There's a fairly extensive chorale for brass in the last movement of Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 2 in c minor ("Resurrection") (1894). This chorale (beginning at rehearsal 10 in the Dover edition) starts softly, in the trombones, tuba, and contrabassoon. After three soft four-measure phrases, the trumpets and horns join in for the last, seven-measure phrase. A gradual but inexorable crescendo pushes through the first five measures, culminating in a fortissimo (ff, very loud) accent followed by an immediate reduction in volume to piano (p, soft). The final two measures combine another crescendo (with bass drum and timpani rolls) with movement towards a harmonic resolution and the beginning of a new section.

It's a very challenging passage because of the control needed to maintain the soft dynamics and intonation at the beginning of the passage, the control needed to pace the increasing dynamics and not peak too soon, and finally the control needed to keep the tone from "spreading" at the high volume levels. Though Mahler marks both of the loudest points "ff" it is normal to leave a little room at the top of the first crescendo for the second, climactic one, to be louder still. Naturally, the addition of the percussion will help with that, but the brass should be louder, too.

I heard a performance of this work by the North Carolina Symphony in the early 70s. I believe Gerhardt Zimmermann was the conductor, but I could be mistaken. At any rate, it had been a well-played, well-paced performance. When the height of the first crescendo was reached the sound was full, rich, and centered, and as loud as I'd ever heard anything. I thought they hadn't left any room.

Not so. They passed the height of the first crescendo with a full two or three beats left, and kept going. As they continued to get louder there was no loss of tone quality. In fact, the sound got ever richer. The climax was electrifying and set the stage for an extraordinary finale.

The players walked a tightrope throughout that passage. The risks they took (had the sound or intonation gone off, the spell would have been broken, probably irretrievably) took the entire performance to a new level. Not only because they succeeded--the attempt itself added tension and excitement to the sense of expectation the chorale embodies. This atmosphere of risk, of chances taken, can't be captured in a recording, no matter how expert and expressive the performance. The reason is simple--you know they are going to "make it". If there was a take where the brass had lost it, it wouldn't have been included. Besides that, once you've heard the recording you know how it's going to come out. This tightrope effect is an important part of any live performance, in any art.

I'll go a step farther. It seems to me that this tightrope effect is actually part of the expressive content of music. Not all of it, of course, but in passages like this one and much of the virtuoso repertoire the difficulty itself is expressive, especially when the limits are pushed, as in the Mahler performance I described.

PS: It's also why using microphones is always wrong in opera. The projecting of character through the unaided voice is integral to opera performance. The struggles of the character are mirrored in the achievement of the singer, or in some cases, his or her pride and/or arrogance.


Do You Hear What I Hear?

Philip Anson, in La Scena Musicale:

Unfortunately, Elliott Carter’s Variations for Orchestra (1953-55) was scheduled as penance. The octogenarian Carter (who was present and took bows) is the highly respected dean of American composers. All honor to his white hairs. The Variations was 23 minutes of clever but pointless academic exercise that I (and most of the audience, to judge by their restlessness), could have done without. The MET Orchestra played it perfectly.

Allan Kozinn, in the New York Times:

Mr. Carter's 25-minute work tests the orchestra more vigorously, but in this ensemble's performance, there was never a sense that hurdles were being jumped. That isn't to say that the score no longer poses them. Unlike conventional variation sets, Mr. Carter's proceeds not only from a principal theme, but from two ritornellos - a fast one that decelerates, and a slow one that picks up speed - and each variation juggles a handful of ideas. Rhythm, tempo, timbre, texture and placement (in the antiphonal Variation No. 7) are all explored. Few musical parameters are left unvisited.

Mr. Levine's reading presented the work as an organic, arching construction. The structural details were presented clearly, but there was also a more direct, emotional punch as well as an extraordinary level of ensemble polish that must have made the work accessible to even the most casual listener. The most innovative touches, though, were the connections Mr. Levine made with earlier music, mostly by way of unusual phrasing decisions. In the second variation, for example, a flexibly rendered woodwind passage briefly evoked the jazz of the 1940's.

Other passages sounded as if they would not be out of place in Debussy (although those gave way to rhythmically sharp, muscular stretches that Debussy would not have countenanced). There was even a touch of pure Romantic portamento in some of the string passages, certainly an odd but not unwelcome touch. Time was when the Variations for Orchestra would have received dutiful applause. This performance drew a standing ovation. Mr. Carter, who at 96 attends most of his New York performances, was on hand to acknowledge it.



A great idea for people unsure of what to do with their tax refunds.


I've added Jason Hibbard's blog on music in Houston, I Am Sitting In A Room, and the blog of composers Mark Dancigers and Martin Suckling, Musica Transatlantica, to the blogroll.


Who's Going to Tell the Germans?

Today I abandon my traditional one-word post titles to respond to Alex Ross' fine post on "style wars" type criticism. Mr. Ross examines reactions to some recent British music in the German press and (rightfully) finds fault in the style-based criticism, which tells the reader nothing about what the music sounds like. (Writing that a piece is "tonal" or "atonal" doesn't qualify as helping the reader know what it was like to hear the piece, as far as I'm concerned.)

After a well-argued and link-rich discussion of the state of German composition and theory, Mr. Ross makes reference to my oft-stated desire that "we have to get beyond a politicized new-music scene and celebrate the best of all traditions, 'conservative' and 'radical.' A fine idea, but how do you arrange a cease-fire? Who's going to tell the Germans?"

Given Alex Ross' prominence in music criticism, I think it is fair to say that the Germans have now been told. They will undoubtedly have to be told again--more than once, to be sure.

As will others. Jens F. Laurson of ionarts ends a post on analogies about tonality with this slap:

P.S. I made someone (innocent) listen to all of Pierrot Lunaire last week. Somebody stop me before mere bystanders get hurt.
Well, OK. What. Ever. Substitute Beethoven 9 for Pierrot and it still "works".

A. C. Douglas posted the other day on some lame poetry, a critical response to it, and a response to the response. Mr. Douglas adds:

Why is it, I wonder, that the dissing of Ms. Houlihan and her criticism, and the defense of "post-avant" poetry (represented here by the above quoted two "nonorganic" poems) and poets by their champions sound eerily the same as the dissing of the critics and criticism of so-called "New Music," and the defense of such music and its composers by their champions? Could the answer be that New Music and nonorganic, post-avant poetry are eerily the same; near-perfect analogues, each of the other?

The lack of specifics in this rant is typical--no composers, pieces, or champions are named, so no response is possible. Mr. Douglas posts like this often enough that I wonder if he has a macro for it.

At any rate, both sides in the style wars would do well to listen to a call for a cease fire.

PS: Mr. Douglas fires up his macro again, as I was writing this. Who's going to tell the Bloggers?



Barring a Machina ex Deus I am going to miss the Moscow Philharmonic concert tonight. Car trouble.

Also tonight, the premiere of George Hunka's new play, Sustaining, in New York. Break a leg, George, and keep us posted.



The Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra comes to town for a concert Sunday evening, and your humble correspondent will be reviewing the performance. The program is an all-Tchaikovsky evening: Capriccio Italien, the Violin Concerto, and the Fifth Symphony. This concert is being seen as the biggest musical event to hit town since Jim Morrison's arrest.

I'm not a big fan of Tchaikovsky, but I like him more than I used to (Bill Hibbard said to me "If you don't like Tchaikovsky, you are a snob"). I'm also not a big fan of one composer/one medium concerts, though there are exceptions--I heard the Guarneri Quartet traverse the Bartok Quartets over two evenings in Iowa City in 1981, for one glorious example.

At any rate, I have a few questions: Should I mention these reservations in my review? How do you all feel about Tchaikovsky? About one composer/one medium concerts?



Alex Ross reminds us that today is Morton Feldman's birthday. Mr. Ross writes that Feldman is "the greatest American composer of modern memory". I would only add to and expand on that and say that I rate him along with Elliott Carter as perhaps the two greatest composers of the second half of the 20th century.

Feldman's music deals directly with many of the central issues of Modern and postModern concert (or notational, as Mr. Ross puts it) music. For example, it is extremely dissonant by most standards, in that the intervals used are those that traditional rules of harmony would require to "resolve". Feldman overcomes these requirements through the repetition of intervals (this is akin to what theorists call "tonality by assertion", wherein a given sound begins to feel like home simply by will) and through the sheer beauty of his instrumental writing, as well as his famously low dynamic levels.

Among his works:

Rothko Chapel (a 101 piece)
the viola in my life
Why Patterns?
for Samuel Beckett
Cello and Orchestra


Everything is Green (I)

George Hunka has been writing about the production of his new play, Sustaining. I am finding the process fascinating, as there are a good deal of similarities between the process Mr. Hunka describes and the process of getting a new musical composition performed.

Mr. Hunka's intrepidity has inspired me to write about the composition of my newest piece, which, as he reveals in this post, happens to be an opera.

I became fascinated with opera when I served as the stage manager for a production of Kurt Weill's Seven Deadly Sins. The excitement of performance and the intricacy of the production itself (as well as the great music) were and are intoxicating. I have a couple of ideas for full-length operas, but I wanted to do something small first, as a way of finding out if I can do it and without investing X number of years in a full-scale piece.

To that end, I recently acquired the operatic rights to David Foster Wallace's "Everything is Green", a short short story from his collection Girl With Curious Hair. It is a two character domestic drama that I have massaged into three short scenes. Right now I'm working on the end of a prelude, which will seque into the first scene.

I'll keep you posted on my progress periodically. I don't think I'll get too much into technical details, unless, of course, a particularly juicy spelling problem comes up.


To the blogroll:

Composers Forum

and to "Links and Resources":

Sequenza21, a contemporary concert music webzine, and The High Hat, a cultural webzine.

Please mingle with them, offer them a drink, and generally make them feel at home.



After some holiday listening, reading, and cogitating I have revised my list of 101 essential pieces of 20th century concert music. The list is not intended to be comprehensive, a "best of" list, or even to comprise the most essential pieces. It is, rather, intended to be a list of pieces that, taken as a whole, convey the essence of 20th century concert music in its richness and variety.

Pieces deleted:

Bernstein: Symphonic Dances from West Side Story
Carter: String Quartet 1
Copland: Appalachian Spring
Hindemith: Mathis der Maler
Maw: Odyssey
Part: Tabula Rasa
Puccini: Turandot
Schoenberg: Five Pieces, Op. 23
Shostakovich: Symphony 5
Tavener: Thunder Entered Her
Vaughan Williams: London Symphony

Pieces added:

Bernstein: Suite from On the Waterfront
Bolcom: Songs of Innocence and Experience
Carter: String Quartet 5
Copland: Piano Variations
Daugherty: Metropolis Symphony
Hindemith: Six Chansons
Hyla: We Speak Etruscan
Part: Passio Domini nostri Jesu Christi secundum Johannem
Rautavaara: Symphony 7
Saariaho: Nymphea (Jardin secret III)
Shostakovich: Lady MacBeth of Mtsensk

The complete list is at the bottom of the page.


Happy New Year to everyone. I hope your holidays were filled with good cheer.

I'd like to point out two additions to the blogroll: Drew McManus' blog on issues relating to cultural administration and the blog of composer Lawrence Dillon.