Friday, December 26, 2008

The Violin

I think this will be the last post of 2008 for me. Apologies for not getting around to posting my promised do-it-yourself game ideas, but here's something worth watching: a 24-minute film, The Violin, directed by the Canadian George Pastic. It was nominated for an Oscar in 1974, though I first ran across it when it was shown at a Suzuki violin workshop my sisters were attending many years ago. Oddly, I seem to remember it without narration, and I feel sure it would be better with no narration. Oh well. Maybe I just blocked it out. The voiceover sounds a little too much like the guy from "A Christmas Story," but everything else about this little gem seems perfect to me. This is a version I found on a library VHS awhile back. I don't really have the rights to post it, but it doesn't seem to be showing up on DVD anywhere, so I think people need to see it. Enjoy and Happy New Year!

See also this UPDATE (11/16/18):

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Dew Witch Horse Elf

For some reason, I woke up this morning thinking about a commercial for a game called Mad Gab where people are trying to sound out the phrase "eye mull of mush sheen." It turns out that all the people are 'love machines' (sound it out) and, even more importantly, they're all having a great time playing this game. How can my family have that kind of fun?

Oh sure, the obvious answer would be to buy the game, but I think there's more fun to be had in coming up with your own little puzzles. So, here are a few I came up with this morning when I should have been grading. (Oh, so that's why I woke up thinking of something else to do with my brain - anything but grading.)

They're not exact phonetic matches, but if you read them out loud, it should sound like someone with an odd accent saying something familiar. If you're having trouble, you could ask your computer to read the phrase to you. (UPDATE: Here they are, read by your friends at AT&T Labs: sitar..., purr..., thumb..., half....) Click on the phrases to find the answers, but only if you really can't get them.

...I have a few more do-it-yourself game ideas, but I'll save them for Christmas Eve (hopefully).

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Turning the Page on Turning the Page

Given that I make my living as an academic, I have a rather strange, even embarrassing, quirk. It's possibly something I shouldn't even admit, but here it is: I don't like books. Well, that's overstating things. I love words, I love reading, I love writing, I love many, many books - I'm just not a big fan of the book as technology. I've tolerated the old "bound sheets of paper" format for a long time, but count me as one of the most enthusiastic about the long promised paperless future...even if it's not here yet.

My two biggest complaints about books have to do with the eye-strain I get from reading pages and a general tactile disaffection for paper. When I was growing up, it was well-known in my large family that I hated setting the table because touching paper napkins gave me "chills." There's a lot of confounding evidence as to how true this was, because I also simply hated setting the table, taking out the trash, mowing the lawn, and other chore-like activities. Still, it's fair to say that my fingers don't really like paper, but the eye-strain thing is probably the bigger issue. And, yes, I'm now at that age when I'm wearing progressive lenses, but they still haven't made the experience of reading something completely comfortable. In fact, that may be the best summary of the whole problem - I just don't find it completely comfortable to read a book, so I'm always shifting around, looking for just the right position.

The odd thing is that, since the dawn of the computer age, I've found myself ever more at ease sitting and reading exactly as I am now - staring at a glowing computer monitor. Among other things, I never get sleepy reading at the computer (this is not always a good thing), but I also don't experience the kind of eye strain one always hears about. It's comfortable, I don't find myself constantly looking for a new position, and I don't have to touch icky paper. I realize this puts me in a very small minority, but there it is.

So it is that I decided to jump in and be an early-ish adopter of e-reading technologies. I had some birthday money to spend and decided to buy a Sony Reader (kind of like the Amazon Kindle). It's quite appropriate to call this an early adoption stage, because the technology/market isn't really there yet. For one thing, the so-called e-Ink screen is smaller than ideal and the contrast isn't as good as it could be. (I'm sure there's a reason that the background is more gray than white, but I don't like that.) It's true that one can select three different font sizes, and the largest is very easy to read, but that size allows not much more than a paragraph per page. I like to see a bit further ahead and behind than that.

Still, it's pretty impressive, and I much prefer sitting and reading this to most books. There's none of that annoying "holding the book open" (see above descriptions of childhood laziness) and no paper touching issues. Curiously, one problem for me is that, perhaps because the screen doesn't glow at all, I find myself getting just as sleepy reading the Reader as I would a book. (It's too much like a book!) I'm not sure I wouldn't be happier with the look of an LCD screen, and that would have the advantage of working in the dark, but I realize this device isn't designed with me in mind, especially given what an alien I seem to be when it comes to books. (Even next-generation undergraduates look at me like I'm crazy when I profess my preference for e-reading.)

Of course, the fact that the reader can easily hold hundreds of books is amazing and highly appealing to my techy side. On the other hand, it's a shame that this early adoption phase means we're dealing with proprietary formats, so I'm stuck with Sony's eBook store and it's somewhat limited selection. (I don't think the Kindle's is all that much better, putting aside some of the Kindle's wireless tricks that don't really interest me. I don't need a new way to read blogs.) The prices are often ridiculously high as well, and creating one's own documents isn't as easy as it should be, although I think the Sony beats Kindle in that regard.

My biggest disappointment is that my Sony Reader (PRS-505) doesn't provide a way to search for text from the unit itself. It turns out that the next generation touch-screen reader, which is almost twice as expensive, does make searching possible, but I was astounded that this wouldn't be a basic feature of any e-reader. To my hyperlinked mind, I always assumed this was a sine qua non advantage of this technology. I can search the versions of the book stored on my computer, but that's no fun. When I'm reading, my mind will often drift back to a half-remembered phrase, and I'd always assumed an eBook would make it easy to hunt the words down quickly. Oh well.

So, as you can tell, I'm not 100% thrilled with the technology as it now stands, but I knew that going in. I've been greatly enjoying reading Oliver Sacks' Musicophilia on the reader, and I've also bought an e-copy of the indispensable The Rest is Noise, partly because I've had a class reading the book and I thought it would be handy to have a "copy" at hand all the time. Aside from the absurd pricing (e-Noise costs $11.99, while now available in paperback for $12.24), one other odd quirk which professors may have to start facing is that there's no standard page numbers to reference in an e-Book. (The page numbers change according to font size.) This will become a citation issue that needs to be solved in the years ahead.

In other paperless news, I'm so ready to try the tablet PC approach to sheet music. (That's right. Although I don't mind the feel of music scores, I'm just not that sentimental about the piles of scores I own. Please don't hate me.) The ever intrepid Hugh Sung is now offering his own little Airturn device that makes it easy to "turn" virtual pages with a wireless pedal. Unfortunately, I don't have the money lying around to buy a Tablet PC, but I may start scouring eBay for deals. I can't wait to put that kind of page-turning behind me.

I also only just realized that the monumental Google Books project includes lots of musical scores, although they are maddeningly difficult to search, at least as far as I can tell. I learned this yesterday when I was searching for a PDF score of Strauss's Zueignung for purposes of this post. Surprisingly, the song is not yet available at the astounding, but having been alerted by Alex Ross to the existence of scores on Google, I went fishing. It took quite a while before I came across this scan of a volume from the old "Musician's Library" series put out by Oliver Ditson. (I've had many students who'd been handed down volumes of these aged, hardbound collections. Talk about pages that give my fingers the creeps...)

Anyway, I'm happy that wherever you are, you're probably reading this on a brightly glowing screen, gently scrolling through my interminable prose without having to turn a single page. And remember, books are still useful for propping up a piano lid when the short stick isn't quite short enough. (Of course, I believe pianos should be open with the full stick all the time, but that's a topic for another day.)

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

...a little more about that

I ended the last post noting how I'd heard Barack Obama and family inserted into a beloved Christmas carol on A Prairie Home Companion. I also updated the post with a link to the entire audio for that show and my own on-the-fly transcription of the lyrics. I don't want to overstate this - I'm not really that offended because I don't think that ill will was intended. Rossetti's original text is meaningful to many people and I'd rather not see it conscripted in this manner, but I don't see the words as sacred in a way that means they shouldn't be altered. (Whoops, it looks like I altered them myself at the end of this transcription.)

The whole situation does support the Republican talking point that Obama followers tend towards worship of the man, but that's hardly news. It's certainly not true of all his supporters, but clearly, many, many Democrats think Christmas came early this year. Given that Christmas is pretty much a secular holiday at this point, it's not too surprising that even the more sacred carols would be interpreted in a more humanistic way; I suspect many people want to feel something spiritual at Christmas, even if the original story doesn't work for them. I will say this - bleak midwinter probably describes Chicago better than just about any day in Bethlehem. Still, for the record, I'm much more moved by Christina Rossetti's beautiful words. (I don't know who wrote the words for Fleming (Keillor, perhaps?), but rhyming 'Washington, D.C.' with 'festivity'? Or "People rise at dawn and do what must be done"?

One other note about Renee Fleming on PHC. Earlier in the evening, she sang Strauss's Zueignung. [86:21 into the show.] I was thrilled to learn when it ended that the pianist was Bradley Moore, a fellow Arkansan and fellow classmate of mine - but, why did Fleming burst in on the wonderful big piano solo that occurs just before the end? That's our moment, Ms. Fleming! When I heard it live, I first thought she'd made a mistake, but a rehearing makes it clear that she knew what she was doing. Does anyone know the story of this alternate version? (And, let me repeat, it's THE big moment in the song for the pianist. Please let us have that, songsters. We don't ask much.)

[Note: the Zueignung score linked above has some friendly coaching advice for singers.]

Sunday, December 14, 2008

The People Divided Will Never Be Downloaded

It's been a while since I blogged about the bizarre price structures at, mainly since I cancelled my subscription long ago- but they reeled me back in with 75 free downloads, and I'm giving them an extra month or so, just to be nice. So it is that I've just discovered the greatest bargain there yet: all 62:38 of Frederic Rzewski's The People United Will Never Be Defeated on one track! Given that the basic subscription rate (30 downloads at $11.99/month) comes out to 40 cents per track, this is quite a deal (unless you hate the piece; but really, there's something for everyone in there).

Curiously, in what must be a mistake, I see that Amazon offers the same album (which includes one other 10-minute piece) for a $7.99 download, but will let you download The People on one track for 89 cents, while the other, much shorter piece is only downloadable as part of the entire album. So, if you choose to buy the "album" from Amazon, you're basically paying $7.10 for the 10-minutes of Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues. Oh, you brave new digital world.

But here's the really ridiculous thing about the eMusic pricing. They have another album with the Rzewski in which each of the 36 variations gets its own track. The final tally when you download the piece this way: $15.20. Hmmm. In that version, you can't even get the whole piece with one month's worth of downloads. I guess in the most ridiculous scenario, you could download the first 30 tracks and then wait until the next month to get the rest, kind of like one of those serialized novels.

I've already spilled too many words about eMusic elsewhere (here and here), but here's my updated list of particularly long tracks for the budget-minded downloader. At this point, I've downloaded more than 50 hours of music for something like $50 to $60. Of course, it's all just bunches of bytes on my hard drive which isn't nearly as satisfying as that boxed set of Beethoven symphonies on 7 LPs that was my first big music purchase some time back in the dark ages.

So, do I listen to all that downloaded music? Well, I've been trying my darnedest to give the recent 100th birthday boys, Messiaen and Carter, their due, but that's a process-in-progress. (I do love some of the more obvious Messiaen pieces; as for Carter, I'm not there yet, but one of my few rules in life is that, if a composer is still composing at 100, I'll give him a try. 2016 could be quite a test of this rule.)

For this morning's commute, I started out with the Rzewksi (a milestone work I'll admit to not knowing well), but although I was enjoying it, it's a bit intense for busy traffic. During a rather quiet stretch, I had the volume up and it happened that one of those violent piano lid slams happened as I was merging into another lane. For a second there, I thought I'd merged into a Chilean freedom-fighter, but I managed to stay on the road...and switched the Rzewski off shortly thereafter. I'm not quite ready to die for that cause.

In other commuting news, I've more or less given up sports radio again, so I'm trying to tolerate NPR. Really, I am. Driving home from a Saturday afternoon gig in Maine, I even tried listening to A Prairie Home Companion, though I generally find Garrison Keillor to be about 10% as funny as he finds himself. I figured that by only chortling once every 5-6 minutes, I wouldn't be in too much danger of hurtling into my highway neighbors.

It was a Town Hall celebrity special PHC with Renee Fleming, Yo-Yo Ma, and Edgar Meyer on hand, and it was keeping me awake, if not particularly entertained. Then, Ms. Fleming began singing the Holst version of In the Bleak Midwinter, and I thought, "well this should be nice." However, I noticed the lyrics had taken a quick turn from Christina Rossetti's after a line or two. I wasn't paying that much attention, but something about Chicago...a family moving to Washington, D.C...suddenly the PHC crowd is cheering...and I suddenly catch on.

You know, I don't want to get into politics again here on the blog, and I'd like to reaffirm that I hope for nothing but the best for and from Obama, but c'mon. Has it really come to this? The only good news is that Fleming sounded hideous singing it - I think she was really trying to sell the "message," but she's one of those singers who sounds better when she's not trying to be too expressive. The voice was spreading all over the place; in fact, it sounded like about six different voices at various times.

Maybe I just imagined the whole thing, having been swept into dreamland by the News from Lake Wobegon. But then how did I get home?

UPDATE: I wasn't dreaming. The PHC episode is now available online. You can hear about the coming of the savior starting at about 110:30 of the episode below (also archived here.) I've even transcribed the lyrics for you here. You can decide for yourself how fitting it is to compare the journey to the Beltway with the journey to Bethlehem.

UPDATE2: More commentary here.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Christmas at MMmusing

Finally, I've gotten around to rehanging last year's Christmas decorations here at MMmusing, which just means you get easy links to 2007's three Christmas features. Sadly, there are no new Christmas features this year, unless you count the J. Peterman ads as gift-giving suggestions, but old-fashioned things are always in style at this time of year. So, if you missed the seven-layer medley of holiday favorites, then dash away to see how many tunes you can pick out. (Helpful hints are supplied.)

I've already blogged this year about the "12 Composers of Christmas." I had hoped to upgrade it with actual singing on the soundtrack this year, but maybe it's just as well to encourage viewers to sing themselves. There've been more than 1500 views since I re-posted it last week, so maybe someone's singing.

If you have a little more time on your hands, you can check out my first feature film, 2000's A Christmas Carol. It relies quite unapologetically on the cuteness of assorted nieces and nephews, but it's still shorter than most of the other versions out there. Plus, it has a singing fish. Read all about it here.

Part II is here.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

The Rite of Appalachian Spring

This is one of those projects where the title inspired the whole thing. We generally end up studying the Stravinsky and Copland around the same time in my music appreciation class, so it was perhaps inevitable that they'd run together in my mind at some point. I probably also owe some credit to Alex Ross, who does a good job of pointing out (see p.267 of hardback version) how much Copland's style owes to Stravinsky, even though the end results are quite different. This is also a good time to thank the ever generous Alex for linking to my "Webern in Mayberry" post, thereby sending a wee bit more traffic this way.

A few quick comments. I love this sort of project, as it fuses the acts of composing, arranging, and audio engineering. I've little doubt Peter Schickele would have gotten here first were it not for copyright issues, but I'd don't think he's married these pieces yet; in case you're wondering, this arrangement is performed by Maestro René Köhler leading the National-Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra. The musical part of this actually went together quite quickly. Nothing is transposed, in fact. And, yes, it is intended to sort of break apart at the end; that's part of the fun.

I only decided to add visuals to make this more YouTube friendly, so they're not very sophisticated. The Rite of Spring picture is Nikolai Roerich's design for the original 1913 production. You can see the Joffrey Ballet's recreation of that version here. It was completely unintentional that the generic Appalachian Spring image (which I just found on Google) ends up looking a little Thomas Kinkade-y at times. Ahhhh! By the time I realized that, I'd already invested too much time to go back. Please don't call me the "YouTuber of Light."

Christmas decorations go up on the blog tomorrow. (Or maybe Saturday. Tomorrow's really busy.)

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Sinfonia synthetica

Jonathan of Dial M thinks he's the last blogger to comment on the YouTube Symphony, but no one gets to the back of a line better than me. Anyway, count me as completely bewildered by the whole thing. First, the idea that they'll build a performance from all the winning submissions is just goofy. Aside from how they'll deal with all the low-quality webcam audio they'll be getting, doesn't this take all the fun out of playing in an orchestra? Kenneth Woods had a great post recently describing how a blind trombonist is able to play in an orchestra because of his great listening skills, but the larger point is that the deepest and best kind of ensemble experience comes more from listening than watching and counting. (As an experienced accompanist, I find watching is needed only in a few specific moments - like during the bows.)

Sadly, it sometimes seems that people look at the process of learning what to listen for as something they shouldn’t have to do. Yes, I suppose one can be good enough to play the notes on the page, count the rests accurately and watch for a cue and do their job, but is that making music? More to the point- do you really just want to be living in a world where your whole universe is your part and the conductor? Playing an instrument is fun, but playing music is more fun…

Yes, I know multi-track recordings are made this way all the time, and I'm not saying that can't be a musical process (here's a terrific recent example; thanks, Elaine). I just don't see how Tan Dun's YouTube Symphony has any special qualities that lend it to the global multi-track approach. Come to think of it, I'm not sure what special qualities this piece actually has. Maybe it's cruel, but watching it reminds me of nothing more than the Frasier episode in which Frasier conducts his own overblown jingle - in each case, the composer/conductor looks a little too pleased with himself, while the musicians look like they're punching time clocks.

[Compare 1:27 of Frasier to just about any moment in the Tan Dun.]

For that special masochist in your life...

Another musical offering from J. Peterman:

[click pic to enlarge]

Monday, December 8, 2008

Le sacre du Peterman

On the advice of my therapist, I'm not prepared to say yet why I ended up imagining my weekend trip to the BSO as a page from the J. Peterman catalog. But I did. [See also: Peterman sells Schubert.]

More Rite Stuff: The Rose of Spring, The Rite of Springfield, The Rite of Springtone, Too good to be true

Monday, December 1, 2008

They're back...

Having a little trouble getting caught up from all the work I didn't do over Thanksgiving Break, but we might as well get December off to a proper start by bringing this back. Let's get those total YouTube views up over 1000, shall we? (We're at 993 now, so it's not too long a trip.) Useful for family singalongs and those music history review sessions that are just around the corner. Without further ado (since I'm about to be late for rehearsal):

Read about last year's minor (very minor) Christmas miracle.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Re-mixed Multimedia Musing Machine

I've spent the first part of my 'Thanksgiving Wednesday' being thankful there are no classes today and updating the 'ol MMmusing Multimedia Musing Machine over there in the margin. It hadn't been tweaked since March, so there was lots to add, which puts the number of possible random outcomes at well over 100. I'm quite proud of this little homemade widget; it's not as automated as I'd like, but refilling it is a fun way to revisit various topics from the past months and to remember that I have posted a lot of material in spite of not blogging as frequently as I'd like. George Costanza once said, while trying to impress a NYC tour guide who thought he'd just moved in from Arkansas, "You know if you take everything I've ever done in my entire life and condense it down into one day... it looks decent." To paraphrase, "if you take everything I've ever done in my entire blogging career and condense it down into one looks decent."

There are lots of terrific music blogs out there, but I think mine can at least claim to have a higher-than-normal number of self-generated multimedia creations, for whatever that's worth. Yes, the MMmMmMM does link to some content created by others that I merely cited to make a point, but I can still take the blame for most of what you'll land on if you take it for a spin. And the great thing is, if you don't like where you land, you can just spin it again. Hopefully, you'll land on something interesting. Next step: update the Index.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Webern in Mayberry

In our last episode (aka, earlier this afternoon), I posted a quick comparison of a short Webern piece (Op.6/3) with some soundtrack samples from The Andy Griffith Show. Then it occurred to me that it would be interesting to see/hear the Webern itself in the Mayberry context. I think anyone who's seen the show very often will concur that this fits right in.

This is from the AG episode, "High Noon" - if I'm not mistaken, the man who appears at the door is a mysterious Mr. Schoenberg...


I left off my last post remembering that a perceptive student once told me a little Webern piece reminded him of underscoring from The Andy Griffith Show - I haven't watched the show in years (Don Knotts just doesn't make me laugh), but the comment made immediate sense to me. Suddenly the mysterioso sounds of Webern transported me back to the B&W outskirts of Mayberry, criminals lurking nearby. So, I couldn't resist using my lunch break to search for more evidence of the connection.

Even though Google is not yet equipped with a feature that lets you input "SEARCH YOUTUBE AND LISTEN FOR: Andy Griffith underscoring that recalls the Second Viennese School," it didn't take long to find a couple of telling samples. I'm sure there are better ones, but I intentionally limited myself to lunchbreak time, so here's what we've got. First, Webern's Op. 6, No. 3, as conducted by Leonard Bernstein. (see previous post). Then, two separate fragments from the Andy Griffith Show episode, "The Big House." (starting at about 5:15 of this clip, and about 2:46 of this clip.)


Andy Griffith

All those muted trumpet chords are especially Webernesque. Next task: figure out who's responsible for bringing Klangfarbenmelodie to Mayberry. Were these just stock studio cues or did this guy dream them up while whistling?

UPDATE: See what the Webern sounds like in Mayberry.

Hearing Through Different Ears

Our daughter started studying with a Russian violin teacher this summer. A very Russian violin teacher. The most important thing is that she’s a fantastic violinist, musician, and pedagogue, but there’s also something wonderful about stepping into that Old World tradition - a world in which no one frets about the death of classical music, or questions the way we think about it. I’m not saying questioning is a bad thing – I do it all the time, probably too much. My only point for today is that you can learn a lot by seeing/hearing music from this unskeptical point-of-view.

One could argue that skepticism is the most consistent barrier when it comes to getting people to embrace new kinds of music. I’m more and more convinced that when the mind is conditioned to want to like something, it will generally find a way – and vice versa. Obvious, maybe, but extremely important in understanding the challenges that face us in finding new audiences. Note that the skepticism can come from many different directions. For today, I’ll focus on two opposites: 1) Skepticism of something that is seemingly too simple, too hackneyed, too derivative, and thus boring. 2) Skepticism of something that is too complex, too forbidding, perhaps too elitist, and thus probably not really liked by anyone.

Getting back to Daughter of MMmusing, she was recently assigned the well-worn Accolay Concerto in A Minor. This is one of the most commonly played of student concerti, and I’ve accompanied many an intermediate violinist playing it in the past. I have to admit I was disappointed by the assignment – I’m anxiously awaiting personal favorites such as the Bach A Minor, maybe some Mozart (though, please, no Haydn – his violin concertos are really not “good Haydn”), entertaining chestnuts like Kreisler’s Praeludium and Allegro, etc. The beginning of the Accolay has always sounded to me (and many others) like a pale imitation of the opening of the Bruch; it’s lyrical second theme always sounded to me like something dispensed from the “Lyrical Second Theme” vending machine.

But here’s the thing – I’ve now heard this Russian teacher rave more than once, in her quiet, heavily accented Old World way, that: “This is very beautiful concerto.” [sic] And there’s no question she believes it, more than with many other works she’s assigned so far. If there’d been any doubt, it was erased when she picked up DoMM’s half-size violin and made it sound like a Strad while demonstrating the first two pages. She wasn’t demonstrating “how the notes go” – well, yes, she was, but what she really did was show how much she loves the music. First of all, it’s amazing anyone can make a little violin sound that good, but what struck me is that she played it with such affection – not a highly sentimentalized affection, but with serious attention to everything beautiful that I’d never bothered to notice.

Yeah, this is partly because I’d mostly heard immature players playing it, but I think it’s more because I’d never bothered to give the music a chance – I’d always approached it skeptically. Just another student concerto. However, having been struck by the sincerity of the simple words “this is very beautiful concerto,” I found myself listening through different ears and it was suddenly a different piece. Perhaps this just reflects badly on me – maybe I’m too hard-hearted and skeptical by nature and should stop pre-judging works, but it’s a pretty human thing to do. Anyway, an important factor in all this is that I’d already developed a kind of respect for this teacher’s honesty that made me believe her. If she were to talk this way about every piece, my Accolay moment probably wouldn’t have happened. And, by the way, I’m still not ready to put this piece up there with Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Brahms, and Tchaikovsky – but I believe in it much more than I ever expected to.

Skepticism Brand #2 is more common. Just about everyone has the experience of hearing a piece and being bewildered that anyone could really care about what might seem incomprehensible, or too intellectual. My most vivid conversion experience in this respect happened when listening to Leonard Bernstein, that most persuasive of musical evangelists, talk about one of the pieces (#3) from Webern’s Op. 6. Here are the words he speaks to a Young Person’s Concert audience before and after conducting it – all 50ish seconds of it.

I can’t honestly remember if I’d heard the piece before or not. I suspect I had, but given that I trust Bernstein as someone who’s genuinely passionate about what he does, I feel certain that some sort of aesthetic-response switch went off in my brain that turned me from guilty skeptic (“I know that, as an educated musician, I’m supposed to get this, but…”) to curious seeker (“I want to feel what he’s feeling.”). Rather than questioning the ways in which this music goes against what I want music to be, I found myself hearing the fragile bits of beauty he alludes to. It’s become one of my favorite 50ish seconds of music, even though I’m still not a big Webern guy. Maybe I’m weak and just need LB to talk me through the rest of Webern's output (and Haydn's), but the point is that I trust Bernstein's care for audiences and genuine communication enough to believe him when he says something moves him.

I might mention that my daughter's violin teacher and Bernstein could not be more different - she, quiet, humble, even guarded; he, a veritable Pied Piper. Yet what's important is that I respect each of them enough for their basic musical honesty that I want to try to listen through their ears, and suddenly I find myself more open both to Accolay and Webern. Surely one of the greatest strengths of Alex Ross's recent book is that he manages to make the reader believe that he (Ross) really is fascinated by all this wildly divergent music - and he has a way with words that makes the reader want to hear what he hears. More and more, I feel like that's my most important job as a teacher - to make students want to hear what I hear.

Two Quick Postscripts: 1) I wrote a few weeks back about how much I enjoyed Jeremy Denk's performance of Beethoven's forbidding Hammerklavier Sonata. I'd by dishonest if I didn't admit that I was partially inspired by Sarah Palin's mavericky take on the work. Not only did that "interview" make me aware of Denk's upcoming performance; hearing it through Gov. Palin's ears provided a refreshingly unforbidding way of approaching the piece. 2) Not long after I had the little conversion experience with the Webern piece, I played it for a student who made the curious, but quite perceptive comment that it reminded him of some of the stock soundtrack music from The Andy Griffith Show of all things! And, although I hadn't watched TAGS for years, his comment made immediate sense to me - I could quite easily hear the Webern playing as aural backdrop to one of those suspenseful moments when a dangerous criminal is on the loose. It's well-known that atonal music found a home in Hollywood in a variety of ways, but I'd love to investigate further who wrote those unsettling cues for Andy, Barney, Opie, and the gang.

[UPDATE: Further investigation of the Andy Griffith-Webern connection here and here.]

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Stolen Salieri!

[This post needs updating, because the embedded music player I'd used has been sold to another company and no longer works. Apologies. Will fix some day. - FIXED]

Poor Antonio Salieri. Yeah, he had some success in his day, but let's just say you don't run across his works quite as often as some his contemporaries' these days. However, a soprano recently brought in a genuine Salieri aria from that big hit of 1785, La grotta di Trofonio. The aria, "Un bocconcin d'amante" is a two-parter; it starts with a very simple, stately tune and then concludes with a bouncy 6/8 section. As we were reading through it, about halfway through the fast section I found myself playing a little orchestral passage (with little interjections from the soprano above) that sounded suspiciously familiar. It took a few more minutes of rehearsing and mind-sifting to come up with it, but I finally made the connection. You can hear this brief excerpt by choosing the first item from the little custom-made player below. The second version there is just me playing it on the piano - and the third version is what I finally realized I was remembering. (Don't play the third one if you want to guess for yourself - spoilers below.)

It's not the most scandalous as tune thefts go, especially since it only occurs as a little orchestral transition in the Salieri - although, who knows, maybe this passage is referencing a tune that's more prominent elsewhere in the opera? I'm not planning to sit through this to find out, but maybe someone else knows more about it. Anyway, we know from watching Amadeus that Salieri attended a certain performance of a certain musical theater piece about a certain high-pitched wind instrument with certain magical powers. (Even the more reliable Wikipedia confirms that a Mozart letter places Salieri there.) That wasn't until 1791, six years after Salieri had premiered his little work about Trofonio's grotto.

Now, as you'll remember from the movie: Mozart faints, Salieri takes him home, and pretty soon we've got a dead composer on our hands. (Apologies if that spoils the movie for anyone.) Could it have been that Salieri noticed the moment (Track 3 above) when a comical birdcatcher sings about taking his own life - and takes a bit of Salieri's music to make his point? Maybe it was just an homage from one composer to another, maybe it was just a coincidence, but these are the facts of the case - and they are undisputed.

[Don't forget, Mozart's been known to steal from composers even more obscure than Salieri.]

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Do not adjust your speakers!

I don't know why my world is suddenly all about violas, but I have an upcoming concert where I'll be playing Brahms' two heavenly songs for contralto, viola, and piano. It's been about 15 years since I last played them and I'd forgotten how beautiful they are, even if the viola steals all the good stuff the pianist might otherwise get to do. The only recording I owned turned out to be disappointing, in spite of its historical promise. It features the legendary Marian Anderson along with the legendary William Primrose on viola and the legendary William Kapell on piano. Well, they say William Kapell is playing the piano, but the recording is mixed so badly that the piano is barely audible - meanwhile, the 1941 audio technology does nothing to flatter Anderson or Primrose, each of whom sound much more strident tonally than they could possibly have really sounded. The performances are also on the stodgy side for my tastes. [Confession: I have trouble hearing through the limitations of historic recordings. I rarely like them as much as other enthusiasts.]

So, I went searching for something more helpful, if less historic, and ended up downloading recordings by the wonderful Angelika Kirchschlager, with Helmut Deutsch on piano and the highly regarded Yuri Bashmet on viola. It's pretty much just what I wanted, but you know there's a viola joke in here somewhere, right? As it happens, just at a moment when I'm playing part of the second song for my wife to show her how beautiful it is, Bashmet suddenly makes a remarkably inelegant landing on what eventually becomes a F-sharp. On repeated listening, I have to admit it's not as bad as it first seemed, but the point is that we both reacted immediately - and my wife had never even heard the song before. Just one of those inevitable viola moments that apparently even state-of-the-art engineers couldn't hide.

Downloading Kirchschlager's recordings of Brahms' Op.91 songs: $1.98 on

Downloading the Sheet Music: $0.00 on

Hearing a world-class violist play like, well, a violist: priceless!

[NOTE: The "priceless" moment occurs about 10 seconds in on that mp3, p.13 of the score. Meanwhile, as you can see, I've been inspired by Rivinus - and Bashmet - to do a little viola distorting of my own. UPDATE: If you click on the viola above, you can watch the distorting in action.]

[Oh, and don't forget this little bit of
viola humor that features Primrose himself.]

Monday, November 17, 2008

Do not adjust your screen!

All right, now that I've potentially offended liberals by coming out of the closet, and then perhaps offended conservatives by being all "give peace a chance" and asking them to be nice to liberals, it's about time we got back to more appropriate business. No more offending liberals or conservatives. Let's offend violists! (Sorry, Elaine!)

Actually, the above is such an "insert viola joke here" picture that I'm going to resist temptation and stick to the facts. It is, in fact, an unPhotoshopped viola, made by David Rivinus who, if you'll forgive the expression, clearly knows how to think outside the box. (Since I skipped the viola joke, may I suggest that, by having one of my students learn some Couperin pieces instead of the more conventional Baroque options from the WTC, the French and English Suites, etc., I can thus claim to be "thinking outside the Bachs.") I'm sure many string players have seen Rivinus's surrealistic violas before, but I'd never heard of them until I caught a little feature about a violinmaker convention on NPR a week or so ago. These violas are designed to allow for a bigger sounding box while making an instrument that feels like a violin in length, thus helping out violists who get fatigued from reaching for first position - and do violists ever really get beyond first position? (Whoops...)

But seriously, I would love to see/hear one of these instruments in action, and they are apparently already being played by professionals here and there. Meanwhile, violists, do not try this at home. Melting your viola will not produce one of these instruments - although it might still be a good idea. Call Mr. Rivinus.

By the way, just to try to make amends here, I'd like to mention that I've recently been rehearsing the first of the Bach viola da gamba sonatas with a violist, and I've rarely found anything so satisfying to play. I mean that in the most literal way - I don't find that they even need rehearsing; I'd be happy just to play all four movements over and over. I don't want any of the movements to stop. It's amazingly satisfying to let my fingers bounce through those fast movements, even when they bounce the wrong way every now and then. The funny thing is that I've known these sonatas for years, and have always thought of them as cello pieces, since I'm a sometimes cellist myself. They're fantastic pieces any way you slice them, but I've been surprised to find myself thinking that they're even better on the viola than the cello. Of course, it goes without saying that I think they're better on the piano than on the harpsichord, so I'm not in a hurry to dig out my old LP that features an actual viola da gamba and the inevitable harpsichord. Look, I'm a closet conservative, how politically correct do you expect me to be?

Saturday, November 15, 2008

In which MM peeks out of the closet to comment on politics - but I'm not staying out for long.

UPDATE: 11/18: As had always been suggested by the post title (which is unchanged), I'm putting the original version of this post back in the closet, which means it's going offline. (If you're curious about it, just let me know by email.) This is both because I don't really want to write a political blog, but also because the experience of commenting on someone else's blog (which prompted my post in the first place) has taught me something about the problems with online discussions. The lesson I've learned is that, at the end of the day, I wish I hadn't posted what I did on the other blog - or at least that I had presented a more positive perspective in commenting, not because I think it's wrong to have disagreements, but because it's so easy to become divisive in this faceless arena. I love to argue, but I think it's generally more productive done face-to-face. As it happened, I took some shots at someone I don't really know well at all just to make my own points - I should have just made my own points and not gotten into the strawman business.

I meant what I said at the end of my response to some commenters when I said I'd found surprising inspiration in this kooky talk given by Leonard Bernstein. I expect musical inspiration from LB, but he's hardly on my ideological wavelength; yet, I was really moved that he chose to end that talk with a bit of confession and self-reflection, basically admitting that he'd undermined his own ideals by the way in which he'd pursued them. I think I may have done the same, so hopefully I'll learn something from that. However, it's still open season on Haydn and violas on this blog.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

In which MM goes off on an obnoxious rant about obnoxious audience behavior...

Went to hear the amazing Jeremy Denk today. His blog is, hands down, the best music blog out there - in fact, it may well represent the best music writing out there, period (that includes you, music journals). I certainly find more inspiration per word there than anywhere else. Thus, it's quite annoying to confirm that he's also a remarkable pianist, managing to excel in every way in a program Matthew Guerrieri rightly referred to as an Evil Knievel undertaking: Ives' Concord Sonata and Beethoven's Hammerklavier Sonata.

I'm not gonna try to give a blow-by-blow rundown of the afternoon, although I generally found it more and more thrilling as it went along. It's not that the Ives wasn't successful; in fact, I honestly arrived more excited about hearing that than the Beethoven. Unfortunately, as transcendent as Denk's Ives was, there was no transcending the micro-carnival that surrounded me. Ah, audiences - can't have recitals without'em, can't voir-dire'em. Honestly, I wish I could manage to be less sensitive to this sort of thing, and I really don't want to be one of those horrible elitist music snobs who looks down at noisy neighbors. Really, I don't. I suppose it's just one of life's many intractable paradoxes. One doesn't want a comatose audience, and it can be uncomfortable and physically stressful to sit quietly for long stretches. Come to think of it, Denk could well have been describing the Gardner Museum's Tapestry Room when he wrote the following:

Often these days, I look around those grand, gilded rooms with the rows of chairs all tidy and neat, and childhood urges come back to me: a preschool dining table, and the beautiful desire to upend everybody’s plate and have the king of all food fights. I think splattering a major orchestra with banana creme pie would be an excellent start, for something. But what? Could this irreverence, paradoxically, prevent people from thumbing their Blackberries during the slow movement of Beethoven’s 4th Concerto? Because despite the flying pie I want music still to reign; I want there to be decorum and disorder, ecstatic chaos and reverent awe, all at once.
The problem is, all things being equal, it's best to listen to this sort of program without extra noises. For me, the problems started less than 3o seconds into the Ives when the guy right in front of me started slowly jamming his program into his jacket pocket. Crinkle, crinkle... Crinkle.... crinkle. Then (...crinkle...), not long after, there was a "boing" and something went flying out of his pocket. I heard it land with a metallic doink on the hard stone tile to our left (he and I were both on the aisle, definitely the place to be since the Gardner jams those hard little straight-backed chairs much too close together), and I then spotted the insides of a ballpoint pen on the ground about six feet over. I didn't have to spend too much time being anxious about whether he'd be content to leave the pen be - no, he looked around and then unceremoniously stood up and walked over to get it. Nice. Then, as far as I could tell, he spent much of the next few minutes trying to reassemble the pen. Nice. I'm telling myself to relax, forget about him, and just listen to the music, but it's a losing battle. Fortunately, the guy in front of the guy in front of me finally delivered the inevitable dirty look, and it seemed to help. You know, classical audiences get a lot of bad press for delivering these dirty looks, but this guy had it coming in spades.

If I may just spin off on a wild tangent, WHAT IS IT WITH PEOPLE? We're living in a society here. Your actions may affect the welfare of others. It's like the person who stops his/her car in the middle of the road to check directions - or makes a traffic-defying U-turn when a turn has been missed. Yeah, that might be a more convenient choice for you, but in the meantime you're driving people crazy - you're making us suffer for your mistake. Anyway, Pen Guy behaved better for the remainder of the first movement.

Then came the dreaded latecomer seating between movements. And, hey, I can be sympathetic here: parking in the vicinity of the Gardner is no picnic. I'd arrived in the area more than an hour early, but then spent about half of that hour looking for a reasonable spot. But here's the thing. There were (regrettably, given the appeal of this event) many empty rows of seats at the back of the hall, but this wasn't good enough for the latecomers, many of whom seemed intent on finding the very best available seat. Naturally, all such seats were in the middle of the tightly spaced aisles. Denk looked out with a bemused expression for what seemed like 2-17 minutes; finally, he gave up and dived back in, catching me by surprise. This was a fun time, because it took at least 30 more seconds for a pair to get settled into two seats right behind me. Nice.

Now I regret going where I'm going to go now, but the regrettable fact is that one of these newcomers had a rather pronounced hand tremor. Let me be clear: I don't envy anyone that situation, and that's a much worse problem than whether or not I have an ideal recital experience. Much worse. In the grand scheme of things, my complaint here is trivial. Nonetheless, this guy held his program for the remainder of the Ives, which meant there were many extended stretches in which paper rattling was a constant. Again, I tried not to be distracted, but it became a tortuous obsession. Much as I enjoyed the Ives, I remember it more as a series magical/astounding moments than as a continuous experience. True, to some degree that goes with the stream-of-consciousness Ivesian territory, but I wish I could have been more consistently tuned in than circumstances allowed. So many times, a whispered passage was accompanied by extra-musical sounds. (And don't tell me Ives would've wanted it that way.)

Boo-hoo, poor me. You know, it was frustrating, but this kind of experience just comes with the territory - there is no perfect solution for how to present this kind of music. As I've mentioned, I don't think the Gardner helps by stuffing us so close together in those somewhat severe chairs. I also sincerely wonder about the wisdom of handing people these stapled sheets of letter-sized paper - or any paper at all. True, I thoroughly enjoyed reading Mr. Denk's notes, and we're a few years away from a world in which everyone could just download notes to a portable reading device. So here's a suggestion. Politely ask that audience members put their programs under their chairs when the performance is in progress. If someone really wants to have notes out to follow along, then additionally request that they turn pages silently. Aside from the paper disturbances in my immediate vicinity, one could fairly often hear various "listeners" flipping pages over - or programs slipping off laps onto the floor. Of course, no one should have to be told any of this, but a lot of folks do live in their own little worlds.

At any rate, audience behavior was much better in the Beethoven. As much as I love the Ives, its stream-of-consciousness makes it less overtly compelling to the average audience member, whereas Beethoven's inexorable logic exerts a pull on even the least experienced listener. For me, the highlight of the afternoon was the extremely long, slow, even meandering 3rd movement of the Beethoven (only Beethoven can make meandering seem so directed); audience noise was never a factor there. Maybe I just didn't notice what noise there was because I was so wrapped up in what Denk was doing, but even though the Hammerklavier is not the easiest piece to listen to, I'm not surprised it's more likely to command rapt attention. The 4th movement was equally extraordinary - fingers flying, fugues exploding. It actually felt too short.

Given that Denk is on record as understanding that concerts can be boring and that listeners often fail to be engaged, it's notable that he's choosing to play such a forbidding program; but I suspect he's counting on a couple of things. First, the whole "event" status of such a program is the kind of thing that gets an audience excited. Second, rather than worry about stringing together a bunch of smaller pieces into a coherent structure, he's letting Ives and Beethoven take care of that. That's my own bias in programming as well - one of the reasons I so enjoyed the BSO's Mahler 6 a few weeks back.

On the other hand, I'm not going to worry myself too much about large-scale coherence with this post. Obviously, blogging's been a bit slow, and I'm somewhat distracted watching the Patriots right now anyway. I think I'll just post this, and hope you're not distracted by crinkling paper while reading it.

Thursday, October 30, 2008


Here's something unusual. I won't spill too many words over it right now, but it's basically another example of found music. I'd found an unmarked mp3 of Schumann's Mondnacht on my hard drive, and I wanted to confirm that it was the same recording as a marked version in my iTunes. (They did turn out to be the same, the mp3 being something I'd created from the protected iTunes files for class purposes once upon a time.) So, I set the two playing at the same time, except they didn't quite synch up - yet there was something instantly appealing about the way the repeated notes of the accompaniment seemed to be doublestruck. Then, a bit more mischievously, I tossed a third version into the mix, running a phrase behind more or less like a canon. The result is - well, it is what it is. I wish I had time to write more about it, but at least this gives me something to follow up on in a future blog post. For now, the point is that, though I don't claim to have composed anything, I find this mashup very satisfying, in a hallucinatory way. I'm not saying it's an improvement on the unimprovably perfect Schumann, but it is dreamy.

P.S. The performers are René Köhler, tenor and Joyce Hatto, piano.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Weekend(s) Update(d)

Some quick updates as we await tonight's monumental Game 7 . . .

As promised last post, I did attend Simone Dinnerstein's recital last night, even though I couldn't get my borrowed iPhone (which is not set up as a phone) to tap into the school's wireless network - no in-recital Game 6 updates for me. No matter - the recital finished in a tidy 1:44, while the baseball game had a fortuitous 15-minute delay for an umpire injury(!). Dinnerstein was remarkably efficient in her recital pacing (like a well-pitched Tim Wakefield game), starting right on time, never leaving the stage during the first half, taking a brief intermission, and avoiding many an optional repeat. She did grace us with an encore, but it was as short as could be: the opening piece of Schumann's Scenes from Childhood. (I had the slightest fear that we might get all the scenes, but no worries.) So, at 9:45 I found myself sprinting to my car and was soon listening in on the 4th inning of what turned out to be a satisfying victory, most of which I got to see on TV.

Dinnerstein's recital was excellent, by the way, whatever impression the uncivilized paragraph above may have left. If I didn't find myself consistently engaged, I certainly wouldn't blame her playing, which was as imaginative and colorful as advertised. I was, regrettably, distracted. I might complain about the programming, specifically the decision to open with the Copland and Webern variations back-to-back. It was a small and somewhat sleepy crowd anyway, but I don't think it helped to begin with two such forbidding works, however beautifully they might be constructed. I'm all for not being tethered to chronology, but I also didn't see/hear how these two works led to the Bach French Suite that followed.

Anyway, the second half was the highlight. I really enjoyed Philip Lasser's variations on a Bach chorale - as weighty and creatively varied as a good set of Brahms variations, and that's saying a lot. And what a beautiful chorale Lasser chose. What I enjoyed most about the Lasser is how gorgeously and idiomatically he writes for the piano (helped along by Dinnerstein's playing, of course). Every note sounded like it was conceived with the piano in mind, unlike so many modern piano works that seem to treat the keyboard as a monochromatic percussion instrument. Dinnerstein's closing performance of Beethoven's final sonata was mesmerizing at times. Honestly, although Op.111 is legendary for being such an interpretive challenge, I think it's written so beautifully that it's pretty foolproof, assuming the pianist can handle the notes and has a soul - which most pianists do! I'd like to return in some future post to this issue of indestructibility (because I know many will disagree), but, for now, let's move forwards by going back to last weekend.

Way back on Monday (almost a week ago), I promised to get around to blogging about a second delightful musical experience from that weekend. I've already written quite a bit about the BSO's Saturday night Mahler 6, but Sunday afternoon I had the pleasure of attending a wonderful wedding of two young musicians. To say music played a big role in the ceremony would be quite an understatement as there was a pretty sizable orchestra on hand of 25-30, as well as a chorus and multiple soloists. And yet, this was not some big-budget, trust-fund extravaganza. I believe that most of the musicians were volunteering their efforts as friends of the couple. (Remember, these were musicians putting on the wedding.)

My favorite sequence was the processional, which was listed in the program as the slow movement of Bach's Double Concerto (a perfect choice which, it so happens, has been performed at all five of my family weddings) and the famous Nimrod movement of Elgar's Enigma Variations. Both were immensely satisfying and emotionally moving, but one noted that the bride had not yet arrived as the Elgar settled down from its gorgeous climax. There followed a slightly mysterious intro, with sweeping harp arpeggios and the like, and all of a sudden a violin was heard playing Somewhere Over the Rainbow. It took me a few seconds to realize that the violinist was the bride herself, who'd created this sumptuous arrangement as a surprise for her groom - hearing the violin soaring up above, it sounded like some ultra-Romantic violin concerto (Korngold-eqsue?). She eventually put her instrument down and let the orchestra sweep her up to the altar.

Yes, it was sappy, but amazingly, the Bach-Elgar-Arlen procession progression worked, showing that the Great American Songbook deserves a place in the canon. But all that aside, the entire service was evidence of how powerfully music can communicate, whether establishing a reverent solemnity (Bach), creating overwhelming emotion (Elgar), or describing unembarrassed romantic joy (Rainbow). By the way, I think the Bach can do all of that on its own, but the rainbow was such an unforgettable surprise. And having all the performers giving so generously of their gifts lent something special to the afternoon as well.

But that's enough superlatives about the past. Time to get ready for the emotional rollercoaster that is any Game 7 of a playoff series. Here's hoping I don't need Nimrod to get me through the night.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Sox vs. Symphony

Two weekends ago, I attended a playoff game at Fenway Park; last weekend, as already mentioned, I attended a performance of Mahler 6 at Symphony Hall. I know it's not really fair to compare the experience of an orchestra concert with a sporting event, but my mind keeps drifting back to this imaginary matchup, probably because I've been evaluating my experience as a new BSO subscriber at the same time the Red Sox are in the midst of yet another exciting playoff run. It's relevant in the whole "what will happen to classical music" discussion, because sports are such a major audience draw. Elitists will often sneer at society's fixation on silly sporting events, which sneering is probably fair, but surely there's something to be learned from something which attracts such loyal devotion from its audiences.

One comparison I keep thinking about is the question of length. The baseball game was a grueling, 12-inning nailbiter that the visiting Angels ended up winning just before 1AM (the game had started at 7:30). When factoring in the time it took to fetch the car (parked, I might proudly add, in a free spot only 15 minutes away from Fenway), and then adding in the time to get the very generous babysitter home, I ended up going to bed at 2AM that night, all in the interest of seeing my team lose in dispiriting fashion. And yet I'm glad I went. It's funny, in that context, to think that the Mahler is considered a long piece; it's so long by symphonic standards that there was nothing else on the program, there was no intermission, and thus, the evening was quite short, well less than 2 hours. In fact, we left Symphony Hall that night and headed straight to a restaurant to catch up on what the Sox were doing that night. Fortunately, we didn't stay until the end, because that game went 11 innings, and we lost it as well.

Of course, one experiences these lengths quite differently, since the Mahler requires sitting quietly for about an hour and a half. The baseball game, especially a high-stakes playoff game, involves lots of standing, and yelling, and even singing ("Sweet Caroline, Oh! Oh! Oh!...") - odd that the baseball game would be the one to invite the audience to make music - not to mention eating, drinking, talking... It's obviously a more naturally social occasion, so time passes more quickly. (Maybe symphony audiences trend older because the patrons want to feel time move slowly. (HINT: For those who really want to delay the inevitable, I recommend Haydn's Creation - "Spend eternity back where it all started!" - but I'm getting off point.))

Anyway, it's not my point here to argue the relative merits of suffering along with Gustav vs. suffering along with Gus from the North End, except maybe to note that it's hard for the concert to match the "event" status of a playoff game, even when Mahler's on the bill. More than anything, this has to do with the fact that no one knows how the game will end (whereas I complained in my last post that I didn't come in knowing enough about how the Mahler would go), but it also has to do with the enormous media coverage that saturates the experience of taking in a big game. As I mentioned last post, even with the BSO making a big deal out of trying out two different orderings of movements on Friday/Saturday, with the idea of selecting the more satisfactory for Tuesday, there was zero media interest (even from the BSO's own website) in following how this played out. Believe me, if tonight's game doesn't go well, every decision Sox manager Terry Francona makes about his ordering of relief pitchers will be endlessly dissected.

Still, although a sporting event has spontaneity on its side, it also draws strength from history and tradition in a way that is true for classical music as well. You need to have endured a LOT of disappointing games (as I most certainly have) to appreciate fully how remarkable Thursday night's Red Sox comeback was. The fact that I have sat, with a sort of anything's-possible attitude, through countless hopeless situations made it all the more unbelievable when Boston overcame the 7th innning 7-0 deficit. The fact that this was the biggest playoff comeback since 1929?!? That's history! Unbelievably compelling history. In fact, no team had ever survived such a deficit when facing elimation. OK, in the grand scheme of things, it's not so important, but then neither is Mahler, really. But to witness (well, we don't have cable, so I only heard via radio) such an unlikely and uplifting thing happen? It would be hard for a concert to compete.

This all reminds me of a night back in Spring of 1992. I had chosen to attend a high-level, professional piano recital being hosted by my university, even though there was a big college basketball game I really wanted to see. I can still picture myself sitting in my car at the recital's intermission, listening to a game that was going down to the wire. I was torn, but ultimately decided to go hear more piano: Liszt's Venezia e Napoli and I-have-no-idea what else. The only lasting impression that recital has made on me is that I ended up missing what is often considered the greatest NCAA tournament game of all time, when Christian Laettner's last-minute catch-and-shoot beat Kentucky. I'm not even going to mention the name of the piano recitalist, because I've always held an unfair grudge against her. I did get a small bit of revenge on music in general. A few years back, having recently acquired my first video iPod, I had, as an iTunes impulse buy, downloaded a condensed version of the Duke-Kentucky game. While sitting through an excruciatingly boring performance of Haydn's Creation, I absent-mindedly flipped out the iPod and starting watching some hoops.

Which brings us, oddly, to tonight when I face the Sophie's Choice of either going to a piano recital by star-of-the-moment Simone Dinnerstein or staying home to watch Game 6 of Sox-Rays. (In this case, staying at the in-laws' means that cable TV is available.) Actually, in spite of the story just told, I've already decided on the piano recital, but I have two things in my favor. First, the game should still be going on for an hour or more after the recital is done. Second, I now have my hands on an iPhone (handed down to me by my sister who's already got the newer model) which, though not hooked up as a phone, will be able to access my school's Wi-Fi during the recital. No, I don't intend to follow pitch by pitch, but it will be nice to know where things stand down in Florida, even as the otherworldly strains of Beethoven's Op.111 (temporary eternity of the best kind) round out the recital. By the way, I love encores, as a rule, but I think it's safe to say I'll be fine without one tonight - unless the Sox are already down by an insurmountable seven runs.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Music That Makes Me Happy (Part 2 of Part 2)

So, as I mentioned last post, hearing Mahler 6 at the BSO was the first highlight of a wonderful musical weekend. I spent the rest of that post suggesting that the atmosphere little resembled the dire descriptions of decaying patrons and disinterested performers that we keep hearing about from the doomsaying prophets. But what made it so satisfying?

First of all, let me back up to say that I think all music reviews are personal (though many reviewers like to pretend otherwise), so I'm intentionally focusing on my own response more than trying to make some objective evaluation of Mahler, the BSO, James Levine, etc. Thus, I have to begin by saying how great it was just to be out at such an event. As I've confessed here before, over the last 20 years of being a busy student, performer, teacher, husband, and father, I haven't made enough effort to get out to live concerts. When commenting on the contemporary musical scene, I often feel like Tom Townsend in this priceless exchange from Metropolitan.

Audrey: What Jane Austen novels have you read?
Tom: None. I don't read novels. I prefer good literary criticism. That way you get both the novelists' ideas as well as the critics' thinking. With fiction I can never forget that none of it really happened, that it's all just made up by the author.

I don't have the same clever rationale as Tom, but I know I haven't really kept myself in the game enough to be an educated observer - or, more importantly, to enjoy what I love about music! So, just being at the BSO was reward in itself.

Now as to the music, I made an unusual decision that I slightly regret. It happens that I don't know Mahler #6 well at all. I've played #1 and #7 from the cello section and I've been choir rehearsal pianist for #8 - I also know my way around #4 and #5 more or less, but I haven't really crossed paths with #6. My first instinct was to devote the weeks before the concert to getting to know it by the standard methods of listening, reading, etc. Stephen Ledbetter's program notes make the excellent point that "no composer has benefited so much from the development of the recording as Mahler, simply because listeners were then able to live with his demanding works until their secrets could be revealed." And, as I've mentioned before, growing up in south Arkansas meant that I grew up on recordings much more than on live performances. It's my natural way into the world of a new piece.

However, several years of teaching about music to non-music majors have exposed me to the phenomenon of listeners who say they'd rather not be prepared for what to listen for or told what to expect. No, I don't just mean those who make excuses for not studying. I've realized for a long time that one thing I love about listening to music I love is that I know what's coming; listening within that sort of anticipatory framework is part of the joy. This is one reason the "classical music world" tends to get stuck in the past. We tend to be populated by listeners who like rehearing the familiar. I think I'll always be that kind of listener, but there are clearly those who don't want to know what's coming - who want a more literally spontaneous experience. (An interesting little side note: I've always felt that program notes should list approximate timings for the works on a program [maybe because I grew up listening to recordings that always list timings], but when I suggested this possibility to one of my classes, many students said they'd find that distracting. They like to be kept guessing about where the music is going. My biggest concern is for an audience hearing, say, the Brahms Violin Concerto for the first time, and having absolutely no idea that the first movement alone will go on for almost twenty minutes, but maybe I should save this topic for another day.)

At any rate, Mahler surely couldn't have expected his audiences (especially for the premieres!) to know his symphonies the way Mahlerites do today, so I thought it would be an interesting experiment to come let a world-class orchestra unfurl this symphony right before my eyes and ears. I figured I'd still have a lot of advantages over the novice listener since I know a lot of other Mahler, I know about symphonic forms, orchestration, etc. So, except for glancing through the program notes ahead of time, I stuck to my plan, not having cued up even a second of the recording I own.

Maybe because I'm not used to approaching music this way, I think it took me a while to settle in and just allow myself to listen "in the moment" to all the extraordinary things that Mahler and James Levine can do with an orchestra. In this regard, many of my favorite moments were the quieter, reflective passages that always seem to arrive as if by magic. Jamie Somerville's gorgeous horn solo in the middle of the 1st movement, the kooky, mystical cowbells that would appear out of nowhere. (If I had infinite time and resources, I'd definitely find a way to make a Bruce Dickinson meets Mahler sketch. In fact, this discussion group snippet suggests that Ben Zander wins the "more cowbell" prize for Mahler 6. The idea of having Christopher Walken channelling Ben Zander is just too funny, but I've probably lost all my readers with this digression...)

I enjoyed much of the first movement, although subsequent listenings haven't changed my feeling that the grim march theme is trying a little too hard to be serious. For some reason, I didn't fully find my way into the Scherzo, but the last two movements were consistently compelling. Although it's a silly thing, I'll admit that anticipation of the famous hammer-blows helped keep me focused in the last movement - unfortunately, our side balcony seats made it impossible to see most of what was going on back in that percussion corner (one reason the cowbells came across so mystically), but you could see audience members craning in that direction quite often, especially when the hammers were due. Interesting to think how just being aware that those three climactic events were on the schedule (they left out the third hammer blow, per Mahler's revision, but there's still a big arrival there) was enough to frame a 30-minute long movement.

But again, you see my bias towards listening within a framework. Maybe it would have been better not to know there'd be any hammer blows - or not to know if the last movement would take 5 minutes or 30 minutes. And speaking of frameworks, I was reminded how having a good experiential knowledge of sonata form also made the first movement (almost as long as the last) easier to process, even though it's almost comical to think that the formal design could really have anything in common with a 3-minute Clementi sonatina movement. (Comical, but quite important in understanding the evolution of musical semantics.)

So, I mostly wish I'd spent more time getting to know Mahler 6 ahead of time. As I wrote way back in one of my first blog posts, I rarely find myself completely taken in by a piece on first hearing. I say "mostly wish" because I do think the experiment was a useful one. Actually, I just spent ten writer's-block minutes trying to decide how to articulate that usefulness. Here's what makes it difficult. When you really know a piece well, when you experience it in performance, it's much easier to make a clear memory of that experience. Thus, I think it's safe to say there were many moments I loved that I simply don't remember clearly, for the simple reason that I didn't have the music already mapped out in my memory banks.

A couple of minor points about the BSO experience: In a world in which information can be moved and managed so easily, it's frustrating that the program doesn't list all the actual performers on the stage. In a big work like this, especially, many extras are called for, but just about any concert by a BSO-like band includes some subs. I don't understand why we can't see those names - if not in the printed program, then online. It's like going to a Red Sox game and having an unnamed pinch-runner step in for David Ortiz. It was fun to see several players on stage who I'd accompanied back in grad school days. A few of them are full-timers, so their names were printed, but many players on stage went anonymous, including at least one whose name I was trying to recall. No help from the BSO there.

Also, because Mahler had two different ideas about the ordering of the middle two movements, the program booklet specified that Friday's audience would get the Andante-Scherzo order, Saturday (we) would get the Scherzo-Andante order, and then Tuesday night's order would be decided based on what had worked best. That's cool, and a good way to get an audience thinking about why such decisions make a difference, which gets them thinking about how much functions, etc. All great. So, since they must have known most audience members would only be there for one night, why not post the final Tuesday decision on the website? I couldn't find mention of the final decision on the website or in the Globe. Why make this a point of interest if you're not going to provide some followup?

It's not like I can't find out the answer. It's just that it shows a lack of imagination about how a web presence can really enhance a concert experience. Maybe I'll talk more about that when I get around to describing our paperless programs for The Doctor in Spite of Himself. For now, I still haven't even gotten to my other happy musical experience of the weekend, but that story will definitely have to wait until tomorrow. I may be on Quad Break, but I still have a stack of projects I need to start grading - or, at minimum, I need to start procrastinating about them.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Music That Makes Me Happy (Part 1 of Part 2)

It was certainly a musically satisfying weekend, so let's continue on with the theme of happy musical experiences (note that happy doesn't always means happy). Two major musical events, one expected, one not so much. Here we go:

1) Saturday night, my wife and I enjoyed our first night out at the BSO as subscribers. It was quite an auspicious start, given that the entire program was Mahler's monumental 6th symphony. And true, it's a decidely not happy piece, but the evening was wonderful. A few observations. First, although I know that an "event" piece like this isn't exactly a typical symphony experience, the whole evening could not have been less like the strawman depictions of classical concerts that Greg Sandow and many of his commenters tend to emphasize. The orchestra and audience struck me as energized and engaged; the audience did not look particularly formal or elite (I felt almost overdressed in my jacket and tie), the way Sandow characterizes a standard symphony crowd here:

"In the audience, the men are mostly wearing suits and ties. They look as if they might be going to a meeting in the board room of a bank, while Jed went to his concert wearing his hair, as he always does, in a ponytail. That alone, at most classical events, would mark him as different. Classical concerts don’t attract many men in ponytails. Nor do they attract many artists, rumpled intellectuals, rock musicians (even if more than a few rock musicians have tried to write classical music), or anyone, really, who looks (and you can choose your own word here) hip, or casual, or relaxed, or countercultural."

It may just be that Boston's not such a glamorous town, but I saw a wide range of comfortable, relaxed looking people -and they weren't all old. Some were even younger than me! Actually, now that I think about it, lately Sandow has been concerned about audiences and performers not looking hip enough. Read here how horrifed he was by the picture below. It's an admittedly unglamorous photo of orchestra musicians dressed like orchestra musicians and looking like they're really concentrating. Sandow writes, "People in the outside world would never guess that these people are performing for the public." Really? I can't imagine what he means by that. As far as I can tell, his point is that the musicians don't have fashionably styled hair or, what's really inferred, they're not attractive enough to attract people to this music.
But, this is really an argument where either side can easily provide compelling evidence, and I'm sure there will be BSO evenings that we'll find less electric. I'm just gonna say that the audience, by and large, did not seem bored, and the orchestra members looked like they were having a great time - not by flashing André Rieu-like smiles out to the audience (although Levine was beaming often enough), or even by smiling frequently, but rather by playing with such intensity. I think even an unitiated audience member could have picked up on this commitment and passion, even if the length and unfamiliarity of the music had been too problematic for happy listening.

Whoops, time's up. I have much more to say about this concert, and I haven't even gotten yet to the second "happy" musical experience of the weekend, but I'm going to go ahead and post this much. Stay tuned...

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Open Book Test

After resisting for awhile, I took the Facebook leap this summer. In a way, it fits my techy side, although I suppose the success of Facebook is really more predicated on how un-techy it is. For example, I've been sharing pictures with family and friends for years, setting up my own custom-designed albums, etc. all without the use of Facebook - but it's becoming clear that a big part of Facebook's appeal is that just about all the content comes straight to you; not only do you not have to work very hard to upload content - more importantly, you don't have to work hard to seek it out.

I've realized that one reason my Doctor in Spite of Himself website wasn't a huge success is that it still required getting someone to the site in the first place. My experience tells me that asking people to go visit a website or even emailing them about it doesn't yield much, even from college students, who I once assumed were as avid about searching the net as I am. For me, the dawn of the Internet was most importantly about the thrill of the search - the fact that I could actively go out and find just about anything. But, the student generation that has driven the Facebook phenomenon seem to be much more passive about all that information. I'm amazed at how often I have to tell students how to seek out recordings and scores - I'm supposed to be the old geezer here.

Facebook's biggest strengths are its newness (it's not even 5 years old!), its omnipresence in the life of its users, and the way it pushes information out to those users (which is what keeps them present). Social networking has been possible for years on the net. My far-flung family used to have such a wonderfully busy email circle that I was able to turn 7 years of group correspondence into a telephone-book-sized Christmas present a few years back. (I need to blog more about this book at some point: it's 500+ pages of incredibly small text - and all my reading-mad family members read it cover to cover!) However, it takes work to keep that sort of thing going. The genius of Facebook is that it builds community (i.e. atracts committed users) from the virtual equivalent of small talk - which isn't so strange, since small talk is an important part of any community. Yes, there's something Samuel Beckett-like about the Facebook world.

All of this is hard to appreciate until you've actually tried Facebook for yourself - I finally joined, in part, because I could never grasp just exactly what made it work until I jumped in. I still don't know for sure what I think, but I've been surprised to connect not only with past and current students but with high school classmates I hadn't seen in more than twenty years! In fact, that's probably what I've enjoyed the most, although I suspect that the ongoing intrusion of forty-somethings into the world may be what spells its doom. How long can the college students be content to share their cool world of endless party photos and idle chitchat with distinctly less cool older people - who also post (old) party photos and idle chitcat? (Please understand that I hold idle chitchat in the highest regard.) Or, Facebook may move beyond its college-level core identity and become something more - well, who knows?

I went to a faculty lecture about Facebook this week, and was startled to be reminded how new Facebook is, how young its leader is, and how many missteps the company has already made deciding how to handle all this personal information that people have casually tossed out into the unknown. One thing that's clear is that the Facebook powers-that-be understand that the medium has to keep changing to seem fresh - which means there's no telling what's next.