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Cue Sheet – November 2005

HIGH-PRESSURE FRONT?

    The New Yorker’s usually astute Alex Ross, bemoaning newspaper cuts in classical-music coverage, mistakenly attributes the decline to the malignant influence of advertisers. This takes off from a question he posed about newspapers possibly losing revenue by giving away their content online:

Several people wrote in to point out that newspapers make their money not from subscriptions but from advertising—so that putting content on the Internet actually multiplies the opportunities for profit. OK, but should newspapers be so dependent on advertisers for their livelihood? What happens is that they answer to the tastes of advertisers rather than readers. This is why classical criticism and arts coverage are being cut back even as core subscribers remain loyal to that kind of writing. The advertisers don't like classical music because it generally doesn't appeal to their coveted young-male demographic.
    Well, maybe small-town newspaper editors can be bullied by advertisers, because there are so few businesses available to buy ads in Podunk, USA. And the content of many magazines, including some to which I contribute, is certainly guided to varying degrees by advertising. But as someone who has toiled many years in print journalism, as a reporter and an editor, I can assure Alex Ross that advertisers exert virtually no pressure in most midsize to large newsrooms. Oh, they complain, and they’ll be listened to politely, but I have never encountered an instance of an advertiser influencing coverage, or the lack of it. Indeed, when I was the editor of the Tucson Weekly, I was particularly hard-nosed about not letting restaurant owners, for example, influence coverage of their establishments, though many of them tried.
    Now, if a newspaper planned to put out a special section devoted to classical music and nobody advertised, the section would be killed and the blame could legitimately be placed on the non-advertisers. (Although really it should fall upon the paper’s sales staff. Exmple: It took years for TNI’s revolving-door sales team to figure out how to sell the Arizona Daily Star’s Sunday television supplement, which is exactly the sort of thing that should have businesses begging to advertise in. The low ad count was the fault of a poor sales effort.) But I’d like to know what advertiser is going to shun a newspaper because of the occasional music review or feature.

Classical Music,

DEEP SCHMIDT

    Tonight’s Minnesota Orchestra broadcast features Yakov Kreizberg conducting one of my favorite symphonies, Franz Schmidt’s Fourth. A year or two ago I reviewed Kreizberg’s recording of that symphony with a different orchestra:

At long last, Franz Schmidt’s magnificent Fourth Symphony is becoming a staple of the CD catalog, if not the concert hall. The mournful, nostalgic, yearning score, an elegy for a dead daughter and a dying culture (Vienna, 1934), is one of the last great gestures of the Romantic era. It’s Strauss without the bombast, Mahler without the neuroses. … Now, just at the dawn of the SACD era, we already have a first-rate new version of Schmidt’s Fourth in superb surround sound from Yakov Kreizberg and the Netherlands Philharmonic on PentaTone. The recorded sound is a bit distant, but detailed (clear enough to reveal an occasional grunt from the podium). More important, Kreizberg’s performance breathes nicely, with a natural rubato that makes its effect over large musical paragraphs more than through individual phrases.
    The full review lurks in the clean, well-lighted online archives of Fanfare magazine.

Classical Music,

ALL ABOARD

    At the beginning of November, I started dumping out of Music Through the Night before John Zeck had a chance to back-announce the last selection before 5 a.m. It makes the transition from the satellite service out of Minnesota to me in the studio smoother, but the real reason I did it was to eliminate an opportunity for Zeck to do something that drives me nuts.
    Zeck and his fellow golden-throats at C24, the source of Music Through the Night, often neglect to tell us who’s conducting the music. I once heard one of the announcers stumble all over herself in an effort to ignore the conductor; it was as if she wanted to say his name, but some consultant was standing beside her, threatening her with a gag. I have, indeed, heard one radio guru informing the program directors panting at his feet that the conductor is not an important element to include in a break. Wrong, wrong, wrong. (This particular guru studied voice in college, and singers are notorious for ignoring the conductor.)
    Announcing that a piece has been played by such-and-such an orchestra, conductor omitted, tells us nothing. First of all, orchestras have no personalities of their own anymore. You used to be able to identify a Russian orchestra by its throbbing, blaring brass; a French orchestra by the quality of its woodwinds; a German orchestra by the heft of its strings; an Italian orchestra by its utter incompetence. No more. You may still find the distinctive nasal, woody timbre of central European oboes in Czech and Slovak ensembles, but otherwise orchestras have adopted an all-purpose international sound that can be adapted to the scores at hand—if the conductor so insists.
    The members of the orchestra play the notes, but it’s the conductor who shapes the interpretation (or presides over a blank interpretation). Consider the recordings of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 made over the past 80 years by the Berlin Philharmonic: No two are alike. Even those directed by the same conductor are quite different. Wilhelm Furtwängler’s 1926 version is fast and efficient; his 1943 version, like most of his wartime performances, is incredibly intense; his 1947 version is more varied, and actually more similar to his 1950 and 1952 performances with the Vienna Philharmonic than to any of his earlier Berlin Philharmonic traversals. These are all quite different from Herbert von Karajan’s recordings of the Beethoven Fifth from 1963 (his best), the mid ’70s and the early ’80s. And these would never be confused with Berlin Philharmonic performances under Hans Knappertsbusch, Zubin Mehta or Claudio Abbado. If you have to choose between mentioning the conductor or the orchestra, go with the conductor every time.
    But don’t overstate the conductor’s authority, either. One of my other pet broadcasting peeves is announcers who suggest that the soloist in a concerto, like the orchestra, is “conducted” by the guy on the podium. Except in a few rare cases, like Karajan having his way with a malleable youngster or Alexis Weissenberg, the approach to a concerto is set by the soloist, and the conductor follows along. Remember the famous little curtain speech Leonard Bernstein gave in the early 1960s, humorously disavowing any responsibility for the interpretation of the Brahms concerto he was about to perform with Glenn Gould? When even a willful conductor like Bernstein makes such a statement, you know without a doubt that the soloist is truly in charge.

Classical Music,

ALBERT SOTO

    Every year, a highlight of Borderlands Theater’s A Tucson Pastorella has been the leering, sneering Lucifer played by Albert Soto. Albert seemed perfect for the part, holding everything in contempt, and all too willing to share a slice of malevolence with whoever crossed his path. But the real Albert Soto, at least the one I knew a little, was nothing like that. He smiled easily; his job at the Tucson Pima Arts Council was to help people, not hurt them, and he did it gladly. Not just for a paycheck, either; Albert worked beyond the scope of his official duties to assist artists, and he also volunteered for several important social efforts not related to the arts at all.
    On Friday morning, a friend called to tell me that Albert had suffered a massive stroke on Thanksgiving. The family took him off life support, and Albert died Saturday. He was only 51.
    I didn’t know Albert well, but I liked him, and respected his work at TPAC. Rumor has it that things had not been going well for Albert at TPAC during the past couple of years, but I don’t know any details and will withhold comment. It’s not the sort of detail you’ll find in a newspaper obit such as this, and probably that’s just as well. It’s better to remember Albert for his achievements rather than his frustrations.

tucson-arts,

STRINGS ATTACHED

    Strings magazine, to which I contribute (probably excessively), is sometimes a little slow to get its content online, and by the time a new issue is up I forget to post links to my latest. But I’ve noticed that highlights from the December issue are now at the Web site; if you’re in the mood for my peerless prose, you can read my profile of classical violist and Scottish fiddler Carol Cook, a technical article for players on the benefits of practicing against drones, and a review of a mostly mellow, mostly Slavic new CD by the latest incarnation of the Borodin Quartet.

Classical Music,

HAPPY THANKSGIVING

    Two thoughts about Thanksgiving: It’s a holiday that flirts with unconstitutionality, and there’s no good music for it.
    OK, so “unconstitutional” is way too strong a word for it, but Thanksgiving, while not in the least establishing a state religion, does ignore the separation of church and state that was, if you’ll pardon the expression, an article of faith in American government until the very end of the 20th century. Thanksgiving is a state-created religious holiday, fabricated anew, rather than a recognition of some existing religious observance like Christmas.
    Thanksgiving first became official, though intended as a one-time celebration, in 1863. This was in the depths of the Civil War, during a century when it was assumed that all Americans worshipped the same god. So it was not at all remarkable when, in early October of 1863, Abraham Lincoln declared it was time for the broken nation to thank the Great Overseer who, “while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.” What we forget now is that Lincoln thought it should be a day for us to take account of those sins of ours, too:

I do therefore invite my fellow-citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next as a day of thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners, or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the imposition of the Almighty hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it, as soon as may be consistent with the divine purpose, to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity, and union.
    Strife and national perverseness remain topics of the day, and we are well advised to turn our thoughts to such matters rather than merely preparing our burnt offerings to the god Butterball.
    But what music to accompany these activities? Oddly, there is almost no classical music written especially for the American Thanksgiving holiday. MUSIClassical offers 102 suggested pieces for the day, but about a dozen of them mistakenly hit the list twice and most are “Thanks Be to God” choral pieces for generic occasions of praise, as well as compositions that happen to have certain keywords in their titles. Wagner’s “Pilgrims’ Chorus”? Wrong pilgrims!
    The only authentic Thanksgiving music I know (beyond elementary-school ditties) is the hymn-laced “Thanksgiving” movement that closes Charles Ives’ “Holidays” Symphony. But that’s hardly ever played because, well, it’s Ives. (There are only four recorded performances on the market, and we don’t have any of them in the KUAT library.)
    Why haven’t other leading American composers written significant Thanksgiving music? One problem, perhaps, is that it’s a rather vague holiday, a religious observance with no backstory like Christmas or Easter or the Jewish High Holy Days. Another is that it’s not really much of a religious observance at all anymore; it’s a day of watching parades and football on television, then gorging on an early meal of dishes most of us never touch under normal circumstances (turkey, cranberry sauce, candied yams).
    Who, among living composers, might write a good Thanksgiving piece? A couple of years ago I might have suggested John Adams, but no longer; I, seemingly alone in America, was appalled by his manipulative, not very musical 9/11 Pulitzer bait, so to hell with him. Last night I heard for the first time the exciting new Telarc recording of The Here and Now, an exuberant new setting for chorus and orchstra of poems by Rumi by the youngish Christopher Theofanidis. Perhaps Theofanidis could come up with a Thanksgiving cantata that wouldn’t be overcome by treacly piety. Maybe Ned Rorem could write a good song cycle on the subject, if he could find properly unsentimental texts. But other composers who come to mind just don’t seem right for the project. Poor Thanksgiving: a holiday in search of a composer.

quodlibet,

About Cue Sheet

James Reel's cranky consideration of the fine arts and public radio in Tucson and beyond.