February 29, 2012

Three cheers for the brave new world...

When pianist Paul Jacobs died of AIDS in 1983, his New York Times obituary, penned by the then ubiquitous piano authority Harold C. Schonberg, mentioned only that Jacobs "died after a long illness".  In the context of an obituary for one of the outstanding American pianists of the post-war generation -- and in light of the fact that other obituaries from the same year dutifully reported heart attacks, cancers, suicides, and other specific causes of death -- Schonberg's wording sounds as vacuous and evasive as a report saying that J.F. Kennedy "died after a brief limousine ride".

Things have improved considerably since then, and not only at the New York Times (which now has openly gay chief music critic).  Some may even think that the pursuit of sexual glasnost in the classical music world has gone too far by pushing musicians toward pointless exhibitionism and general bad taste -- from Vanessa-Mae's soft-porn posters, to Yuja Wang's skimpy concert dress (with its clearly implied promise of a beaver shot for those lucky to sit in the front row), to Jeremy Denk's interview whose topics included "cute gay twinky boy composers" and "watching someone masturbate on the couch".

I, however, do not see such examples as in any way detracting from the dignity and nobility of classical music, if only because there has never been anything particularly dignified and noble about those in the business of creating and performing serious music.  After all, the list of important composers includes fellows who frequented whorehouses (Brahms), molested children (Saint-Saens), authored virulently antisemitic pamphlets (Wagner), and glorified murderous political regimes (Shostakovich).   As for performers, only Norman Lebrecht seems to have the requisite stamina for listing all those sadistic sociopaths, greedy opportunists, shameless liars, arrogant charlatans, and philandering husbands among masters of the podium, poets of the keyboard, wizards of the bow, and conquerors of the high C.  And let us not forget about opera, which offers some of the most imaginative music ever written to accompany tales of murder, adultery, incest, deceit, betrayal, promiscuity, and other similarly ignoble yet irresistibly entertaining manifestations of human nature.

In the end, this brave new sexualized classical music world of ours is really not all that brave.  The day is yet to come when Steinway & Co. will be marketing Ben Wa Balls for pianists eager to inject that extra ounce of ecstasy into their Chopin mazurka; or when beefy men in drag and high heels will be conducting scorching performances of Beethoven's Eroica and Mahler's 9th.  If this is the future, I face it with the serenity of a Buddhist monk.  Because when people make music, the only thing that matters to me is the actual music they make.  And music is one thing I've always enjoyed best with my eyes closed.

February 24, 2012

Big Questions

People who constantly obsess over questions like What is Justice? or What is Art? obviously need help; and they can get it in the form of multi-year treatment programs which combine personal counseling with group therapy sessions.  Although such treatment programs (known as graduate programs in philosophy) offer no cure, they teach participants a variety of effective strategies for coping with their debilitating obsessive disorder.  Those who complete such treatment programs tend to remain in institutional environments (known as colleges or universities), where they earn a modest income by sharing their difficult experiences with young men and women (known as undergraduates) in weekly encounter groups (known as introductory philosophy courses).  The social utility of this arrangement is undeniable, if only because it gives many young people an early opportunity to recognize the life-wasting potential of questions that are exceedingly general, hopelessly vague, and of no discernible promise to our quest for knowledge.

February 18, 2012

With music critics like these...

The job is daunting -- there are hundreds of takes.
Jeremy Denk on the editing of his studio recording of Ives' Concord sonata,
"Flight of the Concord", New Yorker, Feb. 6, 2012, p.28. (italics mine).

 [Jeremy Denk's] recent recording of Charles Ives piano sonatas ... displays a formidable technique and a fine combination of intellectual rigor and emotional depth.
John von Rhein, review of Jeremy Denk's debut with the Chicago Symphony (Beethoven's C-minor piano concerto), Chicago Tribune, Dec. 9, 2011 (italics mine).

Even without Jeremy Denk's charmingly confessional essay, an experienced music lover (let alone a music critic at a major newspaper) should know that studio recordings -- assembled from hundreds of snippets recorded over weeks, months, and sometimes even years -- can display no more "emotional depth" than a well-assembled microwave oven.  And the only "formidable technique" to be found in such assembled soundbites belongs to a skillful recording editor.

I hope the good people of Chicago are proud of their hometown newspaper which has generously provided this dolt with 30+ years of well-paid employment.

February 16, 2012

Four years later it is still about unbuttoned jackets...

Mr. Andsnes played the piece while seated calmly, never bothering to unbutton his stylish suit jacket.
Anthony Tommasini, New York Times, January 19, 2008

... in his modest yet commanding way, without even unbuttoning the jacket of his suit, Mr. Andsnes brought out excitement, inventiveness and beauty in works by Haydn, Bartok, Debussy and Chopin.
Anthony Tommasini, New York Times, February 16, 2012

What the fuck is it with Tommasini and Leif Andsnes' unbuttoned jackets (stylish or otherwise)?

February 2, 2012

Jeremy Denk

[Studio recordings] are manicured artifacts, from which the essential spectacle of human effort has been clipped away.  ...  I think about how precious live performance is, and how terrible it is that more and more performances aim to sound like recordings rather than the other way around.
Jeremy Denk, "Flight of the Concord", New Yorker, Feb. 6, 2012, pp.24 - 29.

I know Jeremy Denk's playing from broadcasts of his frequent appearances at the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center.  He is not a spectacular pianist (who is?), but he is an intelligent, reflective musician who often has interesting things to say about the music he plays.  And judging by his recent essay in the New Yorker magazine, he can be as eloquent at the computer keyboard as he can be at the keyboard of the piano.
      Denk's thoughtful and often disarmingly honest essay, which relates the perils of making a studio recording of  Ives's "Concord" sonata, is the most attractively intelligent way I can think of for a musician to promote his new recording.  I hope Denk's CD outsells Lang Lang.  I really do.  But I am not going to buy it.  In fact, I will not even listen to it for free (if my public library acquires a copy) because my attitude toward studio recordings, expressed frequently in this blog, is far more negative than Denk's wistful lament quoted above.  It is the attitude of bottomless contempt.

I feel puzzled by Denk's conflicted, if not outright incoherent, perspective on studio recordings: he laments their "terrible" effect on "precious live performance", yet proceeds to invest considerable time and effort in making one of those "manicured artifacts, from which the essential spectacle of human effort has been clipped away".  I am puzzled because Denk's live recordings of Bach, Ives and Ligeti (from the Aspen Festival, and also from his recitals at the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum in Boston) show that he can give technically impressive, tonally seductive, and interpretatively compelling public performances of the most demanding music.  If such performances do not happen at every recital, that's just the price of trying to enrich music with "the essential spectacle of human effort".  Instead of spending hundreds of hours manipulating hundreds of takes in the editing room of a recording studio (and later lamenting the artificiality of the final product), Denk would be artistically much better off recording his public recitals (which can be done inexpensively these days) and letting the microphones hunt for those special occasions on which his playing, even if not note-perfect, fully communicated his love and passion for the music he chose to perform.