December 31, 2016

No better way to end the year

Any piece written by a composer past the age of 80 has a good chance of being his last.  Which is why I am not inclined to hear a special 'farewell message' in Elliott Carter's Instances for Chamber Orchestra, his last orchestral composition completed a few months before he died, aged 103, in November 2012.
     Still, one feature of Instances sets it apart from Carter's earlier orchestral works.  Instead of a brief, deliberately perfunctory ending I've come to expect from this unsentimental composer, Instances ends with a 2-minute-long coda of unprecedented emotional openness, in which the slowly and regularly breathing strings use their dreamy, bittersweet harmonies to console a melancholy flute.
     Even more remarkable than this coda is the fact that, no matter how hard I tried, I could hear neither its beauty nor its emotional significance in the wooden and lifeless studio recording made by the conductor Ludovic Morlot and the Seattle Symphony.  These were revealed to me only yesterday when I came across my first live recording of Instances performed by the New York Philharmonic under Matthias Pintscher in June 2014.  Talk about a happy New Year!

December 26, 2016

Remembering Keith Richards

December 26, 2016
Keith Richards of the legendary rock band The Rolling Stones was found today lying

November 27, 2016

A fifteen-year-long wait for the "Aha!" moment...

This is how long it seems to have taken Paul Griffiths - a very experienced music critic and a perceptive writer on modernist music in the 20th century - to change his mind about one of Helmut Lachenmann's most often performed orchestral works: 

Mouvement (vor der Erstarrung) for eighteen-piece ensemble is quite successful in the avoidance [of anything pleasant to listen to].  [It is] a landscape of rustlings, scrapes, electric bells and pointless percussion toccatas. (The Times, July 8, 1986)

[In] Mouvement (vor der Erstarrung) ... there are a lot of whirrings, scrapings, knocks and breathings. But not only are these noises beautifully made in themselves, they also add up to a bracing musical design. ... This omnipresence of sheer sound contributes to the poetry of Mouvement...  It comes as if from nowhere, takes you firmly by the hand and will not let go until it has shown you things you could not have suspected.  (New York Times, November 4, 2001)

For lack of better things to do, I briefly wondered about Griffiths' long delayed epiphany.[1]  After all, Lachenmann's Mouvement is neither intimidatingly complex (compared to, say, Carter's Double Concerto or Concerto for Orchestra) nor aggressively abrasive (unlike, e.g., the music of Xenakis or even Beethoven's Grosse Fuge).  For the most part Lachenmann's piece speaks quietly and delicately, and its large-scale structure is essentially that of three superimposed arcs representing gradual changes in pitch content, dynamic levels, and the density of texture.  In the manner of Hollywood screenwriters pitching an idea for a movie, one could simplistically describe Mouvement as Ravel's Bolero re-composed by Webern and performed on ingeniously adapted objects from the inventory of a hardware store.

November 2, 2016

If I were God...

Less than a week from today the American voters will decide whether their next president will be a flamboyant asshole or a corrupt sociopath.

October 26, 2016

Breakfast of penitence

Today I ate for breakfast my words about Till Fellner.  What made me change my mind about this pianist was his playing of Bach - not the hideously disembodied floating-in-vacuum studio recordings he made for the ECM label, but broadcast recordings of his recitals where he played selections from Book II of the Well-Tempered Clavier.  Having long given up on Glenn Gould's juvenile pranksterism and Sviatoslav Richter's Soviet-Industrial grimness, I found Fellner's calm, reflective, Apollonian approach to Bach very attractive.  I doubt I'll ever hear a more telling example of what Charles Rosen had in mind when he described Bach's keyboard music as deeply private and meditative.

Those of you who have been waiting for an opportunity to vindicate your suspicion that I can be as much of a judgmental doofus as any professional music critic now can do so with these Fellner performances from Schwarzenberg (BWV 874-877, VIII.24.2014), Rohrnbach (BWV 878-881, VI.25.2015), and Hohenems (BWV 888-893, X.7.2016).

September 25, 2016

One of those absurdly overcomposed monstrosities

i)  ... eccentric without being amusing; and laborious without effect.

ii)  ... a crass monstrosity.

iii)  ... oh, the pages of stupid and hopelessly vulgar music!

iv)  ... eccentric, unconnected, and incomprehensible ... wanting in aesthetical feeling and in a sense of the beautiful ... monstrous and tasteless.

Stretching to the very last year of the 19th century, these dismissive criticisms of Beethoven's symphonies[1] show that even the long-term reception of a musical work is a very poor indicator of the work's artistic significance.  Where is today the once so successful and praised music of Hasse, Hummel, or Dittersdorf?  By contrast, there isn't a major orchestra these days whose season programs do not include Mahler's symphonies - the symphonies which half a century after their premieres were still dismissed by major music critics as "cheap", "banal", "interminable platitudes".[2]

August 20, 2016

Those who missed the train...

... the most interesting American symphonist is the subtle and introspective Roger Sessions.
The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians

Now I know how Schumann must have felt when he first heard the music of Brahms.
Arnold Schoenberg to his pupil Leon Kirchner after listening to a recording of Roger Sessions' Piano Sonata No.2. (Andrea Olmstead, Roger Sessions: A Biography, Routledge, 2008)

The greatest symphonist since Mahler.
Lighton Kerner, The Village Voice

Everybody loves Roger Sessions except the public.
Donal Henahan, New York Times (Roger Sessions' obituary, March 18, 1985)

He always has been an accomplished technician rather than a very original composer.
Harold C. Schonberg, New York Times (March 5, 1976).

[The music] has almost everything but individuality ... and there is little in this score that rises above eclectic academism.
Harold C. Schonberg's 1968 New York Times review of the premiere of Sessions' 8th Symphony (performed by the New York Philharmonic under William Steinberg).

According to some of the above critical opinions, the complete disappearance of Roger Sessions' orchestral music from public performances should be seen as a proof that the music lacks aesthetic merits required for long-term survival even on the fringes of the standard repertoire.  According to others, it should be seen as a depressing fate of art music in the age ruled by populist demands for instant intelligibility and gratification.
     You can decide for yourself by listening to Sessions' Symphony No.7, recorded live (in stereo) at the October 5, 1967 concert of the Chicago Symphony conducted by Jean Martinon. 

August 15, 2016

The feminine mystique

As a welcome contrast to Emmanuel Pahud's extroverted performances of Elliott Carter's Flute Concerto, here is a gentler, dreamier, but no less captivating interpretation by Elizabeth Row, the principal flutist of the Boston Symphony.  From a November 2011 concert conducted by Ludovic Morlot.

July 4, 2016

The Blah-Blah Studies

A couple of days ago, against my better judgment, I picked up Edward Said's book Musical Elaborations at my local library.  The title of the fist chapter - Performance as an Extreme Occasion - sounded intriguing.  The expression "extreme occasion" seems apt for describing an armed bank robbery or a jetliner's engine fire during takeoff, which is why I could not wait to find out what exactly is "extreme" about playing a musical instrument for a paying audience.

May 19, 2016

Geriatric Cool

A 70-year old soloist (Daniel Barenboim) and a 76-year old conductor (Zubin Mehta leading Staatskapelle Berlin) performing a new composition by a 103-year old composer (Elliott Carter) while a famous 87-year old conductor-composer (Pierre Boulez) listens intently from his seat in Row 2.  This kind of Geriatric Cool, captured on HD video at the Berliner Philharmonie (Barenboim's 70th Birthday Concert on November 15, 2012), surely makes old age seem less depressing than it really is.

May 9, 2016

Why learn difficult scores if all you want is to dance on the podium?

Bernstein ... shows an interest in progressive music only for the sake of publicity or scandal - he doesn't like it - what he likes is American versions of Prokofiev and Shostakovich.
Elliott Carter, letter to Goffredo Petrassi, 11 May 1959*

* Elliott Carter: A Centennial Portrait in Letters and Documents, F. Meyer and A. C. Shreffler (eds), Paul Sacher Foundation, The Boydell Press, Woodbridge, Suffolk, 2008.

April 13, 2016

Could this be true?

In an advance article for the upcoming 1995 Proms premiere of Elliott Carter's Adagio tenebroso, the distinguished music critic (and later Carter's librettist) Paul Griffiths wrote:

[Carter] tells the story of how [in 1994], when he was working with Daniel Barenboim on the first performance of his Partita, Barenboim half-jokingly suggested he ought to write a comic opera next, and he half-jokingly said he would ... if Barenboim could get him a commissioning fee of a million dollars.  A little later, Barenboim came back from Europe to report success: Berlin would pay the required sum. (Times of London, 12 September 1995, italics mine)

A million dollars for a 40-minute long avant-garde opera?  I found it hard to believe, but then I recalled having read somewhere that only a couple of years earlier New York's Metropolitan Opera paid $325,000 commission fee to Philip Glass for his opera The Voyage.  And if Glass could get this much for stretching a few triads worth of musical material over three hours of rhythmic monotony, Carter's reported commission fee for What's Next does not seem all that striking.

Still, I wonder if the actual fee paid to Carter by Berlin's Staatsoper Unter den Linden was indeed the sum mentioned in Griffiths' article. 

March 27, 2016

Boulez the Cartesian

…I must once for all seriously undertake to rid myself of all the opinions which I had formerly accepted, and commence to build anew from the foundation…
Rene Descartes [1]

…if you do not make a clean sweep of all that you have inherited from the past … and adopt an attitude of fundamental doubt towards all accepted values, … you will never get any further.
Pierre Boulez [2]

[My first fully serial composition] was an experiment in what might be called Cartesian doubt: to bring everything into question again, make a clean sweep of one’s heritage and start all over again from scratch.
Pierre Boulez [3]

Pierre Boulez had a reputation as a Cartesian, and not just because he was French and in France Descartes inspires the kind of reverence accorded to vodka in Russia or to Jesus in the American South.  From his late twenties to the end of his long life, Boulez repeatedly described his musical theorizing as a Cartesian project of employing radical doubt to challenge every aspect of musical tradition with the aim of rebuilding compositional practice from scratch on the new foundation of integral serialism.[4] 
     Boulez’s Cartesianism has been duly noted by musicologists, though always in passing and without judgment, the way one mention’s a man’s height or his place of birth.  But why?  Imagine if it had been discovered that Boulez was inspired by, say, Mein Kampf.  Surely musicologists would have taken a close look at the relevant parts of that book, identified all sorts of bad thinking behind the words, and adjusted their assessment of Boulez’s intellect accordingly.  Since deranged tyrants do not have monopoly on bad thinking, my guess is that the free pass given to Boulez’s Cartesianism is due to the common acceptance of Descartes’ reputation as a great thinker.  In light of this reputation, a brief mention of Descartes’ ideas which inspired Boulez is all that needs to be said in the context of a musicological discussion.
     The only problem with this way of treating Boulez’s Cartesianism is that, as a philosopher, Descartes was not a great thinker.  Not even a good one.  Which is to say he was pretty bad (though not as bad as some other members of the Great Philosophers Club).  And if Boulez was inspired by bad thinking imported from Descartes’ philosophy, this non-musical blind spot is worth noting for the sake of a more complete (and more realistic) perspective on the man.

March 9, 2016

The ethics of musical masochism

[Elliott Carter] walked out of Orchestra Hall before the [Chicago Symphony's] 1984 performance of his Symphony of Three Orchestras because he objected to the seemingly flippant tone of conductor Leonard Slatkin's spoken introduction.
John von Rhein, "Composer Elliott Carter has chosen a difficult road", Chicago Tribune, November 22, 1992.

I always like to talk about a difficult piece before I perform it. ... I meant no disrespect to Mr. Carter.  Simply because I don't like a particular piece of music doesn't mean I can't lead a performance. I even recorded the Pachelbel canon. 
     ... On the other hand, I still don't like Mr. Carter's symphony. ... I don't hear much in his work at all.  It's just a series of mathematical gestures, piled on with needless complexity.
Conductor Leonard Slatkin speaking to Tim Page in "An American Conductor Succeeds at Home", New York Times, May 20, 1984.
I take it as obvious that Leonard Slatkin's remarks in the above New York Times interview are those of an arrogant asshole with a seriously underdeveloped musical mind and a grotesquely inflated sense of self-importance.  What caught my eye in this interview, however, was not so much Slatkin's display of philistinism and rudeness - he isn't the only baton-waving hack to have insulted Elliott Carter - as his bragging about having performed musical works he actively dislikes. Slatkin's musical masochism made me wonder if, aside from being irrational, it is unethical for a musician to give public performances of music he actively dislikes and which he is not contractually obligated to perform.

January 22, 2016

Caruso of West Hollywood

Caruso was waiting for me at a small public park in Studio City not far from his girlfriend’s house.  Ex-girlfriend’s house, to be precise.  About an hour earlier she threw him out and took away his car keys because she owned the car he had been driving.  The finality of their separation was certified by the ugly bruise on the left side of Caruso’s face.  The bruise was still spreading like a lunar eclipse when he limped to my car from one of the picnic tables near the parking area.
     “Frying pan?” I asked after he planted himself in the passenger seat.
     “Magazine,” he said.
      I took another quick look at his purple cheekbone.  “Must have been Vogue.”
     “Didn’t notice,” he sighed, “but the damn thing was thicker than a surfboard.  I really didn’t expect it.  Marina was holding it with both hands, like she was about to open it and read something.  I was in the middle of a sentence when she just swung it with a two-handed grip and whacked me in the face.”
     “And the limp?”
     “Tripped on something in the hallway.  I was in a hurry.”

January 17, 2016

Fuck you too, Woody Allen!

The above image comes from a brief scene in Woody Allen's film Irrational Man (2015), where one of the principal characters gives a piano recital at a small college auditorium.
     Assuming Woody Allen had not become senile by the time he made this film, I can think of only one plausible explanation for what seems to be an embarrassing display of cultural illiteracy by one of America's distinguished filmmakers.  Allen simply liked this particular composition of the scene and decided that viewers who insist that the purpose of a raised piano lid is to project sound toward the audience can go fuck themselves.

January 15, 2016

January 8, 2016

The kids are allright

A superbly produced HD video of a 2015 concert performance of Elliott Carter's Clarinet Concerto (1996) by Moritz Roelcke and the young musicians of Orchester der Zürcher Hochschule der Künste conducted by the German-based American conductor Jonathan Stockhammer.  The highest 1080p video quality (choose by clicking on "HD" icon) comes with a 256 kbs AAC audio track which sounds vastly more realistic and natural than any of the currently available commercial studio recordings of this concerto.

Usually I find watching performances of serious music a total waste of a sensory modality, but in this case the visual experience enhances (if slightly) the theatrical aspect of Carter's musical design.  Throughout this concerto's seven short movements Carter pairs the soloist with different instrumental groups, and the soloist has to move around the stage (during brief orchestral interludes) to play each movement standing next to the designated instrumental group.