Monthly Archives: October 2010

Civic Addenda

Well, it’s happened again – preparing for a talk at Symphony Center, I’ve come across way too much material for my allotted 30 minutes.  Here are extra insights on the October 31, 2010 concert of the Civic Orchestra of Chicago.  To the various concert attendees who found their way here after hearing my talk – Welcome!  Do feel free to peruse the rest of my web site, always being aware that it does not in any way represent the Chicago Symphony or Civic Orchestras.

Shostakovich, Chamber Symphony (1960)
(String Quartet No. 8 arranged by Rudolf Barshai for String Orchestra)

The Chamber Symphony of Dmitri Shostakovich began life as his 8th String Quartet – the version that we hear in concert by string orchestras is simply an arrangement by the Russian conductor Rudolf Barshai.  More than any other Shostakovich Quartet, the Eighth seems particularly suited for this kind of expanded treatment.

Shostakovich’s eighth quartet is a sort of mix tape of previous compositions, woven together with his “signature motto”, the notes DSCH as in Dmitri Schostakovitch  (This actually requires a lot of explanation, and it requires us to pretend we’re German musicians for a moment: the German note name system calls our E-flat “Es” – hence the use of the letter “S” in this motto; similarly, the Germans refer to our note “B” as “H” for some reason.  Also, you’re going to have to go German in the spelling of Dmitri’s last name, since American’s tend to prefer the spelling Shostakovich with no “c”.)

Here is the opening of the Quartet, with that exact motive in the cello part:

This is the theme that will connect the vast array of quotations from Shostakovich’s earlier works.  Here they all are, in order:

1.) First Symphony (1926)

The original, a playfully sardonic duet for trumpet and bassoon:

In the quartet the music is greatly slowed down and sounds like the expression of an old man in comparison to the previous:

2.) Fifth Symphony (1937)

The tune, deep in the horns, really nothing but a descending line:

rendered much more demurely (even timidly, on might say) in the eighth quartet:

3) Second Piano Trio (1944)

Originally, Shostakovich gave this Jewish theme a delightfully eerie “oom-pah” dance rhythm, creating a soft, macabre folk texture:

In the second movement of the quartet, the same tune is presented in a texture that is best described as diabolical:

4) First Cello Concerto (1959)

The only difference between the original:

and the quartet version:

is the instrumentation.

5) The Young Guard (1948)

There seems to be a lot of confusion in the literature about the nature of the next quotation.  The quote itself is minuscule – a four-note motive from Shostakovich’s score for the 1948 film “The Young Guard”:

This motive itself comes from the very first notes of a revolutionary song which features prominently in the plot of the movie.  In one of the film’s most powerful scenes, we see a group of young girls who have been imprisoned by the Nazis for their resistance during World War II (these are in fact the Young Guards of history).  As they sing this anthem, they defy their captors and work up the courage to fight back; the young men in the next cell over join in:

When it appears in the quartet, the four-note motive is cut short by three violent bow strokes:

The internet being the mind-boggling thing that it is, you can actually watch the entire film on YouTube (in Russian and German, without subtitles):

Part I: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6

Part II: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6

6) “Tortured by Grievous Unfreedom”

This is the only quote in the piece that is not from one of Shostakovich’s own previous works.  It is a revolutionary song, said to be Lenin’s favorite.  There is a wonderful page that contextualizes this song in terms of Russian Revolutionary music here.  There is a page devoted to this particular song in its many iterations here (in Russian).  It goes a little something like this:

and it’s used in the quartet like this:

7) Katerina’s arioso from the fourth act of Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District:

which itself sounds a little bit like a mixture of Bernard Herrmann’s score for Vertigo:

and “Bess, You is my Woman Now” from Porgy & Bess:

and is used in the quartet like this:

Recommended Reading

  • David Fanning: Shostakovich String Quartet No. 8 (2004) – google books
  • Michael Mishra: A Shostakovich Companion (2008) – google books
  • Richard Taruskin: Defining Russia Musically: Historical and Hermeneutical Essays (1997) – google books

Recommended Recordings

For anyone who has even a moderate interest in the Shostakovich String Quartet repertoire, I would seriously recommend dropping 42 bucks at the Amazon mp3 store (50 bucks on iTunes) and buying the recordings of all 15 Shostakovich Quartets by the confusingly named “Beethoven” Quartet.  These performers collaborated extensively with Shostakovich himself and gave the premieres of several of his quartets including the Eighth.  You could also spend just 5 bucks and get the Eighth Quartet individually. Amazon, iTunes

For a more recent, fast, polished, full-throttled reading of this piece, I highly recommend the Emerson Quartet’s recording. Amazon, iTunes

As for recordings of the Rudolf Barshai-arranged “Chamber Symphony” version, it’s very difficult to find one in which both the orchestra and the conductor seem to be in the spirit of the piece: often, the technical demands of the string writing are too difficult for and entire orchestra to play together up to tempo, or the conductor indulges too much in Shostakovich’s ‘mood music’.  One recording that I highly recommend is Vladimir Ashkenazy’s reading with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. iTunes

Tchaikovsky, Symphony No. 5 (1888)

OK, so I totally geeked out on the Shostakovich stuff, so just watch this and enjoy it:

An Open Letter to the Chief Arranger or Music Supervisor or Whomever of Glee:

According to (via New York City Opera’s Twitter feed), an upcoming episode of your television show will feature Jane Lynch and Carol Burnett singing “Ohio” from Leonard Bernstein’s Wonderful Town.

I could hardly think of a finer pair of actresses to perform this classic of the American musical theater.  This is one of my favorite Bernstein tunes of all time, and I think it was an inspired choice to include on your program.

Just a few hints:

1) Please do not tamper with the lower part.  It’s not just your average harmony.  It is quite specific and quite specifically brilliant:

In the space of just a few measures, it goes from shadowing the melody a sixth below (“Why-oh-why-oh-why-oh”) to moving in contrary motion (“why did I”), and goes up this amazing contrapuntal arpeggio (“ever leave O-“), setting up the most extraordinarily beautiful double appoggiatura (“hi-o”) [like, ever]. And the intricacies only compound from there.

It is this lower harmony – let’s just go ahead and call it the “tenor” part, since that’s really where it lies – that gives the song it’s wistful, melancholic charm.

2) It is a well established fact that you guys auto-tune the shit out of this show.  Maybe these kids really can’t sing in tune and you’re just doing your job, so OK.  But please, if you’re going to auto-tune this song, and you’re going to do it in the key of Db (hint, hint), please auto-tune it so that the low C in the “tenor” part sounds exactly as flat and manish sounding as Rosalind Russell’s in the above (on the syllable “e-” of “ever”).  Thanks.

3) If you’re going to continue into the “chatter” section of the song (and I certainly hope that you will), I’ll completely understand if you have to re-write the dialogue to suit the particular needs of your plot.  This is assuming that the episode in question will contain a plot, which I understand is no small assumption given the typical episode of GLEE.  However, I would suggest that you keep the spunky little jazzed-up arrangement of the main tune in the background:

4) Other than that, just have a great time and let these two magnificent ladies do their thing!  Oh and try to at least approximate the original orchestration with real instruments.  ‘K Thanks!


William White

T is for Turangalîla

My recent wanderings have come to an end (for now at least).  I went to Berlin, then to DC, then to LA.  In D.C. I saw the National Opera’s production of “Salome”, which was at a very high level musically, but dramatically vapid (see that previous link to my Berlin trip for more about that).  In LA, I went to see the Philharmonic’s performance of Olivier Messiaen’s Turangalîla Symphonie with Dudamel at the helm.

This was, in many ways, a surprising program choice for the Dudz.  In fact, going into the concert, I couldn’t help but thinking that the Turangalîla was much more an Esa-Pekka piece.  Indeed, not but a day after the concert was I reading Listen to This and my suspicion was confirmed: Maestro Salonen first encountered the Messiaen score when he was a Finnish tot of ten years old. (Interestingly, I learned from a different chapter that Radiohead’s Johnny Greenwood became similarly obsessed with this score at the age of 15.)

I’m guessing that the Salonen connection may have had something to do with Dudamel’s choosing this piece: during his tenure as Music Director in LA, Salonen assiduously incorporated modern masterworks of the Turangalîla variety into the orchestra’s repertoire.  The audience there [which, by the way, was easily the youngest and most diverse audience I have ever seen at an orchestra concert] is, by all accounts, accustomed to hearing works of this magnitude and amplitude, so Dudamel has to show that he’s more than just flash. Which he definitely is, and his reading of this pieces was thorough and committed from start to finish.  And it’s not like conducting Mahler symphonies is a piece of cake anyway.

But what in the world is this Turangalila?  It’s some amazing music for one; and perhaps 30-40 minutes too long, for another.  The symphony is presented in ten movements, with the main material cycling through the whole piece.  As with many of Messiaen’s compositions, there’s an inherent mathematical logic to the way that these musical cells appear and reappear that is extremely interesting, but doesn’t make for the most satisfying listening experience when your butt’s planted in a seat for 90 minutes.

Listening to the symphony, I was immediately struck by one of the main themes which comes back about 30 or 40 times:

because it bears a striking resemblance to Bernard Herrmann’s score for Cape Fear:

which, of course, went through the transmogrifier several times to become Alf Clausen‘s much beloved theme music for Sideshow Bob on The Simpsons.  If you’re not adverse to watching illegal Russian-dubbed versions of TV on the internet, you can see the Cape Feare episode (for which Mr. Clausen picked up an Emmy) below:

Oh, and the other funny thing about the Turangalîla is that it uses the wood block like like it’s going out of style, and it sounds like Messiaen outsourced the final movement to Aaron Copland:

[P.S. I promise you that the LA Phil sounded about 100 times better than the above recording.]

Move over, Alex Ross

because your colleague at the New Yorker, Peter Schjeldahl may have come up with the best line ever from an artistic review:

Two main stories competed in the fifties to explain the significance of Abstract Expressionism.  One was nationalist, asserting native values of freedom and energy, as if America herself made the works.  The other, Greenberg’s, posited an inevitability of formal development in painting, through progressive styles that were ever more attuned to the medium’s material givens of flatness and pigmentation and ever more averse to any sort of reference or illusion.  Both tales ran aground in the sixties, when the New York School’s big painting became the chassis for Warhol’s Marylins and Elvises, and its frank uses of paint informed the taciturn object-making of minimalism.  Then those movements, too, disintegrated, and it’s pretty much been one damn thing after another ever since.

Die heilige deutsche Kunst

I’ve just returned from a 9 day stint sampling the artistic delights of the city of Berlin.  My visit was a work/play combo, and I spent a good amount of time cooking up project ideas with my dear friend, the brilliant playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, while also packing my schedule full of symphonic/operatic shows. [Speaking of Brandon, anyone in L.A. (as I will be next week) should totally go see his play this month (just click upon his linkèd name).]

I went to Berlin hoping to be disabused of all the usual rumors surrounding German classical music-making, but I’ve ended up finding them all to be true.  In no particular order:

1) German orchestras play with less technical precision but more gusto/musicality than their American counterparts.  True.  Although it’s not like they’re particularly lacking in the technical department either.  My first night in Berlin, I heard the Deutsches Symphonie, probably the second or third orchestra of the city of Berlin, but they played with a passion, beauty and energy that would outmatch many if not most of America’s top orchestras.  The piece was Verdi’s Requiem, the conductor James Conlon.  Hearing the orchestra of the Komische Oper play the score of Die Meistersinger a few days later was a similarly revelatory experience – the orchestra played with real command and gorgeous color under the direction of their new, young Chefdirigent, Patrick Lange.

2) The professional radio choirs of Northern Europe/Scandinavia* are the best around.

I had this choir director in college who was basically abhorrent in every way, and she would often ramble incessantly about the quality of the radio choirs in Berlin and Stockholm.  Well, the Rundfunkchor-Berlin was the resident choir for the Verdi Requiem that I heard, and they really were all that.  About half the size of a typical US Symphonic choir, they packed twice the punch, and you could really get a sense of each singer’s individual artistic contribution to the whole, but not in a distracting, sticking-out sort of way.

However, I do think that the Bach choir of Tokyo is maybe second best.  And I would never want to discount the recent achievements of Chicago’s own Grant Park Symphony Chorus.  But from my brief experience with the RFC-Berlin, I’d say this group combines the best of a large symphonic choir and a small chamber choir.

[*I’m just kind of assuming that the Swedish Radio Choir is really great in person too… their recordings are superb enough.]

3) The Berlin Philharmonic is the best orchestra in the world.

The particular concert that I attended really illustrates what makes this orchestra great.  The conductor was this guy, Tomáš Netopil,

a young Czech conductor standing in for the not-so-recently deceased Sir Charles Mackerras.  He’s young, very energetic and makes music at a very high level, that’s for certain.  What’s not certain, though, is what to make of his interpretations.  The concert I heard contained two pieces: excerpts from Martinů’s opera Julliette and Dvořák’s Symphony No. 7.  I know very little about the Martinů repertoire in general except that I tend to really like his music and I always wonder why we don’t hear more of it on concert programs (my teacher recorded a bunch of his stuff though, which you should totally buy).

But I sure as hell do know Dvořák’s 7th, at least enough to say that Mr. Netopil’s was a very unusual interpretation.  One obvious point is that he used a totally different second movement, recently uncovered and edited by Jonathan Del Mar (who may be the most famous editor of classical music, assuming that such a thing actually exists.)  This new second movement was quite lovely, though it’s always jarring to hear a re-composition of something so very familiar.  My impression is that this alternate movement offers more in terms of color and fantasy but  lacks the formal tidiness of the movement we usually hear.

But I digress.  The thing about Mr. Netopil’s rendering of Dvořák’s 7th is that it was constantly on the brink – the tempi were generally quite fast but with lots and lots of modification, and he offered a gamut of surprises in terms of balance and color.  But I simply can’t judge it as an interpretation because the musicians of the orchestra made it work perfectly.  At times, it seemed as if the entire thing was going to disintegrate into a pile of mush — tempos would be pushed to such extremes that I didn’t know how the strings would possibly be able to play together, or how a particular wind player would conceivably be able to fit his rhythm into what the rest of the orchestra was doing.  And yet, they did it with aplomb.

There wasn’t anything the least bit casual about it even though it sounded totally natural; the orchestra played with more concentration and intensity than any other I have ever seen.  The furthest back players in all the string sections were as committed as the principals.  It was easily best orchestral performance I have ever attended.

[Caveat: the Vienna Philharmonic is a personal favorite, but it’s not exactly a normal orchestra – positions in the orchestra are handed down from father to son, they play these weird, ancient instruments that are not used by any other players in any other orchestra in the world, they supposedly mark their bowings in pen, etc…]

4) Eurotrash. Not so much an axiom as a word, but the opera productions I saw in Berlin (Meistersinger, Traviata, and a trio of abstract chamber operas by Boris Blacher) left much to be desired.  Many of you are probably familiar with the typical problems in German opera staging, and I should probably clarify my stance by saying that my argument is not with a particular aesthetic, but with the lazy attitude and sloppy work that accompanies most Eurotrash opera productions (it certainly applied to the ones that I saw.)

I fully understand that there are compelling reasons to update the costumes, sets and “concepts” of a given opera.  It makes sense that directors and designers should incorporate contemporary visual and artistic references into the operas they produce.  If the references are meaningful to audiences, the characters and dramatic situations in an opera can gain a vividness and relevance that might not be possible when staged traditionally.  Or maybe these visual touches bring out some previously undiscovered dimension to the piece.  And that’s great.  I recently went down to Bloomington to see the opening of IU’s opera season, a magnificent production of Barber of Seville directed by Nicholas Muni.  It had a kitschy, dark aesthetic to it and the costumes and set pieces really heightened the story-telling and comedy.

In Berlin, at the Komische Oper, however, all I saw was lazy, incompetent direction and design.  Every single cliché of the regietheater was on display: mirrors on the floors, exposed stage apparati, extraneous nudity, food being thrown, changed endings, etc. What I didn’t see was well-rounded characterization, thoughtful relationships, connections between words, music and drama, or anything that elucidated the action of the story with a modicum of interest.  Die Meistersinger von Nürnburg is a 5 1/2 hour long opera.  In the Komische Oper’s production, first two acts staged with costumes and sets exclusively in gray and brown.  That’s a rather monotonous color story for 3 1/2 hours of opera.  Then, in the third act, when the holiday festivities commence – what do you know?  Colors!  And this is supposed to qualify as an interesting artistic decision?  All I saw was a sucky collision of Dogville and The Wizard of Oz.

Then there’s the Traviata directed by this guy, Hans Neuenfels:

and even though I like basically everything about this picture of him, sitting through his production, I felt overwhelmingly that he should be drawn and quartered.  Let’s take as an example of his ‘craft’, his rendering of the character of Giorgio Germont.  This is really a complex character, a deeply religious man who asks Violetta, a woman he barely knows, to make an enormous personal sacrifice for the sake of his family.  What’s more, he feels a strongly paternal affection to Violetta upon meeting her.  So, wrapped into this character is a real conflict and a number of dimensions.  Here’s what he looked like in Mr. Neuenfels’ production:

See how he’s thrusting his crucifix in other characters faces like a talisman?  That’s exactly what he spends about 90% of his stage time doing.  What you don’t see is his footwear, and the fact that one of his feet is cloven.  Cloven.  Like a goat.  Because, you see, religious people are really evil and hypocritical.  And it’s interesting and edgy to point that out.  Except when it’s not, which is like most of the time, but it’s particularly uninteresting in this opera.  Presenting this character in this light renders him way less interesting than a seated reading of the libretto would.

This post has sort of derailed, and I should point out that I loved Berlin and my experiences there, and my friend Branden is totally the best, but let me just end with this: Opera Directors, I hereby encourage you on behalf of whomever – let’s say the opera-going public – to work hard to re-invigorate constantly the operatic cannon with every production.  Dig deeply into the libretto and the score and try to access and interact with the combined intelligences of the librettist and the composer.   Create a bold interpretation and invite your audiences into a revelatory night of theater.  Please!!  It’s what we want.  But if you dig and dig and can’t find a way to express the piece and to express yourself through the piece, just don’t do it.  You know what?  YOU COULD EVEN WRITE YOUR OWN OPERA.  Go ahead!  It’s very hard work, let me assure you.  I just hope you aren’t frustrated by the efforts of your interpreters.