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Posted by acdtest on February 3, 2004


First, there’s this brief proposal last month on this weblog. There then followed an eMail exchange on the matter with Drew McManus who maintains a weblog on ArtsJournal, which weblog is devoted to discussing the problems of modern-day orchestra management. Mr. McManus liked the idea, but had serious doubts concerning my proposal.

Today I read Mr. McManus’s weblog, and find this. No mention of my original article, our eMail exchange, or this weblog, of course.



Posted in Music, Recordings | Comments Off on Interesting

More On Sweeney Todd

Posted by acdtest on January 28, 2004

More On Sweeney Todd

As I noted here a week ago after arriving at the party a full quarter-century late, I’m much taken with Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, and spent the last week engrossed in a sort of saturation involvement with the work. I first came to it several weeks ago via a TV version done originally for the Entertainment Channel with George Hearn in the title role, and the incomparable Angela Lansbury — about whose stellar performance I cannot even begin to speak without sounding like a gibbering groupie or movie fan — as the very creepy but curiously charming Mrs. Lovett.

Although I could see instantly this was no ordinary Broadway musical (an art form I find vapid and tiresome and have little patience with, even with the best of its examples), I was at first confused by that TV production because something important was missing; something I sensed (but of course couldn’t know) was essential. And what was missing, I decided, was the orchestra, which in this TV production is barely audible. For the typical Broadway musical that would not be a serious problem (as opposed to being merely a problem) as the orchestra for such is not much more than fill accompaniment, much like the orchestra in a typical Italian opera. For both, it’s the songs and singers that are important, and as long as they’re fully intact, and the stagework what it should be, all is well.

Not the case with Sweeney Todd, I conjectured.

And I conjectured correctly, for after purchasing the original cast CD album (also starring Lansbury as Mrs. Lovett, but with Len Cariou in the title role), and for the first time being able to hear that orchestra, I understood at once just how important it is to the work, which is to say Wagnerian-important, as I remarked previously. The very heart of the work’s narrative, emotional, and dramatic core is contained within the orchestral music in Jonathan Tunick’s brilliant orchestration, and a comprehensible Sweeney even partially absent that orchestral music is to me inconceivable.

More generally, Sondheim’s music for Sweeney, melodically and harmonically, is even today atypically avant-garde for the Broadway stage (and the choral writing especially complex), and utilizes forms ranging from the Dies Irae of the Gregorian Requiem Mass (a prominent idée fixe cum leitmotif in the Sweeney score) to love ballads sacred, profane, and perverse — the “Johanna” ballads sung by Anthony (sacred) and Judge Turpin (profane and perverse), “My Friends” (perverse), “Wait” (sacred, in a Mrs. Lovett creepy way), “Not While I’m Around” (sacred when sung by Tobias; perverse (and creepy) when sung by Mrs. Lovett) — to Broadway “jump tunes” (“By the Sea”), as I’ve heard this form referred to by Broadway mavens, to the big Broadway production number (“Pirelli’s Miracle Elixir”, “God, That’s Good!”), to extended Broadway comic numbers (“The Worst Pies in London”, “A Little Priest”), and even to Old English folk ballads (“Parlor Songs”), and a kind of Chanson (“Green Finch and Linnet Bird”). Thanks to Sondheim’s and Tunick’s rare and original treatment, however (and Sondheim’s brilliant lyrics which everywhere are pure magic), all these familiar forms take on a character and coloring markedly unlike that which their provenance would suggest.

And both Sondheim and Tunick are not above, um, “borrowing,” at times almost verbatim, from the music of composers such as Bernard Hermann (from the scores of the movies Cape Fear and Psycho) and Gian Carlo Menotti (from the opera Amahl and the Night Visitors), to name just two that I recognized immediately.

In all, a rich and veritable musical smorgasbord almost without parallel in the Broadway musical theater — at least as far as it’s known to me.

To thoroughly familiarize myself with this new-to-me work, I began by following my usual procedure with any new musical work, which is to first listen several times through to get the work’s overall shape. Having done that, I proceeded to embark on my usual next step: a study of the full score — and was stopped dead in my tracks. It seems there’s no full score to be had, the only score available for purchase being the piano (vocal) score; almost useless for the study of a work such as Sweeney. Worse, it seems that in all probability there’s no full score even extant — for purchase, rent, or otherwise — or so I was informed by a professional acquaintance of mine with many years experience conducting non-Broadway productions of Broadway musicals (he informs me, for instance, that not until the mid-1980s was there available a full score for even so classic a Broadway musical as Leonard Bernstein’s 1957 West Side Story(!)).

For a classical musician, such a state of affairs is both astonishing and incomprehensible. How, for instance, does one prepare for a performance absent a full score? And absent a full score how is the original orchestration preserved across performances in various venues?

The answer, it seems, is the rental of a copy of the original handwritten(!) full score from the designated agent, from whom all the orchestral parts must also be rented, and all that available only to a theater company that intends actually producing the work. It seems the matter of copyright infringement (i.e., performances unauthorized and/or unpaid for) is the specter ostensibly being protected against by this misguided practice (misguided because, especially today, there’s nothing to prevent unauthorized copy of such rented material. And even if only the parts were rentable, nothing to prevent utilizing them to readily “reverse-engineer” a full score).

But as in all things, old practices don’t go easily or willingly into that good night, and in the meantime seriously interested amateurs such as myself (not to speak of genuine students who want to make the Broadway musical theater their life’s work) are royally screwed, and have no choice but to make do with a piano score, as totally inadequate as it most decidedly is for a work as complex as Sweeney Todd.

Major bummer.

Anyway, more on Sweeney to come anon. But for now, enough.

Posted in Music, Opera, Theater | Comments Off on More On Sweeney Todd

A Brief Note On Sweeney Todd

Posted by acdtest on January 23, 2004

A Brief Note On Sweeney Todd

Had anyone suggested to me before yesterday that I’d spend two consecutive days listening four times through a complete Stephen Sondheim musical — listening in the same way I listen through, say, a complete Wagner opera — I would have thought that person lunatic.

But that’s just what I’ve finished doing, and I can report (and, yes, I know just how late to the party I am) Sweeney Todd is a veritable wonder, and the original cast CD (RCA) a wonder as well. The audio is sterling, and the performances first-rate all round, vocally and dramatically, the chorus most decidedly included. And Angela Lansbury’s Mrs. Lovett — an impossible role, vocally and dramatically — is done so superbly the performance beggars adequate description or praise.

But most amazing of all is the orchestral music; music as dramatically Wagnerian-integral to the play as anything any of Wagner’s successors ever wrote. The music itself is astonishingly rich, complex, and difficult, and here performed to utter perfection by this supplemented pit band conducted by Paul Gemignani (a name unknown to me); a performance, ensemble-wise, the equal of, or better than, any of this country’s major symphony orchestras.

I’m totally blown away by Sweeney, and haven’t finished with it yet.

Posted in Music, Opera, Recordings, Theater | Comments Off on A Brief Note On Sweeney Todd

Detective Story

Posted by acdtest on January 20, 2004

Detective Story

A couple days ago I was messing about on the computer with music going on the radio in the background to which I was only a quarter listening, when my attention was suddenly arrested by music from Walküre, Act II, Scene 5 (Sieglinde’s awakening near the beginning of the scene), but strangely out of context.

I gave the music all my attention then.

Well, it wasn’t Walküre, certainly, but there was the music — a haunting, twelve-note, two-phrase melodic segment — almost verbatim*, in the midst of some very second-rate music I’d never heard before.

And what was it?, you may ask, and well you may. What it was was the principal motif of the first movement of Franz Liszt’s Faust Symphony, a work totally unfamiliar to me. What was Wagner’s music doing in a Liszt symphony?

That sent me to the books posthaste. Who had taken it from whom?

A quick perusal of the reference material I had to hand yielded the necessary information in terms of dates of composition of both works, and in terms of who of the two composers had knowledge of the other’s work and when.

From letters between the two composers, bosom friends at that time, the case seemed clear-cut. Liszt had a full score of Walküre, Act II in his hands by 12 October 1855, and Wagner, as late as 12 July 1856, was still expressing his desire to hear Liszt’s Faust. Liszt, then, took it from Wagner; a reversal in the ordinary direction of the pilfering in that deep-bonded personal and professional relationship.

But for some reason the matter continued to occupy my thinking far longer than its importance warranted. Perhaps it was because the solution to the mystery was acquired so easily, and was so clear-cut. Perverse, I know, but there it is. In any case, I determined to delve a bit more in detail into the business.

A Google search turned up nothing pertinent on the Faust beyond dates of composition, and so I went back to the reference materials I had to hand (all on Wagner, none on Liszt).

In Ernest Newman’s superb book, The Wagner Operas, I found this snarky little remark in his description of the action in Walküre, Act II, Scene 5:

Sieglinde begins to move restlessly in her dreams. The violas give out a short melody [here, Newman quotes the twelve-note, two-phrase segment in question] which the sufferers from Wagnerphobia assure us Wagner borrowed from Liszt.

Well, that would seem to have indirectly confirmed my original finding, and I ought to have gotten off the case right then and there. But I found Newman’s snarky remark bothersome because, uncharacteristically for this great Wagner scholar, he made no attempt at all to explain, by even so much as a quick gloss or blurb, what’s in error with people thinking Wagner lifted that melodic segment from Liszt.

Further research was required, I decided. (I know, I know. I ought to get a life.)

My next step was to look up Faust Symphony in the index of Volume II (1848-1860) of Newman’s massive, four-volume definitive Wagner biography, The Life of Richard Wagner (quite unbelievably, now out of print). That revealed the following morsel of intelligence:

They were eight glorious days [Liszt’s visit to Wagner in Zürich in July, 1853] both for Liszt…and for Wagner…. Liszt played for him, he says [in his autobiography, Mein Leben], from the manuscripts, his Faust Symphony, various piano works, and some of the symphonic poems….

Newman footnotes this mention by Wagner of Liszt’s Faust Symphony with the following:

Wagner, however, seems to be in error here. Liszt did not begin work on the Faust Symphony until August, 1854, finishing it in October of that year. Wagner is perhaps confusing Liszt’s visit of July, 1853, with that of October, 1856.

As Newman says, perhaps. But I wasn’t at all convinced. For me, the plot, as they say, was beginning to thicken.

The dates of composition of all three movements (minus the choral coda) of the Faust Symphony are given as August to October, 1854 by almost all the Web sources I found, and that agrees with Newman. But Liszt didn’t have the score for Act II, Walküre in hand until 12 October 1855. Does it seem reasonable, I asked myself, that Liszt would have gone back a year later, and rewritten not merely a segment of what he’d already written, but the principal motif itself, which means he would have had to rewrite the entire first movement?

No indeed. It seems totally unreasonable. But that 12-note, two-phrase motif is undeniably almost identical, even to the “color” of the instrumentation, to that Act II, Scene 5 moment in Walküre. How to explain that? The only other explanation would be that both Liszt and Wagner lifted it wholesale from a third composer, identity unknown. But the very idea is prima facie absurd.

The bloody plot has now gotten so thick I can barely see my way through.

I go back to the two-volume Wagner-Liszt correspondence to see what else I might pick up there, and find this in Volume II in a letter from Liszt to Wagner:

Together with this [letter] I send you the score of my Künstler chorus, and between this and the autumn I intend to publish half-a-dozen orchestral pieces, also in full score. By October the Faust symphony will be finished, which also will be published soon after.

The letter is dated, “Weymar, February 21st, 1854.”

But how can that be? Newman says Liszt didn’t begin work on Faust until August, 1854, and that date agrees with all the other articles I read. Yet by his above letter Liszt appears to have already begun work on the symphony by February. The answer can only be that Liszt at that time had at least a rough draft of, at the very least, the first movement of the symphony by February, 1854, and by the presumed prior knowledge wording, almost certainly before that date. And we can say with some measure of assurance just how much before. Wagner was not in error when he said that on his visit to Zürich in July, 1853 Liszt played for him the Faust Symphony — or at very least the draft of the first movement of that work.

And that’s when Wagner first heard that 12-note, two-phrase melodic segment that found its way eventually into Act II, Scene 5 of Walküre. It could have happened no other way as Wagner did not begin writing the music for Act II until 4 September 1854, and didn’t complete that act until 18 November of the same year, and so there was no way possible that Liszt could have heard a note of it before November, 1854, by which time not only the first movement, but all three movements (again, minus the choral coda) of the Faust had already been completed. And so it must be that what Wagner had expressed his desire to hear in his letter of July, 1856 noted above was the full score of the finished work.

Astoundingly, it would appear that in this case Newman’s normally stellar scholarship was deficient, and his snarky remark above noted, misplaced. The direction of the pilfering between the two great friends was, then, as per usual, with Wagner the pilferer, and Liszt the pilferee.

Not an airtight case, I grant you, but close enough to make no nevermind.

Gads!, I do love a detective story with a proper denouement, don’t you?

*I’ve no score for the Faust Symphony, and heard the first movement but that one time. I’m told by a source that’s to be trusted, and who is in possession of scores for both the Faust and the Walküre, that the 12-note, two-phrase melodic segment at issue is not quite the verbatim same in the two works (they differ some in their melodic intervals; at points, minor vs. augmented), but the full shape of it, and the “color” of the instrumentation, is undeniably the verbatim same in both works.

Posted in Music, Opera, Wagner's Ring | Comments Off on Detective Story

4’33” And Counting

Posted by acdtest on January 16, 2004

4’33” And Counting

n response to a communication expressing (justifiable) horrified disbelief that the venerable BBC was planning to broadcast a “performance” of “composer” John Cage’s “composition” 4’33”, one professional classical music critic (name withheld as an act of charity, as per usual) wrote:

I’m thrilled, then, to see the radiant story linked in ArtsJournal today from the Guardian, the British newspaper, putting Cage in a fuller context. Please read it. Cage was a great man and a great artist. I understand why a lot of people don’t see that — he was very far from the way most of us live and think — but I’ve found that many people who think he’s nonsense don’t know much about him. Here you can read what he was about before you form any opinion.

What’s wrong with this picture?

And this is someone who teaches at Julliard, no less.

Is it any wonder classical (i.e., “serious” or “art”) music today is so empty of new works that can bear honest comparison to the great works of the past?

Not a bit of it.

UPDATE (17 January at 6:43 PM Eastern): Weblogger George Hunka of Superfluities takes exception.
UPDATE 2 (21 January at 3:50 PM Eastern): John Cage fan Steve Hicken of Symphony X also takes exception. Mr. Hicken declares 4’33” “an étude” that “help[s] us learn how to pay attention to what is around us.” Uh-huh. A PoMo étude, no doubt.

Posted in Music | Comments Off on 4’33” And Counting

An Idea Or Two

Posted by acdtest on January 7, 2004

An Idea Or Two

eblogger Drew McManus of Adaptistration muses that it might be a good idea for orchestras to own their own local classical music (FM) radio station as a means of increasing the orchestra’s “outreach” to the community. Not a terrible or crazy idea, actually, but I suspect (but don’t really know) the initial cost for the license would be way prohibitive.

I’ve for some time toyed with another idea, which is that orchestras keep on staff a full-time audio engineer. His first duty would be to install a permanent miking setup and small (one- or two-man) studio in the orchestra’s home hall. Thereafter, all concerts would be recorded (digitally, of course), and CDs of each concert made instantly available for sale to the attending audience at concert’s end, then, through Internet distribution, made available for sale to the public at large world-wide. Seems to me the costs would be minimal, and the profits — both in terms of dollars and in terms of widespread recognition — considerable.

At any rate, something to think about.

Posted in Music, Worthwhile Articles Elsewhere | Comments Off on An Idea Or Two


Posted by acdtest on January 5, 2004


eblogger Stirling Newberry of Symphony X, a lover and proactive champion of classical (i.e., serious, or art) music, has posted an entry that unwittingly sabotages the very thing he ostensibly champions, and perverts and subverts the place (the preeminent place) of classical music as an art form. In his confused and egregiously wrongheaded if well-intentioned piece, Mr. Newberry begins by saying,

Imagine living in a culture where you can’t read the rules that other people follow: that is most people’s experience with music, they are, truly, illiterate. Which is why the project of “literate listening” is essential: classical music’s power comes from its literate nature[!], it is an art form by and for those who can read[!]. Absent the component of connection to forms, architecture, structure, self-similarity, development and growth – absent the language itself – classical music is merely organized sound which imparts little more advantage than any other kind of organized sound[!]….

All this is so perverse, and so in error, one has some difficulty knowing where to begin countering it.

“[C]lassical music’s power comes from its literate nature”(!)? Lordy! What an idea. For the receiver, that’s precisely where music’s power does not come from. Of all the arts, music, classical or other, is the one art that does not depend on the literate, but produces its magic — its full and fully coherent magic — sans any intervention by our rational or literate faculties. That singular power is precisely what Walter Pater refers to in his trenchant observation that all art aspires to the condition of music.

Which is not to say that one’s appreciation and understanding of music would not be deepened by a knowledge of its special language. Such knowledge, and the ability to read a score, will certainly deepen one’s appreciation and understanding of music at the intellectual level, and that makes such knowledge desirable, but by no means required or even necessary to appreciate and understand music at the level at which all music is best understood; a level accessible to all with ears to hear.

Mr. Newberry then wades into deeper, more treacherous — and more sinister –waters.

The problem [of the decline of classical music] is deeper, and simpler to describe – it is the abdication of activity to mass culture. People – even people who like high art – expect someone “out there” to bombard them with choices which they “make”, selecting what they like. Classical music is, ultimately, a participatory activity[!], and will suffer in any environment were participation is not part of the core of values that a people, culturally, have.


The solution is not to war against the tides, which come and go, nor rail against the temporary fancies of the moment – but to take the powerful intellectual capital[!] which classical music has, and use it to create pressure and movement. It is to create music, to create understanding of music, to reach for, as Schumann put it “a new and more poetic age” where the language of music is natural to describe events, architecture, ideas, and history. When people can, without conscious wincing, use phrases such as “tone poet” or draw philosophical ideas from musical events[!] – then we will be on the road to recovery.


[B]y using the changes in society and technology, it is possible to create force which moves the larger world. Most people aren’t hostile to change, they simply don’t even know what to do, they will flow along lines of organization, if those lines are created for them. They will awaken and find that they have more energy and more ideas, and a larger, more open world. They will feel more alive.

We can give this to them, this gift of a larger life, or rather – we can help them give it to themselves. It is this that will remake classical music in the image of a new idea, because the old will have to change as radically as we ask others to change – and it will begin to remake society[!]. The ability to deliver force is out there, and we have it in our own hands. Organization is so rare, belief, real belief with depth and desire so hard to find, that even a few people can make it happen, and create order where it seemed there was none.

This is a secret of classical music. Classical music allows people to perform and produce results[!]. And that is the first step to changing the society out there[!], to change classical music from being reactive and reactionary[!] – and thus unhealthy – to being aggressive in pushing its message outwards, and thus forceful, filled with what Machiavelli called virtu and healthy.


This idea, if adopted…will allow classical music to…go from nothing to the ability to change the world[!].

[all emphases mine]

One looks for evidence of the rhetorical in all this, but in vain. Those confused and malaprop ideas and words were intended in dead earnest; ideas and words not merely worthy of a politician, which would be more than perverse enough, but of a crypto-tyrant, or worse, a social engineer; ideas and words so mind-bogglingly squalid and perverse in terms of classical music that one is struck dumb merely reading them, especially coming as they do from an ostensible champion of classical music. Had Mr. Newberry set out to write an article whose intent was to put forward a plan to deep-six acceptance of classical music forever in a free society he could have done no better.

I’m hoping that Mr. Newberry was dead drunk, or under some other duress, when he came up with those ideas and wrote those words, and will now make haste to delete them, and post in their place something useful, constructive, appropriate — and sane.

UPDATE (8 January at 3:39 AM Eastern): Stirling Newberry responds.

Posted in Cultural Commentary, Music | Comments Off on Malaprop

My Wagner Habit

Posted by acdtest on December 26, 2003

My Wagner Habit

egular readers of this weblog know how devoted I am to the mature operas (music-dramas) of Richard Wagner, and frequently post articles here concerning them. Over the past months I’ve received a number of eMails asking how and when I became so addicted to these works, and as I expect more such eMails in future, I here make public answer for the benefit of those who’ve already asked and received from me but the briefest of replies, as well as for those who haven’t yet asked, but will.

First, it’s well to keep in mind when reading the following that the person relating it grew up within a musical milieu peopled by serious-minded musicians, instrumentalists all, who though familiar with Wagner’s music were, for the most part, familiar with it only in its excerpted orchestral embodiments, and tended to regard it as irredeemably vulgar, and in addition considered the whole domain of opera (Mozart’s operas excepted, of course) to be fodder fit only for intellectual groundlings and uncharitable jokes. Bach and Mozart were the musical heroes of this group (with the Beethoven of the late quartets included), as they were (and remain today) mine as well.

Fast-forward to 1970. I’ve been laid up for the better part of a year, courtesy of a near-death-dealing motorcycle accident. Bad business that, but it’s not all terrible. I’ve plenty of time on my hands, and I’m taking full advantage of it by reading like mad (my first introduction to the Holmes-Watson canon was during this period as I related on this weblog in a prior article), and listening to dozens of LPs I’d bought one fevered afternoon of record buying at a Sam Goody 50%-off sale some few years previous but still haven’t gotten around to auditioning. (Not as ridiculous as it sounds. I bought over 250 LPs that wild afternoon.)

One of the albums I’d plucked from Sam Goody’s shelves was the then-new Decca release of the first Ring opera (or more correctly, music-drama), Das Rheingold, an opera of which I never before heard so much as a note, and a recording which I bought not because I had any intention of listening to the opera itself (what an idea!), but because that then-new recording had quickly gained the reputation among audio freaks, of which I was one, as being a kick-ass test of one’s speaker system.

So, one summer afternoon of my enforced confinement I pull the still un-played Rheingold album from its place of storage, think to myself, “Forgot about this. Time I gave it a whirl,” remove its still-intact shrink-wrap, and start the first LP going on the turntable.

With hobbling gait, I almost make it back to my comfy armchair when the soles of my feet more than my ears become aware of that lone, deep-bass, opening E-flat pedal, and my first thought is that something’s gone badly awry with my stereo system. I mean, no opera can possibly begin like that. After assuring myself, however, that my stereo system is operating just fine, I start the LP going again, this time no longer intending to test my speakers, but intending instead to listen to the music.

One-hundred-and-thirty-six measures later (i.e., the full length of the Rheingold prelude proper) such is my utter astonishment that I’m struck virtually dumb. I simply can’t believe what I’ve just heard. No composer — not the divine Wolfgang, nor even great Bach himself — should be able to do that much in so few measures with such a paucity of harmonic and melodic material; essentially little more than a single arpeggiated triad repeated over and over.

Hobbling back to the turntable as quickly as I’m able, I start the LP going again at the beginning, and again listen. And again, and again, and again. I replay those opening 136 measures some dozen times before I let the first of the three Rheintöchter begin her opening phrase. And when I finally permit her to do so, more astonishment. She and her two sisters are bantering among themselves in dramatic real time, their banter sounding as natural as the dialogue of a spoken stage play, but they’re all… singing! And the singing is lovely. Not bel canto lovely, but a different kind of sung lovely I’ve no name for because I’ve never heard anything like it before. Then a nasty-sounding baritone comes on the scene and joins in the sung banter, and his singing, like the singing of the Rheintöchter, is as natural as spoken dialogue, and positively gripping. Inseparably intertwined with all this is the sound of a huge orchestra making rich continuous comment on everything happening onstage in the manner of the chorus in a classical Greek drama, thereby enriching and deepening immeasurably both drama and meaning, and the gestalt effect is riveting.

At this point it’s abundantly clear to me that, in terms of opera, I’m not in Kansas anymore, but hopelessly adrift in strange waters considerably over my head. This is a new, electrifying, and astonishing musico-dramatic experience; one which bears but the most superficial resemblance to opera as I understand it. As I continue listening, almost each succeeding new measure brings with it something else to astonish, and I’m utterly hooked by the magnetic magic of it all.

To shorten the tale, the deeper I immersed myself in the Rheingold, and over the ensuing weeks, months, and years in the entire Ring tetralogy, and then deeper still in Tristan und Isolde and Parsifal, that which initially astonished the Wagner-naïve musical snob continued, as it continues still, to astonish the seasoned and informed devotee I became. While in strictly musical terms Bach and Mozart are still my musical heroes, nonpareil, transcendent geniuses that they unquestionably were, in musico-dramatic terms I now know for certain there has never been, nor is there ever again likely to be, a genius as all-encompassing prodigious as that of Richard Wagner, who today still bestrides the domain of opera like a colossus, and whose operas have since shaped the course not only of opera, but of all Western music.

And that, now and future questioners, is the story of the genesis of my Wagner addiction. And as the saying goes, it’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.

Posted in Music, Opera, Wagner's Ring | Comments Off on My Wagner Habit

The Classical Music Concert

Posted by acdtest on December 11, 2003

The Survival Of The Classical Music Concert

s someone trained as a classical musician who was almost virtually raised in a concert hall (Philadelphia’s Academy of Music), and for whom live orchestral and chamber music concerts were the mother’s milk of his youth, I find just the prospect of the diminishment or, worse, eventual demise of the live classical music concert to be a thing unthinkable. Or rather, a thing I’d rather not have to think about. As matters stand today, however, there’s nothing for it for someone such as myself but to think hard and long about it. Live classical music concerts (the unadulterated sort) are, nationwide, slowly dying out for want of enough audience to adequately support them except in our largest metropolitan centers, and even there the going today is fairly rough, and bound to get insupportably rougher unless a viable solution can be found for the growing problem.

Did I say problem? Why a problem? I mean, if the market can’t support the live classical music concert perhaps the thing has outlived its pertinence and importance for our cultural life, and ought to be permitted to go gently into that good night spared the always humiliating if heroic last-ditch efforts to provide it synthetic life-support. As print media cultural critic and weblogger Terry Teachout says (and I here conflate three quotes from two of his weblog pieces, here and here):

• By the mid-Sixties, it was possible to purchase high-quality [recorded] renditions of virtually every important piece of classical music composed prior to 1910. Similarly, good-sounding hi-fi systems had become cheap enough for anyone to own. An entire generation of music lovers thus became accustomed to experiencing classical music not in the concert hall but at home. As the Horowitzes and Bernsteins died off, these listeners began to question the need to attend any public performances of the classics, whether by callow young artists or by middle-aged celebrity performers who had already committed their repertoires to disc one or more times….

• [A] piece of classical music is infinitely more important than any possible [single] interpretation of it, and once a half-dozen first-class versions are available on CD, the marginal utility of hearing an additional one, whether on record or in person, becomes subject to the law of diminishing returns. Therein lies the problem of the [live] classical concert. Believe me, I treasure the “communal aspect” of art, so much so that I go out of my way (and my apartment) to experience it four or five nights a week. […] But I no longer feel any compelling need to regularly experience it in the form of routine live performances of the standard classical repertoire, any more than I feel the need to own another recording of Beethoven’s late quartets, no matter how good it may be.

• I no longer go to hear the New York Philharmonic under Lorin Maazel, for example. I’m sure they play well, but I simply don’t feel the need to see them live. I have more interesting things to do with my evenings. Similarly, I haven’t been to a single classical concert at Carnegie Hall or Avery Fisher Hall all season long-and I’m a middle-aged listener who loves classical music passionately. Granted, I’m just one person in a big city, but if I’m not going to classical concerts, who is? And who will?

Terry certainly has several excellent points, and one hesitates to argue against them, as well as against someone of Terry’s wide professional experience and knowledge. But casting prudence aside, I feel constrained to argue against both.

First off, let me provide some further personal background the better for you to judge what I have to say.

I’m old enough to have been present at the birth of hi-fi in the ’50s, and its subsequent development into stereo in the ’60s. I immediately became what’s (politely) known in the trade as an audiophile, and at one point in my life invested more than $30,000 (1980 dollars) in a new sound system which comprised the most accurate electronics and loudspeakers available at the time, all of it installed in a room acoustically designed (more mega-$$$) to permit it to operate at its utmost potential. And so I’m hardly one to pooh-pooh recorded performances. I love them. I cherish them. I couldn’t imagine life without them. Lots of them.

But a recorded performance is a musical experience quite different from the musical experience of a live concert performance. As good as recordings and audio equipment may be today, they cannot reproduce in a home environment the sound of the very same music performed by the very same artists at a live concert in a concert hall, even a lousy one. It’s not that sonically one is necessarily better than the other (although given the quality of the typical home stereo system, and the typical acoustics of the home listening environment, live is light-years better). It’s that they’re two different sonic experiences, and therefore, and more importantly — much more importantly — two different musical experiences. One hears the music, qua-music, differently in a live performance, and so experiences it differently as a consequence. That hearing cannot be experienced via a reproduction no matter how good it may be in both recording and playback, although an experienced and long-time concertgoer may unconsciously “graft” the live hearing of the music, qua music, onto the hearing of the music when experienced via a reproduction, and imagine he hears in the reproduction the music, qua music, as he hears it in live performance.

But imagine is the operative term here. It’s but an illusion; one that requires a long-time experience of live performance to create and maintain, consciously or unconsciously.

I’ll not pretend to know why it is that one hears music, qua music, differently live versus recorded, or in what, precisely, in physical and psychological terms, the difference consists. I know only that the difference exists, and that it’s substantial, musically. And, pace Glenn Gould, one should never forget that music’s fons et origo is the sound of the music live. Always. (I, of course, speak here about music written for acoustic instruments. I cannot speak to the case of music written for electronic whatevers as I’ve no interest in, or concern for, such music, and therefore little experience of it.)

All by itself, the above should be enough to counter Terry’s contention vis-à-vis recorded versus live performance. But there’s more.

Terry declares he “no longer feel[s] any compelling need to regularly experience [music] in the form of routine live performances of the standard classical repertoire, any more than [he] feel[s] the need to own another recording of Beethoven’s late quartets, no matter how good it may be.”

If one were inclined to be unkind in the matter, one might suggest that Terry has grown a bit jaded musically concerning the standard classical repertoire; a not uncommon condition of residents of our great metropolitan cultural centers, New York City in particular.

Well, I’m not inclined to be unkind, and so I’ll suggest more gently that I think Terry has grown a bit myopic concerning this matter. Very few persons in this country outside our metropolitan cultural centers have ready or frequent access to live classical music concerts of any kind, much less live classical music concerts performed by first-rate ensembles in a first-rate concert hall, and therefore will rarely have the opportunity to experience what Terry takes for every-day granted. It’s for those persons, the overwhelming majority of Americans, not to even speak of those not yet born, that live concert performances of classical music — even “routine live performances of the standard classical repertoire” — must remain an alive and healthy enterprise.

And how is that to be accomplished in today’s unsympathetic, even hostile, to classical music cultural environment? Well, I can say with absolute certainty how it must not be accomplished. It must not, in any circumstance, be accomplished by “a loosening of the definitional boundaries around ‘classical music’,” which is what a study on the matter quoted by Terry suggested be done to help classical music concerts stay alive. As Terry correctly divined, that phrase is merely “a euphemism for playing fewer classics and more pop-style fare,” and that’s deadly for classical music whether live or recorded. I’d go even further and say, as I have previously, that (and I here quote myself)

[I]t’s nothing short of depressing to observe that, virtually without exception, [those concerned with preserving classical music in this country have] pursued a model that’s not merely wrongheaded, but positively suicidal. That model, in keeping with the rabidly populist and promiscuously equalitarian Zeitgeist of our era, and using promotional techniques employed in the world of mass entertainment, has at its core the concept of reaching out to The People. Or using less euphemistic and less charitable terminology, the concept of pandering to the proles. While such a concept is perfectly appropriate and spot-on right in the world of mass entertainment, it’s an ultimate kiss of death in the world of classical music for the very simple and should-be (but astonishingly, largely isn’t) obvious reason that, much as one wishes it were not the case, classical music is not, nor has it ever been, nor will it ever even marginally be, an object of mass or even widespread appeal no matter how vigorously and assiduously it may be promoted. Classical music is, by its very nature, a fundamentally elitist enterprise, and should never be viewed or promoted as anything other.

Having said with absolute certainty what must not be done, can I say with absolute certainty what must? I can, and have — for the long term.

But that strategy is impossible and totally useless unless classical music concerts survive long enough to make the implementation of such a strategy feasible. And that survival requires a short term solution, an immediate short term solution, and I’ve none that I’d be reckless enough to risk setting forth publicly. Let’s just say that when it comes to generating short term loot funding for live classical music concerts, the tactics I’d be willing to engage in would make Al Capone look like an Italian gentleman and a wuss.

But that’s just me. Perhaps others have a more, um, gentlemanly short term solution that would be equally as effective.

Posted in Cultural Commentary, Music | Comments Off on The Classical Music Concert

Ross Does Disney

Posted by acdtest on November 13, 2003

Ross Does Disney


The New Yorker‘s Alex Ross does Disney Hall.

But the exterior is only the beginning of the wonder of the place. Disney is not simply a piece of prize-worthy architecture; it is also a sensational place to hear music and an enchanting place to spend an evening. In richness of sound, it has few rivals on the international scene, and in terms of visual drama it may have no rival at all. Wherever you sit in the hall, from the front center rows to the high back balcony, the gracefully curving, Spanish-galleon lines of the interior arrange themselves in hypnotic perspectives, and the music seizes you from all sides. The painting-on-a-wall illusion shatters; the orchestra throngs the air.

With each passing day, I’m getting closer and closer to hopping a plane for that hated city.

Posted in Architecture, Music | Comments Off on Ross Does Disney