Monthly Archives: August 2010

My aunt Betty

OK, can someone please explain this sudden burst of cultural currency afforded to Betty White?  Don’t get me wrong – I’ve got no beef with said popularity resurgence, quite to the contrary.  B-dubbs and I go back – way back – to the days of Sue Ann Nivens on MTM (not to be confused with MTT) and her work on the Golden Girls informed my childhood, youth, and young adulthood (to which I still desperately cling).  I mean, come on, “Miami, you’re cuter than… an inter-uteran…” ??  That’s pure gold.

So, this is not meant as any kind of a criticism, just a statement of curiosity.  For someone who has been intimately (well, not intimately) familiar with Betty’s work for so long, it comes as a sort of gratifying but confusing turn of events that she would gain so much in popularity after having gained so very much in age (she’s 88).

Am I wrong, or did it all start with the whole Facebook groundswell to get her to host Saturday Night Live?  And what was that all about?  Now she’s on the Emmy’s, has a whole bevy of guest appearances on other TV shows, and is even starring in her own sitcom on TVland?

Again, don’t get me wrong, I love the woman dearly, but it all just comes as a bit of a surprise?  Anyone?  Maybe Betty and the rest of the Girls made some kind of pact that the last one alive would harness the combined powers of the other three and ride the wave to a new brand of stardom… or was it that they would all have their heads frozen?

Necessary juxtaposition

I’m sorry, but I just think these two videos need to share the same space:

Final thought: A few weeks ago, I was hanging out with my friend Eric in the avant-hipster Greenpoint neighborhood of Brooklyn.  It is entirely possible that both of these videos were spliced together using candid footage from this region.

The Sound that Says “Love”

I attended last night’s penultimate concert of the Grant Park Symphony Orchestra and Chorus Season – Mahler’s Symphony No. 2.  The rendition was simply splendid: the playing brilliant, the singing lustrous, the chorus precise, warm and immensely clear in their diction.  Basically, it was a great concert – even greater because the outdoor, somewhat casual setting gives me an opportunity to pontificate on one of my favorite subjects: applause.

See, you’re probably thinking – especially those of you who know me – that I am setting up to chastise the hoi polloi for their inter-movement ovations.  Nothing could be further from the truth!  Those of you who really know me (you lucky little cherubs) know that applauding between movements of a symphony or concerto (especially one written prior to the 20th century) is something that I whole-heartedly endorse!

For me, the best “inappropriate applause” last night came at the moment in the score when the development goes slamming into the recap of the colossal first movement.  You know the spot:

What better place to applaud?  The thing that I enjoyed most about applauding right there (which I did) was that it felt like that gut reaction of clapping when a really great rock guitar solo in a concert matches exactly (artlessly?) what you heard on the album -  not the knowing applause of the cognoscenti that follows a solo jazz improvisation.  At least, that’s what it was in my mind anyway.*  I just thought that such great, vehement playing of 2’s against 3’s really deserved some applause!

Alex Ross wrote a famous article on this subject in The Guardian, but unfortunately he stopped short of endorsing a new era of applauditory freedom.  See, the thing is, I wouldn’t be so very much in favor of applauding between movements were it not for the fact that composers specifically designed their pieces to elicit applause at the ends of movements.  So many letters have been handed down to us from antiquity in which the great composers take considerable delight in having a first or an inner movement applauded so much that they even had to repeat it.

Of course, the big problem is that certain places demand applause while others achieve a far greater effect by forgoing it, even in moments of exalted excitement.  In Mr. Ross’s article, he mentions the case of the third movement of Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique Symphony – which happened to be on the radio as I was driving home from the concert last night, incidentally – and which goes a little something like this:

Seems like the perfect place for applause, right?  Well, it would be, were it not for the fact that this exuberant finale happens to be followed by the most heart-wrenching suicide note of a movement ever penned:

To me, the big effect here is the startling, knock-the-air-out-of-you change of mood (or, let’s say “affect“).  The colossal weight of the fourth movement loses all of its impact if it doesn’t shock you out of the march’s vigorous mood – the effect should be akin to dousing a red hot iron with the Arctic Ocean.  I prefer to time it something like this:

or maybe even spaced a little closer together, just to be audacious.  Whatever it takes to give the audience even an inkling of Piotr Ilyitch Tchaikovsky’s inner turmoil.

But how to do it?  How can one possibly stop the inevitable outpouring of cheers and clapping at the end of a thrilling march like the third movement?  I think that an explanation before the beginning of the entire symphony would be a great place to start.  Explain and demonstrate to the assembled spectators just what it is that Tchaikovsky was trying to achieve with this stark juxtaposition and why they are in for a deeper, more thrilling emotional experience if they take the plunge into the fourth movement without any pause.

So, I suppose that my solution to the applause conundrum is to have audiences be completely educated and enlightened to the point where they can anticipate every nuance of a piece and respond to it according to my exact taste.  And when I’m Music Director of the World, that’s exactly what I intend to have happen.

Speaking of Alex Ross, is everyone aware of this?

*[Ed: “Are you saying “boo” or “boo-urns”?]

Where to begin?

The time comes a time in every blogger’s life when he must apologize for an extended absence, and now’s my time, so, Sorry.  Since last we spoke, I’ve been in a sort of Dustin-Hoffman-in-The-Graduate-esque daze, wandering from town to town like a half-drunk mosquito on a hot summer’s night.  I’m looking for some kind of conducting job since I’ve got, like, a degree in it now, but perhaps it’s time for a different approach.  The good news is that it looks like I’ll be able to scrape by on commissions for the next few months.

Speaking of composing, I finally premièred and recorded a piece that I wrote a year and a half ago, my Madrigal a 5 voci for Brass Quintet.  Which, if you happen to listen to, you might want to know contains my personal favorite ending of any piece of mine – a perfect fifth with a very flat major third, formed by the horn playing an open harmonic Bb (7th partial).  It’s in between a major third and a minor third – you might call it a “neutral third”, though it’s anything but.  Oh, I can’t help myself, here’s what it sounds like:

If something that wretchedly discordant doesn’t make you want to listen to the entire piece, I don’t know what will.

OK, another musical recommendation: the new album by Argentine “jazz” pianist Guillermo Klein, Domador de Huellas: Music of Cuchi Leguizamón.  I render the word jazz as a quotation because Sr. Klein rejects labels of all sorts, and considers himself merely a composer who works in a variety of idioms.  My acquaintance with the music of Sr. Klein came about because my good friend Eric “El Bensón” Benson spent a great deal of time in Buenos Aires a few years ago getting to know the man himself and the circle of musicians surrounding him.  Eric has been posting several interviews with the musicians on this album that he himself conducted at his blog Inverted Garden.  He has also been hard at work producing a radio mini-documentary on the album.  All highly recommended, despite the fact that this is certainly “fringe” repertoire if ever there were any – an obtusely named album (trans: Tamer of Footprints, I think?) devoted to the works of an Argentinian folk composer that most Argentinians have never heard of.  Great stuff.

Back to me now, since wrapping up the season of Monteux School in Maine a few weeks ago, I’ve been wandering down the East Coast, staying at the homes of various composers, writers, musicians, etc. – you know, the sort of East Coast Bohemian Élite that is my social group.  Return visits to the Midwest and Californ-I-A are on the docket.  One stop on this tour was a visit to a rehearsal of the BSO at Tanglewood with my good friend, the cellist Daniel Lelchuk.

This particular rehearsal offered much to talk about, almost all of it concerning the conductor (a major international podium presence) and just how indecipherable his motions were on the podium.  I had recently seen this particular conductor at work with the Chicago Symphony and let me just say that this rehearsal confirmed my worst impressions.

In the following days, I had the chance to discuss this rehearsal with some fellow musicians, but the more interesting conversations were with interested music lovers.  These people invariably begin their comments by admitting their lack of expertise.  They then go on to say why they like certain conductors but have trouble with others.  In every case, the layman’s opinion matches the musical worth (from my point of view, at least) of the conductors in question.

All this is to say that conducting is really not anything tricky to judge, much of the time.  I am a firm believer that any audience member who truly enjoys classical music on a gut level should be able to watch a conductor and judge his basic worth.  Do his physical movements seem to match the tempo, dynamic and “coloration” of the music?  Does his manner change when a major event in the music happens?  Or does he seem to be doing one thing and the musicians another?  Take for example:

For the most part, the conducting here seems removed from the music itself, frequently in terms of the basic pulse (which, YES, ought to be the minimum requirement for good conducting, although the fashion seems to be to ignore this entirely.  I’m not saying that a conductor has to beat all the time – or even most of the time in certain pieces – but if he beats, his beat damn well ought to be clear and connected to the musical fabric.)

Now take this (same piece):

I’m sick and tired of hearing about how Bernstein’s so-called “podium antics” were over the top, etc.  They weren’t.  Now, that’s not at all to say that his interpretations didn’t push the limits of good taste -  quite often, they did.  The distinction that I’m trying to make is that his bodily movements always communicated the music exactly as he understood it.  You may (as I do) disagree with what he was trying to do, but you can’t disagree with how he did it.

So take heart, you denizens (well, citizens at least) of the “uninitiated” orchestral audience – you are perfectly entitled to your opinion, and if what you see doesn’t match what you hear, there’s probably something wrong.