Posts Tagged: Alex Ross

CSO Addenda: Golijov, Sibelius, Shostakovich

Osvaldo Golijov (1960 – )

Osvaldo Golijov is the composer of such blockbuster classical hits as The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind and the toe-tapping Pasión según San Marco:

Mr. Golijov’s pieces often have more the flavor of an ethnomusicological exploration, which makes a certain amount of sense for a composer of Argentinian birth who grew up on klezmer and tango and who has also lived in Israel and the U.S.  [Although, is it really ethnomusicological if it’s actually your ethnicity?  Discuss.]

Anyone who attended Thursday’s lecture was privy to insights from the work’s dedicatee, Mr. Henry Fogel.  Boosey & Hawkes has provided an equally enlightening interview with the composer about the genesis of the work.  You can listen to the work online in a performance conducted by Mei-Ann Chen (who gave the première in October 2010 in Memphis) with the New England Conservatory Philharmonia.  Also of note is Mr. Golijov’s growing filmography since becoming the go-to composer of Francis Ford Coppola.

Lest there be any confusion, the title of Mr. Golijov’s latest work, Sidereus, is in no way meant to sound like an hilarious mispronunciation of the next composer on the program.

Jean Sibelius (1865 – 1957)
Violin Concerto in D minor, Op. 47 (1903, rev. 1905)

Sibelius’ violin concerto is far and above my favorite work in the genre, and one of my favorite works by the composer.  In fact, it’s one of the first pieces that got me into classical music.  You can view an introduction to the work here by the violinist Ida Haendel, who actually received a letter of appreciation from Sibelius after he had heard her performance of the work, and whose Wikipedia entry actually says the following:

She has the reputation of being as accomplished and brilliant a violinist as Yehudi Menuhin and Isaac Stern; but has said that had she been more photogenic, she would have been as famous.

Ida Haendel

Yehudi Menuhin and Isaac Stern, two violinists who Ida Haendel was not as attractive as

People sometimes said the same thing about Sibelius himself, but never to his face (see above).

But seriously folks, if you’re really into the Sibelius concerto, it’s worth your 10 bucks to invest in Leonidas Kavakos’ recording of the 1903 and 1905 versions of the work.  He is still the only artist to record the 1903 version, due to the Sibelius family’s wishes, which is pretty impressive.  He is also way, way hotter than Ida Haendel.

You’ll get to hear the intricate, Bach-like second cadenza that Sibelius later cut from the first movement of his concerto:

amongst many other interesting tidbits.

Dmitri Shostakovich (1906 – 1975)
Suite from Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District

OK, first of all, if you’re anything like me, you’ve always wondered just where IS the Mtsensk District.  It’s here:

The rest of this discussion I’m gonna cut and paste from my March 4, 2010 post about Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 11:

Shostakovich’s troubles with the government began 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.

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”?]

Snobbism in excelsis

Thank you very much to Alex Ross for the finest piece of writing I’ve read from him or any classical pundit in a long while, the extremely apt, and wholly welcome Time to Show our Appreciation for Classical Music, published in London’s Guardian newspaper.  Hopefully the following quote will get you to read the whole thing:

Programme booklets sometimes contain a list of rules, rendered in the style of God on Mount Sinai: “Thou shalt not applaud between movements of symphonies or other multisectional works listed on the programme.” And one may only applaud: “Appropriate applause is the only acceptable audible response from the audience.”

The underlying message of the protocol is, in essence: “Curb your enthusiasm. Don’t get too excited.” Should we be surprised that people aren’t as excited about classical music as they used to be? This question of etiquette is only part of the complicated social dilemma in which classical music finds itself. But I do wonder about the long-term effect of the No Applause Rule, as I wonder about other oddities of concert life: the vaguely Edwardian costumes, the convention-centre lighting schemes, the aggressive affectlessness of many professional musicians.

Amen, brother, although let’s leave the “vaguely Edwardian costumes” out of it, please (no reason to mess with a good thing, especially one that makes even the ugliest man look his handsomest).  I totally agree with Mr. Ross – let’s get some more applause back into the ol’ concert hall.  Composers of yore frequently wrote letters (many of which Mr. Ross cites in his article) saying that this movement or that movement was such a success with the audience, got so much applause and had to be encored, etc.  I’m all for it.

Speaking of this particular author, however, I’ve got to say: Alex, come on, Top 10 Glissandos?  Hello? That practically reeks of These are a few of my favorite trillz! Don’t think you’re going to get away with that one unnoticed, good sir.  But if that’s how you want to play the game, then it’s on.  Just be warned that I won’t stop at much, and my response is likely to stun you into silence: Top 20 pizzicati of the 1930’s!!!

Blog Supernovae and Swedish Humor

While everyone has been mourning (ok well, at least noting) the passing of Alex Ross’s “The Rest is Noise” blog, in my own personally dorkish way, I am more upset about the end of Henry Fogel’s “on the record” blog.  I highly recommend the archives to anyone interested in orchestras or arts administration.  Mr. Fogel is a renaissance man, having been the CEO of the Chicago Symphony, the President of the American Symphony Orchestra League, and now Dean of Roosevelt University’s Chicago College of Performing Arts (can we say ‘major coup’?)  His insights are required reading for anybody interested in the behind-the-scenes governance of an American orchestra.

Meanwhile, amid all the hubbub of Dudamel’s new L.A. gig, did anyone realize that he renewed his contract as music director of the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra of Sweden?  So, you know what would be really funny?  If citizens of Gothenburg decided to parody this video:

by making their own video of regular (and increasingly awkward) Swedes-on-the-street coming up to the camera and saying, “We are pleased to renew your contract for the next 3 years, Gustavo!” or “We’d like to keep you on our payroll for another 36 months, Gustavo!”, or “Please don’t forget that we’d be happy to have you use our orchestra as a testing ground for your future projects on an additional triennial basis, Gustavo!”

I kind of doubt that they’ll do that though… something about it strikes me as extremely un-Swedish.  I don’t really know much about Swedish Humor, but if it’s anything like a Bergman film, it’s not very funny.