lawyer The tale of how a kid’s father learned that music could make his son a good lawyer, and how the kid was wiser yet.

Making Opera Matter

May 28, 2009

alex-ross-photo-credit-james-hamilton Alex Ross, whose work seems to go from strength to strength, gave a typically visionary keynote address at the recent Opera America conference in Houston. Though I was in the front row, I have greatly enjoyed viewing a video of the address since I came home. I commend it to you.

Don’t Fence It In

May 27, 2009

AmericanJazzMan It is a peculiarly modern, and startling, experience to stumble online upon something that you have published in the past and pretty much forgotten about. I did so this morning when I came upon a review I had written four years ago of a history of classical music in the United States. Despite the fact that I recall its having been cut cruelly, for space considerations, just before publication, I find that I still stand squarely behind its main argument about the spaciousness of classical music. And I think the fight against letting our view of it become too narrow is still one worth waging.

At the same time, I hasten to acknowledge the usefulness of some of the data included in the book under review. For example, the mind still boggles at this fact: On Christmas Day 1909, Oscar Hammerstein’s Manhattan Opera presented Tosca and Tales of Hoffmann in New York, Faust and Aïda in Philadelphia, Le Jongleur de Notre Dame, Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci in Pittsburgh, and Mignon and Le Caïd in Montreal!

Où, indeed, sont les neiges d’antan?

UPDATE: Almost as though in response to the plea above for a broader approach (which would also be a deeper one) to our heritage, I have coincidentally just received an e-mail alert from the Society for American Music of an upcoming conference hosted by “The Exile Society and the Friends of the Schwenkfelder Library & Heritage Center” on “Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Sacred Vocal Music In PA German Culture.” We live in a time when many groups, large and small, are delving into the true variety that the American musical culture involves. Looking only at the big, endowed institutions of the carriage trade falsifies the picture crucially.

Digits It strikes me that the best thing about this program, which so many are finding addictive, is this: a percentage of those whiling away the hours with it will inevitably be people who are listening more closely to musical differences than they ever have. Else why would they be so enthralled with the effects that their actions are having?

Closer listening is always a good thing.

Music_Classical A question that often comes up in discussions with colleagues involves the term classical music, its inadequacies, and what we might use instead of that designation. Without going into the subject as much as I hope to in future, I note that the online list of the American Musicological Society is entertaining a related question. Jeremy Grimshaw, of the Brigham Young University School of Music, points to the 1879 edition of the Grove Dictionary and its entry on the term, one of the first systematic takes on the usage that is now thrown around so universally, perhaps thoughtlessly, and certainly unmethodically:

CLASSICAL is a term which in music has much the same signification as it has in literature. It is used of works which have held their place in general estimation for a considerable time, and of new works which are generally considered to be of the same type and style. Hence the name has come to be especially applied to works in the forms which were adopted by the great masters of the latter part of the last century, as instrumental works in the sonata form, and operas constructed after the received traditions; and in this sense the term was used as the opposite of ‘romantic,’ in the controversy between the musicians who wished to retain absolutely the old forms, and those, like Schumann, who wished music to be developed in forms which should be more the free inspiration of the composer, and less restricted in their systematic development. See ROMANTIC. –C.H.H.P.
[Sir Charles Hubert Hastings Parry]

Until, towards the end of that paragraph, we learn that Schumann is not, for Parry, a classical composer, the definition from 140 years ago makes pretty good sense for guidance to our own usage. But times change, and music changes. When will our terminology change to reflect more exact reality?

Sasha et al.
I had the signal experience of hearing two of the best concerts of my life in one day last week. Sasha Cooke, along with an extraordinary young pianist, Pei-Yao Wang, gave possibly the best vocal recital I’ve ever heard. I do not say this lightly and have witnessed concerts by most of the greatest singers of my time. (The first recital by a singer I ever heard, as a youngster in Kingsport, was by the great Eleanor Steber, if that gives you some idea of my perspective.)

Joined for a riveting new piece by the composer-poet Lera Auerbach, who played the piano for its New York premiere along with the young cellist of the moment, Alisa Weilerstein, this recital — at 2 p.m. on a Tuesday afternoon — was a revelation from the first notes of the Schubert set that began it.

Later the same evening — what were the chances? — I heard the most memorable string-quartet concert of its kind in my experience. (Not even this strong impression can completely efface the memory of hearing the Juilliard String Quartet play all the Carter quartets in one evening.) We are constantly told about the wit in Haydn’s music. And yet we hear performance after performance in which there is little or no evidence of this. When the Daedalus Quartet (noted in this space before) played the master’s last quartet, there was genuine, spontaneous, and appropriate laughter in the audience. This despite the fact that their playing never stepped outside the strictest bounds of Classic idiom and the most refined tone, inflection, and ensemble. This feat is Haydn’s accomplishment, and theirs.

That they made the thorny serialism of Artur Schnabel’s most ambitious quartet almost as accessible was an equal accomplishment.

Joined by the peerless clarinetist David Shifrin, they then delivered a definitive Brahms quintet. Is it any wonder that I want to communicate to you something of the rewards all these artists offer?

To celebrate that day and to mark it on my little Web site, I append here the program notes that I wrote for the latter concert.


The Austrian composer Dittersdorf and Haydn were friends as young men. One night while roaming the streets they stopped outside a common beer hall in which the musicians, half drunk and half asleep, were fiddling away miserably at a Haydn minuet …

Entering the taproom, Haydn sat down beside the leader and asked casually, “Whose minuet?” The man snapped, “Haydn’s.” Haydn moved in front of him and, feigning anger, declared: “That’s a stinking minuet.”

“Says who?” demanded the fiddler, jumping out of his seat with rage. The other musicians rallied round him and were poised to smash their instruments over Haydn’s head but Dittersdorf, a big fellow, shielded Haydn with his arm and pushed him out of the door. — Norman Lebrecht: The Book of Musical Anecdotes

Haydn once said that no one could compose a truly original minuet. And yet he did it himself over and over. That the second movement of Op. 77, No. 2 exemplifies his inventiveness in what could be a formalistic, rather harmless dance-form is not so surprising when we remember that tonight’s opening work is the last quarter that Haydn completed. By that time he had composed so many quartets as to give free reign to his legendary originality.

His swan-song in the genre is a worthy summing-up of Haydn’s by now easygoing mastery of the string quartet, composed after the seminal master of the string quartet had been stimulated by hearing quartets of the young Mozart and Beethoven. It has often been said that Haydn’s string quartets are symphonies for the chamber, and there is no doubt that he lavished as much invention and care on these works as upon his symphonies, the performances of which were inevitably destined for a much larger public.

The quartet is dedicated to its commissioner, Prince Joseph Franz Maximilian Lobkowitz, a Bohemian aristocrat and patron of music, resident in Vienna. Thanks to imperial decree, he alone had responsibility for all the Viennese theaters from 1807. His place in music history should be secure, since he not only commissioned Haydn’s string quartets Op. 77 but was a co-commissioner of The Creation and The Seasons, and to whom Beethoven dedicated a number of works. (Haydn was not bestowing the summit of his accomplishment in the medium just anywhere.) It begins with the kind of sonata-allegro movement that Haydn did so much to cultivate. That leads to the Minuet, which is the second movement, transferred from its usual place as the third movement. It is also extraordinary for its tempo, presto, which removes it even further from a routine minuet, allowing the succeeding slower movement to set up for maximum effectiveness the almost reckless finale.

The Brahms Clarinet Quintet was created, not for its commissioner, but for its first performers. These included Joseph Joachim, who was Brahms’s ideal interpreter of his violin parts, and the clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld. Brahms was so enchanted by the playing of the latter that he emerged from retirement to compose the quintet in 1891. He explicitly looked to Mozart’s famous Clarinet Quintet as an exemplar — another work that had been devised for the special playing of a favorite clarinetist.

When the strings begin with the theme of the first movement, the solemn — even somber — mood of the work is set. The clarinet begins the second movement in a reflective song-like melody that subsides into the dark atmosphere created by the first movement. The shorter third movement begins in a graceful, relaxed manner, setting up a dialogue between the clarinet and the first violin and between the minor home key and its brighter relative key of D major. The agitation that succeeds the pacific opening returns the work to darker regions. Mozart’s influence is again to the fore in the theme and variations of the final movement, a feature of his own clarinet quintet.

Despite contemporary qualms about identifying “central” artistic traditions and “peripheral” ones, if we can speak of a mainstream in concert music, at least between the French Revolution and the Second World War, it surely flows right through Central Europe. And eminent among the musicians in the full flood of that stream we would find Haydn, Brahms, and Schnabel.

In their day, Haydn and Brahms were famed as performers. But, thanks to the evanescence of live sound and the durability of paper, we now think of them primarily as composers. With Schnabel, the reverse has been true — not only because his lifetime as a leading international performer is not so long past, but also because of his towering achievements in pioneering large-scale and systematic recording. With the perspective of distance, we now have the opportunity to become less bedazzled by his recordings and reputation as a pianist at the expense of his very significant achievement as a composer. Already we can see, in the changes between the 1978 edition of Slonimsky’s great biographical dictionary (where Schnabel is called “celebrated Austrian pianist and pedagogue”) and and the latest Grove Dictionary, which identifies him as  “Austrian pianist and composer, later naturalized American” how this has begun to develop. Slonimsky only mentions that “Schnabel was also a composer” in the last sentence of his article. Grove, on the other hand, not only gives thorough analysis to his place in the history of performance, but integrates his life as a composer into its account of his career, including a list of his works (and notes that most of them were then unavailable).

Now that the unavailability has been remedied thanks to the Schnabel Music Foundation and Peermusic Classical, how do we hear this evening’s three works in relation to each other? One is part of the indispensable Viennese corpus of Classical string quartets, one is at the summit of the Romantic chamber-music (and, certainly, clarinet) literature, and the other most of us are still able to hear as a fresh, new composition. Like Haydn, Schnabel gave a special place to the string quartet in his compositional life. It is the only medium of composition that he cultivated with utter completeness, and he seems to have felt that working with four strings freed him from the ways of thinking that a piano keyboard inevitably led him into.

The fifth quartet of Schnabel, composed in Colorado in 1940, is of very great seriousness, both as to its general tone and the earnest complexity of its construction. One of only two occasions when Schnabel employed twelve-tone techniques, it is possible to hear the work as a mosaic of short melodies, sometimes of a surprisingly conventional contour, whose combination is anything but traditional. The composer seems to have had confidence in his dodecaphonic skill, since he sent a copy of the quartet to his compatriot and fellow American resident Arnold Schoenberg, the high priest of the technique. Like Schoenberg, Schnabel was as well-versed in the classical canon as it is possible to be — and in his case was of course a supreme interpreter of a large section of it. It is thus of great interest to hear how, in his own composition, he is pushing at the boundaries and extending the structures that belonged to the literature that was, throughout a monumentally productive life, his daily bread.

And not just music but participation in music.

In case you haven’t seen this, I commend it to you when you can spare 17 minutes and want to know hope.

One of my favorite lines towards the end (a little weakened in translation):

“The spontaneity that music has excludes it as a luxury item — and makes it a patrimony of society.”

There are currently 300,000 children and teenagers involved in this very serious artistic/social program, in a very poor country that is burdened with a degrading political environment. Music (and the community that it creates at its best) is rescuing them from anonymous poverty, giving them an identity (the loss of which is often the most sorrowful fruit of poverty), endowing their communities with pride, and leading them to other upbuilding personal and social attitudes and actions.

True, participation in music can’t solve every problem, but — given the chance that Abreu and his fellow-travelers have given it — it can do a great deal more than almost all conventional “social programs.”

previn Last evening’s world premiere of André Previn’s powerful setting of John Caird’s perfect libretto based on the haunting David Lean movie, Brief Encounter, was in turn based on a one-act play of Noel Coward, Still Life. Even with a lineage like that, a success is not guaranteed. In this instance, however, the success was entire.

There is no point in transferring a story from one medium to another unless something is thereby gained. It would be foolish to insist that an effective work of art like the Coward play or the Lean film needs to be supplemented via other means. But when — as in this case — values are magnified, new relationships of word and emotion are brought into relief, new emotional recollections are evoked, and new pleasures bestowed, the contributions of the new medium are not only commendable but to be celebrated. And I have been celebrating in the hours since I was overwhelmed by this opera.

I will give two instances of reverberant devices that only opera can add to a drama like this one. When Laura, the woman who is suffering the pangs of a love that doesn’t fit in with the rest of her life, is with other people who are prattling on with gossip or with crossword clues, her own agonized thoughts are sung in expressive duet with the quotidian banality of the other character’s utterances. This technique is utterly artificial and completely like the experience of real life at the same time. And only opera can re-present this.

Also, at the catastrophe of the final goodbye between Laura and her temporary lover Alec, we experience Alec’s expressive singing of his feelings for her and their permanence while, downstage in his accustomed easy chair, Laura’s quietly longsuffering husband Fred is singing with him the very same words. In both cases they are dramatically and psychologically true, but with completely distinct implications for the universe that all three inhabit. Again, only opera can portray all this at once. And rivetingly.

It was fitting that, the night before the premiere, a smaller, less formal event honored the 80th anniversary of the birth of André Previn. I sat immediately behind him and Anne-Sophie Mutter during this musical evening and was profoundly touched to see a physically feeble man of great mental and creative vitality react to the highly apposite musical performances that were devised to celebrate his life. Even though, from my teenage years, Previn’s work — particularly as a performer — has had a profound effect on my own life, I determined I would not be one of the people running to him afterwards to tell him how wonderful he is. For one thing, what does one say to increase the satisfaction a person must feel after he has received four Oscars (from eight nominations), a knighthood, and practically every honor the music world affords? But when we stood at the end, there he was: facing me directly. I stammered, “Maestro, I want to tell you that I heard you play Mozart piano sonatas thirty years ago in Pittsburgh, and I consider you the best Mozart pianist I have ever heard.” Whereupon he looked at me with an evident pleasure that could not have been feigned and told me that nothing I could have said would have made him happier. Every once in a while, one does the right thing.


LATE UPDATE: After posting the above from the Houston airport, I found myself at Andrew Sullivan’s Atlantic blog. In one of those gratifying instances of synchronicity, I find that he has today blogged about the experience, as a repressed, lonely, lovelorn teenager in England, of “memorizing Brief Encounter.” While I hope new generations of conflicted, teenaged romanticists experience Coward and Lean, I trust that Previn also will lead them to new manifestations of the cathartic emotions of this powerful story. Surely a CD (and, preferably, a DVD) is in the offing.

%d bloggers like this: