Sunday, August 7, 2011

800 Words: 30 Days of Classical Music Challenge - A More Considered Answer (part 1 of 4)

1) A work that musically defines you. - 2 works: The Marriage of Figaro/Don Giovanni

The Marriage of Figaro is everything opera should be. It's a comedy that makes you laugh. It's also a sad consideration of ordinary people's resentments, limitations and their deepest fears. There are ten principle characters, none of whom obscures the others. It is a piece of work in which each character evolves at light speed. At the end, we see no one above blame, yet no one is to be blamed. The subject of The Marriage of Figaro is life itself, a condition that is impossible without forgiveness. Just as Don Giovanni is a tragedy that never stops reminding you how wonderful life can be, The Marriage of Figaro is a comedy that never stops reminding you of its bitterness.

On the surface, Don Giovanni is as misanthropic and morbid as The Marriage of Figaro is life-affirming. We might hate everything about the protagonist, yet beneath the surface, we must all admit that he's everything we want to be. All those around him suffer for his presence in their lives. They curse him and wish him badly, yet none would have found themselves so the worse were they not attracted to everything about him. Don Giovanni doesn’t just seduce bodies, he seduces minds. Therefore, Don Giovanni should remind us of every sociopath we’ve ever met. The person who promises unattainable things, manipulates you into acts you never thought yourself capable - and all for nothing but his pleasure. In allowing ourselves to be taken for a ride, we see our own desires for a better, more exciting life reflected back through Don Giovanni. There has never been a tragedy that reminds us more about everything that's wonderful about life.

So many people complain that all Mozart sounds the same; that the limitations of the period constricted Mozart. To these people, Mozart can never express emotion with the eloquence of later composers. But to look for personal expression of the type we find in Beethoven and Shostakovich would be to limit what Mozart is capable of expressing. The singular greatness of Mozart music lies in its ability to express all emotions simultaneously. We don't know whether or not Mozart empathizes with or mocks his characters. The music seems to indicate that he does both, simultaneously. This is the kind of multi-dimensional expression that we only find in the very greatest masters. We have no idea whether Shakespeare thinks Hamlet is crazy. We don't know if Tolstoy meant Anna Karenina to be sympathetic. We don't know if Rembrandt meant his self-portraits to be unflattering. We have no idea if Jean Renoir loved or hated the party in The Rules of the Game. And we have no idea if Homer Simpson is supposed to be a good guy at heart. This is what the greatest art does, rather than provide answers as to what life is, it merely asks the question and lets us draw our own conclusion.

2) Your very first classical music memory: The Academic Festival Overture

I have no idea how I heard who Leonard Bernstein was. All I know is that he was my hero even from the time of my first memories. As a child, my parents would drop me off at my grandparents’ house every Saturday night while they tried to have some semblance of a social life while raising children. I was three years old and, without knowing why, I was utterly spellbound by watching Leonard Bernstein unravel the mysteries of Brahms and Tchaikovsky. But what I remember best about it was Brahms’s Academic Festival Overture, which was more exciting than anything my three year old mind could comprehend. I don’t know if I understood a word of what Lenny said, and I certainly don’t remember any of it. But even then, I was in love with the music. When the fourth week came along and Leonard Bernstein was not on television, I screamed and tantrumed like the three-year-old I was.

Shortly thereafter, my parents bought me a cassette of Bruno Walter and the CBS Symphony performing the Academic Festival Orchestra along with Brahms’s Third Symphony. And thereafter, every day of my childhood included my routine in conducting our den rug in a blazing performance of the Academic Festival Overture (with a straw, in case you were curious). Twenty-five years later, I realize that one couldn’t possibly have a better introduction to Brahms than a recording from Bruno Walter. To this day, Brahms is probably my favorite composer.

3) Last classical music work you’ve seen in a live performance. - Britten's Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra by the Baltimore Symphony

It wasn’t a very good performance. But by the end I teared up all the same. This is another work that I committed to memory by the time I was five or six. And here was the Baltimore Symphony, the orchestra of my youth and whose every face I’ve watched grow older since I was four, playing a piece from the soundtrack of my childhood.

I unfortunately had to leave at intermission before Manny Ax’s performance of Brahms’s First Piano Concerto. The reason was because I had to conduct a performance of my own. The fact that I get the privilege of conducting, however little I do it or small the group, never ceases to amaze me.

4) Your favorite orchestral work. - Mahler Symphony no. 3

If Brahms is my favorite composer, then Mahler is #2. And his Third Symphony is the great, grand summation of 19th century music. Mahler once said ‘A Symphony must be like the world. It must embrace everything.” And the very peaks and valleys of creation resound in this 100 minute monsterpiece. There is not a single human emotion missing - everything from the highest awe to the lowest vulgarity, the highest joy to the lowest agony, is here. This is the young Mahler, before he acquired the gloomy fatalism of his later work. Rather dwell in an obsession with death, the young Gustav Mahler seemed obsessed with life. And in his greatest symphonies: the 1st, 3rd, 4th, 5th and 7th, nothing about life was alien to him.

5) Your favorite conductor. - (tie)Leonard Bernstein/Rafael Kubelik

Nobody could supplant Leonard Bernstein in my heart. There has never been a musician more committed to reaching the listener by any means necessary. If a conductor is merely a figurehead who corrects wrong notes and makes the orchestra play with precision, he is worthless. Given today’s professional standards, any of the world’s third-rate orchestras could give a competent performance without a conductor - and there are thousands of third-rate orchestras. The purpose of having a conductor is to have a leader who inspires; who makes devotees out of inexperienced listeners with the enthusiasm he inspires in his players, and who equally impresses experienced music-lovers with the greatness of his conceptions in music they know from memory. No conductor, whether through music or with words or with deeds, better embodies everything a conductor is supposed to be. Lenny was not just a truly great conductor, he was also a composer, teacher, writer, pianist and all-around communicative musician who brought greatness to every aspect of his calling.

But..........if we were to take this question purely on musical terms. I have to confess a slight preference for Rafael Kubelik. This is not to say that Lenny was anything but one of the great interpreters of music there has ever been. But Kubelik is even better. In my experience, nobody who has ever wrung so much expression, so much detail, or so much inspiration out of so much music. Regardless of nationality, era or size, there is no conductor who has more access to the composer’s private hotline than this disheveled-looking Czech with no discernible stage presence and a barely discernible conducting technique.

6) Your favorite orchestra. - (tie) Staatskapelle Dresden/Boston Symphony/Leningrad Philharmonic

Perhaps the toughest question on this list. The truth is that to most music-lovers, all orchestras will sound alike, even great ones. It’s hard enough to learn how appreciate the qualities of the music, let alone appreciate how the musicians play it. What makes this question still harder is that compared to a century ago, all orchestras do sound alike. The recording has globalized music making. In nineteenth century Germany, a person of means could go from town to town and hear 20 performances of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony over the span of a year - each of which sound entirely different.

But gone are the days when the make of woodwind instruments differs from town to town. Gone are the days when conductors would have to create their interpretation straight from the score rather than listen to a recording. Gone are the days when it was expected that classical musicians would bring the same emotional commitment to music making as any great rock band. In place of emotional involvement has descended an antiseptic, dessicated philosophy of perfection. A true musician who plays with feeling but flubs notes would never get into music school. Today’s classical musician is coerced from cradle to grave into playing all the notes correctly. Whether the listener gets a raw, emotional experience is of no consequence. The result is that classical music exists today as a cultural backwater, while intelligent music lovers look to other genres for the raw experience which all musicmaking should provide.

But there are still some orchestras which have preserved the old ways. Of the orchestras whose playing I love, I’ll pick three favorites.

Firstly, the Boston Symphony - which I will always think of as America’s greatest orchestra. I do not have the secret to the BSO sound, and I’m not sure they do either. But since the dawn of the recorded era, there has always a special sheen to their music-making. Except to say that it’s beautiful, their sound is impossible to describe. Yet even when tuning into the radio, it’s impossible to mistaken the BSO for any other orchestra. They’ve maintained this sound for at least eighty years, through fat and fallow periods. For me, their sound is one of the most purely beautiful things in the world, and it is the perfect orchestra for French music, for which beauty is everything.

Another orchestra impossible to mistaken is the Staatskapelle Dresden - the world’s oldest orchestra and the favorite orchestra of Richard Strauss, Richard Wagner and Ludwig van Beethoven. I would be no more capable of describing the Dresden Sound than I would the Boston Sound. Fortunately, some critic once described their sound as ‘Old Gold,’ which captures it perfectly. A dark sound, weighty but mellow, that is perfect for the profundities of German music.

Finally, I couldn’t possibly leave out the most individual sounding orchestra in the world - The St. Petersburg Philharmonic. If ever there was a sound that is the exact opposite of Old Gold, it’s the virtuoso wall of sound which this greatest of Russian orchestras produces. The great Russian conductor, Yevgeny Mravinsky, honed this orchestra for 50 years and created one of the rawest, most expressively emotional instruments of the 20th century - perfect for the flashy emotionalism of Russian music.

7) A guilty pleasure. - John Williams

I admit it, I love John Williams (you have no idea how hard this admission is...). His music may not stand very well on its own. But watch these clips from ET above and below. The second clip is in Spanish. But even if you don’t speak Spanish, that doesn’t matter at all since there is barely any talking in either clip. The secrets to how well ET works is great camerawork, excellent editing and John Williams’s music. Together, these three elements create one of the most extraordinary sequences ever put to film. Case closed.

8) Your favorite opera. - Verdi - Otello/Falstaff

Verdi was a melodist and dramatist of genius. He could write a melody as easily as we eat lunch. He could inject a scene with enough drama to leave the audience feel as though run over by a Mac truck. But when it came to craftsmanship, his genius deserted him. The search for an opera’s proper pacing took him half a century. The twenty-four operas before Otello are full of fantastic melodies, memorable scenes, and moments to make you wish opera had a fast-forward button.

But at the age of seventy-four, Verdi nailed it. Otello is the most perfect operatic tragedy there has ever been - far better paced than the Shakespeare original. A great performance of Otello is like a black hole which sucks us in and spits us out a different person. Not even Shakespeare could not make us feel the horror to which Verdi subjects us.

But greater still is Falstaff, Verdi’s final opera. Verdi wrote twenty-six operas, twenty-four of which are tragedies. At the age of seventy-nine, he set upon a completely new path. If Otello is an image of perfection, then Falstaff is pure imagination. The elderly Verdi had mastered his craft and shaped music to his designs like silly putty - the way Mozart or Haydn would. And the sheer barrage of those original designs is staggering. But what’s most amazing is that gloomy Verdi, composer of such laugh riots as Don Carlo and Simon Boccanegra, could also write with all the lightness and bellylaughs of Haydn and Mozart. Otello is arguably better than Othello. But there is no doubt that Falstaff is better than The Merry Wives of Windsor - usually considered Shakespeare’s worst play. Together, the two form a cornerstone of opera second only to the finest of Mozart.

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