Monday, December 27, 2010

The Maturity of an Audience for Classical Music and Other Concerns

“I believe in God, Mozart and Beethoven,
and likewise their disciples and apostles;
I believe in the Holy Spirit and the truth of the one, indivisible Art;
I believe that this Art proceeds from God,
and lives within the hearts of all illumined men;
I believe that he who once has bathed in the sublime delights of this high Art,
is consecrated to Her for ever, and never can deny Her;
I believe that through Art all men are saved.” 
Richard Wagner (1813-1883)

A friend of mine from the city went to a piano recital a few weeks ago. The program was devoted to the three last piano sonatas of Beethoven. The pianist, interpreter, his name not known to me, apparently had quite a respectful following. The performances were, as expected, both technically polished and emotionally probing. But that's not the phrase that I remembered most from her description of the concert. She said that everyone in the audience probably knew the music before they entered the theatre, some knew this music very well, had decided to attend this concert because they knew these particular pieces and loved them, perhaps even a few in this audience were pianists themselves and may have had the same sonatas committed to memory and most importantly, everyone behaved reverentially toward each other, relatively quiet yet intensely joyful.

This audience's special quality included the reality of the ageing and aged as a significant percentage. And why not? Why wouldn't that be just what one should expect? There is much adverse comment about this these days, as if the perpetual pursuit of unattainable eternal youth must pervade even these precincts, and this specie of criticism really needs to be rebutted and its relevance refuted with the following points:

1) This music known under the moniker of “classical” is mature, serious, and intended to last forever. There is no other music like it, none with the distinctiveness, the uniqueness of any of its great works, intended for a serious and mature audience, not for emotional adolescents or those whose only interest in music is as to serve as a prop for other pastimes.

2) The people who originally sponsored this music were serious and had considerable resources at stake for its production and promotion. It was intended from its inception to be deployed only among a select few. This did not mean then and does not mean today, that interest in it is restricted by any overt signs suggesting that certain people may not apply. Application is available to anyone in theory. Nevertheless it is axiomatic that what this music demands of its performers and audiences alike, necessarily means that its appeal will be to the self selecting few.

3) This music is not intended to be exclusive, yet it selects those who are interested in it. Those who aren't interested today may become so in future as their emotions and outlook on life mature or perhaps they never will become interested in it. There are quite a few who just don't see the point to classical music and they have a right to their opinions. But anyway, exclusive it always was from the very beginning and such shall it likely be for the foreseeable future.

4) Classical music is a kind of “straight and narrow way” and such is why on finding it, as many describe their first recognition of this music, that it is in its unique way very like encountering a religion with its own saints, martyrs (we'll highlight one here), savants, and other people who are held in as much reverence as those men and women whom humanity have called holy. There is a sincere and unique reverence accorded classical musicians by their audiences that is really unlike that of the celebrities or the superstars of other musical genres.

5) Its concerts, even when they are the highlights of informal parties in people's homes, have many of the same almost liturgical elements as a religious service. There are traditional programs, some extensions of these for more modern works to be presented, or for “early music” which is still in the purview of what is known as “classical music”, etc. Sometimes there are intermissions dividing a concert into two parts, other times music is presented with minimum interruption. Those who attend enough concerts begin to see the patterns. It may be difficult for some of us to believe it now, but these concerts, where some of the greatest of the classics were first premièred included food and drink as integral elements, beer and sandwiches being about the most common refreshments, although we are aware of certain venues that included wine punches, cakes and pastries as well as the usual fare of sausages and pickles.

6) The survival of this music is certainly not guaranteed, but it will not survive being watered down by “crossovers” from music that is other than itself, of different intent, for a different audience, not intended to be the focus of conscious attention but merely as … props for other pastimes. Its devotees can examine, in some ways similar to the ways people describe theological or moral ideas in their churches or synagogues, the various ways classical music has succeeded and where it has failed. Our analysis cannot fail but to acknowledge that classical music owes much to its ties with academic institutions, particularly its conservatories. One of the ways this music survives is by its being taught to future generations: basic musical pedagogy is and always has been crucial. In this regard it is unfortunate that classical music had to rely on state sponsorship through public schools because in that regard its practitioners became lazy and did not seek out sponsorship from the interested themselves. And it can be argued with considerable evidence, that the greatest composers may not have been produced through these schools of music or systems of pedagogy. Some of the greatest composers had little formal musical education and seem to have grown into their art as if by a primary natural means, Mozart and Chopin among them. Discussions should concern as much why certain musical talent was allowed to suffer and even languish in obscurity only to be recognized by future musicologists, as Mendelssohn is credited having rescued Bach from obscurity for future generations.

This same friend recommended a certain documentary to me, After the Storm, The American Exile of Béla Bartók. It is a very sad story, one which demonstrated somewhat as Richard Wagner is known to have said to some of his potential sponsors, that he held them and society in general responsible for ignoring Mozart and others of supreme musical talent and letting them die in obscurity, those who intended their creation to last forever and were fated to live amidst the inattentiveness of their fellows. Yet in order for anything to last, it not only must be kept in someone's memory and passed along to the next generation, it must be LOVED and cherished, held in esteem in a place by itself, a hallowed place in the human heart, a place accessible to each individual and yet a place as universal as to encompass all of humanity, to be truly universal in its message and appeal. In order for this to happen, a music must say something about the reality of the human condition, its highs, its lows, its poignancy, the contributions made by nature all around us, and even more things than can ever be described by mere words alone.

Such was my reaction upon seeing this documentary on the last years of Béla Bartók (1881-1945). Yes, we can say that in 1881, the fateful year that Brahms premièred his magnificent second piano concerto or the year after that great symphony of Hans Rott appeared, the world was blessed by the birth of Béla Bartók, arguably Hungary's greatest composer and one of the greatest of the 20th century. But what of composers? No, So What of Composers?  The New York City of the 1940's which offered Bartók a refuge and even more the sumptuousness for this particular and peculiar man to have access to the great folk music collections at Columbia University, nevertheless never really understood him. How could two so very different beings possibly get along: the sickly Hungarian composer who was a kind of austere ascetic anyway, and the spirit of the huge humdrum city of a still young nation, full of noise, full of its own common cares, without a consciousness of any culture or excuses for such niceties as fine art music?

It can always be said that were it not for what was offered Bartók, the commission which produced the Concerto for Orchestra (1942-1945), for which the conductor Serge Koussevitzky, wasn't even willing to take the composer's directions seriously, we might not have had the Third Piano Concerto (1945) or the Viola Concerto (1945) and Bartók might even have died earlier as he was a sick man anyway. We are also indebted to Bartók's disciple, Tibor Serly, who like Mozart's disciple Hummel, never equaled his master.  We will probably never know what the crucible of life required of Bartók to create what he did.  We are lucky to have these last works as they are among his very best.

Whether you decide to get this documentary and view it yourself or not, we can ask ourselves what of other Bartóks out there waiting to be discovered?  They wont be the same as he was nor will their music be like his.  What if their natural gifts are smothered by too much teaching, what if their lives are made too easy by too much fawning recognition received too easily?  What portion of the crucible of life is required to produce the pearls of a creative genius like Bartók?  We don't even begin to know the right formulas for any of this. Mostly we're probably too timid to be asking. And how much does it cost, how much should it be worth, etc.?  Are we any better at pricing the value of the invaluable today than we might have been able to in 1945?  Was the Concerto for Orchestra worth a mere $1,000 in 1940's money, which the composer was reluctant to take anyway as he wasn't sure he'd live long enough to complete the assignment?  In an earlier posting, I brought the case of that unfortunate young man Hans Rott to attention. Today I bring that of Béla Bartók to similar attention.  But as I said above, the numbers of those who could and would possibly care have always been small and maybe that's the way it must be, “the straight and narrow way which leads to salvation” in the deepest sense of finding meaning in life that few people ever find anywhere else.


Sunday, December 26, 2010

Making Ever New Discoveries in Old Classical Music

Over the next several weeks, I will be considering various aspects of the music that we usually refer to as “classical” which distinguishes it from other kinds of music. One of the first things to notice is just how much classical music is out there, a veritable ocean, as an area of exploration to provide one the deepest possible rewards in human existence.  There is so much of this music that it becomes a usual practice for the interested to discover for themselves new pieces of old music by known or unknown composers and make it their own; part of their own lives, their shared memories, their additional concert repertoire.

As a demonstration, today I'm showcasing an excellent performance of a seldom heard work by an oft neglected master of classical music; the Concerto for Violin and String Orchestra of Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847), pictured above. He wrote it at the age of 13. It appears to be without opus number. Opus numbers were by tradition given published works at the time as a means to catalogue them. The manuscript for this work only turned up around 1951 and was originally premièred by Yehudi Menuhin (1916-1999), who it is said purchased the rights to the piece as if it was brand new at the time, from relatives of Mendelssohn then living in Switzerland. We are certainly grateful to have this piece and such a brilliant performance of it on You Tube by Arthur Grumiaux with Jan Krenz leading the New Philharmonia Orchestra. The clarity and power of this performance reveal the gifted and accomplished French violinist with a crack British orchestra.  This concerto is in the traditional three movements:

1st Movement: Allegro

We begin in territory firmly staked out by Mozart and Haydn. But Mendelssohn is extending the form, while at the same time making references to music that's even older than the two aforementioned grand masters. Grumiaux is technically spot on, defining the lines creating the landscapes between soloist and ensemble. We will hear all of this somewhere else, and that isn't even really the point. Mendelssohn's role was more conservative in the true sense. He was arguably the father of all we recognize today as classical music; the careful recreation of the music of long passed composers. And yet with all this, note the often unexpected glimpses into more emotionally charged territory, anticipation of even operatic elements, all still grounded in the stylistic framework of Mozart and Haydn.

2nd Movement: Andante

You'd think this was again Mozart or Haydn, but wait. It was 1822 when this was written. Haydn had died the year young Felix was born and Mozart had been dead 30 years. Beethoven, though at the peak of his powers, had a mere five years to live. Already, Mendelssohn is stretching the violin concerto as it had been known into some clearly unprecedented territories, the use in this movement of repetition of a theme (really only a phrase) of ascendency and yearning, including a cadenza, and then something like a dramatic departure just prior to the conclusion, yet all kept within the bounds of strict classical form. I frankly marvel, as I have for some time with much of Mendelssohn's work, at the breadth of musical knowledge, prescient and deliberate craftsmanship and sheer discipline required to create it.

3rd Movement: Allegro

Here's the standard four step rondeau with much influence from Mendelssohn's ethnic roots, a masterful combination, plus some startlingly brilliant counterpoint, operatic interludes almost comparable to a Paganini light. There's much “fun” going on here, but none of it, and I mean exactly none of it, is going to come off without tremendous technical effort, which is also, ladies and gentlemen, quite simply a key part of the spirit and soul of all classical music.

One cannot attempt this music without a degree of discipline and serious intent. Nothing else will do and this distinguishes it from all other music. We all know of lack lustre performances that we wish we'd never heard or been part of. But they are not what we strive for. We are not merely recreating the old, this is not a museum art form as some might like to suggest, we are releasing the spirit of the music itself, with every performance, and for most of us who actually play this music ourselves, this includes those performances we play while practising, away from the stages and other probably more critical ears than our own.

As the next year is rapidly upon us, I wish to extend my best wishes to all my fellow classical musicians and aficionados of this art form, for peace, prosperity, happiness and continuing to network among ourselves and find each other throughout the world, mindful that what we are about is preserving the jewels of our civilization for ourselves and for future generations. Here's for extending the reach and growth of the cultural tribe that visionaries like Felix Mendelssohn helped begin.

Of some interest, the entire Op. 19 Songs Without Words (first book of them) also by Felix Mendelssohn, is one of my goals at this time, as I strive to extend my potential concert repertoire. I have found this music both challenging and emotionally mature beyond the years of the composer who wrote it and highly recommend it to others. It is not only old music one hears as new that classical music offers us, but the same is true for those who play a musical instrument as well.


Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Fourth Interview - Sisyphus takes a nap

First, a note about reading and the lengths of some of these posts:
For those who will not read, no matter how lengthy, I have nothing much to say. For those who insist on getting “sound bites” or infer that knowing anything amounts to getting a piece at a time so as to avoid getting bored, I may suggest that this is not the place for you. We can only make adjustments to people's gut responses as far as they get our messages across, otherwise … let Nature take its course. For the interested, the following conversation is submitted for your edification and pleasure. There will be breaks in it so as to accommodate those who are not habitually used to reading a lot of material at a time.


It's been several months. What's going on?
There have been some changes. I've traded my land line for a new cell phone with a camera. Those who need to get in touch with me can still use my e-mail address. At about the same time, the battery in my wristwatch ran out. As some know, a few years back eye operations eliminated my lifelong need for glasses, now my cell phone eliminates my need for a wristwatch. Anachronisms are created by the advent of new technologies all the time, especially when the new combines or displaces the work done by the old. That's real evolution.
How about your agenda, your piano practising, etc.?
We'll get to that. But there have also been a few changes to my personal computer, one which should become noticeable on this blog; from now on, as near as possible, all spelling shall be in British English, which in my opinion no other English speaking nation has the right to change.
You've thought that for some time.
Yes, I'm a radical on many fronts, one of them that since the English language originated in Britain and is still used there, how they decide to spell things should be adopted universally without objection by everyone throughout the world.
You would advocate many other practices carried on by the English too?
Not really. I drink tea instead of coffee and have loved the change.
So much variety.
Yes, even in the so called breakfast teas.
And you seem to be joining a trend in that many are waking up to the health benefits of drinking tea.
And maybe some of my British and Canadian readers will understand my particular liking for some traditional British food, especially over the upcoming months.
That stuff will make you fat.
Depends on how much of it one eats. An old friend of mine with a real knack for cuisine is fond of saying that it's not the rich food you have to be careful of, but the poor food.
You eat a lot of poor food.
I eat a lot of cheap food. I'm gradually moving toward an eat less diet with a greater emphasis on freshness and avoidance of certain really terrible additives.

Diet and obesity and the trap for not accepting criticism:

You really want to talk about food on this blog?
Not really, but over the last few weeks I have been out and around and have some observations that revolve around food. For instance, just last night I was invited to dinner and they had what I'd describe as a typical mid-America family meal; roast chicken (or was it turkey since they did serve canned cranberry sauce, no these were farm raised free range capon chickens), stuffing, mashed potatoes, then macaroni and cheese and the two vegetables most people on this kind of diet ever eat; corn, whether in kernel form or creamed, and peas, usually canned.
Sounds pretty typical.
Oh the food was certainly well prepared, the mac and cheese all by itself would have been a meal to me. But here in America the typical person regards a second helping as something like proof they are prosperous.
So they end up by wearing their prosperity.  
They asked me if I'd like seconds, which I declined, to some surprise, as if the food wasn't good enough, belied of course by my empty plate. I noticed something else that's probably typical of certain strands of our society; men wearing caps at the dinner table. What dinner table? Sure some of us sat at the table to eat, while some, the kids, were in the other room watching TV or playing video games. Oh, and there were pets occasionally scavenging about under feet, something that no doubt goes back into neolithic times.
You think this is typical?
I do. It will of course be of no surprise that the adults at this dinner were by the usual standards overweight.
We've talked a lot about this lately.
Well I think it's time to make some clear sense of things regarding excess weight as it relates to general health and attractiveness and energy levels.
Does this have any bearing whatsoever on music?
Oh it certainly could have. Just the other day two young men came over, brothers a few years apart, the same height and build, but one was 160 pounds heavier than the other. Nowadays, although the media coverage is intentionally critical of this problem, nobody in private society says anything about people being too fat. On Facebook, a friend made a comment on obesity and I acknowledged what she said; that many people thought so too, but would of course say nothing. My friend's comment was no longer there within a day so either she deleted it or Facebook did, so you can see that even talking about anything personal has become a minefield these days.
Well, oh boy, you're going to, aren't you?
I'm going to say a few things about the obesity problem, maybe the biggest facing this country or the advanced nations of the world; we're by and large too fat and it affects everything else we do.
So these brothers …
I told them what no one else is likely to dare tell them because we live in a society where if they don't tell you when you are three or four years old or certainly before you enter your teens what's good or bad for you, no one else is likely ever to tell you ever again, so you end up in a trap, encased in your own viewpoint, your own body, yourself and live out the consequences of your actions whether they be too much food, too much booze, too many cigarettes, or whatever else you have decided is your right to consume.
People hate criticism.
It's part of our make up, in our own minds from the time we come into this existence as babies, we believe we are gods that never make mistakes, each one of us rules our own universe and woe be unto anyone who dares criticise us, even if it means something to our benefit. Our oldest sages, and who bothers to listen to them much any more, caution that only fools reject criticism.
So what did you tell the brothers?
Well first off I used the analogy of sacks of ready mix concrete which usually come in 80 pound sacks. I told the one who needed to know that he was too fat, like he didn't know already, that he was doing the equivalent of carrying around with him everywhere two sacks of concrete. This meant that any time he got up from a chair or out of bed, he was lifting those bags of concrete. Moreover if he changed nothing, he wouldn't be able to carry those sacks around after a few years, or they would grow into more to carry around and it would probably shorten his life.
How nice of you.
How compassionate of me. I offered him a suggestion, which I doubt he'll take. You see the problem one gets into when one denies anyone the right to criticise is that you hear the advice but rarely take it, which is part of the same deal; you get off on the wrong road and stay there too long and it becomes impossible to ever get back on the right road, so that the destination to which you'd like to arrive becomes impossible.
Your suggestion?
For just one meal a day, preferably lunch, eat nothing but vegetable salad, all you want. But you can only put olive oil and vinegar on it, lemon juice if you prefer that, but nothing else. You can't drink anything with it but water or tea, no soda. Do this regularly every day, day in and day out, and you will lose weight.
Really.  I used to be much heavier than I am now.  And something else that needs to be punctured is the relationship between weight and exercise. If one is holding two extra bags of concrete all the time, one is never going to benefit from exercise, in fact it may lead to physical injury which carries its own health risks.
So is exercise unimportant?
No, but it can't really accomplish anything for toning or athletic benefit without getting rid of those bags of ready mix concrete first.
And to do that you eat salad?
You eat as close to fresh as possible and plenty of water, not water substitutes like coffee and soda either, just plain water.
We spoke about weight being related to water retention and the need to remove excess water. Can you elaborate?
About the first thing the obese person needs to do is get their bodies to cast off more water. There are numerous natural remedies for this. Colon cleansing would be part of this too, again with natural remedies.  I have been and am over weight. Getting rid of it is not about starving, exercise or anything like that, it is about getting back to the right road of eating fresh and natural as much as possible. It is a gradual process. In many cases the obese want their size etc. to vanish right away when it took years to get that way, so anything that requires a radical approach usually leads right back to obesity.
Summing up …
Find out what you're supposed to weigh for optimum health and efficiency and avoid patterns of consumption that tend to make you fat, like second helpings.

What one learns from farm life:

You have been sort of between situations lately, can you say anything about these things?
I'm in a transition. I used to work in the private portfolio management field, but the present economic situation is historically unique and I frankly saw myself unable and moreover unwilling to sacrifice my personal integrity for financial gain either for myself or my clients.
What did you advise them to do?
Everyone is looking for this kind of free advice and again, for any of the same reasons we already discussed, advice that's free is never taken and moreover one often gets blamed for it.
So you're …
I'm not dealing with any of it now, though I do watch it.
I'm guessing you're through with it. Will you ever decide to do it again?
It depends on the course of history and where I happen to be or who I might know that's interested.
So what are you doing now?
I'm helping a friend with farm chores and some minor renovations to turn an old farmhouse into a set of nice apartments.
This has put off your trip to New York?
For the time being, yes.
Your impressions?
Farm work is not hard, though it is arduous. I usually deal with it on a level akin to learning a new piece of music, slow and steady. As a pianist, I'm used to using both hands at once so I'm noticing that I like to involve both hands in any chores I'm doing; like picking up a piece of firewood and then handing it to my other hand to be thrown into a bin while I pick up the next with the other hand, etc.
Interested nod.
I'm reminded as I work that practically everyone before 1900 had some familiarity with farm work and that maybe history will require more to become reacquainted.
You think?
I am certain that in America anyway, and perhaps other advanced countries, more people will get involved in raising there own fruits and vegetables and for those that can even their meat animals. For those who can, they'll even raise their own food inside their homes.
So a trend. Perhaps conservatories will be rooms in every upscale house?
More likely than conservatories being the future of music.
More laughter.
I anticipated many trends a long time ago, that the internet would gradually assume both news and education as well as entertainment to the detriment of other institutions; physical school campuses (as nice as some of them are), the TV networks and other mass media (newspapers are another anachronism), even libraries and books. I had hoped that the music I enjoy and love most would not also be so relegated, but alas that is real evolution and what I am about to describe is another wrinkle in the fabric of time, society and culture.
Fewer are interested it seems and those that are, would seem to be the ageing and aged.
People will increasingly find themselves typed by the music and culture they adopt and that through the internet they will find each other and establish links of mutual interest to form what has been called techno-tribalism. To the extent their membership in this tribe is engrossing, distinctions will be made regarding other preferences as well.
You see those interested in classical music being a techno-tribe?
Yes, with certain sub-tribes; the opera buffs enjoy one such, the pianists pretty much another, etc.
So when do you think you'll be going to New York again?
Can't be certain. And of course as I do things, others do things, the world changes so that what I might have wanted to do yesterday turns out to have changed into something less efficacious.

Music and pianism:

I hope you haven't changed course regarding your piano repertoire.
No, not much. I've decided to concentrate on the Chopin nocturnes (may add a few more) and drop for the time being the waltz. The rest of it for now is languishing. I'm just too busy.
You said you've been working on your own compositions again.
Yes, a sonata for bassoon and piano, my Op. 8 from 1976-1977 and my first string quartet, Op. 6 from nearly the same period.
Did you need to make many changes?
Not many. I've long known there were some things that needed changing and so I've made those corrections.
What do you imagine will be the results?
They'll either languish unplayed forever or they may be picked up by someone interested in performing them for the continued refreshment of “the tribe.”
All right, but can you say something maybe about what goes through your mind as you work on your own music or learning the piano music you've decided to add to your repertoire?
Pointing to the interviewer - This guy wants me to hand him maybe more than the world, the universe.
Well …
I usually think of all the people who have played the same music before me and imagine what they thought upon their first few reads through. These days I'm pretty certain they all knew about the care and upkeep of horses, where their food, good, bad, wholesome or otherwise, came from, etc. Sometimes I imagine how wars, political events and social changes made things difficult if not well nigh impossible for some and how that reflected on the way they may have played some of it. Most of the time I'm just trying to play the pieces well enough on my piano.
You still want to sell it?
Of course, but I wont consider anything less than $2,200 and these days who even has that to spend!
You still have an electronic keyboard.
Not the same at all. The keys, as piano like as they may be, still lack the feel of a real piano. And yes, I really never play it at all.
So why not sell that?
A few hundred dollars maybe. At this point I'd let it go for that.

Musicians and their music:

You've made contact recently with an old friend.
Haven't spoken with him yet, shall soon. Have many of his CD's and when I've got time, I shall put up my reviews of them.
We also spoke briefly about musicians and society.
You mean that our present society will not accept a composer or musician who arises from middle class or better cultural surroundings? This was a cultural trend inherited from our European ancestors who a few centuries back used to get all their music form wandering vagabonds classed not much above common street criminals. In fact in England in particular being a musician was so out of fashion that for nearly 150 years Englishmen made no sizeable contributions to music; all their greatest composers, Handel, Haydn, Clementi, Field, etc. were all foreign imports.
You think this bias continues?
Fortunately, it didn't in England as during the last century they decided it was fine to be a musician and composer and it was somewhat through the fashion setting of their aristocracy that this was accomplished. We still haven't exhausted all the great stuff these English masters began writing before 1900 and thereafter.
You tried learning the Enigma Variations at one time?
I still have the score of Elgar's original piano version from which he made the orchestration. It's rigorous and majestic and I don't have the piano for it, though with practice might have the technique.
You had a few messages for others in the field?
To the piano makers, to the honest and competent piano rebuild technicians and their store and sales staffs, my heart and hat is off to you all. Whether the world at large cares to recognize it or not, yours is adding true value to our world, more than has been accomplished by those in half a dozen other professions I could name, but wont. To the accomplished musicians who work very hard for what they do with very little prospect of reward or recognition, my personal gratitude for all that you do. To some of you, that you decide not to assume a mask of superiority to shield you from accepting that the world around you doesn't get it or doesn't care. Acting as if you or what you do is better than what others do, isn't going to cut it any more. Our music isn't about being superior to others, and to all those who think perhaps that it is a cachet to that effect, be advised that many of us have you pegged as worthless snobs as it is and it doesn't suite you well or further the cause; keeping our music alive and well and developing, and not through “crossovers” either.
Well, ok.  I guess we'll let our not so vast audience chew on some of this for a while.  David is still receiving e-mail at  Just indicate your interest in the subject line.


Thursday, September 9, 2010

Andrew Violette Releases Songs and Dances

Andrew Violette has done it again, this time with help from a sensational young cellist, Ben Capps; twenty pieces called Songs and Dances.  There can’t really help but be some connection with the unaccompanied suites of Bach here, and like them, these pieces create their own special universe into which a buffeted soul might choose to shelter for the duration.  There are occasional choices of modal lines that identify this music as Andrew’s, but there are also instances where the lines draw arabesques suggesting the moods and cultures of the Levant.  There are just as many references to more traditional Western music too.

Those inclined may wish to employ this music in meditation, or while reading for pleasure, or while doing housework, or gardening, or while preparing a meal or taking a walk (portable CD player and headphones required), in each case providing a satisfying reward, as there is nothing quite as soothing as the deep resonant sounds of a violoncello played well, as this collection certainly demonstrates.

For all those grown tired of the huge rash of popular tracks packaged to be here and gone tomorrow (I’m reluctant even to suffer the use of the term "music" for they muse and amuse anemically by comparison), after a good dose of which one’s senses become desensitized, there is still produced today, remarkably, music intended to present its multilayered messages (in this case through a single solo stringed instrument often playing no more than one note at a time) intended to be relevant not just today but twenty, fifty, a hundred years from now, or it is possible, should one be devoted to the violoncello oneself, to acquire the written score form the composer and make this music part of oneself. This is music to treasure. 

Andrew Violette's Songs and Dances

Innova press release:


Saturday, August 14, 2010

A Magnificent Eroica

The Symphony #3 in E Flat Op. 55 “Eroica” by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) was first performed in public in 1805.  It had been written over the previous two years.  The portrait above was done about the same time.

According to Beethoven’s friend, Ferdinand Ries, “In writing this symphony Beethoven had been thinking of [Napoleon] Buonaparte, but Buonaparte while he was First Consul. At that time Beethoven had the highest esteem for him and compared him to the greatest consuls of ancient Rome. Not only I, but many of Beethoven's closer friends, saw this symphony on his table, beautifully copied in manuscript, with the word "Buonaparte" inscribed at the very top of the title-page and "Ludwig van Beethoven" at the very bottom. …I was the first to tell him the news that Buonaparte had declared himself Emperor, whereupon he broke into a rage and exclaimed, "So he is no more than a common mortal! Now, too, he will tread under foot all the rights of man, indulge only his ambition; now he will think himself superior to all men, become a tyrant!" Beethoven went to the table, seized the top of the title-page, tore it in half and threw it on the floor. The page had to be re-copied and it was only now that the symphony received the title "Sinfonia Eroica."

Anton Schindler, Beethoven’s sometimes unreliable biographer recounted that upon hearing of Napoleon’s death in Saint Helena in 1821, Beethoven proclaimed "I wrote the music for this sad event seventeen years ago" - referring to the Funeral March (second movement).

Now the relevance of this piece, and especially to Beethoven's remarks concerning the Emperor Napoleon, should become obvious and clear when we consider current events.  I searched You Tube and found an incredible performance that took place in Japan in 2006.  The performers were The Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen [German Chamber Orchestra of Bremen] with Paavo Järvi conducting.  Paavo is the son of the more well known Neeme Järvi.  They are of a very famous Estonian family of great musicians.  I think after more hear this performance he will become as well known as his famous father.

This symphony is in the typical four movements.  It is scored for an amazingly small orchestra to begin with.  What makes it big is not just the notes played but in this performance how they are played; with conviction and ardent force, in my opinion very much the way Beethoven intended it.  Those who know this music will understand right away why I have decided to highlight it in my blog.  To those who have never heard this music before, I assure you, this is one of the best performances of it I have ever heard.

As we are all about to go through exceedingly trying times in this country and around the world, I encourage you to hear this music, let it inform you of the very best that humanity is capable of, let it remind you of everything worth contending for, may you remember it when times get tough.  At the time it was written, the composer was discovering that he was losing his hearing and within a decade would become profoundly deaf.  It is inconceivable to many, even to me, how one of the greatest forces in music could continue after becoming deaf.  That too is worth recalling to continual reflection.  We are often known not just for our accomplishments, but for what we had to overcome in order to create and bring forth anything at all.

Beethoven always regarded this work as among his greatest and it was long one of his favorites.  Today, and especially with performances like this, the Eroica still stands out as among the greatest achievements in the history of music.


1st movement – Allegro con brio [fast with brilliance]

2nd movement – Marcia funebre: Adagio assai [funeral march: always slow]

3rd movement – Scherzo: Allegro vivace [A humorous dance: fast and lively]

4th movement – Finale: Allegro molto [The end: fast throughout]


Monday, August 2, 2010

Tanglewood At Last

A dear friend of mine from New York City came up for a visit, one of the intentions of the weekend to include a short trip from here to a rehearsal concert and pre-concert lecture at Tanglewood.  This festival is celebrating its 70th year.  One would have thought it was older.  The best possible weather, mild and not humid with steady breezes, helped perfect our visit to Tanglewood.  For my friend, it was a return to a familiar place known since childhood.  For me, my first time.

The setting could be among well kept farms or dairies or possibly golf courses, the Berkshires being smaller and softer than even the Catskills across the Hudson Valley to the west, both being part of the same old mountain chain.  And here at Tanglewood, a few farms were joined together, they mowed the grass down to fairway length where thousands of people would spread their picnics and relax to hear a concert emanating from the venerable Tanglewood Music Shed.  This enclosure, originally designed by famed architect Eero Saarinen (1910-1961),  is essentially of wood supported by metal poles, much more primitive than the later SPAC in Saratoga, NY or the Concord Pavilion (know called the Sleep Train Pavilion) in Concord, CA and no doubt many others.  Tanglewood’s Music Shed is built on barely more than the natural curve of a hill, clearly higher on the left than the right.  Many of these outdoor concert pavilions are built over a bowl, similar to a Greek theatre, making the radiating seating approach the stage from a steeper angle so that stairs are required.  But at Tanglewood the slope to the stage is gradual, there are no stairs and while the seats are wooden theatre chairs, the floor of the Shed is just packed earth.   All of this and no doubt the acoustic reflection scheme installed behind the stage, was going to produce amazing listening results.  The audience was polite and respectful, as if we were in church.  We sat in the tenth row and right off the middle isle.  We had perfect seats to hear everything.    

At about 10:30, Jan Swafford of Boston Conservatory (a composition teacher) delivered his brief talk.  As we listened, we took note of the place, the people who had come out to attend this summer camp style (almost outdoors) service for the fine art of music, and here we were in what might as well be a hallowed hall on sacred ground, for so famous had its musical forces been.  Within this very space the greats of the better part of the last century had all performed and many of their concerts had been recorded and televised, so that interested persons living thousands of miles away, might somehow have formed a connection with this place called Tanglewood.  Swafford spoke of the pieces on the program, by Mussorgsky (orchestrated by Ravel), by Sibelius (a youthful work of swashbuckling marches, etc.) and of the last to be played on today's program, the very sad cello concerto by Elgar to be played by Yo Yo Ma, the famous cellist, perhaps the world’s current “greatest” cellist.  Swafford said he regarded as the four greatest orchestrators, Mahler, Stravinsky, Debussy and Ravel.  Considering their accomplishments and briefly reviewing the works by these masters I knew so well, I found myself strongly in agreement with him.  But then, what was Swafford really doing with this talk?  We have what we call “music appreciation” which is what this was, but on another level, I was clearly feeling something like to being in church and this was the homily.  One subject was how a talented musician, though a hopeless drunk, managed to write a piano piece that could be, as it were, resurrected by another composer who took on the task of orchestrating it, and who just happened to be one of the most talented orchestrators.  It was a cue for us to pay attention to the many structural and textural devices we would be hearing in the music. 

After the talk, and a bit of an intermission, members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra began to appear on stage and begin the tuning up process with their instruments.  I very much liked hearing this as it is really just what always happens; musicians for any band get together on stage before the gig and prepare themselves to try out various ranges and volumes to see what sounds best.  There may even be two or three engaged in repetitive practice of a particular passage in one of the compositions to be performed, or even some other composition.  Eventually the oboe calls for the entire orchestra to tune up and then the conductor walks on.  

Charles Dutoit, who was to conduct the Boston Symphony Orchestra in rehearsal this morning, had studied with Charles Munch at Tanglewood, was thence part of the French tradition among Boston Symphony conductors.  Originally from Lausanne, Switzerland, just across the lake from France, Dutoit has spent much of his life in French Canada, but supposedly has five residences around the world to support his extensive conducting schedule.  Dutoit, who is 74, moves with the alacrity of a much younger man.  He sort of moved the orchestra to perform and as the music developed, we could both sense that Dutoit didn’t need much to get everything out of the orchestra that he wanted, stopping only a few times to briefly go over something with them, mainly over issues of balance, just how loud or soft something should be especially from the percussion section or the harps.

The music produced was as Swafford had said, of a nationalist character from three distinct nations; Russia, Finland and England.  And while one certainly could identify the Russian elements in Mussorgsky, even though orchestrated by a Frenchman, which is in itself a kind of acknowledgement of the talent of the orchestrator, the other elements were obscured more by the immediate purpose of the work by Sibelius or the intensely personal message in the Elgar Concerto, which was played with a smoothness and naturalness that might be equal to the way Heifitz played the violin.  My friend informs me that Ma and Dutoit made many gestures during the performance, indicating some differences, but they were seen hugging after the rehearsal.  Also we noticed how genuinely humble and patient Yo Yo Ma was giving autographs and taking other tearful adulations from his followers.  The orchestra had performed with marked precision and considerable warmth, the brass section was spectacular, the strings spoke with a warm unity of voices.  My friend noted the tightly synchronized bow strokes.  So many special orchestral tricks written into the music in various places, all ingeniously played by the orchestra , so that one was almost aware of being in the presence of a high energy/high intelligence corps of musical geniuses that functioned as a perfectly well oiled machine, at or nearly at the merest touch of Dutoit’s gestures. 

Before we left, we had occasion to just walk around and take it in, the grass, the views, the few old houses on the property reconverted into studios from which we occasionally heard musicians practicing or getting lessons.  This is also what they do here, the place is an active school of music and what I heard were toward the fringes of the avant-garde; phrases that are as abstract and natural as birdsong, the emphasis on playing each with perfect control and abandon combined.  The demographics could be observed; for the audiences being mostly older people certainly held, for the performers, certainly changing.  Yet in the final analysis, who other than those with the years of experience that it takes to appreciate and love this music or to approach the performance of it with what amounts to a careful reverence, would be called upon, from some source within themselves, to participate in a Saturday morning rehearsal and talk, as audience or performers, in a place and for which something approaching a religious experience was its goal?  Thank-you Tanglewood; and for all those who have made it great, and those who are continuing the tradition.  It would honestly be fair to say that we felt blessed just being there.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Revisiting Hans Rott (1858-1884)

Let’s imagine another time about 130 years ago, 1880, a time full of promise for the future, a time that is called “Romantic” or “Late Romantic” today, neither term adequately fitting explicitly what that period was about, but we’re stuck with them until a broader realization makes it clear that these times were as “modern” or indeed as some academics are quick to assert, “post-modern,” as are any of our own times.  Yet, in 1880 so much was innocent or at least seemed to be compared with what was to follow. In 1880, the world had another three years to see and use the Brooklyn Bridge and nine years to behold the finished Eifel Tower. 

In 1880 in Western music at the time, certain famous people were alive and active:

Richard Wagner, the composer of Tristan und Isolde and The Ring Cycle was 67 years old.  Wagner was probably the most influential composer of the 19th century, just as Igor Stravinsky perhaps was of the 20th, and was at the peak of his fame and had three more years to live. 
Franz Liszt was 69, his daughter became Wagner’s wife.  Liszt, the amazing and hugely charismatic Hungarian virtuoso pianist / composer had six more years to live and was likewise in 1880 at the peak of his career. 
Wagner’s rival, Johannes Brahms was 47 years old.  Brahms wielded amazing critical authority (he could literally make or break careers and often did so), based largely on his precision and definitive musical craftsmanship, which has endured to the present time.  That same year, 1880, Brahms delivered his Academic Festival Overture and had been working on his monumental Second Piano Concerto which was to be released to the world the following year.  Brahms had 17 more years to live. 
And Anton Bruckner, who was 56 years old that year, the same age as Beethoven when he died, had by that time acquired quite a reputation at the Vienna Conservatory and was hugely influential on the students there.  Bruckner had 16 more years to live.

This piece is going to focus on a particular person, these days largely unknown, because after all he lived for all but 25 years and a few months.  His name was Hans Rott (1858-1884) the name pronounced like the English word wrote.  In 1880 at 22 years old, Rott was at the peak of his musical powers and would be dead four years later.  He was a native of the Vienna metro area, was of Jewish descent (his original name Roth) and there’s a considerable probability that he converted to Catholicism in order to functions in the musical milieu of that day which required that one assimilate to the state religion.  Of course, another more fortunate composer had to do the same thing.

The sketchy biography of Rott says that he was orphaned by the time he was 18, was studying at the Vienna Conservatory by his sheer talent alone since he was too poor to pay tuition, so basically on scholarship, where he studied organ with Bruckner, had been to the inaugural Bayreuth Festival where Richard Wagner’s operas are still performed every year, in 1876, the same year Rott’s father died and that he roomed at the Vienna Conservatory briefly with Gustav Mahler.  Mahler would have been two years or so younger than Rott and we know that Mahler also decided to convert to Catholicism in order to have any chance at a career in Catholic Austria.

Now we come to the pivotal point in Rott’s career, his meeting with Brahms who wielded enormous influence outside academe and could get one’s compositions performed or not.  Brahms had an antipathy to anything that rolled around harmonically or was too experimental with regard to form.  This is the man who made the careers of Antonín Dvořák (who was 39 in 1880) and later of Ferruccio Busoni (who was just 14 that year). 
1880 was also the year Hans Rott completed his Symphony in E Major and he of course wanted to get it performed, so he presented it to Brahms.  Well the official accounts say that owning to Bruckner’s influence at the Conservatory (Brahms positively loathed Bruckner’s “snakes of symphonies” as he called them) that Brahms decided that he, Rott, had no talent whatsoever and should give up music.

Now, while we may continue to like, even love, much music that has come down to us from these all too human people, even the young JS Bach reputedly got into fist fights, we can stand back and look at what happened next.

Here is this young man, Hans Rott, who has lost his family, has had to disavow his heritage and his faith, has done well in school (on scholarship) and has just put everything he has into a monumental symphony (links to which I hope work long enough to give one some idea of this work).  He goes before the one man who can make or break him and due to the cultural politics of the day this man decides to break him.  This happens far too often everywhere and in many disciplines, to the great disservice of the human race.

What then happened to Rott next, happens to a lot of very sensitive and talented people whose lives have given them more than enough stress and strain for them to bear; Rott goes mad.  Rott very soon after his eventful meeting with Brahms has his psychotic break, is hospitalized in an insane asylum and dies of tuberculosis (for who really took care of the insane back then?) in 1884 and almost the only person who knew him well enough, and certainly was influenced by his music, Gustav Mahler, had this to say;

“"It is completely impossible to estimate what music has lost in him: His genius soars to such heights even in this first symphony, written at the age of twenty. It makes him - without exaggeration - the founder of the new symphony as I understand it."

As you listen to Hans Rott’s Symphony, you may certainly hear Wagner and Bruckner and even a little Brahms, especially in the last movement, but you will also hear early Mahler.  Here then we have one of the missing links in orchestral music of that time, Hans Rott was a link between Wagner and Bruckner and Mahler.

I also note that one person who was instrumental in getting Rott’s symphony performed was Gerhard Samuel (1925-2008), someone I knew in my youth as the conductor of the Oakland (California) Symphony Orchestra and associated with the Junior Bach festival. 
So here it is on You Tube, Hans Rott’s Symphony in E Major from 1880:

1st movement: Alla breve
2nd movement: Sehr langsam (Very slow)
3rd movement: Scherzo: Frisch und lebhaft (Fresh and vivid)
4th movement: Sehr langsam / Belebt (Very slow/ Brisk)