Please read this column on Dmitri Shostakovich, by fellow Tallahassean Samuel L. Scheib. Prophets are, in fact, often without honor in their own countries.


Florida State Opera, etc.

Here's my review of this past weekend's Florida State Opera production of Gustav Holst's Sāvitri and Marius Constant's adaptation of George Bizet for La Tragédie de Carmen.

Elsewhere, Allan Kozinn of the New York Times examines some statistics that indicate that reports of the demise of concert music are premature and exaggerated. I have noticed mostly good sized audiences for events here this season, including Saturday evening's opera production, so my recent experience is in line with the numbers in Mr. Kozinn's article. I am not surprised to see the statistics supporting the idea that early and new musics are bringing new listeners into the fold.

Finally, a few pieces for Memorial Day listening, in honor of those who gave the ultimate sacrifice in service:

Charles Ives, "Decoration Day", from the Holidays Symphony;
Benjamin Britten, War Requiem;
Aaron Copland, Fanfare for the Common Man;
Paul Hindemith, When lilacs last in the door-yard bloom'd. A Requiem "For those we love"; and
Roger Sessions, When lilacs last in the door-yard bloom'd.



Robert Gable posts about listening to Elliott Carter's Violin Concerto:

After two listens, I still can't parse Three Occasions for Orchestra. Much as I prefer my violin concertos to be aged several hundred years, Carter's Violin Concerto is easier to understand than the first piece since one voice is usually prominent. Still, it strikes me as a dour piece. Although presumably difficult to play, I don't get a sense of virtuosic showmanship and a result, this is not much fun. And if I want to experience Carter's compositional rigor, I prefer the clarity of his works for piano or string quartet (or even his Piano Concerto).

Mr. Gable is referring to Oliver Knussen's recording of the Occasions, the Violin Concerto, and the Concerto for Orchestra. (My review of a more recent recording of the Violin Concerto is here.) It won't surprise regular readers that my experience of this music is different from Mr. Gable's (I'm interested in his choice of the word "dour" and what exactly he means by it), but that's not what intriqued me about his post.

What did catch my eye is the bit about virtuosity ("Although presumably difficult to play, I don't get a sense of virtuosic showmanship and a result, this is not much fun.") This brings up a problem I have thought about for some time: How does a composer (and soloist) communicate the idea and fact of "virtuosity" in a pantonal context?

In tonal music a listener can readily hear wrong notes, flubbed notes, less-than-felicitous phrasing, and the like. They can even predict (within bounds) what's coming next in pieces they've never heard before. The feats of virtuosity are themselves part of the expressive content of many concertos. Those that fail to integrate the virtuosity with other expressive elements (if any) are heard as exercises in "empty" virtuosity.

Pantonal music doesn't typically have the predictive elements (what tonal theorists sometimes describe as "postion-finding" and "pattern-matching") of tonal music and so it can be difficult to tell if the right notes have been played, especially in a new or unfamiliar piece. It can be difficult, then, for the pantonal composer to communicate the triumph of the soloist through the overcoming of technical obstacles that is so much a part of the "narrative" of a solo concerto.*

Mr. Gable notes a preference for Carter's Piano Concerto, and that may be telling in light of the virtuoso issue. The Piano Concerto is far less colorful than the Violin Concerto (the word "dour" almost comes to mind) and its vision more tragic. The piano soloist is cast as an anti-hero whose prodigious virtuosity is eventually overwelmed by the orchestral mass. It may be that this clear dramatic structure and virtuoso struggle is more immediately apparent to the listener than the ever-changing relationships in the Violin Concerto.

One reason these thoughts readily popped up after reading Mr. Gable's post is that I am preparing to write a concerto for percussion and band, and the idea of virtuosity will certainly arise, along with a host of others that I'll blog about from time to time.

*It should go without saying that the soloist as hero is not the only narrative strategy available, regardless of the musical style.


25 in 25

I've gotten quite a few hits from this thread in the last couple of days. Also, Scott Spiegelberg and A. C. Douglas have revived an on-going discussion of how best to bring new listeners to the world of concert music, or even if it is worth the effort to do so. Their posts contain numerous links to a variety of conversations on the subject, including recommendations of pieces for newbies to listen to.

What I propose to do is to focus for a while on music of the last 25 years. Why? Because it is my strong belief that composers have always written their works as people living in their times. This seems obvious, but there is still the idea out there that artists are detatched from the world around them. They are often separated in some important ways, but they were/are perceptive, aware people.

Therefore, one way to attract new listeners is to expose people to works written during their lifetimes, in an environment that is not totally foreign to them. What about the past? The past is always with us. Sometimes it's not even past. Listeners capture by our music will often look around for older music that is new to them.

Accordingly, I'm asking you to nominate pieces for a list of 25 Significant Pieces of the Last 25 Years. Anything written between 1981 and now is eligible for inclusion. Please e-mail me your nominations (or post them as comments) along with any criteria you may have used.

I'll compile what I get and, since I'm in Florida, I'll post the results I think we should have. (I kid, I kid.)


High Hat

The new of issue of The High Hat is out. It includes, among other pieces on art, pop culture, and politics, my article on Olivier Messiaen's Quatuor pour la fin du temps. Please give the rest of the magazine a look while you are there.