Archive for July 2010

Needs More Time to Rise: Baltimore Symphony Orchestra at Strathmore, July 17, 2010

July 19, 2010

Sirena Huang and Conrad Tao are both 15 years old. On Saturday night with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, in the Music Center at Strathmore, Huang and Tao performed Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto and first piano concerto, respectively. When I was 15 years old,  about the most complex thing I could do was drive terribly on my learner’s permit. So even being able to get up on stage and play with the Balmer Symphony redounds to their credit and testifies to the work Huang and Tao have put in thus far. Yet both of the concerto performances showed what these young artists will have to develop to go from being “Rising Stars” (in the BSO’s title for the concert) to being stars, period.

For its part, the BSO sounded great on Saturday, led by assistant principal violist Christian Colberg. Colberg, who also plays violin and composes in his spare time, has a very conductor-y mane of silver hair and a batonless podium style that untutored me could follow very easily; his gestures expressed enthusiasm for the cool parts of the scores, and the BSO responded with equally excited playing.

In the concert-opening “Capriccio italien,” the BSO’s opening horn fanfares glowed like the dawn, while the strings shaped their melodies with the kind of dusky, display-oriented passion called for by the score. It was just the work for a conductor who knows exactly what the orchestra can provide, and Colberg brought out its strengths. Hearing Colberg lead the BSO through an entire program of colorful, lush pieces (Rimsky-Korsakov, Resphigi, Dvorák?) would likely be a lot of fun.

I realize Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto is universally accepted as a Best-Loved Classic, but for me the first movement goes on freaking forever with endless repetitions of two main themes that don’t bear the extended scrutiny. A violinist working through such longeurs needs to be able to make the theme fresh every time it’s heard, through different phrasing, tricks of tone color, varying the intensity of the rhythm, or something. Huang seemed to trust Tchaikovsky’s two-track mind too much for my taste, producing undifferentiated takes on the melody as it spooled out again and again and again. She took a cool, matter-of-fact approach to the Canzonetta second movement, missing some of its hushed intensity. The high-energy rondo finale perked her back up, but here technical struggles came to the fore; throughout the concerto, she had trouble hitting the high harmonics Tchaikovsky often demands at climaxes, and though she continually looked to Colberg to keep tempos synched, she and the BSO often diverged slightly.

After intermission, from the first notes crashing up the keyboard, the main problem with Tao’s performance of the first piano concerto was obvious: He had a lot of trouble getting a nice sound out of Strathmore’s Steinway. Tao’s fingers frequently made the piano clang in fortissimos and plunk ungracefully like a music box at the top of the keyboard. (I will note that it was stiflingly humid on Saturday, as it has seemingly been every other day this summer, which can’t have done much for the piano.) Like Huang, he showed little sensitivity to color, and he rarely brought more to the poetic passages than was in the score. Tao got through this extremely difficult opus without any major calamites befalling him, but rarely did the performance go beyond that.

As noted, the BSO packaged this as a “Rising Stars” concert. While the classical music world’s fascination with young people who can play creditably knows no bounds, I submit that it might be more interesting to hear, in a “Rising Stars” concert, talented adults who have somehow been bypassed by the classical star-making apparatus — perhaps someone too unconventional for most orchestras, perhaps someone who just matured late. Doubtless, Huang and Tao each have many good Tchaikovsky concerti in them, but on the basis of Saturday’s concert, they need to think about how best to present those works for a few more years.

Other People’s Perspectives: Robert Battey.

Mirror, Mirror, On the Wall: Which is the Top Genre of Them All? (Hint: None of Them)

July 15, 2010

Last month, which seems so long ago, Greg Sandow hosted some debate over whether classical music really is the best genre in all of music and an island unto itself or not. Greg focused on the question of whether anyone can actually prove classical music’s superiority to all other genres, a question whose answer seems perfectly obvious to me: No.

If you make up some criteria for greatness of a musical genre and then decide that classical music fits those criteria best, you probably selected your with an eye towards getting the answer you wanted. Even if you somehow maintained in your conscious mind a benign neutrality, someone else could make up criteria that would pick another genre with equal validity. Classical music (or the best classical music, anyway) does stuff that no other genre can do, but putting a value like “best” on that…well, you can prove it for yourself, but you can’t prove it for everyone.

But let’s just say you’re someone who will never budge from your position that classical is the king of the hill, cream of the crop, etc. Here I argue that even if your reasoning feels airtight, you should shut up about it in mixed-genre company. Nothing’s going to turn off potential fans of classical music like being told that classical music reigns supreme and unchallenged atop Terpsichore’s pile. Here’s why:

1. It’s insulting to those who like other genres of music. As I type this, I am listening to the Chi-Lites’ “Have You Seen Her,” which is a great song. If you were to tell me that I am wasting my time with that pop effluvia when I could be listening to a Brahms concerto, I’d spit in your face. Maybe not even metaphorically! Telling people who love music but not classical music that once they go Bach, they won’t go back is the same as telling people that music in which they have (presumably) a great deal of psychological investment is trash. Most people will not react well to that.

2. It smacks of racism. If you say classical music is the summa of musical achievement, basically what you are saying is that white European males produced all the truly great music in history. Particularly if you are talking to someone who is not a white person, this position may not endear you, or classical music, to your listener.

3. It sets classical music up as something you have to have special skillz to like. Some folks believe this also. For my part, I discovered classical music mostly by hearing my parents play recordings during my childhood, and then going with them to concerts at the University of Maryland back when student tickets were $3. (Ah, halcyon days.) Learning about classical deepened my enjoyment of it, but that was after the bug bit me, not before. Before the bug bites you, acquiring the knowledge just sounds like pointless work, and if you think modern Americans are into pointless work I have a number of extraordinarily valuable collateralized debt obligations to sell you.

Honestly, if I had to choose to listen to only one genre of music for the rest of my life, I’d pick classical. It embraces multitudes and goes places no other genre does. But I don’t have to pick, and so I get to love go-go, hip-hop, jazz, funk, soul, and any other music that grabs my little heart. No one else in this modern world has to pick either, and they’re not going to listen to anyone who tells them that they have to.

So can we get off this? Please? Forever? Instead, I pledge to tell people what I find so exciting about classical music, hopefully in novel and vivid ways, and celebrate performances that generate just that kind of excitement. That’s what it’s all about!