Yearly Archives: 2010

Sins sartorial

Readers of my blog will know that I was just in Chicago this past weekend giving talks for the CSO’s Rachmaninoff/Shostakovich concerts.  What they won’t know, unless they actually attended the concerts themselves, and what I am committed to exposing right now, is that the soloist, one “Kirill Gerstein“, showed up wearing the least appropriate attire possible.  See below:

Do you see That, what he is wearing in that photo?  Yes that, THAT exact outfit (OK fine, plus a black suit jacket) is exactly what he wore to play a concerto with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.  No tie, no tails, just all black, open-collar.  Many of Mr. Gerstein’s bios mention that he has extensive experience in jazz as well as classical music.  Well, if that be true, he should sure as hell be able to tell the difference between a cocktail lounge and the stage of Orchestra Hall!

I’ve ranted about men’s fashion in the classical music industry many times before, and certainly Mr. Gerstein is not the only offender.  Mr. Gerstein is merely representative of a larger problem, namely that soloists and conductors seem to think that their individuality stems from their wardrobe rather than their musicianship.  And maybe with some of these artists, that is the case.  But look at our great forbears in the field:

Mssrs. Heifetz, Rubinstein and Giulini were all perfectly content to dress in uniform.  And would we say that these gentlemen were lacking in individual style?  Quite to the contrary!  They each exuded style and grace and they were positively dripping with musicality.  And yet, like other great performers of yesteryear, these men were perfectly content to make their public statements with their music rather than with their wardrobe.

When conductors and soloists do dress in uniform with the orchestra, it sends an important message to the members of the ensemble: we’re in this together.  It shows the orchestra members that you are not so arrogant that you must have some vulgar costume to draw attention towards yourself – rather, you are prepared for the exalted business of making music.  You are willing to abide by the same code as the rest of the musicians in front of you in order to share in this experience.

And to the Charlie Roses of the world: looking purposefully unkempt (i.e. CR’s infamous un-buttoned/cuff-linked shirt sleeves) takes just as much effort as looking presentable.  We’re on to you.

Men of the musical world: glam it up!  GLAM IT UP!!!

Mr. Gerstein: on behalf of ticket-holders everywhere, when we pay upwards of $100 both to hear and to see you perform, we expect you to look presentable.  Put on a tie for goodness’ sake.

CSO Addenda: Rachmaninoff and Shostakovich

As is usually the case when I prepare my pre-concert lectures at the Chicago Symphony, I end up with way more information than I can share in the 30 minutes allotted.  Here are some extra insights on the March 4-6 concerts. Welcome CSO patrons!

Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor

Any piece with as many gorgeous tunes as Rachmaninoff’s 2nd Piano Concerto is just asking to be pillaged for its melodies, and thus we have Wikipedia’s list of several works as being derived from or inspired by this piece.  Let’s see if we agree with them:

1st movement

Frank Sinatra’s “I Think of You

Here’s the Rachmaninoff:

OK, no argument there.  [BTW, does anyone else agree that the Hollywood session player in Nelson Riddle’s orchestra sounded WAY better on the horn solo than the principal in the New Philharmonia Orchestra?]

The Wik then goes on to list no fewer than four songs by Muse which supposedly quote the first movement:

1. “Space Dementia”:

which is pretty obviously an homage to the opening of the concerto:

[BTW, does anybody agree that Moshe Atmon is a way better pianist than the guy from Muse?]

then #2. “Butterflies & Hurricanes

and #3. “Ruled by Secrecy”

which both quote the end of the movement’s first theme:

As for “Megalomania”, the closest thing I could find was this:

which I would hardly call a “quote”, but does share certain melodic and harmonic ideas with the concerto.

2nd movement

Unfortunately it can’t all be Frank Sinatra and English alt-prog-art rock.  When it comes to the gorgeous second movement,

we go from the semi-decent:

(which has a questionable connection to the original),

to the bad:

to the truly, spine-cringingly, awful:

Interestingly, that last excerpt is nothing but the original Rachmaninoff with some cheeze-fried vocals laid on top.  It comes out the absolute worst because it puts the original composition in such stark relief.

3rd movement

Let’s cleanse our ears, shall we, with some more grade-A Frank:

which, it hardly needs saying, is this:

Shostakovich Symphony No. 11 (“The Year 1905”)

As it’s title would indicate, Shostakovich took the 1905 Russian Revolution as the subject of his 11th Symphony.  Theories abound as to other, hidden meanings behind this work (especially the 1956 Hungarian uprising against the communist government).

Perhaps the most widely known piece of art concerning the 1905 Revolution is Sergei Eisenstein’s landmark silent film from 1925, Battleship Potemkin.  Below is the much acclaimed “Odessa Steps” sequence.

(Please note that this clip contains music from Shostakovich’s 11th and 5th symphonies – not the original score by Meisel which was lost and has since been restored.)  The whole film can be viewed here.

The Symphony “1905” was a turning point for Shostakovich — he had outlived Stalin and was now in the position to regain some sense of sanity and ease, if not full official favor.  His troubles with the government had begun in the year 1936, at which point Joseph Stalin, eager to send a message to the artistic community, denounced Shostakovitch’s opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District as immoral and anti-soviet.  Let’s watch a bit of the opera and see if we can spot anything that Stalin may have found objectionable.  Remember to look very closely now:

At first glance, it looks pretty tame, but that Stalin always had a fine eye for detail.  Anyhoo, that led to this very famous headline from the Soviet newspaper Pravda:

which roughly translates to “Muddle instead of Music”, and which began a nightmarish 20 year period of heavy government repression and scare tactics aimed at keeping Shostakovitch in line.

I’d like to recommend two more valuable resources pertaining to Shostakovich’s music and life:

The first is the audio guide to chapter 7 of Alex Ross’s phenomenal book, The Rest is Noise.  Even if you haven’t read the book or don’t have a copy handy, the audio guide gives you a nice synopsis of the chapter on music in the 1930’s and 40’s USSR.

The second is an article by everybody’s favorite Slovenian Marxist-Lacanian-psychoanalytic philosopher, Slavoj Žižek, entitled “Shostakovich in Casablanca“.  In this article, Žižek compares Soviet repression of classical music to the Hollywood Hays code, in terms of what the censors expected and how an artist was meant both to abide by the code and simultaneously to circumvent it.  He posits that Shostakovich found whatever success he could with the Soviet regime because he understood this Janus-faced censorship, whereas Prokofiev just couldn’t figure it out.

That’s all the extra goodies for this concert series.  Feel free to leave a note in the comments section to share your opinions of the concert!  Also, feel free to peruse the rest of my site at your own risk, in full awareness that hereafter, the Chicago Symphony has nothing to do with the content on this site…

Culture Wars: America loses big time

And who’s winning?  The Japanese.  Witness below:

Cultures wage wars in many ways, often leading to profound advances in human creativity and knowledge.  They create opulent works of architecture, erect grand totems to their gods, and go exploring for uncharted territories and domains.  But now there’s a new race: the race to teach little kids to memorize and perfectly execute the music of Leonard Bernstein.

I urge all parents: start now.  If your infant’s first word isn’t “Maria”, we’re never going to cover the ground we need to.  Make “Let Our Garden Grow” your nighttime lullaby.  At birthday parties, replace the traditional “Happy Birthday” with the 4 Anniversaries of 1948 [but please avoid the 7 Anniversaries of 1988 at all costs.]

By the age of five, if your child can’t rattle off the opening lick of Trouble in Tahiti on the clarinet, or make at least a passable rendition of the piano solo from the 2nd Symphony, we will simply have to give up hope and demure to the accomplishments of a much greater culture.

PS. While we’re at it, let’s give Mozart a rest for the ABC’s and switch to Ligeti:

These are a few of my favorite trillz!

F. Joseph Haydn, Sinfonia Concertante, 1st movement.
This trill shows the kind of super-extended harmony one can make at the end of a cadenza for a chamber group.

Erkki-Sven Tüür, Architectonics 4.
Clearly an homage to/parody of the above trill by Haydn, this one pushes the tonal-cadential trill to the max.  Only a man with two consecutive umlauts in his name could do a thing like this!!  [Ed. note to himself: begin amassing list of favorite umlauts…]

Alfred Schnittke, String Quartet No. 3, 1st movement.
An entire trilling texture with an amazing climax of the top instruments trilling together, this is Schnittke at his creepy best.  Interestingly, this excerpt also contains one of my very favorite suspensions.  The most astute of listeners will recognize the motive from Beethoven’s Große Fuge being morphed.

Maurice Ravel, Daphnis et Chloé, troisième partie.
This is the gesture that would go on to be used in every Disney cartoon whenever two deer fell in love.  I give Ravel enormously high points for his immense originality, despite the fact that it became such a cliché.

George Bruns, The Jungle Book, Overture.
Speaking of Disney movies, “The Jungle Book” is definitely my favorite Disney score of all time, and the overture ends with a truly searing extended trill.  I also love the harp bisbigliando that circles it.

William White, Thy King Cometh, Overture.
I sort of half-tried not to include any of my own music on this list, but when you write a trill as great as this, it’s just got to be included.  Listeners are invited to ignore the poor ensemble of the second pizzicato.

So, what are some of your favorite trills?