Critic Bryce Morrison writes in the Gramophone:
Throughout her long and distinguished, if insufficiently acknowledged career, Valerie Tryon has remained true to her own lights. Virtuoso teasers such as Balakirev’sIslamey and Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit fell effortlessly within her grasp and here in Franck’s Symphonic Variations, sandwiched between two Spanish favourites of the repertoire, she commences a series of recordings for the Somm label. Accompanied by a ringing endorsement from Somm’s Siva Oke (‘Valerie became the yardstick by which I measured most other pianists over the years’) she once more displays her cardinal qualities, her immaculate grace and fluency. Nothing is pressured or exaggerated, everything falls naturally into place. And if others – notably Alicia de Larrocha and Martha Argerich – play with greater urgency and intensity, a sharper sense of profile in Falla’s ever-enchanting Nights in the Gardens of Spain, there is no gainsaying Tryon’s more intimate style and authority.
Polish rather than ardour characterise her encores continuing the Spanish theme (Granados’s ‘The Lover and the Nightingale’ and Debussy’s ‘Soirée dans Grenade’), but in the Bach-Busoni D minor Toccata and Fugue she finds her best form in a masterly performance and with gloriously full-blooded final pages. All three encores are issued on record for the first time; and all this makes a fine follow-up to Tryon’s memorable Mozart concerto disc (APR, 3/10) and a compensation for the lack in this country of a record of the Chopin Scherzos and Ballades, praised to the skies by New York’s Harold C Schonberg. Kenneth Woods provides a sterling partnership and Somm’s sound and balance are as natural as the performances.
From the current issue of International Record Review. A wonderful magazine every music lover should subscribe to. Condolences to everyone there on the death of Barry Irving, the magazine’s founder and publisher, who died last month after a short illness
Congratulations are most certainly in order to both Sir Simon Rattle and the London Symphony on the occasion of Sir Simon’s appointment as the LSO’s next Principal Conductor. I can scarcely imagine better news for either party or for music lovers across Britain. Given the importance of today’s announcement for British music making, I’m going to bend my rule against discussing the work of living colleagues here [Note- I seem to be one of the very few professional musicians in the UK who has never met or worked with Simon Rattle. Hopefully we can remedy that situation some day].
It has, however, been a strange courtship, one that has led to a union of two parties who are seemingly perfect for each other for what I worry may be the wrong reasons.
For conductors of my generation, Simon Rattle was not just a conductor- he was a transformative idea. There had been other young conductors who made huge careers (Bernstein got off to a fast start and so did Haitink, just to name two), but from the time I first came across his name, Rattle seemed like a figure for a new generation. The impact he made on people like me from the beginning of his career was enormous- he seemed like a much more modern kind of orchestra leader. Looking back, a lot of what was most appealing in Sir Simon’s persona had already been developed by Bernstein- the informality (always Lenny and Simon, never Maestro), the forward looking repertoire, the engagement with the community, the advocacy for music education and outreach, the understanding of modern media and culture (and how they overlap). Bernstein may have done it first, but Simon did it with Brian May’s hair. All of this seemed fresh, visionary and badly needed. Like Bernstein, he knew how to deliver a mega project- pieces like Turangalila and Mahler 10 took vision to put on and mojo to bring to life and they always seemed to work (I still have his Bournemouth era LP of Mahler 10 with notes by my friend Michael Steinberg- fantastic!). To me, the idea of an engaged, articulate, open-minded, brave, regular-guy conductor seemed like just what the world needed, and that’s who Simon seemed to be.
The irony, of course, is that the music world has never treated Sir Simon as anything like a regular guy. He became, for the industry, the new archetype- the pop star who replaced the stuffy old maestro. Every orchestra wanted Simon, and if they couldn’t get him, they wanted the next Simon. The industry has always been prone to elevating the odd musician to god-like status- something I find a bit gross. We call this “anointing.” Once anointed, no number of bad reviews or run of crazy behaviour seems to be able to seriously damage your prestige. I can remember attending a seminar at Aspen with one of the most famous orchestral managers (he was then in charge of one of the Big Five) in the world. He literally spent most of an hour (having seen none of us conduct) explaining that Simon Rattle was a different species to the rest of us, that even his mistakes were the mistakes of a genius. Rattle had been declared a Very Special Musician (VSM) and therefor was above criticism or comparison. We were to understand our destiny as frothing pond scum of the universe. I found the whole speech not only discouraging (although it’s good I learned about anointing when I did) but stomach-turning, as well. Not just because it pissed me off that this pompous guy had written off twenty young conductors without seeing a single upbeat (turns out this is the norm because most guys like him can’t tell much from an upbeat anyway), but because his attitude to the anointed one was so creepy and sycophantic. To me, the only measure of a musician is results- not genetics or talent or pedigree or résumé. Much as I’d always been fascinated by Rattle as a kid, I came to see a certain portion of his career as a particularly icky episode of anointed-ness. That’s not a criticism of him but of the industry’s view of him.
For the last several years, Sir Simon has had the best and toughest job in the music world as Principal Conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic. No doubt there’s been plenty of Schadenfreude among jealous conductors at rumours of difficulties with the musicians and carping from the critics. In Berlin, some of the new“wow” pieces he tried, like Ades’ “Asyla” seemed to fall flat. It’s hard to find another Turangalila or Mahler 10 (and the BPO really struggled in concert with the Mahler), and I’m not sure any of his discoveries in Berlin have ranked in importance with those of his early career. With news of his resignation last year there came the usual litany of what he had done wrong there or why it hadn’t worked. I would advocate for a more balanced, positive assessment, particularly of the 2nd half of his tenure there.
I’ve been more and more impressed by Rattle’s work at the Berlin Philharmonic. The Digital Concert Hall is a fantastic resource and a wonderful innovation. It’s hard to tell if it will be viable financially in the long term in this era of micro-attention-spans and cultural banality, but it’s a great idea perfectly executed, and an incredible, incredible resource. He’s done a lot of good for the orchestra’s repertoire- particularly bringing in more Walton, Elgar and Sibelius. And, he’s made the orchestra more open-minded about how they play- building on the work Harnoncourt did with the orchestra to open eyes and ears to new thinking about how to play core repertoire.
Two things have really stood out for me in his tenure. First, he’s shown remarkable resilience and ability to grow and adapt there. I’m sure the truth of his relationship with the orchestra is more complicated, respectful and nuanced than anything one picks up in the press (this tribute from hornist Fergus McWilliam is most touching and interesting), but the Berlin Philharmonic was probably one of the few orchestras in the world where his “anointedness” would count for nothing from day one, and there he was always going to be a colleague and never a VSM. Berlin likely formed a crucible for Rattle in which this most charismatic and persuasive of conductors had, maybe for the first time, to learn to fight for his ideas among colleagues who had every right to think they knew the core repertoire as well as he did. He’s also shown an ability to change his thinking and to abandon or rethink things that weren’t working. I remember reading an interview with him in the early days in which he spoke about slimming down the string sound and reigning in the famous BPO bass WOOOMPH. That endeavor didn’t last long and instead he’s learned to work with the orchestra’s unique approach to time and sound.
The supposed knock on Sir Simon during his Berlin tenure has been that his work in the core German repertoire has not been what the orchestra and the German audiences want. It’s here, however, that I’ve been most impressed over the last five years or so. Rattle’s Brahms cycle came out just around the time a perfect storm of complaint seemed to be brewing: he was changing the orchestra’s sound, he didn’t do rubato well, that he just didn’t have the depth and intensity this music requires. When I heard those recordings, I was mightily impressed- more “schwoom” and “wuah” from the strings than I’d heard for anyone since Karajan’s death, but actually together (Karajan never seemed concerned about whether the orchestra actually played at the same time or not), and with a lot of line and gravitas. His recent Mahler performances in the Digital Concert Hall completely eclipse his Birmingham cycle and the film of the Fifth made at his first concert with the BPO- they’re infinitely more well thought out, colorful and intense. Likewise the fascinating program with the three final Sibelius Symphonies performed in Berlin in 2010 and repeated in Berlin and London last month. Fifteen years ago, even Rattle’s biggest fans would not have called him a great colorist or someone with an ear for the long line. His recent work seems full of these qualities. I’d never been convinced by his Bruckner, but when the BPO gave the first performance of Bruckner 9 with the “final” version of the reconstruction of the Finale, I was just amazed by the first movement. Granted, the orchestra has this music in their bones, but I’ve heard plenty of disappointing Bruckner 9’s even from them. I thought that performance had everything, and you can’t really fake or luck your way into a performance like that.
So the LSO are getting a conductor who now brings vast experience in the core repertoire, someone who has thought and re-thought the music he conducts and shown a remarkable capacity for growth and self-examination in the prime of his career. He’s developed a great ear for orchestral sonority- not only how to get it, but how to use it. I think he’ll help the LSO, one of the most virtuosic bands in the universe, to play more beautifully, more imaginatively and will produce interpretations that are more deeply thought out than either he or they would have been producing a few years ago. Of course, the charm, the verbal gift, the energy and the big-picture social vision are still there.
So, what a pity then that the entire lead-up to Rattle’s appointment has been a vast orgy of celebrity-culture BS. It seems like way too much of the excitement about Rattle taking this gig is because he’s REALLY FAMOUS, that he’s always been REALLY TALENTED and that he’s coming from a REALLY PRESTIGIOUS JOB at a REALLY GOOD ORCHESTRA. But mostly because he’s already REALLY FAMOUS. That’s right- we’re to believe it’s good he got the job because he’s a VSM. All the discussion of Rattle’s proposal for a new hall has been focused around his celebrity status (“World’s Greatest and Most Famous Conductor Demands New Concert Hall!”) rather than whether it’s a good idea. Read the papers and you’d think that the compelling reason to build a £500-million concert hall is because a Very Special Musician/celebrity wants one. Yes London needs a new hall, but spending that kind of money because a VSM demands it is a terrible idea*. Rattle’s return to Britain has been covered more like a celebrity wedding or football signing than a cultural event, and the PR push in the last month has been awesome to witness. This Guardian article, in which the author attributes Rattle’s struggles in Berlin to his reluctance to play into celebrity culture expectations (“He won’t play the game: Sir Simon Rattle is under attack because he balks at self-promotion and the instincts of a musical elite” byPhilippa Ibbotson) from a few years ago seems amazingly quaint after the last few months:
“Whether the importance of celebrity status today is related to Rattle’s diminished popularity is debatable. But some things are certain. The means often deployed to gain such status have little to do with artistic talent, even less with integrity. Nor will such means deliver better performances; if anything, they are detrimental to their quality. And while it is neither new nor unusual to seek fame, to accord it such worth in our cultural lives is surely to pull a dangerous screen over our senses.”
At the end of the day, there are a lot of big talents in the world, and every once –in-a-while, we find a real genius (Mahler, Hendrix, Haydn), but there’s no such thing as a Very Special Musician. Leaving a great legacy as a conductor is far more about hard work, self-criticism and luck than in-born talent, celebrity shizzle or specialness. The LSO are the busiest and most prestigious orchestra in the UK- it was important to whole UK music scene that they get the right Principal Conductor. Ask not if Rattle can replicate the old CBSO magic in his new post- he’s now ten times the conductor he was when he began his tenure there. Rattle richly deserves this job because he’s worked hard and continued to grow as an artist- it sounds like it’s time to anoint him as a “regular guy,” let him drop all the celebrity culture crap, and have him get to work. We need musicians running our orchestras, not stars.
* On the question of a new hall for London, the calculus seems simple:
The city needs a concert hall with a good acoustic.
The question is whether this is the most pressing of many needs in the city. Many have pointed out that it is not. Working conditions for professional orchestra musicians in UK orchestras are shocking. They work insanely hard for miserly pay and endure travel schedules and work conditions that no other similarly expert professionals would.
It also seems self-evident that building an audience for the future is more important than building a concert hall.
The question about the hall is whether building it will improve working conditions for orchestral musicians and develop new audiences. If it does that, and it sounds good, they should build it as quickly as they can.
The current issue of Classical Music Magazine includes a nice feature piece from critic and essayist, Rick Jones. On sale now!
SIMON Desbruslais demonstrates his virtuosity in four fresh, vigorous and varied works by three British composers. In Deborah Pritchard’s Skyspace he plays the piccolo trumpet, an instrument familiar through baroque works – famously in Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos – but seldom heard in contemporary music. It suits the soaring lines of Pritchard’s work, the seven sections of which portray varying colours of the sky. The two outer movements of John McCabe’s concerto La Primavera bustle with energy, powered by jazzy percussion, while the middle section has Desbruslais playing a romantic flugelhorn solo. Robert Saxton’s psalm A Song of Ascents re minds one of Bloch’s cello work Schelomo – combining the meditative with religious fer- fer vour. His Shakespeare Scenes allows Desbruslais to revel in playing character studies of Falstaff and Lear among its six sections. He’s given excellent support from the Orchestra of the Swan, conducted by Kenneth Woods, in the first three works, and David Curtis.
Reviewed in the February 2015 issue of Gramophone Magazine buy Guy Rickards
“Four vibrant, attractive concertos…. by three of Britain’s brightest and best, and performed with dazzling virtuosity and musicianship by Simon Desbruslais and the Orchestra of the Swan…A hugely enjoyable disc, strongly recommended”
Read the whole thing here
Hear it live for the first time in 25 years on the 31st of January here.
Four movements for small orchestra, Opus 79, (1958)
Serenade, Badinerie, Sarabande, Villanelle
Hans Gál was born in the small village of Brunn am Gebirge, just outside Vienna. He studied with some of the foremost teachers in Vienna, including Richard Robert for piano (teacher of Rudolf Serkin , Clara Haskil and George Szell) and Eusebius Mandyczewski for composition, who had been a close friend of Brahms. In 1915 he won the K. und K. (Royal and Imperial) State Prize for composition for a symphony (which he subsequently discarded). In 1928 His Sinfonietta (which was to become his ‘First Symphony) won the Columbia Schubert Centenary Prize. The next year, with the support of such important musicians as Wilhelm Furtwängler, Richard Strauss and others, he obtained the directorship of the Mainz Conservatory. Gál composed in nearly every genre and his operas, which include Der Artz der Sobeide, Die Heilige Ente and Das Lied der Nacht, were particularly popular during the 1920s. When Hitler rose to power, Gál was forced to leave Germany and eventually emigrated to Britain, teaching at the Edinburgh University for many years.
Gál’s music enjoyed a brief resurgence in popularity in the years immediately after World War II, and was featured regularly in broadcasts on BBC radio. However, by the 1960s, BBC director William Glock’s programming philosophy, sharply slanted in favour of strictly modernist music, meant that Gál and other tonal composers of the time found themselves unable to get their music on the airwaves of the “Third Programme.” Gradually, performances also became more and more scarce, and Gál was deeply affected by the death in 1964 of his friend and foremost champion, conductor Otto Schmitgen. There were personal tragedies as well- Gál’s younger son Franz died by his own hand during this period. Circumstances for new work in a tonal idiom were similarly bleak on the continent, and commissions for new works in standard genres or for traditional instruments were almost non-existent. Indeed, the main champions and patrons of Gál’s music at this time were recorder player Carl Dolmetsch and Vinzenz Hladky, Professor of Mandolin at the Vienna academy of Music and publisher of mandolin music, who had instigated Gáls’s writing for mandolin in the period back in Vienna between 1933 and the Anschluss in 1938. Now in the 60s, Hladky published and regularly performed Gál’s music with his mandolin ensembles, to which Gál responded with two Sinfoniettas for Mandolin Orchestra, amongst other works.
Gál’s “Idyllikon” was written in 1958- the sole major work to come out of what was for Gál a highly uncharacteristic period of a relative lack of compositional productivity. Even during the dark years of the 1930’s and 40’s, Gál had continued to compose prolifically. The exact reasons for Gál’s temporary drop off in output in the late 1950’s is, of course, unknown, but it was a period of great despair for Gál at the direction contemporary music was taking. Never given to experimental techniques or modern musical languages himself, Gál had always been a staunch supporter of revolutionaries like Alban Berg throughout his early career. Anton Webern and Gál struck up a friendship in the 1920’s when Gál proved to be the only chorus master capable of teaching Viennese singers to cope with Webern’s thorny dissonances. Gál’s sympathy for the modern, however, reached its breaking point with the emergence of aleatoric, or chance, music and total serialism, both of which he saw as a fundamental abdication of the composer’s responsibility to imagine, develop and realize music in the inner ear. The climate for Gál’s music, which had remained favourable even in the post-War years, now turned utterly bleak, too, and it was in these years that his music began to fall completely out of the repertoire.
For a work written in such troubled times, Idyllikon is a strikingly un-troubled work. It marks something of a stylistic breakthrough- the first major essay in Gál’s late, more pastoral style. The four character pieces which comprise the piece deftly balance orchestral virtuosity, sophistication of approach and a largely wistful atmosphere, although the piece ends in wildly extrovert high spirits.
Happily, Idyllikon was one of the few works of Gál’s late period to receive multiple professional performances. Sir Colin Davis, the President of the Hans Gál Society until his death in 2013, gave the last of several early performances with the BBC Symphony in 1976. Since then the work has been heard only once in a studio concert in Switzerland in 1990.
10- The tuning slide allows a trumpet player to adjust how sharp he or she is to the rest of the orchestra.
9 – Violinists invariably play sharp when they’re under pressure, which is always. This is why they tune their open strings higher than the rest of the string section.
8- High C is a very flat note on almost every oboe, which is why they don’t adjust it unless you ask them to.
7- Bassoonists are faster at adjusting pitch than anyone else in the woodwind section because they never have to worry whether they’re sharp or flat, only how sharp.
6- When playing cello in an orchestra, never sit between the bassoons and double basses, because you can’t.
5- Horn chords are often out of tune because they’re sure you are too far away to tell.
4- The lower note in the timpani solo in Also Sprach Zarathustra is out of tune because everyone knows what it’s supposed to be.
3- When writing string trios, Beethoven usually gives both inner voices in a four-part texture to the viola, because that’s going to work just great.
2- The basses are sure they were playing perfectly in tune until you checked.
1- If you need to tune a woodwind chord with a high note on the e-flat clarinet, don’t.
It’s been hailed as “the saddest of all keys.” Andras Schiff called it “Beethoven’s key of existential struggle.” It was Brahms’s Tragic key- the world of his brooding First Piano Concerto and his Tragic Overture- both quite symphonic works. Yet Brahms never wrote a D minor symphony- maybe the thought of writing a whole symphony in the saddest of all keys was just too scary to contemplate for even so dark a chap as Brahms.
In fact- one of the striking commonality on this list is how few D minor symphonies end in D minor, and the list includes several of the most inspirationally affirmative creations in any medium ever created by human kind. Perhaps more than any other key, D minor seems to be an obstacle to be overcome, the key great composers struggle to escape. In that sense, it really is the most Beethovenian of keys.
The list follows. Read it then let us know what I missed in the comments.
15- Shostakovich Symphony no. 12
Few works ever written suffer from as dodgy a reputation as this one. Shostakovich’s own comments on the piece were so laced with contradictions and doublespeak that they’ve only fuelled critical scepticism. I never worried too much about the programmatic elements or the critical barbs, and neither should you- put it on, turn the stereo up to “whoa boy” loud and prepare to be blown away. I grew up with Haitink’s fantastic Concertgebouw recording which has the advantage of including a great overture that nobody knows, the Overture on Russian and Khirgiz Folk Themes. But I don’t think you can expect to hear many more exiting performances of anything than the video of Mravinsky on scary form with the Leningrad Phil.
14- Prokofiev- Symphony no. 2
Are any two consecutive symphonies in any cycle more different than Prokofiev’s First (the witty and elegant “Classical”) and his Second- surely one of the noisiest works in the literature. And I mean that in a good way. Once you absorb the thrill of Prokofiev’s bad-boy raucous provocation the work also shows real depth and emotional power. But we love it for the bad boy noise.
13- Haydn- Symphony no. 26 “Lamentatione”
The only way you’re ever going to get a “best symphonies in the key of ____” list on this blog without Haydn is if he never wrote a symphony in that key. He makes quick work of getting on the D minor list with this astoundingly original work from his early years. Thomas Fey’s recording is a good starting place.
12- Bruckner- Symphony no. 3
It is sometimes said of Bruckner’s symphonies that he tried to write Beethoven’s 9th Symphony 9 times. For such a completely original composer, I think that’s quite unfair. His first essay in the key of Beethoven’s 9th is curiously one I struggled with for years- I found the stepwise ascent at the end of the opening trumpet theme banal and it maybe me suspicious of the whole work. Fortunately, age has brought wisdom on this front and I’m looking forward to conducting it very soon.
11- Franck- Symphony in D minor
The classic example of a work of vast audience appeal that was once a staple of our musical diet that has largely fallen out of the repertoire to the detriment of both musicians and listeners. And we wonder why audiences shrink? Francophone Bruckner- what’s not to love? Nobody has ever made a better case for the piece than Charles Munch.
10- Vaughan Williams- Symphony no. 8
John McCabe is unambiguous in asserting Vaughan Williams as the greatest symphonist of the 20th C.. I’m not there yet, but I’m starting to see his point. I certainly don’t understand why this fantastic work isn’t done more often. The Fifth and the “London” are concert mainstays, but the “London” often overstays its welcome. The Fourth is a masterpiece, but not for every occasion, nor is the bleak Sixth or the gigantic Seventh. One would hope this gem of a work would get programmed much more often. The ICA Classics DVD of Adrian Boult conducting this piece is an incredibl document.
9- Rachmaninoff- Symphony no. 1
If Shostakovich 12 has the worst critical reputation of any work on this list, Rachmaninoff’s First Symphony certainly got one of the worst critical receptions of all time after its premiere. Much blame must be assigned to the conductor, Glazunov, who was reportedly terribly drunk and not sympathetic to the piece. It’s Rachmaninoff’s most “modern” work- angry, austere and violent, with hardly a shred of the appealing melancholy of this later, mega-popular works. It feels more authentically Russian than almost any of his other works: closer to the weirdness of Mussorgsky, where his later works take on more of a Tchaikovskian technical perfection. Rachmaninoff went on to be a great composer, but had he developed more along the lines of this work, he might have been one of the greatest. Maestro Noseda’s recording with the BBC Philharmonic makes a great case for the work in great sound.
8- Philip Sawyers- Symphony no. 2
I know- I’m biased, but Philip Sawyers’ work absolutely deserves its place so high on this list (and he’ll be cross/embarrassed I’m listing him, as it’s not very English to appear on a “best-of” list— so you know I mean it). Philip doesn’t actually specify a key on the title page, but the D minor in which it opens and closes leaves no doubt about the fierce and stormy world of this bracing 20 minute masterpiece. With a language that seamlessly integrates a compelling sense of harmonic possibility and intent with twelve-tone technique, it ranges from ferocious intensity to passages the composer once described to me with a note of surprise in his voice as having a “sort of crazed Mahlerian grandeur.” It’s a piece you really have to hear- again and again. And if you want to hear it, you’ll have to listen to my recording of it. Hah! Listen on Spotify here (then buy the CD to keep the music coming) Philip Sawyers – Symphony No. 2
7-Schumann- Symphony no. 4
The number of this work is misleading- it’s actually his second, and very much a companion piece to the “Spring.” He also revised the two works at the same time in 1853. The work marks one of the most important innovations in symphonic form in musical history- the first few symphony in one movement, the father of Sibelius 7 and the Schoenberg Chamber Symphony and countless others including Sawyers 2 mentioned above (a work Bobby would have loved). Schumann worked for over 10 years to get the transitions right- they make the piece, and that’s why it’s a crime to play the original version against his explicit wishes. The real point of the piece is the fire in its belly- the inspiration and the passion that only Bobby Schumann could muster. Support Vftp and buy my recording (you’ll like it).
6- Sibelius Symphony no. 6
It’s often called “Sibeslius’s most elusive symphony.” I suggest one could also call it his most beautiful. This work is also much more accessible than its reputation- it’s not a tough nut like the Fourth or Tapiola. It’s a work of deepest contemplation rather than struggle. Sibelius 6 is a bit of a rarity in the concert hall, but there are a lot of good recordings. The concert film of Simon Rattle doing the 5th, 6th and 7th Symphonies in one concert with Berlin is a really interesting document, and my god, that orchestra really plays. It’s in the Digital Concert Hall- probably worth a trip behind the paywall.
5- Beethoven- Symphony no. 9
Beethoven 9 not at the top of the list? Am I nuts? Nope- D minor is just that competitive. It’s fashionable among a certain type dis this work. Some can’t get on with the form of the Finale (it makes perfect sense and works). Some don’t get the whole affirmation thing. I don’t get them. Live it’s an even more special animal, with a power to unite audience and performers in pure joy that goes beyond any work. My favourite recordings are Bloomstedt’s 70’s era Dresden performance and Furtwangler’s harrowing wartime aircheck. I’m not sure there will be a convincing HIP recording until someone lets the cellos and basses vibrate in the recit- it makes no sense non vib unless the bass-baritone is going to sing it that way. (He isn’t.)
4- Dvorak- Symphony no. 7
Given the stature of his other works in D minor, it’s a real pity we don’t have a Brahms symphony in this key. Or do we? More than one commentator has answer the question “What is the greatest Brahms symphony” with “Dvorak 7.” It’s only an unfair ranking because, strong as Brahms influence is in it, it’s pure Dvorak through and through- his voice, his language. The rhythmic intricacies and tensions of the first movement are worthy of a doctoral dissertation. Kubelik’s Berlin Philharmonic recording is one of ten best recordings of anything ever made by anyone, anywhere at any time.
3- Shostakovich Symphony no. 5
No musical work more vividly captures the bitter complexities of life in the 20th c. than Shostakovich’s “reply to justified criticism.” Read all about the work here. Surprisingly (and a little sadly), I don’t think a recording has been made yet that does justice to the whole thing. Mravinsky is, of course, indispensable, and the first movement is devastating (if a little too fast at the beginning and ending), but he skates over the surface of the Adagio. Bernstein is magical there (pity about the flute solo), but blows it in the Finale with the Keystone Cops ending. Rostropovich’s take on the Scherzo is the only one that captures the mix of brutality and irony that I think Shostakovich intended. More recent recordings seem to suffer from a lack of tobacco and chest hair. It’s not a symphony that suits an Ikea aesthetic. Overall, Barshai is a pretty good starting point.
2- Mahler- Symphony no. 3
No other work by Mahler so embodies his credo that “the Symphony must be like the world. It must embrace everything.” I find it the most wonderfully bizarre of all his works. What a long, strange trip it is- from the gigantism of the first movement through those quirky and vaguely threatening intermezzi, then the astounding contralto song (very trippy) and the completely wacko children’s chorus. Only Mahler could have had the vision and the mojo to compose a Finale which could pull the whole thing together and launch the listener into an eternity of transcendent love. There are surprising number of really good recordings of this piece, although it’s not easy to find one where the trombone solo, the posthorn solo and the contralto are all on the same exalted level. I’ve always thought Bernstein did it particularly well.
1- Bruckner- Symphony no. 9
If D minor is “the key great composers struggle to escape,” then, truly, nobody ever fought harder to escape it’s icy clutches than poor old Anton Bruckner, who struggled up the perilous ascent to D major in this work for ten years, then died just a few yards from the summit. The Finale was all but finished when he put his pen down for the last time, but friends and neighbors pinched huge portions of the manuscript as souvenirs, and so for most of the last 100+ years, we’ve only really known the work as an awe-inspiring three-movement torso. Even in this form, it’s the greatest D minor symphony ever written. The reason it’s the greatest D minor symphony is the same reason it took Bruckner so long to find a way to get to D major- no piece of music since the Mozart Requiem has made the key of D minor sound as Apocalypse inducing, pants crappingly terrifying as Bruckner 9. The surviving fragments of the Finale can be heard to fascinating effect on the lecture (which he gave in both English and German) disc accompanying Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s very fine recording. There are a number of completions and realizations- Simon Rattle’s performance of the latest Samale/Mazzuca/Phillips/Cohrs completion in the Digital Concert Hall is very good. The greatest performances, sadly, are of the torso- all by guys who knew a thing or two about mortality. I grew up with Karajan’s 70’s era Berlin recording and still love it. It was one of the last works Bernstein ever conducted with the Vienna Philharmonic. It was the only time he did the piece, and his interpretation (and their playing) is incredible. But Gunter Wand at age 147 or whatever he was in this film has to win the prize.
2014 was the year in which the real world finally caught up with Classical Music. As the New Year dawns, we find ourselves all deep in the belly of a whale that looks a lot like society-at-large
In earlier blog posts this year, we looked at how the classical music world has been lulled into adopting the mind-set and business practices of junk culture, and we’ve looked at how changes in the social media landscape have made it harder to disseminate new ideas and new music.
For most of us, the expression “the one percent” first became part of our national dialogue during the Occupy movement a few years ago (remember how that one changed the world?). I suppose there has always been an element of one-percent-ish-ness in classical music because of its elite and competitive nature. Every time someone wins a major orchestra job in the USA, we’re reminded that “over a hundred violinists from top music schools and orchestras across the country came together to audition for this single position.” Classical music has always had a complex relationship with the “real” one-percent crowd, who are often among our most influential funders. The arts can offer the very rich a chance to really contribute to the welfare of society at large- for instance, the Oregon East Symphony was occasionally supported by the Paul Allen (he of Microsoft fame) Foundation. Big money foundation supports small town orchestra doing good work for the win! On the other hand, tobacco and petroleum companies have long used philanthropy to try to whitewash public perceptions of their business practices. More recently, we’ve seen labor negotiations in Philadelphia, Minnesota and other major orchestras in which the power to give transformative sums was used as a bargaining tool by board members to extract painful concessions from the musicians, sometimes at significant artistic expense. Sometimes a symbolic gift proves to be a rather empty gesture- such as the renovation of New York State Theatre which left the New York City Opera homeless long enough that the company never recovered. There was money for naming rights of a building, but not for the art to fill it and bring it to life.
I believe the last few years have brought us a new, more pernicious kind of one-percentism in classical music. A one-percentism that’s far more about internal economics than artistic competition or fund-raising from external sources. It should surprise nobody that our story as an industry has mirrored that of our larger society. During this economic downturn, small and medium-sized business and artistic institutions were first to falter and last to recover, and that the modest recovery in the arts has seen most benefit flow to our own one-percent crowd.
For instance- the post-2008 economic downturn caused a significant contraction in the field of artist management (spoiler alert- this blogpost is not a rant about managers). Without casting aspersions, one might well describe artist management companies as the bankers of the arts world- they don’t make music, sell tickets or put on concerts, any more than a bank builds or sells cars. Like banks, they facilitate the business of others by being gatekeepers, connectors and transaction managers. They’ve historically been in the business of connecting talent with opportunity. Like banks, they also are the largely spared the risks, both financial and artistic, felt by their clients: artists and organizations.
However, since 2008, artist management companies have reportedly seen a sharp downturn in revenue. Many companies have folded, shrunk or wound up, while others have had to make difficult changes. Anecdotal reports from across an industry that takes secrecy seriously indicate that major changes have taken place that have serious implications for everyone in the industry, including our audiences.
What hasn’t changed since 2008 is that top artist management companies still hold a virtual monopoly on who gets booked at elite orchestras, festivals and opera companies. Unless you are Lorin Maazel or Kurt Masur (both of whom famously looked after their own business affairs), self-management will only get you so far in this business. More and more artists- not just newbies, but established and respected pros with a proven track record- struggle to find management that open doors for them with top presenters. Why?
Again and again, I hear reports from across the US and Europe that management companies are focusing 99.9% of their energy on promoting 0.1% of artists. Rosters at the big firms are reportedly getting smaller, and a shrinking number of superstar artists are now doing a huge amount of work. The impact of this has been most keenly felt among singers, where the dangers of overwork are most apparent.
Top level singers these days report singing not only an insane number of performances per year, but doing so in a crazed range of Fachs (voice types). Again and again, I hear of singers being pressured into roles for which they are ill-suited, and having to sing them while fatigued or ill, or risk losing representation. They’re certainly singing scared. Artists dare not take time off for injury or illness. One singer I spoke to recently said “I know I’m shortening my career, but the choice between a shortened career and no career is not really a choice.” Management companies, whose attitude to risk is in some ways similar to bankers (“never play games with your own money if you can avoid it”) are said to be bringing in more retainers and fees, and one major company is said to be considering a system whereby if an artist does not meet their annual minimum in commissions, they owe the management company the balance. I’ve not yet been able to confirm the truth of it, but it does seem of a piece with the larger trends. Finance long ago saw a shift from working on commission to working on fee + commission, and I think the same thing is happening in music.
The upshot for audiences is that more and more, one hears superstar singers singing the wrong roles. It makes the singer look bad and gives an incomplete picture of the music. We’re literally wearing out our stars, shrinking our repertoire and skipping most of a generation of performers. We miss out on great Siegfried’s and Wotan’s because those roles are being sung by Pinkerton’s and Escamillo’s.
However, it’s not fair to place all the blame on artist management companies. Historically, many agents have made huge, long-term strategic investment in developing artists. The post 2008 economic troubles have meant they have far fewer resources to invest in building new artists, and the shifting of risk to the musicians is surely an indicator of the existential pressures they’re feeling. Twenty years ago, an agency might use revenue from say the top 5% of their clients, the upper class, of artists to subsidize the development of more “middle class” artists. Now, they have income from only the top 1%, barely enough to keep the lights on. Investment in the middle class, or even the rest of the old top 5% is just not there. It’s no longer enough to be a star, just as being a millionaire in New York won’t get you very far in the property market. Stars are falling off the books of management companies left and right- the age of the one-percent, the age of the billionaire is also the age of the superstar.
One solution might be for major orchestras, festivals and opera companies to become less dependent on artist managers and agents. Self-management has already transformed much of the music world. Twenty years ago, nobody outside of academia really dealt directly with artists- even regional and community orchestras dealt mainly with management companies, and big management companies were actively engaged with small venues. Community Concerts, once the bastion of great music in small towns, was originally a project of CAMI. Nowadays, the national umbrella organization that ran Community Concerts is gone, and the infrastructure built in collaboration with CAMI lives on in small towns across the country where local societies now deal direct with artists. (The value of companies like CAMI can be seen in the huge falloff in quality at many of these series, which focus more on novelty acts and pop).
However, as non- “A” orchestras have started dealing direct with artists, fees have fallen (one wise agent said to me that “no artist should ever have to negotiate his or her own fee”). Artists miss the support of professional advocates in the negotiation process, but, frankly, there’s just a lot less money around at D, E, F or G orchestras. There’s not even much spare cash to be found at B orchestras. Artists may now be able to engage directly with decision makers in smaller organizations, but those decision makers have far less flexibility to spend on artistic product than they did a few years back. The same shift of prosperity we’ve seen among artists has been mirrored among institutions- we’ve lost much of the musical middle class.
However, it’s not fair to place all the blame on artist management companies, festivals, opera companies and orchestras. Orchestras, festivals and opera companies these days need cash like never before. Cash follows audience, and audience follow superstars. Mere stars are no longer enough to sell tickets. In the end, that B orchestra now speaking directly to that self-managed pianist isn’t going to pay them enough to do much more than cover their costs. However, they might drop $100k on a gala with a superstar in hope that it pulls in enough revenue and audience interest to subsidize the rest of the year. A concert series in my home town this year recently brought on a spirited debate about fees when they reportedly paid a great musician nearly $100,000 for a recital. That’s enough to run a decent community orchestra for a year. Does it make sense? Well, it does if that musician can fill the hall- if they’re the only superstar who can get 1200 people in that market to come out for a recital any more. Even the next most famous cellist in the country would probably have only sold 200 seats. The presenter who books a one-percent superstar knows they’re likely to break even. Booking a two-percenter, for one twentieth the fee, would probably still lose money, even if the concert with a less famous player was musically superior (I’m not saying it would or wouldn’t be).
Most parents have dealt with at least one child who was a picky eater. It’s frustrating enough when your dear one only eats pizza, pasta and chicken, but what really hurts is when they then announce that chicken is off the list. Audiences that would have once come out for any of the top 10 violinists in the world will have been dumping mere stars like five-year-olds dump chicken. The same thing is happening with repertoire. There was a time at orchestras when subscription sales were so strong you could mostly play what you wanted- if someone wanted to come to hear a marquee programme, they had to subscribe. I still remember the woman in the box office laughing and laughing when I called the Chicago Symphony to ask if I could buy a ticket to see Kubelik conduct Mahler there in his later years. It had sold out completely on subscription even before the season was announced. One or two marquee events drove subscriptions in which you could program some pretty adventurous stuff. Gradually, it has become less about “the concert that sells the series” and more about “the piece that sells the program.” More to the point, the list of pieces that sell has withered. Just as the 7th most famous pianist in the world will no longer do for most listeners, neither will the fourth most popular Beethoven symphony, or the second most beloved Mozart concerto. Imagine that five-year-old telling you pasta is also off the “will eat” list along with chicken, and you’ll know how the conductor feels when his marketing director tells him “I’m sorry, but Brahms just isn’t good for box office these days. You need a more popular piece on this concert.” Is the message for concert planners in the 20th c. that we have to treat our audience like five-year-olds? Has the junk culture mentality and the star system so permeated our musical world that our diet will soon literally be limited to musical French fries and soda?
However, it’s not fair to place all the blame on artist management companies, festivals, opera companies, orchestras and audience members.
One-percentism is an economic construct, and as one, it’s highly inefficient. Look in the “real world.” A one-percent company like Wal-Mart makes a huge, huge, huge amount of money in small towns- towns that are poorly served by its presence. In places like Pendleton, where I worked happily for many years, one-percent companies drive local businesses of all kinds out of business. Wages go down, quality of goods sold goes down, customer service goes down and investment in the community goes way, way down. A small town orchestra or Community Concerts series used to be able to count on the annual support of all the local businesses- the local bank, hardware store, sporting goods store and department store. Where capitalism once sustained culture, one-percentism guts it. In most small towns, all of those businesses have been taken over by national chains and mega companies that give little, if anything, back to local schools and charitable organizations and do all they can to avoid even paying local taxes. It’s not inherently a problem that Wal-Mart is making mountains of money in a place like Pendleton. The problem is that they’re doing it at the expense of the welfare of the community- they’re making a profit on the misery of others. Similarly, it’s not a problem that a superstar singer is getting paid a fortune to sing Beethoven 9. The problem is that it’s wrong for their voice- they sound bad, the piece sounds bad, we lose audience, we wear out a superstar and end up with one less piece and one less performer for which or whom a huge audience will turn out. Perhaps one-percentism is feeding the “five-year-old” mentality among our audience. If you pay $200 a ticket to see the nation’s fourth-most-famous soprano and you can’t hear her in the hall (I remember hearing dozens and dozens of audience members saying “never again” after spending huge sums to hear a famously small-voiced soprano, made famous over a microphone on TV, in a huge hall in Cincinnati back in the day), you’re not going to risk another $180 on the fifth-most-famous.
A local furniture store in the age of Wal-Mart photo c. Brian Brown
I’m no economist, but it seems manifestly obvious that we’ve reached a crisis point in our society, our whole society, where we’ve become insanely delusional about the efficacy of markets in distributing resources. I remember a newspaper article about 7 or 8 years ago about a hugely successful and respected elementary teacher who gave up the classroom to become a stripper after a couple of years because she could make something like five times the money. Does a tobacco company lawyer really contribute more to the welfare of society than an emergency room nurse as the salaries would seem to indicate?
What can be done to restore a healthier economic ecosystem which can sustain our art form? Given that our internal problems as an industry so clearly and painfully mirror those of our society, is it realistic to hope that we can survive be making internal changes and reforms? Can we be a model for structural economic reform that inspires business and political leaders to try to build a more just and cohesive society?
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