Yearly Archives: 2010

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.

Time to update that resume

The New York Times reports that the orchestral world is ripe with job openings: 12 vacancies in the New York Phil, 10 in Boston, 9 in Chicago, 7 in L.A., etc.  To all my friends who are struggling young musicians hoping for their first big chance, I wish you the very best.

Interestingly, it seems that there are a spate of conducting openings of late too: Kahane Withdraws from Bach Festival, Kent Nagano Reportedly Stepping Down from Bavarian State Opera, Philharmonic’s Conductor Bows Out, Conductor Leaving El Paso Symphony, Orchestra Conductor Departs.

And I kind of think there might be an opening at the Russian National Orchestra, since Mikhael Pletnev has his hands tied up with other things right now.

On Glee

About 2 months ago, I received a request from some old friends/current readers for a comment on Glee, the FOX musical dramedy.  As of then, I hadn’t seen a single episode.  Thanks to the combined magic of iTunes and hulu, I’ve now seen a handful of them, including the final 6 or 7 of the season, and a smattering of episodes from the pre-mid-season break era (said to be the high point of the series).

So, basically it’s like this: Glee, for me, is sort of just good enough.  There tends to be a bare minimum in terms of musical/writing/acting quality in a given episode to keep me coming back.  But not much more.  I don’t think the show ever really figured out the tone of the show.  The writing is the main problem; it comes across as very glib much of the time, and what was an especially serious subject matter one week is really just glossed over the next week.  The sort of “logic” behind the characters’ various motivations and interactions is dubious at best.

Some of the acting is quite good – Jane Lynch as Sue Sylvester is really about as good as it gets.  To me, she’s about the only thing that keeps the show grounded.  The two male leads, Matthew Morrison as Glee Club leader Will Schuester and Cory Monteith as Finn Hudson, are just so much milquetoast.  It’s just so network television that the leader of the glee club would also have to be the quarterback of the football team, and white, tall, vaguely handsome and like 10 years older than any high school student.

[Speaking of which, isn’t casting people in their mid-20’s as high school students so like 90210?  Couldn’t they get someone even passably younger?  Hunter Parrish how about?]

I think that the “Puck” character is pretty great too, and the rest of the assorted p.c. cast are up and down.  Kurt, the gay boy character is definitely a talented kid, and special props go his performance of “Single Ladies”, even though he didn’t really do all the moves exactly like in the video, but then again, who can, aside from Beyoncé and those men?  [And yes, those are men in the Beyoncé video, it says so on no less reliable a source than WikiAnswers, and not JUST the darker-skinned one either!]

The big problem for me is that the musical numbers are always too popified (even for me!), too auto-tuned, too over-produced.  For me, the best of the musical numbers have been: Kurt’s “Single Ladies” dance, followed by the whole football team doing it (which, despite its incredibly obvious set-up was still hilariously funny), Kristen Chenoweth’s performance of “Home” from the “first all-white production of The Wiz” (p.s. mad props for using the original orchestration), and… that’s really about it.  The Lady Gaga performances were pretty lousy, but then again, I’m not really a fan anyway.

Speaking of Chenoweth, I think her character is another high point in the series – are there any Strangers with Candy fans out there?  Doesn’t the Chenoweth character just reek of Amy Sedaris’ Jerri Blank?

One thing that I will give the show points for: there are always actual human beings (high school students/that weird piano guy) playing backup instruments whenever singing is happening.  Yes, the orchestrations often become quite enriched beyond the visible musicians, but they tend to be pretty self-aware of the absurdity when that happens.  So, that’s good.

Things that were particularly cringe-worthy were: “The Lady is a Tramp” and Idina Menzel.

I’ll probably give Glee another shot when it returns next season, but I’ll likely not devote myself to the series and just wait to find out from other people which episodes featured particular highlights.