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Cue Sheet – January 2006

DEFENDERS OF SLUDGE

    Newsday music critic Justin Davidson, guest blogging at The Rest Is Noise, has belched one of the most asinine comments about music I’ve seen in some time:

Simon Rattle's performance of Ravel's Mother Goose and Strauss' Ein Heldenleben with the Berlin Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall were … full of overweeningly magnified detail. You could make out the highlights on all those crystalline tremolos and follow the curve of each dewdrop pizzicato. It seems strange to criticize an orchestra for clarity, both because it is so difficult to achieve and because we have come to accept it as the standard of textual authenticity. According to current orthodoxy, since the composer took the trouble to write all those damned little squiggles into the score (and implied a whole lot more), the best performance is the one that makes audible as much of the filigree as possible. This is, in different guises, the principle that guides performers as ostensibly distinct as  authentic performance practice gurus, minimalist burblers, and Boulez and his Boulezzini. But, really, what's so terrible about about letting the edges of a chord bleed a bit, or letting some of those waves of fast fiddle notes gurgle indistinctly? Sometimes some judiciously applied atmospheric murk–what a pianist would call pedal–gets closer to the essential truth.
    The soundly furious A.C. Douglas comes to Davidson’s defense in the case of Wagner and other composers of heavily larded German Romantic music, but he notes that clarity and precision are essential elsewhere, as in the music of Mozart and Haydn.
    I’ll grant that “gurgling indistinctly” can sometimes be appropriate. Listen to an Arturo Toscanini recording of the very first bars of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, or the initial bars of the second movement of Paul Paray’s otherwise admirable recording of the Symphonie fantastique: their clarity and precision produce a clear pulse, where the music really needs to shimmer. But Davidson’s dismissal of what he calls “overweeningly magnified detail” is distressingly characteristic of the attitudes of New York music critics whose ears have been amateurized by years of subjection to the superficialities of Zubin Mehta and Kurt Masur at the New York Philharmonic. After 25 years of dull, uncaring, kapellmeister-quality performances by what New Yorkers but hardly anyone else believe to be the world’s greatest orchestra, New York critics are absolutely horrified by any hint of musical italicizing, personal interpretation or, indeed, real preparation that would allow performers to do more than just get through the notes.
    It’s not just a New York problem. Unimaginative conductors have plagued other major American orchestras for years: Eugene Ormandy and Wolfgang Sawallisch in Philadelphia, Erich Leinsdorf and Seiji Ozawa in Boston, Daniel Barenboim in Chicago. With minimal rehearsal, they can draw a pretty sound from an orchestra, and that’s enough for dullard critics and audiences who haven’t been taught any better. But how many other people really want to listen to performances delivered with the bland, routine efficiency and lack of involvement you'd find in a clerk at the Department of Motor Vehicles?
    Well, actually there is a long tradition of critics and audiences clamoring for the work of artistically barren non-entities. In the late 19th century, Hans Richter trained the English to prefer his bland, metronomic performances to the more imaginataive work of the likes of Artur Nikisch and Hans von Bülow, and Brits have never recovered from Richter’s malign influence. (They lionize exceptions like John Barbirolli and Simon Rattle because they’re English, not because they’re interesting.) Norman Lebrecht, in his book The Maestro Myth, traces the schism back to Mendelssohn versus Wagner. Mendelssohn insisted on fast, metronomic performances from the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, decrying the interference of “interpretation” (although playing metronomically and dully is itself a sort of interpretation). Wagner as a conductor was much freer, with elastic phrasing and a willingness to highlight exactly those inner voices that A.C. Douglas argues should not be highlighted in Wagner’s own music.
    The fact is that most, though certainly not all, composers working since the beginning of the Baroque era have expected performers to bring their own interpretation to the music, within reason. Italian performers were especially free with the score in the first half of the 18th century, which irritated German conservatives like Leopold Mozart to no end. Beethoven, who in the 1980s was victimized by sleepwalkers like Roger Norrington who believed it was necessary only to set an orchestra to Beethoven’s metronome markings and then go on autopilot, apparently conducted his music wildly, in a way that baffled the insufficiently prepared musicians who were just trying to follow the score. Brahms clearly preferred the individualistic (within reason) performances of his symphonies under von Bülow to those of dullards like Richter. In the mid 20th century, John Cage and other aleatoric composers left almost everything up to a roll of the dice and on-the-spot decisions by performers, but that’s an extreme case.
    Recently, for an article I was writing on William Bolcom’s rags for string quartet, I asked the composer about his tempo preferences; he declared that each musician must find a tempo that seems right and corresponds somehow to his or her own inner pulse. Bolcom also discussed how he had to be sensitive to voicings in translating his piano rags to the string quartet medium. Yes, he wants those voices to be heard clearly.
    Obviously, what Davidson calls “atmospheric murk” is not something a composer would believe to be in his or her best interest. Davidson is merely making excuses for laziness and sloppiness. And if laziness and sloppiness are all we can demand from today’s professional musicians, who needs those musicians? And who needs cotton-eared critics like Justin Davidson?

Classical Music,

THE BURDEN OF CELEBRITY

    Last night my wife and I attended a benefit dinner involving Stephanie Zimbalist and Efrem Zimbalist Jr., following their appearance in Chamber Music Plus Southwest’s Mesmeric Mozart. We’d met Stephanie last year at a much more intimate dinner and got to know her as well as you can know anyone after two or three hours. Both she and her father are remarkably unpretentious, patient, “normal” people in every positive sense of that word. I’ve met several actors and interviewed a great many musicians, and I must say that most of them have been much like the Zimbalists: gracious, easygoing people who happen to have parleyed their talent into solid careers. In fact, I’ve taken an instant dislike to only three world-famous musicians. The late guitarist Narciso Yepes struck me as, yes, narcissistic and arrogant, yet that hasn’t diminished my admiration of his recordingds. The other two are pianists who are still alive and whom I may encounter again, so they shall remain unnamed here. Otherwise, self-regard is a character flaw I find among very few performers anymore, save for a few opera singers who are just a bit too full of themselves but otherwise inoffensive. (Youngish movie stars like Tom Cruise are another matter.)
    What I find remarkable is how these people maintain their equanimity under difficult public circumstances. The Zimbalists, for example, were exhausted last night. Even though they’d had the luxury of reading from scripts, as is customary at Chamber Music Plus events, they’d put a lot into their performances, far more than some more celebrated thespians have. On top of that, Efrem, who still cuts an elegant figure, is well into his 80s and suffers from a bad knee that really should be replaced. Yet he and his daughter remained gracious throughout the long meet-and-greet dinner. Eventually my wife took pity on them, wrested them away from their fans and steered them to a table where they could finally sit down, eat and relax a bit. “I’d forgotten how hard these things can be,” Stephanie said.
    I imagine the work of shmoozing doesn’t stop at these organized gatherings. Just walking down the street or going to a private restaurant is surely a trial if you’re a celebrity with a recognizable face. Perfectly nice people come up to say hello and chat about how much they enjoyed the celebrity’s work in something that happened decades before. (Last night, people were chatting up Efrem Zimbalist about 77 Sunset Strip, which was canceled 40 years ago.) They want only a minute of the celebrity’s time, but when one fan leaves another comes up, then another. No wonder so many movie actors snub the public; they just can’t take the onslaught of well-meaning people. (Then there are the stalkers; Stephanie had one of her own, who was ultimately jailed for a couple of years.) Even I, a person who has just barely set one toe past the threshold of public recognition in a not very large market, can hardly make it across a theater lobby without being buttonholed by a series of very nice people who want to say something about KUAT or some review I wrote for the Weekly or a magazine article that was just published but I can’t recall clearly because I wrote it a couple of months before. Making nice with the public is part of being a public figure, but I can imagine how fatiguing it must be for celebrities, and I admire people like the Zimbalists for their pleasance and fortitude even more than for their actual work.

quodlibet,

GENIUS OR GENUS?

    This is the big Mozart Day, the 250th anniversary of Mozart’s birth, which we are officially marking during my six-hour shift here at KUAT-FM with exactly one work lasting six minutes and 50 seconds. Don’t tell the music director, but I have taken the liberty of jettisoning from the schedule two or three not-especially-distinctive yet overplayed pieces by other composers that you’ll never miss (trust me) and replacing them with more substantial Mozart works (so far, the bassoon concerto and one of the late piano sonatas). I didn’t want you to think we’d forgotten.
    This is a fine day to become reaquainted with Mozart’s music, which, ubiquitous as it is, too often gets relegated to the background. In many cases that’s OK; Mozart wrote pages and pages of serendades specifically designed to grace the room unobtrusively during dinners and parties. But his mature works almost (almost) always bear close listening. My friend Lisa Stark, who procures underwriting for KUAT, told me several years ago when she was taking piano lessons that she’d found Mozart to be a little dull until she had to play some of his keyboard music; she discovered that, despite all the repeats and structural conventions, Mozart rarely did exactly the same thing twice; he left many little traps for the inattentive amateur (or even professional) pianist.
    I’m perfectly happy to listen to lots of Mozart’s music today, but I’ve had zero interest in reading all the Mozart “appreciations” that have been published during the past few weeks. I got sick of the whole Mozart-appreciation industry during the death anniversary back in 1991, and the sight of an article either extolling the virtues of or debunking Mozart still makes me a bit queasy.
    I’m especially annoyed by the veneration of Mozart as some sort of heaven-sent genius, music’s equivalent of the Jesus depicted in sentimental Christian portraiture, Jesus the Goy with his remarkably clean hair and placid disposition, a grown-up but still innocent version of the baby Jesus we get at Christmastime, that infant who never, ever would poop in his swaddling clothes. Well, as anyone who has read an unbowdlerized edition of Mozart’s letters or seen Amadeus knows, Mozart was obsessed with poop jokes. This aspect of his character has been over-emphasized in our post-Amadeus world; I seriously doubt that he made fart noises with his mouth in polite company. However he may have behaved around his family and friends doesn’t mean he was a virtual Tourette case in the presence of the archbishop of Salzburg.
    What the idolators and debunkers alike fail to understand is how normal Mozart really was. Provincial Austrian humor was crude; Mozart was raised in it, and even his father, who took great pains to present himself and his family in a dignified manner, appreciated some of his countrymen’s coarser proverbs and practices, as you can hear in the suites he wrote that were inspired by peasant weddings and children’s toys.
    And Mozart as genius? I don’t quite buy it. First, remember that his father was the foremost violin pedagog north of Italy in the mid-18th century; his famous and influential treatise on violin playing was published the year of Mozart’s birth, and he provided his son (and daughter) with a first-rate music education from the very beginning. So, the first thing Mozart developed was a great facility for the keyboard (and secondarily the violin) through practice, practice, practice. Then there’s all that hoopla over Mozart starting to write his own music just before he turned five. Well, again, father Leopold was a solid composer himself, and he gave his son a tremendous amount of help, “editing” the music as Wolfgang scribbled it out. And frankly, Mozart’s childhood works are quite conventional, imitating the music of his father and J.C. Bach and the Italian models at hand. It’s not original, it’s not genius, it’s the result of early training and hard work and help from daddy.
    What boy Mozart did develop a huge talent for was improvising at the keyboard. This was a basic skill expected at the time, just as young jazz pianists today aren’t going to get anywhere if they can’t improvise—that’s the basis of the art form. Mozart gained a great facility for ornamenting and varying melodies. And this is the key to his later individuality as a composer.
    People swoon over Mozart’s ability to write music “in his head” and then jot it down with few second thoughts. Just a few days ago, University of Arizona piano prof Paula Fan was talking to me about how clean Mozart’s manuscripts are, compared to the messy blotches that Beethoven generated. But composing in one’s head is what many of us who write words for a living do all the time; we roll thoughts around, try out turns of phrase while walking the dog or taking a shower, and often we can type out the results with minimal fuss. This is what Mozart did with music, and he was able to do it because he was working within predictible, formulaic structures. He knew, for example, how a sonata-form movement was supposed to go; you have a sequence of themes, a sequence of harmonic modulations that follow a standard pattern, and all you have to do is choose a key to start in and plug in the tunes.
    At least, that’s all you have to do if you’re one of the many hack composers active during Mozart’s time. Mozart was able to transcend the formulas because since childhood he’d been improvising melodic ornaments at the keyboard. He knew exactly how to concoct elegant little surprises in a melodic turn of phrase, and how to get from one key to another through several fascinating harmonic byways. Mozart wrote some of the most deeply moving (and unpredictable!) piano-concerto movements in the history of music, and he did it because he’d been immersed in music for 25 years, paid attention to what he heard, learned from his and others’ mistakes, and developed a keen ear for effect and an ability to bring his own personality—or at least a personality he wished to present—into what otherwise could be paint-by-numbers composition.
    Ultimately, whether Mozart was a genius or just a hard worker with lots of experience and individuality makes no difference. All that counts is the music itself.

Classical Music,

THREE STAGES

    This being Thursday, I’m off the hook in terms of original blogging while I point you to my contributions in the latest Tucson Weekly. Three items this week. First, a review of Crowns at Arizona Theatre Company. Here’s a taste:

    First it was shoes; now it's hats.
    Last fall, Arizona Theatre Company presented Bad Dates, in which our heroine tries on a closetful of shoes. This month, it's Crowns, in which six women (and a man) bring us a milliner's dream, a musical play about the hats that African-American women wear to church.
    No doubt purses will be next. Crowns is the latest offering in what seems more and more like a season of accessories, a lot of attractive but light plays with no real couture at the center. Crowns is a rousing show, at least, with strong performances that distract you from the script's stray weaknesses.
    Next in line, a surpsingly effective, even-keeled treatment of Christopher Durang at Beowulf Alley Theatre Company. For openers:
    The beautiful thing about Beowulf Alley's production of Christopher Durang's Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You is that the nun in question seems quite reasonable--dogmatic, but reasonable--right up until she starts shooting at former students who have strayed from the tenets of Catholicism.
    If you know much about Christopher Durang, you know that his plays usually veer madly in and out of various levels of absurdity. All right, a play in which a nun sets out the core beliefs of the Catholic faith is already flirting with theater of the absurd. But you just know that Durang is sooner or later going to push the proceedings into absolute lunacy.
    In Beowulf Alley's production, which opened last weekend, the absurdity comes later. Actress Lesley Abrams and director Jonathan Northoven introduce Sister Mary Ignatius as a hard-core traditionalist who goes along with the reforms of Vatican II with the greatest reluctance, but she's no nut. Even when she's pulling the trigger near the end, she seems entirely cool and reasonable.
    And finally, just in time for Mozart Week, a preview of the latest staged-reading-with-music masterminded by my friend and cello teacher, Harry Clark. The teaser:
    For the latest play with music presented by Chamber Music Plus Southwest, writer-cellist Harry Clark is counting on the animal magnetism of an actor in his 80s.
    In Clark's Mesmeric Mozart, Efrem Zimbalist Jr., best known as the star of the 1960s-'70s TV show The FBI, will take the part of Franz Anton Mesmer, an 18th-century faith healer of sorts who theorized that sickness was caused by an interruption in the natural flow of the "psychic ether" that pervades everything. Magnets, he claimed, could help correct the ether's flow in patients. Because the human body has its own magnetic properties--this is the origin of the term "animal magnetism"--Mesmer himself could adjust the flow of the ether by fondling the bodies of his patients, who tended to be attractive young women. (He is also credited with early use of hypnosis, hence our word "mesmerism.")
    One of Mesmer's patients was an attractive young Viennese pianist named Maria Theresa von Paradis. She'd been blind since early childhood; her blindness may have been psychosomatic, or it may have been caused by a detached retina; at any rate, Mesmer's treatment seemed to allow Paradis to regain her sight--though not with the happiest of results.

tucson-arts,

PITTSBURGH BLOG

    Today I’ve added to the blogroll on the right the Pittsburgh Symphony’s site, which is a sort of gang blog with contributions from orchestra players, audience members, guest artists (including Jennifer Higdon, who during the past couple of years has become the “hot” American composer) and innocent bystanders. Because the blogs are an official part of the Pittsburgh Symphony site, it’ll be interesting to see how free the flow of opinion will be if the musicians ever go on strike. But for now it’s a good behind-the-scenes peek, a project that other orchestras should emulate. One recent item comes to the defense of Pinchas Zukerman; extensive coverage elsewhere this month of his high-handed behavior with his National Arts Centre Orchestra in Canada makes him out to be a high-handed jerk of distressingly limited musical interests, but at least he has a fan in the Pittsburgh Symphony.

Classical Music,

THE INNER LIFE OF MUSICIANS

    At her blog Twang Twang Twang, British harpist Helen Radice tells the cold truth about the supposedly glamorous life of a professional musician, and explains why musicians are such grumblers:

Many people, not just musicians, don't like work. That's why it's called 'work', as opposed to 'play', 'fun' or 'holiday in the sun'. But musicians, or artists generally, are dreamers. I want to work on Bach's partitas, but today I have to teach 15 ten-year-olds the recorder 6 times over, and I'm an artist, goddamit. Before you know it  you are not practicing, and drinking too much (not me, of course, although today I've not practiced because I taught for six hours and then went to the pub).
    So why go through with the career at all? Find out here.

Classical Music,

About Cue Sheet

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