Theme and Variations

Thoughts and experiences of exploring classical, jazz, and other art music.

Thursday, August 01, 2013

I Wasn't Raised On Classical Music, Part 1: What It Isn't

I know I haven't blogged in a long while, but I have still been listening to music. A Lot.

I have been a bit active on Facebook, a bit less on Twitter, and I often post links to stories about classical music. I am sure that most, (certainly not all) of you were, like me, not raised on this art form. Through a series of blog postings, I want to encourage those who do not listen or don't like or, most importantly, don't understand classical music, to get from where you are to where you will be happy to be.

 But first I must address the term "classical." Though the true nature of the term has been familiar to me since my first visit to the Harvard Book Store, I didn't really give it much thought until I heard Maestro Robert Greenberg give a semi-rant on the use of the term. In proper terms, "classical" refers to the art and history of the Greco-Roman period (Classical). It also refers to a period of time in music for (with some slight disagreement of exact dates) the compositions written from 1750 (the year J.S. Bach died) to 1827 (the year Beethoven died). This is called the Classical period (capital C). There is even a scientific field called "classical physics" which refers to the science prior to the quantum and relativity revolutions. Mr. Greenberg (his name is a form of the name of my state, Vermont) has problems with the widely used and general acceptance of the word "classical" to refer to the genre of music we think of when we say classical (lower-case c) music. It is certainly a term that gets a lot mileage, and I understand his objections to the use of it.

He has offered alternatives. As the most prolific and popular professor with The Great Courses his foundational course is entitled How To Listen to and Understand Great Music. Now, I really like that term, "great", because you can make it "Great" and now you have a whole new term which refers to multiple things.

His suggestion is to use the term "concert" music, which I don't think really helps things. Even "Concert" doesn't help, and I think that is because we all think of a concert as a general term for a musical performance, be it Concert, Jazz, Rock, even Hip-hop and Rap.

So, I will stick with the term classical music for the most part, because it is generally more recognized in some fashion by my targeted readers. However, out of respect for Dr. Greenberg, and because it also gives me another modifier to which I can refer without being redundant in the same paragraph, I will occasionally use the term Concert music (or concert music) as well.

Whew. All that text and I haven't even gotten to the point yet. So let's get there, shall we?

When the unitiated hear references to classical music, they usually think of long, complicated works by (and here is another term often used in art circles) Dead Germans. Those that indulge in this genre are upper-class, intellectual types with college degrees and use big words like "Baroque." They are the core audience of public radio, drive European make automobiles (or a Cadillac), and have at least two generations of heirs (a.k.a old people). To see an orchestra performance requires owning and wearing a tuxedo (generally the men) or a designer evening gown (generally the women). The tickets are expensive. There's a protocol to being a member of the audience ("Do I clap yet?") that is arcane as Illuminati rituals. It is boring music, just a bunch of notes that are best reserved for background music in fancy hotel elevators. It is hard to understand, and just one musical work can go on for over an hour (never mind an opera through which you might sit for four hours...more on opera in a future entry).

I'm sure there are more misunderstandings or objections than those, and I'd love to hear them, please leave comments.

 The bad news is most of those characteristics exist in some form in the Concert Music world. However, the good news is they are in no way requirements for understanding and enjoying it. If you are reading this (and thus still with me) and you can hear, you have everything you need to understand and appreciate classical music. Just as in understanding wine (another misunderstood art form, with many of the same characteristics, and enjoyed by the same people) your explorations can be as complicated or as simple as you like. And like most people who drink wine, you may not understand it, but you know what you like. I'm willing to bet you already have some Concert music favorites and don't even realize it; even opera favorites.

Well, if it isn't some rarefied, incomprehensible high art form, what is it? That will be the main subject of Part 2.

 I take on this task because I wasn't raised on Concert music. Those of you who knew me from high school know I was strictly a redneck country and western fan, particularly of Western Swing and Texas Outlaw music (Willie and Waylon). I got pulled into the classical genre by, of all things, movie music. James Horner's music for the Star Trek movies was like traveling through space (which was its job after all), and I hungered for more. It occurred to me that orchestral music - classical music - might hold such treasures.

So I began to listen to the public radio station in Corpus Christi, KEDT. I didn't understand much of what I heard, but once in awhile I did. And then one day I heard a work that took me into outer space.

The piece was entitled Variations on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, written by the English composer Ralph Vaughn Williams. (By the way "Ralph" is pronounced "Rafe", go figure.)  It reminded me of the hours I spent on the roof of the carport on clear, South Texas nights, staring into the heavens until I felt like I was drifting through the stars.

Found one!

 I bought an LP, which also had on it a work for violin and orchestra named The Lark Ascending, also by Vaughn Williams. I loved it! Before long I heard symphonies by Brahms, and orchestral works by Sergei Rachmaninov (hey, didn't Eric Carmen have a song that sounded like that? Two?) that had melodic parts I liked, with some other stuff in between. Of course I heard Bach and Mozart and knew that I was supposed to like them, and they did seem to have some kind of recognizable structure that appealed to my mind, which at that time was filled with exotic mathematics and physics concepts and the workings of electrical circuits (leading to my first degree, in Electrical Engineering). But to be honest, for the most part I didn't understand what I was hearing.

(To be continued in I Wasn't Raised On Classical Music, Part 2: What It Is)

Music In My Head: Largo Al Factotum, from Rossini's opera The Barber of Seville. If you watched Looney Tunes as a kid, you've heard at least some of it. Think Figaro.

Monday, May 07, 2012

U-Md. Symphony Orchestra gets out of its chairs

Giving music a visual life

We often hear that orchestral music’s problem in the modern world is that it lacks a visual element. And we often see attempts to address this involving video screens, animations or even the computer-generated geometric forms you can play along with your music on iTunes.
But what the University of Maryland Symphony Orchestra and choreographer Liz Lermanoffered Friday night to open a program titled “Auferstehen” (“revive” or “resurrect”) blew all that out of the water.
The piece was Debussy’s “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun.” It began when a group of young musicians, barefoot, in street clothes, holding their instruments, walked out onto a stage that was empty but for a couple of harps and a few strategically placed stools for the cellists. They lay down, sleeping, frozen; until the solo flute made her entrance, walking out from the wings and moving through the silent ranks like the Pied Piper, stirring the others awake, drawing them into the music after her.
If you saw this on video, you’d assume it was dubbed; orchestra musicians can’t play and move at the same time. Never assume; these Maryland students could. Having memorized the score, they walked around the stage with naturalistic ease, grouping in small constellations or moving en masse, eddying and flowing with the music. Now everyone massed into two antiphonal groups that took turns driving each other back; now the crowd parted to release a solo clarinet who crossed center stage for her few phrases in the sun before melting back into the throng.
The other reason you’d think it was dubbed is that the playing was so good: increasingly confident, vividly expressive, and without the kinds of balance problems you might assume would result from letting musicians wander all over the stage. Freed from the black-clad anonymity of the orchestral status quo, allowed to assert their own identities, the musicians took responsibility for one of the most remarkable collaborations I’ve seen.
You probably couldn’t do this with a professional orchestra. The Maryland program’s “Music in Mind” series, of which this concert was a part, deliberately explores different ways of approaching the experience of concert music, often with collaborators from outside the music world (such as a “Petruchka” with puppets and props directed by Doug Fitch in 2008). The point is less to find new templates than, as the orchestra’s Web site ambitiously puts it, “to offer members an experience of art-making that will remain with them for the rest of their lives.” Friday’s concert was one of those happy instances of an experiment that shows why experimentation is worthwhile. It’s a shame that there was only one performance; anyone who loves orchestral music should have had a chance to see it.
As if to underline the point that it’s possible to love both the experimental and tradition deeply and at the same time, James Ross, the orchestra’s music director, paired this “Afternoon of a Faun” with Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony (“Auferstehung”), one of the biggest pieces in the orchestral repertoire, offered with no experimentation whatsoever. Or was there? To some extent, the intensity of the Debussy carried over into the Mahler in a chamber-music transparency and a distinctively personal approach. The biting cellos at the start of the piece sounded particularly intimate and raw. And after having gotten to know individual players by watching them in the Debussy, it was hard not to keep checking in on them, now in concert garb, among the enormous forces of the Mahler. The physical element even stood out: There are a lot of comings and goings in this piece, as brass and percussionists keep leaving to play passages offstage, and once the bombshell percussionist had established her physical authority with her gyrations in the Debussy, she held attention even as one of a team of percussionists in the symphony.
But the risk-taking of a distinctive, personal approach paid off less well here, musically. Ross took slow tempi that opened up the piece, stripped away the bombast and exposed the individual players in many ways just as much as the Debussy did. It was an ambitious reading, but impressive though the U-Md. orchestra is, it would have taken the Berlin Philharmonic to sustain some of the long arcs of music Ross was trying to draw out. There were a few moments of pure inspiration — a punched-out climax in the first movement, or an unbelievable hush, like the whole orchestra on tiptoe, in the third. And the University of Maryland Concert Choir was outstanding: The slowness, here, let every word of the final, climactic movement be heard (Jennifer Forni and Yvette Smith, U-Md. alumnae, were the soloists). Too often, though, the slow tempi let the air out of the piece, and the personal approach came off like a friend who talks too long and doesn’t get to the point.
And yet, all of that talking did have something to communicate. I found the next day that the music had gotten under my skin, so that passages kept flicking through my head.
Too, this concert was about training young artists, and the experience of taking part and learning that new approaches can indeed revive the old can only be a good thing for the musicians, and audiences, of our future.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Hilary Hahn talks about Prokofiev Concerto No. 1

Friday, February 17, 2012

Meme time

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Brahms and the Clarinet Part 1

The next installment about Brahms takes place near the end of his life, after he had declared he had retired from composing in 1890. However, during a trip to Meiningen in 1891, he was enthralled with the talents of a clarinet player named Richard Muhlfeld. What followed was a trio, quintet, and some sonatas.

Of the two, it seems that the quintet is the more popular, though I personally prefer the trio. I have a handful of recordings of these works, which were part of CDs I acquired for other works on the albums. Having spent some time with these works, however, I've come to really like them. I'll start with the quintet.

One version of this work I have is that of the Tokyo String Quartet featuring JE Lluna on clarinet. On first listen, it seemed to me that the quartet was attacking the music, rather than playing it. Of the three versions I have, I like this one the least, and I think I'm even going to put it on eBay or something. It includes the clarinet trio, which I didn't give much of a listen, based on my displeasure with the quintet. Looking back at my listening notes, I read "Another deep listen of the Tokyo Quartet version does not strike me as harsh...A very workman-like performance that isn't bad per se; just not as likable as the other two."

The Berlin Philharmonic Octet performs on the Philips 2-CD set Brahms: The Complete Quintets. Aside from the clarinet quintet, the piano and two string quintets are on this collection. To my taste the Berlin Octet (members of the octet, actually) performed the work much more romantically, rather than in attack mode as by the Tokyo Quartet. It seemed much more pleasant at the outset. From my notes: "I find this version the most pleasing. While the other two are good, at the end of the [Berlin Octet version] I feel as if I've been present at a sublime experience."

The third recording features the Brahms Double Concerto, but also has the Capucon Quartet with Paul Meyer on the clarinet. This recording has amazing sound; every note is played to its fullest (fullest what? sound quality, failing to find a better word), with a bit of filigree. Their third movement reminds me of frolic through a meadow. The last movement returns to minor mode, ending in a bittersweet chord. This movement taught me a lot about how much sound can be produced from just a few instruments.

(Clarinet Trio to follow)

Friday, February 04, 2011

Top 10 Composers

New York Times music critic Anthony Tommasini has put together his list of the Top 10 classical composers of all time to cap off a two-week series of articles and interactive features on the Times' web site. Tommasini invited readers to participate by taking a poll of their own choices and by leaving comments.
Here is his final list:

1. Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
2. Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
3. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 – 91)
4. Franz Peter Schubert (1797-1828)
5. Claude Achille Debussy (1862 – 1918)
6. Igor Stravinsky (1882 – 1971)
7. Johannes Brahms (1833 – 97)
8. Giuseppe Verdi (1813 – 1901)
9. Richard Wagner (1813 – 83)
10. Bela Bartok (1881 – 1945)

The first thing that struck me about the list was the absence of Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky. That just floored me. I had always just assumed that Tchaikovsky was right up there with the Big 3. In fact, I figured picking the Top 5 would be easy - Beethoven, Mozart, Bach, Brahms and Tchaikovsky. It was picking the second group of five that I thought would be a problem.
But Tommasini drops Brahms downs to No. 7 and doesn't even give Tchaikovsky so much as an honorable mention in his article.
But I get where Tommasini is coming from. He is a "Modernist" which accounts for the high ranking of Debussy and Stravinski as well as the inclusion of Bartok over such choices as Haydn or Chopin.
Also, he is clearly a big fan of Opera, whereas I have still not given that medium the full attention it deserves and am thus not wedded to choices such as Wagner and Verdi at this time.
What Tommasini's list reminds me of is when I was in college and Rolling Stone magazine came out with its list of the Top 100 Rock Albums and then preceded to fill up many of the slots with critically acclaimed, but awful (in my opinion) Punk albums. For instance, they gave the No. 2 slot (right after the Beatles) to the unlistenable Sex Pistols album.
But to be fair, I don't really think it is right to compare Debussy and Stravinski to Punk bands. Nevertheless, my choice for the Top 10 is considerably different (Plus I have to have a second Top 10 for all the runner-ups.)
So here is my list:





Of course, my list will change and evolve as I continue to absorb and experience more and more music. But it is a fun exercise anyway.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Central Vermont Chamber Music Festival - 18th Season Saturday, August 28th, 2010. Chandler Music Hall, Randolph, Vermont.

Dvorak String Quintet in G Major, Op. 77, 1st mvmt.