Monthly Archives: September 2010

Season opener

I’ve kind of been stalking the Chicago Symphony recently.  Put another way, the orchestra has recently held three free events to open up their season, and I’ve been to all of them.  Two of them were hits – out of the ballpark we’re talking here – and one was a miss.

Thursday, Sept 16
Mexico 2010 celebrations
Benito Juarez High School Auditorium
Carlos Miguel Prieto, conductor

This event was part of the CSO’s contribution to Mexico’s bicentennial celebration, and important collaboration and outreach event given the large Mexican community in Chicago and given the fact that Chicago is a sister city with Mexico City.  The programming was awfully clunky though – why did it begin with “Till Eulenspiegel”?  Why not just, you know, Mexican music?  That’s what followed, namely Galindo’s “Sonnes de Mariachi”, Marquez’ “Danzon No. 2” and Moncayo’s “Huapango”.

Let’s forget this German oddball pink elephant gargantuatron in the room for a moment (which I’m guessing might have been the idea of the conductor who wanted to get something juicy into a rare appearance with the Chicago Symphony) and look at the Mexican selections.  I happen to have played all three of those pieces in orchestras at one point or another.  I’ve also played really, really good Mexican music.  If you were going to play Mexican music for an inter-generational, celebratory crowd, how could you possibly avoid doing Sensemayá, which is one of the baddest pieces of orchestral music Mexican or otherwise out there?

[part 2]

I’m basically just shocked that there was not a single piece by Ravueltas (above) or Carlos Chavez, who are justifiably considered Mexico’s great composers.  I also hate to rag on this concert because it did seem to deeply affect the community in attendance – young and old, Hispanic and non-, all seemed genuinely moved that their new auditorium would be graced by the presence of this great orchestra, and that’s a good thing.

Sunday, Sept 19
Free Concert for Chicago
Millennium Park
Riccardo Muti, conductor

Here was an amazing concert – everything was just right.  First off, the orchestra sounded fantastic, like a real old orchestra with beautiful, singing tone.  A huge part of the equation was the programming, which was very much (and very wisely) of the “give them what they want to hear” variety: Verdi’s Overture to La Forza del Destino, Liszt’s “Les Préludes” (OK, nobody’s perfect), Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet, and Respighi’s The Pines of Rome.  All were appropriately flashy and bombastic, but for me, the Verdi stood out particularly in terms of sound and interpretation – just perfect.

The other cool thing was how crowded it was there.  It literally felt like a rock concert wending one’s way through the unwashed masses at the park.

And at the end?  Fireworks!

Wed, Sept 22
Dress Rehearsal for the Opening Subscription Concert
Orchestra Hall
Riccardo Muti, conductor

Here were the real fireworks (umm… you know, figuratively speaking).  First half: Berlioz, Symphonie Fantastique.  Second half: Berlioz, Lélio.

What is Lélio, you might ask?  Well, that’s a question easier asked than answered.  It’s the sequel to Symphonie Fantastique. [btw, I find the idea of a purely instrumental work having a “sequel” incredibly interesting – I can’t think of a single other example.  Can you?]  It’s a sort of monodrama for narrator, orchestra, chorus, and lieder singer with accompanist.  There’s a huge amount of dialogue given by the narrator (in Chicago played brilliantly by a truly corpulent Gérard Depardieu: )

The narrator is sort of Berlioz, but sort of not – basically, it’s whoever wrote the Symphony Fantastique – let’s call him Berlioz’s alter ego.  [p.s. here are some notes that I put up about Symphonie Fantastique a while ago.]  This has got to be the most Berlioz-y piece that Berlioz ever Berliozed, if you’ll pardon the expression.  Basically, the narrator extemporizes at length about his ordeal in composing/living the story of the Symphonie, the inability of his continental peers to understand Shakespeare’s brilliance, and his mental cohabitation with the characters from The Tempest – all interspersed with orchestral interludes, lieder played at the piano, and a choeur des ombres. Towards the end, it turns out that the composer-narrator just happens to have sketched a choral-orchestral fantasy on the subject of The Tempest, and – how convenient – there just happens to be an orchestra on stage.  Before the piece begins, he exhorts the players on stage to play in tune, follow the conductor, not to drag, etc.  This lengthier piece is what one usually hears from Lélio.  The “Tempest Fantasy” ends and the narrator is quite impressed and then goes off to die – or something.

Anyway, I’ve got to hand it to Muti – this is a hell of a way to kick off a season.  Great mix of a familiar classic and something crazy.  New York should be green with envy.  Their opening concert sounds like it SUCKED!!!!

Journey into the heart of dorkness

I recently listened to this concert, the 66th of the current Proms season, featuring the Berlin Phil with Simon Rattle in the following program:

Wagner, Parsifal Overture
Strauss, 4 Last Songs

… and then, played without any break:

Schoenberg, 5 Orchestral Pieces
Webern, 6 Orchestral Pieces
Berg, 3 Orchestral Pieces

[I should mention before we go any further that the audio from this particular concert is available for only another 12 hours (i.e. you won’t be able to listen to it after Friday morning.)  Sorry!]

I think this is really a hell of a program, and certainly an interesting choice for a Prom, given that those programs usually tend toward the populist side of things.  But first off, if you end up listening to one of the Proms broadcasts on the BBC iPlayer, you’ll notice something a tad peculiar about the volume adjuster.  This has got to be a joke, right?

Or is their player really just louder?

My analytical juices started to flow when Sir Simon mentioned in his introductory remarks that the Parsifal Overture was in many ways the most rhythmically complicated piece on the program. This seemed like it might be kind of a stretch particularly because when you listen to it, it sounds like pure, unfettered melody with a subtle oscillation running underneath (like around 0:44).

But not being familiar with the Overture (or is it a Prelude?) myself, I decided to take a look at the score:

So now things start to get very interesting, because if you look at the flute part in the last bar, you see this:

which is one of these musical-mathematical conundra that conductors just love to stew over.  See, what happens is that while the rest of the orchestra keeps playing in 4/4 – i.e. four quarter notes per measure – the flutes and two of the clarinets have to count 6 quarter notes to each measure.  So, each of their quarter notes will end up being shorter/faster than the other players’ at a ratio of 6:4.

It would be easy enough if all they had to do was play 6 of their shorter, faster quarter notes against a conductor beating a four pattern of slightly slower quarter notes – musicians have to do this basic sort of trick all the time.  But Wagner doesn’t make it that easy.  Instead, he writes a rather complicated rhythmic figure (which, vexingly, will hardly even be heard in the orchestral texture.)

In this figure, the flutes and clarinets have to subdivide each of their six quarters into three triplet-eighth notes, so the total number of these notes in a bar is 6 x 3 = 18.  This is all well and good, lest we forget that their visual and musical reference in lining up with the rest of the orchestra is 4 (quarter notes to the measure, that is).  18 ÷ 4 = 4.5.  Since 4.5 isn’t a whole number, it’s not exactly useful.

Except that a particularly clever flautist bent on finding a practical solution to this problem (the problem being how to know how fast to play her triplet-eighth notes in a bar of six and line that up with the conductor’s four pattern) might notice something: despite the fact that 4.5 seems to bear little logical relevance to the problem at hand, if we take a closer look at the particular rhythm that she’s playing:

we notice that the second beat in this pattern consists of 2 eighth notes.  So, one solution is to approximate the triplets and make sure that the second eighth lands on the conductor’s fourth beat.  1 eighth note = 1.5 of the triplets; therefore 3 triplets + 1 eighth equals 4.5 triplets.

And that’s likely what everyone who actually plays this does, but the University of Chicagoan in me just hast to know the exact, theoretical answer, as practically untenable a solution as it may present.  The next step is to multiply the 18 triplet-eighth notes by 2 – basically, we’re looking for a least common multiple between 18 and 4, i.e. 36.

So then, the really anal-retentive flautist, who probably has no job and definitely has like zero friends, if she were hired to play the Parsifal Overture (Prelude?) would sit at home and practice counting 36 notes per bar (that’s 9 notes per beat, btw), and regroup those 36-lets into twos so that she would wind up with 18 groups of 2 and divide those 18 groups by 3 so that she could feel 6 beats per bar and know that she had done a really thorough job.  She might employ a chart that looked something like this:

and still not be quite satisfied with the outcome.  Now, if she really got to thinking smart, said flautist might decide to trip the conductor before he went on stage and step in for him, since beating a simple four pattern and letting everyone else worry about this crap is a way better idea.  But she wouldn’t be able to escape her obsession – her obsession with rhythm.  And now it would just get even worse, because did you see what was going on with those violas??  They play 8 notes to the beat, multiplied by 4 beats to the bar, so 24 notes in total per measure.  Now our valiant flautist/conductor must find the least common multiple of 24 and 36 (it’s 72) if she wanted to figure out how the flute and viola parts really lined up.

I wonder if any conductor or musicologist or whoever has ever actually taken the time to figure out how these two parts line up by dividing the bar into 72 parts.  I can only think of one conductor who I would even remotely suspicion of doing such a thing [who shall remain nameless.]

NEXT TIME: I rate Schoenberg, Webern and Berg.  [Which I actually meant to do this time, but it seemed like things were getting a little intense already.]  Somebody had to do it.

Time to hop on the bandwagon

Does the thought of a middle-aged North German woman’s violin bow thrusting out into your face fill your little heart with glee?  Well then you’re in luck, because the Berlin Phil is now in 3D!  And you can even watch it in 3D on your computer, if you click on the links at the bottom of that page and then you are able to figure out how to activate the software (maybe it’s a PC thing?) and of course, if you have the proper eyeware.

Dare I admit that this development hardly came as a surprise to me?  Well, it didn’t.  Avatar may have announced the arrival of this revitalized technology, but there was another summer blockbuster that confirmed it was here to stay: Step Up 3D.

I recently took in a screening of this third installment of the Step Up triptych with these three other dudes.  Not having seen the previous two films, I was worried that I would be hopelessly adrift when it came to the plot.  Not so.   The writers were extremely generous in the pains they took rendering the story’s exposition crystal clear.  And the third dimension made up for everything else.

In all seriousness, I do predict that the Met will be the next to jump on the 3D bandwagon.  What exactly these organizations think they have to gain from going 3D is a little bit beyond me though – in fact, I already find the HD Met broadcasts a tad frightening in their intimacy… 3D threatens to go well over the line.

The other trendy new orchestra thing seems to be these season trailers.  Witness:

[bt-dubbs, is it like, embarrassing that they both chose Sibelius symphonies as their theme music for the present season? At least it wasn’t the same symphony… would be a little like showing up to a party wearing the same dress, à la Lucy and Ethel or Dorothy and Blanche?]

In fact, the Baltimore Symphony is even doing this weird thing wherein they present a concert of individual movements of the season’s highlights.  Interesting, isn’t it, that this modern idea ends up closer akin to what an orchestra concert used to look like 150 years ago…

I’ve got a much better idea for these orchestras, so I think it’s time for a pitch: instead of cheezy video montages and patchwork regional concerts, why not hire me to write a Medley of the big tunes that will feature in your season’s repertoire?  You choose the tunes and leave the rest to me — I’ll jazz ’em up with swell new show-biz arrangements and string them together with an array of irresistable musical theater transitional clichés.

[You know the type:

It will make for a killer promotional tool.  Especially when you film it — wait for it — in 3D.