The Player's the Thing

One of the great things about the rise of the concert music blogosphere is that we get to hear from people inside the music who are rarely, if ever, "published". Performer-bloggers such as Helen Radice, Patricia Mitchell, Brian Sacawa, and Jeremy Denk (among many) provide a unique point-of-view that is valuable to the rest of us, as well as being entertaining. The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra has established a players' blog that is already filling up with choice observations:

There isn’t a much bigger test of sheer stamina and concentration than Meistersinger. I’ve got a big problem with it. It simply doesn’t do it for me. But if I’m going to have a bit of a nark about Wagner, you need to be re-assured that I haven’t forgotten my place in life. Ant snarling at elephant. I have no delusions. Rank and file, below stairs, humbler than Uriah Heep. There’s nothing I can do that will harm Wagner’s music or folks love for it. (Cellist Anthony Sayer)
Musicians often dream about strange things happening on stage. I was talking to Etienne last week and he told me about a couple of recurring dreams he has. During the first, which I’ve heard from other brass players, his teeth fall out just before the first downbeat and he is unable to produce a note! In another he is stood at the front of the orchestra ready to perform a Mozart Horn Concerto; as soon as he begins to play, he realises that he has no idea how to produce a sound, it is as if he has gone back to the age of 8 and taking his first ever lesson! I wondered if it was just brass players who have these dreams and asked a few string-players. My favourite reply was from Harry (Harris, cello) who once dreamt that he was playing Overture to Marriage of Figaro, and not at all put off by the fact that his cello had been replaced by a bowl of fruit salad! Scary stuff, and proof that performers cannot escape their instruments and all the mental aspects of performance, even in their sub-conscious. (Trumpeter Mark Allen)
We came back from the first Prom trip to find ourselves in deep gloss all over the cover of the new BBC Scotland Annual Report (that’s the annual “Look how well we’ve all done, and how much better we are going to do” book). Now what’s amazing about that, to Jurassic period players like me, is that when I joined the BBC the only chance we had of hearing ourselves being talked about was when they were having another go at getting rid of us. (Mr. Sayer again)

I've added the blog to the blogroll. I think you'll enjoy it.


Johannes Brahms: Symphony 1, Karajan, Berliner Philharmoniker.
Miles Davis All-Stars: Walkin'.
Karl Henning: Evening Service (2006).



Just a quick one to draw your attention to a couple of new items on the sidebar. First, a link to bloggapedia, a blog-listing site. Second, a link to the classical lounge, a networking site for musicians and concert music enthusiasts. Finally, there's a link to my classical lounge page.


Luciano Berio: Sinfonia, Peter Eotvos, Goteberg Symfoniker. DG
Olivier Messiaen: Oiseaux Exotiques, Coleurs de la cite celeste, Paul Crossley, Salonen, London Sinfonietta. CBS.
Kaija Saariaho: L'aile Du Songe, Saraste, Finnish Radio Symphony.


David Toub

I've added composer David Toub's blog to the blogroll. Please give him a few clicks and a few good reads.


On Envy and Concert Scheduling

I promised yesterday that I would have more to say about Greg Stepanich's statement about other composers being "jealous" of Jay Greenberg. I think, as commentor JVM indicated yesterday, the "envy" is a better word than "jealousy", but besides that and one other point I'll eventually get to, it turns out I don't have much to say about it.

Other than this: I do wish I had Mr. Greenberg's opportunities and resources. I don't think that influences my opinion of his music (when and if I ever have a strong opinion about it).

Of more interest is this article from The New York Times, on concert starting times. If I were in a position to influence scheduling and formatting of concerts, starting times and as concert length are two of the things I would be most experimental with.

Meanwhile, I'm listening to Peter Eotvos' fine recording of Luciano Berio's Sinfonia, one of my favorite pieces, and all is right in my very little corner of the world.


Some Thoughts on Jay Greenberg

Lisa Hirsch, in a comment on my post linking to an article about Jay Greenberg:

I realize I ought to read the article, but it makes me so angry that this young man can get recorded because of his age when established composers can't count on getting their work recorded.
This phenomenon brings up all sorts of feelings, doesn't it? I understand Ms. Hirsch's anger at these opportunities not going to more established composers.

However, it reminds me of feelings I had as an undergraduate regarding the funding and attention given to intercollegiate athletics. I felt at the time that the money and attention should be going elsewhere, especially the arts. This was based on the misquided notion that if the money and attention wasn't given to sports, it would naturally go to something more "worthy". It wouldn't.

In this situation, I think it would be naive to think that if Sony Classical wasn't recording Mr. Greenberg that they would be recording [insert the name of a composer you consider under-recorded]. I don't believe that this is the case. Regardless of the merits of Mr. Greenberg's music, I don't believe it would have been recorded were it not for his age. I have no doubt of this.

I haven't heard the two pieces on the Sony release. Based on the one-minute snippets available at amazon.com, Mr. Greenberg's melodic skill is considerable, and his rhythmic pallete appropriate and limited. I can't really judge the harmony, because I would need to hear how it plays out over the large-scale for to get a real grasp of it. As for his skill in handling structure (arguably the most important aspect in tonal symphonic [sonata-style] music), I haven't a clue, because the excerpts aren't long enough.

I don't know if Mr. Greenberg is the real deal or not. To proclaim him a "genius" at this time would, it seems to me, have to be based largely on the idea that genius equals facility and/or prolificacy. I think there's more to it than that. I think it has to include a profound sense of the human condition that most of us lack plus the talent and skill to present that sense in aesthetic form. It's way too early to tell if Mr. Greenberg has that.

I do think it is interesting how eager some are to label him a genius. There seems to be a need to have a composer we can all label the contemporary Mozart or Mendelssohn. I'm not sure I understand this. I don't know if there are any such geniuses out there, but I do know that there are countless new and recent works of genius that most of us don't get to hear and don't even get to hear about. To that extent, I do agree with Ms. Hirsch's lament that the Greenberg marketing effort has sucked so much oxygen out of the room.

* * * * *
There is another aspect of this I will touch on in a later post. Greg Stepanich brings it up here:
There is a word for composers who say they’re not jealous of Greenberg’s accomplishments at this point, and that word is liars. It’s impossible not to see in Greenberg all the dreams you had for yourself as a composer, if only your piano teacher hadn’t moved away, or a cousin stole your favorite banjo, or, frankly, that you had enough talent.
More to come.


Sunday Reading

A. C. Douglas points to an article in The New York Times about composer Jay Greenberg, whose Fifth Symphony and String Quintet will be released on Sony Classical on Tuesday. Mr. Greenberg was the subject of a lively round of blogscussion back in '04.

Pliable points to a review by Michael Kimmelman in the New York Review of Books of Stephen Walsh's Stravinsky: The Second Exile: France and America, 1934–1971. Pliable notes the end of Mr. Kimmelman's review:

The composer George Perle observed when Stravinsky died that the world was without a great composer for the first time in six hundred years. It still is.

I respectfully dissent, for that time and for our own. It is not necessary to diminish the present in order to uphold and love the past. It flourishes on its own.


Politics, Again

Word comes from a member of the Orchestra of St. Luke's, whose appearance at the Edinburgh Festival and the Proms was previewed here, by Pliable, that the Orchestra's trip has been cancelled. The cancellation is due to the increased security imposed after a plot to blow up trans-Atlantic flights was broken up on Thursday.

According to the Orchestra member, the cancellation came about because the Orchestra was unable to obtain dispensation to carry their instruments on the plane. This dispensation would have had to come from officials at and near the top of the British and American governments.


Powers and Politics

I'm reading Richard Powers' The Time of Our Singing and finding it delightful. One of the themes of the novel is the poers of music, and Powers renders the effect and lure of music and the musical life as well as anybody writing today. He's done it before, too. His Gold-Bug Variations includes as good an overview of JS Bach's Goldberg Variations as I've read anywhere. Both of these books are highly recommended.

* * * * *

I've noticed that many arts and music blogs have included political topics over these last few weeks. I don't typically do politics here, and I consider myself a political person. The reason I don't is simple: I don't want politics to get between people and the music. And, human nature being what it is, that's often what happens when the two are mixed. When you know someone's politics, and they mix that with their discussion of the arts, it's hard not to relate the two.

A couple of my recent posts have been political in the broadest sense, but as a rule, I don't post on the subject here, especially not on electoral politics.

How do you all feel about the issue?


Kenneth Woods

I've added the blog of conductor Kenneth Woods to the blogroll. Mr. Woods has an interesting take on the the future of concert music. He asks the following questions:

  1. How are arts organizations affected by regulatory changes in publishing and broadcasting that have caused most formerly locally-owned and operated radio, television and newspaper outlets to become subsidiaries of huge national conglomerates? When so much of our media content is nationally syndicated, don’t local performing arts organizations get less coverage of everything that they do?
  2. How are arts organizations affected by the erosion of educational standards in all areas, let alone by the wholesale demolition of arts education?
  3. How are arts organizations affected by the national governments massive general reductions in humanitarian aid over the last 25 years? Funds to help victims of a tragedy like the Indian Ocean tsunami would have come from the state in prior generations, now they’ve come primarily from private foundations, foundations that used to fund arts organizations.

I don't know the answers to these questions, but I think they push the issue in an important direction. In an earlier post, he discusses the relationship of the arts to the marketplace, and what state support for the arts means and, just as important, what it doesn't mean:

State support for the arts does not have to lead to state control of the arts. The (now nearly defunct) National Science Foundation in the USA provides a useful, and incredibly successful model. Instead of vetting funding requests through a central council or a legislature, NSF requests were always vetted via blind peer review. Decisions were made not on the potential market value of the proposed research, or the likelihood of outside co-funding, or the political popularity of the proposed research, but solely and exclusively on its SCIENTIFIC VALUE AS DETERMINED BY THE AD HOC COMMITTEE EVALUATING THAT PROPOSAL.

I've looked around his blog and his web site a little bit, and I think you'll find a number of items of interest.


Two Quotes

The science of government it is my duty to study, more than all other sciences; the arts of legislation and administration and negotiation ought to take the place of, indeed exclude, in a manner, all other arts. I must study politics and war, that our sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. Our sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history and naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry and porcelain.--President John Adams

In times like these, when the world seems to be coming apart at the seams (and people in and around power are cheering the destruction on), we're reminded of how little progress we've made in Adams' generational strategic plan. To be fair, though, I'm sure he was well aware of human nature, and his hopes were more like a dream. Which brings us to the truth of the following:

The theater is an empty box; it is our task to fill it with fury, and ecstasy, and with revolution.

This is a line from the outstanding Canadian television series Slings & Arrows, about the travails of a provincial theater company. The idea behind this list (incomplete, of course) of the "purposes" of art is a challenge to all of us who create, recreate, and write about art. Entertainment has its place, of course, but we shouldn't lose sight of the power of art to move, excite, and enrage people. Not to mention the oft-stated and under-attempted power of art to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.

When we choose works to perform/produce, write about, or create, it wouldn't hurt to keep in mind the power we might have. If you can move people away from where they feel safe, even if only for a hour or two, you will have done some good. If you can play the development section of the first movement of the Beethoven 3 with more bite, you will have done some good. If your Weill is a bit vile, you will have done some good. If your Shostakovich makes them squirm, you will have done some good.

Fill the box.