Album du jour: Riccardo Chailly & Gewandhaus Orchestra, “Brahms Serenades”

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Johannes Brahms’s two youthful Serenades (he was in his mid-twenties when he wrote them from 1857-60) are best heard not as foreshadowing his four Symphonies, but rather as following in the tradition of serenades, divertimenti and related works by Haydn, Mozart and the young Beethoven (e.g., the very popular Septet). Light but not insubstantial, with extra helpings of minuets and scherzos, and well-ventilated by delectable woodwind scoring — the second even eschews violins in order to accent the winds — the Serenades make for ideal listening on a warm summer day. Or, I’m sure you’ll also find, on a miserable February evening.

Following up on their superb 2013 set of the Brahms Symphonies (my rave review here), Maestro Riccardo Chailly and the Gewandhaus Orchestra of Leipzig give us as fine a recorded pairing of these refreshing works as I’ve heard. I couldn’t describe these performances any better than I did those of the symphonies (i.e., I’m too lazy to come up with anything new to say), so to quote myself:

Rich, sleek, clear, focused, balanced, the sound of the orchestra, brilliantly captured by the Decca engineers, is worth the price of the set itself, and one of the finest I’ve ever heard on an orchestral recording.  The strings play as if one, with enough vibrato to enrich the tone but not so much as to thicken it.  The winds sing sweetly, with just the right measure of central European woodiness.  The horns, so crucial to the Brahms sonority, move from mellow to brassy at the drop of a downbeat…

The essential rightness of the sound is matched by the pacing of the music as well.  On the speedometer, Chailly’s tempos would be slightly faster than average, but I can’t think of one time where the tempo sounded pushed or forced.  Of course, it’s not at what tempo you play the music, it’s how you play it at that tempo.  And as we’ve heard from some of those who’ve attempted to conduct Brahms “his” way and on instruments from his time (I’m thinking especially of Sir Roger Norrington), even the sprightliest tempo sounds stodgy when enforced inflexibly and metronomicaly.  Chailly?  Flexibility personified.  Every line shaped, every phrase considered, the music flows as naturally as speech, but also as unpredictably as a stream.  You’re drawn into the music, as if it were an unfolding drama — which, of course, it is — and never let down for a moment…

So yes, while some classical music makes me cry “aaaaugh,” there’s still some that makes me go “aaah….”

DOWNLOAD NOTE: For those who prefer immediate gratification (and who wouldn’t when it’s easily available?), this album is available for download from Presto Classics in multiple audio formats, including the super-fancy spread that some of my friends (Booker) prefer. The Spotify playlist for sampling is below; it’s also available for high-quality streaming on Tidal, though I can’t (or don’t know how to) embed Tidal playlists into the blog.

Sometimes classical makes me want to SCREAM!!

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(Photo: Cristina Marsillach in Dario Argento’s film Opera, based on “Phantom of the Opera.”)

Now that I’m no longer engaged in the full-time, life-or-death struggle for the survival of classical music, after 35 years in the trenches, I think I may be suffering from a previously unidentified malady: PCSD. Post-classical stress disorder.

I mean, I still love classical music, though it doesn’t absorb as much of my attention as it used to. And I still get a kick from presenting concerts, doing the occasional class or lecture, and even performing the stuff at a very modest amateur level.

But sometimes, out of the blue, something I hear or, more likely nowadays, read, will turn me into a screaming maniac. I harangue The Wife, yell at the cats, scream at my computer and, of course, post something on Facebook. Funny how therapeutic that last step is, especially considering how little good it actually does.

Would you like some recent examples of PCSD triggers? I think I’m over them well enough to confront them again, though should warn you of their potential adverse effect. Then again, you may think I’m a ranting idiot. I’ll take that chance, if it advances the science and the art.

Read, for instance, the first sentence of this seemingly innocuous CD review: “As time goes on, it becomes increasingly clear that Malipiero was a very inconsistent composer.” For those who don’t know, which I suspect is just about everyone, Gian Franceso Malipiero (1882-1973) was a prominent 20th-century Italian composer, known especially in his time as a leading Italian composer of symphonic music. Which, given the history of Italian symphonic music, is sort of like being a leading Italian baseball player. Good for him, but it’s not something Italians tend to excel at. I can’t think of any particular reason you should give two fichi (it means “figs,” people) for Malipiero or his music.

Yet here, in 2015, is a classical CD critic who considers his recently-arrived-at opinion of this irredeemably obscure, permanently forgotten composer to be worth publishing. Here’s classical music, which I almost risked my life to serve (OK, an exaggeration, but that’s my PCSD talking), facing myriad threats from without and within, and yet here’s some pathetic dweeb still picking over the desiccated bones of a composer absolutely no one gives a flying f*** about! Is it any wonder why classical music is in the shape it’s in? Will the music, and those who make, present and chronicle it, kindly wake the hell up and get a f***ing life!?

OK…OK…I think I’m calmer now. Phew — it still gets to me. I mean, I mean…no, no, it’s time to move on, Montanari.

On to, that is, an excellent article by Stuart Isacoff in the Wall Street Journal about the positives and negatives of the increasing number of competitions for young classical artists. It’s a thoughtful piece, and I have absolutely no problem with Stuart Isacoff. It’s not his fault that the classical-industrial complex still puts so much energy into training “artists” (a far-too-generous term for most classical musicians, IMO) to play the same old, same old set of pieces, year after year after goddamn year, as if something new could really be found in the gazillionth rendition of some fossilized “classic” from the “canon.” Such as young piano competition winner Yuanfan Yang, whose performance of Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg’s Piano Concerto, according Mr. Isacoff, “had a subdued elegance.”

Well — isn’t that special? No insult to Grieg, a wonderful and influential composer whose works were a staple of my radio programs. And his Concerto is a perfectly nice piece, filled with lovely melodies and lively rhythms. But (uh oh, here we go) why, in 2015, are we judging or even caring whether the latest generation of impeccably polished hot-shot pianists can or cannot play the Grieg Concerto with just the right amount of “subdued elegance?” What does this do for the furtherance of classical music, which basically in the U.S. has one foot in the grave and the other on a banana peel? Oh, I’m sure those who attended Mr. Yang’s performance of the Grieg gave him rapturous applause, because of course it’s just so wonderful that such delightful young people still care for the great music that we love — as if playing Grieg with “subdued elegance” made one one-hundredth the contribution to American culture as new albums by Sufjan Stevens, Alabama Shakes or even bleeping Beyoncé!! Please, please, people — can we ever, finally, stop praising our music and ourselves for accomplishments that no one outside our shrinking coterie has absolutely any use for!?

All right, I’m done. Time for a walk, maybe with some gentle classical music in my earbuds. Let’s see what Tidal has to offer on its classical page…Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto…Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2…A NEW RECORDING OF THE GRIEG CONCERTO…AAAAAAAAAAAAUGH!!!

Album du jour: Tame Impala, “Currents”

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It’s way too nice a day to hate on any classical composers, as I did in my last outing.  Instead, music lovers, I’ve got some sunny pop for you today, in the form of a new album that practically screams “road trip!” But don’t feel left out, classical fans — there’s something for you at the end of this post.

“Currents” is the third full-length album by Tame Impala, the do-it-yourself project (at least in its studio incarnation; it tours as an ensemble) of Aussie Kevin Parker. With the audio playlist beckoning immediately below, extensive commentary from me would be superfluous. Suffice it to say, if you like soulful ’70’s pop melodies dressed up in reverberant washes of synths and keys over solid old school beats (from actual percussion instruments, hand claps, finger snaps and other natural ingredients!), this ought to tickle your fancy. Profound? Earth-shattering? Heavens, no. But it’s a heck of a lot more honest, more engaging, more healthy and just plain better than most music that attempts such qualities, only to fizzle disastrously, such as…well, I promised not to go there today.

Now, for you classical fans: Check out the first track, “Let It Happen,” starting at the beginning (no cheating and skipping ahead — I can see you!). Notice the somewhat ominous bass melody that starts at 4:04 in. Does it remind you of a similar melody from a semi-well-known symphonic poem, a melody that was also used as underscoring for one of the most celebrated old-time radio dramas?

You’ll hear the symphonic melody in question at 3:10 into the first of the two videos under the playlist, and the melody’s typical use in the old radio drama in the second video. Who said blogs aren’t educational?

To love or to loathe?

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Love it or loathe it, no self-respecting classical music fan can get away with not having a strong opinion of the music of American composer Eric Whitacre. The 45-year old Nevadan, described without hyperbole on his website as “one of the most popular and performed composers of our time, a distinguished conductor, broadcaster and public speaker,” may be the closest thing American classical composition has to a superstar.

Part of that, to be sure, is due to Whitacre’s charisma, charm, savvy use of modern tech and social media and, not least, killer looks. Not too many composers I’m aware of have both given a TED talk and done modeling shoots for Vogue. Are you ready for your close-up, Mr. or Ms. Average Sunshine-Deprived Classical Composer?

But then there’s the music. Ah — the music. For those who need a refresher, here’s a playlist of four of his biggest hits:

After 28 minutes of listening, you do get the idea, don’t you? Whatever else can and cannot be said of Eric Whitacre, you can’t accuse him of not having “a sound.” Nor can anyone deny him his gift for drop-dead gorgeous effects of harmony and texture.

How about the other qualities we would ascribe to artists we considered to be leaders in their field, qualities such as originality, range, depth and profundity? Not all artists, to be sure, aspire equally to these and other qualities. In early 20th-century classical music, for instance, you have your Gustav Mahler and your Francis Poulenc. Without getting into a tedious comparison, let me just say I would have a very hard time deciding which of the pair I would sooner do without.

But here is where the case for Eric Whitacre becomes difficult — that is, if you thought a case needed to be made at all. In my opinion (I’ll let you assess its level of humility), compared to several other composers currently working in similar genres and idiom, Whitacre’s music is light on substance, heavy on effect and more given to cliché than fresh ideas. Moments of beauty juxtapose with passages of utter banality that I may enjoy the first time, but later feel embarrassed about. Even if the above playlist was your first encounter with Whitacre, didn’t you get the feeling by, say, the third or fourth piece that you had heard it before, and were being ever-so-gently manipulated into a programmed emotional reaction?

On the other hand, by the end of the playlist, you may still be in Eric Whitacre’s thrall.  To judge from his popularity and frequency of performance, plenty of listeners are. Not only do I not have a problem with that, I regard it as an act of arrogance to come down on those who feel differently than I do. Such as this blogger, writing after hearing the premiere of a new Whitacre work for orchestra and chorus titled Deep Field (more about which here):

For me, Deep Field isn’t just about celestial beauty, it’s about us—or more specifically, how that celestial beauty touches us. The human experience is at the core of Deep Field, serving as a guiding theme in the same way that Elgar’s hidden “Enigma theme” animates his Enigma Variations.

We as humans have always had questions about our place in the universe… questions we have repeatedly posed to scientific and religious authorities in an unending quest for Truth.  Or at least for some sort of definitive answer.

In Deep Field, humans ask those questions on a cosmic scale. In our search for truth, we have created the most sophisticated piece of technology we can conceive, the Hubble Telescope. And we have directed this technological marvel to peer into the deepest, darkest corner of the universe—a corner we believe to be devoid of anything at all. Sure enough, it does provide us with an answer, but an answer we did not expect. An answer that is more vast, more beautiful, and more profound than our mortal lives can comprehend. In fact, this answer is so vast that it shows the inadequacy of the questions we asked in the first place.

Would you like to hear what so moved the blogger? Here (for a limited time only) is the audio of Deep Field‘s international premiere, last Sunday at the BBC proms. Whitacre’s spoken introduction starts at about 28 minutes into part two, followed by the performance.

What did you hear? I heard the same old Whitacre, if anything even more filled with effect and cliché and devoid of content or originality than usual. And mine is hardly the only discouraging word. Get a load of this passage from Telegraph critic John Allison:

Whitacre knows how to write for choirs, and he knows how to give those formulae a clever twist. In his early Cloudburst, the sound of falling rain is effectively evoked in the clicking fingers and then clapping hands of massed singers (here the BBC Singers and BBC Symphony Chorus). But the smoothness of his writing de-natures some haunting lines by Octavio Paz. His new Deep Field (which received its European premiere here) is inspired by images from the Hubble Space Telescope, and towards the end of this long exercise in sonic paint drying the audience is invited to join in by activating the ambient shimmerings of a special smartphone app. Whitacre joked that his latest version of Equus, this time for chorus and orchestra, sounds like “Carmina Burana on steroids”; summoning up the the energy of a running horse, it also brought to mind a well-known equine waste-product.

While I seem to be perpetually at war with classical critics, I do rather appreciate this fragrant style. You’d almost get the idea from the foregoing passage that new classical music was important enough to have strong opinions about and even sling a little mud over.

So OK, I’ve taken my shots at Eric Whitacre and had my fun. And if you feel otherwise, you can tell me I’m full of horse-bleep. However, I would ask those who go gaga for Whitacre to at least try some of the other composers now doing the best stuff for orchestra. Such as the Italian composer Luca Francesconi, whose new Violin Concerto, “Duende — The Dark Notes” also had its premiere at this summer’s BBC Proms. You’ll find the audio here, starting about 20 minutes into Prom 13, part one.

You may not find Francesconi’s work as immediately appealing as Whitacre’s. But if you listened to each for a second and even third time, think about which work reveals more of itself each time through, and which perhaps stops having anything new to offer. That’s not the only way to decide which of two works of music is the better one, if you even care to decide such a thing in the first place. But it’s a revealing exercise nonetheless, one that might both stretch you as a listener and sharpen your critical judgment.

And in the end, there’s time for the musical equivalent of a magnificently prepared work of the culinary arts, and time for the musical equivalent of a gooey fudge brownie. Nothing wrong with that — as long as we don’t confuse one for the other.

Otello without blackface — what else should classical music change?

According to Michael Cooper’s ArtsBeat report in today’s New York Times:

The Metropolitan Opera said on Tuesday that the new production of Verdi’s “Otello” that will open its season next month will not use blackface makeup on the white tenor singing the title role, breaking with a performance tradition of more than a century.

This is progress, I guess. But is it enough?

Here’s where you come in. What else do you think the Met and other operatic and classical institutions could do to bring their offerings up to 2015, or at least into the 21st century? Think big, think small — anything. I’ll start with a few from the concert side of things; please reply with yours.

Start evening concerts earlier — maybe 7:00 on weeknights and 6:00 on weekends — and eliminate most if not all intermissions, which kill momentum and waste time. We can then dine at our leisure after the concert, rather than rush through dinner to get to our seat.

Have more works, whole concerts even, performed from memory. I know, easy for me to say. But the concerts I have enjoyed most lately featured the performers interacting with each other and with the audience, not with pieces of paper. Other musicians and performing artists can do it. So should classical.

Perform more varied programs, with shorter and newer works alongside perhaps one major repertoire classic. That would help make each concert a unique experience rather than a re-reading of the same old scripts.

OK, your turn.

Is Tidal the sound wave of the future?

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As I start this blog post, I am at my auto dealership having my oil changed, while streaming on my laptop (equipped with an external Xonar sound card to replace the piece of junk it came with), through pretty good NAD Viso headphones, a ravishing new recording by conductor Philippe Jordan of Maurice Ravel’s ballet Daphnis et Chloé. Heaven in the service department!

And one of the biggest reasons for my enjoyment is that I’m using Tidal. What’s Tidal, you may ask — a new laundry service?

Nope. Tidal, the property of rapper and business mogul Jay-Z, is one of the more recent entrants into the rapidly expanding field of online music streaming services, like Pandora, Spotify, Rhapsody and Apple Music. Even non-users may have become aware of these services from the news coverage of music superstar Taylor Swift’s spat with Apple Music, or from Talking Heads co-founder David Byrne’s recent commentary in the New York Times. Both of these had to do with the pressing issue of artists’ royalties, which I will duck here in favor of an issue of primary interest to me, the avid music listener. The issue is sound quality. And it matters, or should matter, to you too.

For while we definitely should care about musicians’ income, we should also care about their output, and how much respect we pay it. And in my far-from-humble opinion, when we listen to their music in crappy sound quality when better is available, we treat the music and the musicians like crap too.

You see, the other more established music services only provide streams in compressed “lossy” formats like MP3 (decent explanation here). This saves on bandwidth, data use (when not in reach of wifi) and storage space (when the music is downloaded). Now, these formats may be adequate for casual listening while out and about. For even slightly serious music listening — or heck, for real enjoyment of the music, they don’t get the job done.

Because in order to compress the digital files, MP3 and the like do the equivalent of refining nutrients out of whole wheat to make Wonder Bread, or of printing a high-pixel photograph on an inkjet. You get something that kind of tastes or looks like the real thing, but is of decidedly inferior quality. And just as you could definitely tell the difference in the above examples, you can certainly hear the difference in music playback between an MP3 and, say, a CD. I know that some people say they can’t, but I don’t want to hear it. Yes you can. My friends at Spearit Sound have told me of customers who sink four figures into good audio gear, only to express disappointment in the result.

It’s because they were playing MP3s off their iPods or iPhones rather than using high-quality source material. And they most certainly heard what they were missing. Voices and string instruments, rather than sounding silky smooth, came out as patchy and grainy. Percussion thwacks lacked impact and definition. The stereo imaging was vague and indistinct, the dynamics (i.e., loud-soft) were squeezed, and the whole thing sounded like it was placed behind a scrim. Yech!

Tidal, on the other hand, has distinguished itself by offering its catalogue in, among other flavors, “Hifi” (in geekspeak, as described in this review, 16bit, 44.1kHz FLAC files with a bitrate of 1411kbps). Oh, what a difference! I’ve now moved on to the Starbucks at the Holyoke Mall, and switched selections to electronic artist Nicolas Jaar’s fabulous “Space is Only Noise.” It’s all there — every thump, swish and sample. The right-left and front-back placement of the sounds is wide, deep and precise. Things meant to be smooth sound smooth, things meant to be gritty practically permit me to count the particles of grit. And it’s all coming to me over Starbucks’ wifi, on fairly basic electronic equipment, for the price of a short cup of dark roast.

Yeah, a full Tidal subscription goes for $20/month, about twice of most other services. (According the company’s publicity, they have come up with a more fair way to distribute revenues to artists and labels, but again, I’m ducking that issue for now.) As a consumer, I think it’s more than worth it — the difference means that much to me. I won’t advise you how to spend your money. But I will advise you that to get the most out of the time you spend with the music you love, it might be an investment worth considering. I know one thing — if I were a musician, I certainly would want people to get out of my music everything I put into it. Why would the listener want to do otherwise?

Album du jour: Stephen Layton & Polyphony, “American Polyphony”

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To be filed under “better than which it does not get.” The 35-voice Polyphony is among the best of the seemingly infinite number of English chamber choirs without whom the classical CD collector would be seriously bereft. Having recorded previous albums devoted to superstar American choral composers Morten Lauridsen and Eric Whitacre, Polyphony devote (sic) their newest release (.pdf of the booklet here) to the greatest a cappella hits of four leading figures of the “greatest generation” of American composition: Randall Thompson (including “Alleluia”), Samuel Barber (“Agnus Dei,” “Reincarnations,” et al.), Leonard Bernstein (“Missa brevis”) and Aaron Copland (“Four Motets”). Anyone who’s been in choirs for any length time will have sung most if not all of the chosen works, but could only have dreamt of singing them as well. We expect beauty of tone and scrupulousness of preparation from the best English groups, and have no reason to be disappointed on these criteria here. What we’re spared, fortunately, is the frequent concomitant blandness. No cotton-candy tones here — the performances whisper, thunder, rush forward, make time stand still, and have the hairs on the back of one’s neck standing at near-permanent attention. Now what might Maestro Layton and Polyphony include on a second volume? Let’s see, Copland’s “In the beginning,” Elliott Carter’s “Heart not so heavy as mine” and “Musicians wrestle everywhere,” David Del Tredici’s “Acrostic Song”…

No Spotify playlist for this or other Hyperion releases, though you may sample and purchase for download here. Thanks from this proud American chorister to Stephen Layton and Polyphony for showing us how it’s done.