Monthly Archives: November 2010

Rose’s Turn

Charlie Rose plays an inordinately large role in my life*.  He is quasi avuncular – sometimes a chum, sometimes a father-confessor.  In the space of a single interview – a single question, really – he can be simultaneously awkward and brilliant, bored and engaged.  To gaze upon him is to know that he is a man of intense contrasts: how can one man look so boyishly handsome and so ruthlessly haggard at the same time?

*[in my head]

Charlie is my particular subject today because he’s been giving a lot of love to the classical music world lately, but we’ll get to that in just a second.  I want to pause here to state publicly that even though I will fight valiantly to make sure cuff links remain a vital part of the male wardrobe, I love that Charlie just doesn’t wear them.  In fact, sometimes he won’t even bother to button his ordinary cuffs:

And in that picture, he was in London for goodness’ sake!  Ok though, enough about Charlie’s clothes. [And trust me, I could go on.]  Charlie has always been a great friend to the classical music community, but there’s been a recent spate of interviews that I’d like to talk about.  Let’s begin with the most interesting:

Valery Gergiev, in his 2nd or 3rd appearance on Rose, gave a blisteringly efficient and wide-ranging interview.  This was the Charlie Rose broadcast at it’s best: engaging, insightful, convivial, mutually respectful.  Plus, if anybody has ever embodied the phrase “rakishly handsome”, it would Valery Gergiev – which is astonishing in a world where we have Charlie Rose! [see above]  Let’s just say, this was a meeting of equals.

Bar none, the most interesting part of this interview was the last five minutes, in which Charlie posed Gergiev one of the most surprising questions I’ve ever heard him ask: Who are the 5 (or 6) most important living composers in your eyes?

The reason for my surprise is that there are so few people in this world who are in any way interested living composers (the concert/art/academic kind, that is).  Charlie Rose could not possibly have expected to recognize any of the names on Gergiev’s list (unless happened to fall under the elusive “unknown known” category), and yet he asked the question.  I have never loved him more.

Let’s take a look and listen to Gergiev’s list of composers, shall we?

Rodion Shchedrin

Shchedrin is an interesting choice, I’d say.  Most Westerners, if they’ve ever heard of this composer at all, have only heard of one piece: the “Carmen Suite”, a sort of cartoonish, barbaric Russian ballet-fantasia on themes from Bizet’s Opera:

Shchedrin is often compared to Schnittke, and it’s not an unwarranted (though don’t get me wrong, I know Alfred Schnittke, and Rodion Shchedrin is no Alfred Schnittke).  At his poppier moments, Shchedrin sort of comes off as Schnittke-meets-John-Williams.  Gergiev makes a compelling case for the composer on his new album:

Henri Dutilleux

Dutilleux came as a surprise a) because I honestly did not know that he was still alive, and b) it’s not that he’s necessarily a bad composer, but I’ve never known anyone to be a major fan or champion of his music, and I certainly had no inkling that Gergiev might be that person (say in the way that Kent Nagano and Olivier Messiaen are associated w/ each other).

I’ve always thought of Dutilleux as a sort of solid but not terribly interesting mid-2oth century modernist.  I don’t know much [his] of music, so perhaps that’s not fair.  Give a listen and see what you think – this is the opening movement of his “Metaboles” and is the piece I’m most familiar with by him:

Alexander Raskatov

Raskatov is Gergiev’s near exact contemporary (they were born like 2 months apart).  Raskatov has actually figured prominently on this blog before.  Allow me to job your memory: he is the very person who painstakingly reconstructed Alfred Schnittke’s 9th Symphony.  This was no easy job, and by all accounts, he did very, very thorough work.  I mean, the piece that we can hear today sounds like Schnittke, and it’s all because of him.  Respect.

The Schnittke symphony was released on CD and that’s how Raskatov first came to my attention.  You see, he included a new piece, a Nunc Dimittis in Memoriam Alfred Schnittke (or Alfredom Schnittkom, I think, if we’re being correct about our Russian grammar.)  And it’s like, honestly, can you hardly blame the guy if he wants to put his own piece on this album after doing all that work?  I can’t – I’m sure I would have done the same thing.  And it’s not that it’s a bad piece.  It’s very Schnittkey, but you know, it’s just not going to come off so amazing in comparison when you pit it against this amazing transcendent work by an artist who was already halfway to the grave.  Here’s maybe my favorite section:

Thomas Adès

With all due respect to Gergiev’s Ruskii compatriots, I would have started my list with Thomas Adès.  Adès is arguably the most important, greatest, most tubular -whatever adjective you want to use- composer of concert music we have around these days.  And it’s not a hard argument to make.  Whether we all choose to realize or admit it, we composers today are living in the shadow of Ligeti.  (In Russia, Schnittke is the looming presence.  Give it time, and he will creep westward.)

Despite this pervasiveness, Adès is really the only major figure who is seriously grappling with the specter of Ligeti.  And he’s none the worse for wear.  Here is the first movement of Ligeti’s Violin Concerto, about a minute in:

and here is the opening of Thomas Adès’:

It’s not that the two pieces sound all that similar – my point is that they seem to inhabit a similar universe but they are worlds unto themselves.  The act of homage is subtle: both composers build rhythmically complex textures that are nonetheless extremely quiet; the effect is a luminescent haze of sound.

I think it’s significant that not only that Adès handles himself adeptly in a dialogue with Ligeti but that he’s chosen late Ligeti as his conversant [I might mention that Adès’ concerto also shares aspects with Ligeti’s Hamburg Concerto.]  Again, he’s not an imitator or a provocateur or anything like that – he’s got a very strong singular talent, perhaps one of the few strong enough to really grapple with Ligeti’s writing.

As for Charlie’s interviews with Vittorio Grigolo and Antonio Pappano, I’ll just point out a few things:

1) Grigolo might be the most Italian Italian person I’ve ever heard.  No offense to my Italian friends, but they tend to say in about 100 words what they could manage in 10.

2) You just know that right before the cameras started rolling, Charlie made Vittorio coach him on the correct Italian pronunciation of his name. Charlie really tried to retain this knowledge as he introduced his guest, and though this was definitely his most valiant effort yet at a foreign pronunciation, it still comes out gloriously mangled.

2) Plus, if you skip ahead to 16:42, you’ll see that Vittorio loves Charlie, and so do I.

3) Watch Antonio Pappano at the beginning of the show as Charlie is introducing him.  Do you see him subtly lip syncing the whole speech?  That’s kind of really weird, right?


I got an e-mail yesterday from my friend Kensho, who had to give some sort of mock-pre-concert lecture for his conducting seminar at the Curtis Institute.  Well aware of my prowess in the field (and who isn’t?), he asked if I had any advice.  I proceeded to type out a 3 page deluge of information, everything from which software to use to make audio clips (I use Switch, MP3 Trimmer, and Audio Hijack Pro), the ratio of talking about a composer’s bio to his music (like 1:10), and whether or not to include a Q&A (don’t).

I rambled into the message box and cleaned things up later, but I never had any doubt about sending so much detailed, practical information, because I know that that’s what people like best.  Read David Ogilvy’s Ogilvy on Advertising; not only does he provide a wealth of specific information about making print and TV ads (the very reason my web site features fonts with serifs and black text on white background), but he proves that it’s the best way to sell a product too.  Ogilvy was first and foremost a research man, and from his research he learned that the primary function of an ad was to inform a potential customer (this is not to mention his pioneering work in branding).  The ads that had the most copy invariably sold the most product.  And if you wouldn’t believe a man who looked like that, you’re crazy.

I love specific, detailed, technical information, and that element might be my most favorite thing about Finishing the Hat, Stephen Sondheim’s new book.  The first chapter is a primer on rhymes – perfect rhymes, slant rhymes, masculine and feminine, what an “identity” is.  It’s all stuff that you could get in an average poetry guide (or on Wikipedia for that matter), but when you read Sondheim’s descriptions and his impassioned reasoning about why rhymes are important, you connect deeply with him as an artist and a craftsman.  You realize that for all his virtuosity, the key to his success is that he has humbled himself before the basics of his craft time after time after time (or beau after beau after beau, as the case may be.)

There’s a young German composer who’s recently come to my attention named Robin Hoffman.  He mainly writes for film, and if you just peruse his music (which is offered very generously on his web site), you can hear how immaculately he has absorbed every single style that Hollywood has turned out over the past 100 years.  It’s an extremely impressive accomplishment.  What’s even better though, is that he publishes a “Daily Film Scoring Bit” on his blog.  It’s really valuable information, and you can tell that this man knows his métier intimately.

It’s hardly news, but there’s an awful lot of crap on the internet.  But if you can weed through it, you’ll find what you need.  I’m working on a band piece right now, and it was very helpful to find out not only that you can indeed mute a vibraslap, but also just how to do it, which I’m guessing is something not many people knew before they saw this video:

And then there’s my friend André’s new web site,, which I really have to recommend to anyone who lives in Chicago and likes to eat out at decent restaurants.  It allows you to review individual dishes on restaurant menus throughout the city.  The ramifications are really pretty cool: a) you know what to order when you go to a new restaurant, and b) chefs could use the aggregated data to improve their offerings.  I think there are lots of other ramifications, but those are probably a little too specific in terms of trade secrets for right now.

On another note, I specifically exhort everyone to boycott the iTunes store until they get this composer thing sorted out.  That is to say, Composer information no longer downloads from the iTunes store into your iTunes library, which, as I have spent much time explaining to the Apple people, is a deal-breaker for people who primarily purchase classical music.  The amazon mp3 store has better deals anyway, and much more legible track information and album covers.

Just shop there, and please lets not even start with this AAC v. mp3 business, you can’t tell the difference anyway.


1) Since posting my Addenda to the Civic Orchestra of Chicago Concert (below), the renowned Russian conductor and arranger Rudolf Barshai has passed away.  Mr. Barshai was one of many to arrange Shostakovich’s 8th string quartet for string orchestra, but his was the only one to receive Shostakovich’s express approval.

2) The critics (the good ones at least) found out what I’ve known since the tender age of 19: that “A Quiet Place” just isn’t Lenny’s finest work.  In fact, it’s not really even very good.  OK, let’s admit it: it’s a klunker.  And the really unfortunate thing is that when he interpolated his earlier opera, “Trouble in Tahiti”, into the flow of the later work, it just served to emphasize the genius of 40’s and 50’s Lenny and the unfortunate turn that 80’s Lenny had taken.

[Ed: the above picture is not in any way meant to illustrate an “unfortunate turn”.  Quite to the contrary, it’s actually a portrait of perfection.  Which will work against the ensuing argument, but it’s still a great picture.]

But I actually find something very inspirational in “A Quiet Place”, because it makes Lenny more human.  As Stephen Sondheim says, the main thing he learned from Lenny is that if you’re going to fall off the ladder, fall off the highest rung.  And it turns out that Lenny wasn’t perfect!  He fell hard.  Although I think he would have made a great fireman. [That’s a reference to the aforementioned “ladders”. And just a general comment.]

3) Speaking of Maestro Sondheim, I put my entire life on hold for 2 1/2 days so I could read his new book of collected lyrics, Finishing the Hat.  It’s every bit as brilliant as you’d expect it to be, and also more.  It is a vivid insight into the mind of a genius.  It makes you feel like you’re sitting right next to Mr. Sondheim himself and he’s explaining to you everything you ever wanted to know.  Since the lyrics in this volume only run through 1981, it also leaves you begging for more.

Which brings me to a particular post-1981 Sondheim lyric, and a particularly cheeky end to this blog post.  I’d like to share with you something that recently dawned on me.  Actually, I’ll challenge you to find it for yourself.  See if you can you discover the hidden libertarian message in this song:

Here’s a clue:

Although I have a feeling that these two pieces reach slightly different conclusions…