Monday, November 30, 2009

Nicholas Slonimsky playing with Frank Zappa

This may be, ok...IS the most unlikely musical friendship of the 20th century. Slonimsky was a member of the Russian avant-garde during the revolution, a great friend to Varese and Stravinsky. Fifty years later there was not an avant-garde movement which Zappa did not embrace. While the classical avant-garde was caught up in a lethal war between the Boulezian serialists and the Cagean experimentalists, Zappa was spreading his bizzareness everywhere by incorporating it all into his very weird yet very personal musical language.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Fucked Up Moments in Opera #4: Jenufa by Leos Janacek

In the realm of the fucked-up in opera, Janacek is without a doubt the all-time champion for reasons that could be documented all week. But tonight let's focus a bit on his first great opera: Jenufa. One day, hopefully soon, Jenufa will be performed with all the frequency of Verdi. The plot is simple yet the elements speak clearly to what Janacek's world is about: abuse and mutilation of women, unwanted pregnancies, imprisonment by family members, religious insanity and infanticide. In its depiction of small-town brutality it is close to the world of Chekhov, but the stark horrors of its violence are much closer to the worlds of Dostoevsky and Isaac Babel.

Jenufa, like so many pretty small-town girls around the world, has a case of 'wrong guy syndrome' and falls for the town rake (or jock), Steva - an alcoholic who has long-since impregnated her by the beginning of the opera. By the beginning of the opera, Jenufa realizes she is pregnant and prays that Steva will not be conscripted into the Austro-Hungarian army so that he can marry her. Steva arrives back in town completely drunk and boasting to Jenufa that he can get any girl in town. Jenufa is of course incredibly jealous, but Steva assures her that no girl in town can compete with her 'apple-blossom cheeks.'

(The great ending to Act I of Jenufa complete with mutilation. Unfortunately no subtitles but the scar makes the point rather finely.)

Like so many town small-town swingers, Steva has a resentful brother (step-brother in this case). Laca has been in love with Jenufa since they were children, but Jenufa never paid much attention to the beta-brother. Even so, it scarcely seems that Laca is the right guy either. Laca overhears Steva's comment about Jenufa's cheeks, and in a bizarre mixture of jealous rage, flirtation-gone-wrong, and S&M, Laca only half-accidentally mutilates Jenufa's face with a knife, forever branding her with a huge scar on her cheek. Rather brilliantly, Janacek leaves the question of whether Laca meant to do it open-ended. Laca is immediately remorseful and it is very difficult not to have a bit of sympathy with this man, however savage and violent he is.

But the real star of Jenufa, even more than the title role, is the stepmother: the town Kostelnicka (sacristian) whose name is never even given - a religious fanatic more witch than woman. It is in Act II that she comes into her own, in one of opera's most unforgettable scenes. Kostelnicka discovered Jenufa's pregnancy before anyone else, and hid her away in a cottage outside town and orders Jenufa to pray for her son's death. The act begins eight days after Jenufa gives birth and the boy is quite healthy. Kostelnicka summons Steva to the house and begs him to marry Jenufa, but Steva says that he can no longer love Jenufa now that she has a horrible scar on her face. Instead, Steva becomes engaged to the mayor's daughter and offers nothing more than a little money to provide for his child. Kostelnicka, alone and delusional, elects to drown the baby in a frozen lake so that Jenufa may retain her honor, resolving that God will forgive the sacrifice. Jenufa,m still weak from the pregnancy, has no knowledge of Kostelicka's murder and assumes that her son simply died and Kostelnicka buried him.

(The unforgettable scene of child murder as done by one of the great sopranos of the 20th century - Anna Silja. This version was done in 1989. Silja, now nearly 70, performed the role unforgettably at the MET as recently as the spring of 2007)

Act III takes place in springtime at the wedding of Jenufa to Laca, the man who cut her with a knife. Even so, everything seems to have resolved itself until the mayor is told that factory workers have found the corpse of a dead baby in the lake. Jenufa cries out in horror that the child must be her's. The town immediately forms a lynch mob (as it only can in an opera), demanding vengeance against Jenufa. The mob's bloodthirstyness is only quelled by Laca protecting Jenufa singlehandedly from their harm and the Kostelicka's wrenching confession that she killed the child without telling Jenufa. Steva is publicly disgraced by the confession and the mayor's daughter demands to be released from their engagement. As the Kostelnicka is lead away, presumably to her death, Jenufa resolves that she truly loves Laca and the opera ends on a note of overwhelming forgiveness....fucked up, no?

(Finally, English subtitles. The last ten minutes from Kostelnicka's confession. More Silja, and she is simply magnificent. Roberta Alexander and Philip Langridge scarcely pale either.)


We're totally singing this at some point.
It's a real mystery how little exists of Elisabeth Soderstrom on youtube.

Opera has a lot of great 'What If' projects. Beethoven planned an opera on Faust, Verdi on King Lear, Mendelssohn wanted to do a Ring opera thirty years before the premiere of the Ring Cycle, Brahms had planned an untitled project with Turgenev as the librettist, Mahler was said to have considered setting Dostoevsky,

more arts ranting...

Life isn't fair, but compared to the arts, the rest of life is like a shining utopia atop a hill. It's because of the very perfection demanded of artists that the selection process by which we find the great ones is so absolutely skewed. Auditions only give reliable indications of a person's capabilities at the very moment they are auditioning. Potentially great artists sacrifice their entire childhoods to their training, only to have their gifts stripped away from them in all too brutal fashion by the most arbitrary of circumstances. The great pianist Murray Perahia lost ten years of his career to a paper cut. The great tenor Ben Heppner has never sounded the same after taking the wrong anti-biotic. And yet even artists like them are lucky enough to play on and fight against the randomness of life. What about all the potentially great artists we'll never hear about because life took their gifts away all-too-soon? Growing up in Baltimore, our piano tuner was a man named Leonid Grossbaum (a pseudonym). Mr. Grossbaum was the son of Russian immigrants but grew up in Venezuela. As a child his skill on the violin was quickly noticed. He was soon discovered by Henrik Szeryng and brought to America to be taught by Oscar Shumsky. He was once touted as a potential Yehudi Menuhin for the southern hemisphere, but his fingers crippled themselves from overpractice. For the rest of his life, Mr. Grossbaum could only play the violin for five minutes at a time. For a time he eeked a living in Baltimore as a violin teacher, teaching my uncle among some others. But Mr. Grossbaum apparently had no real gift as a teacher, and by the time I knew him, he made his living as a piano tuner.

No doubt, such is the life of most potentially great musicians. For every Yehudi Menuhin whose genius is allowed to develop unfettered there are probably a couple dozen Leonid Grossbaums who are trained for great things only for reality to hit them past an age when they can be properly prepared for a life of normalcy. It's true that artists shouldn't be allowed leeway for their temperaments, but many real artists can't help being helpless outside of the professions they spent the first third of their lifespans preparing for. No matter how many times our parents told us that we couldn't have possibly chosen a harder life for ourselves, each of us has to believe that we are the exception to the rule. Most of us haven't even thought much about it, our minds were solely on the next gig.

There will always be a place in life for accountants and lawyers, but there is only a place in life for artists when accountants and lawyers decide to make one for them. It's often said that the most important step to adulthood is the moment we resolve to give up on our childhood dreams and fantasies of greatness above what 'normal people' achieve so that we can begin to make it in the 'real world.' Many abandon such dreams and pursue the life of John Q. Public with a steady income and the lucky ones have good friends and a loving family to ease the regret of what might have been. The really lucky ones find that steady income in a manner that lets them channel creativity. As Woody Allen once said (through the mouthpiece of Billy Crystal) 'some people turn their lives into art, other people put art into their lives.' And who can deny that 99% of the latter are happier people than the former?

This 'art' thing is an incredibly lonely business. Who can deny that? Composers sit at their desks for hours a day with no human company and no reliable sounding boards for their ideas. Conductors are like bosses who must supervise every move of their subordinates and correct mistakes in front of the entire company. Good conductors will inevitably be resented for doing their job properly.

And yet, the music is its own reward. Every time - a well done passage in a new composition, singers singing a passage at a rough approximation of what you hear in your head, the knowledge that you made it happen and the promise of still better things later - it is a drug more powerful than all the heroin in Afghanistan. You feel like this is what you're born for and that you're the instrument through which a greater power is working. Egotistical you say? You don't even know the half of it.
But a promise held out that everything we strive for in life is not in vain can motivate us to do anything at all.

...This started as a post about Elisabeth Soderstrom. I think I'm going to start that one over.

RIP Elisabeth Soderstrom (1927-2009)

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Appalachian Spring - Original Martha Graham Footage

Obviously the sound was post-synched, but even so, this is extraordinary.

The Promise of Living by Aaron Copland

Even more than Appalachian Spring, this is the piece that makes more sense than any other on Thanksgiving.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

RIP H C Robbins Landon (1926-2009)

(H C Robbins Landon doin' his thang.)

H C Robbins Landon, the extremely weird musicologist (see here) who made a career out of sorting through the music of Earth's most normal musical master, died yesterday at the age of 83. He was a great scholar, lecturer, TV presenter and writer who did more than any figure of our day to convince musicians 18th century masters like Haydn, Mozart, Vivaldi and Handel more exposure. You may now think that these are composers who need no advocacy, but that only testifies to the magnitude of Robbie Landon's accomplishment.

(The Hungarian Rondo from the Piano Trio in G. Played by the Puella Trio.)

Even today, the fact that Haydn is not thought of as a master on the level of Mozart (his close friend) and Beethoven (his prodigal pupil) is one of the great scandals of music appreciation. It is safe to say that there are only a handful of figures in music history without which all subsequent music would have taken an entirely different direction. But no composer, except maybe Bach, had more of an effect on later music. Bach may have created tonality as we know it today, but Haydn undisputably created what we now know as sonata form. Every time you hear a movement of classical music in which two themes are played against each other and then developed into a competition for supremacy (with the first theme pretty much always winning) is an invention that Haydn began. True enough, there were composers who did it before him. But as in all art, what matters is not who did it first but who did it best.

(Haydn's under-rated sequel to his masterpiece. After he wrote "The Creation" he wrote one on The Seasons. He had wanted to do an oratorio based on Paradise Lost but couldn't find somebody to write him a good enough libretto - text. The loss is history's and it's incalculable.)

I love Haydn's music as I do very few composers. Bach can articulate your soul's desire, but Haydn is all dirty jokes and beer. Mozart can make you remember what it's like to fall in love, but Haydn can make you remember how good life can still be when you're not. So if I were to tell you that the entire output of the composer who invented symphonic form and wrote maybe the most fun classical music ever written is still played with approximately one fifth the worldwide frequency of Carmina Burana, you would probably think this is a screwed up world. You'd be right.

(The final movement of Haydn's Symphony no 45, the "Farewell" Symphony in which all the musicians leave the stage one by one, until only two musicians remain. Well worth watching until the end. Daniel Barenboim conducting the Vienna Philharmonic.)

Conan the Barbarian: What is Best in Life

Amen. h/t to Tow.

In Praise of Tradition - part 2

Yevgeny Mravinsky was the director of the Leningrad Philharmonic from 1938 until his death fifty years later. For years, the orchestra existed as a legend in the west. An orchestra so virtuosic and distinctive that nothing on the our side of the iron curtain could remotely approach it. Eventually Stalin died and after Khrushchev allowed relations with the West to thaw, the Lenningrad Philharmonic was one of the first organizations allowed abroad.

Nobody in the West ever remembered Tchaikovsky played like this. His music was darker, more violent, more 'masculine' than anyone had ever thought possible. For a time, all the complaining about Tchaikovsky's music in vaguely homophobic terms was retired. Because when Mravinsky and his orchestra played it, here was a composer fully worthy to take his place with the other greats and the first Russian composer to consistently reach greatness and firmly launch the tradition that eventually begat us (among so many others) Scriabin, Stravinsky, Shostakovich and Schnittke.

Monday, November 23, 2009

What Would Roger Sterling Do?

All Roger Sterling's best lines in one video. In moments of crisis I think to myself, What Would Don Draper Do? Most of the rest of the time I think imitating Roger Sterling would be ten times more fun.

Larry David: Cancer Survivor

In honor of the Seinfeld reunion on Curb (yes, I nearly cried tonight). All I aspire to be is the Larry David of music. Take that as you will.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Beach Boys Song Venn Diagram

Late Night Thoughts on Mahler's 2nd Symphony

My first memory of the Resurrection Symphony was when I was thirteen. I was a second-year Dorrite at New England Music Camp in Waterville, Maine. My best friend at the camp was a guitar student named Eli Sacks (whatever happened to him?) who shared all my obsessions with classical music, obscure baseball statistics and Star Trek. The year before, he had introduced me to Mahler through his first symphony. I was in the throes of terrible anxiety from a week's worth of trying to work up the nerve to ask out a girl, and to the twelve year old mind there is no suffering so great as that. He would indulge me as I went off for twenty minutes at a time to listen to his Leonard Slatkin CD of Mahler 1's last movement. Perhaps he tolerated this because he was just as grateful as I was to know that there was at least one other kid on the cusp of high school who had the same weird enthusiasms.

(Last movement of Mahler 1)

I had heard Mahler before, on CD and in concert, but I had never heard Mahler until I was twelve. There are so many things about his music - the length, the complexity, the bombast, the breath of his style - that are completely beyond the understanding of even the most musically inclined children. I remember listening to the fifth symphony when I was nine or ten, and whatever I didn't find completely disturbing in it I found terribly boring. And yet all the things that make Mahler wrong for children make him completely right for adolescents. The violence of the music, the overwhelming sense of tragedy and burden, the bleak cynicism juxtaposed the lofty visions of a more ideal world, are always in place to make Mahler the perfect composer for human beings with overactive hormones.

And yet even when I was thirteen, Mahler's Resurrection Symphony proved just too intense. I borrowed Eli's CD's yet again. Eli had graduated from just a CD of Mahler 1 to a collection of the first 4 with the Chicago Symphony under Georg Solti. I mistakenly cued up the last movement of Mahler's Resurrection thinking it was the first. And suddenly the crash of the last movement filled my headphones until I thought I was deaf. I had never heard a sound so disturbing, and I found that after that, even the strains of Mahler 1's first movement proved far too much for me to listen to. I returned the CD's to Eli almost completely unlistened.

(Last movement of Mahler 2)

It was only when I was well into high school that I first heard it complete. I remember that night very well. I had a lot of homework to do, and yet there was an Orchestre de Paris broadcast about to start, and Semyon Bychkov was conducting the Resurrection Symphony. As usual in contests like this, my studies lost. I knew my priorities.

And thus began an experience that could never possibly leave me. Very rarely in my life could I ever listen to music with that sort of concentration. Schoenberg once said that the first time he heard Mahler 2, he was 'seized with a violent throbbing of the heart.' I knew that feeling well because that was exactly what it felt like. As we get older, it's impossible to feel with the intensity of a fifteen year old anymore. And while in most moments that is an entirely welcome development, it can also make you nostalgic for the days that you believed in things so fervently that critical distance never seemed necessary. The entire experience was like what Virginia Woolf said about Dostoevsky's novels, "seething whirlpools, gyrating sandstorms, waterspouts which hiss and boil and suck us in. They are composed purely and wholly of the stuff of the soul. Against our wills we are drawn in, whirled round, blinded, suffocated, and at the same time filled with a giddy rapture."

(To this day, nothing screams adolescent angst to me like the first movement of Mahler 2)

As a child, there is no way to be prepared for an experience like this. You want to cry out for protection because your world is not supposed to be filled with things so disturbing. But as a teenager, you want nothing more than experience after experience that's exactly like what Mahler gives you. When you talk to people who love Mahler's music, it's amazing how often they tell you that it started with a blinding adolescent passion. Usually brought on by a performance by that eternal adolescent, Leonard Bernstein.

(When attempting to carve out a niche for myself as a jazz violinist in Israel I probably listened to this untold hundreds of times.)

Now I'm 27, and perhaps I feel younger than I have since graduating college. And for the first time in a number of years, I'm listening to the Resurrection Symphony with something like the old passion. As a listener, your ears can't help but change. The composer gives the data, but it's my brain that processes it. And for the last number of years, this work, or at least the last movement of it, has seemed rather silly. Almost dangerously so. Granted, I never wavered in my passion for the first movement, the Totenfeier, which is not only an apocalyptic 22-minute funeral march but also a compositional tour de force of sonata-allegro form on a scale that nobody before Mahler had ever reached. I was always charmed by the second movement, even though I usually fast forward through it when listening to the piece (whatever, like there aren't songs on your favorite albums that you don't skip). With or without its presence in the second symphony, Urlicht is a great song (lied) and Uri Caine ensured that I'd never stop listening to it. And I especially loved the scherzo, which is one of the funniest juxtapositions in Mahler. It's based on another song of Mahler's, "St. Anthony of Padua preaches to the fish." And yet these are some bizarrely Jewish sounding fish (Nova Salmon?). And yet right in the middle of all this Jewish music is a series of bombastic Christian interruptions. It's the preeminent conflict in Mahler's life, sprawled all over the score in full view of proto-Nazi critics in the press and in his orchestras who hated Mahler for polluting Holy German Art with Jüdische Musik (like the Nazi composer Franz Schmidt, who was Mahler's principal cellist at the Vienna Opera).

(Those very Jewish fish. The third movement of Mahler 2)
No, I was pretty cool with the first four movements of the symphony. But however transfixed they are by it, firstime listeners inevitably go home remembering the last movement, the blockbuster, the sonic pulverizer, the Mahlerdämmerung.

For almost forty minutes, the listener is bombarded with a series of images from the apocalypse. The music is too graphic to not be recognized as exactly that. The music roars, then retrats to almost absolute silence, then roars again. Fanfare after fanfare, march after march, with peaks higher and valleys lower than any music that ever came before, and perhaps any since. Like the last movement of Beethoven's 9th, it's not tied to any formal design. But unlike Beethoven's 9th, it doesn't seem to treat you as an adult with a message to entrust you. The music simply lays your senses on a rack and leaves you feeling as though you have fallen through fire and time to emerge from the experience purified and cleansed.

(The apocalypse itself. Then the rise of the chorus of saints - Mahler's own description of the chorus.)

Depending on whether the statement comes from the mouth of Churchill or the mouth of Stalin, Beethoven is either the most egalitarian or the most totalitarian composer who has ever lived. Mahler is scarcely behind him in this regard. There is so much in Mahler that seems democratic - his music is like an encyclopedia of every musical genre of 1900. Would that composers after him were half as all-embracing. But Mahler was as much the child of Wagner as he was of Mozart and Schumann. Listener's don't engage Mahler's music, they live it.

It's impossible for a sane person to listen to Mahler with the type of regularity that they can listen to Brahms and Schubert. Too much Mahler can easily frey the nerves and make you forget just how enjoyable life can be. Mahler's music can do anything except relax. As a man Mahler failed to come to terms with his inner torment, and as the most self-revealing of all composers his music reflects that as pellucidly as light in a mirror. The music so clearly made by a man enraged by life's refusal to meet his high standards that it speaks to the frustrated idealist in us all. But what Mahler can't do (for at least more than thirty seconds at a time) is settle with life's smaller pleasures. Mahler has all the the geniality and even the bittersweetness of Schubert and Schumann in his music, but he sets that against all the inherent bitterness of later composers who decided that the German middle-class dream of a heuse mit zwei point zwei kinder und a weisse picket fence muss nicht sein. Mahler's heart was obviously with Mozart and Schubert, but his head was with Wagner and Liszt. And he often seems so determined to see a Wagnerian Apocalypse in every positive sentiment that you could easily see an older Mahler welcoming the writings of a dumbass like Adorno with open arms. For all his sympathy with the popular music of his day, Mahler had extremely prudish attitudes about the sanctity of art. You could easily imagine him in our day being shown a television and stumbling on something on the Disney Channel only to say "That's So Raven! Dieses ist NICHT KUNST!"

(And just imagine what Schoenberg would have made of "That's So Raven.")

And yet...would that there were more people who had a little bit more Mahlerian an attitude today. We in the classical world can and should bend over backwards to embrace our brethren in the pop world for everything they are, but we can't bend over to embrace them for everything they're not. And what they're not is us. It is wonderful that we live in an age when musicians can make wonderful music that everyone knows in spite of not reading it or only knowing how to play three chords. But nobody should be forced to pretend that the music they make is of the same value as people who go to school for two decades to master their instrument. Maybe they're not even comparable, but entertainment will always be entertaining, but for it to be art, it takes skill that can only be acquired over a period of decades. The Beatles may have written songs as great as Schubert's, but neither Lennon nor McCartney repeated their best efforts hundreds of times over. Nor did either of them write deathless instrumental music (McCartney tried and it was an embarrassment). To do what Schubert did takes a highly delicate mixture of genius, proper training and ferocious self-discipline. There can be no doubt: the best of the pop world does create art that should be remembered as nothing less than art. But the greatest art is like a science. It takes hundreds of years to develop in a process of trial and error that has to factor in the accumulated knowledge of great predecessors. The very best of the American pop-music tradition: whether Dylan, or Ellington, or Sufjan Stevens, has obviously assimilated the knowledge of previous musicians and poets whose example can teach better than any classroom. But pretending anything less than that is art of any quality is a much worse kind of snobbery than any amount of gate keeping. At least the snobbery of the classical world, for all its flaws, has managed to preserve centuries of great music so that anyone who wants to may appreciate it today. The particular snobbery of the pop world that makes them hostile to classical music has only accomplished the feat of keeping music lovers from listening to hundreds of years of great music. The 'right now' approach of the pop world has made them forget thousands of great musicians even from their own culture the moment after they ceased to catch the prevailing wind. You tell me, which snobbery is worse?

Mahler is a hero of mine. But heroes are there to lead us by their example, not to be worshipped as incapable of wrong. No doubt, Mahler was not as egalitarian as he should have been. But he was working with a stacked deck, and anybody with the courage to move music to a more democratic model of composing in the shadow of Wagner's totalitarian fog should get a friggin' medal. The Resurrection Symphony will always be an assault on the senses that doesn't feel quite human even in the age of Ozzfest and Metalcore. But it comes by its assault honestly. After a good performance of the first four movements, you feel as though a punishing confrontation with the infinite is the only way to go. And the ending message is one of hope and cheer. It's not for nothing that Leonard Bernstein chose this work to conduct in the aftermath of the Kennedy assassination (or in Jerusalem after the Six Day War). Its ending message of survival and hope, that in the face of all the world's brutality we are still here and perhaps better people for having suffered as we did. So long as the 'perhaps' remains to qualify the statement, there's nothing offensive about the suggestion.

(Mahler wrote his own text for the final movement. The line "I shall die so as to live" never struck me as being either particularly hopeful or comprehensible. But the message of the music speaks for itself.)

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Mahler: His Time Has Come

by Leonard Bernstein

(Originally published in High Fidelity Magazine in 1967. Note: I do not have copyright on this essay, but I have seen it reprintedin full in other places on the internet. I only repost it because I find it incredibly useful when studying Mahler. And it seems all the more timely now that Mahler's Viennese world has come to more resemble our own American one in the last few years than ever before.)

(The third movement of the first symphony. No composer, particularly a German-speaking one, would ever have dared to pollute the holy rituals of the concert hall with Jewish music.)

Has come? Had come, rather; was there all along, even as each bar of each symphony was being penned in that special psychic fluid of his. If ever there was a composer of his time it was Mahler, prophetic only in the sense that he already knew what the world would come to know and admit half a century later.

Basically, of course, all of Mahler’s music is about Mahler – which means simply that it is about conflict. Think of it: Mahler the Creator vs. Mahler the Performer; the Jew vs. the Christian; the Believer vs. the Doubter; the Naïf vs. the Sophisticate; the provincial Bohemian vs. the Viennese homme du monde; the Faustian Philosopher vs. the Oriental Mystic the Operatic Symphonist who never wrote an opera. But mainly the battle rages between Western Man at the turn of the century and the life of the spirit. Out of this opposition proceeds the endless list of antitheses – the whole roster of Yang and Yin – that inhabit Mahler’s music.

(The world is dissolved in apocalypse and redeemed by love. This is the message of Mahler's second symphony. The Resurrection Symphony. Here is part of the last movement.)

What was this duple vision of Mahler’s? A vision of his world, crumbling in corruption beneath its smug surface, fulsome, hypocritical, prosperous, sure of its terrestrial immortality, yet bereft of its faith in spiritual immortality. The music is almost cruel in its revelations: it is like a camera that has caught Western society in the moment of its incipient decay. But to Mahler’s own audiences none of this was apparent: they refused (or were unable) to see themselves mirrored in these grotesque symphonies. They heard only exaggeration, extravagance, bombast, obsessive length – failing to recognize these as symptoms of their own decline and fall. They heard what seemed like the history of German-Austrian music, recapitulated in ironic or distorted terms – and they called it shameful eclecticism. They heard endless, brutal, maniacal marches – but failed to see the imperial insignia, the Swastika (make your own list) on the uniforms of the marchers. They heard mighty Chorales, overwhelming brass hymns – but failed to see them tottering at an abyss of tonal deterioration. They heard extended, romantic love songs – but failed to understand that these Liebesträume were nightmares, as were those mad, degenerate Ländler.

(What love tells me. The final, slow movement of the longest symphony in the standard repertoire. Mahler 3, more even than Mahler 2, is a religious experience in which the entire world summed up in a single piece of music.)

But what makes the heartbreaking duplicity is that all these anxiety-ridden images were set up alongside images of the life of the spirit, Mahler’s anima, which surrounds, permeates, and floodlights these cruel pictures with the tantalizing radiance of how life could be. The intense longing for serenity is inevitably coupled with the sinister doubt that it can be achieved. Obversely, the innate violence of the music, the excesses of sentiment, the arrogance of establishment, the vulgarity of power-postures, the disturbing rumble of status-non-quo are all the more agonizing for being linked with memories of innocence, with the aching nostalgia of youthful dreams, with aspirations towards the Empyrean, noble proclamations of redemption, or with the bittersweet tease of some Nirvana or other, just barely out of reach. It is thus a conflict between an intense love of life and a disgust with life, between a fierce longing for Himmel and the fear of death.

(Dancing with "Friend Death." The second movement of Mahler's fourth symphony.)

This dual vision of Mahler’s, which tore him apart all his life, is the vision we have finally come to perceive in his music. This is what Mahler meant when he said, “My time will come.” It is only after fifty, sixty, seventy years of world holocausts, of the simultaneous advance of democracy with our increasing inability to stop making war, of the simultaneous magnification of national pieties with intensification of our active resistance to social equality – only after we have experienced all this through the smoking ovens of Auschwitz, the frantically bombed jungles of Vietnam, through Hungary, Suez, the Bay of Pigs, the farce-trial of Sinyavsky and Daniel, the refueling of the Nazi machine, the murder in Dallas, the arrogance of South Africa, the Hiss-Chambers travesty, the Trotzkyite purges, Black Power, Red Guards, the Arab encirclement of Israel, the plague of McCarthyism, the Tweedledum armament race – only after all this can we finally listen to Mahler’s music and understand that it foretold all. And in the foretelling it showered a rain of beauty on this world that has not been equaled since.

(The Viennese Waltz on crack. The third movement of Mahler's fifth symphony.)

Now that the world of music has begun to understand the dualistic energy-source of Mahler’s music, the very key to its meaning, it is easier to understand this phenomenon in specific Mahlerian terms. For the doubleness of the music is the doubleness of the man. Mahler was split right down the middle, with the curious result that whatever quality is perceptible and definable in his music, the diametrically opposite quality is equally so. Of what other composer can this be said? Can we think of Beethoven as both roughhewn and epicene? Is Debussy both subtle and blatant? Mozart both refined and raw? Stravinsky both objective and maudlin? Unthinkable. But Mahler, uniquely, is all of these – roughhewn and epicene, subtle and blatant, refined, raw, objective, maudlin, brash, shy, grandiose, self-annihilating, confident, insecure, adjective, opposite, adjective, opposite.

(The 'blows of fate.' Mahler instructed for a special drum to be designed for the Sixth Symphony to punctuate its gigantic final movement three times like a gigantic exclamation point. Mahler was so superstitious that when, in quick succession, he lost his job as director of the Vienna Opera, his daughter to typhus, and his health to a heart ailment, he blamed the 'Hammerschlag' for his misfortune.)

The first spontaneous image that springs to my mind at the mention of the word “Mahler” is of a colossus straddling the magic dateline “1900.” There he stands, his left foot (closer to the heart!) firmly planted in the rich, beloved nineteenth century, and his right, rather less firmly, seeking solid ground in the twentieth. Some say he never found this foothold; others (and I agree with them) insist that twentieth-century music could not exist as we know it if that right foot had not landed there with a commanding thud. Whichever assessment is right, the image remains: he straddled. Along with Strauss, Sibelius and, yes, Schoenberg, Mahler sang the last rueful songs of nineteenth-century romanticism. But Strauss’s extraordinary gifts went the route of a not very subjective virtuosity; Sibelius and Schoenberg found their own extremely different but personal routes into the new century. Mahler was left straddling; his destiny was to sum up, package, and lay to ultimate rest the fantastic treasure that was German-Austrian music from Bach to Wagner.

("Like being trapped in a pinball machine" is how Bernstein protege Michael Tilson Thomas described conducting the last movement of Mahler's 7th Symphony with its kaleidescopic changes of mood.)

It was a terrible and dangerous heritage. Whether he saw himself as the last symphonist in the long line started by Mozart, or the last Heilige Deutsche Künstler in the line started by Bach, he was in the same rocky boat. To recapitulate the line, bring it to climax, show it all in one, soldered and smelted together by his own fires – this was a function assigned him by history and destiny, a function that meant years of ridicule, rejection, and bitterness.

(The Symphony of a Thousand was not Mahler's own slogan. It was P. T. Barnum's, who came up with it when Leopold Stokowski hired him to advertise for the American premiere of the work. It calls for an orchestra of 150, a double chorus of at least 400, a children's choruses, and a full complement of offstage brass. Sensational aspects aside, Mahler thought of it as his greatest and most important work. In his own words, the end of the symphony should sound as though the sun, the moon and the stars are resounding.)

But he had no choice, compulsive manic creature that he was. He took all (all!) the basic elements of German music, including the clichés, and drove them to their ultimate limits. He turned rests into shuddering silences; upbeats into volcanic preparations as for a death blow. Luftpausen became gasps of shock or terrified suspense; accents grew into titanic stresses to be achieved by every conceivable means, both sonic and tonic. Ritardandi were stretched into near-motionlessness; accelerandi became tornadoes; dynamics were refined and exaggerated to a point of neurasthenic sensibility. Mahler’s marches are like heart attacks, his chorales like all Christendom gone mad. The old conventional four-bar phrases are delineated in steel; his most traditional cadences bless like the moment of remission from pain. Mahler is German music multiplied by n.

(Das Lied von Der Erde. On hearing that he had a heart ailment that might be fatal, Mahler turned to eastern poetry for solace. The experience of the final moments of Das Lied are rather beyond my ability to describe.)

The result of all this exaggeration is, of course, that neurotic intensity which for so many years was rejected as unendurable, and in which we now find ourselves mirrored. And there are concomitant results: an irony almost too bitter to comprehend; excesses of sentimentality that still make some listeners wince; moments of utter despair, often the despair of not being able to drive all this material even further, into some kind of paramusic that might at last cleanse us. But we are cleansed, when all is said and done; no person of sensibility can come away from the Ninth Symphony without being exhausted and purified. And that is the triumphant result of all this purgatory, justifying all excesses: we do ultimately encounter an apocalyptic radiance, a glimmer of what peace must be like.

(In the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures at Harvard, Bernstein commented that final moments of Mahler's 9th symphony are like a literal evocation of the experience of dying.)

So much for the left foot: what of the right, tentatively scratching at the new soil of the twentieth century, testing it for solidity, fertility, roots? Yes, it was found fertile; there were roots there, but they had sprung frm the other side. All of Mahler’s testing, experiments, incursions were made in terms of the past. His breaking-up of rhythms, his post-Wagnerian stretching of tonality to its very snapping point (but not beyond it!), his probings into a new thinness of texture, into bare linear motion, into transparent chamber-music-like orchestral manipulation – all these adumbrated what was to become twentieth-century common practice; but they all emanated from those nineteenth-century notes he loved so well. Similarly, in his straining after new forms – a two-movement symphony (#8), a six-movement symphony (#3), symphonies with voices, not only in the Finales (#3, #8, Das Lied), movements which are interludes, interruptions, movements deliberately malformed through arbitrary abridgment or obsessive repetition or fragmentation – all these attempts at new formal structures abide in the shadow of Beethoven’s Ninth, the last Sonatas and string quartets. Even the angular melodic motions, the unexpected intervals, the infinitely wide skips, the search for “endless” melody, the harmonic ambiguities – all of which have deeply influenced many a twentieth-century composer – are nevertheless ultimately traceable back to Beethoven and Wagner.

(Mahler never lived to finish his tenth symphony. It's produced puzzles for a century of musicians who wondered where Mahler was going with it. Certainly this is closer to the world of Schoenberg and atonality than anything before it, but it's still unmistakeably Mahler.)

I think that this is probably why I doubt that I shall ever come to terms with the so-called Tenth Symphony. I have never been convinced of those rhythmic experiments in the Scherzo, of the flirtation with atonality. I often wonder what would have happened had Mahler not died so young. Would he have finished that Tenth Symphony, more or less as the current “versions” have it? Would he have scrapped it? Were there signs there that he was about to go over the hill, and encamp with Schoenberg? It is one of the more fascinating Ifs of history. Somehow I think he was unable to live through that crisis, because there was no solution for him; he had to die with that symphony unfinished. After all, a man’s destiny is nothing more or less than precisely what happened to him in life. Mahler’s destiny was to complete the great German symphonic line and then depart, without it being granted him to start a new one. This may be clear to us now; but for Mahler, while he lived, his destiny was anything but clear. In his own mind he was at least as much part of the new century as of the old. He was a tormented, divided man, with his eyes on the future and his heart in the past.

(Let Lenny have the last word.)

But his destiny did permit him to bestow much beauty, and to occupy a unique place in musical history. In this position of Amen-sayer to symphonic music, through exaggeration and distortion, through squeezing the last drops of juice out of that glorious fruit, through his desperate and insistent reexamination and reevaluation of his materials, through pushing tonal music to its uttermost boundaries, Mahler was granted the honor of having the last word, uttering the final sigh, letting fall the last living tear, saying the final good-by. To what? To life as he knew it and wanted to remember it, to unspoiled nature, to faith in redemption; but also to music as he knew it and remembered it, to the unspiled nature of tonal beauty, to faith in its future – good-by to all that. The last C major chord of Das Lied von der Erde was for him the last resolution of all Faustian history. For him?

Originally Published in High Fidelity April 1967

(Elizabeth Soderstrom sings Kat'a Kabanova. This opera about a tragic love affair gone awry in provincial Moravia is one of the most famous roles in the repertoire, and no singer of the 20th century was greater in it than Elisabeth Soderstrom. Sung here in the 1976 Decca recording with Charles Mackerras conducting the Vienna Philharmonic that finally alerted the world to the treasure trove of still unknown masterpieces by this incredible composer.)

(Elizabeth Soderstrom, one of the greatest opera singers of all-time, sings Leonore, disguised as a boy named Fidelio in a Spanish jail so that she can keep watch over her husband who sits languishing in its darkest cell as a political prisoner. Thus is the basic plot of Beethoven's only opera, Fidelio. One of the most beautiful moments in all opera is 'Mir Ist So Wunderbar' in which four of the main characters extrapolate on their feelings about Fidelio.)

Fucked Up Moments in Opera #3: Tosca by Puccini

I'll never forget the experience of seeing Tosca at the MET. Tosca is one of the great operas of all-time, but it has all the subtlety of an eight-year-old with a squirt gun. When the villain Scarpia entered for the first time, the orchestra suddenly let out four enormous dissonant chords. I leaned over to my friend and whispered to her "I think he's the villain..."

Scarpia is the chief of Napoleon's Secret Police in Rome, and he is opera's most larger-than-life character since Don Giovanni. Scarpia uses his position to achieve two goals: to terrorize the populace of Rome, and to sleep with every beautiful woman in this sexiest of world cities. The music that follows him when he enters the stage inspires not only terror but also that this is a supremely charismatic man in love with the hatred that he inspires.

So when he comes to the Church of San Andrea Della Vallea to arrest the painter Mario Cavaradossi, he is not only doing it because Cavaradossi is an avowed republican, but also because Cavaradossi has the best-looking girlfriend in town - the actress Floria Tosca. And simultaneous to the Te Deum service, Scarpia sings about how he will arrest and murder Cavaradossi, and use his position to extract favors from Tosca through false promises to have Cavaradossi released. All ending with the famous line "Tosca, you make me forget my god." After that line, my friend leaned over to me and whispered "Wow, he's eeeeeevil!"

No offense to Ruggiero Raimondi, who is one of the great Scarpias. But the clip from below is even better, albeit with no translation. This is the all-time champion Scarpia, Tito Gobbi, singing the same piece. Only in this version, Gobbi knows the real secret, which is that Scarpia is not just a slimy dignitary, he's a Mephistophelean figure who gets off on affronting God. Raimondi is great, Gobbi is unforgettable. Don't skip the first few minutes either, even if you don't know French (mine certainly isn't good enough to understand everything being said here). It shows just how dramatically Gobbi transforms himself into character.

He Said It, Not Me

John Adams said it, and with it he might have dropped both Little Boy and Fat Man into modern discourse, and nobody can take it back now. He says that our nation's anti-intellectual hostility to high culture, and with that the glorification pop culture, is 'puritanical' and redolent of 'religious zealots.' After decades of being grouped as a repressed and uptight stuffed shirt for liking classical music and all the accompanying high culture, it really is nice to occasionally have a spokesman capable of showing that we arty-farty types make life more interesting, more enjoyable, and more downright fun than you'd ever find it without us.

...Just sayin'.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Fucked Up Moments In Opera #2: Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk

A brief example of why Dimitri Shostakovich is the greatest composer of the 20th century. I don't even think I need to say anything about this. Credit here must go to the wonderful Antonio Pappano and the Royal Opera House Orchestra of Covent Garden for getting this moment to sound so wonderfully graphic. Perhaps the staging lags behind the music in getting every one of these incredible effects to match visually, but it's certainly not a bad shot either.

Animaniacs: Ballad of Magellan

Fucked Up Moments In Opera #1: Salome by Richard Strauss

Salome, stepdaughter of Herod, recently did the Dance of the Seven Veils for her stepfather, which depending on the fitness of the star generally makes many in the audiences pray to God for something or nothing to be under the Seventh Veil. Many sopranos have in fact opted to have nothing under and pictures from the opera house have found their way around the internet.

As a reward for her dancing, Herod grants her one wish in which she may ask of him anything she wants. Salome had recently begun to lust after Herod's prize prisoner, John the Baptist. But the Baptist rebuffs her advances by calling her the 'Accursed Whore of Babylon.' And so Salome replies that she wants the severed head of John the Baptist, to which Herod complies and has brought to her on a silver platter. Salome proceeds to get it on with the severed head in full view of the Judean court. Herod is so disgusted by the sight that he orders her killed immediately. And thus ends what is still one of the most fucked up scenes in the history of art.

Theresa Stratas sings the titular role (extraordinarily well) and is accompanied by the Vienna Philharmonic and master Straussian Karl Bohm.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Robert Byrd Plays the Fiddle.

Johnny Mercer's centenary took precedence. But Robert Byrd became the longest serving member of congress in history yesterday. I guess even KKK recruiters can be celebrated occasionally, if ironically. So here's Robert Byrd playing the fiddle, as bizarre as it is surprising: it's clear he mastered Robert's Rules more fluently, but he's surprisingly on the competent end of terrible. c/o DeAngelo.

100 yrs Johnny Mercer

I didn't know I knew this much about Johnny Mercer either...

It was the centennary of Johnny Mercer yesterday. It would have completely passed me by had I not caught a celebration of it from Terry Gross while I was in the car.

God knows I'm waiting for the right day to do an arrangement of One For My Baby. Meaning in Mercer's songs will always be elusive. When Dean Martin did One For My Baby, it was as insipid as American Pop Culture ever gets. When Frank Sinatra does it, it is the saddest possible form of magic. Indeed, there was something about the Mercer/Arlen songs that spurred Sinatra to places that no contemporary of his ever went. He was more vulnerable, more raw, and more heartbreaking than any mere crooner could ever be.

There was something about Sinatra, somewhere in his delivery, that made him the ideal vehicle for Great American Songs. Other candidates you say? Well look at Sinatra in one of the great Johnny Mercer songs and compare him to a few others. Just listen to him do Autumn Leaves and take my word for it about everybody else.

Let's not kid ourselves. This isn't Mercer at his best. It's a sappy sentimental lyric only remembered for a downwardly arching melody that imitates the experience of lovesick depression perfectly. The music is what makes this song work. Many singing giants of the Postwar Era covered it, and a few non-singing giants as well. Yves Montand delivers the original French lyrics a sort of ironic distance as though he were winking at us that he couldn't possibly believe a word of it. Edith Piaf, ever the force of nature, seemed to throw herself headlong into the song as though she were trying to convince herself that the sort of romantic love associated with so many of the ballads she sang really exists. Nat King Cole sings it like a sort of confidence man, trying to sell you a heartbreak he doesn't really believe in. And then there's Sinatra, who is the only singer who makes this song worth listening to (for me at least). He plays the triteness of the imagery for all its worth, lingering on every phrase with weepy strings swelling right underneath him. And yet it is the very triteness of it that makes it work. Sinatra never strains to convey things the way Piaf did. Instead it is understated - like a reluctant confession.

In the age between opera and rock, the evolution of the popular song into the form as we now know was one of the great musical happenings of the 20th century. The music of Gershwin, Jerome Kern, Harold Arlen, Richard Rogers, Irving Berlin (make your own list) is as much in our bloodstream as Schubert is Viennese and Faure is Parisian. That weird artistic neither-region between absolute music and absolute poetry is always where the genius of hard-working professionals flowers. They were always too wrapped up in what they were doing to worry about whether or not it was brilliant. Their songs never impress or draw attention to themselves. They just do their job, and that job is to move the listener.

And no singer in recorded history was better at carrying out that intention than Sinatra. He wasn't the first singer to realize the potential the microphone gave to phrase everything in a completely different way - that would be Louis Armstrong. But Satchmo, great as he is, always sounds like himself. Frank Sinatra sounds like what every American man hopes his singing sounds like when nobody's there to critique it. So often when Sinatra sang, it was like a kind of confession. Before the age of the microphone, singers had to project to their audience with only their voices. During these years, there was no such thing as a vocal performance that was not larger-than-life. Opera succeeded so wildly for 300 years because it gave that larger-than-life style a suitable platform.

But what the microphone did was to give us singers that can sing our favorite songs the way we sing to an audience of a few friends, or even when we're alone. In front of the mike, all you have to do is be yourself, and the mike will project everything that makes you unique. And so for the first time in history, great performers could sing to an audience of thousands and sound every bit as personal as it would be to hear a friend who sings to an audience of ten.

(Thomas Mann had a bit of an obsession with this song. Der Lindenbaum by Schubert. Today Thomas Quasthoff can fill an enormous concert hall to sing it. But a hundred years ago it would more likely have been heard in the confines of a private drawing room, with a pianist who played scores of wrong notes and a singer who might have sounded as bad as untraditionally classical as Bob Dylan. And yet in such settings, Schubert seemed to move people more forcefully than ever.)

And in that way, the three minute song has not changed. Beethoven and Wagner always did the job of stunning the listener (and still do), but it was to Schubert, Schumann, Brahms and Hugo Wolf that Germans turned to in their most personal moments. We now gather late at night in front of the i-pod (often fueled by alcohol) and play for one another our most favorite songs in the hope that someone else can appreciate it as much as we do. A hundred years ago, the alcohol would be the same but the it would be the piano we'd gather around with reams of sheet music. And we'd read through it with the same hope of mutual understanding.

But unlike in the 19th century, the heyday of the composer, it is the lyrics that we ultimately remember. Schubert made reams of great songs out of Goethe, and songs just as great out of poets that even academics don't read anymore. But when you recall the Great American Songs, what do you recall first? The music, or the lyrics?

Inseparable you say? Perhaps. But think of Moon River. Maybe as great a lyric as America ever has had, and how was it done? What is it about? It's a wonderful melody, but it's workaday enough that three years later Henry Mancini would reuse the first three notes (the hook) of it for the opening motif of "Goldfinger." In the context of Audrey Hepburn singing it in Breakfast at Tiffany's, it's straightforward enough: The shock of a lonely party girl at her first exposure to the excitement life may soon have in store for her. "Two drifters off to see the world; There's such a lot of world to see." is a justifiably famous line. But the lyrics are so open-ended that they can mean anything at all we say they mean. It can convey heart-fluttering excitement, but who says it has to be something positive? The song became perhaps even more devastatingly effective when Pedro Almodovar used it in his film Bad Education, in which a boy sang the song right before he was molested. In a context like that, how can one view the line "you heart breaker, Wherever you're goin', I'm goin' your way." with anything but horror?

Or think of "I'm Old-Fashioned." When Rita Hayworth sang it to Fred Astaire in "You Were Never Lovelier", it was exactly what it seemed. Fred Astaire, the original Wall-E, ever the romantic optimist on the edge of forlorn, trying to woo ever-so-bitchy Rita Hayworth. And then she opens up with this song and confesses her belief in the sort of deathless romance that never exists outside of Fred Astaire movies. Fast-forward forty-five years to Woody Allen's Hannah and Her Sisters. Dianne Wiest plays the coke-addicted black sheep in a family of theatrical royalty. Never having had any acting talent, she tries to rebel only to find herself continually trying out for parts she has no hope of obtaining. But she steels herself for an audition and sings the exact same song Rita Hayworth sang with a voice that can only be described as pitiful. As she sings the song (she doesn't get through much) you can feel her note-by-note clamming herself up in anticipation of her inevitable rejection. Again, who remembers the melody? Does it even matter when put next to lines that virtually everybody quotes without realizing?

In different contexts, these songs can convey anything. They are completely value-neutral, with every interpreter supplying their own context. These songs can be used for two-dimensional entertainments to take them at face value, yet they practically beg great artists to stand their meanings on their heads. The melodies are endlessly malleable. There isn't a single song from the Great American Songbook that wasn't indispensable to bebop musicians like Bird, Coltrane and Blakey, who used the simplicity of these old standards as a lynchpin on which they could stretch their musical material past recognition. But if you change one word of a song by Johnny Mercer, or Oscar Hammerstein, or Ira Gershwin, or Lorenz Hart the meaning of the song becomes unrecognizable. They are what make the old standards unique.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Frank Zappa on Make Me Laugh

c/o Fersko.

John Williams Medley - 1 man a capella

The Ghost of Gustav Holst will haunt you until you admit John Williams is a blatant ripoff.

That being said, this is entirely too fantastic for a John Williams medley.

....and many thanks to Gary Thobaben for the free publicity.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Romania Romania

Oy. If only there were a way to figure out how to arrange this for chorus. And nobody would notice this but me.....but the writer of this had to have based this on the one famous piece of classical music to ever come out of Romania.

conducted with lots of toches by the great Sergiu Celibidache. Go to 5:15 to see where it really starts to get similar.

Romania is on the cusp of the Balkan region, and the Balkans are fairly unique in Europe for being the only region of the continent that never produced more than its share of great composers. The reasons for this are more obvious than would ever meet the ear. The Balkans have an incredible oral musical tradition that pre-dates classical music (and may post-date it as well). It is, in so many ways, the tradition out of which classical music sprang. The debt was in no way acknowledged until the arrival of Bela Bartok and many still wish it were not so. But classical music is hitting the 'crunch time' in which it has to settle all its old accounts or it is in danger of disappearing. When the time soon comes to fuse classical with more popular forms, Eastern European Folk will continue to be the first in line.

And just in case anybody needs any help remembering just how awesome the music of the Balkans is.

Monday, November 16, 2009

James Brown plastered

Probably 100 videos just like this all around youtube.

Greatest Youtube Video Ever

Yes. It's time for it. I'm just that lazy right now that I have to resort to the single greatest youtube video of all time. Those who do not get why it is can join another chorus.

Joke for Hard-Core Choral Nerds

A singer dies, goes to heaven, and asks permission to sing in the heavenly choir. An angel ushers him into the choir rehearsal room, and he notices a famous blue cardigan sweater draped over the conductor's chair. The singer is stunned. "Does that mean what I think it means? You guys are so lucky!" The angel rolls his eyes. "No, that's God's sweater. He only thinks he's Robert Shaw."

c/o Fredosphere, world's best choral director blog.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Debussy plays Debussy

(Debussy plays Golliwog's Cakewalk in 1913.)

An awe-inspiring document, in incredible sound. What does it tell us? Nothing for certain, but it's a safe bet that the popular image of Debussy as a maker of a 'piano without hammers' isn't quite the whole truth. Debussy plays the loud sections with Lisztian brio, and even the small sections don't conform to the popular and slightly condescending image of Debussy as a French composer of hyper-perfumed music that does little but shimmer.

(Pierre Boulez conducts the massively exciting central section of Fetes from Debussy's Nocturnes for Orchestra. WTF is with the Hunter Thompson sunglasses?!?)

Pierre Boulez is generally a name to be yawned at, but no musician ever did more to establish Debussy as a great composer rather than a great colorist. Debussy seems to be the only composer Boulez never had an unkind word for, and Boulez seems to conduct his music with a naturalness and affection that he rarely drums up for any other composer. More than the color, Boulez revealed what every musician should respond to: Debussy was complete package of all the elegant things to which every French artist seems to aspire: (quoth Sondheim) order, design, tension, composition, balance, light, harmony. It's debatable whether Debussy was the greatest French composer, but what is not debatable is that Debussy was the most French.

(The hammerless pianist. Walter Gieseking plays Debussy's The Sunken Cathedral in the watery way that most of the world thinks of him. Probably very far from what Debussy actually had in mind, but great pianism nonetheless.)

French music had a comparatively dreadful 19th century. Virtually every European country to their east produced great composers in droves, yet this extremely musical nation produced it at a trickle: feting all sorts of great foreign composers but sending Berlioz abroad for recognition, sending Bizet to an early grave, forcing Franck and Faure to toil in obscurity until their dotages, and refusing to acknowledge Debussy or Ravel's genius for decades. The reasons behind this were manifold and complex, but in a sense they can be boiled down to two words: Saint-Saens.

(One of my least favorite pieces of music in the world. The Organ Symphony by Saint-Saens. Listening to it conducted by the great Charles Munch makes it almost tolerable.)

Camille Saint-Saens was the great white hope of French music from the cradle to the grave. He was polymath active in a dozen different fields, but made his home in music, which he played and composed with greater facility than any other composer in the generation after Mendelssohn. But his impeccably crafted music abolished any originality and he held his contemporaries to the same rigid standards. At the beginning of Saint-Saens's career, Berlioz lamented "Saint-Saens knows everything, but he lacks inexperience." At the end of his career, he left the Theatre du Champs-Élysées after the first six notes of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, shouting on his way out that Stravinsky misused the bassoon.

(Would that all his music sounded like the Carnival of the Animals.)

Saint-Saens wanted French music to be like German music, without its ability to grip and challenge. He spent his career crafting perfect neo-Beethoven and neo-Mozart. Aping their structures, aping their harmonies, but filtering both of their originality.

(The ecstatic piece that changed everything. The second half of Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun. The here 90-year-old Leopold Stokowski was definitely of the Debussy the colorist school. But my god...this is the X-rated version.)

A generation afterward, Debussy came along and stripped classical music of all its German contraptions. Gone was the endless repetition, the compulsive restatements of small motifs in every possible pattern, the cud-chewing cliches of development, and the melodramatic bombast. With Debussy, not a single note seemed wasted, construction was so perfect that each note seemed to stand on its own as an equal contributor, every one as important as the one before and the one after.

(Let no one say that Debussy was incapable of writing dramatic music. The last movement of La Mer. Done by Charles Munch and the Boston Symphony in 1962. Has there ever been a greater conductor of French music?)

Debussy hated being called an impressionist, and if you listen closely, you can see why. His music isn't just a melangic wash of color, his music is made of contours so perfectly balanced that the color seems all the more vivid. Like Mozart and Chopin before him (his two great idols), he's often accused of being a constructor of 'sissy music.' All three are routinely accused of writing musical china dolls that are incapable of expressing anything that isn't pretty. So much the loss of the people who actually believe that. But what they really express is musical greatness. The battle scars are not proudly displayed but concealed just beneath the surface, devastating anybody who can listen closely to find them.

(Messiaen teaching his students about Debussy's opera: Pelleas et Melisande. Who would ever leave a classroom with a teacher like that?)

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Barber of Seville in Hand-Whistling

How is it always the weird guys with the enormous beards that learn useless things like this (says the choral conductor who used to have a six inch beard)?

Toscanini mangia l'orchestra - that's the title of this video

It makes for somewhat hilarious listening now, doesn't it? All that screaming and yelling like a coddled child too exhausted to realize how tired he is. It's like hearing about Khrushchev's shoe-banging at the UN or his tantrum when he found out he couldn't visit Disney World. You feel like you want to find a guinea pig that looks like him and pet it every so often.

But then it occurs to you that there but the grace of 'god' go you to a clownish boss like them to whom your livelihood, perhaps your life itself, depends. And only then do you begin to understand what a black joke it is. It's difficult to realize now, but until 1933 Adolf Hitler was the most hilarious punchline in international politics. Kim Jong-il is a punchline that never fails at a Washington party, yet it's all to easy to forget that the ability to laugh at people like him is still not a fundamental right for billions.

Mussolini made the trains run on time, Toscanini rid orchestras of sloppiness and exaggeration. In real life they were mortal enemies and Toscanini was one of the world's most famous anti-fascists. But what is not often realized is that they arrived at the pinnacle of their professions as close collaborators. It was only when Mussolini began to interfere in Toscanini's artistic decisions that Toscanini fled to America, a country that gave him the freedom to terrorize musicians in whatever way he saw fit.

It's ironic that the era of the podium tyrant reached its apogee in mid-century America. Serge Koussevitsky refused to let the Boston Symphony unionize for the duration of his tenure, and was shocked when musicians protested his proposal to have the entire orchestra live in the same apartment co-op with a special bell that he would ring a half-hour before he wanted to schedule a rehearsal. Artur Rodinski would arrive at New York Philharmonic rehearsals with a loaded pistol in his back pocket. George Szell would routinely fire musicians in the Cleveland Orchestra for mistakes in the middle of rehearsal. Fritz Reiner would force individual musicians in the Chicago Symphony to repeat the same difficult passages a dozen times over until they'd trip up and he could fire them publicly. And this was allegedly the Golden Age of American Classical Music.

But let's be honest here. What present-day conductor hasn't listened to the Toscanini tantrums without a twinge of envy? Hell, what conductor hasn't fantasized about taking sloppy players into the green room with a loaded pistol? Musicians are widely known as flaky inconsiderate people on their best days, and the reputation is not entirely undeserved. A conductor should never mount a rostrum without being prepared to see their musicians in the worst possible light.

But pity the poor conductor. The mentality of musicians to conductors will always be guilty until proven innocent. A conductor is like a boss who not only watches your every move but also has the responsibility to correct your mistakes in front of all your co-workers. If a conductor wants to succeed, power must be displayed without exerting it. Through a mixture of competence, psychological manipulation and insight, he must earn the players' confidence and may only get cross if he lists justifiable reasons right in the middle of losing his temper. To all the musicians who play under him, his mentality must be innocent until proven guilty. It is now the 21st century, and the age of the podium tyrant must be brought to a close.

For the legacy of Toscanini sadly lasts to this day in all too obvious ways. And any musician to ever play under a stressed-out conductor is quite likely to have seen it in practice. In the fifteen years I've played under conductors I watched a number of them reduce individual musicians to tears after the eighth repetition of the same passage. I've seen a conductor single out a fifteen-year-old violist in an orchestra of eighty at the top of his lungs for crossing her legs in the middle of rehearsal. I endured a conductor who promised to fire musicians at the third rehearsal of twelve if he found anyone better. I even went through one conductor who successfully coerced me into military style workouts for being late to rehearsal (I assure you it didn't sound that weird at the time). I'm sure that others have seen far worse than I did, and the truth was that I generally got on swimmingly with every one of them. They were all fine musicians and quite nice people away from the podium, always happy to oblige a curious music student. Toscanini was said by many to be quite a nice man away from the podium too. But his legacy is that decent people feel unencumbered by the rules of decency when given positions of power.

If you are a musician who plays under a conductor, please try to understand that your conductor is charged with a task that by definition cannot be fulfilled, and it will sometimes make him quite stressed. But if your conductor is singling you out for unfair treatment then you owe it to yourself to leave. Once upon a time, behaviors like the ones you're subjected to were used to justify far worse things than a wrong note. A field like classical music that has so many stains from collaboration with authoritarian regimes cannot allow for authoritarian practices to continue.