Monday, June 15, 2015

Limited Partnership airs on PBS in June

Don't miss this heart-rending chronicle of a gay couple's 40-year love story and struggle against anti-gay marriage and immigration laws:
Limited Partnership | Independent Lens | PBS

Absolutely brilliant, bittersweet and inspiring. Bravo.

Common scents at the Chelsea Music Festival

Following up on my gripe yesterday about the Chelsea Food/Booze/Perfume and, oh yeah, Music Festival. From today's gushing review in the Times:

"Even in a multimedia world, a true feast for the senses is rare. The Chelsea Music Festival works hard to cater even to olfactory needs, offering guests an earthy, floral scent called Finno-Ugric OsmoLanguage No. 5 in honor of this year’s Finnish-Hungarian theme. Such touches can be gimmicky, but they are quirky complements to the festival’s thematic offerings in light of the thoughtful programming and dynamic music making."  [italics mine]

Now, in this "multimedia world" getting a review in the New York Times is a miracle in itself, especially for serious classical music offerings. Here we have already used up about a third of a very brief piece discussing something having nothing at all to do with the music. Instead of but they are quirky complements to, might a more apt phrase have been and they are completely unnecessary to or something to that effect? By rewarding this dog-and-pony-show approach to art music presentation, even from a summer festival, we set precedents that are hard to back away from. Future food- drink- and scent-free performances will be viewed as sadly lacking that certain je ne sais quoi. Let's please just call a gimmick a gimmick, folks, and move on.

Also, is it Finland that is floral and Hungary that is earthy or the other way around? I've never been to Finland so I can't speak to its prevailing odor. Hungary was certainly earthy, but I remember some flowers, too.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Pickled hearing at the Chelsea Music Festival

Lucky patrons of the 2015 Chelsea Music Festival featuring the music of Finland and Hungary, are not going hungry or thirsty. With Hear/Taste/See as the festival rallying cry, almost all of the concerts in this 10-day series are advertised to include (in bold italic) "reception and open bar" along with a smattering of "curated" (?) food presentations by celebrity-ish chefs. Apparently worried about those pesky two remaining senses, there was last evening the unveiling of the "2015 Chelsea Music Festival Scent by perfumer Christophe Laudamiel." No sign as yet of a touch-themed event, but perhaps things might heat up if they move the Finnish Fiddle-Off to a sauna with goulash-tasting afterwards. But I'm ONLY going if it's curated.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

The curious incident of the Leipzig dawg

The mysterious circumstances surrounding the recent arrest of Leipzig String Quartet first violin Stefan Arzberger for attempted murder continue to confound everyone not familiar with the hothouse world of chamber music. It seems perfectly obvious to me that this whole drug-in-the-cocktail-my-hooker-gave-me scheme was cooked up by the second violinist. 

JUST as I was learning to trust string players again...

Friday, June 12, 2015

Suffer the little children

Photo: David Guttenfelder for the New York Times
A performance at the Kyongsang Kindergarten in Pyongyang

A few months ago I was hired as an accompanist for an international competition for young pianists, the youngest division ranging in age from about 9-13 years old. Even at this tender age, the contestants were required to present from memory the equivalent of a full-length solo recital program and a complete concerto from a list of "easier" but nonetheless typically virtuosic showpieces. Those that were selected to go on to semi-final/final rounds faced multiple days of public performance, all before an audience of expectant teachers, wigged-out parents and distinguished judges. The final three contestants completed the grueling week with a public performance of their concerto with orchestra. And what were YOU doing when you were 11?

Like most pianists, this wasn't my first go-round at youth competitions, having endured them many times both as anxious contestant and later as accompanist or adjudicator. I understand their value for young artists, even though I don't often agree with their modi operandi. What has changed quite dramatically over the decades, though, is the level of repertoire being inflicted upon these unquestionably ultra-talented children. When once a Bach invention, a Haydn sonata, a Mendelssohn or Schumann character piece and a Kabalevsky sonatina were considered suitable student offerings, we are now hearing works once reserved for the mature virtuoso- Liszt's Don Juan fantasy, Beethoven's Appassionata Sonata, Prokofiev's fiendish Toccata, and on and on. Competition guidelines often don't attempt to place limits on repertoire choices anymore, unfortunately encouraging this kind of audience-pandering selection. It is unthinkable to me what these poor children must endure from teacher and parent in order to prepare such daunting and age-inappropriate material; there is no other word for it than abuse.

Behind the scenes, one overhears judges and competition staff tsking and clucking over this regretful emphasis on pure technical display, but they nonetheless more often than not promulgate this behavior by dismissing those with less developed (i.e. normal) technique, overlooking inspired and honest musicality amidst all the noise. What message are they sending? That only those with preternatural technical gifts and a penchant for forced labor will be strong enough to survive in today's cutthroat world of solo pianism.

Is this true? Perhaps, sadly. Is it right? All I know is you can't skip directly from Haydn to Rachmaninoff without missing some crucial development along the way. The simple clarity of a Clementi sonatina, the vivid characterizations in Schumann's Album for the Young, the tonal palette of a Chopin nocturne or Debussy prelude; all of these and a thousand more musical experiences must meld together over time to form an accomplished and yes, even virtuoso pianist.

Teachers, can we let kids be kids? Even Mozart had a day off now and then.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Art rules

Vis-à-vis yesterday's post about the Times music review that began "classical music has too many rules for its own good"- I assume the critic was referring to the often fusty style of fine art music presentation, with performers on stage in formalwear and ball gowns circa 1897 Vienna, regardless of the tone of the event or its repertoire; hushed audiences sweating it out until the end of pieces, never but never clapping between movements; the obligatory "edgy" work quickly followed by a warm, squishy Romantic masterpiece to appease the donor base. And the list goes on.

But of course there are just the same kinds of silly rules at work today within other music genres. Popular music maintains a rigid devotion to juvenile emotional expressions and simplistic harmony (tonic/dominant + love + backbeat). The commercial success of pop artists is almost without exception reliant on slavish observance of current musical fashions. Much of of jazz performance consists of reinterpreting past styles and repertoire, called in rule-like fashion "standards."  Opera, dance, chamber music festivals, all have their blind allegiances to customs that in my eyes and ears have far outlived their supposed usefulness. I'm all for jettisoning the silliest of these traditions, and in fact that is already happening across the board in many arts organizations. Sometimes the results can be gimmicky and market-driven (Beer and Beethoven!) but at least they seem to be trying. 

To me, the best artists take rules and stand them on their head. I am currently captivated by Paul Hindemith's 1942 piano masterpiece "Ludus tonalis" - good thing, too, since I am recording it this fall for Bridge Records- and I see it as a perfect example of this ethos. Nothing could be more traditional in Western classical music than the fugue, and here Hindemith writes 12 of them with inspired and effortless virtuosity. Instead of maintaining this rather heady level throughout the work, he alternates each fugue with an interlude of complete, almost unrelated fancy, as if to say "Stop taking yourself so seriously! Music is just music!" In a bigger gesture of rule-breaking, Hindemith constructs the whole work to support the basic tenets of his own system of composition- a system that sometimes sounds like conventional Western harmony, but then again really doesn't. It just speaks, pure and simple. Without rules this work wouldn't exist, and yet it is a completely individual and uncompromising statement. That's what art is about, and I suspect the foolish mores rampant in current music presentation will be gone long before this sort of genius is extinguished.

The challenge remains to find innovative ways to present works like "Ludus" to an increasingly distracted and impatient public. What rules can we sweep away, what new traditions can we create? To be continued...

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

What's new?

I choked a bit on my Nespresso this morning over the Times review of the Locrian Chamber Players at Riverside Church. Claiming that "classical music has too many rules for its own good" the critic praises the ensemble for their "laudable" practice of not distributing program notes until after their concerts, and for their mission of performing music written only within the last ten years. I guess these are not considered rules, just fun ideas.

Laudable practices exactly how? Let's face it, program notes always seem tedious, regardless of when they are made available to the hapless audience, like a nagging homework assignment. If this ensemble is truly committed to an analysis-free experience, why not let people get away completely clean, savoring their own reactions, insights, pleasure/displeasure? Surely anyone moved to enrich their understanding could rush home to read all about motivic transformation on Wikipedia. In this case, with all of the music being Beaujolais Nouveau, it's a really good bet that most of the composers live within a ten-block radius of the venue. Heck, just invite them all to dinner instead! As for the ten-year gimmick, I'm still trying to figure out how this relates to an ensemble named after an ancient Greek mode.

OK, this eruption may not surprise, coming from someone committed as I am to performing works from the wildly untrendy mid-20th C. It's still my conviction that a vast and compelling repertoire continues to be sidelined by musty Brahms symphonies and flavor-of-the month premieres. May I propose a more truly laudable rule? Cast the net wide, but throw back the baby fish.

And enough with the program notes.