemith’s Das Marienleben, one of the truly great song cycles, and one of my favorite rebuttals to the old generalization that dissonance is only good for portraying angst and violence. The show starts at 7:30 PM at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Brookline; scrounge the cushions for a suggested $10 donation—all proceeds benefit the Hope Initiative.

Photo source. Skateboarding Mary? Awesome.

Intervallic cell

Atonality isn’t exactly setting the world on fire these days, what with all these whippersnappers and their feel-good postminimalism. Maybe it needs a new marketing hook. Hmmm… how about “possible cure for cancer”?

Our genetic evidence from Drosophila and previous in vitro studies of mammalian Atonal homolog 1 (Atoh1, also called Math1 or Hath1) suggest an anti-oncogenic function for the Atonal group of proneural basic helix-loop-helix transcription factors. We asked whether mouse Atoh1 and human ATOH1 act as tumor suppressor genes in vivo. Genetic knockouts in mouse and molecular analyses in the mouse and in human cancer cell lines support a tumor suppressor function for ATOH1.

From W. Bossuyt et al., Atonal homolog 1 Is a Tumor Suppressor Gene,” published February 24 in the journal PLoS Biology. OK, they’re not talking about music. What are they talking about?

The atonal gene was first isolated in fruit flies in 1993 by a team led by Andrew P. Jarman. It’s a proneural gene, which means it activates some part of the embryonic development of the nervous system—in this case, chordotonal organs, cell structures designed to pick up vibrations (think eardrums and the like). The name comes from the fact that an atonal mutation will disrupt the development of chordotonal organs.

As it turns out, a very similar gene, Atonal homolog 1, controls the development secretory cells in the lining of the colon in both humans and mice—and, as Bossyut and his team discovered, inactivating Atoh1 in mice triggers the onset of colon cancer. What’s more, the majority of human cases of colon cancer the team studied were found to correspond with an inactive ATOH1 gene as well.

The obvious implication of the results is that an ATOH1 screening could provide an early-warning system for colon cancers. But more interestingly, atonal genes can be chemically reactivated:

[T]reatment of [colon cancer] patients whose tumors show epigenetic silencing of ATOH1 with DNA methyltransferase inhibitors might prove a powerful avenue for therapy, because it appears to be sufficient to restore ATOH1 expression and induce cancer cell death.

That’s the most dissonant good news I’ve heard all day.

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow

Renée Fleming, soprano; Hartmut Höll, piano
Presented by Celebrity Series of Boston
Symphony Hall, Boston, April 19, 2009

Renée Fleming is now 50 (in related news, we’re all older than we realized) but, based on her Symphony Hall recital this weekend, she’s singing as well as ever—or as poorly as ever, depending on one’s entrenched opinion of her. Fleming’s popularity (her program bio gives her the vaguely Maoist title of “the people’s diva”) has, inevitably, resulted in polarization, and Sunday’s performance probably won’t alter that calculus. The mannerisms that drive some people crazy were all there—vaults into notes from initial consonants a floor or two below; sudden shifts into near-Sprechstimme stage whisper; slide-whistle floating in high, soft phrases; a certain slipperiness of vowel (“uh” became “eh” fairly consistently). But her usual virtues abounded as well: the casually regal stage presence, the impossibly glamorous tone, the uncanny breath control.

What was noteworthy about this appearance, though, was Fleming’s leveraging of her diva celebrity to present notably non-diva repertoire—even given a couple of duds, this was one of the most intelligently constructed and emotionally interesting vocal programs I’d heard in a long time. It helps that, at least for me, Fleming is at her interpretive best in a recital setting (without the perpetual sustain of an orchestra, she’s less likely to stretch a phrase to the breaking point just because she can). It also may have helped that this was the final stop on the tour—Fleming and Höll left it all on the field, by turns playful, daring, and sometimes startlingly immediate. And yet the overall effect was distinctly ambiguous and bittersweet: grown-up complexity, in saturated color.

The centerpiece of the first half was four songs from Olivier Messiaen’s Poèmes pour Mi, the composer amplifying the liminal boundary between the individual and the collective in marriage to halogen brightness. Höll’s accompaniment was sustained, restrained intensity, breathless and quietly insistent; Fleming put the focus on Messiaen’s texts. It shifted one’s attention from the exotic beauty of the music to the near-manic drama of the poetry—the torrential prayers of “Action de grâces,” the painterly glimpse of the beloved in “Paysage.” Fleming managed a convincing attacca downshift from the “éternellement lumineux” young bodies of “La maison” to an intoxicated, drill-sergeant bark for “Les deux guerriers.” I wished she had programmed the whole cycle.

Surrounding the Messiaen were two extended monologues of pointedly darker cast. André Previn’s “The Giraffes Go To Hamburg” sets a rueful Isak Dinesen portrait of two giraffes, trapped on a steamer, leaving Africa forever for a German zoo. Previn’s music (with alto flutist Linda Toote joining Fleming and Höll) doesn’t do much more than illustrate the text’s surface, but does so with consistent flexibility and resourcefulness; the performance attained the tricky balance between journalistic observation and lush sadness. After the Messiaen was John Kander’s “A Letter from Sullivan Ballou,” the Civil War major writing to his wife shortly before being killed at Bull Run. Kander’s music is pretty light stuff—nostalgic, meandering sentimentality—but the juxtaposition with Messiaen’s warriors of love was provocative, and the programmatic sequence, the bright triumph of the “Poèmes” both set up and tempered by the bookends, made an intriguing psychological arc out of the half’s disparate parts.

The second half repeated the same pattern, a substantial burst of joy protectively encased in renunciation and loss. The center here was Richard Strauss, five songs exploring the various stages, and ages, of love. Fleming and Höll made a nearly convincing case for the over-the-top volubility of “Verführung,” though the shaggy-dog episodic nature of both poem and music never quite coalesces. “Freundliche Vision” and “Winterweihe” both explore the deeper, less fraught emotional world of mature love, and both songs received readings of warm, placid richness. The giddy, rippling “Ständchen” was a standout, Fleming and Höll in absolute ensemble in a rendition of extreme, pinball rubato: a fulsome surrender to the emo, manic-depressive exhilaration of youthful infatuation. Höll’s sensitivity came to the fore in this set; at the close of “Zueignung,” he pulled the piano back from its double-forte climax to let Fleming’s stentorian ring complete the final crescendo, a creative, nice-work-if-you-can-get-it touch.

The equivocal cushion to Strauss’s happiness was two arias by Erich Wolfgang Korngold, the comparatively obscure “Ich soll ihn niemals, niemals mehr sehn” from Die Katharin, and the more familiar “Marietta’s Lied” from Die tote Stadt. Congruent not just thematically (both characters sing of love fated to die) but musically—Fleming admitted that placing them on opposite sides of the Strauss was, in part, to ameliorate their self-plagiaristic similarity—the arias, and the performances, exemplified the Romantic happy-sad conundrum of reveling in the fullness of sorrowful emotion. (“Marietta’s Lied” was breathtakingly slow, in the Fleming manner, but Korngold can take it.)

Even a long string of encores (“it’s the end of the tour,” Fleming announced, “we’re going to do everything we know”) offset glee with wistfulness. A sassy aria from Zandonai’s Carmen-esque Conchita led into Fleming’s oft-encored “Summertime” from Porgy and Bess, more restrained than I’ve heard her do in the past, with Höll giving limpid account of Gershwin’s shifting counterpoint. Strauss’ “Cäcilie” played off a clever-melancholic mash-up of “My Funny Valentine” with Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata. An audience-karaoke “I Could Have Danced All Night” would have sent everyone off with cheesy cheer, but Fleming and Höll returned for a bracingly beautiful performance of Strauss’s “Morgen.” Both poem and song lend themselves to interpretations of simple loveliness, but there’s a curious indefiniteness to the proceedings—why the focus on tomorrow and not today? Why the need for hopeful reassurance? What exactly is at the end of that walk on the beach? Happiness? Death? Both? It was as if the whole program had been designed to tease out the ambiguity of the song—and both Fleming’s serene ardor and Höll’s impeccable control, hushed to the edge of eerieness, left quiet, luminous space for that uncertainty. At the end of an afternoon notedly light on greatest hits, in “Morgen,” one of the soprano repertoire’s greatest hits of all, both singer and song were transported well beyond mere celebrity.

International harvesters

Reviewing the Orion String Quartet and David Krakauer.
Boston Globe, April 20, 2009.

This one really had to get trimmed for space. So here’s the deal: click on the link to boost the Globe‘s traffic—they’re nice enough to keep employing me, after all—then come back and compare with this slightly more garrulous version:

Nationalism once removed was on the docket for the Orion String Quartet for their Celebrity Series concert on Sunday: composers annexing exogenous traditions to their own musical dominions. Joined by the superb, pan-stylistic clarinetist David Krakauer, the group similarly captured each disparate piece within their own dramatic orbit.

The quartet opened with Hugo Wolf’s brisk, sunny “Italian Serenade.” The players—brothers Todd and Daniel Phillips on violin, violist Steven Tenenbom, and cellist Timothy Eddy—converged on the same dark, focused tone and firm-edged bowing. The resulting energetic reading seemed to overlay the music’s good time with a deliberate determination to have it.

Excess succeeds in David Del Tredici’s 2006 “Maygar Madness,” commissioned for Krakauer and the Orion Quartet by a consortium of presenters (including Celebrity Series). Del Tredici’s trademark neo-Romanticism nearly forgoes the prefix—four-fifths of the piece would fit the Brahmsian aesthetic of Boston a century ago—and the music’s titular Hungarian color has the authenticity of a Gypsy-themed Hollywood production number.

But that is the unashamed point of the work’s thronged expanse, in which any notion good enough for two bars is good enough for eight. As in much of Del Tredici’s music, the extra innings run longer than the original game; one’s pleasure shifts from formal apprehension to a compounding disport in the parade of ideas coming to the plate. The ensemble maintained conviction throughout: Krakauer’s valiant navigation of a frequently high-flying part, the quartet’s unflagging ardor. The composer was on dapper hand for a number of curtain calls.

Osvaldo Golijov’s 1994 “K’vakarat,” by contrast, generates power through concentration. Originally for cantor and strings, the transcription of Ashkenazic chant for clarinet lends the somber prayer a poignant, klezmer-infused vernacular overlay; the quartet’s full-throttle intensity, scintillation rising to eloquent fury, was equal to the music’s explosive emotions.

Beethoven closed the program: the second of the opus 59 “Razumovsky” quartets, the ruminative and voluble E-minor, complete with its own mischievously obsessive quotation of a Russian tune. The group adopted a vigorous precision (more vigorous than precise in the finale) that gave due heft to the music’s symphonic ambitions.

Gordon Pasha

Not Michael Gordon.

I can’t go but maybe you can: Signal Ensemble is performing Michael Gordon’s 1995 blowout Trance this Wednesday at Le Poisson Rouge in New York. Trance is one of those pieces, I imagine, for which experiencing a live hearing is almost like a résumé item.

Here’s Part 4 of Trance:

Download (MP3, 8.4 Mb)

—which is part of a promotion for the concert, which we’ll go along with because we like Michael Gordon’s music, and you all should listen to it. Anyway, there’s a pair of tickets up for grabs—all you have to do is find the other six blogs currently hosting downloads of Trance sections and be the first to e-mail the list to promotion (at) firstchairpromo (dot) com. Here’s some clues for adjacent sections:

Previous section—Note: initial contact often makes unfamiliar helpers like you.
Next section—The senile communists are muddled.

Navigating by Procyon

It’s Take a Friend to Orchestra Month! It’s actually been Take a Friend to Orchestra Month for almost three weeks now. Have you taken a friend to see an orchestra? No? You’ve still got ten days. (I’m pretty sure that ELO on YouTube doesn’t count.) In the meantime, you can spend the rest of the month perusing related readings by classical music luminaries from online, offline, and everywhere in between, curated, as always, by Drew McManus.

According to the snazzy graphic there, I was supposed to write an article for Drew’s annual symphonic enablement, but Critic-at-Large Moe hijacked my spot to give the orchestra a pep talk. Head on over to see a dog talk to a cello for the first and possibly only time today.

That’s funny—I’ve been feeling buried in a special place all week

FRANK GANNON: In the ‘ 46 and ‘ 50 campaigns, you played the piano. You played fairly often, I think, as a—sort of as a technique of campaigning. In those days people were used to gathering around the piano and singing. Did you—did you want your daughters to learn?

RICHARD NIXON: Oh, yes.

FG: Did they take lessons?

RN: Well, we—oh, yes. We went through that. The musical heritage, though, didn’t go beyond me. Both Julie and Tricia like music. Pat naturally wanted to give them an opportunity to learn. We bought an accordion for one and gave piano lessons to the other, to Tricia particularly. I remember—remember an incident on that. This is about, I would say, 1956, and at that time she would have been ten years old, and she was taking piano lessons for the first time, and I was trying to help her one night. And I was telling her, “You know, honey, the most important thing in learning to play the piano is to practice.” I said, “It’s tiring and boring, but if you practice, you can be as good as you want to be.” She thought a moment and she looked at me and said, “You know, Daddy, you should have practiced more when you were a little boy. If you had, you might have become famous and have gone to Hollywood, and they would have buried you in a special place.”

Nixon/Gannon Interviews, February 9, 1983

OK, OK, I’ll practice this afternoon. Three hours, I promise.

I should add that the fact that Julie Nixon Eisenhower once played the accordion passes through so many conflicting layers of ironic and non-ironic cool that it must separate out into radioactive isotopes at the other end.

Help us dream beautiful dreams

Take for instance the representative work Symphony in B Minor (the Unfinished Symphony) by Schubert (1797-1828), an Austrian bourgeois composer of the romantic school. The class feelings and social content it expresses are quite clear, although it has no descriptive title. This symphony was composed in 1822 when Austria was a reactionary feudal bastion within the German Confederation and the reactionary Austrian authorities not only ruthlessly exploited and oppressed the workers and peasants, but also persecuted and put under surveillance intellectuals with any bourgeois democratic ideas. Petty-bourgeois intellectuals like Schubert saw no way out of the political and economic impasse, and lacking the courage to resist they gave way to melancholy, vacillation, pessimism and despair, evading reality and dreaming of freedom. This work of Schubert’s expressed these class feelings and social content. The opening phrase is sombre and gloomy. The whole symphony continues and expands on this emotion, filling it with petty-bourgeois despair, pessimism and solitary distress. At times the dreaming of freedom does come through but this, too, is escapist and negative.

Absolute music composed in Europe in the 18th and l9th centuries are products of the European capitalist society, upholding the interests of the bourgeoisie and serving the capitalist system. The content and the ideas and feelings with which they are saturated have an unmistakably bourgeois class nature. Marx pointed out: “Capital comes [into the world] dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt.” And it is this blood and dirt that bourgeois music extols. Although certain compositions were to some extent progressive in the sense of being anti-feudal, they failed to mirror proletarian thoughts and feelings of their time; and they are, of course, still more incompatible with our socialist system today under the dictatorship of the proletariat. Then why dismiss their class content and extol them? Yet even today there are some who would feed our young people on these musical works uncritically and intact. Where would this lead our young people?

—Chao Hua, “Has Absolute Music No Class Character?”
(Peking Review, #9, March 1, 1974)

[Akira] Kurosawa wrote One Wonderful Sunday with his childhood friend Keinosuke Uekasa…. Kurosawa said of him, “As weak as he is, he puts on a show of strength; as romantic as he is, he puts on a show of being a realist.” Perhaps it was Uekasa’s contradictory nature that led to One Wonderful Sunday‘s audacious—if not successful—climax. As Masako tries to cheer Yuzo in the bandshell after being denied tickets to hear Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony, she suggests they pretend. At first her bit of inspiration works, but the sadness of the long day begins to wear on Yuzo and the imaginary music stops. Then, suddenly, Masako addresses the movie’s audience, looking striaght into the camera. With tears running down her cheeks, she pleads with the audience to clap its hands, à la Peter Pan. “Please, everyone,” she says, “if you feel sorry for us, please clap your hands. If you clap for us, I’m sure we’ll be able to hear the music.” After an excruciatingly long silence, Schubert is heard at last.

—Stuart Galbraith IV, The Emperor and the Wolf: The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune