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.

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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.

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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...

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“...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.”
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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,

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“ 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.”
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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),

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“... 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.”
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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.

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“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.”
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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!!

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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

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

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“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].
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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.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Dr. Atomic at the Met... and maybe a Theater Near You

Though the Metropolitan Opera’s new 125th Anniversary season began last month at their Lincoln Center home and the radio broadcasts do not begin until November 29th, the HD-Transmissions have already begun. These movie-broadcasts (perhaps not the most elegant way to refer to them) bring HD-quality live broadcasts directly to hundreds of movie theaters across the country and around the world.

The opening night Gala with reigning diva Renée Fleming (Eastman '83) was broadcast live on September 22nd - a young cellist whose blog I’ve been following responded enthusiastically to having seen it.

Richard Strauss’ Salome with Karita Matilla in the title role of this highly acclaimed production was broadcast last Saturday, October 11th. But in case you missed it, there is a rebroadcast on October 22nd!

When this opera was new in 1905, it became the greatest musical scandal of the age (at least until the Rite of Spring exploded in Paris in 1911). People thought it was disgusting (Salome kissing the lips of the severed head of John the Baptist), the music ear-wrenching. It was banned in London, it closed after a single performance in New York City at the Met and took 13 years before it censors finally allowed it to be performed in Vienna. The original Salome refused to do the now-famous “Dance of the Seven Veils” because she was “a decent woman,” and so began the tradition of having a ballet dancer (thereby implying she was not a decent woman but that was okay) who stepped in to dance it instead.

Things have changed. Karita Matilla not only did her own dance, she even, briefly after shedding the seventh veil, appeared nude on stage (though this was not to be included in the HD-Transmission, we were informed). Times change, in a mere 103 years...

The next transmission is a very special one – a new production of an opera still new, premiered only in 2005 in San Francisco and by one of the leading composers writing today. John Adams’ Dr. Atomic, like his earlier operas, explores more modern historical events than opera usually brings to the stage, but focusing on timeless conflicts: behind the story of the first atomic bomb is the personal struggle between science and spirituality.

There’s background information on-line here – on the opera itself, the libretto, even a rehearsal blog! The dress rehearsal was open to 1,000 high school and college students, many of them science majors for whom opera itself might have been a whole new experience – certainly the opera for all of them, even those familiar with opera as a musical medium, would’ve been new.

Meanwhile over at The Rest Is Noisethe book-of-the-same-name just came out in paperback, btw: if you haven’t read it already, what are you waiting for?? – Alex Ross posts a rehearsal clip with Gerald Finley singing Robert Oppenheimer’s pivotal aria quoting John Donne’s “Batter My Heart, Three-person’d God.”

The first Met performance is this weekend, Saturday evening, October 18th – but it’s on the HD Schedule for Saturday November 8th beginning at 1:00 EST, a live transmission of that day’s matinee performance – perhaps at a theater near you! Some of these may also be carrying an encore transmission on November 19th - I see my neighborhood cineplex is offering this one also, so maybe I’ll go see it twice!

Even though most of my readers at Thoughts on a Train are not just from Central Pennsylvania – unlike my previous, now-defunct station-related blog – I’ll mention that I’m going to go see the “movie broadcast” about 3 miles from my house. You can find out how to locate a theater in your area that might be close enough!

If you get a chance to see it live at the Met, it’s scheduled through November 13th, so there’s not much chance to wait and see it after the HD-transmission and you just have to see it live in the house...

Another reason to be excited about this performance of Dr. Atomic: it’s the first opportunity for many of us outside of New York and other symphonic hot-spots to see the young conductor Alan Gilbert who will become the new music director of the New York Philharmonic next season.

Then later in the month, on November 22nd, the next HD-transmission will bring you the Met’s staged production of Berlioz’s Damnation of Faust (I’m sure the proximity of these two stories is purely coincidental) which will also open the radio broadcast season on the 29th of November, guaranteed to brighten up the ol’ family gathering for your Thanksgiving Weekend.

For more information about the radio broadcasts, you can find a station in your area scheduled to broadcast the Saturday matinees. In Central Pennsylvania, that would be either WITF-FM (89.5) or WJAZ-FM (91.7). You can also listen to Met performances on Sirius satellite radio.

Highlights of the broadcast season will include an “archive” broadcast of Dr. Atomic in January, since the performance-run concludes before the broadcast season begins, and a complete cycle of Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung beginning in March ‘09. I’m only sorry they didn’t offer The Ring in HD. But since they say this is going to be the last outing for its current production, perhaps they’re going to save the HD version for a new production already in the works?

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Connections: Brahms' Double Concerto in Harrisburg

Saturday night’s concert with the Harrisburg Symphony was more than just a fine performance: there was an unexpected connection that made the experience beyond just hearing the music.

I’ve known cellist Daniel Gaisford for a few years, now, and in addition to several recitals had heard him play the Elgar Concerto with the orchestra in 1997 under their previous music director, Richard Westerfield. Violinist Kurt Nikkanen played the Brahms Concerto in 2003 and before that, Lalo’s Symphonie Espagnol with Stuart Malina. As long as Kurt and Daniel have known each other, having met as students at Juilliard, it’s odd they’ve never had the chance to play Brahms’ Double Concerto together,

In an earlier post, I wrote (and wrote) about Brahms, this concerto, his friendship for Joachim and his attempt to rekindle the friendship after a major falling-out. I also hypothesized about the reason this work was a concerto for violin and cello rather than just for the violin, for Joachim himself.

Ever since I first heard the work back in the mid-60s when I bought an Angel LP with David Oistrakh and Pierre Fournier (recorded in 1956), it sounded more like a cello concerto with an additional violin solo part - not exactly tacked on like an afterthought, but not quite of equal stature. If Joachim had been counting notes the way Heifetz did when he and Piatigorsky rehearsed Miklos Rozsa’s Double Concerto, Brahms would probably have been taken to task for not treating them equally to the same number of notes. And since Brahms had just written Haussmann a cello sonata the year before, who’s to say the germ for this new concerto wasn’t a Cello Concerto that failed to get off the ground? Since Haussmann was the cellist in Joachim’s quartet, it might seem like an affront to his old friendship with Joachim, one that went back 34 years, so perhaps the germ mutated into something else entirely, much the way his first attempt at a symphony turned itself into his D Minor Piano Concerto?

All of that aside, it was fun to watch these two friends enjoying a work so closely involved with friendship – and to have Stuart Malina on the podium, a mutual friend who frequently plays piano trios with them whenever they’d all be in town. Stuart started his 9th season with the orchestra and has been an active part of the community ever since, a genuine bonus for Harrisburg in an age when many orchestras have drive-by music directors. Daniel has called Harrisburg home, where he and his wife have settled to raise their two sons, trundling off to New York or other points here and abroad for concerts. In recent years, he has taken on the directorship of the State Street Academy of Music which hopes to develop a pivotal role in the present and future musical life of Harrisburg. In order to benefit some of the community’s gifted string players, he asked his friend Kurt Nikkanen to come in for some master classes and lessons and to perform at the school’s center at State Street’s St. Lawrence Chapel. So it’s much more than just two soloists on the road whose paths converged for a weekend’s concerts.

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Update: As of Thursday, October 10th, Daniel Gaisford resigned as director of the State Street Academy. He informed me that the Sunday afternoon concert series has been canceled for the season.
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One of the problems in performing the Brahms Double, of course, is finding two soloists of like temperament so that it, in fact, DOESN’T sound like two great artists, each trying to play it his way, slapped together to play a great piece. Though I haven’t heard it in years, the Oistrakh & Fournier recording was probably not one to convert me to the piece, a work that’s often described as the “least” of Brahms concertos (considering there are only four). It’s more than just players being on the same level, more like the same wave-length.

There were things happening in this performance that could only happen between musicians who really know each others’ playing, how they’ll respond to a phrase, how they’ll respond to each other. It would certainly only get better – telepathic or otherwise – when Kurt can free himself by memorizing the music, too, though it certainly didn’t seem to inhibit him, here.

Another problem with performing the Brahms Double – and I’ll try not to sound like Michael Palin (no relation) in Monty Python’s “The Spanish Inquisition” – is balancing the orchestra with the two soloists. Brahms’ textures tend to the “thick” side which can easily become stodgy. A few years ago, I talked with a cellist who had recently recorded the Brahms Double in Europe with a conductor he said sounded as if he’d eaten too much bratwurst, conducting Brahms as a composer who had eaten too much bratwurst himself. I remembered hearing that recording: I liked the cellist’s playing but didn’t really like the piece. That wasn’t the problem here: everybody was able to keep it light enough, Brahms had no trouble dancing.

If the energy between the two soloists was clearly the result of their chamber music experience, Stuart Malina and the whole orchestra were able to respond in the same manner – listening to the soloists and to each other, not just playing their parts and counting measures’ rest in between. Not to mention, as Malina joked afterward in the talk-back, “watching the conductor,” something that would seem obvious but is not always the case. By keeping in tight communication with the podium, the whole orchestra could stretch a phrase or push toward a cadence if the soloists felt like doing so – and this is something that, frankly, one player who isn’t paying attention can ruin very easily.

This kind of back-and-forth involvement was evident all evening, from the Liszt tone poem, Les Preludes, that opened the program to the Hanson “Romantic” Symphony on the second half. It’s all the more surprising when you consider at least seven key principal players were missing: because the Lancaster Symphony’s opening concerts were the same weekend (as their schedules often collide), that means one orchestra or another is going to be without its principal winds – the 1st flute, clarinet, and bassoon each play in both orchestras. For other reasons, the principal oboist, the principal hornist and the timpanist were all “subs,” too – musicians hired from the substitute players’ list. Even the crucial role of the Concertmaster was filled by the second-chair player, Peter Sirotin, while Odin Rathnam recuperated from a shoulder injury.

Incidentally, if you heard either performance, there's a poll over at Stuart Malina's blog - and you can read his post about the weekend's concert, too.

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

Sometimes you find something out about a performance only afterward that makes the whole experience a little different from what you thought you were listening to. Years ago, in 1985, I remember catching a telecast of Verdi’s Aida, back in the days when it was not unusual to see something like this on TV, with Leontyne Price in the title role. Now, I had heard the opera many times, seen it a few as well, but there was something about this performance that was riveting and I couldn’t take my ears off it, tuning in late during the third act aria “O patria mia.” Only during the wild ovation at the end did I understand why: this was going to be Leontyne Price’s last performance at the Metropolitan Opera, in fact from any operatic stage.

Saturday night’s performance with the Harrisburg Symphony had nothing quite so dramatic about it – no impending farewells, at least – but there was a shiver of after-the-fact recognition during the post-concert “talk-back session” when someone asked Daniel Gaisford about his instrument’s pedigree. Sometimes, musicians sound like people talking about the cars they drive – “my first car was a 1969 Corvair” – and we forget, sometimes, that Stradivarius was a man, not a brand-name. I had known that Gaisford plays a 1706 Goffriller known as the “Ex-Warburg,” made by the Venetian luthier Matteo Goffriller. But only when he rattled off a list of past owners, many of whom I missed due to the bad miking in the Forum, did I hear one name that made my ears sit up: Robert Haussmann.

This was the cellist who played the first performance of Brahms’ Double Concerto, the cellist Brahms composed it for. Is it possible that this very instrument was the one Haussmann played the night of its premiere?

If not, the fact that this cello was even played by the cellist for whom Brahms wrote his 2nd Cello Sonata and who often played with him in chamber music concerts, it’s very likely, at the least, Brahms might have heard him play it.

The question, however, is when did Haussmann own the 1706 Goffriller now known as the Ex-Warburg? If he purchased it after 1887, then it might not have been the one he played with Joachim at the first performance of Brahms’ new concerto. If he came to own it only after 1897, that would be after Brahms’ death (and Haussmann continued to play in Joachim’s quartet until 1907, two years before his own death). If he owned more than one instrument, maybe he played the other one? Things are further confused, Daniel told me after the talk-back, because Haussmann owned two Goffrillers, both apparently made in 1706.

The description of Haussmann’s cello – with its dark finish – would very likely make it the cello in this undated photograph (see below) with Haussmann (erroneously labeled as Richard, not Robert) seated next to Brahms, a photo that probably coincided with a private performance at the house of Dr. Richard Fellinger and his wife Maria, who’s standing behind the piano.

Other house-concerts took place there with clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld whose mellifluous sound brought Brahms out of retirement. Haussmann had been the cellist at the premiere of the Clarinet Trio in 1891, two years after Brahms made the famous Edison cylinder recording at Fellinger’s piano in 1889 (is this the voice of Johannes Brahms? it’s definitely him playing the piano). In 1886, Brahms had composed the 2nd Cello Sonata for Haussmann and the Double Concerto pairing Haussmann with his Joachim in 1887. Judging from other photographs, I’m assuming Brahms is older, here, so I’m also guessing he’s probably already in his 60s by then, taken around 1893 or later. So unless both 1706 Goffrillers have the same dark finish, this is probably Daniel Gaisford’s cello, just a few feet from Johannes Brahms.

Whether it’s one or two degrees of separation from the first performance of the work I had just heard played by this instrument – placing the instrument, the performer, the composer and maybe the concerto all in the same place at one point in time – it is a connection with the past that gives me musical goose-bumps, proving that composers like Brahms are not just marble busts but, somehow, human beings who just happened to write all this great music long ago.

Incidentally, speaking of being human, the painting on the easel behind Brahms and Haussmann is a portrait of Clara Schumann. Returning to Jan Swafford’s biography of Brahms, Maria Fellinger was a painter, sculptor and photographer who took many candid shots of Brahms – I had actually cropped this photo in the earlier post, cutting off Frau Fellinger standing behind the piano. Brahms had known the family since 1881 and Sunday dinners at their house “became one of his most reliable rituals.” There is also a famous portrait (otherwise uncredited) of the usually tie-less Brahms that Swafford captions “The cravat he is wearing may be one of those Marie Fellinger made for him.” She was also responsible for finding him the house-keeper who would look after him and his apartment during his last decade. Though it turned out not to be in danger, it was Dr. Fellinger who ran back into the burning building when the carpenter shop on the ground floor where Brahms was staying one summer caught fire: he rescued the score of the just completed 4th Symphony while Brahms, staying in line at the bucket brigade, said later “these poor people needed help more than I did..”

Kurt was playing a violin by Guarneri del Gesu, one of the greatest violin-makers, easily second to the best-known name of Stradivarius. It too has a fascinating story – or lack of story, in a way – but I’ll save that for later, perhaps. The amount of money you can spend on instruments like these is mind-boggling - even bows that can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars - so it was amusing that Stuart then said “and my baton cost $6.00,” to which Kurt replied, “but what a sound!” Joking about this afterward, when I mentioned that may explain why so many violinists have been taking up conducting, Stuart added “and flutists.” If I’d been quicker, I would’ve responded, “Sarah Palin’s taking up conducting?” (Well, if she’s seen an orchestra from across the street, I guess she’d be experienced enough, right?)

On Sunday, both Kurt and Daniel were going to be playing different instruments, both made by a maker who’s still living – it would be interesting to have been at both of concerts (or have them both recorded) to be able to compare these recent instruments with those that are 300 years old. As for me, I’m glad, if there was only one concert I could attend, that I heard Saturday’s concert if only because of that possible connection between that cello, Brahms and his Double Concerto.

Well, that’s about 2,100 words... so I’m outta here, for now.

I’m sorry I missed the Lancaster Symphony’s opening concerts. Market Square Concerts opens their new season on Saturday with the Daedalus Quartet, so I hope to get something posted between now and then about this young quartet I’d heard a few years ago at a Next Generation Festival. But Tuesday morning brings with it a quick reality check as my front lawn continues to be dug up, this time to replace a water-well pump that is only 46 years old... Onward!