I just read one of the best responses to a hostile review that I’ve ever seen. A critic with a longtime vendetta against Montserrat Caballé wrote of her Covent Garden performance in Rossini’s Il viaggio a Reims in July 1992, calling her “cette poissarde des Ramblas de Barcelone” (this vulgar fishwife from Barcelona’s Ramblas).

Since one of the spectacular Barcelona markets is within hailing distance of the Gran Teatre del Liceu on the Rambla of her hometown, she was able to respond with authority: “Our fishwives are wonderful women with extraordinarily rich and powerful voices.”

Artists of Their Time

August 27, 2010

Still working on the Montsalvatge book, I find the juxtaposition of these two quotes stimulating enough to share here:

A banda de no tenir cap pretensió de passar a la posteritat, em satisfà enormement que la meva música agradi als meus contemporanis. Jo diria que sempre he escrit amb sinceritat, tot i que tinc molt present que amb l’excusa de la sinceritat potser s’han escrit les pitjors obres que hom pot imaginar. Resummint diré que, quant a la meva música, prefereixo que interessi més que no pas que agradi simplement.

Having no pretension of mattering to posterity, it pleases me enormously that my contemporaries like my music. I would say that I have always written with sincerity, even though I am very aware that one can write the worst works imaginable while using sincerity for an excuse. In summary I will say that, as far as my music goes, I prefer that it be interesting rather than that it simply please.

– Xavier Montsalvatge, 1992

This age needs … men who are filled with the strength of their cultures and do not transcend the limits of their age, but, working within the times, bring what is peculiar to the moment to glory. We need great artists who are willing to accept restrictions, and who love their environments.

– John Updike, 1951


August 23, 2010

It is painful to see the New York Times blatantly misusing a musical term — through the agency of its Chief Music Critic, no less. The Italian word segue has been used in music scores since at least operas of the 18th century, in which such instructions as segue l’aria are common. The meaning is simply that the next musical item (in the example, an aria, most commonly after a recitative) follows immediately without anything intervening. The word attacca is a synonym. In a review of the final Mostly Mozart concert, however, we see the word used to mean exactly the opposite — music specially composed to join two elements:

Mozart even wrote some orchestral transitions as segues from arias to choruses.

It is not meaningless pedantry to protest such terminological malpractice in such a place.

For an example of correct employment of the term — a term whose meaning is too valuable to confuse with its direct opposite, for heaven’s sake — see this blog post.

Beethoven? What a Dog!

August 18, 2010

From Beloit College comes this list to remind those of us who write for a general audience: our cultural references may be lost on younger readers.

Soon the posts here may return to their former frequency, since I’m in the homestretch of the biography I’m writing. In a way it’s unfortunate that I’m not blogging more, since — thanks to my subject, Xavier Montsalvatge — I’m probably having more interesting thought than usual. Here is Montsalvatge at the age of 80, talking about the difficulty, when he was a young student, of overcoming the overwhelming sway of Wagner’s music in the Barcelona of the 1920s:

Morera was a great harmonist and an even better contrapuntist; but, like nearly all the Catalan musicians of his generation, he composed all his works (very estimable, especially his sardanas and even more his choral works, although it infuriated him that people cited them, since he considered that he had most excelled in the field of opera) literally submerged in the Wagnerian esthetic [literalment submergit en l’estètica wagneriana]. At every moment he proposed for us as an example —as if it was to be treated as the composer’s gospel — the overture to Der Meistersinger, and it goes without saying that, for him, the music of Debussy was a symbol of decadent and bloodless art, that Falla wrote music for refined gypsies, and that some works of his pupils surpassed those of these composers.

This obtuse attitude, though, had a positive aspect. It bespoke, mainly, a blind faith it its ideology — which faith I consider to be in any case better than the agnosticism of the composers of today, which has made us lose fidelity to artistic principles, putting them constantly in question. And he felt for his pupils (me included) an affection that would have made him fight for us if the situation had presented itself. He was a great figure and, despite my not absolutely coinciding with his ideas, I took him for a musician of integrity [un músic d’una sola peça].

Ein Brief aus Bayreuth

August 12, 2010

Having received today the following — which he had valiantly typed on a quickly-borrowed German keyboard — from the distinguished acoustical engineer Larry King, I asked his permission to share it here:

I generally dislike sending group email messages, so I now see why blogs have become so popular. Anyhow, I have an hour to kill this rainy morning (the first one of my visit), so here is a brief recap of the events to date.

So far, I’ve seen the first three Ring operas; Götterdämmerung is tomorrow. I then train to Munich for a day and a half where I plan to make an all day trip to poor King Ludwig’s two fantasy castles. Bayreuth is a small town (about 75,000 in the wider region) with small town mores, although they generally cater nicely to tourists. I had a pair of surly waiters one evening at a popular restaurant, but the good food (sauted pike-perch zander) made up for it. The best eating so far has been at Konditorei Roman– truly top notch, not expensive, but also not open for dinner. Just as well because the operas begin at 4pm and end around 10:30pm. A hearty lunch followed by a 20 minute walk up the “green hill” to the Festspielhaus takes care of the hungers. The long intermissions, almost an hour, allow snacking (if the hungers return) on bratwursts, weissewursts, movenpick icecream, champagne, wine, coke, minneralwasser, etc, etc. Plus there’re a fancy sit down restaurant and a less fancy cafeteria that offer more substantial fare.

The operas have been, how shall I say?, entertaining. Singers have been variable in vocal quality but generally excellent as actors, especially the Siegfried (last night), Wotan, Alberich, Hundig, and Mime. Brünhilde in Walküre was so-so and was replaced in Siegfried by Sabine Hogrefe. She was outstanding (but not a Nilsson or a Flagstad– their kind appear only once or twice a century). The hall acoustic is excellent: clear, balanced, warm, just the right loudness in the big parts, and dead silent (no air con). The public areas including toilets do have a.c.

I’m sitting on the fifth row, house right, so I see almost everthing with HD clarity. Only the staging at far stage left is obscured, which hasn’t been a disappointment. The seats aren’t cushioned (only thin pads like carpet on backs and bottoms), and row spacing is definitely 19th century (i.e., tight for tall persons). The hall is constructed of thick timber and plaster, which enhance resonance. The crowd loves to stamp their feet while clapping and cheering, so the floor vibrates excitingly. Concrete won’t do that! Coughing, sneezing, cellphones ringing and such common annoying distractions in North American houses are strictly frowned on. So far I’ve heard only one muffled cough. The park gounds around the theatre are lovingly landscaped– groves of old trees,spacious green lawns dappled in shade and afternoon sunlight, flower gardens, pools and fountains abound. There’s a small bookshop carrying only Wagner lore and an adjacent post office to speed off your souvenir postcards.

The scene is of a very fancy-dressed audience with obviously much moola to spend. About one third of the men wear tuxedos or some variation thereof, while the women are diked out in all sorts of coloful garb– mostly tasteful but some outrageously odd. The winner so far wore a flowing, leaf green silk dress off the shoulders and an amazing feather construction on the right side of her head. Her swain sported peroxided hair, a white dinner jacket and the almost universal black toursers, and joined this with a silver swan tipped walking stick that he certainly didn’t need to manuever around the grounds. It is truly a big deal, I guess comparable to the Salzburg and Lucerne festivals, although I expect Salzburg’s tops Bayreuth’s. I’m taking lots of images, including a few videos, that I’ll share with those interested.

So, it’s time to close. I’ve comandeered the computer in the tourist office long enough (still can’t get used to the German keyboard). Hope all is well at home. It’s nice to be away from the busy-ness of NYC. Love, Larry

They meet in the most impressive popular way in Stéphane Delplace‘s “Bach Panther” — accompanied by terrific video-production values:

Here’s a disarming interview in which the musician discusses his work:

My friend, and brother in observing media, Ian Huckabee has a perceptive accounting of The Story So Far. He tells of his own family’s progress from a computer the size of a room to the (much more powerful) iPod, noting cultural earthquakes thus enabled.

We will all have our own patterns of how the new means affect our ends, but I find that it’s in my professional life that the effects are most pronounced. The ability to hear of new developments, to communicate new thoughts (and to have them quickly rebutted), to call up old thoughts of millions of others, has revolutionized the volume and directness of sharing musical ideas, whether theoretical or very practical.

It’s easy just to move on automatically to the next idea, the next argument, the next self-aggrandizing or humiliating revelation. But Ian, in his essay, encourages a historical perspective, and he helps us to take our own conscious inventory. We’ll need another one soon.