Sailing to Jersey


Our Girl in Chicago brings up the subject of humor in Henry James, which reminds me of a favorite passage in The American Scene. Absent from his homeland many years, James finds himself, for reasons not quite divulged, on a steamer to the Jersey shore within a few hours of his arrival. If I am not mistaken, what follows is the world's first New Jersey joke:

Heavy with fruit, in particular, was the whole spreading bough that rustled above me during an afternoon, a very wonderful afternoon, that I spent in being ever so wisely driven, driven further and further, into the large lucidity of — well, of what else shall I call it but a New Jersey condition? ... It might have threatened, for twenty minutes, to be almost complicating, but the truth was recorded: it was an adventure, unmistakably, to have a revelation made so convenient — to be learning at last, in the maturity of one's powers, what New Jersey might "connote." This was nearer than I had ever come to any such experience; and it was now as if, all my life, my curiosity had been greater than I knew.

This seems as good a moment as any to reveal that I am taking another break from the blog; I must spend a few dark weeks in the maw of Book. I'll be back in time for Actual Easter. Please patronize Music Blogs. Support a starving composer.

Agenda 3/28 - 4/3

A good week ahead. On Monday I'll be at the Boston Symphony concert already adumbrated. If the new pieces by Harbison and Wuorinen don't pan out, Levine puts on a grand Brahms Second. On Wednesday I'm in NJ for Harry Partch opera's Oedipus, in Montclair. Why Montcair? The armory of microtonal instruments that the remarkable Partch constructed for the performance of his music is now in the possession of Montclair State University. I will thus miss a Juilliard recital by violist Nadia Sirota, who is playing the Bach Chaconne, the Britten Lachrymae, and two premieres by Ryan Streber and Nico Muhly, the second an electronic piece featuring pre-recorded vocals by Antony of Antony & The Johnsons and programming by Björk's longtime collaborator Valgeir Sigurdsson. On Thursday, the Orchestra of St. Luke's plays Carnegie under the direction of Donald Runnicles, who shot up sharply in my estimation after his fluid and characteristic Rosenkavalier at the Met. The program includes Martinu's Revue de cuisine, a nineteen-twenties "jazz" ballet involving kitchen implements, and Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 25 with the hyper-musical Ivan Moravec. Saturday night, the American Youth Symphony presents a new piece by Lera Auerbach, a young Russian-émigré composer who's written music of extraordinary power and intensity. Finally, on Sunday, the New York City Opera introduces a new production of Puccini's Girl of the Golden West, which hasn't been staged in this city in years.

Wuorinen v. Wuorinen

There's a mini-symposium in the New York Times among conductor James Levine and composers Charles Wuorinen and John Harbison, all of whom figure in a Boston Symphony concert on Monday at Carnegie Hall. The discussion is moderated by Daniel J. Wakin, the Times' classical-music reporter, who's been doing a fantastic job on his beat. Here Wakin asks some sharp questions, with interesting results:

WAKIN: wrote [in 1979] that the tonal system could be found only in backward-looking serious composers, is no longer used by serious mainstream composers, has been replaced and succeeded by the 12-tone system.
WUORINEN: Well, that's a categorical statement which cannot be — of course, it had more to it then, although to some extent it is obsolete now. But it depends on what you mean by the tonal system.
LEVINE: That is spoken by a man who is tired of how difficult it is to make anything understood, in any of these distinctions.

So that's all cleared up. I like what John Harbison has to say about the future of contemporary music: "I'm very optimistic. Somewhere along the way I became the opposite of worried. And I think it's because I began to understand the carrying power of the intensity, as against the rule of numbers. And intensity wins every time." Yes! Intensity is what composers have to offer. They have the opportunity to work on big canvases, in forms and languages entirely of their choosing, and whether they write pure diatonic tonality, pure atonality, twelve-tone, microtonal, spectral, computer-electronic, neo-medieval, or, perhaps, all of the above, they will find their audience if they write with intensity of feeling and clarity of purpose. Those who teach should ask not whether their students are writing in the "correct style" but whether they are achieving what they're aiming at. I think composition teachers have learned from the mistakes of previous generations, and now understand this. I think.

Boulez is alive

B000031x7y01_sclzzzzzzz__3A fascinating piece in the Guardian compiles various composers' assessments of Pierre Boulez, who celebrates his eightieth birthday tomorrow. They range from the effusive to the dismissive; the comment by Thomas Adès is especially striking. Would it have been better to suspend, at least for one day, the endless feuding that the name Boulez inspires? Absolutely not — it would betray the splendidly pitiless spirit of this singular man, who spoke so contemptuously of his elders when he was young, and who still happily goes on the warpath. Just last year he had this to say about his old friend Stravinsky: "[He] began so well, pursuing a real line of development. But then he becomes an epigone, trying this historical style, then that one. There is virtuosity of gesture, but no content." Oh, Pierre. Happy birthday!

What would Elgar say?

Composers have been generating some nutty headlines lately. Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, Master of the Queen's Musick, was recently questioned by the Northern Constabulary when a half-eaten swan carcass turned up on his Orkney Islands estate. The swan is a protected bird in the UK, and the police were unamused when Sir Peter offered them swan terrine. (Would this taste good, Amateur Gourmet?) In Russia, Leonid Desyatnikov, a polymorphous composer with minimalist leanings, has written a wildly controversial opera entitled Rosenthal's Children, in which a renegade Nazi geneticist  succeeds in cloning Mozart, Verdi, Wagner, Mussorgsky, and Tchaikovsky. All five geniuses sing onstage, and there are also fleeting appearances by Stalin, Krushchev, Gorbachev, and Yeltsin. No word yet on whether Stalin and Krushchev have sex, as happens in the novel on which the opera is based.

Rather less nutty, and all too familiar, is another story out of Scotland, this one concerning the composer James Dillon. He threw a public fit when the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, under the direction of Alexander Lazarev, mangled his latest work. Any composer will be able to reel off a few horror stories of this kind: orchestras, who pride themselves on extreme professionalism, do not always include decent treatment of living composers in their job description. Most of the victims suffer in silence, anxious not to bite the hand that offers them crumbs. Dillon has bravely chosen to speak out. Lazarev, by the way, is the same self-righteous twit who mocked and humiliated a Sydney, Australia audience after they applauded the third movement of Tchaikovsky's Sixth.

Woefully underrepresented in this odd litany are American composers. Let's work up some publicity, people! I want to see Aaron Jay Kernis arrested for trying to smuggle zebra meat through LaGuardia; or Jennifer Higdon wiretapped by Homeland Security after writing an opera entitled Condi's Secret; or Richard Danielpour banned for life from Lincoln Center for throwing pies at Lorin Maazel. In my dreams....

Okey Denoke

The German soprano Angela Denoke is giving a first-rate performance as the Marschallin in Rosenkavalier at the Met. Any New Yorker who loves Strauss' sixteen-ton comedy, or who wants to experience the ultimate artistic meditation on the self-absorbed minitragedies of thirtysomethings, should try to see it. Denoke sings with phenomenal purity of tone, yet she is also an emotionally transparent, actorly performer; there's a welcome lack of expert caution in her delivery, and an expressive dark lining to even her brightest upper notes. Last night, Kristine Jepson was an excellent, athletic Oktavian; the appealing Laura Aikin had maybe a bit of an off night as Sophie (constricted in the early part of Act II); Peter Rose cut a likeable, consistently funny figure as Ochs, enlivening parts of the opera that can otherwise drag (as it were). Donald Runnicles avoided the over-refulgent, singer-swamping sound that has marred some of James Levine's performances of this work; in all, it was a luminous, fleet-footed night. Ja, ja!

Messiaen's Beyond

The great event in New York this week is the return of Olivier Messiaen's Éclairs sur l'Au-Delà, or Illuminations of the Beyond, which had its premiere at the New York Philharmonic in November 1992. The composer of the Quartet for the End of Time finished this eleven-movement cycle shortly before his death in April of the same year; it is a long, difficult, wayward, fiercely eloquent, and stupendously beautiful work. More than that I won't say; if you live in New York, hear for yourself.

The boy who cried zwolf

Kyle Gann writes, in a long disquisition on Schoenberg and twelve-tone music: "I think what we need to do is quit teaching 20th-century history with a dishonest thumb on the scale in Schoenberg’s favor. For decades, academic historians have presented the Second Vienna School as central to a European modernist canon, at the expense of dozens of other composers more popular, outside academia, than Schoenberg: Copland, Milhaud, Cowell, Hindemith, Shostakovich, Gershwin, Messiaen, Britten, Weill, Cage, Partch. It’s time to restore these composers to the center of 20th-century music, and redraw 12-tone music as the interesting but infertile cul-de-sac that it was." This is more or less what I am trying to do in my book, though I wouldn't go so far as to say that Schoenberg is less significant than Milhaud, or, for that matter, less popular than Partch. The big story in 20th-century music is, in my view, not the "death of tonality," which in fact never happened, but the rejuvenation of tonality, which began with Debussy and Satie. Schoenberg's positive achievement was to add new harmonies to the field. He didn't see it that way, of course; he wanted the new chords to replace the old. Even he, at the end of his life, realized that his earlier edicts had been too severe, as his correspondence with the hyper-dogmatic René Leibowitz shows.

I'm not sure about Kyle's choice of the word "infertile," though. Sometimes fertility works in mysterious ways. What's always worth mentioning about twelve-tone music is that it's not the same thing as "atonality," which is a fuzzy concept in itself. It does not dictate the content of a piece. It does not forbid the use of tonal elements, such as major or minor triads; indeed, unless precautions are taken in the construction of the row, it often generates them "by accident," as happens, rather mischievously, in much of Milton Babbitt's music both early and late. If you arrange your rows to encourage triads, say by choosing C E G D F A F# A# C# G# B D#, you will end up with a Richard Strauss-style barrage of chords: C major! D minor! No, wait! F# major! G# minor! Crazy! Whee! Alban Berg discovered this loophole right away, and rejoiced in it; he was able to resume writing grand late-Romantic music, which he had never really given up, while ostensibly following his Master's rules. He was like those prep-school kids who interpret "coat and tie" to mean sweatpants and T-shirts with tie and coat on top. It was Sibelius who said that Berg was Schoenberg's greatest work.

Paradox: By arguing with Schoenberg, we are reaffirming his importance. — Brendan McNamara has more.

Hello, hello, hello

A delightful article by Nick Paumgarten in the New Yorker describes the new science of Popstrology, which analyzes your personality on the basis of whatever pop song topped the charts on the day of your birth. Michael Eisner, for example, was born under the sign of Glenn Miller's "Moonlight Cocktail," while 50 Cent is a child of the Starland Vocal Band's "Afternoon Delight." My Birthsong, I'm proud to say, is the Beatles' "Hello Goodbye." Not exactly my favorite Beatles song, but far better than the annoying "Judy in Disguise," which I missed by just forty-eight hours. (Birthmate John Anderies, don't you agree?) Particularly apposite to my life as a classical music critic are the lines, "I say high, you say low / You say why, and I say I don't know."

Poul Ruders, Mark Adamo

"Kafka Sings."

by Alex Ross

The New Yorker,
March 28, 2005.

The Danish composer Poul Ruders is one of contemporary music’s free agents — a lover of sweet melodies with a yen for dark chords, a comedian with a flair for apocalypse. His previous opera, “The Handmaid’s Tale,” made sonic thunder out of Margaret Atwood’s novel of a dystopian America ruled by Christian  fundamentalists. His major orchestral pieces — “Thus Saw Saint John,” the “Solar Trilogy," a First Symphony subtitled “Rejoicing from the Heavens, Grieving Unto Death” — unfold hypnotically wayward narratives that reel from antic joy to frozen despair. (There are excellent recordings on the Bridge and Da Capo labels.) Ruders has a special knack for reinventing familiar tonal harmonies and styles; he uses them sometimes to mourn lost worlds, sometimes to suggest otherworldly innocence, sometimes to convey the banality of evil. All these devices are hurled at the audience in his latest work, “Kafka’s Trial,” which had its première on March 12th at the Royal Danish Theatre.

Composers are mysteriously drawn to “The Trial,” Kafka’s tale of a bank clerk randomly hounded by the Law. Perhaps, like poor Joseph K., they feel persecuted for no reason. Gottfried von Einem produced a straightforward, solemn adaptation in 1953. A decade later, Gunther Schuller, in “The Visitation,” boldly transposed the action to black America. Ruders, in tune with modern times, makes the story all about sex and guilt. The libretto, by Paul Bentley, blends scenes from Kafka’s life with scenes from the novel. The plot is framed by the author’s crazed epistolary engagement to Felice Bauer, who, in July, 1914, convened a family tribunal in a Berlin hotel room to confront her fiancé with his neuroses. In the wake of that fiasco, Kafka wrote “The Trial.” Bentley believes that Kafka considered himself guilty of misleading Bauer, and that the killing of Joseph K. at the end of the novel is a form of self-criticism. Kafka scholars may not buy that theory, but there’s no harm in rewriting history if it makes for good theatre.

Alas, it doesn’t. Ruders has said in interviews that he wanted to write a Kafka comedy, or, rather, a comic nightmare. The problem is that the material of both the novel and the life is, at best, morbidly amusing, and Ruders can’t make it funny by force. The score has too many grotesque, wheezing episodes, too much infernal-machine music. The parodic touches are stale: klezmer references in the Kafka sections (the only sign of the writer’s Jewishness), a groaningly obvious quotation from “Don Giovanni” (“Joseph K.! Joseph K.!,” à la the Commendatore). Kafka’s air of gnomic mystery, his Hebraic awe before the inexpressible, fades away. The climax of the novel is the chapter “In the Cathedral,” where Joseph K. glimpses fate in all its hostile majesty. Ruders ordinarily thrives on gothic atmosphere—he once made a bone-chilling setting of Poe’s “The City in the Sea”—but his cathedral scene feels strangely attenuated, as if he were afraid of losing comic momentum. The music acquires the right dark magic only at the end, when Felice confronts Kafka. Here, finally, is urgent word-setting over pungent chords, such as Ruders supplied throughout “The Handmaid’s Tale.” (Both Ruders operas, by the way, can be performed in English.)

I hesitate to render a final judgment on “Kafka’s Trial,” because the opera was hobbled by a spectacularly stupid production, which erased the distinction between real life and fiction and buried all the characters in an onslaught of puerile sexual imagery. Both Kafka and Joseph K. became idiots of id, desperate to try out every imaginable sexual act—anal, oral, you name it—with every woman who sauntered past. Watching it was like being trapped at a really gross Eurotrash orgy. There were also four Kafka doppelgängers wandering about the stage; at one point I thought they were about to get it on with each other, which might at least have brought us closer to Kafka’s real sexual issues. Johnny van Hal soldiered bravely through the unsympathetic title role(s), but the standout in the cast was Gisela Stille, lending a warm, rich soprano to Felice.

The première took place at the Royal Danish Theatre’s new opera house, on an island in the Copenhagen harbor. It is a sleek, cool, thoroughly Danish building, with bulbous glass walls and a severe overhanging roof. The acoustics are vivid, though lacking in focus and bass. From the look of things, the management wants opera to be racy, hip, not too deep. Coming next season is a world première by Elvis Costello.

At the beginning of the month, the Houston Grand Opera gave the first performance of Mark Adamo’s “Lysistrata.” Like “Kafka’s Trial,” it is an opera based on a familiar literary  source, in this case the comedy by Aristophanes. And, as in the Ruders opera, a certain amount of creative violence is done to the original. Adamo wrote his own libretto, and he shows little interest in the political issues that have made “Lysistrata” a favorite of left-leaning theatre companies since the invasion of Iraq. In Aristophanes, the women of Athens and Sparta go on strike against the men of the two belligerent city-states, demanding  that their endless war end. The “sex strike” still  happens in Adamo’s version, but it becomes the backdrop for the central drama of a relationship — the one between Lysia and the Athenian general Nico (a character that Adamo invented for the occasion). A brittle antiwar satire becomes a sumptuous love story, poised between comedy and heartbreak.

And it works. I can imagine a roomful of European progressives snarling at Adamo’s bourgeois sensibility, but I relaxed a minute after the music began, knowing that I was in the hands of a brilliant theatre composer. Adamo’s effortless expertise was on display in his 1998 maiden effort, “Little Women,” alongside spells of cutesiness and clumsiness. He still indulges in cloying gestures—enough with the jokes in the supertitles!—but he has taken several big leaps forward, particularly in integrating his proudly tonal melodies with more dissonant connective material. Adamo’s accompaniments would make a good primer for any young composer learning to write for and around singers. Each strand of the vocal line is punctuated by some perfect short gesture: cello pizzicatos and a smattering of harp; a four-note horn solo; a vaguely Balinese rustling of mallet percussion and string glissandos. The orchestral writing is often little more—or nothing less—than a play of light around the voices.

Act I is stocked with pratfalls and silliness. In Act II, the story takes a much more serious turn. Lovers on both sides fall into melancholy contemplation of the competing demands of private love and public life. The audience is invited to read “work” for “war” throughout. “Our will is not our will,” sings Nico. “I am not my own,” sings Lysia. Slow dotted rhythms, reminiscent of Britten in his ceremonial mode, give the music a sudden grandeur. As the cities work their way toward reconciliation, the women sing radiant, flowing chorales around the Greek word “Evoe!,” the exclamation of praise in the Bacchanalia. At the end, the gods descend to warn the humans of their folly: “Never will it end. Never will it end. Time to time, it may suspend, but never will it end.” The orchestra constructs a huge passacaglia based on intertwining downward scales, and the chorus gathers for one last chant of “Evoe!” It’s almost shocking how deep this seemingly lighthearted opera goes.

The Houston production was on the ugly side, with cartoonish sets colored orange and bright blue. But it didn’t sabotage the drama, as the Copenhagen production did. The singers were excellent: Victoria Livengood, Myrna Paris, Chad Shelton, and, especially, Emily Pulley, as Lysia, who mastered every nuance of the opera’s wide emotional range. Opening night was a bittersweet occasion, for it was the last Houston première presided over by David Gockley, the company’s visionary general director. Gockley has introduced thirty-three new works in about as many years, writing himself into musical history in the process: Adams’s “Nixon in China,” Meredith Monk’s “atlas,” and Bernstein’s “A Quiet Place” came into being on his watch. Next year, he decamps to the San Francisco Opera. Too bad he isn’t moving to New York.

Stars and stripes forever


The Newark St. Patrick's Day Parade, which I planned to see in connection with a future article, was canceled because of rain. I wish I'd known before going to Newark this morning.


The conversation gets ever livelier at Sequenza 21, where composers of all stripes thrash through old internecine debates — atonality good or bad, 12-tone music dominant or nonexistent, John Adams overrated or very overrated, etc. — and sometimes deliver deliciously brittle reviews of colleagues. The composer-as-critic is a tradeoff I'll always happily take: professional biases and jealousies may come into play, but the opinion is never fuzzy around the edges. The layout of the site is complex, like a Knotty Twelve-Tonish Figure. There's the forum on the main page, also a Composers Forum and individual composer blogs.... Bryant Manning is keeping it spunky on Mysteries Abysmal, as his blog has been renamed.... Take note again of Heather, very thoughtful pianist in Oakland, and of The Laurel Letters, offering beautifully composed reviews of Boston musical life.... Vilaine fille reigns supreme.

Abbreviated Agenda: 3/19


There's an awkward pile-up of events on Saturday, all of which I'd ordinarily like to see. Soheil Nasseri, the gifted young pianist whom I mentioned at the end of my Lupu column, is giving another recital at Alice Tully Hall. The program includes the premiere of a piece by the Israeli composer Avner Dorman. Tickets are $10 for those under 25. Simultaneously at Merkin, the Azure Ensemble is playing new and new-ish works by Libby Larsen, Judith Shatin, Jennifer Higdon, Marilyn Bliss, David Stock, and Zhou Long. I've never heard the group but the performers are all solid new-music veterans, and there's something poetic simply about the titles: Black Birds, Red Hills; Three Summers Heat; Light Refracted; Under the Azure Sky; A Vanished World; and The Elements. Finally, at 10PM downtown, Vox Novus will be presenting the video version of its 60 X 60 project — a series of 60-second works by 60 composers.

Bolero 911

Departmentpatchi_1A strange thing happened at the New York Philharmonic last night. Right at the start of Ravel's Bolero, as the snare drum entered with its soft, relentless beat, four policemen glided down the far left aisle and took up positions close to the stage. They stood still throughout the seventeen-minute crescendo, keeping their eyes fixed on the front rows. The possibility that something unexpected or even violent was about to happen added a tingling new sensation to Ravel's already sensational piece. But nothing did happen; no one was dragged off in cuffs. What it was all about, I don't know. I had previously noticed that one gentleman in that section seemed to have a boisterous personality; he stood up to applaud each item on the program, including the Wolfgang Rihm work, which almost no one else in the hall found exciting. He even gave a one-man ovation to the players as they filed out for the second half. Did his neighbors find his enthusiasm so alarming that they alerted the police? Was he a Rest Is Noise reader, acting on my incitements to inappropriate applause? Was MTT's posse in the house, ready to start a Hot 97-style beef? Were the guys from the 20th Precinct just looking to unwind? I prefer to savor the mystery of it all.

Rihm_2I had trouble deciding where to go last night — the Philharmonic affair or Anthony de Mare's recital at Zankel. Since I've Zankled quite a bit this season, I thought I should lend Maazel's merry band an ear. The Rihm thing, Two Other Movements, turned out to be a strange, grand, haunting creation. Prof. Dr. Rihm is hard to classify these days; he is a "difficult" German composer, ja, but he does not toe the Euromodern party line. He writes in the grip of palpably strong emotion, indulges long, songful phrasing, and gives glimpses of tonality everywhere — broken Hindemith chorales, occluded Debussy progressions, shrapnel from an explosion at the Parsifal factory.  The strongest twentieth-century presence is, interestingly, late Sibelius. Like the Master's Tapiola, the piece unfolds in one continuous arc, gathering to a black storm at the center and then subsiding toward silence. (The "two movements" are elided.) The gloomy coda is perhaps too protracted, but the final upward-spiraling string phrases have the "sense of an ending" that only a master composer can produce. Take note of the Ensemble Intercontemporain's upcoming performance of Rihm's huge instrumental cycle Jagden und Formen, on May 25.

9_3The Philharmonic gave a committed reading. Beautiful soft trumpet solo. Maestro Maazel was on good behavior throughout; perhaps the police were there to prevent him from doing weird things to Bolero. Lisa Batashvili was a dazzling and vivid soloist in Chausson's Poème and Saint-Saëns' Introduction and Rondo capriccioso. The pro-forma Haydn opener, Symphony No. 95, was several notches above a snooze, dark-toned and agile. There are more promising Philharmonic concerts coming up, especially Messiaen's final masterpiece Éclairs sur l'Au-Delà, under Kent Nagano. Also, in an effort to reach new audiences, the Philharmonic has named Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Chad Smith (upper left) as its new artistic administrator. Wait, no — they've named Los Angeles Philharmonic administrator Chad Smith. Sorry for the confusion. Given the LAPhil's remarkable programming in the last couple of years, this is good news, I think.

Afterward, on the 66th St. subway platform, concertgoers were treated to a new Lincoln Center institution, Well-Prepared Saxophone Man. He's a top-notch player who times his performances to the end of each concert at Lincoln Center, and goes to the trouble of playing a bit of what you've just heard. Sometimes the choices are a stretch — Rosenkavalier doesn't sound so good on the sax — but Bolero, with its big sax solos, is a natural. W-PSM even worked in portions of the Bolero rhythm beneath the melody. I love the post-concert music-nerd subway ride. It's wonderfully strange to be sitting in a car full of people who've listened to, say, Katya Kabanova. Everyone instantly puts his or her affectless subway mask on, which seems a shame. We ought to be prattling gaily about the tempos.

Copenhagen Diary


In the tradition of my Bayreuth Pilgrimage from last summer, here's a photolog of my trip to Copenhagen, on the occasion of the premiere of Poul Ruders' opera Kafka’s Trial. A review will appear in the New Yorker next week, alongside a report on Mark Adamo’s Lysistrata at the Houston Grand Opera.

As always when I'm in Copenhagen — OK, I've been here one other time — I stay at the Radisson SAS Royal Hotel. (One more movie line for Our Girl in Chicago: "It's a Radisson, so you know it's pretty good, yah.") The exterior is nondescript sixties modern, the lobby is nothing to get excited about, but the interiors, the work of the great Danish architect-designer Arne Jacobsen, make it seem unnecessary to go outside:



The view out the window:


But there's hardly time to relax. Music criticism, as some of you may not realize, is punishingly hard work, albeit not so much physical as mental. Here I am furiously studying the score, on the lookout for fugitive triads of E-flat minor:


The new Copenhagen opera house is called OPERAEN, or THE OPERA. There has apparently been some kind of architectural controversy about it. To my dilettantish eye, it looks pretty cool, as almost everything in Denmark does:



The Saw is opening in Denmark (sign in middle):


Back at the hotel, it’s time for the fun part — writing the review!


Night of the Living Dead, Pt. VI

Two stories on ArtsJournal: "Did Toscanini Kill Classical Music in America?" and "The Day Aussie Orchestras Died?" The big question is, of course, whether Toscanini killed orchestras in Australia. In the conservatory, with a candlestick.

Attersee redux


For a few moments of pure off-kilter pleasure, pay a visit to Edmund Welles, a Bay Area bass-clarinet quartet — "heavy chamber music, muzak for conspiracy theorists, songs of lunacy and purpose." Be sure to listen to their version of "Creep."

Bone-foresaking beauty

It's been a while since I've gone on a Bob Dylan bender, right? James Tata recommends Luc Sante's magisterial review of recent Boblications in the New York Review of Books. I recommend it, too, though, as often in Dylan criticism, there’s a reluctance to discuss the music. One of Sante’s few attempts at musical description occurs in the following paragraph:

Among the four fifths of the Basement Tapes material that remains officially unreleased is a song called "I'm Not There" (1956). It is glaringly unfinished—Dylan mumbles unintelligibly through parts of it, and throws together fragments of lyrics apparently at random—and yet it is one of his greatest songs. The hymn-like minor-key melody, rising from mournful to exalted, is certainly one reason for this, and another is the perfect accompaniment by three members of The Band, but the very discontinuity of the lyrics, in combination with Dylan's unflagging intensity, creates a powerful, tantalizing indeterminacy that is suddenly if provisionally resolved by every return of the refrain: ‘Now when I [unintelligible] I was born to love her / But she knows that the kingdom weighs so high above her / And I run but I race but it's not too fast or soon [?] / But I don't perceive her, I'm not there, I'm gone."

Two ultra-pedantic points. First, “1956” isn’t the date of composition; it’s part of the title. What it means, no one knows. Second, the song’s in B major. Why it ends up sounding sad and “minorish” is an interesting topic. I think it has something to do with the curious, not quite logical order in which Dylan shuffles through the five chords of the song (three major, two minor), and the way he lands on a G#-minor chord at the beginning of the second phrase of the refrain, where you might expect the tonic. You hear the same major-key mournfulness in “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.” In any case, the fact that you can’t really make out the lyrics to this song, and yet keep listening, should be a clue that the music itself is the heart of the matter. As Eyolf Ostrem writes on his excellent Dylan-as-composer site, “’I'm Not There’ is Dylan's most musical song …. The meaning is veiled in the same way as the meaning of an utterance in a language that one does not understand is veiled: there seems to be a meaning there, but it is hidden.” This is not to deny that there are powerful verbal images at work — “the kingdom weighs [or waits] so high above her” — but if you go chasing after only the words you’ll be left with nothing, because much of the time Dylan may not have had words in mind at all — only chords, shorn tunes, and unsayable feelings.

Walt Whitman on Beethoven's Septet

“Dainty abandon, sometimes as if Nature laughing on a hillside in the sunshine; serious and firm monotonies, as of winds; a horn sounding through the tangle of the forest, and the dying echoes; soothing floating of waves, but presently rising in surges, angrily lashing, muttering, heavy; piercing peals of laughter, for interstices; now and then weird, as Nature herself is in certain moods—but mainly spontaneous, easy, careless…”

Daring in Duluth

On the subject of brilliant programming, see this season's programs by the Duluth Superior Symphony Orchestra: Love of Country, Tragic Love, Love of Nature (the Pastorale and the Rite of Spring), Unrequited Love, Forbidden Love (Tchaikovsky, naturally), Fatal Love (Carmen), and Love of Music. An article by Chester Lane in Symphony magazine alerted me to this venture, which is the brainchild of conductor Markand Thakar. Last season they did the Seven Deadly Sins, and for Wrath (paired with the virtue of Brotherhood) they put Beethoven's Ninth next to William Grant Still's And They Lynched Him on a Tree. Gives me chills just to think about.

Atlanta, hello?

A story in Playbill Arts notes that the Atlanta Symphony has announced its 2005-6 season. Since Robert Spano, the Atlanta's director, is one of the most imaginative programmers in the business, I went to the Atlanta Symphony site to see what he had wrought. Alas, there was no way to look at the entire season. I've made this complaint before and I'll make it again. The site is designed only for people buying subscription packages, not for those who want tickets for individual concerts or who are interested in what the orchestra is doing. I clicked on "2005-6 Season On Sale Now." Then I clicked on "Compose-Your-Own" series, figuring that would tell me what each program contains. After clicking on "Order Series Now," and then on "Order Thursday," I got a list of composers' names — Mahler, Sibelius & Brahms, and so on — but no individual works. Even for subscribers, this paucity of information must be frustrating. By clicking on other series, I got a few fleeting glimpses of the programming, and, yes, it looks great.

The Met's new web site, on the other hand, is divina.

Three Oscars isn't bad

Img_2648_3One of the most remarkable aspects of blogging is the ability to comment within minutes — even within seconds — on events as they unfold. Thus it is that I can weigh in via instantaneous electronic transmission on the Oscars, which took place no more than eleven days ago. I enjoyed the Oscars; I thought Chris Rock was funny; I was happy when Morgan Freeman won. As usual, Jonathan and I invited some friends over to watch the broadcast, and whoever guessed the most winners received a spray-painted Mrs. Butterworth's bottle. In past years, Jonathan won twice and I won once. This year, our friend Ron took home the statuette, because he figured out both sound awards. As you can see, Penelope likes to sit on top of the TV with her golden friends. We think she uses them to blend in, so that unsuspecting apartment creatures — pens, pencils, bags, boxes, ribbon, birdie-toys, rainbow-colored mousie, and so on — will have no idea she is about to pounce. They never do.

Blitzstein blitzkrieg

Robert Gable reports on the Marc Blitzstein centenary tribute at Other Minds in San Francisco, or, more accurately, reports on a Financial Times review by Allan Ulrich that I don't want to go through the "15-day free trial" rigmarole to read. Writes Ulrich: "In Sarah Cahill's committed performance, the West Coast premiere of the unpublished 1929 Piano Percussion Music heralded a sophisticated musician, attuned to the emotive power of dissonance, the imitative capabilities of the traditional keyboard, a grounding in ornamentation and, in the repeated closing of the keyboard cover, a taste for the dadaist flourishes of the day." The piano-lid gambit recalls Hans Stuckenschmidt's First Piano Sonata, which caused a mild uproar at a Novembergruppe concert of "stationary music" in 1927. At the end of that work, the pianist (Stefan Wolpe, on this occasion) used the right pedal to trigger a mechanism that brought the piano lid down "from a moderate height." So Stuckenschmidt discloses in his memoir Born to Hear — he was eventually more famous as a critic and biographer. Cahill, by the way, is a wonderful Bay Area pianist who specializes in American music, and also plays Ravel about as well as anyone.

A shout-out to Byrant Manning, who has a new blog devoted promisingly to "Classical Arts and Mysteries Abysmal: resurrecting the forgotten, revisiting the familiar and reacting to anything else." That should just about cover it. Also to Oakland pianist Heather, who has a great post on pianists' hands. Cat-lovers should go right now to the Amateur Gourmet, and in particular to the "Video Message from Lolita" under "Funny Food Films" on the left-hand side. Coincidentally, the Gourmet has an informal review of Bright Food Shop, my favorite Chelsea eatery (at 8th and 21st, opposite the Rawhide).

Agenda 3/8 - 3/13

Ancedotal evidence suggests that these Agendas are prompting at least a few NYC'ers to attend the concerts in question — a disturbing development. Don't sue me if they suck. Tuesday: the rock-solid young pianist Jonathan Biss plays Berg, Mozart, Schubert, and Kirchner at Zankel — three Austrians and a guy from Brooklyn. Thursday: the Ba Ban Chinese Music Society unfurls works by Chen Yi, Zhou Long, Bun-Ching Lam, and Huang Ruo at Greenwich House Arts, a wonderful rickety old place on Barrow Street in the West Village. Or, if you're in the mood for hilarity at the expense of VH1's squawking pop-culture commentators, see The Name of This Play is Talking Heads at UNDER St. Marks (through March 26; nepotism alert). Over the weekend I'll be in Copenhagen for the premiere of Poul Ruders' Kafka's Trial, but otherwise I'd be checking out three Carnegie concerts by the Vienna Phil, which, after a few dullish tours, has a genius at the helm: Mariss Jansons. (Jansons was the conductor who lost points during the NY Phil's last maestro tryouts when he asked the orchestra to rehearse during the rehearsal.) On the new-music beat, Relâche, the downtownish group from Philadelphia, appears Friday at Symphony Space, and on Saturday the Fireworks Ensemble lights up the suddenly hot-hot-hot Tenri Cultural Institute with a program entitled "Surrealism in Music?" Come Monday there's a free show by Tactus, the Manhattan School of Music Contemporary Ensemble, whose explosive rendition of Michael Gordon's Decasia last fall is still ringing in my damaged ears. Presumably they'll be fully clothed this time; for Decasia, they performed shirtless / in bras. (Somehow I forgot to mention that fact in my review.) Notations are provided by Steve Reich (Proverb, Drumming), Martin Bresnick (his Der Signal, for ensemble, narrator, and shadow puppets), and Julia Wolfe (Early That Summer). Next week I'll catch up with Rosenkavalier at the Met, which opens on Friday. Laura Aikin, the Sophie, was the luminous still point of the SF Opera's never-to-be-forgotten production of St. Francis two seasons ago. To quote Hugo von Hofmannsthal, time is weird stuff.

Mt. Mahler


The Bruckner post below reminded one reader of the famous story about Mahler "composing the Alps," but she couldn't remember the details. From Bruno Walter's memoir of the composer: "I arrived by steamer on a glorious July day; Mahler was there on the jetty to meet me, and despite my protests, insisted on carrying my bag until he was relieved by a porter. As on our way to his house I looked up to the Höllengebirge, whose sheer cliffs made a grim background to the charming landscape, he said: 'You don't need to look — I have composed all this already!'" Mahler was referring to the opening of his Third Symphony, the D-minor theme for eight horns unison ff ("What the rocky mountains tell me"), and he exaggerated only slightly.

Picture courtesy of the Attersee tourist board. If you are interested in a Gustav Mahler Holiday, inquire here. Click here for pictures of Not Pierre Boulez on his own Mahler Holiday. The best recording of the Third Symphony is Jascha Horenstein's, now available only on a Brilliant Classics box set. Second best, I'd say, is Leonard Bernstein's second version, on DG. Mahler still grooves.

Bruckner Expressway

The Internet, which makes life so much easier that I never get anything done, allows me to keep up with critics I'd otherwise seldom read. One I've enjoyed getting to know is Tom Strini of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, who recently wrote:

The tour bus is high in the Austrian Alps. The guide, Mr. Bruckner, is going on in the most earnest and expansive poetic terms about the Alpine grandeur and its proximity to God. The tourists ooh and aah and nod in solemn agreement with the insights of the mystic commentator. The mood breaks when a plaintive cry from the back of the bus — Are we there yet? — rises from the squeaky voice of a lone dissenter. That would be me, again encountering the music of Anton Bruckner at a Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra concert.

Alan Rich, too, is a card-carrying Anti-Brucknerite: he defiantly states that "the right of exit and re-entry during performances of Bruckner symphonies remains my prerogative." Me, I worshipped Bruckner as a youngster, but the fad is fading. One problem is the monumental lack of wit. Bruckner's Scherzos are stocked with Humor of the banging-the-beer-stein variety, which is anything but funny. Still, a fiery, vital Bruckner performance can be a glorious thing. Jascha Horenstein's live recordings are a case in point, as are Otto Klemperer's EMI discs of the Fourth and Sixth Symphonies. I'm not quite ready to join the Bruckner-haters, though one more turgid performance by a Club World Maestro might put me over the edge.

Update: Brendan McNamara leaps to Bruckner's defense. He says that Bruckner's symphonies are "an antecedent to modern minimalist music, at least in the 'expansion of our awarenss of time' and the 'slowly unfolding over time' aspects.'" I hear you. For me, the problem isn't so much the music itself as the prevailing style of performance — bloated, monumental, self-solemnizing. We need to get away from the image of Bruckner as a "real Cyclops," to quote from Goebbels' diaries.

Feline perspectives: Tan Dun


Penelope admires the lush melody and brutal orchestration of Tan Dun's Marco Polo.

Hard on the heels of the Ten Things I've Done... competition (see below) comes the Five Random Movie Lines competition, hosted by Our Girl in Chicago. Here are my entries:

1. "You have no idea." — Reversal of Fortune
2. "Well, it's very ... homey." — The Shining
3. "Where would you put Mr. James Joyce?" — The Third Man
4. "Prepare for total domination!" — Bring It On
5. "They're yelling in Baton Rouge!" — Network 

Five other favorite lines from The Third Man:

1. "Already in hell ... or in heaven."
2. "Oh yes, the Hindu dancers. Thank you, Sargeant."
3. "It's wonderful how you keep the tension."
4. "You were born to be murdered."
5. "Ballon, mein Herr?"

More ambitious posts on the deeper history of the key of E-flat minor, the sexual psychodrama behind Berg's Chamber Concerto, and the whole story of Gavriil Popov will have to wait; I'm in transit today to a southern destination.

Thursday miscellany

File0068_1I'm not sure if I grasped the form of Chen Yi's Ballad, Dance, and Fantasy, which Yo-Yo Ma and the Singapore Symphony played at Lincoln Center last night, but the brooding first movement contains some of the most fantastic orchestral combinations I've heard in years: solo cello over deep winds, soft string glissandos and harmonics, whispered chants from the percussion section. For more on this concert, read Justin Davidson.... Are all students in the NYC area aware of Lincoln Center's hot student-ticket deal? For $20 you can get the best available seat in the house at any Great Performers, Mostly Mozart, or Lincoln Center Festival show. Most orchestras and performing-arts centers have a deal like this. Classical Music wants Young People! If you are in your late thirties or early forties and beginning to feel a little ragged round the edges, you will find Classical Music rejuvenating, because if you are under the age of 45 you are effectively pubescent.... New blogs: Sound Bites, Laurel Letters.... Excellent thoughts on the audience question from Jeffery Cotton.... Can't argue with Jessica, but our hearts were with Deltrice.... I've run aground at five items in Terry Teachout's "Ten Things I've Done That You Probably Haven't" contest, but here they are: 1. I once finished shelving adult titles as a video-store clerk in time to go to dinner at Katherine Graham’s house with Charles Krauthammer and Yo-Yo Ma. 2. I played four different recordings of Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto simultaneously on the radio. 3. I was served tea by Richard Strauss’ housekeeper. 4. I spent a family vacation visiting Canadian asbestos mines. 5. I blew out a cylinder in my 1989 Hyundai Excel in Billings, Montana, then kept driving until I reached DC. Hello, old friend!

Blitzstein lives


Marc Blitzstein, the hard-left American composer whose steeltown musical The Cradle Will Rock was one of the most storied cultural events of the New Deal period, would have been one hundred today. He was born into a rich Philadelphia family and showed early promise as a piano virtuoso. Taking up composition, he studied in Paris with Nadia Boulanger and in Berlin with Schoenberg, who snarled at him, "Go ahead, you write your Franco-Russian pretty music." In the late twenties, his politics swerved far to the left, partly under the influence of the radical Berlin-born novelist Eva Goldbeck, who married him in spite of the fact that he was gay. The Cradle Will Rock was inspired by Brecht; according to Orson Welles, who directed the premiere, Blitzstein believed it would incite an American revolution. In the forties, the composer completed two other high-profile projects, the Airborne Symphony and Regina, despite a gathering storm against real and supposed Communist infiltration of the arts. Ironically, his greatest success was his forceful translation of The Threepenny Opera, which had failed to catch on in previous American incarnations. Some of Blitzstein's agitprop music now sounds pretty thin, and the specter of Stalinism lurks behind even his most innocent homilies to minorities and the working class. But at his best — in the anti-elitist anthem "Art for Art's Sake," for example — he rivals Weill and Eisler at their most savagely potent. Whatever else you think of him or his politics, Blitzstein's music has great historical importance; it reflects the strange soul of America in the thirties, when, according to polls, twenty-five percent of the country wanted some form of socialist government. Much more about this remarkable period in The Rest Is Noise: The Book.

Last week I stated that the Blitzstein centennial was being pretty much ignored on the East Coast. I stand by that generalization, but there's still activity to report. The biggest happening is the Kennedy Center's production of Regina, Blitzstein's operatic adaptation of Lillian Hellman's Little Foxes. The semi-staged production stars Patti LuPone, no less, and plays for four performances, from March 10 to 12. Here in NYC, the activist composer Leonard Lehrman has organized a string of events lasting through the summer: read more on his website. Tonight at 7:30PM, the Brecht Forum is holding a Blitzstein concert-symposium; the panel includes Ned Rorem and Eric Salzman, and Helene Williams and Lerhman will perform a selection of Blitzstein songs. Lehrman has also organized Blitzstein concerts this weekend, one at the People's Voice Café on East 33rd St., the other at the Aaron Copland School of Music in Flushing. The lineup of performers includes the Workmen's Circle Chorus, the Metropolitan Philharmonic Chorus, and the Solidarity Singers of the New Jersey Industrial Union Council. (The Cultural Front lives on!) Note that Lehrman has put together a completed version of Sacco and Vanzetti, which was commissioned by the Met, no less, and which the alcohol-bedeviled composer struggled for years to finish. He died in 1964, at the hands of three sailors in Martinique. He did not write Franco-Russian pretty music.

Agenda 3/1 - 3/6

This week's picks: the Singapore Symphony at Lincoln Center on Wednesday, playing Chen Yi's almost brand-new Cello Concerto as well as He Zhanhao and Chen Gang's violin concerto The Butterfly Lovers, a charming relic of the Mao Zedong era (Yo-Yo Ma and Gil Shaham are the soloists); on Thursday, the Collegiate Chorale presenting Fidelio, with the radically slimmed-down Deborah Voigt in the title role; on Thursday and Friday, the New York Collegium doing the St. Matthew Passion, with bariblogger Tom Meglioranza as Jesus; on Saturday, the Gregg Smith Singers giving a concert at St. Peter's, including Dmitri Tymoczko's brilliant self-referential cantata The Agony of Modern Music (texts by Schoenberg, Stockhausen, Babbitt, and Bernstein); and, on Sunday, three masters of Persian classical music — Mohammad Reza Shajarian, Hossein Alizadeh, and Kayhan Kalhor — performing at Jazz at Lincoln Center. I've been listening avidly to this same group's CD Faryad, and thinking about how a global definition of "classical music" benefits all parties. If the term "classical" makes people think of Kayhan Kalhor as well as Bach, I have no problem with it. The group will also be in Atlanta on March 10, Boston on March 12, Cleveland on March 18, and Chicago on March 20; details here.

Milton Bizzabbitt

A tip from a young New York composer led me to Gizoogle, a site that translates any given Google search or web page into Snoop language. Snoop language is, for those who don't know, a sort of additive English dialect devised by the eminent hip-hop artist Snoop Dogg. Here is the opening paragraph of Milton Babbitt's militant new-music manifesto "Who Cares If You Listen?" as rendered by Gizoogle: "This article might have been entitled 'The Wanna Be Gangsta as Specialist' or, alternatizzles n perhaps less contentizzles 'izzle Composa as Anachronism.' For I am concerned wit perpetratin' an attitude towards tha indisputable facts of tha status n condition of tha booty of what we wizzill, fo' tha moment, designate as 'serious,' 'advanced,' contemporary music, aww nah. His rappa expends an enormous amount of tizzle n energy — and, usually, considerable money — on tha creation of a commodity W-H-to-tha-izzich has little, no, or negative commodity value puttin tha smack down. ‘E is, in essence, a 'vanity' brotha. One, two three and to tha four. He general public is largely unaware of n uninterested in his music. Tha majority of performa shun it n resent it. Conseqizzles tha music is shawty performed, n T-H-to-tha-izzen primarily at poorly attended concerts before an audience perpetratin' in tha main of fellow professizzles in da club." I think I finally get it!

In memory of a friend


     ...I'm for and with myself in my otherness,
     in the eternal return of earth's fairer children,
     the lily, the rose, the sun on brick at dusk,
     the loved, the lover, and their fear of life....

                                           — Robert Lowell, "Obit"

Ravi Desai, il miglior fabbro, died on Feb. 19 at the age of 35.

Brahms and death

1207e_1 This is the Radu Lupu CD that I celebrated in my latest New Yorker column as one of the most beautiful piano records ever made. Brahms described his Intermezzos Opus 117 as "lullabies of my sorrow"; the first in the set embodies this emotional doubleness, being at once an innocent, pure, almost childlike thing and a message of practically infinite sadness. Lupu plays it so well because he does not try to enhance by artificial gestures the complexities that lie behind the simple surface; instead, he lets us find them for ourselves. There is a certain symbolism in the key structure of this piece. The "A" section is in E-flat, which is Beethoven's "heroic" key, the key of the Eroica and the Emperor. Yet outward heroism has been completely stripped away; only a steady current of inward power remains. Strauss' great farewell, "Im Abendrot" in the Four Last Songs, uses E-flat in a similar way. But the middle section is in E-flat minor,  which is for many composers the key of death. It is the chord on which Tristan dies; it is the key of the funeral march of Tchaikovsky's Third Quartet; it is the chord on which Elektra falls lifeless in her eponymous opera; it is the key of every movement of Shostakovich's Fifteenth Quartet, that requiem for requiems. In Brahms, the most quietly shattering moment comes when a C sounds miles deep beneath an E-flat-minor chord in the middle range, approximating the harmony of Tristan's death (a Tristan chord with no exit). Somehow the music pulls itself back from that abyss, and the opening music sounds again, with gentle vines of slow sixteenth notes wrapped around it. What happens in the final bars is beyond description.

Why, incidentally, does the key of E-flat minor seem to have a morbid sound? I once asked the St. Lawrence Quartet this question, with reference to the Tchaikovsky quartet, and they guessed that it has to do with the difficulty of playing E-flat minor on string instruments. Berlioz's orchestration manual calls this key "almost impracticable." Modern players don't have much trouble with it, but they still have to negotiate some awkward fingerings. The open strings, which produce the cleanest, brightest sound, are basically out of play. B-flat minor and A-flat minor have similar "dark" reputations, for not dissimilar reasons. Perhaps the hint of struggle puts a pall over the music — a deathly pall, if you like. This isn't an issue on the piano, where E-flat minor is theoretically interchangeable with any other minor triad. But the primeval key-associations linger, producing an intuitive shudder even in listeners who do not think they know the difference.

The dreaded redesign

Better? worse? To me, it "breathes".... Leon Dominguez, aka Sieglinde, has been on a tear lately, with raging posts on opera etiquette or lack thereof.... Jason Kottke, master of the coolest links, has bravely quit his day job and is soliciting funds for his blog. Support him if you can.... Please note a new link under "Links & News" to the right — Opus 1 Classical, a UK-based site that lists forthcoming musical events in cities around the world. It's incredibly helpful.... I was going to work up a post on the Gotham Chamber Opera's Ariadne in Crete, but Charles "Boss" Michener says in the New York Observer all that need be said. "Communist Albania" indeed. Good singers, though; Caroline Worra might be a new soprano powerhouse.... Lynn Sislo of Reflections in D Minor passionately defends Classical Etiquette. I don't agree, but I like her style, which, paradoxically, flies in the face of Classical Etiquette.... Endtroducing Pack! I first encountered Patrick Bringley on the Dylan message boards when I was researching my piece on the Maestro. Obviously the world's youngest, smartest Dylan fan, he gave me the precious quote, "Do you have to be from Elizabethan England to appreciate Shakespeare?" He worked two summers ago as my research assistant, looking up crazy articles on Uruguayan twelve-tone music and making uncomfortably sharp comments on my book. Now he's making his career as a poet, and he has a totally unique voice.... For NYC'ers, an extra plug for the NOW Ensemble show at Tenri Cultural Institute on Saturday night. It hasn't been very widely listed, and it should be good. Say "The Rest Is Noise" at the door, and you will get a weird look.

Record of the year


When I saw on Carl Wilson's site that Brian Joseph Davis had put out a limited-edition EP of quotations from Theodor W. Adorno's Minima Moralia performed in the style of agitprop punk, I had to put down my $20 to get me some. It arrived today, and it made me glad. Greil Marcus wrote in Lipstick Traces that Adorno's assaults on mass culture are punk-rock rants at heart; the Minima Moralia EP brings that conceit to hilarious, dubious life. Davis plays squalling guitars; Dawn Unwanted drawls the lyrics. The pick hit is "Every Work of Art Is an Uncommitted Crime," one of my favorite lines from the Meister's writings. The song consists of that one line, repeated over and over, followed by screaming. I bow in the presence of genius.

Agenda 2/22 - 2/27

I'm beset by California envy again, wistfully reading the prospectus of the 11th Other Minds Festival, which begins on Thursday in San Francisco. Several principal personalities of what is variously called "experimental," "downtown," "avant-garde," or "post-minimalist" music will attend. As a proponent of Lower Midtown Music, I'm inclined to look at this us-vs.-them jargon with a skeptical eye, but it makes for a useful rallying point, if nothing else. The line-up includes Phill Niblock (whose guitar piece Sethwork was one of the highlights of Sounds Like Now last fall); veteran Bay Area sound-poet Charles Amirkhanian; hip-hop-inflected violinist-composer Daniel Bernard Roumain; a concert in celebration of left-wing firebrand Marc Blitzstein, whose centenary seems to have been overlooked on this more politically fearful coast; John Luther Adams, topographer of spacious, imaginatively detailed soundscapes (and not to be confused with the composer of Nixon); and Bang on a Can's Evan Ziporyn.

But there's plenty to see at home this week: an American Composers Orchestra concert on Wednesday night, including a premiere by former Bay Area stalwart Ingram Marshall (his vocal-electronic piece Hymnodic Delays is a digital-age masterpiece); Mendelssohn's Midsummer Night's Dream, semistaged with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment at Lincoln Center on Thursday; a show by Antony & The Johnsons later that night (that's a link to Antony's lustrous new CD, not to the sold-out show*); two concerts by the bright young NOW Ensemble, both featuring Judd Greenstein's fantastic new piece Folk Music, the second with blogger-composer Mark Dancigers; and — could you ask for a more perfect warm-up for the Oscars? — a Sunday Met Chamber Ensemble concert including Kurtág's Hommage à R. Sch. and Berg's Chamber Concerto. If I were a supernatural being, I would also attend Wet Ink w/ Charles Gayle on Wednesday, the Philharmonia Baroque at Zankel on the same night, and Per Tengstrand at Scandinavia House on Thursday. Fans of dramatically batty, diction-free, intermittently gorgeous tenor singing will also want to hear José Cura in Samson at the Met on Thursday or later. Last night's premiere left me personally less than gobsmacked, but knowledgeable opéramanes in my circle were transported.

* "Indirection!" — Miss Gould

The fire this time

8409059_1Jeff Chang's book Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation, new from St. Martin's, has received a huge amount of attention in the pop-music press, and with good reason. I couldn't say it any better than whoever wrote it up for the New Yorker's Briefly Noted column: "The birth of hip-hop out of the ruin of the South Bronx is a story that has been told many times, but never with the cinematic scope and the analytic force that Chang brings to it. Robert Moses unleashes the destructive juggernaut of the Cross-Bronx Expressway; landlords set fire to worthless tenements; police stand by and do nothing; and, against a backdrop of gang warfare, peacemaking d.j.s lay down the heavy beats and spidery loops around which a rapping, dancing, graffiti-painting culture grows. This is one of the most urgent and passionate histories of popular music ever written. Chang is blind to no one’s greed or viciousness, but he retains an idealistic view of a music that speaks the truth about the alternately stultifying and horrifying urban landscapes that the parents who hate hip-hop have made." OK, that was me. Chang blogs here.

Rampant narcissism

A warm welcome to San José Mercury News readers who've read Rich Scheinin's delightful story on classical blogging. He has some very kind words for this site, and, more importantly, for such bløgõsphëric powerhouses as Twang Twang Twang, Trrill, The Standing Room (I was joking with the é, TSR), Lisa Hirsch, and Vilaine Fille. See "Music Blogs" to the right for an extended list. The key quote is Lisa's: "There are a lot more people out there who can write intelligently about music than have outlets to write about it." Ain't that the truth!

Kittygates, oBoeblogging, I'm Stalin, etc.

Img_2539_2I haven't been to see Christo's "The Gates" in Central Park: this crazy modern art is usually over my head. But I've very happily visited The Somerville Gates, which might be characterized as Gates for kitties.... An oboe blog! And another! ... The unpredictable Fredösphere writes: "Terry Teachout and Alex Ross are the Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin of the blogösphere, except without the genocide!" The exclamation point, he says, denotes irony, thank God.... A reader asks my opinion of a Details magazine piece on Maxim Vengerov. I was pretty stunned to see such an in-depth profile of a classical musician in a mainstream magazine. And it was good: Jeff Gordinier followed Vengerov on a trip to his childhood home in Siberia, working in observations about his personality and musicianship along the way. Whether it measured up to the Brazilian men's swimsuit portfolio that directly preceded it is hard to say. If magazines like Details decide that young classical performers are some higher form of cool — well, it won't solve all our problems, but it sure won't hurt.... Road to Stardom update: like, no way proudly eclectic "Jewbian" Akil should have lost out to "Orlando, Florida theme-park entertainer" born-again Timberfake Matthew. Not since Ravel failed to win the Prix de Rome has there been such a scandale.

Applause: A Rest Is Noise Special Report

Here is everything I have been able to discover about the history of applause between movements of symphonies and concertos, a topic which has taken over my blog like a crazy weed, and which I now intend to spray with Brahms. I’m sure there’s a musicologist somewhere who’s done an exhaustive study of the subject. Leon Botstein’s eagerly awaited History of Listening will probably reveal more. Below, I’ve combined some old posts with new material that I’ve dug up in libraries. Bernard Sherman has been very helpful in pointing me toward sources. The post rambles on at a length that will surely exhaust the attention span of all but the most terminally bored readers. Descend into the quagmire at your own risk.

Continue reading "Applause: A Rest Is Noise Special Report" »

More old reviews

Morton Feldman and Galina Ustvolskaya.

Music and the war

Between 1992 and 1996, I wrote about five hundred reviews and articles for the New York Times. I have no intention of putting all that old material on this site. Indeed, if there were a way to expunge a few of my neophyte efforts from the permanent record, I'd happily do so. My ill-considered attack on Bizet's Carmen, for example, did little to establish my credibility with the operagoing public. Some of the pieces, though, are worthy of preservation, not so much because they're electrifying in themselves but because reports of premieres and other happenings have archival value. In that spirit I put up my review of a marathon performance of Satie's Vexations. Here's another old Times piece: an essay on musical events surrounding the fiftieth anniversary of the end of World War II. I spent the summer of 1995 traveling across Europe, and this was my summary report. It turned out to be the jumping-off point for my forthcoming book. The wonderful headline — "In Music, Though, There Were No Victories" — was Jim Oestreich's invention.

The decorum debate goes on

AC Douglas responds to recent posts on this site (at least I think I'm in there somewhere): "Classical music critics writing today who champion such changes in our present-day classical music concert etiquette for the express purpose of making the classical music concert more inviting to, and comfortable for, the masses (one of those critics goes so far as to mindlessly suggest that we turn the promotion of classical music, and the classical music concert itself, into the rough equivalent of a circus act to make it more appealing to the masses) are simply as wrongheaded about the matter as they could possibly be, notwithstanding how well-intentioned their championing, and seem oblivious of the wholesale damage that would obtain were their proposals put into actual practice." Or not.

Marcus Maroney is afraid of applause run rampant: "If we begin to allow — and then to expect — clapping between movements of certain works, won't the behavior become equally 'regulated'? What will an orchestra think at the end of the first movement of the Emperor Concerto five years down the road when there's only silence after the last note?  Is the audience disinterested (why bother with the other movements...)?  Has the performance been bad (or just not as good as last time...)?  Did the pianist not end with enough 'flourish' (or is he just saving that last amount of expression for the true finale...)?" Maybe orchestras ought to be thinking about those things while they perform!

Drew McManus is on my side, and goes so far as to endorse mid-concert booing. He says: "In the end, all of this business with strict rules of conduct and aversion to booing has to come from a sincere lack of confidence among the bulk of orchestra patrons in their own understanding of classical music." There's the dark truth behind so-called concert etiquette. It lets audiences off the hook. Instead of delivering an informed, passionate reaction to each segment of the concert as it unfolds, they can sit in neutral silence until the end. A truly engaged audience would applaud warmly when it's called for, remain silent when applause is inappropriate, and boo when the performance falls obviously short. See opera.

Readers may wonder: Does this man practice what he preaches? Indeed I do. I now routinely applaud after each movement of a CD. (Joke borrowed from Patrick Bringley.)

Did April really have to turn on you?

Thank you, Douglas Wolk, for posting an MP3 of the mysteriously great Death of Samantha song "Rosenberg Summer." You made my day.

Medved's masterpiece

I’m always on the lookout for mentions of the music in unexpected places. I was paging through a copy of Michael Medved’s Right Turns: Unconventional Lessons from a Controversial Life at my local bookstore — purely out of morbid curiosity, mind you — when I came across a semi-striking fact: while the film critic-turned-moral philosopher was attending Palisades High School, in LA, he and other students collaborated with Roy Harris on a musical pageant titled Liberty? I can find no such work in the Harris worklist in The New Grove, but Medved assures us he wrote the libretto for it. In a commendable spirit of self-criticism, which he is welcome to extend to his more recent work, he calls his text “insufferable, incoherent adolescent whining.” He is not, incidentally, the only televised film critic to play a cameo role in the career of a major American composer. Harry Partch scholars know Roger Ebert as the author of a discerning review of Partch’s microtonal musical Water! Water! Ebert was the student critic for the Daily Illini at the time. Ebert, by the way, is one of my favorite critics working in any medium. When I was first starting out, I used his collected reviews as a model. That’s neither here nor there. This entire post is neither here nor there. That’s what blogs are for!

The Gould

Eleanor Gould Packard, who was the New Yorker's hugely formidable watchdog of English style, died on Sunday night. Hundreds of New Yorker writers have had the humiliating but rejuvenating experience of being sent back to school by Miss Gould's proofs. (Or should that be: "...the experience — humiliating but rejuvenating — of being sent back to school..."? She lives on in our anxious minds.) I am forever grateful for the education, and I will long savor the memory of that triumphant day when one of my pieces came back with fewer than ten spidery annotations per page. Miss Gould had written one extra word at the top: "Good." I wish I'd saved that proof.


The irrepressible Tom Hartley learned on Greg Sandow's site that John Cage's 4'33" actually consists of three movements — "I. Tacet. II. Tacet. III. Tacet" — and was prompted to ask: "Has there ever been a performance of 4'33" where the audience applauded between movements?"  


Herzliche Grüße an unseren österreichischen Lesern! "Das Blog von Alex Ross" has been cited on Austrian Broadcasting (ORF) Online, in a feature on Finnland als Musik-Mekka.

B00020heqg01_sclzzzzzzz__1I had been intending to write a follow-up feature on Finnish CDs. Here is an abbreviated version. Two outstanding Sibelius recordings by Osmo Vänskä, extolled in my New Yorker piece, are the First and Fourth Symphonies (BIS CD-861) and the complete incidental music to The Tempest (CD-861). Those seeking a deeper adventure into Sibelius' mind can pick up the two versions of the Fifth Symphony, which document the composer tearing his work to pieces and then putting it back together in miraculously perfected form (BIS CD-863). It's both thrilling and terrifying to behold — like that scene in Ronin when De Niro performs surgery on himself. Einojuhani Rautavaara's best work is his Seventh Symphony, recorded by both Ondine and Naxos. Gestures of the late-Romantic symphony unfold behind a dreamlike scrim. The darker-hued music of Aulis Sallinen is well represented on BIS CD-41. The avant-garde strain in Finnish music, which retained a certain humor and razzle-dazzle lacking in continental European forms (ahem), reached its apogee in Magnus Lindberg's junk-metal concerto KRAFT, which I was lucky to see performed live at the 1999 Ojai Festival (whence came the bunny pictures). Esa-Pekka Salonen recorded the piece in the 80s and recently made another version for Ondine (1017-2). The opening isn't quite as coolly explosive as the old disc, but the rest is raucous enough to cause the neighbors to call the police.

Update: Timothy Mangan of the Orange County Register, who was also present at that epic Ojai performance of KRAFT, reminds me that the instrumentarium included an array of radiators and brake drums dangling from a sycamore tree. At a climactic moment near the end, one of the Toimii jumped off the stage, ran down the aisle, banged on the auto parts with a mallet, and ran back to the stage. I'd like to clarify that the Toimii were no longer wearing their bunny suits at the time.

Agenda 2/15-2/20

Av_emailer_3Miller Theatre is not kidding around this week, with a Brian Sacawa  saxophone recital on Wednesday (works by Alvin Lucier, Martin Bresnick, Michael Gordon, u.a.), a Music from Copland House concert on Thursday (the Copland sextet, Sebastian Currier premiere), and a putatively delirious Alarm Will Sound show on Saturday (Nancarrow, Ligeti). Also on Wednesday, Church of St. Ignatius Loyola rolls out Schnittke's grand, mysterious Concerto for Choir, alongside other sacred Russian works. And two performances remain of Gotham Chamber Opera's Ariadne in Crete, on Tuesday and Friday.

The boredoms

I'm not a big Norman Lebrecht fan, as readers of this blog know, but I have to admit his latest column is right on:

Why the world has gone off classical concerts [sic] is a conundrum in which almost every reasonable assertion is disputable. Take the attention-span thesis. Many in the concert world believe that its decline stems from the public’s flickering tolerance for prolonged concentration. If politicians speak in soundbites, how can we expect voters to sit through a Bruckner symphony? It is a persuasive argument but one that I have come to find both fatuous and patronising. Around me I see people of all ages who sit gripped through four hours of King Lear, Lord of the Rings or a grand-slam tennis final but who, ten minutes into a classical concert, are squirming in their seats and wondering what crime they had committed to be held captive, silent and legroom-restrained, in such Guantanamo conditions...The concert hall atmosphere is about as lively as a cruise liner, its intellectual magnetism as potent as a pension plan. Why would any redblooded postmodern person want to spend an evening in God’s waiting room, even with a Co-co to sex up the da capo?

Stormin' Norman even goes so far as to offer a smattering of positive proposals. Drew McManus promises more ideas on how the concert atmosphere can be renovated.

Youth-off music

Here's an excellent article by Scott Timberg of the LA Times on the horrible trend toward playing classical music in public spaces to ward off homeless people and loitering teens. I've been meaning to write a rant on this subject. While many organizations are working desperately hard to attract younger people to the music, here it's being used, as Robert Fink says, as "bug spray, as pest control." This is the perfect consummation of the entire decrepit philosophy of treating classical music as "good music," "serious music," "art music," and so on. On the good-news front, the Palm Beach Post reports that the demise of the Florida Philharmonic has led to an explosion of successful smaller groups all over Florida, to the point where there's a shortage of players. When the age of the dinosaurs ends, the age of the mammals begins. Both stories via ArtsJournal.

Grammy commentary

What is Hoobastank?

Applause: the nightmare returns

When I said below that I had produced my "absolutely final applause post," I meant, of course, that I had written my absolutely final applause post in the Year of the Monkey. It is now the Year of the Rooster, and I am free to resume. Explosive new information on the history of classical concert etiquette has come over the transom, which I will need a few more days to digest. In the meantime, I'd like to quote a brief item that Emanuel Ax recently posted on his website:

...I have been trying to find out exactly when certain listeners and performers decided that applause between movements would not be "allowed," or at least would be frowned upon, but nobody seems to have been willing to admit that they were the culprit. Certainly when a composer like Beethoven wrote the symphonies and piano concertos that we hear today in the concert hall, he himself expected that if a movement ended with a flourish, such as the first movement of the Fifth piano concerto, the audience would leap to its collective feet and let the composer (and pianist) know that they had triumphed. Mozart often wrote to his family that certain variations or sections of pieces were so successful that they had to be encored immediately, even without waiting for the entire piece to end.
I really hope we can go back to the feeling that applause should be an emotional response to the music, rather than a regulated social duty. I am always a little taken aback when I hear the first movement of a concerto which is supposed to be full of excitement, passion, and virtuoso display (like the Brahms or Beethoven Concertos), and then hear a rustling of clothing, punctuated by a few coughs; the sheer force of the music calls for a wild audience reaction. On the other hand, sometimes I wish that applause would come just a bit later, when a piece like the Brahms Third Symphony comes to an end — it is so beautifully hushed that I feel like holding my breath in the silence of the end. I think that if there were no "rules" about when to applaud, we in the audience would have the right response almost always....

I think that just about covers it, but there's more to come.

Beethoven corrects Schoenberg

"What is truly great and beautiful finds kindred souls and sympathetic hearts in the present without withholding in the slightest the just privileges of posterity."

Guest classical hilarity

Reader Tom Hartley writes: "Wouldn't it be cool if, during the Adagio of Nielsen's Fifth Symphony, the 'mad drummer' did the solo from 'In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida'?"

More on WETA

WETA, the public radio station in Washington, DC, confirmed its decision to drop classical programming in favor of talk, despite an outcry from local listeners. It's a sad turn of events, and particularly puzzling since there is already an all-talk public radio station in the area (WAMU). "We're in the business of trying to create a larger audience and have more people join our station," WETA's president Sharon Rockefeller said. Is that all there is? Creating a larger audience? Will WETA be hiring shock-jocks to maximize its ratings? I got an interesting e-mail, though, from a radio professional who pointed out a long-standing problem with classical programming on public radio: listeners don't necessarily feel the need to make contributions. My correspondent writes: "A recent study showed that many classical listeners aren't aware if their favorite station is public or commercial -- they just consider anything that's not music to be 'a commercial.'" Since classical listeners will never be a powerhouse presence in the ratings, they have to compensate with extra support. There is, after all, no divine right for classical music to exist on the radio, or anywhere else. If you want it, you have to fight for it. Otherwise it will go away.

Gary Giddins

8130360_2A while back I promised to say something about Gary Giddins' new book Weather Bird. It's a hefty but absorbing collection of the ex-Village Voice critic's recent jazz criticism. As a dilettante jazz listener, I learned something from every paragraph. I was particularly taken with the big essays that begin and end the book. The introduction is an autobiography of Giddins' early years as a listener, and it shows a free-roaming, non-dogmatic mind in formation: he's avid for Little Richard and J. S. Bach in equal measure. Interestingly, Giddins came to jazz a little later, and it's as if his rock and classical listening had prepared him to grasp jazz's double nature, its "pop" and "art" personalities. His first encounter with Louis Armstrong was filtered through his prior discovery of Bach: "It was the B Minor Mass all over again ... The world was not as it seemed, genius was not confined to the realm of marble busts and high-school music rooms ... [in "Muggles"] Armstrong alights for one of the most dramatic entrances in musical history and turns a blues into his own Kyrie eleison." The final chapter sets out a theory of "four stations" in the history of jazz: "native" (jazz emerging from a cauldron of local cultures and influences); "sovereign" (jazz becomes a universal, comprehensive art); "recessionary" (jazz loses its cultural centrality, yet otherwise advances in progressive and avant-garde forms and on recording); "classical" (jazz threatens to be overshadowed by its past, fights against media indifference, yet fuses new languages and looks to the future). Last year, coincidentally, I attempted to plot out a similar set of five stages in classical history. Giddins' scheme runs parallel to mine, and it ends on an encouragingly hopeful note, with a salute to Jason Moran.

Cleveland, Pelléas


The other day I agreed with David Salvage that the Cleveland Orchestra's playing at Carnegie, however mind-blowingly perfect, wasn't supplying "chills" — a sense of something urgent unfolding. The chills arrived in the second half of Saturday's program, with Schubert's Unfinished and Berg's Three Pieces for Orchestra. I finally felt a current of emotion underneath the shining surface. Still, I couldn't quite put my finger on what Franz Welser-Möst was up to interpretively. I had the same quizzical reaction in 2003. He's a brilliant technician, and his programming is livelier than the norm. As a commenter at NewMusicBox observed, W-M violated an unwritten rule by putting two living composers — Birtwistle and Dutilleux — on the same concert. Horrors! I also like his nonconformist habit of playing works without a break: this time Schubert and Berg, last time Death and Transfiguration and the Four Last Songs. I'll save commentary on Radu Lupu's Beethoven concertos for a coming New Yorker column, also to include the mesmerizing recital that Piotr Anderszewski gave in Zankel last night.

Last Saturday I also saw Pelléas et Mélisande at the Met. Ah, Pelléas, penumbral, lambent, etc. etc. Since Jonathan Miller has recently been slammed here and there in the blõg¥sphêre, I think it's worth pointing out that this revival is a far cry from what Miller put on stage in 1995. I interviewed the director at the time, and he emphasized how important the servants were to his vision of the opera: hovering, gossiping, watching, and waiting, they should suggest the real world that these weary aesthetes have foresworn. (Villiers de l'Isle-Adam: "As for living, let our servants do that for us.") Now the servants are barely there. Mostly gone, too, are the Atget photographs that Miller wanted to have projected on the sets. It's become a static, vacant, monotonous production, and the singers have a hard time putting any life into it. Only in the final scene did the reigning stupor give way to something more human and involving. Mélisande's death was truly felt, largely thanks to the hugely idiomatic singing and acting of José van Dam (who gives NYC recitals on Sunday and Wednesday) and beautiful tremors in the Met orchestra (once more in perfect sync with Levine). When Robert Scandiuzzi's Arkel sang, "You do not understand the soul," van Dam gave a startled little shrug, which said everything. From then to the end, the chills were constant.

If anyone is looking for an introduction to Claude Debussy's great, shadowy world, I suggest this beautiful disc by Claudio Abbado on DG. Then listen again to Sinatra's Only the Lonely.

Literacy / notation #1

I started reading Richard Taruskin's grand six-volume history of music, and penciled my first question mark on p. xxiii, which proclaims the coming end of musical literacy. Daniel Felsenfeld has already raised questions about this end-time conceit in a NewMusicBox essay. Does anyone have statistics on how many people could read music in 1800 or 1900 versus today? We're always told that every member of the old middle class could read music. But the middle class was rather smaller back then than it is now, yes? American music education is currently in free fall, thanks in no small part to "No Child Left Behind," but Finland has compulsory music education for every child in the country, and if China has even a rudimentary music-education system then literacy will be increasing by untold millions. I'm just wondering. This will be the first of a series of posts on musical literacy, notation, and education. My jumping-off-point will be another NewMusicBox essay, by John Halle. I'll write about Taruskin's book in the New Yorker, if I live to finish it.

Ask Mr. Noise

I receive dozens of queries via Google and other search engines each day. I can’t possibly reply to every one of them in person, so I’ll try to answer them here in one fell swoop. I am Alex Ross, but not that Alex Ross. I don’t think Simon Rattle has got any violinists pregnant, but double-check with Norman Lebrecht. That’s an awful lot of pages of searches for Gideon Yago you’ve gone through. Sorry, no naked pics of Karita Mattila today. Indeed, Jay Greenberg is a composer. John Schneider, aka Bo Duke on The Dukes of Hazzard, is probably not Jewish, but that's just a guess. Kurt Cobain killed himself (or was killed) with a Remington M-11 20-gauge shotgun. Hip-hoppity sir, you’ve hit the jackpot: there is no better place on the Internet wherein to read of my main man Kanye West. Uh, yes I am — loud and proud, in fact. I know nothing about Terry Teachout's tendencies, and I can make only an “educated guess” about Alex Balk. “Borrowings” is a kind word for James Horner, my friend. I have no idea what Pavement’s songs mean. Wagner does not suck. “Holliger House” was a joke, people. That’s all I got on Caroliner. Deltrice is so much better than Jessica, girl!!! First I’ve heard of the Pandemonium Steel Band; I’m intrigued. Still no pics of Karita. Jay Greenberg remains a composer. Why, yes, Pfitzner is funkalicious! (That was me.)

Hail Esa-Pekka


When Pierre Boulez conducted the New York Philharmonic in the seventies, he arrived with the intention of revolutionizing the orchestra and shifting the repertory into the twentieth century. In the event, his programming became more traditional as the seasons went by: the subscribers made their prejudices felt. Whether because audiences have changed or because Esa-Pekka Salonen has a better idea of how to make that revolution happen, the 2005-6 season of the LA Philharmonic is the orchestra's most radically contemporary season to date — maybe the most of-the-moment program that an American orchestra has ever devised. There will be four world premieres (Magnus Lindberg, Thomas Adès, Anders Hillborg, Roger Reynolds), a Minimalist festival curated by John Adams (including Harmonielehre, Akhnaten, Tehillim, De Staat, Tabula Rasa, and Glenn Branca's Hallucination City for 100 electric guitars), a return engagement for Adams' El Niño, almost-new pieces by Unsuk Chin, Osvaldo Golijov, Harrison Birtwistle, and Oliver Knussen, late-modern classics like Lutoslawski's Fourth Symphony and Ligeti's Requiem, and, yes, a bunch of symphonies by Beethoven. Composers, not soloists, are the stars: both Adams and Adès have extended residencies. Between the premiere of Doctor Atomic in San Francisco and the Adès-Adams festivals in LA, I'll be more or less living in California next year. With David Gockley, the leading impresario of American opera, moving from Houston Grand Opera to the San Francisco Opera (La Cieca had the story back in December), music will become more West-centric than ever. The lack of creative thinking at New York's big-budget institutions (Carnegie Hall and Great Performers excepted) is all the more striking by comparison.

Photo: Esa-Pekka Salonen, Magnus Lindberg, and other members of the Toimii ensemble perform an avant-garde bunny dance at the 1999 Ojai Festival. I am not advocating bunny dances as a panacea for the problems of the American orchestra, but a few bunny dances can't hurt.

Agenda 2/8 - 2/13

I can't escape Carnegie Hall. Orpheus Chamber Orchestra plays Tuesday night: soloist Jonathan Biss, a new piece by Daniel Schnyder, music by Estonian composer Erkki-Sven Tüür (the Nordic invasion continües). On Wednesday, the gifted young Polish pianist Piotr Anderszewski zeroes in on Zankel. Thursday is Michael Harrison's evening-length "just intonation" (funky tuning) work  Revelation at Merkin. Because February is Crazy Month in classical music, I'll miss about eight hundred promising shows in the same three days: opening night of the Gotham Chamber Opera production of Handel's Arianna in Creta, William Bolcom's wildly polystylistic cabaret opera Casino Paradise at Jazz at Lincoln Center, Chris Taylor and the Yings playing Peter Lieberson's fab new Piano Quintet, Riccardo Chailly conducting the oceanic, ironic Mahler Seventh, a Paul Moravec premiere by the String Orchestra of New York, a Joshua Bell  gig at Great Performers, and Morton Subotnick presenting his laptop tone-poem Until Spring Revisited at Symphony Space (I heard a gorgeous excerpt at La MaMa last fall). Over the weekend I'm off on another secret mission to Providence and will miss a bunch of other concerts. When you factor in new episodes of Lost, Alias, Desperate Housewives, and Missy Elliott's Road to Stardom, it's a heavy-duty week of culture.

Back home

It's good to read Tim Page's rave report of Strathmore, the Baltimore Symphony's new home in the Washington, DC suburbs. I grew up in DC and know too well the miserable acoustics of the concert hall at Kennedy Center (now improved, but hardly first-rate). It's not so good to read that WETA, the DC-area public radio station, has decided to dump its classical programming in favor of talk. What a thrill it was for me as a kid when WETA or the overnight show on WGMS played some big, mysterious piece I'd only heard rumors about — the Bruckner Sixth, for example, which sounded like a cryptic distress signal on my tiny transistor radio. I hope WETA reconsiders: there's enough talk as there is. Speak up here.

Osmo Vänskä and the Nordic invasion


by Alex Ross

The New Yorker, Feb. 14 and 21, 2005.

On a recent night in Minneapolis, as the temperature plunged toward sixteen below zero, an unlikely midwinter carnival took place in Orchestra Hall. The Finnish conductor Osmo Vänskä, who became the music director of the Minnesota Orchestra in 2003, had decided to present a symphony by his countryman Kalevi Aho, and the orchestra chose to spotlight rather than hush up this contemporary intrusion into the gated community of “great composers.” A folk ensemble sang Finnish songs in the lobby. Finnish arts and crafts were for sale alongside characteristic pastries, including homemade snickerdoodles, which I enjoyed too much to question whether they were really Finnish. The hubbub drew in curious passersby. A couple walked up to the ticket window and asked, “What kinda show ya got tonight?” The cashier answered, “We’ve got some Mozart and some”—she paused—“Aho.” The couple blanched. “But Osmo is here,” she added. That closed the deal.

Vänskä is hugely popular in Minnesota, and this concert showed why. First came a richly voiced “Magic Flute” Overture. Then Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 27, with Emanuel Ax as the crisp, heartfelt soloist. Finally, the Aho—the composer’s Seventh Symphony, subtitled “Insect Symphony.” Each movement depicts a different insect species, with a human allegory that’s easily detectable. Butterflies dance an insouciant foxtrot and tango; bohemian dung beetles lament lost time; worker ants march in totalitarian lockstep. The sequence of moods and styles seemed haphazard at first, but the last two movements delivered such a psychic double whammy—the Fascistic march followed by a desperately lovely lullaby for cello (dayflies)—that the structure felt secure. The orchestra played with the kind of furious finesse that every composer prays for. The audience responded with a yelling ovation. No one was talking about Mozart on the way out.

In the past few years, Vänskä has gone from relative obscurity to the front ranks of conductors. In city after city, he has shaken orchestras out of their routines and audiences out of their slumbers. A clarinettist by training, he started out in 1985 as the principal guest conductor of the Lahti Symphony—named for its home city, in the south of Finland. Thanks to a series of Sibelius recordings on the BIS label, word spread that Vänskä had somehow put together a first-class ensemble in a town of a hundred thousand people. In 1996, he appeared in front of a half-empty Carnegie Hall with the Iceland Symphony. Sibelius’s Second was the main work, and by the end of the second movement that trusty warhorse had become a moody, fearsome beast. Of all the out-of-town orchestra concerts I’ve heard at Carnegie, that one was the most thrilling.

In the last week of January, Vänskä brought the Lahti Symphony to Avery Fisher Hall. Sibelius’s Second was again the main attraction, and again it rocked the house. Vänskä says that he aims for “passion and precision,” and he is the rare conductor who achieves the latter without sacrificing the former. He is a stickler for detail, and can exasperate players. But his exactitude serves an expressive end: minute shadings of dynamics and tempo create a cinematic depth of field, before which grand gestures unfold. Passion is always on the surface: Vänskä loves extremes of emotion, such as Sibelius’s spasms of sorrow and joy, and he holds nothing back.

Not content with his status as a genius Sibelius interpreter, Vänskä is now invading the mainstream repertory. He has undertaken a Beethoven cycle in Minnesota and is also recording the symphonies for BIS. The first installment, which will be in stores this month, pairs the Fourth and Fifth. There are no revolutionary interpretive departures, but the orchestra plays with startling, ear-cleansing vigor throughout, and the sound is as vivid as technology allows. Whether or not Vänskä’s Beethoven replaces Karajan’s in every home, Minnesotans will certainly embrace it, and they are the audience that counts. The future of music is local, not global. Every ensemble must justify itself to its community, because the global economy has no use for a symphony orchestra playing Beethoven or Aho or anything else. In this sense, Vänskä, an imperious but unpretentious conductor who delivers transcendent performances on an almost routine basis and rides a Yamaha 650 motorcycle in his spare time, is at the zenith of his profession.


The Lahti concert was the coda to a heavily Nordic month in New York. The bighearted Estonian-American conductor Neeme Järvi, who finishes his tenure at Detroit Symphony this spring and starts full time at the New Jersey Symphony next fall, presided over a “Northern Lights” festival at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center. Meanwhile, Järvi’s son Paavo led the Cincinnati Symphony in an all-Nordic program at Carnegie; the Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes gave the première of a resonant dreamscape by the Danish composer Bent Sørensen; and the Finnish soprano Karita Mattila sang at the Met in “Katya Kabanova.” There are new CDs by such living Finns as Aho, Aulis Sallinen, and Einojuhani Rautavaara. If I could use these names in Scrabble, I’d rule the board.

You don’t need a degree in geopolitical musicology to understand why the Nordic countries have acquired such disproportionate dominance. They have paid for it fair and square. Finland, most notably, views music as a national pastime, not as an élite pursuit, and it has designed a music-education system that may be the best in the world. The country’s avidity for classical music, and not just of the imported variety, is rooted in the singular phenomenon of Sibelius, who assisted in the forging of the Finnish nation, and whose personal style radically renewed musical language while maintaining a powerful hold on the average listener’s imagination. The fact that Sibelius’s face appeared on the hundred-markan bill encapsulates this synergy of the economic and the artistic.

Finnish composers long ago stopped imitating Sibelius, but they are still indirectly influenced by his sense of sonority and space. Vänskä and the Lahti recently recorded Rautavaara’s Eighth Symphony—a not quite believable but immensely seductive geography of Romantic sound, in which long, songful, freely flowing phrases reach out for worlds that are long gone and perhaps never were. Sallinen, too, is up to Symphony No. 8, which the Cincinnati Symphony played at Carnegie. If Rautavaara is a dreamer, Sallinen is an ironist, an elegist, a dealer in lyric fragments. His Eighth is a shadowy, thinned-out landscape populated by a few sadly dancing figures.

At the New Jersey festival, the spotlight fell on the offbeat Nordic repertory that the elder Järvi has long made his specialty: works of Niels Gade, Rudolf Tobias, Johan Svendsen, and the near-great Swedish composer Wilhelm Stenhammar. I can’t endorse Järvi’s claim that the Stenhammar First Piano Concerto is the “most beautiful piano concerto ever written”; I don’t even think it’s as good as the Stenhammar Second. But Järvi and the young Swedish virtuoso Per Tengstrand seized the piece as if it were great, and their conviction carried the day. Two other superb young soloists lit up the New Jersey programs. The seventeen-year-old prodigy Yuja Wang made lush, booming sounds in the Grieg Piano Concerto, and she also displayed an intelligent command of phrase and form. Pekka Kuusisto joyfully rejuvenated the Sibelius Violin Concerto, situating it somewhere between Bachian cogitation and rustic fiddling. Kuusisto had the added charm of being funny. When Joseph Horowitz, one of the organizers of “Northern Lights,” commented in a pre-concert event that the Kalevala epic is to the Finns as the Nibelungenlied is to the Germans and the Edda to the Icelanders, Kuusisto chimed in, “And as ABBA lyrics are to the Swedes.”

Finally, the New Jersey series introduced the young Estonian conductor Anu Tali, who guided Wang through the Grieg Concerto and then took on Sibelius’s monumental Fifth Symphony. Tali is one of a number of women who are elbowing their way into the clammily masculine world of conducting. The sound of the orchestra remains uneven: the strings are consistently full and rich, the brass sometimes coarse. But, despite the horn and trombone mishaps, Tali had the orchestra playing with palpable force and warmth. It was a welcome contrast to the chilly brilliance that is often heard from visiting ensembles in New York. In a recessionary orchestral climate, passion outweighs precision.

Not really about applause

Justin Davidson of Newsday weighs in on audience etiquette, generously quoting this blog. Note his point about cellphones: the ringing during performances drives everyone nuts, yet concert halls evidently consider it a breach of decorum to make anything more than a subliminal announcement about the issue. There's a paradox for you. I believe Disney Hall has figured this out, with an unmistakable pre-concert message. Mr. Rich, does it work? On similar themes, here is the text of my recent speech to the Chamber Music America conference. It was meant to be heard, not read, so pardon the occasional inelegance.

7 Middagh

There's a delightful article in the Times about 7 Middagh Street, the legendary bohemian house in Brooklyn Heights where Benjamin Britten, W. H. Auden, Carson McCullers, and Gypsy Rose Lee all cohabited circa 1940. I used to live a block away from where the house once stood — the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway obliterated it — and read everything I could find about George Davis' peculiar menagerie. A quibble: I think the author mixed up the Thomas Mann spawn. My sources tell me it was Golo Mann, the quiet historian, and not Klaus and Erika Mann, the unquiet literary ones, who lived with Britten et al. in the house. Britten, incidentally, couldn't stand the chaos of the place and fled with Peter Pears to Amityville, Long Island, which fortunately had not yet begun to experience the terrifying events depicted in The Amityville Horror.

Walter Winchell impersonation

When I list redid my list of blogs a while back, I somehow left off Isaac Watras' wonderful listening journal What I Like About... Many apologies....Sequenza 21, the multi-voiced composer blog, is heating up. It's an hour after the end of the Cleveland Orchestra concert at Carnegie, and there's already a review. With which I'm forced to agree: I'm loving Radu Lupu's playing of the concertos, but the orchestra itself hasn't given me chills, as David Salvage puts it....Trrill has another fascinating, creepy post about castratos, this one pegged to a recent episode of American Idol, where a possible live castrato briefly appeared in the audition process before being chased away by the judges.... Two new blogs worth noting. One is baritone Tom Meglioranza, who recently revealed what not to do during those long stretches of oratorios when you have nothing to sing: "1. Following along in your score. The word 'amateurish' springs to mind. Especially if you're using a different edition from the choir. Then your page turns don't match, and it looks like you're just pretending you can read music." Followed by a typology of Messiah listeners, including "people who are really freaked out the first time the countertenor sings" and "people who laugh when the chorus sings 'All we like sheep.'" This reminds me of the time the New York Times sent me out to cover eight Messiah performances in the space of two weeks. I was never quite the same....The other interesting new blogger is—Pierre Boulez? What else could the initials "PB" stand for? The anonymous author of Never Been Home is providing sharp commentary on musical events around Paris....In case you didn't have enough blogs to read, John Anderies at the Music Library Association blog Infoshare has a huge list of music blogs in all genres.

Masterpieces NOW

Alex of The Minor Fall The Major Lift invites me to answer Martin Kettle's recent piece in The Guardian, which proposes (I think) that composers stopped writing great music decades ago, but that if they return to form they'd be the new rock 'n' roll. I can't disagree with Kettle's bias against the scarier forms of postwar modernism, although I would try to bring more nuance to the discussion. I obviously hate his dismissal of contemporary music. I kind of like the rock 'n' roll formulation, and almost believe it. Here, to respond constructively, are some works from the last twenty-five years that have a masterpiecey aura for me, with links to old reviews and/or CDs. Alex names Nixon in China — one of the most richly melodic operas of recent times, one of the few flat-out great American operas, as deep a meditation on the psychology of power as any composer has created. See also Adams' Harmonielehre, Harmonium, Naive and Sentimental Music. Messiaen's St. Francis. Lutoslawski's Third Symphony. Takemitsu's Twill by Twilight. Golijov's St. Mark Passion. Adès' Asyla. Gubaidulina's Offertorium. Feldman's Piano and String Quartet. Lou Harrison's Rhymes With Silver. Ligeti's Violin Concerto. Pärt's Litany. Reich's Desert Music. Glass' Violin Concerto. Michael Gordon's Decasia, Phil Kline's Zippo Songs. For the komplexity kids, Kurtag's Stele, Magnus Lindberg's Kraft, Carter's Clarinet Concerto. Take that, Martin Kettle! Composers already rock!

Komplexity kids

Steve Hicken has responded to my and Kyle Gann's posts on "simplicity" vs. "complexity" in contemporary music. As always, I appreciate Steve's even-handedness, but I have a couple of issues. First, I don't think that contemporary audiences demand instant gratification any more than those of Mozart's time. To the contrary, I think that even the most conservative listeners are more patient with dissonance, polyrhythm, and other gristly stuff than their counterparts of a hundred years ago, just because they're accustomed to the sounds (prior exposure to "modern music," horror-movie soundtracks, etc.). Audiences have become so terminally polite that they'll sit through just about anything, showing their discontent only by applauding weakly. Second, I think it's a mistake to view pop culture as simple-minded. Consider the insanely multiplying plot strands of Alias or 24, or those computer games for which people write 500-page instruction manuals. These examples come from Steven Johnson's forthcoming book Everything Bad Is Good For You, which, in inspired contrarian fashion, hails pop culture as a brain-teasing labryinth. Perhaps young composers are eating up Carter and Boulez because their minds have been saturated with layer upon layer of electronic information.

UPN's X-treme oboe challenge

Are my comrades in the pop-music blogosphere giving due attention to the genius TV event that is Missy Elliott's Road to Stardom? Last night's episode climaxed in a freestyle competition in a Las Vegas boxing ring. Nylene read out Matthew, the blond singer-dancer who has renounced lust in his heart, by saying, "You think you're Timberlake / But you're really Timberfake." Then Deltrice cruised to victory with her soulful sassy comebacks to all challengers — but girl, that attitude of yours is gonna piss off Missy sooner or later. We need a reality show like this devoted to auditions for a major symphony orchestra. Twelve desperate oboists on a bus, hoping for a seat in the Cleveland. Episode 3: Bus pulls up at a Maryland truck stop in the middle of the night. Contestants have to sight-read a new Marc-André Dalbavie concerto in front of an audience of speed-deprived truck drivers, with the Emerson String Quartet adding to the nervous tension by playing random snatches of Shostakovich in the background. Who's going to crack first?

Rautavaara speaks

I love this quotation from the Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara, which I found in the liner notes to his haunting recent opera The House in the Sun, recorded by the Ondine label. I imagine many composers might identify with the sentiment:

When, as a very young man, I decided I was going to be a composer, it was not because I was so passionately in love with music. No, but I had found the world and life difficult, as a child and a youngster. I wanted to escape from them. I happened to read some biographers of composers and what Richard Strauss had written: that a composer could create a world of beauty of his own, for himself alone — a kingdom of which he was the sole ruler. This was precisely what my own escapism needed, a world of my own I could build for myself, where no one could criticize me, there were none of the I-know-better brigade I so feared.

Go Sibelius!

My column on the Finnish conductor Osmo Vänskä and  assorted other Nordic goings-on will run in The New Yorker next week. Short version? Vänskä is rëälly gööd. I've been listening to dozens of Finnish new-music CDs, and am working on a follow-up. For now, I want to post a remarkable statistic that I couldn't quite work into the piece. The ski-centric city of Lahti, where Vänskä got his start, has a population of 98,253. Total attendance for the Lahti Symphony in 2003 was 58,607. This means that on average sixty percent of the population attends the symphony in a given year. Many people, of course, go to more than one concert a year. But even assuming an average attendance of, say, five concerts, you get twelve percent of the population going to the symphony. If the same percentage of New York's population wanted to attend the New York Philharmonic, they'd have to play five concerts a week in Yankee Stadium. Any comments, wise Drew McManus?

Update: In a matter of hours, McManus responds, with statistics and speculation relating to the Finnish music economy. (Yes, the Lahti hall is undoubtedly part of the orchestra's appeal, as this photograph testifies.) McManus also asks what was implicit in my question — whether an American orchestra could ever achieve the same. Since Vänskä is now based in Minneapolis as well as Lahti, he will have a chance to work his magic there. Obviously American orchestras will never have the kind of government support that Finnish orchestras enjoy. But municipal and private local support is another matter. McManus cites Spokane, WA and Eugene, OR as promising cases. I see that the Eugene Symphony has 22,000 yearly attendance in a city of 138,000. That's not too far outside the ballpark of the Lahti phenomenon — and Eugene's subscriber base has grown by 39% in the last five years. I'm also interested to see that Eugene's repertory is pretty adventurous, encompassing this season Berg's Violin Concerto, Frank Martin's Concerto for 7 Winds and Timpani, and a premiere by Philip Rothman. Sooner or later some of these small-city orchestras may throw caution to the winds and start doing things that will revolutionize the entire orchestra business.

Update 2: Lisa Hirsch offers hër öwn thöüghts, emphasizing the incredible Finnish music-education system. Indeed, as I'll say in my column next week, it's probably the best in the world.

Dispassionate spasmodicism?

The composers of Bang on a Can recently asked fans to suggest new names for the kind-of-minimalist, sort-of-pop-inflected music they write. The results are posted here, and they range from the perilously plausible to the lustily ludicrous. Some highlights: "Adventure Classical," "antimannerism," "bangcannodality," "Black Clothes Music" (not unjust), "blobist," "brogglinimal cliparabolic," "Church Bingo Chance Music," "Dismalism," "elasti-classical," "Euphoria" (hopefully named for the fictional drug that Brandon Walsh "accidentally" takes on the classic 90210 episode), "Eveen Steeven," "Minimaximal Reverbitrance," "music to be listened to," "Musique Galoupe," "pank," "pluraphonic," "polygism" with a soft "g," "popsical," "Post Secondary Modernists" (obviously inspired by Second Modernism), and, the clear winner, "Where Are the Dancers with the Garbage Lids Music."

The link comes courtesy of NewMusicBox, which currently has a raft of stories on the non-death of classical music, including an excellent piece by Danny Felsenfeld. Quote: "To confuse these institutions [New York Philharmonic, Lincoln Center, etc.] with the music is like worrying about the state of cinema because the Loews theater chain in crisis." I have thought long and hard about this matter and come to the conclusion that the death of classical music is dead, and that all stories about this non-topic — including those protesting that classical music isn't dead after all, as well as those protesting that the entire discussion is a waste of time  — are a waste of time.

Agenda 2/1-2/6

I may as well pitch a tent at the corner of 57th and 7th, because I'll be more or less living at Carnegie Hall this week. Tonight, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday, the hall is given over to the glorious Cleveland Orchestra, about which an English music presenter once legendarily asked, "Where is the Cleveland Orchestra from?" (An anecdote told in Charles Michener's in-depth profile of the orchestra, running in the New Yorker this week.) The regal Radu Lupu plays the five Beethoven piano concertos, and Franz Welser-Möst piles on some brawny twentieth-century repertory — Shostakovich's Eleventh Symphony, Roy Harris' Third, Birtwistle's Night's Black Bird, Dutilleux's Second Symphony, and the Berg Three Pieces, plus Schubert's Unfinished. On Saturday afternoon, I'll see Pelléas et Mélisande at the Met. That's enough for one week, surely.

I have a handsome old score of the Beethoven concertos. It once belonged to the superb horn-player Alan Civil, who was in the Royal Philharmonic under Beecham and later in the Philharmonia and the BBC Symphony. He also played the solo on the Beatles' "For No One." His Daily Telegraph obiturary read in part: "Once on a train bound for Leeds he sat opposite a young girl who was wearing headphones from which hissed a sound unacceptable for a long journey. When asked to turn the volume down she refused, adding that it was a free country. Alan proceeded to take his horn from its case and to play Mozart loudly. The girl then left the carriage to the applause of the other occupants." The obituary also said, "It would be unrealistic to gloss over the fact that Alan Civil enjoyed a drink."

Here we go again

Kyle Gann writes about a trend surfacing among young composers — a new yen for dissonance, complexity, various forms of musical noise. I've been noticing this, too, and wondering what to make of it. Composers who came of age in the sixties and seventies rebelled against their elders by rejecting dissonant modernism in favor of minimalism, neo-romanticism, and other reaffirmations of simplicity. Now the world has turned upside down. The composers of the sixties and seventies generations have become the establishment; they are, to their own distress, figures of authority. Perhaps it's not surprising that some of the youngsters are headed in a different direction. As Kyle suggests, the raucous underside of the pop world — noise punk, hardcore metal, and so on — is pushing them along. And if middle-aged composers of a tonal persuasion tell them they're on the wrong path, they will surely keep on going.

I love extreme dissonance in improvised form, when it's produced by AMM, Sonic Youth, and any of their countless spawn. That kind of noise can have joyous, liberating effects on the tired brain. (I once played keyboard in a six-piece noise collective called Miss Teen Schnauzer. The climax of our single public performance was built around a tape loop of the opening chords of Die Frau ohne Schatten. We opened for Sebadoh, which was very cool.) But its classical equivalent, the density dance, often makes me squirm: all that raw, rebellious expression so easily turns into yet another intellectual game, simply in the act of figuring out how to write it down. These days, I get much more excited when I hear something totally fresh produced with relatively simple means — this captivating new piece by Judd Greenstein, for example.

Minimalist conviviality

"I like to hear composers compliment their contemporaries," Robert Gable says of Steve Reich's recent comment on John Adams in the Times. In an interview published in his book Writings on Music, Reich was even more gracious to his younger colleague: "The poet Ezra Pound talked about poets in terms of being 'inventors' or 'masters.' I would put John in that second category and myself in the first. Obviously, there is some mastery needed to get your inventions across in a powerful way, and some invention is needed by every master. Nevertheless, there may be some truth in that distinction." How's that for generosity? Now, if only Reich and Glass could get along. Maybe they'll hug and make up on a very special Oprah.

More on sex, drugs, and oboes

The other day I had a bit of fun at the expense of Blair Tindall's forthcoming book Mozart in the Jungle: Sex, Drugs, and Classical Music. I received various responses, ranging from "That sounds completely silly" to "Darling, you have no idea." No doubt the truth lies somewhere in between, and, fortunately, Tindall's book promises something other than a sensationalistic tale of oboe crack whores (entertaining though that might be). The author writes me: "Mozart in the Jungle is really meant to illustrate how the Cold War-era 'culture boom' established an unrealistic blueprint for arts economics and attitudes in America. The resulting system, with which we're now stuck because of full-time orchestra contracts and an explosion in the number of performing-arts centers built in the 1960s, can cost communities more than it returns in public service. One orchestra manager told me his job revolves around providing full-time employment for musicians rather than serving the audience." This, of course, is important stuff, and I'll be very happy if Tindall casts a cold eye over the entire question of musicians, management, contracts, unions, and the like. Everyone in classical music knows that the big ensembles need to take bold measures to adapt and evolve. Yet the network of contracts that envelops them means that even the tiniest, most timid notions require protracted negotiations, usually ending in stalemate and stasis. If Tindall uses a bit of gossip to draw attention to the bigger issues, more power to her. I'm thinking of changing the title of my book to The Rest Is Noise: How Schoenberg, Stravinsky, and Other Radical Extremists Brought the World to the Brink of Harmonic Armageddon, and Why the Critics at the Times Don't Want You to Know About It.

Norrington's Mendelssohn's Bach

[The grousing Roger Norrington post that originally appeared here didn't make much sense, so I've taken it off the air. I'm paying for this microphone, as the late President said.]

In other news, Marion Rosenberg has written a lovely tribute to the late great Giuseppe Verdi. A high-school blogger named the word whisperer does the same for Barber's Adagio for Strings. (Via Robert Gable.) I urge New Yorkers to give their business to either of the major events happening tonight — Reinbert de Leeuw at Juilliard or Boulez at Carnegie. I'm on a secret mission to Providence to see something that might be of infinitely lesser or infinitely greater importance than Boulez conducting the Rite of Spring, depending on how you look at it. Stay tuned.

Behind the Musik

The music world is sure to be talking about Blair Tindall's book Mozart in the Jungle: Sex, Drugs, and Classical Music, which Grove / Atlantic will publish in July. A well-placed source at one of New York's leading broadsheet newspapers has sent me a summary of its contents, to which I've added editorial emphasis:

From her debut recital at Carnegie Hall to performing with the orchestras of Les Misérables and Miss Saigon, oboist Blair Tindall has been playing classical music professionally for twenty-five years. She's also lived the secret life of musicians who survive hand to mouth, trading sex and drugs for low-paying gigs and the promise of winning a rare symphony position or a lucrative solo recording contract. In Mozart in the Jungle, Tindall describes her graduation from the North Carolina School of the Arts to the backbiting New York classical music scene, a world where Tindall and her fellow classical musicians often play drunk, high, or hopelessly hung-over, live in decrepit apartments, and perform in hazardous conditions. (In the cramped confines of a Broadway pit, the decibel level of one instrument is equal to the sound of a chain saw.) Mozart in the Jungle offers a stark contrast between the rarefied experiences of overpaid classical musician superstars and those of the working-class musicians. For lovers of classical music, Mozart in the Jungle is the first true, behind-the-scenes look at what goes on backstage and in the Broadway pit.

Oh, don't I know it. I played the oboe until age eighteen, and every day I thank my lucky stars I was rescued in the nick of time from that lurid, shocking, degrading lifestyle. (I spent two years in Holliger House, a wonderful shelter for recovering teenaged oboists.) If, as Ms. Tindall claims, classical musicians are routinely drunk, high, and horny when they play, they do much too good a job of hiding it. Let's bring some of this crunkosity out in the open. I want to see a couple of OD's and maybe some onstage vomiting at the NY Phil. Let's put a hidden camera backstage and see what Yo-Yo Ma is really doing before he saunters onstage with that cherubic grin. And let's talk about Pierre Boulez — the original party monster is in town this weekend, and it's going to be off the hook.

Twang of Death

Is there any sound quite as beautifully chilling as a low note on a harp? The instrument that stereotypically evokes the flutterings of angels has its dark side, and its bass tones can mess with your head. I thought about this during Das Lied von der Erde at Carnegie on Sunday: "Der Abschied," Mahler's antepenultimate self-requiem, begins with two harps playing two octaves below middle C, augmented by contrabassoon, two horns, tam-tam (very soft), and pizzicato cellos and basses. It's a sound from underneath the floor, something between a bell and a thump. Film/TV composer Michael Giacchino makes liberal use of deep harp notes: they're the main reason you get inexplicable chills watching Lost. Perhaps the orgy-shy Helen Radice has more to say about the history and literature of the Strum of Doom.

Update: Helen comes through with a rocking post on harp construction, Mahler, and the expressivity of the telling detail.

I kid you not

David Thomson captures the appeal of Johnny Carson: "He was a master spy, an immaculate secret, someone who knew that being on television long enough might be a very good way of burying your own soul." Read also Mr. Sun (now and forever). Kenneth Tynan's 1978 Carson profile is one of the all-time tour-de-force New Yorker articles, worth the $15,000 (!) Tynan was paid. Oddly, I once wrote a long article on late-night talk shows for the New Republic. I'm no longer sure what I was trying to say, and the last several paragraphs were actually written by Andrew Sullivan, but there is some amusing talk-show history in it. The text comes courtesy of a Freshman Composition class at Ole Miss.

Farinelli, Litherland

Trrill, the site that tells you "what the f*** we think about opera" (we're a family blog here), has a great post about the legendary castrato Farinelli. Trrill's chief editrix, Mme. Grisi Pasta, also reports that le tout Seattle has gone mad for soprano Victoria Litherland, now singing Manon in Manon Lescaut. Sound files on the singer's site are worth hearing.

Absolutely final applause post

Mozart writes about the 1778 premiere of his Paris Symphony: “Just in the middle of the first Allegro there was a Passage I was sure would please. All the listeners went into raptures over it — applauded heartily. But, as when I wrote it, I was quite aware of its Effect, I introduced it once more towards the end — and it was applauded all over again.” Mozart here describes an atmosphere similar to that of modern jazz clubs: the audience demonstrates its sophistication not by remaining silent but by acknowledging the composer's best ideas with bursts of applause. What would Mozart think of our modern concert culture? I'm guessing he'd admire the precision of the performances, and he'd appreciate the relative lack of chatter and noisemaking, but he might well be disturbed by the generally passive, frigid demeanor of audiences. An artist who imagines in the throes of his creative process a give-and-take with a responsive crowd would have a hard time adjusting to the intellectual solitude of contemporary composition. He might look around for other opportunities.

Concert-hall managements often insert little etiquette codes in their programs. As Richard Taruskin sardonically notes in his new history of music, the most familiar of these litanies takes the form of Biblical commandments on the order of "Thou shalt not...," accentuating the fake churchiness of the ritual. Some organizations, thankfully, are starting to send a different message. Here's what the Houston Symphony says in response to the question "Is it proper to applaud between movements?":

As music in the schools wanes and technology and popular culture become ever more engulfing, symphony orchestras are trying to attract the widest possible audiences to classical music to ensure we have music-lovers for the future. Therefore, today's audiences consist of young and old, novice and experienced listeners, first-time visitors to Jones Hall and subscribers who have been with us for decades. While we believe in presenting the best possible musical experience, we also want to encourage spontaneity and comfort. Applause between movements can be seen as an encouraging sign of new and enthusiastic additions to the classical music fold.

Notice that the Houston Symphony stops short of endorsing applause between movements. Instead, it gently implies that experienced listeners might want to think twice before going ballistic on the issue. Wouldn't it make more sense to be happy that new people are in the hall? Perhaps be friendly to them if they're sitting next to you, instead of scowling? Just a thought. Let the last word for now belong to reader Roberto Lizondo:

In your "More applause" post you say that you have "often been to orchestral concerts where the audience supplies a standing ovation that to my taste isn't warranted." While that is certainly so, I would like to make the case that warranted and unwarranted ovations (if not standing ones), as far as classical music concerts go, are really inspiring for musicians, and a great reward in a a lonely profession full of ups and downs. Here in Buenos Aires, the audience at our Teatro Colón may not be very discriminating, but they surely know how to clap at the end of a performance. I've seen the look of disbelief in the face of some eminent musicians playing here: the endless clapping, going on and on, calling the musician back into the stage over and over again. And when after the fourth or fifth curtain call the "rhythmic" clapping starts, boy, isn't it great to be in that place with all that people, just wanting to thank the lonely figure on the stage and show them how grateful we are that they flew all the way down to spend that couple of hours (extended, if we audience are going to get our wish, a further half hour) giving us their music, even on a night when inspiration deserted them a little bit. I've been lucky enough to attend concerts in some of the world's foremost venues, and nowhere have I felt such communion between artist and audience, caused simply, I guess, by the fact that the minority of us down here who still care about (and can afford) classical music are willing to show our thankfulness to the person on the stage without the restraints of propriety.
As for clapping between movements of a piece, it surely disturbs me, but it is an argument often used by those who, at least here, want to keep "serious" music as their exclusive terrain, inaccessible to those who are not "educated enough." A few years ago I attended a lieder recital by Bernarda Fink, and next to me there was a group of high school students, who were obviously coming to a concert of this type for their first time in their lives on some school assignment. She was singing some Schumann cycle, I believe, and after the first Lied some people in the audience, conspicuously among them my student friends, started to clap. The hissing from all over the theatre started immediately, but she, very graciously looked in our direction, put a finger to her mouth, as in one of those old hospital posters, and made a gesture indicating that the applause had to be deferred until later, while looking at the hissers not unkindly, but at the very least impatiently. The students acknowledged the gesture: they seem to absorb (or try to absorb) their first Schumann, waited to start clapping until they saw everyone else doing it, and I am sure at least one or two of the group went home thinking that perhaps this music was worth investigating a little further.

Agenda 1/24-1/30

Having survived the Great Millennial Arctic Snow Deluge of 2005, I'm ready for, uh, a big blizzard of concerts. January's surfeit of Nordic notation continues with the Cincinnati Symphony at Carnegie on Monday: Paavo Järvi, son of Neeme, leads a program much like one that Anu Tali, also Estonian, conducted in New Jersey two weeks ago: again the Grieg Concerto, again the Sibelius Fifth, now Sallinen's Eighth Symphony. Tuesday and Wednesday bring installments of Juilliard's Soviet Avant-Garde festival, commemorating Schnittke, Gubaidulina, Ustvolskaya, and others voices of the Communist twilight. Also on Wednesday, the Lyric Society of New York presents Shostakovich's Brezhnev-era Blok songs. On Thursday I go to the New York City Ballet: Terry Teachout will tell me when not to applaud. Friday offers a tough choice between Pierre Boulez explicating The Rite of Spring at Carnegie and Reinbert de Leeuw conducting Gubaidulina's Stimmen ... Verstummen and Shostakovich's Fifteenth at Juilliard. I've said before and I'll say again that de Leeuw is one of the best conductors working. As for Boulez, he drops it like it's hot. (De Leeuw's concert is free; Boulez's has a top price of $35.) Saturday, Boulez is back with another Rite. And Sunday, Osmo Vänskä's Lahti Symphony closes out Nordic month with a concert at Avery Fisher. Vänskä is a brilliant musician who is moving the Minnesota Orchestra into the top echelon. Here he'll be conducting the Sibelius Second, and if you think that work is a worn-out warhorse you've never heard Vänskä's take on it. His 1996 performance with the Iceland Symphony was one of the most intense experiences of my listening life.

Crank up the Sibelius




The Finnish Consulate surely outdid itself in subsdizing this striking visual accompaniment to the New Jersey Symphony's "Northern Lights Festival." Pekka Kuusisto's performance of the Sibelius Violin Concerto on Friday night, before the snow began to fall, was a wonderfully free, vital interpretation, poised between Bachian cogitation and folk fiddling. He's also a charismatic, funny guy who had the audience in stitches with his absurdist summary of the Kalevala epic: "It doesn't take a rocket scientist to know that trying to kill the Swan of Death is maybe not the smartest project." Any American orchestra would want to have him, for the playing and talking alike.

Feline perspectives: Brahms and Mahler



Penelope is nearly as serious as Brahms (upper right); Maulina fondly recalls her soulmate Mahler.

Noises off (revised)

I've been thinking more about the "silent audience" — the relatively newfangled classical crowd that demands dead quiet and abstains from applause between movements. Here are some possible explanations for its emergence. 1. The superb acoustics of late nineteenth-century concert halls such as the Musikverein in Vienna and Boston's Symphony Hall changed how people listen. The sheer beauty of the sound put a kind of gilt frame around the music. The cults of Beethoven and Wagner turned the performance into something like a sacred ritual, a church-like experience to be received in quiet. (See the Parsifal imbroglio described below.) 2. Near-silent effects such as the pianissimo beginning of Beethoven's Ninth and also of Wagner's Ring practically demanded silence before the music even began. 3. As a reader pointed out to me, Gustav Mahler often glared punishingly at audiences when they made excess noise at both opera and orchestral performances. He agitated to stop applause after arias and movements. The growing idolatry of Mahler after his death led other conductors to follow his example, although some, such as Pierre Monteux, protested. 4. The rise of recordings meant that listeners became accustomed to listening to music in solitary quiet. They began to expect the same atmosphere in the concert hall. The lack of applause between movements may very well be what scholar Mark Katz calls a "phonograph effect," a consequence of recording technology and its surrounding rituals. Of course, it doesn't explain why people still feel free to make noise at rock shows and other pop events. Which leads us to 5. The rise of popular culture made classical audiences anxious about their status. They wanted to be sure that they were seen to be "serious," not like those plebians and vulgarians who made noise elsewhere.

Continue reading "Noises off (revised)" »

Night of the living dead

B0006iqm5i01_sclzzzzzzz__1English soothsayer Norman Lebrecht predicted that the year 2004 would spell the death of classical recording. How uncanny, how eerie the feeling when I opened the door of my office only to see a large stack of envelopes containing ... oh, horror! ... new classical CDs. They were ghoulishly similar in appearance, weight, and sound to the ones that came before the great Lebrechtian devastation. O unspeakable apparition! O unaccountable event! Playing now is a recital of Gounod and Massenet arias on Virgin Classics with the Mexican tenor Rolando Villazón. Unless someone has run a fiendish digital simulation in the studio, this is a major, beautiful, passionate, intelligent voice. Somehow I overlooked Villazón's Italian recital from last year; I'll have to track it down. The new disc is in stores January 25th. It is severe.

The Return of the King

The weight of history prevented me from seeing the President's Second Inaugural Address, but, thanks to the miracle of the Internet, I was able to read the text online. I was surprised by the bold, sweeping power of its rhetoric: "By our efforts, we have lit a fire as well — a fire in the minds of men. It warms those who feel its power, it burns those who fight its progress, and one day this untamed fire of freedom will reach the darkest corners of our world. Yes, the fire that we have set burning in the minds of men will shine even in the dimmest dankest depths of the Mines of Bagdûr, and it will glimmer brightly upon the coldest jagged peak of the dread Mountains of Kayhan Kalhor, and it will gleam forth in a great blue tongue of fire out upon the terrible blank vastness of the Swamp of Bibimbap, yes, even unto the stark steep steps of the Dark Castle of Darth Darkûr...."

Wack Messiah

Anyone needing a lift on this grim midwinter day might want to go to Tim Johnson's site and listen to the Messiah on crack.

Related: infamous trumpet bloopers.

Rothko Chapel

Tim Johnson has written a captivating appreciation of Morton Feldman's Rothko Chapel, part of an ongoing celebration of favorite works of the last forty years. The list is itself a fine example of ecumenical, non-polemical new-music attitude (see the post on style  wars below): it enshrines the arch-simplicity of Arvo Pärt alongside the arch-complexity of Brian Ferneyhough. (These terms "simplicity" and "complexity" are used with due irony and circumspection. Just because Pärt fails to fill up the page with lots of notes doesn't mean he's a simple composer.) Rothko Chapel is a pivotal work for me, too; when I first heard it, I was completely shattered by the entrance of the viola at the end, playing that lonely Hebraic melody which Feldman wrote when he was a teenager,  In 1972, Heinz-Klaus Metzger obstreperously asked Feldman whether his music constituted a “mourning epilogue to murdered Yiddishkeit in Europe and dying Yiddishkeit in America.” Feldman answered:

It’s not true; but at the same time I think there’s an aspect of my attitude about being a composer that is mourning—say, for example, the death of art. I mean, remember that I'm a New Yorker, and a New Yorker doesn't think about Yiddishkeit. You think about Yiddishkeit if you live with only five thousand other Jews in Frankfurt, so I haven't got that problem, I mean, I don't think of myself as Jewish in New York. But I do in a sense mourn something that has to do with, say, Schubert leaving me. Also, I really don't feel that it's all necessary any more. And so what I tried to bring into my music are just very few essential things that I need. So I at least keep it going for a little while more. I don't this explains anything, does it?

It does help explain Rothko Chapel, written the previous year.


Carnegie Hall has announced that Lorraine Hunt Lieberson will not be singing Das Lied von der Erde this Sunday, because of a lower back injury. Anne Sofie von Otter is replacing her, so it won't be in any way a washout, but, still, I'm thoroughly downcast: there was nothing this season I was looking forward to more. Let's wish LHL a rapid, complete recovery.

Germany attacks Britain

The young UK composer Martin Suckling recently had his work Play performed at a Berlin new-music festival organized by George Benjamin. It's a happy, wired, jumpily pulsing score, approachable in idiom but unpredictable in movement. Suckling reports on the premiere here, and it's instructive reading. Evidently the festival and related concerts occasioned some controversy: Benjamin's works Palimpsest I and II inspired boos alongside bravos at the Berlin Philharmonic, and Suckling was subject to a hostile review in the Berliner Zeitung. This being Germany, the problem wasn't that the imported British works were too ugly but that they weren't ugly enough. Such was the tenor of the Berliner Zeitung review: "All the traumas of the twentieth century were here obliterated. Forgetful of history, unencumbered, this music tries to pick up where the happy-go-lucky music from before the First World War left off. The idea of authentic expression seems to have taken care of itself completely, in parallel with Stravinsky and Ravel's turn from late-Romantic pathos, except that these young Brits obviously no longer recognize the need to say something new." And so on: the review is so overflowing with sub-Adornian literary kitsch that it hardly needs to be taken seriously. Suckling is right to say: "Music can be enjoyable to listen to, sweet to hear, but have something more to say beneath the surface." He might have added, if he were in a less diplomatic mood, that quite a few of those twentieth-century traumas were inflicted by Germans on the rest of the world, and it's a bit ironic that a German should accuse a Scot of forgetting them.

The Berliner Zeitung's takedown of younger British composers — Thomas Adès and Mark-Anthony Turnage are dissed by implication — is sadly symptomatic of the stagnant state of the German new-music scene, which I reviewed in my article "Ghost Sonata." Time and again, composers and critics have invoked the horrors of the twentieth century as justification for worn-out avant-garde devices. The composer Jeffery Cotton has written a passionate essay on this topic, quoting my effort briefly. Of a Darmstadt new-music concert, Cotton writes:  "Like so many times before at concerts of new music in Germany, I was overwhelmed by the feeling, as each piece started and ended, that someone was simply opening and closing a door on the same, eternal improvisation of effects and gestures." When he asked one of the performers why this music seemed constitutionally incapable of repeating segments and building a structure therefrom, the musician answered: “Well, return of the kind you mention would give rise to a system, and that would mean form, and form is fascistic." No, purely ideological pronouncements along the lines of "form is fascistic" are fascistic. Read Mann's Doctor Faustus.

For another point of view, see Mike Silverton's line-by-line critique of my "Ghost Sonata" article in the on-line La Folia magazine. Silverton, an old comrade from Fanfare magazine, acknowledges that German new-music polemics often tilt toward absurdity, but feels that the music should be considered separately from the propaganda. He believes I've dismissed Helmut Lachenmann too high-handedly. Perhaps so. I wrote that Lachenmann's music — best heard on ECM's Schwankungen am Rand CD — was "intermittently gripping": that grudging admission was insufficient for a composer with a weird and wild ear. My main beef is not with individual composers like Lachenmann but with the overarching ideology that holds the new-music scene in thrall. Imagine the difficulties that Martin Suckling would face if he were a young German tonal composer, receiving that same sweeping dismissal every other day from critics, musicians, radio programmers, and festival administrators, with the "fascist" slur thrown in for good measure. Steve Hicken of Listen 101 says that we have to get beyond a politicized new-music scene and celebrate the best of all traditions, "conservative " and "radical." A fine idea, but how do you arrange a cease-fire? Who's going to tell the Germans?

Update: Marcus Maroney, too, pleads for an ecumenical approach in the new-music field.

Update II: Salzburg has announced a Second Modernism. I am announcing the End of the Second Modernism.

Update III: I've made some corrections to the above — the Berlin Phil played Benjamin, the Deutsche RSO played Suckling — and included a brief description of Play, which I heard on MP3.

Applause mailbag

Re my applause posts below, Peter Rolufs writes from Tokyo:

Considering "the direct relationship between the greatness of the audience and the unruliness of the music" I was by all means disturbed when a "young lion" of jazz at New Orleans's leading club Snug Harbor made a sarcastic remark between songs about the audience not listening.  The place was packed, and for good reason, because this cat was indeed a lion. Well, there was a bit of a din, but I for one was concentrating full-on as the music was sublime, and by golly the din fit right in.  The lion's dad would have known better, I thought.
In the notational world, I wonder if the return of the great audience could be had for the price of a bottle of wine and glasses (and glass holders) at every seat. Mahler, brought to you by Blue Nun.  Beethoven, brought to you by Budweiser!  The cymbalist could be the orchestra's token drunk.

Actually, I wrote "the unruliness of the audience and the greatness of the music," but that's just the point, ain't it? Greatness and unruliness are often interchangeable. On the too rare occasions I make it to a jazz club — as, for example, when I saw Cecil Taylor at Iridium last spring — I feel I'm in audience heaven: informality and seriousness are in perfect balance. The Budweiser Beethoven Festival is also a brilliant idea.

X-rated Hansel and Gretel

At first, I suspected that this report of a pedophile-populated production of Hansel and Gretel was an implausible hoax concocted by AC Douglas to bolster his already very convincing case against Director Opera, but the link, to the Australian paper The Age, appears to be legit. Director Giancarlo del Monaco gets off in Erfurt: "The fairytale forest is replaced by a red-light district, with high-rises, garbage dumps and begging children. The children's mother is a whore and their father an alcoholic. The 'sand-man' is a cocaine-snorting pimp, who pursues Hansel and Gretel with a video camera and hands them over to the wicked witch — the modern 'stranger' who could be the man down the road, the local pervert, the Catholic priest."

Shuffle along

Last Friday I spoke to the annual conference of Chamber Music America, a wonderful organization that binds together chamber music organizations across the country and suggests how they can function in a seemingly indifferent culture. The conference was titled "Found In The Shuffle: Authenticity in Today’s Musical Market." The organizers had read my essay "Listen To This," from last year, and were interested in hearing more along the same lines. What I said seemed to strike a chord, and I was very moved by the response. Below are the first few paragraphs of the speech. I'll add the rest once Chamber Music America has the chance to put it on their website.

I’m going to begin by quoting from Jared Diamond’s new book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. Before I do, I want to reassure you about my use of the word "collapse." This is not going to be one of those death-of-classical-music lamentations, a woe-betide-us, the-end-is-nigh, the-sky-is falling-this-year-too kind of affair. I am going to strike a pretty optimistic note today. I tend to usually, because it’s simply more fun to be an optimist than a pessimist. Optimists are never pleasantly surprised, they say. Well, pessimists are never pleasant. In any case, while I do think that the future of classical music, so called, is, if not exactly bright, then something other than bleak, I do admit that the possibility of failure, of an eventual and complete end to everything we hold dear, is perfectly real. And, as Diamond’s book suggests, in reference to societies and civilizations that have bit the dust of history, we will fail, in essence, if we choose to fail, if we want to fail. There are literally hundreds of passages in this book that have an eerie relevance to the situation in which we find ourselves. For example: “It is painfully difficult to decide whether to abandon some of one’s core values when they seem to be becoming incompatible with survival. At what point do we as individuals prefer to die than to compromise and live?”
Diamond gives the example of the Norse settlers who died out on the shores of Greenland. They refused to adapt to the way of living of the Inuit people, who had figured out the only way to survive in the Greenland climate. “In trying to carry on as Christian farmers, the Greenland Norse in effect were deciding that they were prepared to die as Christian farmers rather than live as Inuit.” He goes on: “Perhaps a crux of success or failure as a society is to know which core values to hold on to, and which ones to discard and replace with new values, when times change.” Among the most damaging of those values, Diamond finds, are religious ones, such as those espoused by the Norse in Greenland, which prevented them from adapting to their new climate. And there are secular equivalents of religious values, quasi-religious notions that we cling to even after the conditions that created them no longer exist. These are values dictated by “wooden-headedness, persistence in error, mental standstill or stagnation,” to quote from another book on a similar subject, Barbara Tuchman’s The March of Folly. These self-destructively high-minded values are often rooted in a deep fear of what the world might be like without the accustomed way of doing things — a fear of losing one’s identity. It can also come from pure, simple, close-minded pride, from a contempt for the unfamiliar and the other and the unknown.
Now, who chooses to fail, who wants to fail? No one consciously does, I suppose, but there is an attitude which amounts to the same thing, and it can be detected in some corners of the classical world. It’s the attitude of, well, things seem to be going down hill, so the best thing to do is to hold on to one’s dignity. Kind of like Mr. and Mrs. Astor on the Titanic, or Victor Garber in that movie, holding his head high as the water laps about his feet, his chest, his chin. After all, there can be a kind of excitement, even a strange elation, in bearing witness to the demise of an art, in being the last man standing. I detect an eagerness to see the end, an appetite for destruction, to take a phrase from Axl Rose. But the music refuses to die according to the schedules that doomsayers have devised for it. And, in any case, the death of a great institution or of a genre or of a style is not the same thing as the death of an art. It can feel like death, but it is only change and evolution. The Titanic was one ship that sank: human transportation went on. Consider another apocalyptic metaphor, the extinction of the dinosaurs. The death of one set of species was not the end of life on earth. It cleared room for a new host of species. When the age of the dinosaurs came to an end, the age of the mammals began.
Perhaps I don’t need to spell out for you where exactly this metaphor might be heading, and why I feel rather more comfortable using it in front of a gathering of chamber musicians, instead of, say, a gathering of symphony orchestra musicians or administrators. But I’ll go ahead and spell it out anyway. All the major symphony orchestras in America could collapse tomorrow, and life would go on, musical life would go on. The symphony orchestra in its modern form has existed for about a century and a half. We had hundreds of years of musical history before that, an endless catalogue of masterpieces and legendary musicians. We functioned without the orchestra then, and we’d be able to function without it in the future. I’m not in any way wishing for the collapse of the orchestra. I’d be deeply disheartened by such a turn of events. It might mean among other things that I’d be out of a job, as would many music critics around the country. But I’d be very interested to see what happened next. The point is, I wish that for every story in the media about troubled orchestras there was a matching story about a new composer-led ensemble, a new chamber series, a new program of professional musicians working in schools, and so on. There are more professional musicians than ever before. More people are going to live concerts of classical music than ever before. There are far more composers writing music —ten, maybe twenty times as many as a hundred years ago. But musical life lacks a center. It exists off the radar screen of the major media. It’s actually kind of exciting when you think about it. If I were in the business of marketing classical music to younger audiences, I’d make a virtue of this. Classical music is the new underground.


The Standing Room's three perspectives on life; Laura Miller's ode to The Lord of the Rings in Salon; I Am Sitting in a Room, a new Houston-based music blog; the prospect of Dr. Atomic at the San Francisco Opera in October.

Yuja Wang

I wrote recently that NJPAC, the New Jersey Symphony's home, is the second-loveliest concert hall in the New York area. I forgot to mention, as I remembered tonight, that the walk from Newark Penn Station to NJPAC takes you along the second-ugliest stretch of road in the New York area, next to whatever Godforsaken route appears in the Sopranos credits. You can, in fact, ride little buses to and fro, in order to avoid the feeling that you're about to be hauled into a van and taken for a long drive in the woods. But the hellish walk somehow adds to the pleasure of the place itself. The program, under the direction of the striking young Estonian conductor Anu Tali, consisted of Niels Gade's Hamlet Overture, Grieg's Piano Concerto, and Sibelius' Fifth. I'll save the Sibelius for an upcoming New Yorker column and comment briefly on the Grieg. Yuja Wang was the soloist; I knew her from Leon Fleisher's Carnegie Hall workshops, which I wrote about last year. Then, I was gripped by her playing, though I felt she hadn't fully grasped Schubert's language. She has certainly mastered Grieg's. She gets a huge sound out of the piano, which isn't surprising from a well-traveled young prodigy. What's more impressive is that she plays in big paragraphs, shows a powerful grasp of structure, brings delicate fantasy to lyric passages. She is only seventeen years old, which amazes me most of all; I assumed she was in her twenties when I heard her last year. She is a remarkable talent with miles of room to grow. She plays NJPAC again on Saturday.

Mostly drawing a blank today

Correspondents have likened the picture of my manuscript below both to the “Whiteness of the Whale” chapter of Moby-Dick and to the “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” scene in The Shining. Jack Torrance's book at least had the virtue of a clear, consistent point of view.

The Fredösphere has become coterminous with the planet Alias. The fate of mankind now hangs in the balance.

The island on TV's Lost suspiciously resembles the island of The Tempest. Is there a Prospero practicing rough magic behind the scenes? John Locke sounded a lot like Caliban when he talked about the "magic island" a while back. (Prompted by fellow JJ Abrams addict Adam Baer.)

I just can’t believe it about Brad and Jen.



Morton Feldman, the greatest American composer of modern memory, would have been seventy-nine today. I would have been seventy-nine today, too, if I had been born in 1926.

Björk's Saga

Here's my Björk profile from last summer, digitized for your enjoyment, with pictures and a missing ð added.

2005: A Single-Spaced Odyssey


This mysterious white monolith comprises chapters 1-14 of The Rest Is Noise, the book. Penelope is understandably afraid.

More applause

Re: the post on intra-symphonic applause below, Felix Salmon reminds me that he and Terry Teachout debated this matter back in 2003. Terry, pro-applause, quoted the great conductor Pierre Monteux: "I do have one big complaint about audiences in all countries, and that is their artificial restraint from applause between movements or a concerto or symphony. I don’t know where the habit started, but it certainly does not fit in with the composers’ intentions." Felix worried that the culture of applause could get out of hand, leading to intrusive clapping after every movement and indiscriminate standing ovations such as you find on Broadway. The latter case is a separate issue. I've often been to orchestral concerts where the audience supplies a standing ovation that to my taste isn't warranted. (But: musicians work incredibly hard, and they always deserve applause. There's only one "etiquette" rule that every neophyte should learn: never walk out with your back turned while the musicians are taking their bows, unless you wish to deliver an in-your-face insult. A lot of self-styled "serious" listeners who pride themselves on remaining perfectly quiet throughout a Mahler marathon commit this incredibly rude behavior.) I wouldn't necessarily want applause after every movement, but that's the way audiences did it before 1900, and classical culture was far healthier in that period. See Greg Sandow's blog for a hair-raising description of how audiences acted in eighteenth-century Italy (quoted from the new Taruskin). Is it a paradox that composers of past eras wrote so much astounding music while audiences, by our standards, "misbehaved"? Or was there a direct relationship between the unruliness of the audience and the greatness of the music? The latter, methinks. Our "standards" are corrupt and need to be junked.

It's an interesting question, how this silent routine got started. In my article "Listen To This," I alluded to the strange behavior of audiences at the premiere performances in Parsifal in 1882. I think it began there and then spread to orchestral culture. From Cosima Wagner's diary: "When, after the second act, there is much noise and calling, R. comes to the balustrade, says that though the applause is very welcome to his artists and to himself, they had agreed, in order not to impinge on the impression, not to take a bow, so that there would be no 'curtain calls'. ... At the end R. is vexed by the silent audience, which has misunderstood him; he once again addresses it from the gallery, and when the applause then breaks out and there are continual calls R. appears in front of the curtain and says that he tried to assemble his artists, but they were by now half undressed. The journey home, taken up with this subject, is a vexed one." Two days later: "After the first act there is a reverent silence, which has a pleasant effect. But when, after the second, the applauders again are hissed, it becomes embarrassing." Two weeks later: "R. had a restless night. He feels so languid that he does not attend the performance, just appears during the intermissions, and the only thing he hears all through is the flower scene, since the excellence of the performance always refreshes him. From our box he calls out, "Bravo!," whereupon he is hissed. ... R.'s mood is changeable, but on the whole biased against Bayreuth — indeed, he even talks of handing over Parsifal and the festival theater to Herr Neumann!" I can't think of a better example of nincompoop pseudo-seriousness than the idea of a Bayreuth audience inadvertently hissing Richard Wagner himself.

On a related matter, see my short piece "Concert Rage." People who "shush" are just as annoying as people who chatter and crinkle cough-drop-wrappers; no, more annoying. Often I hear a "shush" wafting down from the upper gallery without hearing whatever minor disturbance caused it. Shushing is like honking in a traffic jam: it just adds to the problem.


When I first stuck my foot in blogging quicksand back in May, I knew of just a handful of "notational" blogs (silly name, yes, but no worse than the C word). Now I find new ones every week. Check out Composers Forum, with regular contributions from Beth Anderson, Larry Bell, Cary Boyce, Lawrence Dillon (separate blog here), Steven R. Gerber, Sean Hickey, Benjamin Lees, and Daniel Schnyder; Anne-Carolyn Bird, blogging the life of a young American soprano; and Philip Copeland, doing the same to the life of a university choral conductor (with sub-links to many members of the University of Alabama at Birmingham chorus). All contribute to the great work of Demystification. Blogging can show composers, singers, and critics as living, thinking beings, alert to the flow of twenty-first-century culture, not as the anachronistic antisocial freaks we actually are.

Meanwhile, peering over to the cool kids' lunch table, I'm glad as heck that JD Considine is blogging; that Carl Wilson continues to exist (his rundown of 2004 music jargon is a must); that officemate Sasha listens to all this stuff so I don't have to (are Scissor Sisters being misunderestimated?); and, most of all, that the slumbering beast called The Minor Fall The Major Lift, aka Evil Alex, has roared back to life.

Applaud away

On Saturday night I went to see the New Jersey Symphony in Trenton. (A PATH train misadventure prevented me from seeing Friday night's show in Newark as planned. Hello, Hoboken!) Something delightfully odd happened during Stenhammar's Piano Concerto No. 1, with Neeme Järvi conducting and Per Tengstrand, an intense young Swedish virtuoso, at the piano. After the first movement, there was the usual smattering of applause mixed with assorted "hushes." Tengstrand looked toward the audience encouragingly, as if pleading for applause. Then he reached for a microphone and began to talk. He explained that he'd intended to say something about this unusual work — unheard in America for more than a hundred years — but as he walked out onstage he forgot. So he decided to speak up in the middle of the concerto. Highly irregular, yet it did not harm the piece. It was refreshing to have a brief respite and change of mental gears before the Scherzo. I'm not recommending the inter-movement lecture as a regular feature, but it exemplifies the kind of (mildly) free-spirited behavior that classical concerts need more of. The historical record suggests that composers of the pre-1900 period would be horrified by modern concert etiquette. Accustomed to applause between and even during movements of a large-scale work, they'd assume that audiences hated their music or had no comprehension of it. Are we more serious, more cultured, than Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms? All those who consider themselves more serious than Brahms have every right to shush their neighbors after the first movement of the D-minor Concerto.

The New Jersey's Northern Lights festival continues.

Stravinsky is interesting

Reading vol. 3 of Stravinsky's Selected Correspondence, I was surprised, very nearly stunned, to come across a positive mention of Benjamin Britten's grand Elizabethan opera Gloriana. In a 1953 letter to the good people at Boosey & Hawkes, Stravinsky calls the score "very interesting." This is rather like an ordinary person calling it "unbelievably awesome." For the most part, Stravinsky had only vicious things to say about Britten, although his oft-quoted putdown of the War Requiem — "Nothing fails like success" — may have been nothing more than a spasm of professional jealousy in the wake of that work's runaway success. In any case, Gloriana is a glittering and haunting piece. I'm hoping to see it at Opera Theatre of St. Louis in June.

The letters with Poulenc end on a heartbreaking note. "If I no longer send you my music," Poulenc writes in 1962, "this is because I simply do not think it would interest you." He died a few months later. Stravinsky had traveled on to the next stylistic destination; Poulenc remained where he had been all along. But his later religious works lose nothing in comparison to Stravinsky's. I'd choose the Gloria over Threni in a second.

Retrenchment in Chicago

I recently wrote in the New Yorker about the Chicago Lyric Opera's premiere production of William Bolcom's A Wedding. At the head of the piece I praised the company for its long-standing commitment to American opera, while also noting that the forced departure of artistic director Matthew Epstein — reports of which broke on the day my column closed — signaled a possible downturn. Now this article by Wynne Delacoma brings the sad news that the Lyric's 2005-6 season will, for the first time in 15 years, include no American opera. Despite its general financial health, the company apparently feels a dire need to coddle its core donors and subscribers, who want traditional productions of familiar repertory. The usual depressing story of retrenchment, similar to what happened with Pamela Rosenberg in San Francisco. Note one thing, though. Delacoma's article names as the primary issue among Chicago conservatives a sexed-up Rigoletto by Christopher "You have to throw cold water on an audience" Alden. I think that premieres and twentieth-century repertory are signs of a progressive spirit; I don't think the same of director-driven opera. I still hope these retrenching companies can find a way to recommit themselves to new opera, because composers are doing something far more brave and far more important. Opera directors are cheap substitutes for opera composers. Invest in the real thing.

Addendum: Charles Downey at ionarts picks up this post, amplifies it with reference to a modish Robert Carsen Traviata, and supplies the perfect kicker: "Couldn't we just have a new opera that was actually about a drug-addicted jet-set prostitute in Las Vegas, rather than trying to shoehorn a 150-year-old opera into such a story?"

Agenda 1/6 - 1/9

Two putative highlights of the NYC midwinter season begin this weekend: the New Jersey Symphony's Northern Lights Festival and the Takacs Quartet's six-concert Beethoven series. The latter event, explosively titled ULTIMATE BEETHOVEN: A JOURNEY THROUGH GENIUS, is self-recommending; the Takacs' recorded Beethoven cycle, just finished with a volume of the Lates, is the best of the last decade. The NJ event marks the entrance into New York life of the indefatigable Estonian conductor Neeme Järvi, who probably has a larger discography than any conductor alive (357 CDs to date), and has also done outstanding work in the field of procreation, fathering two international conductors and a flutist (don't miss the cowboy hat picture). After a stint at the Detroit Symphony, Järvi now leads the New Jersey Symphony, and the Northern Lights festival brings a not at all surprising but very welcome focus on the conductor's beloved Scandinavians. Tonight's program (continuing through Sunday) unloads Sibelius, Stenhammar, Tobias, and Svendsen. Notice the Interplay on Jan. 21, which will feature authentic Finnish recitation of the Kalevala legends. If you're not familiar with the New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC), it is, despite the ugly name, the second-loveliest orchestra hall in the New York region, just after Carnegie.

The Cassandra act #146

The Norman Lebrecht Award for Overzealous Classical Doomsaying goes this week to the New York Times, for today's article "Twilight of the CD Gods? A Studio 'Tristan' May Be the Last Ever." Lebrecht is, of course, the excitable and unreliable English writer who declared at the beginning of last year that 2004 would spell the end of classical recording. Oops. Now writes the otherwise discerning Michael White: "This probably represents the end of the line for large-scale studio recordings of familiar operas." Why, if matters are at such a dire pass, do CDs of operas both famous (René Jacobs' award-winning Figaro) and unknown (forthcoming on Virgin Classics, Vivaldi's Il Bajazet) continue to pour in? These recordings evidently don't count because they are on Harmonia Mundi, Astrée, and Virgin Classics, not on the so-called "major labels." Yes, most of them are live, not studio, but that's no sign of decline. Advances in digital technology have made million-dollar studio boondoggles unnecessary: you can patch together a splendid tape from live performances, and, in the bargain, you will probably get more spontaneous playing. (See DG's great live Tristan this year with Voigt and Thielemann.) So where's the twilight? Where's the doom? What this Placido Domingo Tristan may spell the end of is the era of egregiously expensive, artistically superfluous recording projects that exist to satisfy an overpaid star's vanity rather than the demands of the marketplace. High-level opera singers, like high-level orchestras, have priced themselves out of the market, and other, more resourceful artists have taken their place. But I doubt we've really seen the end of the dinosaurs. My guess is that "final opera recording ever" is simply EMI's marketing plan for this particular release.

Mad about Martin

The excellent composer Marcus Maroney, whose own music reminds me of Frank Martin's insofar as it doesn't quite remind me of anyone else's, has gently amplified my Martin post below, noting that the genial Swiss wasn't quite a twelve-tone composer (in the doctrinaire sense) as I had originally made out. The wording has been tweaked. Also, I've dredged up an old New Yorker column pairing Martin with the equally fascinating and elusive Ferruccio Busoni; you can read it here.

The restoration


No point here other than giddy anticipation of Alias.

The spell

Justin Davidson of Newsday has written a humdinger of a piece about the "space-annihilating" properties of recorded music: “I am floating, suspended in a clear fluid of Strauss. I am in iPodspace.” The article is not exactly a panegyric. Justin believes that the way we listen now detaches music from an intimate experience in a specific space. The nowhere syndrome applies not only to recorded sound but to live performance as well, whether it’s early music played in a large hall — “Instead of authentically drafty rooms gritty with the smoke from oil lamps and packed with a few dozen people, today's baroque musicians play in cavernous concert halls in which the music becomes wispy as it reaches toward the back and up into the galleries” — or a croon amplified to fill a stadium: “Norah Jones … murmurs into the mike and instantly summons a cozy little nook in which she and her millions of fans can get a little privacy. Her next tour includes a stop at the Workers' Stadium in Beijing."

This is great criticism on a huge canvas. But I’m not sure I agree with the eventual pessimistic drift. Does canned music, as John Philip Sousa called it, always make us forget where we are? Doesn’t it sometimes dramatize space in unexpected ways, so that certain locations are permanently marked with our soundtracks for them? (Third Avenue above 43rd Street will for the indefinite future remind me of Radiohead's "Sit Down Stand Up": I'd rented a car and was returning it late at night to the Avis on 43rd when my brand-new copy of Hail To The Thief transfixed me so completely that I couldn't stop driving. Went through fifty green lights.) Doesn’t hearing a fragment of recorded music suddenly give us a hunger for the “real thing” — make it seem imperative on a given day to buy a ticket for Radu Lupu or Rokia Traoré three months hence? These are questions I’m pondering in my own long piece on music and technology, coming soon to a newsstand near you.

Low notes, Wayne's VW, orgies, etc.

The increasingly indispensable ffolks at trrill drew my attention to this riveting Dutch page about the extreme highs and lows of the human voice. Viktor Wichniakov singing a double low G is one of the hair-raisingest things I've ever heard. The noises that Mariah Carey makes don't strike me as being actual notes, but Jonathan emphatically disagrees.

I meant to link promptly to Ben Ratliff's Times interview with jazz composer Wayne Shorter just before Christmas, but I tarried, and the story now seems to have disappeared into the abyss of the paper's pay-per-view archive. If you missed it, take my word that it was fascinating; Ratliff asked Shorter to listen and comment on a favorite CD, which, semi-surprisingly, turned out to be the complete Vaughan Williams symphonies. Puts me in mind of the fact that the ghostly jazz-like sections of Vaughan Williams' Sixth Symphony — his greatest, one of the great works of the century — was inspired by the death of an entire jazz band at the Café de Paris during the London Blitz.

Like Marion Rosenberg, I enjoy a good orgy. From 5 PM Wednesday to 7 PM Friday, you can listen, via the miracle of internet radio, to the complete works of Bartok, with an Ol' Dirty Bastard retrospective in the middle.

Addendum: Felix Salmon has ventured into the greyest murk of the Timesian abyss and uncovered a permanent link to the Wayne Shorter interview. Obrigado! Happy new year!

Lamb of God


Frank Martin is a composer who quietly mesmerizes me every time I hear him. Swiss to a fault, he lived his life well off the stylistic superhighways of twentieth-century music. He brushed against a twelve-tone idiom, but he never renounced tonality, putting himself in an in-between category that pleased ideologues in neither camp. Nonetheless, he wrote much great music. I put the "Agnus Dei" from his Mass for Double Choir on a CD for a friend — a heavy-duty sacred mix that also included Bach's "Ich habe genug" sung by Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, a psalm from Honegger's King David (another somber Swiss delight), John Sheppard's Laudem dicite deo, Ellington's "Come Sunday," and the roof-raising "Resurrection" from Messiaen's Livre du Saint Sacrament. The Martin Mass holds its own in that imposing company. It was written back in 1922, well before Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms made it fashionable for French-speaking composers to strike a monkish pose. It sounds like a Renaissance mass lost in time, aware nonetheless of long centuries passing and new horrors unfolding. The amazing thing is that for decades Martin refused to let this august work be published or performed, in the belief that he had written something unworthy of the Church. Genuine humility in an artist of genius is one of the rarest things on earth.

Some five decades later, Martin wrote his Poèmes de la Mort, in which vocal settings of François Villon are accompanied by two electric guitars and a bass. Considering that rock stars used to compare themselves to troubadours (do they anymore?), it's an inspired choice. Evidently it came about when one of Martin's young relatives turned him on to the Beatles. I'm no expert, but I'm guessing this is the finest-ever electric-guitar writing by a man born in 1890. Judge for yourself on Barnes and Noble's audio samples. Don't expect anything playful: it is, once more, music of humble spiritual power. What is now needed.

When I last wrote about Martin for the New Yorker, Mme Martin, the composer's widow, graciously answered some questions. I'm sure all American Martinistes wish her the warmest holiday greetings.

House of flying composers

During my break I found a brilliant procrastination routine in the form of the Canadian Music Centre's "early career composers" page. Here you can read brief bios, hear audio samples, and study score excerpts from dozens of Canadian young 'uns. The music covers a bafflingly wide stylistic spectrum, from old-school neoclassicism to post-serialist complexity and on to avant-avant musical happenings. (Canada is home to perhaps the most far-out composer living, R. Murray Schafer, whose Patria works involve camping expeditions into remote forests.) After a brief survey, I was especially captivated by the unpredictable and unclassifiable music of Michael Oesterle. His le contrat social hilariously borrows some famous D-flat-major piano chords from Tchaikovsky. Here's a parallel page for Australian composers, which makes my brain hurt just to look at it. There's a lot of music out there.

I'm back

The sotto voce Mephistophelean rasp of blogging has pulled me back in, a few days before the appointed end of my hiatus. No, I did not finish the draft of my book (many thanks to all who sent encouraging messages). I did, however, finish the Stravinsky chapter, which also takes in Bartok, Janacek, Ravel, and Les Six. It's the last big chunk of my main historical narrative, which begins with Strauss and Mahler and ends with the Minimalists. What remains to be done, aside from some filling in of holes here and there, is a final chapter covering the state of music now, an introduction (roughly plotted out), and an epilogue (ditto). Just a bit of editing, a bit of fact-checking, and the merest smidgen of cutting — no more than 100,000 words — and I'm done! Oy. In the days that follow, I'll try to catch up with bløgtroversies that I missed in my absence and preview a very promising spring schedule. My main issue right now is figuring out why I'm getting around twenty Google searches an hour for Karita Mattila. Did someone do a big media story about her? ACD: aw shucks, thanks!

A Lovely Couple: Rodelinda, Bolcom's A Wedding

by Alex Ross

The New Yorker, Jan. 3, 2005.

The Lyric Opera of Chicago began life in the highest style, with Maria Callas making her American début. Fifty years on, it is probably in better health than any other opera company in America. Almost every performance is sold out, and the budget is in the black. Admittedly, you have to go elsewhere for radical ideas about production and repertory; Matthew Epstein, the artistic director, recently left after encountering opposition to his more adventurous plans. But the Lyric has a history of being one of very few American houses—the Houston Grand Opera and the Opera Theatre of St. Louis also come to mind—where premières are routine, and that’s radical in itself. Usually, the collective genius of administration acts to stifle new opera, on the theory that audiences want only the aged, imported European product. True, if you hand out commissions to middle-of-the-road composers who prove maximally unobjectionable to the governing board, or to career academics who wouldn’t know a narrative arc if it hit them in the head, you will perpetrate expensive fizzles. If, on the other hand, you hire composers who love the logic of theatre more than the sound of their own voices, you may end up with a joyous hit like William Bolcom’s “A Wedding,” which opened at the Lyric this month.

Bolcom, now sixty-six, is the rare living classical composer whom God made with the theatre in mind. He has honed his craft in opera, musicals, concert song, and cabaret (he tours with his wife, Joan Morris). His signature work is “Songs of Innocence and of Experience,” a barbaric yawp of a piece that fuses William Blake’s poetry with a welter of musical traditions, from Shaker hymns to reggae. It had its première back in 1984 but was recorded for the first time this year, thanks to the Naxos label. “Songs” has an awesome aura not only because it embraces every imaginable style but because it gathers momentum and mystery as it moves along. The fact that Bolcom can knock out a Gershwinish tune like nobody’s business has caused him to be underrated in the glum colloquia of contemporary music, where, for a long time, melodies had the status of radioactive rodents, and where seriousness is often measured by counting how many disparate pitches and rhythms pile up in any one bar. Bolcom aims for a higher complexity, a personal fusion of style and form. This is the many-sided music theatre of Monteverdi, Mozart, Verdi, and Weill. It don’t get more serious than that.

“A Wedding” is Bolcom’s third work for the Lyric, the others being “McTeague” and “A View from the Bridge.” It takes off from Robert Altman’s 1978 film of the same title, about an all-American train wreck of a wedding where old money and nouveau riche collide. Arnold Weinstein, Bolcom’s longtime lyricist-librettist, worked with Altman to reduce the original cast of forty-eight characters to a still formidable assortment of nineteen. Here goes: The old-money matriarch—Nettie Sloan, of Lake Forest, Illinois—dies in the second scene, but her haughty, melancholy spirit hovers over the messy party that follows. Her daughters and in-laws include a factory owner who employs illegal immigrants (Beth Clayton); a doctor turned dealer in Pollock, De Kooning, and Kline (Jake Gardner); a flaky interpretive dancer (Patricia Risley) who loves the family’s Caribbean butler (Mark Doss); an emotionally stunted morphine addict (Catherine Malfitano); and the groom, a military-academy graduate whose body is finer than his mind (Patrick Miller). The bride (Anna Christy) is an ingénue from Louisville, Kentucky, who has no idea what she’s getting into. Her parents are a reformed fornicator turned born-again millionaire (Mark Delavan) and a naïve belle who yearns for adventure (Lauren Flanigan). There are also Italians on the loose—the groom’s father (Jerry Hadley) and his brother from the old country (David Cangelosi)—together with a Communistic aunt (Kathryn Harries), a hired wedding guest (Timothy Nolen), an obsessive-compulsive wedding planner (Maria Kanyova), and the best man, an alcoholic marine (Brian Leerhuber). A few stray plot strands and a quizzical ending aside, it’s a deft libretto that balances zany double-entendres with plainspoken poetry, mocking exaggeration with empathetic realism.

The trick in assessing Bolcom’s music is to make it seem something other than a stylistic casserole. So let’s take it for granted that the composer creates precise pastiches of everything from Rossini to rockabilly; that he throws in delightful allusions, like the Messiaenic birds that chirp Mrs. Sloan awake on the last day of her life; that he comes up with at least three indelible tunes. What impressed me here was the glistening web of sound behind the carnival—the interlocking modes, the multiple tonal layers, the silken ostinatos based on fragments of ditties you’ve already heard. A lot of these framing devices are owed to Bolcom’s teacher, the ever-underrated Darius Milhaud, who, back in the twenties, stirred together samba, music-hall, and jazz. What I sometimes yearned for was the bitter taste of twenties Berlin to go along with the giddy kick of Paris. The creative team shied away from full-on screwball anarchy, from a lunge at the social jugular. For example, when the groom and the best man are discovered naked and drunk in the shower, you expect more of a payoff than a few puzzled shrugs. Then again, too much comic aggression might have unsettled the flow of Bolcom’s score, which is half ironic, half tender, and fully enchanting.

Altman directed the production, and his genius for handling ensemble casts translated easily to the opera stage. A production team led by the Broadway veteran Robin Wagner created a charming nightmare of middle-American taste, all creamy-white and pink and baby-blue. Dennis Russell Davies led the orchestra in a razor-sharp performance. The singers were obviously enjoying themselves hugely, not least because nearly everyone was given something with which to stop the show. Delavan shook his hips Elvis-style in “There was a time I was a drinker and a smoker.” Hadley and Cangelosi exulted in tenorissimo kitsch in their duet, “Prosciutto, mortadella.” Malfitano sent up her image as the queen of soprano hysteria with lines like “Oooh—what a teeny little needle can do.” Harries and Nolen plunged fearlessly into a quite naughty duet (“I’ve got a lot of lawn to mow”). Gardner and Flanigan, whose characters teeter on the edge of a dalliance before backing wistfully away, brought the house down with the strains of “Heaven, heaven, heaven, Tallahassee!” Then the mighty Flanigan topped herself with “A woman in love,” which would have left Gershwin unsure whether to applaud or to sue.

The Met may be somewhat clueless about contemporary opera, but it has put together two essentially perfect productions of golden oldies this fall. First came Julie Taymor’s “Magic Flute”; now comes Stephen Wadsworth’s “Rodelinda.” Many people thought that the intricate, intimate art of Handel could never work in the Met’s cavernous spaces, but Wadsworth proves otherwise. First of all, he plays “Rodelinda” absolutely straight, skipping the campy antics that other directors impose on Handel in the name of saving Baroque convention from itself. Wadsworth does take the liberty of moving a shadowy tale of medieval Lombardy—deposed king in hiding, queen who thinks herself a widow, anguished pretender, happily scheming villain—into the lustrous eighteenth century. The sets, by Thomas Lynch, are an ecstasy of detail: the audience actually gasped at the sight of the King’s library. Yet this is no Zeffirelli-style wax museum. The stage is filled with telling gestures, charged glances, meaningful motion. Wadsworth demonstrates that you don’t have to apply shock tactics to make an ancient opera come alive.

The cast on opening night delivered one of the strongest ensemble performances I’ve seen at the Met. Renée Fleming, who used her star power to bring “Rodelinda” to the house, comfortably inhabited the taxing title role, supplying acres of warmth and nuance without drawing attention from her co-stars. Bejun Mehta and David Daniels fought a friendly countertenor duel, with Mehta scoring points for form and Daniels for charisma and stamina. There was really no rational explanation for how Daniels could sail through his climactic Act III aria, “Vivi, tiranno,” as if he had just finished warming up. Stephanie Blythe sang with glowing emotional transparency; the South African tenor Kobie van Rensburg, as the usurper, etched every note; John Relyea rumbled happily as the basso villain. Harry Bicket drew uncannily stylish period sounds from the Met orchestra. The crowd devoured the four-hour marathon as if Handel were the new Puccini.

Both Fleming and Lorraine Hunt Lieberson have recently released disks of Handel arias, both with Bicket conducting the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. When you listen to these two modern divas singing “Ombra mai fù” side by side, you begin to mistrust recording as a medium: beauty of this order shouldn’t be turned on at the touch of a button. Fleming sings the aria as a string of immaculate, silvery phrases—it’s come-over-here, you-have-to-see-this beautiful. Hunt Lieberson makes it one long breath, one extended sigh. It’s pull-down-the-blinds, unplug-the-telephone, can’t-talk-right-now beautiful. She’s singing it again; I have to go.


Dreaming of Bartok

Terry Teachout reports a dream in which Gustav Mahler listens to his piano-playing "with a look of extreme displeasure." I'm reminded of Benjamin Britten's dream of a huge, hunchbacked Stravinsky, pointing to a passage in the Cello Symphony and saying, “How dare you write that bar?” I recently had a dream in which I met Bartok. He was a very sweet, humble man. For some reason he was sitting in a row of desks with other people in a classroom setting, and when he put up his hand to talk about some mundane unmusical matter I suddenly realized, "Oh my God, it's Bartok." Afterward, I introduced myself. He was surprised and pleased that someone knew his music. He politely listened as I explained the structure of my book to him. His only reaction was, "Yes, I always wondered about Schoenberg."