A Critic at the Steinway

November 30, 2008

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While there seems to be plenty of interest in the influence of bel canto singing on the piano manner of Chopin (the meters for this site reporting that this and this are two of the most-linked-to entries in the ten-month history of RogerEvansOnline), Anthony Tommasini’s video posted today on the New York Times site makes an equally interesting point about a sort of pre-bel-canto in Bach.

His highlighting Bach’s use of a “catchy tune” in the accompaniment, to empower a more wandering soprano melody, is an excellent example of using a simple principle and homely, jargon-free words to make an important point about musical form. It’s not every day that we see that in the daily press.

The Web Talks Back

November 20, 2008

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There’s a new program that analyses the writing on blogs. Feeding this one into it produced the following result:

The analysis indicates that the author of http://rogerevansonline.com is of the type:

INTP – The Thinkers

The logical and analytical type. They are especialy attuned to difficult creative and intellectual challenges and always look for something more complex to dig into. They are great at finding subtle connections between things and imagine far-reaching implications.

They enjoy working with complex things using a lot of concepts and imaginative models of reality. Since they are not very good at seeing and understanding the needs of other people, they might come across as arrogant, impatient and insensitive to people that need some time to understand what they are talking about.

What it gives with one hand it takes with the other!

Then the Good News

November 10, 2008

bb46_1 A faithful correspondent admonishes me that, since I have been presenting bad news from opryland (forgive me: I’ve just returned from Nashville; I of course mean the world of opera), I should give some of the good news that is current. Anne Midgette has written, with an affection that is clear-eyed and discriminating, an account of a magnificent National Endowment for the Arts event last week.

And here the Endowment has given us superb video clips surrounding the celebration. I commend them to you. May we all learn from the venerable artists who speak so inspiringly here.

When It Rains, It Pours

November 7, 2008

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Just as the New York City Opera puts out its dismal news, this comes from Washington:

Today, the Executive Committee of Washington National Opera made a very difficult but important decision. At the recommendation of our General Director Plácido Domingo, the Committee has agreed to postpone the Ring cycle scheduled for next season. In light of the economic downturn and the extraordinary expenses associated with mounting the Ring, it became evident to all of us that WNO needed to make this choice to ensure our financial health for this and future seasons, and to ensure that WNO continues to produce opera of the highest quality. I know this will be disappointing to many of you who have worked so hard to make this possible and looked forward to the performances, but we believe that this is the only fiscally responsible decision for our company. We believe it will save us $5.0 million next year. At the same time, our artistic staff has been able to create an alternate 2009-10 season that will be artistically excellent and financially viable. While our titles are still being finalized, we expect to offer six fully staged productions as well as two concert performances of Götterdämmerung.

256px-gerardmortier It is with sorrow that I report word from inside the New York City Opera that Gerard Mortier will not in fact take over the company’s direction. Even his detractors (of whom I was not one) cannot see this backward step at such a late date as good news.

cgdscarlattivelasco2 Last night (these things going on till 11 p.m.) at the Annual Meeting of the American Musicological Society, I was present for the most exciting session I have experienced in these often important but all-too-laconic gatherings.

If you have ever had a course in 18th-century counterpoint or read any of the treatises of the time, you have probably wondered, as I certainly have, how the era produced limitless-seeming numbers of performers trained by such methods who could not only play creatively from a figured bass but could improvise the most complex polyphonic structures with ease and confidence. It turns out that it didn’t.

The purposes of the literate tradition, which is what we have naturally depended on in the relatively short history of musicology, turns out not have been intended to train professional-level musicians who would practice their craft in court, church, or theater. Its descriptive function had instead been for the use of amateurs (not then a derogatory term) who wanted to understand the process but not go through the years and effort involved in mastering it.

In place of using those texts to teach the actual practice of counterpoint, there existed what were called partimenti all over Europe. These were pedagogical bass lines from which students perfected their art — originally the orphan virtuoso-candidates in the charitable conservatorii that distinguished Italian musical life. But the use of this technique spread all over Europe and dominated professional training of performers right into the 19th century.

Why haven’t most of us heard about these before if they were so amazingly important and effective? Well, in addition to that inevitable literary bias in our music departments, we didn’t quite know what these exercises were. Libraries all over Europe abound in literally thousands and thousands of them in thousands of books, each often containing hundreds of pages. One is attributed to J.S. Bach, and I watched in awe last night as a traditional partimento was displayed on a screen as we heard it reproduced in the bass line of a Bach concerto movement.

I also had a conversation today with a professor from Canada who now teaches counterpoint using these resources. How I wish I’d known about them when I was studying counterpoint (not to mention when teaching it)!

There are also rumors of stylistic investigations of Mozart’s music based on his training under his father using these bass lines and the “rules” that made the proficient able to see a contrapuntal and harmonic structure in what would appear to the non-initiate as a bare line of music.

Obscure no more, the partimento now gets its own vast site online, supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities, describing the phenomenon and providing many samples. I commend it to all who are interested in the genesis and performance of music during the long period when this was the way professionals trained.

UPDATE: It seems only fair that, if I’m going to praise an A.M.S. session so heartily, I should name the person who chaired it, Robert Gjerdingen of Northwestern University. Other participants were Giorgio Sanguinetti (Univ. Tor Vergata, Rome), Rosa Cafiero (Univ. Sacro Cuore, Milan), Thomas Christensen (University of Chicago), Ludwig Holtmeier (Schola Cantorum, Basel), William Renwick (McMaster University), Johannes Menke (Hochschule, Freiburg), and Gaetano Stella (Univ. Tor Vergata, Rome).

Give Piece a Chance

November 4, 2008

m2 The effort to program interesting and non-hackneyed repertory never need cause us to stoop to music of low quality. Not when there is still plenty of novelty among the prime products of acknowledged masters, providing standards by which also to judge the new works that come our way. It was with that in mind, and not a little excitement, that I went last night to hear an important and underperformed work of Messiaen coupled with one of Mendelssohn’s most extensive creations.

Messiaen’s Ascension I knew well in its later version for symphonic organ (for which he composed a different third movement) but had never heard the orchestral original live. The Mendelssohn Second Symphony (Lobgesang or Hymn of Praise) I had last heard live in childhood but had studied closely ever since, frankly carrying a torch for a masterpiece that has become largely unknown. Read the rest of this entry »