Friday, November 21, 2008

Dr. Dick has Moved!

Dr. Dick's blog "Thoughts on a Train" has moved to -- it was just getting too awkward trying to explain to people how to find my blog at thoughtsonatrain (all one word) dot blogspot dot com... so hopefully you'll be able to find this.

I apologize for those who have links to specific posts (I was hoping everything would make the move smoothly but I'm slowly reposting some of the major posts at the old address). New posts will appear at the new address.

If you follow the blog, you'll need to update your favorites, feeds or any links you may have.

Dick Strawser
(a.k.a. Dr. Dick)

It's Friday Update with Dr. Dick


On Wednesday, I posted about the British magazine Gramophone’s “Top-20 Orchestras in the World” and forgot to mention, in a subsequent post prompted by complaints in San Francisco that too much public money was being spent to support the city’s orchestra, that the San Francisco Symphony had placed 13th on that list, just below the East Coast Regulars from New York and Boston. (You can also read reactions from London and NPR.)

Then today, at ArtsJournal, I saw I should also update that reference to Michael Tilson Thomas, music director of the San Francisco Symphony, who’s received another significant accolade on another kind of list – this one, a list of the “Best Leaders of 2008” where he is the only musician among a wide variety of public leaders, some business, some political, some in science along with Steven Spielberg and Lance Armstrong and junior officers in the U.S. Military who “are rising in the military ranks with a hard-earned wisdom forged by war,” all inspiring and thought-provoking. Citing President-Elect Obama, these are people who could “help him lead us out of our doldrums.”

Caution, though: this report uses the “M” Word. They refer to Michael Tilson Thomas (usually abbreviated as MTT) as “a musical maverick.”

Speaking of mavericks, that maverick Sarah Palin ;-) ;-) is still in the news, pardoning a turkey in Alaska (not a recently defeated felon and long-term Senator). While you can watch the YouTube video, notice the guy in the background who it turns out is butchering two other turkeys during the filming of this press conference. Niiiiiiiice...

By the way, how would you like to be interrupted at the end of a presentation to be told you’ve just won $75,000? That’s how violinist Gil Shaham found out about his winning the Avery Fisher Award, finishing up a televised recital. Read it here.

Oh, and it’s started snowing again.

First Snow: Not Ready to Go All Piblokto on You Just Yet


Every winter, at the first snow, I remember my mother telling me how her father always told her “the date of the first measurable snowfall is the number of major snows you’ll have during that winter.” He was an engineer: he was very precise.

It doesn’t sound like a terribly scientific argument, especially considering both my mother and my grandfather were inveterate list-makers. Any lists of snowfalls during a given winter might rarely rack up to the date of the first snow. At least, in my experience.

One year (sometime between 2001 and 2006), the first snow – not the first siting of snow flurries, but the first snowfall you could actually go out and measure – was on December 3rd. We had something like ten snowfalls before the month was over, nothing really serious but all measurable. Another year, the first snowfall wasn’t until the week after Christmas but we only had three or four snowfalls the rest of the season, one or two of those being over a foot.

So this morning we had between a half-inch to an inch of snow across Central Pennsylvania, probably enough to snarl traffic, make people wonder if school would be delayed some, and think maybe they should’ve rushed out to stockpile bread and milk after they heard the forecast last night.

I never understood this Bread-and-Milk phenomenon. One night, I had to go to the store anyway and stopped on may home from work. It was after 1:00am and the store was as busy as it would normally be at 8:00pm. There was a woman with one of the large carts full of bottled water, egg cartons, several gallon jugs of milk and maybe a half-dozen loaves of bread. Maybe she was having a French Toast Block Party. And we were only supposed to get 6-8" of snow!

A chat acquaintance (not a friend, just a chattance) grew up in upstate New York (generally meaning anything north of the Bronx) but waaaaay north along the end of Lake Ontario and the Canadian Border. He said a foot of snow there is called a dusting.

When I woke up around 5:15 this morning and looked out, I wrote down on the calendar “1st Snow” and will probably keep track, if I remember and don’t get bored with it, of each measurable snowfall from now until the arrival of Spring. Will there be 20 more snows? How many of them, like this one, may be gone before noontime?

That word in my title, by the way – piblokto – is an Inuit word which means a kind of hysteria that might include “uncontrolled wild behavior,” screaming, depression, senseless repetition of overheard words and running around naked in the snow but which may not necessarily be an overreaction to the ubiquitousness of snow itself.

Tuesday night was the coldest it’s been here since last winter which was more of a shock having had temperatures in the 70s last week. It was 25° on my porch when I woke up around 5am Wednesday morning to discover that in fact my house was about double that. 55° is a tad chilly for a household temperature and I wasn’t sure, given the new Geothermal Technology that was installed in the house in August, whether the problem was the technology or something mechanical. Several people (who don’t have geothermal systems) warned me that when it got really cold out, these heat-transfer pumps can’t keep the house as warm as an old-fashioned, dinosaur-devouring furnace. But that’s a heat-pump that takes it heat from the outside air which seems a rather foolish thing to do in wintertime, considering if it’s 25° outside, there’s not much heat to transfer into the house. “Back up” or “auxiliary” heating would be more expensive and less effective. But then, my heat-transfer pump is taking its source from the pipes of water that circulate through the two 250' deep wells in my front yard where the dirt, once you get four feet below the surface, is a uniform 55° all year ‘round. Ah – did I say 55°? Does that mean on really cold days when my heat-pump fails, that’s all I can muster is 55freakin’°???

Groff’s Heating & Plumbing who’d installed the system for me called me back by 7:30am and had a guy on his way in minutes. It’s an hour’s drive from their place to mine. I had already figured out how to activate the “Emergency Heat” and in three hours got the house all the way up to 59° by the time he got here at 8:30. There was no easy explanation for what happened. It certainly wasn’t the technology nor did there seem to be anything wrong mechanically. There were no “error faults” in the system’s memory and somehow the thermostat had shut off and defaulted to a pre-programmed setting that dropped the thermostat down after 8am to 62° (huh??) and then kicked it back on at 5pm to 72°. I remembered changing that the first day it was running: I didn’t think it necessary to cool my house off in August down to 62°... So, something strange happened which the technician was kindly trying not to blame on me hitting the wrong sequence of three or four consecutive buttons accidentally and which I was trying not to blame on the cats jumping five feet up the wall and doing the same thing on purpose... Anyway, within a few hours, all was toasty warm in the Land of Dr. Dick, thus staving off the first attack of piblokto-ness of the season.

Meanwhile, I have to get back to work on the novel. Passing the 83% mark toward the goal, I managed 2,425 words this morning by 8:30, then took a break to write 942 more before continuing with the next “writing assignment.” The cats have already tired of watching the snow – especially now that the sun is out and most of it has already melted down a good bit – with three of them stretching out on the chair behind me, covered with an old sunflower afghan.

- - - - - - - - -

Photos: My yard this morning - Floyd the Flamingo, not generally considered a snow bird, who is ready to come inside for the winter; the garden bench under the Japanese Maple; the dogwood outside my back door. Inside, Freddy, Abel and Blanche share the Sunflower Chair.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Arts and Cars and Economic Issues, Oh My!


Something else I caught over at OboeInsight (it’s not just for oboe players), check out the San Francisco Weekly’s grousing about the city’s support for the San Francisco Symphony and the fact that its Music Director, Michael Tilson Thomas, earns $1.6M in addition to other benefits from, like, producing a PBS TV series, Keeping Score, in which the orchestra plays to a nationwide audience in something comparable to the old Bernstein Young Persons’ Concerts with the New York Philharmonic that introduced a younger generation to great classical music.

(By the way, how many people in my generation, I wonder, were influenced by watching those amazing programs? *\o )

It would seem the orchestra’s concerts are attended primarily by the wealthy elite (really!?) and that the various arts groups in the city have “turned our local culture palaces into sites for air-kiss orgies among the superrich.” Huh...

This is the old “Shoes or Shakespeare” argument when it comes to tough times and the Arts. For most of the Arts in this country, that would be “Most of the Times.”

Now, as I understand it, Rick Wagoner, the CEO of General Motors whose “2006 pay package [was valued] at $10.2 million, up from $5.5 million in 2005” had a base salary of $2.2M which he voluntarily cut back to $1.3M or so. Yet, according to BloggingStocks, his take-home pay for 2007 was $14.4M, up 41% from 2006.

Nice pay cut, don’t you think?

Incidentally, from that same 2007 New York Times article, GM’s CFO “earned $5.2 million in his first year on the job. His predecessor... earned $3.9 million in 2005.”

That same 2007 article also said Ford paid its “chief executive, Alan R. Mulally, more than $28 million in his first four months on the job. Most of that amount came in the form of a hiring bonus and compensation to make up for benefits he forfeited in leaving his previous job at the jet maker Boeing.”

When the union workers grumbled about this, the company gave all employees a $300 bonus (that would be $3H) and the A.U.W hourly workers a $500 bonus. Awwww, isn’t that sweet?!

These CEOs have now been lining up bumper to bumper in Washington begging Congress to hurry up with the Big 3 Auto Makers’ $25B (that’s B as in Beethoven... I mean, Billion) Bail-Out Program. And most people seem to support tax-payers’ money going for that, even though the Wall Street “Credit Stimulus Package” met with considerably less success on Main Street, something about going to bail-out greedy CEOs or something, as I recall.

As for the car makers, I certainly think its bad for the guys who build the cars to lose their jobs (speaking as one of the unemployed), but maybe it would’ve been better if these car makers didn’t con a gullible public into buying those dinosaur-devouring SUV’s and other fuel-inefficient guzzlers that litter our highways and drive-ways today, vehicles which people only began complaining about when gas got closer to $4/gallon.

Now, this economic bail-out is being viewed by many people as an economic necessity because, sure, the American economy spins on the wheels of its industries, considering most Americans do drive cars.

But when it comes to support for the arts, such issues and solutions would be called socialism and we are often told they should be allowed to survive or fail according to the free-market economy our society is based on.


Fortunately, recession aside, perhaps the drop in oil prices and the subsequent lowering of gas prices to around $2/gallon will mean there will be less “air-kissing among the super-rich” at the gas pumps.

Wouldn't it be nice, then, if some of these super-rich CEOs would do what people like Andrew Carnegie and other industrial philanthropists did in the past: contribute large sums of money to support the arts? Hey, what a novel idea!!

Oh, speaking of novel... I have to get back to work...

The Top 20 Orchestras in the World


Though I never had any interest in sports as a kid (or an adult), I would follow America's Major League Orchestras and their principal players much the way other kids (and adults) would follow its baseball and football teams and their players, with or without trading cards. So while there's no World Series among orchestras (much less a Super Bowl), when somebody comes out with a ranking for the best orchestras in the country or the world, I'm still curious how things stack up.

While tagging Patty over at OboeInsight, I saw this post from yesterday about the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam having been mentioned in the British music magazine Gramophone as the top of the recently announced “Top 20 Orchestras in the World.” The complete list was posted on a German site, Bavarian Radio On-Line, which I found at ArtsJournal. Here’s the complete list (auf Deutsch):

Die 20 Top-Orchester der Welt [The 20 Top Orchestras of the World]

1. Concertgebouw-Orkest, Amsterdam
2. Berliner Philharmoniker [Berlin]
3. Wiener Philharmoniker [Vienna]
4. London Symphony Orchestra
5. Chicago Symphony Orchestra
6. Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks [Bavarian Radio Sym]
7. Cleveland Orchestra
8. Los Angeles Philharmonic
9. Budapest Festival Orchestra
10. Sächsische Staatskapelle Dresden [Dresden State Orch]
11. Boston Symphony Orchestra
12. New York Philharmonic
13. San Francisco Symphony
14. Mariinsky Theater Orchestra
15. Russian National Orchestra
16. Leningrad Phillharmonic
17. Gewandhausorchester Leipzig
18. Metropolitan Opera Orchestra
19. Saito Kinen Symphony Orchestra [in Japan]
20. Tschechische [Czech] Philharmonie

Note the American Orchestras’ placement in the Top 20:

5. Chicago
7. Cleveland
8. Los Angeles
11. Boston
12. New York Phil
13. San Francisco
18. Metropolitan Opera Orchestra

For decades, the Top 5 American Orchestras were (in no particular order) the New York Philharmonic, the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Boston Symphony followed by the Chicago Symphony and the Cleveland Orchestra.

So who’s missing from this most recent list? Yeah! where’s the Philadelphia Orchestra?! What happened?

Well, for the past several years they’ve been grumbling about playing under their conductor Christoph von Eschenbach so maybe the deterioration from the Golden Age of Ormandy and Muti has been noticed in the wider world? The last few times I heard them playing familiar repertoire under Eschenbach, things had happened that you don’t expect to hear coming from an orchestra the caliber of the legendary Philadelphia Orchestra (in fact, most of them I didn’t expect to hear from the Harrisburg Symphony), so it makes you wonder...

Now, also look how high the Cleveland Orchestra placed – and this, after some of the complaints I’ve read and heard about this orchestra’s problems with its conductor Franz Welser-Möst (and not just the Plain Dealer’s critic, Donald Rosenberg which I blogged about here and here).

I just find that interesting.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Memed Again


No no, not Mame (as in “You coax the blues right out of the horn, Maa-ame” - oh great, now I've got “We Need a Little Christmas” stuck in my head...).

Not even maimed. Close...

MEME. One of those annoying on-line phenomenae where you write cute little factoids about something and then pass it on to other unsuspecting bloggers. The cure has yet to be found.

Okay, so I’m up to my gonnectigezoink in this novel right now – trying to reach 50,000 words by the end of the month as part of the NaNoWriMo Challenge (having written almost 4,000 words today puts me over the 75% point) – when Alex Shapiro of Notes from the Kelp bememed me with this latest... uhm, thing going around.

The object is to give seven facts about yourself and then tag seven blogger-friends to do the same. I actually don’t know too many people who blog and most of the blogs I read are by people I don’t know, personally at least. And of course Alex has already tagged the one person I could automatically think of who would help perpetuate the annoyance and who knows tons of bloggers out there. And now I have to post this before he does and then tags everyone on my list. So, here goes:

First, the Rules:

1. Link to your tagger and list these rules on your blog.
2. Share 7 facts about yourself on your blog - some random, some weird.
3. Tag 7 people at the end of your post by leaving their names as well as links to their blog.
4. Let them know they have been tagged by leaving a comment on their blog (or e-mail if they don't allow comments).
5. If you don’t have 7 blog friends, or if someone else already took dibs, then tag some unsuspecting strangers.

(Wait - shouldn’t there be seven rules? Oh, I see... 7 Facts + 5 Rules = 12 - so it is another serialist conspiracy... hmmm)

and now, the Facts:

1. Having absolutely no interest in sports whatever (and I do mean whatever!), I won my first game of Trivial Pursuit (Genus edition which is, I believe, spelled correctly) back in the mid-‘80s with a baseball question. But I couldn’t tell you anything about who it was or what it was asking about him because it made no sense to me even then. It was True/False so I had a 50/50 chance... but hey, I still won!

2. When I was teaching at the University of Connecticut, I sang in a Russian Orthodox Church choir near campus even though I wasn’t Russian or Orthodox. I just liked the music (and could read the alphabet) - and the people were great, too. Usually I sang bass – but if the bass showed up, I could sing tenor. It was a cappella and we got our pitch for the responses from the priest who was tone-deaf. The choir director would try to give us our starting pitch from his chanting but by the time we were supposed to come in, he’d slid down another few tones. Sometimes, we were singing a diminished fifth lower than written. Since I couldn’t sing below the staff, I had to transpose the bass part up, a very un-Russian thing for a bass to do.

3. I was always interested in Russian music and literature (I read War & Peace the first time when I was in 6th grade). I wanted to study the Russian language when I was in high school but they didn’t offer it back in the ‘60s - this was the Cold War era. My Latin teacher was taking first year Russian as part of her Masters program and was willing to teach a class if we got enough students to sign up for it. When we did, the principal told us they would not offer the class. I was repeatedly asked if I was a Communist.

4. When I was attending grad school at Eastman in Rochester NY where they have two seasons – winter and the 4th of July – I would walk several blocks to school on some very cold mornings. I soon figured out how to tell the temperature by how quickly it took my mustache to freeze over, then check it against the Time/Temperature clock a block from the school. One morning it froze before I even stepped off the porch. That meant it was below zero. I was pretty accurate, not that it would ever have gotten me a job working for the Weather Channel. (Not that my degrees from there were all that more practical, but hey...)

5. I am a very shy and insecure person. As a full-blooded introvert, I find it difficult talking with strangers though I can stand in front of a class or audience and talk about music with no problem. People find this amusing, considering I spent 18 years on the radio – but people, I was alone in a small room with carpeting on the walls, talking to myself all evening. That’s not the same as talking to a live person who comes up to me and says “Hi” and expects me to make conversation. Insecurity would probably rate its own chapter...

6. When I was 6 years old and had just started taking piano lessons, hating having to practice those stupid little beginner’s pieces, I decided I wanted to become a composer because that way nobody would know if I was making mistakes.

7. Despite the fact I am very organized when it comes to composing (or rather have a very systematic approach to writing music), my life is chaos. My mother and maternal grandfather kept lists about everything and probably somewhere there’s a list of how many lists they kept. This was something that missed my genes completely. Me, I made a list to help me organize cleaning my apartment, what tasks I should do on which days: I lost the list.

8. I find that after decades of relying on pocket calculators, I actually can no longer count...

OK, let’s see... I think I’ll tag (1) Stuart Malina (might get him to write a new post), (2) Matthew at Soho the Dog, (3) Marc at Deceptively Simple’s new digs, (4) Patty at Oboeinsight, (5) David at Oh My Trill, (6) David Duff and for the feline point of view, (7) Abbie the Cat and his posse.

Yeah, so there ya go... Follow the threads. Enjoy.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

November & Concertante


This was the view in my back-yard today.

November is not a favorite month of mine though it’s not on the bottom of the pile, either. Cold rainy days in November, though, generally leave me, well... cold, usually from the inside out. It’s the kind of day I would like to snuggle up in a comfy chair with a good book and some cats (if the cats would allow me to read: usually the book is in the way of where they want to nestle) if I had the time for that. Oddly enough, now that I do have the time for that, finding myself one of the highest influx of unemployed Americans in the past seven years, I don’t have the time for that today.

Tonight there’s a performance by Concertante at the Rose Lehrman Arts Center at Harrisburg Area Community College that begins at 8:00. They’re playing two movements of the String Quintet in D Minor by Alexander von Zemlinsky, the Piano Quartet of Robert Schumann and Ernő Dohnányi’s first published work, his Piano Quintet in C Minor, one of the few “other” piano quintets available beyond the standard handful of Schumann, Brahms, Dvořák, Shostakovich, maybe Fauré and Franck... who’m I leaving out? Those are the basic ones you might hear (often enough) when a pianist joins a string quartet for an evening of chamber music.

I’ll be doing the pre-concert talk beginning at 7:15, gathering in the “Black Box” theater down the hall to the left of the auditorium’s entrance.

My starting point for the talk is one thing they all have in common: they’re all, at one time or another, better known for their relationship to someone else. And I discovered, thinking more about it, another common denominator, a composer not on the program (at least on this one) but whom I’ve already mentioned.

Schumann, in his day, was better known as a writer about music than a writer OF music. And his wife happened to be one of the greatest concert pianists of the age, Clara Schumann. In fact, though she would perform his music on her concerts, he often felt like a lap dog trotting after her when he went on tour, a consort who was treated by the press and the public like Mr. Clara Schumann.

Zemlinsky, almost forgotten today, is best known as the mentor of Arnold Schoenberg and, as it turned out, his brother-in-law. Zemlinsky also worked with Gustav Mahler in the early years of the 20th Century, championing new music (some of it his own, some of it by his brother-in-law) as well as conducting and teaching. One of his students, by the way, was a woman named Alma Schindler who would shortly become Mrs. Gustav Mahler.

Ernő Dohnányi – or to use his more frequently seen German-form, Ernst von Dohnanyi – is the third of three major Hungarian composers anyone talks about in the founding of the 20th Century Hungarian Style, with Bartók, Kodály and... uhm... oh yeah, Dohnányi. He’s the one most people haven’t heard anything by, or if they have, it’s that treacly cute set of variations on “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” for piano and orchestra, written in various and sundry styles, a delightful pastiche that has little to do with his real worth. These days, since even that has faded from the concert halls and probably the air-waves, he’s remembered more as the grandfather of the former conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra, Christoph von Dohnányi.

Interestingly enough, the music we’ll hear by Zemlinsky was composed the year he formed an amateur orchestra of which the sole cellist was a young man who also wanted to write music, named Arnold Schoenberg. Dohnányi’s quintet was composed a decade before Bartók had begun collecting the Hungarian folk songs that became the foundation of the modern Hungarian “school.”

The other “common denominator” is Johannes Brahms who was a protege of Schumann’s and a mentor of sorts to both Zemlinsky and Dohnányi! Zemlinsky had joined one of the major music organizations in Vienna in 1893 when Brahms, who turned 60 that year, was the leading figure in the city’s musical universe. Several of Zemlinsky’s early chamber works were performed in their concerts and he got some very complimentary comments from Brahms whose endorsement certainly helped his career. Zemlinsky had turned young Schoenberg on to Brahms’ music which would be a major influence on the development of his style, even beyond tonality, but it was Wagner that would become the biggest immediate factor in pushing Schoenberg into the 20th Century.

Brahms had heard about the young Hungarian pianist and composer Dohnányi and decided to arrange to have his Piano Quintet premiered in Vienna, an endorsement that also led to its publication. As Dvořák's music was full of the sound of Bohemian folk music, Dohnányi's music brought to cosmopolitan Vienna the unexpected sounds of actual Hungarian folk music, not the urban popular music of the Gypsies that everybody always associated with Hungarian music, most notably in those popular dances that made Brahms’ fortune.

Just as Schumann’s passing the mantle on to Brahms had far reaching consequences, Brahms own mentorship may have been more profound on someone like Dvořák, though time, temperament and perhaps talent may be more at fault for the failure of Zemlinsky and Dohnányi to benefit comparably. As styles changed around 1900 and Schoenberg went off in one direction, Zemlinsky was not comfortable in following this infusion of air from another planet (to quote a line from the poem Schoenberg set in his 2nd String Quartet, one of the first “official” atonal pieces). Zemlinsky’s career was further hampered by both world wars as was Dohnányi’s: both composers, like Bartok, found themselves ex-patriots living and dying in the United States.

Dohnányi spent much of his time rebuilding the musical life of Hungary during its independence following World War I and the collapse of the Austrian Empire (or, as it was mollifyingly known as the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Kingdom of Hungary still ruled by the Emperor of Austria), and before the government was taken over by Nazi Germany before World War II. Much of his creative energy was sapped by the government administrative posts, the concertizing and above all the teaching. He was often taken to task by his more ethnically-minded colleagues Bartók and Kodály for being too conservative in his musical style.

But it is easy to forget that, when he attended the Conservatory in Budapest, he was the first ethnic Hungarian student to graduate from there as a “star.” It is also important to note that Vienna, for all its Imperial cosmopolitan-ness was still xenophobic enough to consider a composer like Dvořák from the province of Bohemia and the Hungarian Dohnányi were, essentially, “hicks,” inferior to the good Germanic culture that was Viennese Art, even though the most famous Viennese composers (Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Brahms and now Mahler) were all transplants (from Salzburg, from rural Austria, from Bonn, from Hamburg; and Mahler was a Jew from Bohemia). In fact, three composers who were actually born and raised in Vienna – Schubert, Zemlinsky and Schoenberg – received barely any recognition from their home town! So much for prophets in their own land...

*** ***** ******** ***** ***

Meanwhile, I’m hard at work – though today, hardly working – on the November Novel Challenge that is NaNoWriMo (November is National Writing Month). The goal is not so much to hurry up and write a novel during the month of November, the goal is to push yourself to write 50,000 words whether or not the novel is completed in time, so you have something to go back and edit, pare down or add to or even finish at a later date. Without goading yourself toward this goal, you might never sit down and actually write 50,000 words. I can vouch for that: twice I’ve tried getting this novel started and twice it got put aside for other things (called “reality”). So far, just about half-way through the month, I am half-way toward that goal with 25,012 words under my belt as of yesterday afternoon.

So here, on this drizzly dreary November afternoon, rather than curl up in a chair with the cats and read a book, I am trying to hunker down at my desk and write a book, though the cats are still trying to claim their share of the turf: everybody needs a muse or a proof-reader or an editor, right? (see Freddy, Charlie and Max, my support group, right).

And now, back to work.

Dr. Dick

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Music at Market Square for Messiaen's Centennial


In starting to work on a post about the three performances this past weekend I had attended, I got into a riff about how audience distractions can damage, even ruin a performance – mostly just things like people talking (fortunately I didn’t have to deal with ringing cell-phones). Then that reminded me I had not written anything about the Market Square Concerts from November 1st with the ensemble Antares. Now, normally, I don’t care for the idea of being a critic, but I’ll make an exception, here.

The program began with the suite for clarinet, violin and piano that Igor Stravinsky arranged from his theater-piece, L’Histoire du soldat. It’s originally scored without piano but with a very busy percussionist which means the pianist has to make like a bass-drum or trap set in several passages, giving pitch to sounds that originally had no pitch associated with them. An odd idea but an interesting, colorful use of the piano which is, after all, a kind of percussion instrument since its strings are hit by hammers to create the sound. They all played it with the playfulness, sensuality or ferocity it required (it is, after all, a Faust story and there’s a good deal of devilish music incorporated into this suite) but above all with an amazingly clean technical virtuosity.

Ravel’s Piano Trio may have been the closest thing to “standard rep” on the program even though it’s not all that well known. It was given one of the more lucid performances I’ve heard, keeping the structure clear rather than just revel in the beautiful sounds the composer creates over it. At one point when writing it, Ravel was supposed to have remarked to a friend that he had finished written the piece: “now all I need are the notes.” The form of the piece, how it’s put together, is like the human body: the structure is the skeleton which gives it substance. The harmonies are like muscles, since they move the structure forward (and the muscles cannot move without support from the skeleton). Over this, the composer stretches the skin, the surface of the music which is what we hear most easily and which, in many respects, listeners rarely get beyond. If the performers have paid attention to getting the muscles and the skeleton to function properly, the audience doesn’t need to worry about it: it’s understood or, rather, comprehended.

The main work on the program was Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, played in honor of the composer’s 100th birthday anniversary next month. So in addition to Antares, organist Eric Riley, the organist and choir director of Market Square Presbyterian Church, offered his own tribute to a composer who was an exceptional organist and who wrote some of the most amazing organ music of the 20th Century. He played the concluding section of the suite, La Nativité du Seigneur. As the Quartet would show, Messiaen was not just a spiritual composer but a Catholic composer of an uncommon and deeply spiritual, often mystical nature. Much of his music can be long, trance-like meditations based on some passage of scripture or a germ of a spiritual idea that could be the source for a minister’s sermon, though here handled entirely in music. There can also be outbursts of joy and ecstasy that can be “over-the-top” and Dieu parmi nous (God Among Us) is one such joyfully ecstatic over-the-topper. To say Riley nearly brought the house down would also reflect that I was glad not to be sitting directly under the balcony where the organ console is located at Market Square Church, but he did manage to set the walls vibrating to bring it home like a tsunami at the end, cranking the volume up even more. No easy piece, it sounded effortless for all the hands and feet had to do to create this effect: since you couldn’t see him playing, there was no visual element to let you know, “man, this is hard!”

Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time is a “signature piece” for Antares, an ensemble that consists of violin, cello, clarinet and piano, which just happens to be the instruments Messiaen had available when this work was given its first performance in a German prisoner-of-war camp during World War II. This is a very long work that moves, as its title implies, within a whole different plane from what many concert-goers may be used to. Still, it can be an intensely riveting work but unfortunately the least distraction can destroy the intense spirituality the composer has put into the piece and all the skill and concentration the performers are applying to bring out what the composer wrote which is always more than just the notes on the page.

Whether it was the performers’ “fault” for not being able to hold everybody’s attention (I have attended performances where the audience was so still you could literally hear a pin drop) or perhaps too big a pre-concert dinner or too much heat in the church, this audience was one of the roochiest I’ve sat in for some time. Some people were leaning forward in rapt attention, hanging onto every note (especially during the long quiet movements) while others were paging through the program or the hymnal or just looking around like they were bored out of their skulls. Others were clearly dozing off (one person was leaning so far forward I was afraid he’d lose his balance and wake up with a snort). Fine – Messiaen can do that to people, I’m afraid: it’s not easy music for some people to listen to, I admit.

But during the quietest section of the piece, the clarinetist’s long monologue, “The Abyss of the Birds,” I was surrounded by the almost constant rumbling of what I thought at first was the New York subway except I knew I wasn't in New York City any more. It was stomachs, the rumbling of several stomachs coming from behind me, from the right, from the front - an uncontrollable physical response that, as Murphy would have it, had to occur during the quietest moments. If that wasn’t bad enough, this set the young couple sitting in front of me into spasms of giggles and much elbow-poking. Yeah, I remember getting caught up in stuff like that a few times when something weird happened, so I can’t claim the high road here, but I don’t think it was ever during something as spiritual as Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time. (I can actually recall two incidents right off the bat which might make an amusing post some other time.) Ah, well...

There were two things about Antares’ performance I would note (as a critic). The clarinetist gave one of the best performances I’ve ever heard of this piece – especially in “The Abyss of the Birds” with its long-tones coming out of nowhere and crescendoing into a roar before erupting into a cascade of bird-song, the section most tragically derailed by the audience’s collective gastric distress. I’ve heard many live performances of the Quartet over the years and several of them by very fine musicians, one of them by one of his teachers, David Shifrin. I would rate Garrick Zoeter’s performance very close to the legendary performances from Tashi (I’d heard two of them in NYC in the ‘70s) with Richard Stolzman which has always been, for me, the unattainable bar other musicians have to aspire to.

The pianist, Eric Huebner, had this distracting idea that the on-the-beat accents in the two slow meditations for cello and, to conclude, for violin (accents which Messiaen marks “cet accent louré doit rester dans la nuance piano” – literally, “this accent should remain within the shade piano” in which case piano does not refer to the instrument) should be played not piano (soft) but forte (loud) as if they were REALly ACCents to be PLAYed on the BEAT. And though Messiaen writes this accent over both the right and left hands’ notes of the chord, Huebner chose to accentuate the top note of the right hand only: this in turn created a counter-melody to the violin that Messiaen did not compose. Since the accents were now forte, the gradual climax had to be louder still, so the piano took on this bangy, brittle, acerbic tone-color that shattered the transcendent mood and the growing ecstasy of the finale which in turn finished off what the audience had already damaged.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Finishing One Piece and Starting the Next


Just an hour ago, as I begin writing this, I closed the notebook on a newly finished piece of music. The “Aria & Chaconne,” one of a set of pieces for violin and piano, is now basically finished – well, the creative part of it. Now comes the realization of the sketches into a final copy, and then sending it out to some friends who might be interested in performing it!

It seems counter-intuitive that a piece that lasts around 10 minutes should occupy so much of my time since late May, a little over five months, especially considering most of that time I’ve been able to work on it almost every day.

But for me, it’s a slow process and under the circumstances, I had set myself some serious stylistic challenges that I really needed to work out. It would have been easier to have ignored them or just written something, anything at all. But for all my lack of organization in my life, my compositional process is very organized which may require some explanation (how it works, not why I can’t apply it to my daily routine which is a whole different issue).

It began life actually a few years ago when I was thinking about a series of pieces I was writing for violin and piano, something John Clare, one of my fellow ex-colleagues and I could play together. What started out as a sketch for a section of the Symphony I was writing then, turned into a mellow, kind of atmospheric piece which ended up being called “Nocturne.”

Whether it was the first, last or middle of a set of three or five pieces didn’t bother me then: I just needed to get it done since we were also going to play it as part of a work-related event (as it turned out, no one heard it: part of a luncheon’s entertainment, everybody continued talking through it and the acoustics being what they were, most people probably didn’t know we were even playing).

After the Symphony was done, I got around to two other pieces – a Theme and Variations to open the set and then a lively scherzo that was part pseudo-Blues interrupted by some pseudo-Rock music (and given my lack of exposure to either and my entirely tongue-firmly-encheeked approach to the whole idea, that would be very pseudo...).

At the time, I felt there should be a substantial movement to balance the scherzo and the Nocturne, probably, oh, I don’t know – a chaconne?

I have no idea why that had popped into my brain.

It’s a very old musical process – going back to the generations before Bach – and not one that’s been of much use to composers since Bach’s day, except for things like Brahms’ 4th Symphony (which is more a chaconne than a passacaglia but if you want to split hairs about it, you’re more anal than *I* am...) or the piece that John Corigliano wrote based on material for the filmscore to “The Red Violin.” While I enjoy both works immensely, listening to them never sparked the “ooh, I’d like to do that” reaction.

First of all, a chaconne is a harmonically-based form. My musical style is neither traditionally harmonic nor does my musical style – which I’d blogged about in the early pre-kitten days here at Thoughts on a Train (for instance, here and here) – accommodate the kind of repetitiveness a chaconne requires (a harmonic pattern repeated over and over again).

But the more I thought about, the more I wondered if I could make it work. Somehow.

One of the things I dislike about many chaconnes is how quickly the obviousness and the boredom sets in – Bach’s great D Minor Chaconne, as ever, aside. Repetitive patterns bore me. Four-quare patterns of 8+8+8+8 measures bore me even more. So how do I not be four-square (or eight-square) or repetitively redundant?

And could I come up with a recognizable harmonic pattern – in my musical style?

However, the creative process then came to a screeching halt for two reasons: still living at my old mid-town apartment, new neighbors had moved in upstairs just before Christmas-time and were using the room directly above the piano for their bedroom and they also slept in until noon-time since they worked second shift (it was always great to have 9-to-5 neighbors who wouldn’t be home during the hours I’d be composing); then in February ‘07, my mother became ill and died, not the best time in my life to be working on a musical joke. Even though I moved out to the house by April, the piano didn’t make it out until July and then when I did start feeling like writing again, it was a song cycle setting some biblical texts my mother considered favorites which became a work for Mezzo and Orchestra called “Evidence of Things Not Seen” (okay, three reasons). When that was finished in February ‘08, I began thinking about getting back to the violin and piano pieces.

And after spending two years on a symphony no one is likely to be interested in performing, the idea of writing an opera just didn’t seem logical. True, every Presidential election, I keep going back to the idea of setting Euripides’ “The Bacchae” (essentially about the subjective, irrational mind subverting the objective, rational mind), but really, come on... I mean, I need to get something performed – and also something performable – something practical. And perhaps something for violin and piano might make more sense, rationally or otherwise.

The Blues/Rock scherzo was still not finalized, though it was probably 95% complete. The sketches for the Theme & Variations have yet to be realized. So instead, I started a whole new piece. Now, ideally, they could be played as a unit or performed independently, but it bothered me to have four pieces with no overlying structure. And being what would be called an “organic” composer – very different from being an organic vegetable – I set about figuring out how to make this Chaconne thing work.

It’s a much more involved procedure to talk about than I have time for, today. I really wanted to blog about it during the compositional process but it seemed irrational to be using creative time I could spend composing writing about what I should be composing.

But today, I just want to say – looking over 193 pages of sketches – that it’s done. Or basically done. The process of realizing the sketches is not all that mechanical and I need to get to it before I start looking at some of these pages and think “whaaaa’???”

And yes, 193 pages of sketches for a piece of music that is 137 measures and about 10 minutes long. 68 pages deal with just the structural planning and working out that tricky challenge of the “harmonic pattern.” Once I got to the actual composing part of it, that’s 79 pages for the piano part and 46 pages for the violin part.

Wait a minute, you say?

That’s because one of the challenges I’d set myself was this: I’d already written a Theme & Variations movement (where the variations move progressively in a logical, standard order) so, since a Chaconne is another variation process, I didn’t want to do the same kind of thing over again.

Normally when you’d see a title like “Song & Dance” that means a Song followed by a Dance. So my “Aria & Chaconne” would imply an aria or a lyrical movement followed by this Chaconne thing, right?

Only this time, I thought I’d do them simultaneously. The piano plays the Chaconne while the violin plays the song-like Aria. But the Chaconne is not the accompaniment to the Aria. The Aria is not the melodic variation based on the Chaconne’s harmonic pattern as definitions would tell you.

In addition to that issue – of two different pieces happening simultaneously – the Aria is straightforward in A-B-A form. The Chaconne is a set of 19 variations (well, okay, 17 variations preceded by the simple unadorned pattern and concluding with a similar restatement of the pattern) that moves toward the climax but then proceeds to the conclusion in reverse order, essentially turning itself inside-out. So as the violin works its way toward the ending, what was underneath it in the piano part is not the same thing it was the first-time around. While the climaxes had to occur together, working with each other and independently of each other at the same time, lots of other structural details had to work along the way – in both directions!

Yeah, I know, it seems a lot more complicated than what you’d hear. But that’s one of the things I like about art – it’s more than just an appreciation of the surface language. There also needs to be some kind of underlying depth to it to keep coming back to, something to discover you hadn’t heard before or realized the last time you heard or played it. I’m sure there are things as I copy it out I will realize that I was not aware of even when I was composing it.

This was something I found fascinating in the process of working out all these details: how much of it was already implied for me. Usually, there were several choices – unfortunately, making one that offered a continuity of further solutions didn’t always happen – and it was only a matter of picking the best one (hopefully, the right one), then going from there.

There were even times it felt like the piece actually WAS writing itself – but if it were, why was it still taking so long? There were other times when I just had to realize “no, this isn’t working” and then go back to some point and unravel the stitches to start a passage over again.

And in that way, I went through the Chaconne first, the skeleton, then working with that off to the side of my desk, filling in the Aria and stretching it skin-like out over this skeleton, making sure this point met that point, this phrasing matched that phrasing. Ultimately it will sound like one piece, because it is, not something that sounds like the violinist and pianist are accidentally playing different movements in the wrong order (“oh, I’m sorry, did you say the THIRD movement?”)...

But now I have a different project to tackle. Heh heh...

*** ***** ******** ***** ***

Ever since I was living in New York City in the late-70s, I had this novel in my mind. Yes, like many other people, I wanted to write a novel. There was a curiosity about the creative process – in fact, I think it’s good for composers to know what it’s like to try writing prose (it’s easier than having writers compose pieces of music – I’d even settle for having writers talk knowledgeably about music, but that’s another topic completely). There are similar issues to consider and I think one cross-fertilizes the other, though it may only be so much fertilizer by the time you’re done with it.

Needless to say, after thirty years, I never got around to writing this novel. It’s always been the same novel and it was always about a composer (working here under the suggestion “write what you know”) dealing with creative issues. But during the decades I’ve had this gestating in my mind, my narrator (like me but not necessarily me) has been growing older if not wiser and facing different issues. And now, some of my characters – whom I’ve been living with all these years – have been evolving in much the same way. It has become, in a sense, a “coming-of-old-age” novel.

Structuring it was a problem – just sitting down and writing from the beginning and working my way towards some end or other didn’t work for me. It was, first of all, not the way I wrote music, so why not experiment with structuring a novel similar to the way I write music?

A few years ago, a friend of mine was telling me about this project he’d gotten himself into: during the month of November, lots of people around the country (actually, around the world) take part in National Novel-Writing Month or NaNoWriMo for short. During the month, you write your novel. You start on the 1st and on the 30th, you stop.

The idea is to motivate yourself to write 50,000 words. Your novel may not be done in a month and maybe you didn’t quite make the goal of 50,000 words but the important thing is, you tried. And whether your novel is good or whether it’s crap doesn’t matter. It’s just simply the idea of creating something, the satisfaction of actually (finally) having done it, in addition to doing it with a dedicated sense of purpose, suffering through it while other people are doing it with you.

Now, back when the mania over Dan Brown’s novel, “The DaVinci Code” was raging – a book I had spent two years avoiding – I decided in advance of the movie coming out, to write a parody of it. This also meant I was actually going to have to read the thing, but it was summer and I wasn’t composing anything at the moment. So I sat down and just started writing. Now granted, writing a parody meant I didn’t have to worry about plot or development or structural issues and character development from scratch, but I did have to make the parody work on its own level: you should be able to read my book without having read the original source material and still enjoy it. And so I transplanted the premise to a musical level, curiously not knowing how the original was going to end before I’d even started the second chapter.

And soon, I had written “The Schoenberg Code,” a serial novel in twelve installments (so many musical puns in there...).

When I was done, I was amazed to have discovered it was 45,000 words long and essentially written in two weeks, but spread out over a little over a month. You see, I still had to read (and sometimes re-read) the original plus I had a job which meant not all of my time could just be dedicated to tapping away on the computer.

So I started thinking, if I can do 45,000 words in 2 weeks, basically, could I manage 50,000 in a month on an original topics?

That’s when I started mapping out my own novel, going at it from an entirely different viewpoint, creatively speaking. But last November was not conducive to putting everything aside and writing a novel. I was, after all, busy composing the song cycle, “Evidence of Things Not Seen,” which I wanted to finish by February and I knew if I put it aside for anything, I’d probably never come back to it.

But now, I, uhm... have no job and, by the way, I JUST FINISHED THIS PIECE OF MUSIC – so rather than going to Disney World, I’m going to write a novel.

And hey, look – it’s November 1st and the day is more than half-shot already plus I’m going to a concert tonight. And here I am, blogging 2500 words in the last two hours. Uhm, let’s see, if I blogged 2700 words last night about the Hallowe’en Party at Stravinsky’s Tavern and then 2500 words this afternoon about the newly completed violin and piano piece, why can’t I write 50,000 words in a month? At 2,000 words a day, that’d be 60,000 words, right?

And what luck – tonight, we set the clocks BACK an hour, so I actually have an extra hour to write my novel! Woo hoo!

Okay, time to get to work. NaNoWriMo is calling me!

Sunday, October 26, 2008

The Confluence of Times: Hearing Elliott Carter's String Quartets


Lately, I’ve been listening to a lot of Elliott Carter’s music, with a pile of CDs on my desk and a handful of scores, ranging from the Concerto for Orchestra to the 4 Lauds for Solo Violin. In April, I heard the world premiere (twice) of his Clarinet Quintet which he’d finished the previous September, saying rather blythely “and I’ve written several works since then.”

Since July, I have sat down with all of the quartets and followed them with the scores (I wasn’t able to get the 5th - out-of-stock - and the 1st is still in one of those boxes yet to be unpacked). Listening to the 5th the other night reminded me of one of the most significant musical experiences I’ve had in my creative life: hearing all five of these incredible works live in one concert.

Granted, his music is not likely to be high on the list of most popular composers, but he is probably the most influential composer in my creative life. Regarded as a composer of some of the most complex music being written in the past 60 years, Carter will be turning 100 in about six weeks and this past year's celebration marking his “100th Year” will soon transform into his Centennial Birthday Celebration. He’s the composer-in-residence at Carnegie Hall this season and they’ll be premiering a new work of his the night of his 100th Birthday!

He’s probably best known for his string quartets, certainly the most significant cycle of works in the genre since Schoenberg and Bartok. I heard the Composers Quartet play “All Three” of the Carter Quartets thirty years ago and ended up sitting directly behind the composer at the performance. In late January earlier this year, I heard the Pacifica Quartet play “All Five” of the Carter Quartets and I wondered, while the composer would be in attendance, how close would I be able to get to him?

John Clare, a guy who has interviewed more living composers than most of my fellow musicians could even name and who has a special regard for Carter and his music, talked me into going to this concert and got the tickets set up with the cry of ROAD TRIP.

We made no plans to meet anyone else there, but grabbing a quick pre-concert dinner, we ran into a friend of mine from my UConn & NYC days, DG, whom I’d seen maybe twice in the past seven years now, all three of us shuffling off to the New York Society for Ethical Culture on Central Park West that is the temporary home of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center while Alice Tully Hall is closed for renovations.

The Pacifica Quartet have made quite a name for themselves, championing all of Carter’s challenging quartets and playing them the way other groups play Beethoven or Bartok – individually, in groups, in complete cycles. I’d heard them play the 1st in Harrisburg a few seasons ago with Market Square Concerts, a performance they played with all the intensity and assuredness as if it were in fact Late Beethoven they were offering us. They had just released a new recording on the Naxos label of the 1st and 5th quartets, the first in a series of the complete quartets which can’t be released fast enough for me. Ever the champions, they’d commissioned him to write them a new quartet which he joked, once he reaches 100 he may just have some time for it.

The performance space itself was actually designed as a lecture hall very similar to a church: a wooden thrust stage surrounded by an amphitheater of wooden pews on various levels. We stood in the narrow area that passes for a lobby, DG and I standing near the Naxos CD display, listening to the clanking of the radiators and watching the audience as it entered from the blustery January night. I wonder how many of these people had attended the performance I was at 30 years ago? Many looked like they would’ve been in their 30s and 40s then. But there were many who were also clearly 20-and-30-somethings now: by the time they become grey-haired concertgoers, the composer would probably no longer be in attendance at such an event...

And then we realized the elderly gentleman being guided toward the bench opposite us was the composer himself. Elliott Carter at 99, dressed in an overcoat and a lambs wool cap pulled down over his ears, frail (but only with one cane: I’ve seen him photographed walking with two) but looking remarkably unlike a soon-to-be Centenarian. I just stood there and gazed at him the way a kid would gawk at a hero he just ran into unexpectedly on the street. It was a private moment and yet no one wanted to intrude on his privacy and he, for one, did not look around in any attempt to engage anyone else. And we respected that. In fact, I think some of us were reverencing that. When his secretary came over to escort him into the theater, I felt I wanted to go over and touch the bench.

(Over thirty years ago, standing in line to buy tickets for a concert at the 92nd Street Y, I realized the guy in front of me was Elliott Carter. I think I let out a little gasp. Anyway, somehow a conversation started. “Are you a composer?” he asked me. When I told him I was teaching at the University of Connecticut, he said “Oh, then you work with Charlie Whittenberg! He’s a very fine composer!” When I told Charlie that, he was walking on air for a week.)

When John and I found our seats, they were dead center in the auditorium but unfortunately up under the balcony. The sound it turned out was not bad and the balance was excellent. However, we were seven rows behind Carter and I decided being able to watch the composer, even if only the back of his head, was part of the “event.”

(What would it have been like to attend the premiere of Beethoven’s 9th and see the composer there? Or hear the performance of Brahms’ 4th Symphony when the composer made what was clearly going to be his last appearance in public?)

Yet here was Elliott Carter, fresh from attending a concert of his music the night before at Juilliard, with many more concerts and festivities in the year ahead: no one assumes he’s not going to be there. And this one was going to be a long concert: all five of his quartets, some very challenging music to play and listen to, much less digest. I figured it would be at least three hours long!

Carter’s music is not for the faint-of-mind. His music is often dismissed for its complexity, a style that is overly intellectualized so that the only way you can appreciate it is to bring a slide-rule to the concert. Is it music you can love? Or call beautiful? Is it something you can put on just to enjoy?

I listen to a lot of Carter. He is, basically, one of my favorite composers. Most recently, I find myself listening to the Violin Concerto and the 4 Lauds for Solo Violin over and over again, especially when I’m in the car (better than listening to the radio). A few years ago, I’m not sure I would have said I love it or that I find it beautiful in the same way I would Beethoven or Schubert. It’s not exactly background music (but then, neither is a lot of Beethoven and Schubert). But I thought differently after experiencing, not just hearing, all five of these quartets by the end of that January evening. I do love them and I do find them amazing: in spots they are incredibly dramatic and theatrical; at other times, beautiful.

One of the things that attracted me to Carter’s music years ago was his concept of “time.” There is “metrical time,” when you follow the score and see how the rhythms and meters are worked out in “real time,” what the musicians count in order to play his complex music correctly and stay together even when they're playing apart.

But there is also “audible time” which would be the phrasing you sense when you can’t “see” the beat, either on the page or from a conductor’s baton: lines that sound like they have downbeats and upbeats which set up a specific tempo yet are in contrast if not in conflict with the other instruments’ sense or senses of tempo. At times it’s hard to figure out how many actual tempos are going on, here, and then suddenly they all come together in a climax as direct as any standard harmonic progress or delineation of form from the 19th Century!

There is also gestural time, I guess you could call it, watching the musicians play their lines and seeing them sort of self-conducting the up-beats and down-beats of their individual parts. Or comparing that to watching the second violinist occasionally tap his toe (is that beat expressed by any of the instruments at the time?) or someone bringing a heel down onto the floor on a beat that is in the middle of the violist’s phrase but which marks the end of the one violinist’s line just as the cellist has started a new phrase with a fragment here, a fragment there.

Whatever time was, that evening, it was not three hours of time spent sitting in a pew. If the first quartet is over 40 minutes long, it didn’t seem half that long. The others, some only a little over 20 minutes’ length, seemed hardly to have begun when they were over.

There is also a sense of spatial time: a group of four musicians constantly divides and subdivides itself into various combinations. There are two sound-worlds of Carter’s that I love: one he marks scorrevole (scurrying) where they play extremely fast notes in long smooth bowings, though some of them may play this against the others playing long sustained intervals or perhaps sharply attacked chords that might almost sound scatter-gunned against this whispering, scurrying background.

(This morning I was listening to the Pacifica’s recording of Carter’s 1st Quartet and during one of the scorrevole sections realized I can hear mice scorrevolying around in my attic – with nine cats in the house, how can I have mice in the attic? But I digress...)

The other sound-world is the long sustained intervals at very soft dynamic levels that move almost glacially. Neither background nor foreground, it serves as a foil for other instruments to play something completely contrasting, often violently. At one point, the violence subsides until everybody is playing the long sustained tones, as if absorbed into the sense of stasis. Then just as suddenly, the scurrying may start up again as we’re off into a whole different section. The sense of texture and contrast, the variety, amazes me: like looking at a jewel in light that constantly refracts the light in new and iridescent patterns in your mind.

The quartet plays lines that flow as if they were Beethoven though created out of melodic intervals Beethoven may never have imagined; there were dotted-rhythm patterns that had the quality of swing while the cellist plunked out a walking bass right out of jazz. What, I wondered, was so terribly intellectual about all of this that it is supposed to be so unapproachable?

For the 2nd and 3rd Quartets – perhaps the two major works of the evening, both having won the composer Pulitzer Prizes in music – the Pacifica Quartet adopted slightly different seatings. Where the 1st Quartet recombines frequently – opening with a cello cadenza and ending with one for the 1st violin, and in between every possible subdivision imaginable – the four players are almost constantly separate individuals in the 2nd, each playing their own exclusive material (what passes in Carter’s musical language for melodic and harmonic invention) and rarely convening as a unified quartet. So they spread themselves out more than usual across the stage, as if being too close might engage their concentration too much. It also allows the space between their music to sound more individualized, and I was happy to be sitting in the center where the blend would be less... blendy.

The 3rd divides consistently into two duos throughout, so rather than maintain the usual configuration, the 1st violinist and the cellist are on one side of the playing area while the 2nd violinist and the violist are on the other, a space in the center between them. In this piece, the one duo plays four movements while the other plays six. They start and end together (and furiously, at that) but in between, they overlap movements here and there, sometimes one duo dropping out for a while, or sneaking back in with a reprise of some of their material as if the transmission had been interrupted only to be resumed where we left off. Seeing the separation of the duos also helped audibly define the sound of them much more clearly than you’d get from a recording. In many ways, this may be the most complicated quartet in the repertoire, yet the Pacifica Quartet played it with no less intensity than others would bring to late-Beethoven and made it seem no more difficult, either.

During the second intermission, after the 3rd Quartet, John Clare went down to talk to the composer and his secretary: they’ve been talking for a couple of years, now, about a possible interview. “Oh yes, he’s been communicating with us for quite a while about this,” his secretary told Carter who looked up and said “But I’m very busy right now – I’m working on a new flute concerto…” How amazing to think he’s 99 and writing his first flute concerto! John also asked him for his autograph, a signature that hardly shows any signs of age or infirmity (see John's photo, left). And he’d been signing plenty of autographs during both intermissions.

The 4th and 5th Quartets – written when he was 78 and 87 respectively – followed in the “third half” (we were now past the second hour), and though I’ve listened to these works a few times in the week before the concert, they sounded at times familiar and different. They work their way back from the complexity of the 3rd, less divisive and more conversational. In the 4th, it becomes at times confrontational, at other times collegial. The 5th was inspired by the idea of attending rehearsals where the musicians might try out a fragment of an upcoming passage, and then discuss how it could be interpreted, almost a play on the composer’s own sense of creative flow and how we ourselves might form ideas, discuss them, perhaps adapt them or dismiss them, bringing to the work a different sense of cooperation than one heard in the earlier quartets.

In this sense, Carter may be saying good-bye to the various approaches he’s tried out in the earlier works, but then he didn’t tell the Pacifica Quartet he wouldn’t write them a sixth quartet: he joked that by the time he’s 100, he might be ready to try another one. Perhaps hearing them play the first five, he might be inspired to find yet another solution to the problem composers have been asking since before the days of Beethoven: how do you write another quartet without writing the same thing over and over?

For all their originality, there is a great deal of common ground between them: beyond the idea of creating cooperation through conflict and communication through discourse, mostly those fingerprints of style we associate with his musical voice (the scurrying passages, the glacial sustained notes, the wildly contrapuntal tempos), the same way we might say about Beethoven or Brahms. In today’s world, many composers are chided if each new work isn’t “original,” whatever that means, accused of recycling the same old/same old rather than striving for the constantly new. But many solutions can be found using the same building blocks, retaining something familiar helping to unify the variety of solutions. And so I heard gestures and sounds in these five works (which, after all, span some 45 years of creativity) that refracted differently in each work’s overall soundscape. Part of the concept of originality is to be able to make the familiar sound fresh.

And yet for all the different senses of time expressed in this music, it never speaks of a specific time, never sounds dated. And then it struck me.

Elliott Carter has been experiencing an unprecedented creative outpouring in the past decade, not just composing at all but composing a great deal quickly. True, as someone said, “By now he’s got it down,” but here is a composer who never really worried much about what other composers and listeners thought of his music. Not from the arrogance of many of the 20th Century Serialists who, according to Milton Babbitt’s often misunderstood misquote, may have thought “Who Cares If You Listen?”, but because the strength of his own ideas and convictions gave him a sense of integrity that didn’t require any compromise.

This may go a long way to explain Rossini and Sibelius who were both insecure with their styles which had become outmoded as they passed through middle age. They each stopped composing despite the number of years they had left to live, yet Carter is still busily composing as he approaches 100 as if he may still have more time, somewhere later down the road, to rest on his laurels.

Granted, no one going to this concert could have walked in unaware of what they were about to hear, so in a large room maybe 7/8ths full, it was fair to say these were all fans and friends of Elliott Carter and his uncompromising music. People who were 20 or 80 sat in rapt attention, often smiling, always concentrated and focused on the music and its thoroughly awesome performance. The ovation at the end must have been heartwarming to a man of any age, walking carefully up to the front of the auditorium to accept the prolonged applause and cheers, proving that, despite critical brickbats and public indifference to his music over the decades, perhaps it was good after all to stick to your convictions.

Standing next to the stairwell leading down to the front entrance of the Ethical Center, I watched as Mr. Carter, sitting in a pew for 3 hours, carefully worked his way down the steps, his secretary in front, urging him on, one step at a time. “It’s scary,” the composer protested, reaching tenuously for the hand-rail, “it’s scary!” But he made it down one step at a time, just as we try to make it through one day at a time. And here he is at 99, still composing one piece at a time. There’s a life-lesson to be learned, there, in that exchange at the steps, after hearing this music.

And I – I chickened out. I did not go and get Carter’s autograph at intermission. I wanted to say something like “Thirty years ago, I attended all three of your quartets and sat right behind you. Tonight, I’ve heard all five of your quartets and sat seven rows behind you. I hope soon I’ll be able to see you again when they perform all six of your quartets and…” but I figured I would just trip over my own tongue and say something stupid like “Wow, I really love your stuff!”

Because I realized, as we left the hall, I do.

*** ***** ******** ***** ***

Shortly after that concert, a friend wrote to me that he regretted not going up to meet Aaron Copland when he saw him at a 1987 recital. Copland’s health had not been good by that time and it probably would not have been much of an experience beyond being able to say “I shook the hand of Aaron Copland,” but still the idea that shaking Copland’s hand would be one degree of separation from shaking Bela Bartok’s hand as Copland had done (when Bartok’s health was not that good) at the Boston premiere of Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra in 1944.

My sitting behind Carter at a concert of his quartets in 1978 (when everybody was celebrating his 70th birthday and assuming there would never be any more string quartets from him) also reminded my friend that Carter sat next to Sting at a Kronos Quartet concert in New York in 1987 and neither of them knew who the other was. Of course, he added, Carter had also sat next to George Gershwin at the American Premiere of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck in Philadelphia in 1931.

It is easy to forget in today’s polarization that a composer like Gershwin could have even liked Berg’s Wozzeck, much less owned a score of it. When traveling in Europe, Gershwin met Berg (among many others) – you can read more about these connections in Alex Ross’ “The Rest Is Noise” – so the idea of a young and as yet unknown Elliott Carter sitting next to Gershwin (four years before the premiere of Porgy & Bess) brings to mind the meeting with Berg and with Berg's association with his teacher Arnold Schoenberg who as a young man had been a friend and protege of Gustav Mahler.

Sometimes when we listen to music, we hear echoes of the past. There’s a spot in Gustav Mahler’s 2nd Symphony, the “Resurrection,” that leaps out at me every time I hear it, a measure straight out of Johannes Brahms’ 2nd Symphony. And then I’m reminded of a conversation between Brahms the Old Master and Mahler the Young Radical, however apocryphal the story might be: they walked beside a stream while Brahms complained of the sorry state of contemporary music and how its greatness would die with him. Mahler took Brahms by the sleeve and pointed at the stream as they crossed over a bridge: “Look, Maestro, look!” And Brahms couldn’t see what he was pointing at. Mahler pointed again “See? It’s the last wave!”

As a young man, Brahms had met Robert Schumann who had also championed the unpublished works of Franz Schubert, having been handed a box of manuscripts by Schubert’s brother Ferdinand, a box that included the Great C Major Symphony which he passed onto his friend Mendelssohn who would conduct its first performance.

And Schubert, even if he hadn’t been at the first performance in Vienna of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony (he did mention attending another performance of just the first movement the following year), had been a pall-bearer at Beethoven’s funeral the year before his own death.

The story goes that Beethoven, even before he arrived in Vienna to study with Haydn, had come to Vienna when he was 20 to scout out the scene there, hoping to arrange to study with Mozart. Whether Mozart heard him play and actually said he would “make a noise in the world some day” can’t really be separated from legend but it’s very likely that Beethoven at least met him. And if not, the connection can still be made between Beethoven and his teacher Haydn who played 1st violin in a string quartet with Mozart playing the viola and who was also a good personal friend of his.

And Mozart as a boy traveling across Europe with his father Leopold met an influential composer in London named Johann Christian Bach, whose father, Johann Sebastian Bach, was not all that well known at the time.

It had not occurred to me, seeing the back of Carter’s head as I listened to his quartets, that there sat a living connection with Johann Sebastian Bach. Not that Elliott Carter wouldn't be feeling old enough these days or even know who Kevin Bacon is either, for that matter, but still... it is interesting to think how the continuity from the past continues to manifest itself from one generation to the next even as styles change and attitudes alter.

And in a way, I find that immensely comforting.

*** ***** ******** ***** ***
Photo Credits: Portrait of Elliott Carter taken by Jeff Herman; Pacifica Quartet publicity shot from their website; Naxos cover from the Pacifica Quartet's recent recording of Carter's 1st & 5th Quartets; Carter's Autograph on John Clare's program, from Classically Hip.

Additional: Hear an interview with the composer & the quartet about the new Pacifica CD.
Read the New York Times review by Steve Smith. Read John Clare's 5 Things About the Carter Quartets.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Critics in Cleveland: Further Thoughts


Today’s post was prompted by a recent e-mail exchange with a reader in Los Angeles, free-lance writer and critic Laurence Vittes researching an article about last month’s re-assignment of the Cleveland Plain Dealer’s chief music critic Donald Rosenberg from his long-held beat at Severance Hall where he covered the Cleveland Orchestra. I’d blogged about it before, mostly focusing on the critic newly assigned to replace Rosenberg, Zachary Lewis, who had once been a critic with the newspaper here in my home-town of Harrisburg, PA.

It’s not like enough cyberink hasn’t been wafted about already on the topic of “muzzling a critic” or however one wants to describe it. Rosenberg’s relationship with the orchestra’s conductor, Franz Welser-Möst, has been notoriously stormy, bringing up long-range questions both ethical and artistic. With the announcement of FWM’s extended contract renewal, apparently another question surfaced, as well: how long, oh Lord, can this go on?

Of course, from my standpoint as a non-critic occasionally writing what people would like to think of as reviews, I’m not sure how satisfactory it would be, going to work all the time and thinking “what’s the point? It’s never going to change, is it?” Oh wait... actually, I think many of us have asked that on a daily basis. But what I mean is, if you’ve written some pretty scathing reviews in the past, what’re the chances this night, compared to any other night, is going to be any different?

The standard formula in the arts world places the performer on one side, the critic on the other and in the middle, the listeners who may have heard the performance and the readers who may not have heard the performance or, having heard it, are curious what somebody who gets paid to write what they think about a concert might tell them what they heard or thought they heard.

How many times had I read reviews of concerts I’d attended and wondered if the critic and I were actually hearing the same performance? It’s not unusual for someone to like something and someone else to hate the same thing. We’re all wired differently.

Going back to Cleveland, it would be a problem if the critic in question was the only one with such a consistently negative opinion, though. When FWM and the orchestra toured in the States, they often received similar comments from local critics. But relentlessly, season in and season out, it begins to seem like there’s an axe to be ground.

But I was wondering if – presuming as has been stated there was no pressure from the orchestra – readers were beginning to tire of the one-sidedness of all this? Is it a bottom-line based decision, a concern for alienating the readers? As I said, at least they didn’t fire him (could they have gotten away with that?) or eliminate the position as has happened with other cities’ newspapers.

Now, I don't read the sports pages, so I don't know what a paper might do if, say, the city has a lousy team or a losing coach and the sports-writer is constantly browbeating them in the press. Do they expect their columns are going to get the coach or a player fired? Would the editor "re-assign" the writer if he continued in too negative a strain for too long a time? I don't know.

But if the team is doing well, makes it to the play-offs and the crowds are generally cheering them on, it seems the writer just doesn't like the coach or a certain player or possibly has a problem with the whole team: how long would it take for the editors to react then? Or the readers, of often irrational irasciblility, who might demand something a little more dire than mere “re-assignment” (a vat of oil near the boiling point, for starters).

Then I realized I hadn’t checked back to see what reviews Zach Lewis has written since that first concert, the one with the Bruckner 7th Symphony (a Franz Welser-Möst specialty) described as “deliberate,” “slow pace[d]”, “lopsided.” I figured he would not write an “all sweet and lovely” review, but I kept thinking what if he too keeps finding things to “criticize,” using the word in the negative sense?

In a more recent performance with Beethoven’s 5th Symphony and Lang Lang playing the Chopin E Minor Piano Concerto, he described the concert as “setting one important score on fire and leaving another in ashes.”

In the Chopin, Lang Lang...

- - - - - - - - -
“...proves ideal. Sure, he often breaks the musical speed limit, but he does so at his blazing version of leisure, without sacrificing clarity or devolving into a single-minded sprint.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of Beethoven's Symphony No. 5, as rendered by the orchestra and Welser-MÖst. Here, speed limits count for little, and the music suffers greatly.”
- - - - - - - - -

In the final movement, he remarks that a slightly slower approach to the tempo “is still too brisk for the musicians to round out Beethoven's portrait of order restored. Instead, one merely senses chaos minimized.”

With the orchestra’s role in the Chopin best described as “modest” and a war-horse like Beethoven’s 5th, how much rehearsal time did they actually allot for this concert?

I don’t know if anyone at Severance Hall is having flashbacks to Rosenberg’s reviews, but mine were going back to the Old Days of Lorin Maazel and the under-rehearsed Mozart G Minor Symphony I heard them play at Carnegie Hall in the late-70s, mentioned in my earlier post.

The previous concert included the other Mozart G Minor Symphony – No. 25, the one that featured so prominently in the opening of the film “Amadeus” and still sounds amazing when you consider Mozart was 17 when he wrote it. Their performance had good chamber-music-like qualities in the middle movements, but, he concludes,

- - - - - - -
“ the bolder first and last movements, Welser-MÖst and the orchestra tended to substitute stateliness and articulate counterpoint for fire and urgency. Polish is always a virtue in Mozart, but in the exceptionally dark 25th Symphony, a little grit isn't out of place, either.”
- - - - - - -

Of one of two works played with the soloist, pianist Emanuel Ax, Lewis wrote that in Karol Szymanowski’s rarely heard “Symphonie concertante” (his Symphony No. 4 which is really a substantial work for piano and orchestra, more concerto than symphony),

- - - - - - -
“... the pianist joined ranks with Welser-MÖst and the orchestra to cut through the thickets of a dense, prickly score and expose music of both visceral intensity and sincere emotion.”
- - - - - - -

What it’s like working in the corner of the Plain Dealer’s office where the arts folk hang out, I have no idea, but I imagine the politics must be very difficult to navigate. Rosenberg was certainly a star writer on the staff: did they move him out of an office, too? At least they didn’t escort him from the building. If he decides to move on, if he prefers reviewing orchestras to chamber music and ballet programs, how would another newspaper view his application? “What if he doesn’t like our conductor?” Could be a confidence issue...

I rather doubt Zach was told, along with what his word-limit would be for a review, that he can only spend no more than 33% of those words making negative comments. But still, it makes you think: happy to have a job? wanna keep it?

Justifiable criticism is one thing. Whether Rosenberg’s constant commentary about FWM’s interpretations was viewed as “unjustifiable,” I can only imagine. He, meanwhile, continues to cover “other concerts” like this review of the farewell appearance of the Guarneri Quartet who will be retiring at the end of this season (they’ll be playing at Market Square Concerts here in April, one of their very last concerts as one of the great legendary quartets of the past 44 years). In Cleveland, they played two of Beethoven’s most introspective Late Quartets, Op. 127 and Op. 132.

- - - - - - -
“To say that the Guarneri has come far in its view of Beethoven in the four-plus decades the music has been on the players' stands would be an understatement. The ensemble made one of the great recordings of the complete Beethoven quartets in the 1960s for RCA. Those performances are probing, taut and invigorating.

Tuesday's concert revealed a different Guarneri. The playing has become increasingly introspective in recent years, with an emphasis on utmost subtlety of interplay and dynamics. The approach takes the term "chamber music" literally: these performances would probably best be experienced in a small room.”
- - - - - - -

This also brought with it another flashback, going back some 35 years to my Eastman days when I sat in the recital hall (seating around 600) listening to the Guarneri Quartet playing Beethoven’s Third “Razumovsky” Quartet. Speaking of speed limits in Beethoven, the finale began at such a clip, I was amazed they could keep it together, it was going by so fast. It hadn’t occurred to me, at the time, this wasn’t a good thing, hot-dogging Beethoven like that. But while the Music Police didn’t show up to give them a ticket for excessive speeding in the Fugue, it was amusing that as an encore, first violinist Arnold Steinhardt announced they would play the last movement of the Razumovsky again – at the proper tempo. Yes, much better!!

*** ***** ******** ***** ***

What power does a critic actually have, these days? In some cities – New York, certainly – a bad review by an important critic can ruin a young artist’s career or close down a play. Just the other day, I was reading New York Times theater critic Ben Brantley’s review of a new production of the play, To Be or Not To Be which he describes as a “walking corpse of a comedy” and mentions that it “has the spring, color and freshness of long-refrigerated celery.” Yum – just makes you want to run right out and buy a ticket, doesn’t it?

But I’m not sure there’s the same kind of life-or-death power when the object is a long-established ensemble or a conductor with a contract, the artistic equivalent of tenure. It’s unlikely that a single critic will single-handedly deep-six a famous maestro: at worst, the maestro might invest in the psychological equivalent of a can of bug-spray, the kind of repellent (or denial) that most artists use when confronted by negative criticism. They might publicly shrug their shoulders but I rather doubt they’re hurt much by it.

It’s not likely Mr. Rosenberg would have felt himself so powerful he could bring down Franz Welser-Möst.

Still, it would not be the first time critics lined up against the conductor. The constant nagging of many of London’s critics along with the animosity of the musicians and the ambiguity of the management eventually drove him out of town six years after he became the music-director of the London Philharmonic at the age of 30. The musicians dubbed him “Frankly Worse-than-Most” – and frankly, I was surprised to see him land in Cleveland in 2002 where, one assumes by the riper age of 42, he has improved with experience. At any rate, this past June the Cleveland Orchestra management renewed his contract through 2018. I suppose critics can write whatever they want to about him, now.

This, however, is interesting: from blog-comments by people presumably on the inside of the situation. A former employee of the orchestra’s management thought Rosenberg was biased whenever he reviewed FWM (who, keep in mind, is not the only conductor in front of the orchestra: he spends 18 weeks a season there). This former employee writes

- - - - - - -
“His editors were told several years ago that his view was biased when Franz was on the podium and he was issued a stern warning that he needed to be less biased. For a short while he was writing fair reviews and then he started in on the negativity again. ...[T]hey weren’t attempting to get rid of him because he wasn’t giving them glowing reviews all the time. They were trying to get a fair review off of someone who is a well respected critic who was showing an obvious bias.”
- - - - - - -

A violinist in Cleveland (and judging from the content, a member of the orchestra) writes

- - - - - - -
“The orchestra members are fleeing like rats from a sinking ship - for a REASON. Ellie and Dan didn’t leave to pursue other musical endeavors - they (and others) left because of the cruel, uncompromising egotism of the baton-wielder.

I didn’t always concur with Don’s reviews, but the fact remains - FWM is a horrifyingly mediocre conductor who found himself trying to fill impossibly big shoes...” [referring to former music director Christoph von Dohnanyi].
- - - - - - -

This, of course, brings to mind issues between musicians and maestros, most openly in the Seattle Symphony, but that’s a whole ‘nother story... Yet perhaps Rosenberg is sensing some underlying animosity in the lack of communication between the players and the audience (or at least, himself as a member of the audience), stemming from a lack of communication (and perhaps respect?) between the conductor and the musicians.

Still, it is a rare orchestra that is free from such tension. Players in the Philadelphia Orchestra have been quite vocal about their dislike of their music director Christoph Eschenbach. A few of the concerts I'd heard with him conducting were mediocre, considering it was the legendary Philadelphia Orchestra. Eschenbach is now leaving, having served the shortest tenure of any of the orchestra's storied conductors, a mere five years. As the President of the orchestra's management told the maestro in 2006, according to Peter Dobrin of the Philadelphia Inquirer,

- - - - - - -
"- that 80 percent of the musicians did not agree with his artistic interpretations;
- that 80 percent of the musicians left concerts feeling great anger;
- and that the orchestra was a ‘ticking time bomb.’”
- - - - - - -

And just a few weeks ago, it was announced the National Symphony has named Christoph Eschenbach as its new music director, starting in 2010. Hmmmm...

So, trying to find some perspective in my assumptions, let’s say I think Rosenberg is probably not imagining things when he goes to a Cleveland Orchestra concert conducted by FWM whether he is biased or being honest. I don’t feel the Plain Dealer gave Rosenberg a fair deal when it chose to reassign him, though as an internal decision, how does one argue with modern-day American corpocracy?

But in all of this, since I have no personal stake in Cleveland, its newspaper, the career of Maestro Möst or of Daniel Rosenberg, I can only add I feel glad that, circumstances aside, someone I know and respect has landed in a position that will, hopefully, work to his benefit. After placing him between a rock and a hard place, I hope it will give him a different kind of work-out than his predecessor received. I wish him all the luck in the world.