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Cue Sheet


Here's a fun little list from WQXR: The Top Five Faked Classical Performances. I wouldn't get too upset about anything that takes place outdoors, which is a horrible sonic environment for acoustic music (including big orchestras); the sound comes out of the mouths and instruments and instantly evaporates, except sometimes in the case of brass instruments, which project better. Music performed outdoors, whether it's at a soccer stadium or at the Reid Park bandshell, has to be amplified if it's going to come across, and the on-the-spot amplification usually isn't all that good. So if performers are going to mime to a recording, it's all right with me; no outdoor performance is going to provide any kind of authentic musical experience anyway. The faked recordings are another matter entirely ...



After pressuring a New York radio station to remove a blog post critical of Peter Gelb's work as general manager of the Metropolitan Opera, Gelb has now put the squeeze on a publication more directly under his influence: Opera News, published by what was the formerly more-or-less independent Metropolitan Opera Guild, a fundraising affiliate. Gelb has packed the Guild with his own flunkies, and is now emboldened to pressure Opera News to stop running reviews of Met productions--reviews that have been increasingly negative during Gelb's tenure. The last straw was apparently a scathing editorial by one of the magazine's editors, declaring that “The public is becoming more dispirited each season by the pretentious and woefully misguided, misdirected productions foisted on them.”

Not since the time of an earlier reform-minded, control-freak general director, Rudolf Bing, has there been such rampant abuse of power and influence at the Met. Clearly, Gelb's artistic instincts have failed him more often than not, and his recent efforts to strangle justified criticism suggest that he believes the public is so stupid that if nobody points out Gelb's bungling, the audience won't notice it.

Gelb has initiated several important and, yes, successful programs at the Met, most noticeably the international movie-theater simulcasts. But, from what educated critics have been saying, fewer and fewer Met productions are worth seeing, and several of them haven't even been worth hearing. Now Gelb has become a further embarrassment to the institution through his manipulation of the media.

Peter Gelb should be fired immediately.

UPDATE: Within 24 hours of the news breaking, Gelb admits "I made a mistake" and backs down. He should still be given the boot.



Well, here's one of those optimistic studies that's contraindicated simply by looking around you in a theater or concert-hall lobby: According to the data, people who read or go to cultural events have a lower body-mass index than all those idiots who aren't like you and me.

Hmm. What I notice in American theaters and on the street is that, whether Haves or Have-Nots, what at least a third of people across the board have is avoirdupois.

One thing to be wary of in this study is that most of the subjects were Europeans--people who spend a lot more time walking in the normal course of the day than do Americans, and who have rather different diets. Furthermore, the connection is stronger in Western Europe than Eastern Europe. Still, the study does find a distinction between the average body-mass indexes of the cultural elite and the hoi polloi.

Still, the analysis is interesting. One of the basic assumptions is that people interested in culture are well-educated. "More highly educated people tend to both read more and weigh less. Perhaps knowledge gained from schooling gives insight into the importance of proper weight for good health. In addition, mastering difficult coursework in college can help build confidence in one’s ability to reach difficult goals–including managing weight."

The author further reasons that "Perhaps the key is that groups sharing similar intellectual and cultural interests likely also share common lifestyles for health. It makes sense that members of a social network will share many ideals, and some of those ideals may relate to health and body weight."

In other words, it's that tried-and-true technique from junior high: peer pressure.

Here's the full article from the journal Sociology of Health and Illness. I suggest you read it while listening to classical music.



I write this post a few minutes after having aired a 1947 recording of Franz Lehár conducting his own Merry Widow Overture. We don't have many "historical" (old mono) recordings in the library, the assumption being that listeners have a low tolerance for the compromised sonics. But I wonder if that's true.

I remember the little argument that arose at a 1980s conference of the Association of Music Personnel in Public Radio when Victor Ledin, who was then affiliated with a San Francisco Radio station, gave a little speech about how we should be playing more recordings--particularly piano recordings, his specialty--from before the stereo era. The playing styles back then were quite different, and each performer tended to have far greater individuality than most of the pianists being recorded by the major labels in the '80s. Somebody then countered that the average radio listener wouldn't be listening closely enough to discern the artistic differences; all that's likely to be perceived would be the surface noise and limited frequency range of recordings transferred from scratchy old 78s.

In the case of the Lehár recordings from the 1940s, there's no surface noise to contend with; Europe had entered the tape era a few years before, and, at worst, there's a bit of tape hiss in the background (but hardly any in this particular remastering). The frequency range, though, does lack the extreme lows and some of the highs of modern recordings, so if you're paying just a little attention, you can tell the difference.

But how many radio listeners are paying attention?

I suspect most people have the radio on in the background as the move from room to room doing various things, or they turn it on in the car, where many sonic infelicities are masked by road and motor noise. Under such conditions, would they notice that it's a 1947 recording?

Now, they probably do notice when we play one of the classic 1930s Artur Schnabel recordings of Beethoven sonatas, which, being drawn from 78s, are more crackly and muffled. But does a competent mono recording from the tape era (starting around World War II, at least in Germany) cause radio listeners to notice anything different? Are radio listeners listening that closely?

And if they're not, that raises another question: Even with modern recordings, will they notice many differences in performance quality or interpretation? Is there any point in a radio station owning more than one recording of anything?

Let me know.



Peter Gelb, the Metropolitan Opera's powerful autocrat who sometimes actually has some great ideas, did something less than honorable a few days ago. According to a New York Times article, he pressured a leading New York City radio station, WQXR, into removing a blog post that was highly critical of Gelb and his very expensive, widely reviled new production of Wagner's Ring.

I didn't see the blog post, so I can't comment on it, but from the Times summary it seems rather innocuous, mainly summarizing a recent newspaper interview with Gelb. Surely the blog couldn't have drawn as much blood as Alex Ross's oft-quoted line from his New Yorker review of the production: “Pound for pound, ton for ton, it is the most witless and wasteful production in modern operatic history.”

Look, many bloggers and newspaper critics are idiots, but a lot of arts administrators are idiots, too. Public figures, especially very ambitions figures like Gelb, are subject to close scrutiny, and when they whine about being abused in what is really a minor blog post, they look petty, insecure, and overweening. And most of all, when an arts organization strong-arms its critics, things always come out worse for the organization than for the critic. The Cleveland Orchestra pressured the Cleveland Plain Dealer to pull Don Rosenberg from the orchestra beat because of his long-term criticism of music director Franz Welser-Möst--a conductor whom London musicians had long before dubbed Frankly Worse Than Most. The episode made the newspaper editors look like cowards, and it transformed what had been a purely local nuisance for the orchestra into a national scandal.

Unless a critic is truly incompetent, getting basic facts wrong, the best thing an arts organization or administrator can do is simply shrug off the criticism--or, heaven forbid, learn from it--and produce the best work possible as consistently as possible. Audiences are not such dullards that they can't evaluate the work on their own. In fact, they're sharp enough to be put off by any abuse of power--as Peter Gelb is likely to learn in the next few days.

Postscript: I've just stumbled across a cached pdf of the offending blog post. Read it, and decide for yourself if it should have been pulled.



And you thought Americans were litigious. A Russian woman sued the Bolshoi Opera for a million rubles in compensation for “the moral agony experienced when watching [a] performance” of Glinka's Ruslan ed Ludmila.


About Cue Sheet

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