Blogging the Revolution

December 28, 2009

“On Christmas Day, for the first time ever, customers purchased more Kindle books than physical books.”

Did you get a Kindle for Christmas? If not, you and I must be the only ones. The figures are amazing.

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Very few people indeed have any idea of the work — either its nature or extent — that goes on in the preparation of Christmas music in a major establishment. Having spent much of my career in running large church-music programs, I’m particularly grateful when even a glimpse of one aspect of it is presented to the public. Hence my appreciation of this rather charming BBC spot. (There will always be inaccuracies in mass-media: Easter music is “very sad and depressing”? Or is Winchester shakey in one aspect of education? Well, today is the Feast of the Holy Innocents, a day when, formerly, children were allowed to rule their elders and a chorister even dressed as a bishop and ordered adult clerics around.)

The sense of responsibility, introduction to intense teamwork, and administrative skills that choral music can give children in a well-run program are enormous. The first head boy of my choir at St. Ignatius Loyola is now a leading foreign correspondent for ABC news, and the first head girl is active in the casting of films (which must be a little like some of what I did in those days). One of the boys who most tested my disciplinary ingenuity is now a fierce music educator, and another whom we all loved was killed in 9/11 under circumstances that did him honor. Yes, choral music is a great preparation for a good life.

A Happy Christmas to All

December 25, 2009

Information about the performance here.

East Side, West Side

December 20, 2009

I’ve been thinking about Stephen Hough’s post in his London blog, which is always a joy to read. I know no more thoughtful and informed observer of musical and spiritual values (if, in this context, we need to distinguish between them). But I can’t entirely avoid the suspicion that he is indulging in a mild form of the Romanticism toward Eastern Orthodox cultural artifacts that exists in far more virulent forms elsewhere. (I’m looking at you, John Tavener.)

First, the very subjective issue of “masculinity” in the music: The performance in question happens to be by adult males alone, which is not typical or even, so far as I know, common in the day-to-day practice of Orthodox liturgy. To compare an exquisite (concert) performance, as in the video that I posted yesterday, to a particularly debased sort of Catholic Gebrauchsmusik as represented by the playing through, on an electronic keyboard, of “Bind Us Together” — a song I have never heard in what I had thought was an exhaustive exposure to literally every kind of Catholic liturgical music in English — is surely an exercise in apple-orange comparison.

It is important to recall that the Slavonic music in the video is not traditional in any meaningful way. It’s nineteenth-century music, with the compositional vocabulary of its style, which is almost as unrelated to traditional Orthodox chant as “Bind Us Together” is to the Roman Gradual, except perhaps in some nontechnical, unmeasurable spiritual sense. It is true that Western liturgical music has gone on expressive flights (and excessive ones at times) unheard of in the East. There is nothing equivalent to the spritely masses of Mozart or the perfumed ones of Gounod in Russia. But might this be as much a result of the banning of musical instruments, and all the formal and expressive possibilities (or temptations) that come with them, as of any inherent questions of liturgico-musical taste — not to mention of a greater “masculinity”?

All this speculation on my part is not entirely abstract, since it happens that this very morning, I heard — in the midst of the most exquisite, and actually rather muscular, singing of Gregorian chant — two Bruckner motets. The difference between these a cappella works and that of Pavel Chesnokov in the video is not so much that of sensibility, gender difference, or even verbal text. It’s much more that Chesnokov was a competent composer of inoffensive music that can sound very moving when well-performed, which also may owe our enthusiasm for it to the small doses in which most of us will consume it. Bruckner, on the other hand, was a genius — some of whose music is emphatically not characterized by brevity. But his motets, which he composed in great quantities, encapsulate in concentrated form what we hear in his vast symphonies (which in turn were said to reflect the incomparable organ improvisations that were even more characteristic of his actual musical career as he experienced it).

I attach a performance of one of the motets that I heard this morning at the Church of St. Ignatius Loyola on Park Avenue. Is it so different from the Russian Orthodox music of a sophisticated composer like Rachmaninoff? And yet Bruckner’s vocabulary is near the outskirts of the great body of Catholic church music. Many lesser 19th-century Western composers would sound much more like the Orthodox example in question. (I employ this video of the Ave Maria because it is quite comparable to the rendition that I heard this morning and because it includes the score of the motet. There are other worthwhile performances at this link.)

UPDATE: I forgot to mention that, since historians say that polyphony entered into the Russian church music via Poland and the Ukraine, that repertory in its post-chant guise is hardly innocent of Western — even Roman Catholic — influence. This even before Peter the Great imported Italian maestri di cappella. Peter’s lust for a Westernization of Russia was of a piece with the fact that Artemy Vedel, Maxim Berezovsky, Stepan Degtiariev, Stepan Davydov, Dmitry Bortniansky, and the Archpriest Pyotr Turchaninov all studied composition under Italian masters.

Robert White sent this to Stephen Hough, who immediately put it up on his Telegraph blog; then he kindly retailed it to me, and I post it for the refreshment of readers here. I am also told:

A fine young soprano who lives in Moscow just wrote me back saying that she’s heard that the young singer is driving a taxi these days!

(This is not technically music for this time of year, since it deals with the appearance of Gabriel to the Virgin nine months earlier — the Annunciation, which is March 25 in the Western calendar. But it is in every sense fitting preparation for Christmas.)

A Voix Wonderfully Humaine

December 18, 2009

Here’s one more Grammy-season video. It introduces Derek Bermel‘s Voices, for which he is nominated for the Best Performance Solo Instrumentalist with Orchestra, along with the very deserving musician behind the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, Gil Rose. Those who are looking for original voices in current music resort in great numbers to the highly varied compositions of Derek Bermel, and this whole performance is being universally lauded:

I have already enthused here about the work the Yale School of Music is doing to document important living and recent American composers. Now, appropriately enough — since Copland was one of the first composers whose own viva voce testimony was captured by the project — the Aaron Copland Fund for Music has donated a chunk of change to enliven things even more. Here’s the press release.

Foxy Comic Opera

December 14, 2009

Long before I had any professional contact with it, I was a huge fan of John Musto’s comic opera Volpone, so it was very cheering news that Wolf Trap Opera’s recording of it is Grammy-nominated as Best Opera Recording. Since it was not only Wolf Trap’s first opera commission — to which they’ve already devoted two separate productions — but their first commercial recording as well, it looks as though they know how to pick — and be — winners.

The jaunty music in this ninety-second video is what was played for the curtain calls: