Ramuntcho, Desplat

The Basque-Spanish conductor Juanjo Mena brought a delightfully obscure program to Cincinnati last week: Gabriel Pierné’s “Ramuntcho” Overture and Alberto Ginastera’s “Panambi” (complete).  The Ginastera is a wonderful piece and an especially impressive Op. 1 (composed at the tender age of 20) but I think enough ink has been spilled about Ginastera’s youthful stint as the Argentine Stravinsky.  There’s a great LSO recording which I’d recommend to one and all.

The piece I really fell in love with and feel compelled to discuss here is Gabriel Pierné’s overture to “Ramuntcho”, which I am quite confident in saying you, dear reader, have never heard before.

ramuntcho

“Ramuntcho” started out as a novel by the French colonial diplomat/naval officer/oriental fetishist Pierre Loti.  It takes place in the Basque country, which was enough to make me want to know everything about it, cause I loves me some Basques.  You can you can download the novel for free and read it in a few days; I’d recommend it.

The book was adapted into a play for which Pierné composed the incidental score, hence the overture.  Before I continue, let’s just get two things out of the way: 1) Juanjo’s recording is the definitive version of this overture and way better than Pierné’s own scrappy account from the 1930′s (sorry Gabriel!)

And 2) let’s discuss what this overture is and what it isn’t.  It is very definitely not a symphonic movement with thematic development and the other trappings of that form.  It IS a charming medley of songs and dances culled, to the best of Pierné’s abilities from the folk tradition of the Basque country.  It is well orchestrated and delightful.

Here’s a couple examples of the loveliness that Pierné has wrought.  He took this unruly Basque folk dance, the “Aurresku”:

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and rendered those tuneless txistus into a sprightly woodwind section:

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He also looked to the national rhythm of the Basques*, the zortziko, a 5/8 meter than has a feel of three with one short beat and two longer ones.  It’s excellently demonstrated by the lovely “unofficial national anthem” of the Basques, “Gernikako Arbola

 

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Pierné does gives us a chirpy little tune with the zortziko lilt at the top of his overture:

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and then lushes it up like a badass with the strings:

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And assorted other loveliness.  Pierné’s output is a little hit or miss, which you can hear on Juanjo’s disc.  His music is grounded in Saint-Saëns with sprinklings of Roussel and Ravel.  So let’s all do our little part for Pierné and the Basque people and listen to and read “Ramuntcho”!

*So then what’s the U.S. “national rhythm”?  The back-beat?  Discuss.


I’m officially on board with Alexandre Desplat.  I know, it’s like, welcome to the 21st century, but his totally anachronistic score to “The King’s Speech” just rubbed me too much the wrong way.  After seeing The Grand Budapest Hotel – a movie I thought better than most of Wes Anderson’s recent efforts but still not quite my cup of tea – I see how vivid M. Desplat’s musical imagination is and what a compelling partnership these two artists make, verging on Ozon-Rombi/Almodóvar-Iglesias/Burton-Elfman territory.

[Side note: who is the gayer filmmaker: the openly homosexual François Ozon or the openly dandified Wes Anderson?  Is it possible, given our current cultural understanding of the 'gay' to consider the pink-frosted confections of a straight man more aligned with this categorically than, say, "In the House"?  Discuss.]

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My thing with Bruckner

It’s not that I don’t like Bruckner.  But it’s not that I do, exactly, either.

If I can get good and steeped in Bruckner’s musical world, for like, even longer than the length of one of his symphonies, I can get into it.  But I rarely find that prospect very tempting, because there’s just not enough surface variety or prettiness to coax me down the path to all that depth and beauty.

Which is tantamount to admitting that I’m shallow, and, OK, guilty as charged.  But I like to think that I’m maybe a little shallow and a little deep all at once, and there are a number of composers who know just how to calibrate that the spoonful of sugar with the medicine going down.

Johannes Brahms is, of course, the paramount example.  On the other side of the spectrum from Bruckner would be, say, Tchaikovsky, whose music definitely errs on the side of aural ravishment rather than emotional honesty.

That doesn’t quite get the dichotomy though, because Bruckner’s music can, in a way, be aurally ravishming as well.  It’s more so that Tchaikovsky’s music (and Brahms’, Beethoven’s, et al.’s to various extents) is performative music, whereas Bruckner’s just is.  That is to say, when Tchaikovsky gives you grief or joy, it’s often not the genuine article as much as it is the performance of those things.

Another way of saying it might be that Tchaikovsky’s music is, in a sense, the actor upon the stage.  Whereas Bruckner’s music just is.

Which is surely a great and noble and virtuous achievement, and why Bruckner’s devotees are quite so ardent.  But is it a crime for me to wish for a little wit with my joy?  A little melodrama with my sadness?  For a little fun every now and again?

I don’t mean to take anything away from Bruckner (not that I could if I tried.)  His melodies and textures are often gorgeous (even if his handling of said material is just as often perplexing and aimless.  Exhibit A: this 12-iteration

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)

I’m sure I’ve earned the scorn of the Brucknerian Horde.  So please, do your worst.

[Also worth noting for people who are as shallow as I: the google image search of "Bruckner" brought up images of a certain Aaron Brückner, for which you may thank me later.]

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Symphonic Essay

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Writing a symphony in 2014 is like saying to yourself, “I know, why don’t I pursue a project that guarantees the least possible public reward and requires the greatest amount of time, ambition, and concentration.”  And yet, that’s what I’m doing.

I’ve got one movement finished (which I’ll premiere with my YO at the end of March) and, admittedly, writing it has been a thrill, though it’s kept me up many a night.  The movement I’ve got now is the genuine article, as Sonata-Allegro as they come, complete with Introduction, Exposition, Development, Recap, and Coda to boot.

It’s a shame that our prestige composers no longer deign to flatter a common form as they once did, especially one as rich as the symphony.  Perhaps I’m just simple, or reactionary, or lacking in invention, but for me, working within this framework has posed an infinity of choices, enough to suggest that there’s enough variety in the form to engage better composers.

But who cares?  Therein lies the rub.  I’m starting to figure out that one of my life’s big projects is to create a new audience for intelligent orchestral music.  By intelligent, I mean music that weaves together strands of traditional, academic, and vernacular styles into a unified language that appeals to the large body of educated music listeners who seek out new indie rock and hip-hop for get their major musical statements.

And by orchestral, I actually mean orchestral – not just New Music Ensemble music expanded to the size of the symphony orchestra.  Music that shows the unique properties of the modern orchestra (and the musicians therein) to their best advantage.

goldfinch

The Goldfinch” (which, do yourself a favor and just read it already if you haven’t yet) is a hell of a novel, brimming with memorable characters, set pieces, and philosophy.  If Donna Tartt can succeed in writing a novel that manages to be thoroughly contemporary and to respect the form’s heritage at the same time (and she very much has), then I might as well take a stab at doing something similar with a symphony.

So please, somebody, just keep orchestras alive another fifty years and I promise you I’ll create a listening public eager to hear new symphonies in the concert hall.  K?

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Peau d’Ane

Here’s a little Christmas gift for everybody: Peau d’Âne, the strangest film of Jacques Demy’s career, and, by coincidence, probably the strangest film ever made.

For those among my readers who are unfamiliar with the work of the French auteur, allow me to catch you up: Jacques Demy made four or five films in the late 50′s/early 60′s, but his cult following really began in 1964 when he teamed up with the legendary French jazz pianist/composer Michel Legrand on a little collaboration known as Les Parapluies de Cherbourg.

“The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” might be considered a musical, but if we’re being fussy about our nomenclature, it’s really an opera – the dialogue is entirely sung.  It’s become a cult hit, and it’s absolutely worth your while to see/listen to.  If you ask me nicely, I’ll come over to your house and sing the entire thing from start to finish (I will also do this if you mention it in passing.)

[A side note: my mother was 15 when "The Umbrellas" made its way over to the states, and promptly fell in love with it.  She broke up with her high school boyfriend when he didn't share her ardor for the movie.  In retrospect, it probably would have been a much worse sign if her teenage boyfriend had fallen in love with a campy French musical.]

[Another side note: Stephen Sondheim's one flaw as a human being is that he doesn't like Les Parapluies de Cherbourg.  In a sense, he's right: it's a ridiculous conceit with a clunky execution (the text setting is particularly disastrous.)  But it's just like, Steve, you've got to get past all of that.  It's ok though, I still wouldn't break up with him.]

After “Les Parapluies”, Jacque Demy and Michel Legrand teamed up once again for “Les Demoiselles de Rochefort”, which really is a musical.  Like its predecessor, it stars the incomparably ravishing Catherine Deneuve but it also features a cameos by Gene Kelly (who trots out a few mots de français) and George Chakiris.

This brings us to our special subject for today, the third and final Demy-Legrand collaboration, the incomparably strange Peau d’Âne – “Donkeyskin” – based on Charles Perrault’s incestuous fever-dream of a fairy-tale from 1695.

Where to begin?  Let’s start by saying that this has got to be the single campiest film of all time.  View, for example, the chintzy costumes and sets, complete with rainbow headboard:

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Or this cat bench:

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  Also, it’s basically Eyes Wide Shut

meets The Smurfs

done on the budget of an average episode of Mr. Rodgers  

And a mouth inside an eye inside a rose, because acid flashbacks are so much fun:

I can only imagine that François Ozon came home from school every day and watched this movie from the ages of about 5-12.  Which brings me to the music, because I think Ozon must have forced Phillipe Rombi to listen to the “recipe song” from Peau d’Âne like 20 times before writing the score for Potiche:

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I’ve often criticized Michel Legrand for his rather crude job inserting the text of “Les Parapluies” into his pre-existing tunes, but there’s a moment in Peau d’Âne that might just prove me wrong.  Listen to his setting of the word “la situation” in both scores:

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I’m still right, but they’re very similar, so maybe he had a particular affinity for that word’s melodic qualities.

Finally, this is basically me as I leave the house before every rehearsal:

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10 (Better) Pieces of Advice to Conductors

It’s not that I think Esa-Pekka’s advice to conductors is bad per se, it’s just that I think some of it is rather oblique and the rest of it is perhaps less-than-useful.  Either way, his list inspired me to create my own, and here it is:

1) Show respect to everyone you work with, including but not limited to: musicians, stage crew, librarians, administrators, board members, PR people, press, patrons.  Remember that each one of these human beings is motivated by his or her own personal goals; your job is to unify this divergent array into one unified project. Foster an atmosphere in which people feel connected to the overarching goal and in which they share in the rewards of a positive outcome.  Communicate clearly and get them actively involved.  Hold people to high standards as you would yourself, but be understanding and forgiving if they make mistakes.

2) Do not neglect the importance of conducting technique.  Stand straight.  Hold your baton in such a way that you create a straight line from the tip of the baton to your elbow.  Beat clearly, taking special care to ensure that horizontal beats (beats 2 and 3 in a four-pattern) go clearly out to the sides.  Keep your beat small and always relate it to the size of the music.  Cue mainly with the eyes and the breath.

3) Memorize your scores in as much detail as you possibly can.  I prefer to conduct without scores because it forces me to memorize them – try as I may, unless I set myself the specific goal of conducting without a score, I never memorize them fully.  You should conduct at least two rehearsals without the aid of a score.  If I am conducting a concert where I don’t have two rehearsals, I always use the score.  With my youth orchestra, which begins rehearsals 10-12 weeks before a concert, I schedule my study time so that I have memorized the music one or two weeks out; if I were to memorize the scores before the rehearsal process began, I would have far too much time to forget them before the concert.

4) Know everything but do not act like a know-it-all.

5) Compose.  I agree with EPS that learning to play an instrument very well is a valuable pursuit for a conductor, but if the choice is between learning to play an instrument passably well and also making a few modest attempts at composition, I think the latter is a much wiser course of action.  Your job as a conductor is, essentially, to straddle to the two sides of the composition-performance divide.  Orchestration is a valuable pursuit as well, but I think it’s better to write a simple piano composition from scratch. (This advice applies equally to all musicians.)

6) Learn to play the piano and a string instrument at least passably well.  I always recommend viola, not just because it happens to be my instrument, but because it kills many birds with one stone: you learn how to hold and bow an instrument in the upright manner employed by violins, you learn an instrument that is strung as the celli are, and you are forced into a tactile knowledge of the alto clef (this advice applies equally well to composers.)

7) Expunge coarse language from your everyday speech.  You will frequently be called upon to speak in front of audiences and media.  Those who habitually make recourse to obscenities use them as replacements for more accurate vocabulary; in front of an audience, these words suddenly become unavailable to you, and you will end up searching awkwardly for the appropriate word, interlarding your discourse with an endless barrage of ‘ums’ and ‘uhs’ (which are entirely unpleasant to the listener and make you out to be a bumbling fool.)

[The use of these fillers ('um', 'uh', and the most vile of all, 'so') is common among newby public speakers. This is understandable, but you must dedicate yourself to removing them through practice.  You must develop the habit of thinking ahead of what you are speaking about.  If you have done extensive research and you legitimately know what you're talking about this is much easier.]

7a) When speaking to audiences, do not use slangy musician expressions like “Tchaik 5″.  This is trade speak, and it is alienating.  Assume that your audiences have no knowledge of the technical terms of music, but that they possess a musical intelligence that can be unlocked if you express yourself clearly.  Demonstrate using sound clips and examples at the keyboard.  Audiences will love it if you can help them listen in more active ways.

8) Learn to speak and read French, German and Italian.  Practice the correct pronunciation of their words and learn their grammar so that you understand the inflection of their sentences.  A basic understanding of a Slavic tongue is also desirable, particularly if you can learn to read the Cyrillic alphabet.  The more languages you can acquire, the better, but if you learn those three core European tongues, you will do yourself an enormous favor.

9) Gentlemen conductors will need acquire the following items of apparel:

  • A black dress suit, white formal shirt and an array of neck ties;
  • A dinner jacket (“tuxedo”), formal (satin-striped) trousers, pleated shirt, cummerbund, wing-tip collar, black bow tie, black (onyx) cuff links and studs;
  • A full-length tailcoat, piqué (marcella) shirt, white piqué bow tie, white piqué vest, mother-of-pearl cuff links and studs.

Silk socks or stockings and a good pair of patent leather shoes (which should never see the light of the outside world) are also vital.  Every item on this list should be of the highest quality and custom tailored to the wearer.  This involves a considerable expense, but it is an incredibly important investment.  Keep these clothes clean and in good repair and, most important of all, learn to wear them well.  Know the ins and outs of every button and hook, and be confident: you look great!

[This should go without saying, but do not consider, for even the briefest of moments, the use of pre-tied bow ties.  They are vile and cheap and reveal you as an utmost fraud.  Wearing a real bow tie is not only consistent with the high standards to which you should hold yourself overall, but it sets a good example to the gentlemen of the orchestra, who should also care for their garments and overall appearance with the same exacting attention as you do.]

Bonus points: also acquire and learn how to tie an ascot.

10) Accept that much of what happens to you in your career (or even within a single concert) is completely out of your control, but work as hard as you possibly can to ensure the best outcomes.

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