Archive for February 2010

Programming Note

February 18, 2010

I have decided to run the 2010 National Marathon on March 20. This explains some of my decreased attendance at concerts over the past month, and my concertgoing will continue to be limited until the race is run. (I am planning to attend two concerts over that span; I might add one or two more, but certainly not a lot.) In the time between now and the marathon, I hope to review some CDs by DMV artists and contribute more thoughts on various current states of affairs in classical music.

My thought has always been that classical music is an essential part of my balanced life, which includes a lot of activity with no obvious relationship to classical music. Of course, thoughts of classical music pervade my existence (I do, as noted earlier, rely on classical music to help train for marathons), but so do thoughts of other types of music, and sometimes thoughts of other things intrude while I’m listening to classical music. Still, sometimes I step away to focus on other things, and come back refreshed and ready to go. That’s what’s going on here (I hope).

Live at the Piano: “Interpreting Liszt,” Post-Classical Ensemble and Georgetown University, February 12-13, 2010

February 16, 2010

I consider myself reasonably knowledgeable about the history of classical music, and I’m reasonably into the music of Franz Liszt. (After all, it was in my teenage years that I decided that his “Totentanz” bumped hard enough to put it up against the Wu-Tang Clan on a car tape.) Yet before I attended “Interpreting Liszt,” a festival put on this weekend by the Post-Classical Ensemble and Georgetown University, my primary mental image of the legendary pianist/composer featured him banging out his own Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 and causing a crowdful of women to swoon at his feet. (I wish I were exaggerating.)

Now I know, thanks to the festival, that Liszt was also a seeker of the divine, an eccentrically devout Catholic, an engaged explorer of other art forms, and a guy who symbolically coded his key signatures, among other things. The festival also showed us, through memorable performances, exactly how all these strains of Liszt’s life turned up in his art.

Two concerts on Friday and Saturday night were the festival’s centerpieces, but each day featured afternoon discussions of various aspects of Liszt’s music and performance. For gainful-employment-related reasons, I was unable to attend Friday’s discussion of historic performances of Liszt,  with Post-Classical Ensemble artistic director and music historian/commentator Joseph Horowitz, Stanford University musicologist/pianist Kumaran Arul, and Ukrainian-American pianist Mykola Suk, but the two pianists at the table put theory into practice during Friday night’s concert, “Liszt and Italy,” held in Georgetown’s Gaston Hall. There Arul and Suk played all of Liszt’s “Années de pèlerinage—Deuxième Année” (or “Years of Pilgrimage: Second Year: Pilgrim Harder”) which takes place in (big surprise coming) Italy. They also tossed in some bonus Italianate opuses.

In the grand tradition of Post-Classical Ensemble concerts,  “Liszt and Italy” added to the music-making a bunch of talking and a big screen showing slides of various paintings and sculptures. Anna Celenza, the chair of Georgetown’s Department of Performing Arts, imparted some facts about Liszt’s travels, while GU student actor Michael Mitchell read from Liszt’s letters, and Laura Benedetti read the original Italian versions of the three Petrarch sonnets that served Liszt as inspiration, while translations were shown on the screen. This worked way better than program notes for the following reasons:

  • When a picture or poem is shown on a giant screen next to the performer, your eyes can easily move between it and the performer, rather than having to look down at program notes.
  • Additionally, paintings are more vivid when they are in color on a giant screen.
  • Mitchell’s reading gave a strong voice to the composer.
  • Celenza’s stuff was concise and delivered smartly.

No such discussion ornamented Saturday’s concert, titled “Angels and Devils.” I could have used some explanation regarding the merits of the religious music on the program, because frankly I couldn’t hear them. A setting of “Ave verum corpus” fared best, with striking dissonances rendered strongly by the Georgetown University Chamber Singers under conductor Frederick Brinkholder. By contrast, the melodies and harmonies of the “Inno a Maria Vergine” for chorus sounded banally happy; they weren’t helped by some occasional difficulties with ensemble entrances and the work’s ungainly length.

P-CE music director Angel Gil-Ordonez, conducting a freelance orchestra, also presented a Pastorale from “Christus,” a three-hour oratorio that I had never heard a note of before Saturday. The Pastorale depicts joy beside the manger, with delightful tone-colors and folk rhythms in the woodwinds gradually spreading to the rest of the orchestra; at times it echoed Beethoven’s “Pastoral” symphony, but with less memorable melodies.

Most of the talk and excitement of the festival centered on Liszt’s piano music. Belying the “those who can’t, teach” adage, Arul gave some really fine performances when Liszt was in Italy on Friday night. True, he had some trouble at first, overpedaling the opening “Sposalizio” and stretching its tempo until its melody felt disassembled, but he settled into a groove with the three works based on sonnets of Petrarch. In the Sonnet 104 piece, which concerns Petrarch’s attempt to capture his beloved in words to ensure her immortality, Arul’s phrasing and approach suggested the poet trying out and elaborating phrases until they reached emotional climaxes. The vision of a lover in Sonnet 123 here came out of a cloud of ambiguous, fascinating harmonies, limpidly and steadily played. (The next day, Thomas Mastroianni, professor of piano at the Catholic University of America, gave an interesting presentation on symbolism of keys, relating the second-year pilgrimage to other Liszt works on artistic and religious subjects.)

After intermission, Arul conjured two even more vivid visions in Liszt’s pieces on St. Francis of Assisi preaching to the birds and walking on water (respectively). Arul’s even, unfailingly lovely trilling at the high end of the keyboard made the former sound connected to nature and heaven at once; by launching into the water-walking without a break, he maintained the otherworldly feeling for an audience ready to believe in miracles.

Early Saturday afternoon, the hard-working Arul gave a performance of the B minor Ballade as part of another talk, which I had to miss. Later that afternoon, he gave a talk about the approach Liszt and his pupils took to Beethoven, the thrust of which was that they often employed more rubato than we’re used to, in a manner that might sound strange to us, with the idea of making the composer’s ideas more vivid and “modern.” Current moderns, of course, mostly think of note-perfection as a necessary element of a truly great performance, with the performer acting as a vessel for the composer’s genius — an attitude foreign to Liszt’s practice, according to contemporary accounts. So, a theory goes, to play Liszt’s music, you should approach the notes freely and imaginatively, as Liszt would have, with the idea of getting the biggest possible impact from the work. Suk served as the exponent of this idea at “Interpreting Liszt,” and boy did he make it compelling.

Suk played with such freedom in tempo, phrasing, articulation, and other pianistic dimensions that at times his performances sounded like first cousins of the standard interpretations. His Friday night “Fountains of the Villa D’Este” featured the same cascades of notes mimicking the spray and play of water, but Suk put them into continuous, glossy, sparkling curves rather than the terraces of notes more often heard. Here a great deal of virtuosity made the performance more naturalistic. The opposite held in “Après une lecture du Dante (Fantasia quasi Sonata),” where Suk pushed and pulled the tempo and hyped the chordal eruptions to create an irresistible, galvanizing intensity.

With great freedom to transform the printed score comes great responsibility, of course. On Saturday, Suk showed his awareness by playing right in step with the orchestra in “Totentanz,” while taking full advantage of his opportunities to twist out the demonic and lyrical aspects of Liszt’s writing. The concert featured the original 1849 opening of the work, with a battery of trombones and kettledrums blasting out the “Dies Irae,” connecting the performance to Celenza’s pre-concert talk in which she explored the work’s roots in Hans Holbein’s “Todtentanz” series of satiric woodcuts; these feature death-skeletons playing those same instruments, making another nice connection for both Liszt and the festival.

Yet the finest expression of Suk’s style and of Liszt’s music came earlier in Saturday’s program, in the B minor sonata. This work unites everything that I heard discussed over the weekend — the key relationships, the angelic and the demonic, the virtuoso demands, the challenges of interpretation. Suk’s spontaneous approach worked perfectly with the sturdy structure of the B minor sonata; its nested sonata-form elements and transforming melodies supported Suk’s lyrical flights. The slow section in particular sounded ravishing, with Suk controlling his volume down to the slightest pianissimo and still clearly articulating what felt like a long unbroken chain of a melody. This side of Liszt — celestial, still, and ravishing all at once — complements the barnstorming virtuoso, and the “Interpreting Liszt” festival succeeded brilliantly in giving us all that and more.


While Gaston Hall is a lovely place to see a show, done up in hardwoods, religious paintings, Masonic symbols, and other lavish decoration, it also has a vent with an extremely squeaky fan or louver or something that just kept squeaking through both Friday and Saturday’s concerts, interweaving its need for WD-40 with the piano during quiet passages. Though Arul and Suk had such concentration that it was easy to shut out the distraction, the situation was still suboptimal.

On Saturday night, the people around me in the audience also talked much more than I’ve heard in a while, and one of them recorded all of the Totentanz on her iPhone, which I think is illegal (should I have reported it to someone?) and was definitely distracting. In addition, after the second choral performance and during the “Pastorale,” we had what sounded like a big pile of scores falling on the floor, a noise especially jarring in the happy, chirpy piece it marred. Again, the performances stood fine on their own, but it would have been nice not to have had to contend with these issues.

In other environment news, the problem with having a festival on a college campus is that it feels like you are in college again. I guess this is only a problem for me, since I never ever want to go back to college unless someone will deliver a much-enlarged paycheck at the end of my stay, but it was noteworthy. Particularly evocative of my student years was Celenza’s talk on “Totentanz,” which was held in an English classroom on whose blackboard the words “simile, metaphor, metonymy” had been written. Déjà vu for an English major! Fortunately, Celenza quickly erased the irrelevant terms, and if the talk is any indication, Celenza is a fine professor.

Other People’s Perspectives: Joe Banno and Charles T. Downey (reviews of the Saturday concert).

Super Bowl XLIV: Classical 3, Pop 0

February 8, 2010

If you had power or were able to get somewhere that did yesterday, you may have noticed that the telecast of Super Bowl XLIV, taken as a whole, argued strongly for the superiority of classical to pop music. In favor of the classics, you had:

  1. The Rutgers Symphony Orchestra greatly improving Jay-Z and Rihanna’s “Run This Town,” the background of which is detailed here.  (Hat tip for that article to Molly Sheridan.)
  2. Hyundai, having read my Grab Bag from December (maybe), leveraged the classix in two ads for its Sonata mid-size sedan. First, Mozart touts the paint job, and then Wolfie returns Beethoven rolls up to show just how classy in general the Sonata is. (At least I think that’s Mozart returning. I feel like a moron for not being able to name this piece, which I recognize. Such is the way of the world. It’s the first Beethoven piano trio, duh.) While these are not the most transgressive or joyous uses of classical music in the world, the first one in particular at least asserts classical music’s primacy as timeless art. (Okay, so the music in the second just wallpapers the narration, and it’s not even a sonata. One out of two isn’t terrible!)
  3. Also I forgot earlier (and am thus adding now in a face-saving edit) the Coke commercial featuring “Bolero.” The commercial is pretty dumb, but “Bolero” comes off well. Thanks to the Twittering of Mike Nelson for this addition and the edit above. Nelson’s Twitter name, “Kickassical,” should win major international competitions for Twitter names.

Meanwhile, the show’s main non-Jay exponents of pop music, the Who, laid a giant turd during the halftime show, with off-pitch singing and bizarre repertoire selection. (One of my Facebook friends noted, “Who opens with Pinball Wizard…”; another opined, “Again, good call with the halftime show, NFL. 60% of viewers just said simultaneously, ‘What’s pinball?'”) On the other hand, they had a cool stage with circles and lighting and effects. (It would be awesome to watch a performance of “The Planets” or something else big and orchestrally colorful on such a stage.)

So on television’s biggest stage, classical music ran up the score on pop (unlike at the Grammys, or on SoundScan). It’s a start. WE CAN BUILD ON THIS!

Edited about an hour after posting as noted above.

Tell Me Why You’re Making Me Listen To This

February 4, 2010

Anne Midgette has been asking some interesting questions about whether people who subscribe to whole seasons’ worth of classical music concerts should have to listen to music that they don’t like (in most people’s cases, any music without hummable tunes; in my case, Bruckner) as part of the deal, and has gotten a bunch of feisty responses. Apparently, many opera and symphony subscribers simply re-up each year and don’t pay too much attention to what’s on the various programs until they get there and are rewarded for their time and money with a decrepit clangor (at least in their eyes). Me, I tend to opt for the programs that feature music I haven’t heard before, but I’m going to offer a suggestion to appeal to people who don’t anyway:

With regard to subscription symphony concerts, orchestras could do a lot for the acceptance of new music by ensuring that the new music has some sort of connection with the other music on the program and explaining that connection.

If you didn’t know anything about classical music, you’d probably assume that the works on a program would be related somehow, in the same way that art museums curate exhibits composed of works that are related somehow. Of course, an average program’s three non-modern pieces don’t normally have any obvious connection, and when they do, programs composed entirely of works by one composer likely outnumber programs with actual themes. But especially if one piece is an outlier in some way, like if you can’t whistle anything in it, presenters should try to connect it with one or more of the less forbidding pieces on the program. The way things happen now, the modern work becomes an island on which the audience is summarily marooned until it ends; people like to feel like they’ve been brought somewhere, not simply dropped off, and they want to know how they’ll get home again.

A special bonus is that, with a connection spelled out, the exercise of listening becomes a learning experience, and while certainly not everyone is going to enjoy a Pedagogical Night Out, enough people do enjoy just said pedagogy that a significant percentage of the audience will enjoy the active effort of finding the common thread. (Also, people like me would enjoy exploring a program with an actual idea behind it, concept-driven as I am.)

I have read numerous descriptions of the orchestral program planning process, none of which I seem to be able to find on the Internet, and I understand that diverse constraints govern the selection of repertoire for said concerts. Nonetheless, if you are making a special effort to select one work from among the many worthy, unfamiliar modern pieces, you might want to make sure that you can explain to the audience why you are selecting this particular work, and what place it has hanging out with Beethoven and Tchaikovsky and whatever other giants it must conquer in the audience’s affections.

This would be easier if more modern music actually sounded like it has a connection to other music in the world, but that’s a different blog post. (And I can’t speak to what opera fans go through when something with a post-1950 musical vocabulary shows up on the date they were saving in hope of a best-loved classic, but I don’t understand much about being an opera fan anyway.)