posted by James Reel
There’s a recent trend in NPR newscasts that disturbs me a little, even though there’s nothing inherently wrong with it. Have you noticed that, increasingly, the anchors, instead of switching to recorded items filed by field reporters, are sitting there and interviewing the reporters live? The same information still comes through, but in a subtly different way.
The cynic in me says that they’re just padding for time; the anchor takes five or 10 seconds (a significant period in a four and a half minute newscast) asking a question that wouldn’t need to be asked if the reporter were just delivering the info on his or her own.
The alarmist in me is worried about the apparent influence of cable news channels, which are dominated not by straightforward, factual news reports but by shows in which pundits sit around trading opinions (and often highly uninformed opinions). NPR is beginning to follow suit, with its field reporters cast now as pundits. Yes, they’ve done the research and interviews to prepare for their reports, but why are they being interviewed rather than going directly to experts in the field? Does NPR believe that its audience won’t sit still for a straightforward news item, instead demanding that it be “discussed,” even if the discussion takes only 45 seconds? Come on, guys—save that for long-form shows like Morning Edition and All Things Considered. During the top-of-the-hour news, you need to be making better use of every precious second.
posted by James Reel
Apropos of nothing, here are some items I found on my computer just now, reviews I wrote about a year ago for Fanfare.
BEETHOVEN String Quartets: No. 8; No. 9, “Razumovsky” • Qrt Italiano • PENTATONE 5186 176 (Hybrid multichannel SACD: 70:27)
PentaTone has a history of cherry-picking items from old quad Philips cycles without reissuing every recording in the original series (possibly, in some cases, because the whole series was not recorded quadraphonically). So it’s heartening to see that the label has at least brought out the Italiano Quartet’s full traversal of Beethoven’s “Razumovsky” quartets. An earlier disc, which I reviewed in Fanfare 32:5, coupled Op. 59 No. 1 with the last of Beethoven’s Op. 18 works. What I wrote about that release holds true for this one: “The readings are poised and flowing, sensitive to a variety of articulation, attacks, and details of dynamics, but not as hyperdramatic as many more recent efforts. Without underplaying the scores, Quartetto Italiano provides interpretations that should be very appealing to listeners who find even the finest contemporary efforts (Emerson, Prazák) to be excessively intense and nervous.” With flexible phrasing, lucid voicings (listen to the clarity of the lines in the finale of Op. 59 No. 2), and unfailing warmth (hear the full tone and weight of that quartet’s Allegretto, offset by crisp attacks), these polished, incisive performances remain attractive more than 35 years after they were recorded. This four-channel reissue presents the musicians on a wide stage from close perspective. Dare we hope that PentaTone will at least complete the Italiano’s Middle Quartet series, even if not committing to the entire cycle? James Reel
SHOSTAKOVICH Symphonies: No. 1; No. 15 • Valery Gergiev, cond; Mariinsky O • MARIINSKY 0502 (Hybrid multichannel SACD: 75:52)
Valery Gergiev’s Mariinsky (formerly Kirov) Orchestra is the latest major ensemble to venture into the marketplace with its own label. As the World War II gas-rationing billboards asked, is this trip really necessary? Yes, there is a need for this disc’s companion release, Shostakovich’s opera The Nose, but the item at hand suggests that we’re also in for yet another half-hearted Shostakovich symphony cycle.
Gergiev and this orchestra recorded Shostakovich’s middle symphonies for Philips, mostly in SACD, not many years ago, so perhaps that’s why they’re working on this home-grown series from the outside in. Here, the Mariinsky sounds like a very good but overworked or underrehearsed orchestra, with the performances coming across best in the passages that demand little more than Gergiev’s ruthless efficiency. Yevgeney Mravinsky, a conductor whom Gergiev sometimes calls to mind, could also be ruthlessly efficient, but Mravinsky’s performances had an intense focus—and, usually, sufficient elasticity—that made them captivating rather than merely overwhelming. Here, the loud stuff and the fast stuff have undeniable impact, but much else about these scores remains unsaid.
Through the course of these two symphonies, Gergiev shows absolutely no sense of humor, which makes for dreary Shostakovich. In the first symphony’s first movement, the little waltz subject has no real character, certainly no lilt. The Allegro is too fast to be either funny or mordant. The slow movement has insufficient tension. The first movement of the 15th falls flat; the allusions to William Tell lack the requisite nose-thumbing. That symphony’s later, more serious passages are merely delivered, not experienced.
The surround recording is derived partly from concert performances, so the audio engineering is fairly close to evade audience noise, and probably doesn’t provide a full sonic picture of the orchestra’s new hall. Even so, the treatment of the orchestra is flattering and realistic.
Interpretively, none of the available SACD recordings of these symphonies are ideal. Good Mahler conductors are often good Shostakovich conductors, too; interestingly, Gergiev has proven to be uneven in both. If Michael Tilson Thomas or Benjamin Zander or David Zinman were to launch a Shostakovich cycle, that would be something to get excited about. Gergiev’s cycle, judging from this first release, is not. James Reel
HAYDN Die Schöpfung • Colin Davis, cond; Sally Matthews (Gabriel, Eve); Ian Bostridge (Uriel); Dietrich Henschel (Raphael, Adam); London SO and Cho • LSO LIVE 0628 (2 hybrid multichannel SACDs: 102:49) Live: London, 10/6-7, 2007
Colin Davis’s natural flair for Haydn is well known from his classic Philips account of the “London” Symphonies on Philips, and now he applies it to one of Haydn’s two great late oratorios, the German version of The Creation. If you know Davis’s symphony recordings, you won’t be surprised by the great character of the orchestral playing here, and not just in the fanciful, imitative “animal music” of Part 2, where you’ll find such delightful details as a prominent, flowing bass line in the whale aria. Davis remains conscious that this is a Classical work requiring some poise, not a Baroque extravaganza, so his reading is not given to extremes, but it possesses an unfailing vivacity. Just listen to the splendid burst of primeval light at the end of the first chorus, following a suspenseful delivery of the “Representation of Chaos.” The London Symphony Orchestra is working with slightly reduced forces, about 60 players on modern instruments, which seems about right, for Haydn had a big band at his disposal by the standards of his time. The chorus seems just a bit too large, in that some of its text gets swallowed, but overall the singing is as lithe and rhythmically precise as necessary. Among the soloists, soprano Sally Matthews indulges in more fluttery vibrato in her bird aria than is really necessary, but she does handle her coloratura material with aplomb. Tenor Ian Bostridge is self-recommending; as always, he delivers real insights into his text with ravishing sound—he never has to choose between interpretation and beauty of tone. Baritone Dietrich Henschel is a far more restrained interpreter, but he gets the job done, and with a more appealing sound than he musters for William Christie’s recording on Virgin. Unusually for an LSO recording from the Barbican, this one has a bit more elbow room than usual. The sonics are bright and clear and close but not spotlit, and not as desiccated as most recordings from this source, and they allow the performers to work within a very wide dynamic range.
The SACD competition at this writing consists of Ivor Bolton on Oehms Classics, which I have not heard, and a good period-instrument version on Naxos under Andreas Spering, who is more given to extremes and less comfortable with subtle nuance than Davis. I would not hesitate to recommend this LSO Live production to anyone looking for a modern-instrument performance of Die Schöpfung in either multichannel or conventional stereo sound. James Reel
posted by James Reel
As you know if you even glance at arts-related headlines online, the Cleveland Plain Dealer’s former classical music critic, Donald Rosenberg, lost his suit against the paper, which he filed in response to being reassigned after a string of negative reviews of the Cleveland Orchestra’s music director, Franz Welser-Möst. I haven’t commented on the situation because seemingly everyone else in the arts world already has, usually in support of Rosenberg. But I can’t help pointing out the sheer idiocy of one remark in Terry Teachout’s discussion of the situation in the Wall Street Journal:
When the critic of a one-paper town decides that (in Mr. Rosenberg's words) "mediocrity takes up residence … when Welser-Möst is on the podium," and when his reviews of the orchestra's concerts consist in large part of variations on that grim theme, the editors of his paper have to ask themselves a tough question: At what point does so oft- repeated an opinion become predictable and redundant?
No, the editors have to ask no such thing. Was Rosenberg supposed to write the occasional favorable review just for the sake of variety, even if he continued to believe that the performances were mediocre? (It’s not without reason, by the way, that during his years in London Franz Welser-Möst had picked up the nickname “Frankly Worst Than Most.”) Rosenberg’s job was to report and analyze what he heard, and it was the conductor’s and the orchestra board’s responsibility to ask why the performances had become predictable and redundant. Teachout, of all people, ought to know that.
posted by James Reel
John McKay, in the Financial Times, offers a nifty analogy that demonstrates the folly of all those studies promoting the economic benefits of the arts:
Many people underestimate the contribution disease makes to the economy. In Britain, more than a million people are employed to diagnose and treat disease and care for the ill. Thousands of people build hospitals and surgeries, and many small and medium-size enterprises manufacture hospital supplies. Illness contributes about 10 per cent of the UK’s economy: the government does not do enough to promote disease.
Such reasoning is identical to that of studies sitting on my desk that purport to measure the economic contribution of sport, tourism and the arts. These studies point to the number of jobs created, and the ancillary activities needed to make the activities possible. They add up the incomes that result. Reporting the total with pride, the sponsors hope to persuade us not just that sport, tourism and the arts make life better, but that they contribute to something called “the economy.”
The analogy illustrates the obvious fallacy. What the exercises measure is not the benefits of the activities they applaud, but their cost; and the value of an activity is not what it costs, but the amount by which its benefit exceeds its costs.
Read McKay's brief article in full to see where he's going with this. I wrote something along the same lines six years ago in the Tucson Weekly, decrying such economic-benefit studies as a dangerous commodification of culture:
But what happens when local politicians and bureaucrats—and voters—buy into this, and then the local economy enters another of its periodic slumps? Betrayed, they will cry, "The arts didn't save us after all!" And so culture, being proved useless, will be defunded to levels even lower than the current embarrassing local norm of less than $2 per capita (which is way behind not only Seattle and Sacramento, but even Flagstaff).
The backfiring economic-development argument will kill arts funding faster than any right-wing crusade against obscenity in the art museum. This is not a profitable course to pursue.
And lo, it has come to pass. The Tucson Pima Arts Council and Arizona Commission on the Arts have been defunded to the point at which they might as well not exist, for the negligible good they can now do for the state’s arts organizations.
If you’re interested, you can read my old commentary in full here.
posted by James Reel
Heather Mac Donald and Greg Sandow have been feuding very entertaingly over whether classical music is now in a golden age (Mac Donald) or in decline (Sandow). To simplify linkage, I’ll send you only to Mac Donald’s presumably final rebuttal to Sandow here, and from there you can follow links to her original article and to Sandow’s five-part argument against her theses.
Sandow’s basic point these past several years has been that classical music is doomed because it has strayed so far from today’s dominant culture, and must find ways to engage with the “real” world if it is to survive. I have had some sympathy with his points, but Greg is really arguing from a false assumption: that what we call “classical music” ever played a significant role in mainstream culture. Mac Donald has a succinct answer to that:
A seventeenth-century mass by definition is remote from the twenty-first-century world around it; it is silly to wish away the irreducible foreignness of the music of the distant past. Either you are willing and able to enter that foreign world, with its lost language of feeling, or you are not. No amount of allegedly “audience-friendly” tweaking with our performance tradition is going to overcome the initial division between the modern world and music that came out of a courtly tradition.
For now, I’m inclined to side with Mac Donald, and dispute Sandow’s notion that classical performances and presentations need to interweave more thoroughly with pop culture. The reason that classical music has any appeal, I think, is that it’s different from so many other things; otherwise, why pay any attention to it at all? The same can be said of jazz, most folk music, and just about anything else that isn’t oversaturated on Top 40 radio. The motto of Austin, Texas is “Keep Austin Strange”; if classical music is to have any appeal, we need to keep it “strange”—that is, distinctive—as well.
Read the arguments and see what you think.
posted by James Reel
From what I’ve heard of her Bruckner recordings, Simone Young is quite a fine conductor. But in her native Australia, she suffered from her country’s notorious “tall poppy” syndrome, whereby any bloom that stands above the rest is immediately chopped down. Young had to establish herself in Europe in order to be taken seriously, and now even the Australians have to acknowledge that she’s worth some attention.
Invited back to give a lecture recently, she seemed to be smarting a bit, either from the local treatment some years ago, or more likely from having to endure a series of newspaper and magazine profiles that focused on her status as 1) a woman in what is still, barely, a man’s field, and/or 2) her conflicts in Australia. She’s had enough, and advocates music journalism that’s all about the music:
It was around this time that the catch-phrase “back story” emerged, because it wasn’t enough to be a great singer in order to be in demand—there had to be a story behind the artist, something to catch the attention of jaded editors desperately seeking a “new angle”. If one could not report on a moving struggle against adversity to achieve greatness despite setbacks, then quirks and eccentricities would have to do. It’s not enough that a woman is a great pianist—excitement is generated in the media by the odd fact that she keeps wolves. 18 yrs of age is no longer young enough to generate interest in a brilliant violinist—at 14 however, such talent can be viewed as something a little suspect, providing a titillating hint of over-ambitious parents, a pushed child, risk of burn-out and break-down.
What is not discussed however is the music—and it is the music that makes these people special, not the eccentricity of living with wild animals or of being an astonishingly mature child, nor of being challenged by a handicap, physical or social. It is that these people exist for the music they make and that they create musical performances of excellence and exceptional quality. Why is the pursuit of beauty and excellence seemingly of so little interest, but sensationalism and hints of scandal capture so much attention?
The pianist with wolves, by the way, is the excellent Hélène Grimaud, who eventually got awfully tired of talking to reporters about her Wolf Conservation Center instead of Brahms.
Young’s argument, unfortunately, contains the seeds of its own destruction:
We, the musicians and artists, must find some way to make the story be about what we do, the music we make and our passion for it, rather than the story of who we are or how we became who we are. We apologise for the fact that to speak in detail of what we do demands of our audience a level of musical education and musical literacy that would be taken for granted were our specialty economics or sport.
So if the readers don’t have the knowledge to understand what the musicians are saying, why would they even read such articles? Young’s seems a rather arrogant position.
And the sad truth is that there are so many interchangable artists these days, performing the same music in basically the same manner, that I can’t imagine they would have anything unique to say about their understanding of the music. And alas, they all have the same backstory, too—the same path of study from childhood through the standard conservatories, early success in a couple of competitions, then on to the brilliant career in which they struggle to differentiate themselves from so many other young artists with ostensibly brilliant careers.
So sheltering wolves or struggling against some early misfortune is really the only thing that sets these artists apart as individuals, and will draw people in, cause an audience to want to hear them perform. The general audience comes to the music through the artist’s personality, and that’s not an innovation of our superficial soundbite society; it’s been true for 200 years. Personally, I have little interest in the artist’s backstory unless it truly influences the performance at hand. I agree with Young that the music is what’s most important, but it isn’t what’s most interesting to the uncommitted audience. We need to find a better approach, but also an effective one, which Young’s proposal, I fear, is not.