Sunday, June 1, 2008

Comment / Items

The main thing is for a composer to stick around as long as possible and keep working. Otherwise, you miss things like that.

Henry Brant
upon winning the Pulitzer Prize

[Judith Blazer as the Old Lady in Leonard Bernstein's Candide]

When [Leonard Bernstein's Candide] opened on Broadway, it landed with a thud, closing after 73 performances. . . .

It still sounds more like a musical than an opera, though. . . .

If the score is a good deal more talky than anything pretending to be an opera ought to be . . . .

Allan Kozinn
The New York Times, 4/10/08

[If closing after 73 performances is landing with a thud, what does one make of a standard opera or concert-series run? . . . .

Is not the definition of opera that of continuous sung drama, -- as opposed to any considerations of style? . . . .

And what of singspeil (the W.A. Mozart Magic Flute) and opera comique (Georges Bizet Carmen)?

. . . ed.]

[Leonard] Slatkin’s conducting [in the New York Philharmonic's rendition of the Igor Stravinsky Firebird] was curiously blatant, fussy and ineffective, with extremes of dynamics that seemed overly manipulated. It was like listening to a poorly engineered CD, when you keep cranking up the volume during pianissimo passages and turning it down during the fortissimo climaxes.

Anthony Tommasini
The New York Times, 4/12/08

[Spoken like a true pop critic, or someone (perhaps me) trying to listen to Richard Wagner on a car stereo with the window open.
Time was when a diversity of dynamics, recording engineered or otherwise, was considered a virtue. Imagine the delicate gradations of Olivier Messiaen's dynamic rows obliterated by studio equalizing techniques, where all dynamics are brought virtually equally to the fore. - ed.]

[Robert Craft and Igor Stravinsky, 1964, Pierre Hotel, NY (Sam Falk/The New York Times)]

No composer of classical music was ever more attuned to the power of publicity, or courted it more ardently, than Igor Stravinsky. A celebrity by the age of 30, he learned the art of réclame from his early mentor Sergei Diaghilev, the master press manipulator of his day. The earliest “typical” Stravinsky interviews -- charming, crafty, hyperarticulate, unerringly self-serving -- appeared in St. Petersburg newspapers in 1912, and the stream, or torrent, continued unabated for nearly six decades, in dozens of languages and on every continent but Antarctica.

. . . [Robert] Craft was . . . the caboose in a long train of Stravinskian ghostwriters. Others included Walter Nouvel, an associate of Diaghilev, who wrote Stravinsky’s
Autobiography; Alexis Roland-Manuel, a French composer, and Pierre Souvtchinsky, a Russian émigré intellectual, who together wrote Stravinsky’s Harvard lectures, Poetics of Music; and Mercedes de Acosta, Alexis Kall and Arthur Lourié, who had at various times played the roles Mr. Craft later permanently took on. Surely it is obvious that the deluge of verbiage was meant to hide the man from the world rather than to expose him. Stravinsky, whose music waged unending war on the assumption that art was a medium of self-revelation, hugely enjoyed the game of misleading the curious. . . .

The very first memory recorded in the ghosted autobiography of 1936 was of “an enormous peasant seated on the stump of a tree.” He sang a song “composed of two syllables” that were “devoid of any meaning, but he made them alternate with incredible dexterity in a very rapid tempo,” accompanying them with his right hand, which, placed under his left armpit, produced “a succession of sounds which were somewhat dubious but very rhythmic, and which might be euphemistically described as resounding kisses.” Anyone care to guess how many learned disquisitions on Stravinsky’s devotion to “pure music” or his “liberation of rhythm” this morsel has unleashed? . . .

One favorite ploy was to plant a “fact” or manufacture a recollection that would send program annotators afield. Asked by Mr. Craft in a mock interview published in 1960, “What do you love most in Russia?” Stravinsky answered, “the violent Russian spring that seemed to begin in an hour and was like the whole earth cracking.” It’s a sentence that has been recycled, as planned, in at least a gazillion essays on the composer’s violent balletic masterpiece, “The Rite of Spring.” (Google just turned up 57.) . . .

By the end of his life he said he was living in a perpetual state of interview. The last of them actually appeared almost three months after his death, in
The New York Review of Books on July 1, 1971. By then it was an open secret that Stravinsky’s public words had long been ghosted by his close associate the conductor Robert Craft, who kept the words coming long after Stravinsky’s physical infirmities precluded his participating in their collaboration. Mr. Craft admitted the deception, or rather explained the reason it had to be maintained, in the author’s foreword to Themes and Conclusions, a miscellany of writings attributed to Stravinsky that appeared posthumously in England in 1972 -- though he did so, as always, over Stravinsky’s signature.

“The balance between my income and my needs,” wrote the ghost, “has, for a decade or more, rested on the ‘deductibility’ of the latter; and my deductibility ‘status’ has depended, in turn, on the production, if not of music, then, faute de mieux, of words. For to write, in America, is to ‘write off.’ ”

Richard Taruskin
The New York Times, 4/13/08

Mystery has long swirled around Thomas Adès. Britain’s leading contemporary composer doesn’t like giving interviews, doesn’t like being asked about his music or influences and, at least within the classical world, has “a bit of an attitude”. “I find it very difficult to talk to the music critics,” he admits, “because I don’t understand what they’re talking about. It’s much easier to talk to another normal person.”

Aloofness also has to be weighed against the weight of Adès’s precocious achievements and the expectation that came with them. He was runner-up in the BBC Young Musician competition as a pianist at the age of 19 in 1990. He received his first major opera commission at the age of 24, the critically acclaimed
Powder Her Face, due to be revived at the Royal Opera House this year. He became the youngest winner of the Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition in 2000, and the Barbican staged a retrospective of his work last year.

Perhaps, however, age (even though he’s still only 37), experience and love are mellowing Adès. He is charming, full of laughter and happy to chat, even about his normally closely guarded private life. . . .

Adès and [Tal] Rosner were among the first couples in the UK to enter a civil partnership in early 2006, within weeks of the new legislation being put in place. “That law came in quite soon after we met and I still can’t quite believe it’s there,” Adès explains. “I thought ‘we have to do this’ and not only because of the Israeli thing, although it did make life a lot easier with visas, but that was just a bonus. It has had an effect on my music. You feel more connected, like joined-up handwriting. I think my music is more joined-up now than it was before.” . . .

Adès’s musical tastes and influences are wide. When asked about the content of his iPod, he admits that there’s nothing classical among the 2,000-odd tracks. When asked to reveal its current playlist, he sheepishly admits to the 1980s Norwegian pop heart-throbs Aha, and says that he and Tal have been downloading nu electro from the Italian internet radio station Pig Radio. When I ask what music they had at their civil partnership ceremony, I get a surprising response. “We were up all night trying to figure out what the right music would be,” Adès smiles. “In the end we had Girls Aloud’s
Love Machine.”

It’s another sign that he won’t conform to an easily classifiable stereotype. Back in 1997, his pulsing work
Asyla depicted, in part, a night out clubbing in London. “Perhaps it’s because we’re married men now, but we haven’t been out clubbing for a while. Also, I’m 37 so I don’t want to be the embarrassing uncle at these things.” Adès sighs, then laughs. “There has to be a point where you say: ‘Am I ten years older than everyone here?’ ” Composing is not Adès’s only job. As well as conducting his own works (he will conduct at the Festival Hall), later this year he’ll conduct Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress at Covent Garden. Both conducting and composition also make way, on occasion, for the piano. So where does he feel most at home?

“I’m a composer on the dotted line because you have to be, it’s got to come first. The temptation is to stick to the conducting because – although I’m not saying it’s easy, because it’s not -- in terms of the amount of time you have to prepare and the amount of money you earn it’s obviously the most attractive one. You could be totally seduced into doing it all the time and never writing any music, but that would give me a niggling feeling that I’m wasting my life. I know that deep down I’m a composer.

“On the other hand, when I’ve been at home for six months doing nothing except pushing notes around, I’m very lucky to be able to get on a train or plane and do something with other people, in public.” So much for Adès the recluse.

Steve Bustin
The Times of London, 4/18/08

Rock musicians have talked openly about loud music and ear protection for years. The issue is more delicate for classical musicians, who have been reluctant to accept that their profession can lead to hearing loss, even though studies have shown that to be the case. At the same time, complying with the law — which concerns musicians’, not audiences’, noise exposure -- is complicated.

One problem is that different musicians are exposed to different levels of noise depending on their instruments, the concert hall, where they sit in an orchestra and the fluctuations of the piece they are playing. In Britain, big orchestras now routinely measure the decibel levels of various areas to see which musicians are subject to the most noise, and when.

Orchestras are also installing noise-absorbing panels and placing antinoise screens at strategic places, like in front of the brass section, to force the noise over the heads of other players.

“You have to tilt them in such a way so that the noise doesn’t come back and hit the person straight in the face, because that can cause just as much damage,” said Philip Turbett, the orchestra manager for the English National Opera.

They are also trying to put more space between musicians, and rotating them in and out of the noisiest seats.

At the Royal Opera House, the management has devised a computer program that calculates individual weekly noise exposure by cross-referencing such factors as the member’s schedule and the pieces being played.

Musicians are spacing out rehearsals and playing more softly when they can. As the Welsh National Opera prepared for the premiere of James MacMillan’s loud opera, The Sacrifice, last year, the brass and percussion sections were told to take it easy at times in rehearsal to protect the ears of themselves and their colleagues, said Peter Harrap, the orchestra and chorus director.

Conductors are also being asked to reconsider their habit of “going for a big loud orchestration,” said Chris Clark, the orchestra operations manager at the Royal Opera House. Composers, too, are being asked to keep the noise issue in mind.

“Composers should bear in mind that they are dealing with people who are alive, and not machines,” said Mr. Nordwall of the Bavarian orchestra.

And companies are examining their repertories with the aim of interspersing loud pieces — Mahler’s symphonies, for instance — with quieter ones. They are also buying a lot of high-tech earplugs, which are molded to players’ ears and cost about $300 a pair. Many orchestras now ask their musicians to put the earplugs in during the loud parts of a performance.

“I have a computer program that gives me a minute-by-minute timeline chart through the whole piece,” said Mr. Turbett of the English National Opera. “I can go back to the musicians and say, ‘Between bar 100 and bar 200, there’s a very loud passage, so please put in hearing protection.’ ”

But these remedies can bring problems. Some musicians in the brass and percussion sections resent being screened off from their colleagues, as if they were being ostracized. Musicians, even if they accept the need to use earplugs occasionally, tend to hate wearing them.

Mr. Garner, the Royal Opera House oboist, said: “I’ve spent nearly 30 years in music and I know all about noise, and occasionally, if I’m not playing and there’s a loud bit next to me, I might shove my fingers in my ears for a few bars. But I have yet to find a musician who says they can wear earplugs and still play at the same level of quality.”

The modern noise-level-conscious orchestra is also dependent, of course, on the indulgence of the conductor. Arriving at an orchestra to find that decisions have been based solely on musicians’ noise exposure can be galling to the sort of conductor who likes to be in control, which is most of them.

Although Switzerland is outside the European Union, an extraordinary noise-related argument between the conductor and the Bern Symphony Orchestra disrupted the opening night of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck in March.

The piece called for 30 string players and 30 wind and percussion players, all crammed into a too-small pit. When the stage director complained in rehearsals that the music was too loud, the conductor didn’t order the orchestra to play more softly, but instead asked for a cover over the orchestral pit to contain the noise, said Marianne Käch, the orchestra’s executive director.

That meant the noise bounced back at the musicians, bringing the level to 120 decibels in the brass section, similar to the levels in front of a speaker in a rock concert. The musicians complained. The conductor held firm. But when the piece began, “the orchestra decided to play softer anyway in order to protect themselves,” Ms. Käch said.

That made the conductor so angry that he walked off after 10 minutes or so, Ms. Käch said. Told that there had been “musical differences” between the conductor and the orchestra, the perplexed audience had to wait for the two sides to hash it out.

In the end, the orchestra agreed to return and finish the performance at the loud levels. For subsequent performances, a foam cover that absorbed instead of reflecting the sound was placed above the pit, and the conductor agreed to tone things down.

“This is the problem you find in many places, that the conductors are conducting more and more loudly,” Ms. Käch said. “I know conductors who have hundreds of shades of fortissimo, but not many in the lower levels. Maybe the whole world is just becoming louder.”

Sarah Lyall
The New York Times, 4/20/08

Opening a Window on a Forgotten Work and Feeling That Fresh Air Rush In

Headline to an article on Igor Stravinsky's Histoire du Soldat
The New York Times, 5/1/08

[Clearly someone must have forgotten to educate the NYT Editor in what is a widely-known work - ed.]

I look at the world, and it makes no sense. So I try to write music that makes no sense.

Frederick Rzewski
The New York Times, 5/3/08

Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues (and its companion pieces in the Four North American Ballads) makes its point forcefully because the song is known, . . . when the best-known strand is the 14th-century chanson L’Homme Armé, listeners are likely to miss the points Mr. Rzewski’s juxtapositions are intended to make.

Allan Kozinn
The New York Times, 5/3/08

[Certain listeners, Allan.
On the other hand, we're not familiar with many Missa Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues
settings... -ed.]