Classical fact vs. classical legend

“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

Said by newspaper editor Maxwell Scott (played by Carleton Young) to former U.S. senator and diplomat Ransom Stoddard (played by James Stewart), this line from the great John Ford/John Wayne film “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” was brought to mind recently by the vigorous debate over the veracity of a current screen depiction of a specific historical and cultural milieu.

Ava DuVernay’s controversial film “Selma?”  Well, that too.  I was actually thinking of the new Amazon Prime TV series “Mozart in the Jungle.”  You can read my previous entries on “MITJ” here and here.

A fictional portrayal of the current classical orchestral scene, based on oboist and journalist Blair Tindall‘s non-fiction book of the same name, MITJ has earned generally enthusiastic reviews from the critics, or at least from critics on the TV or general cultural beats.  Most of the classical musicians whose opinions I’ve seen in the cybersphere have had a pretty good attitude about the series’s obvious implausibilities and distortions, crediting MITJ with successfully getting at larger truths even if fudging the details.  Even some classical critics, normally a persnickety lot, have given MITV the thumbs-up, as you can see here, here and elsewhere.

But discouraging words regarding MITJ, while seldom heard, have not been inaudible.  The Philadelphia Inquirer‘s David Patrick Stearns was decidedly lukewarm in his review.  And the Washington Post‘s Anne Midgette has been particularly stern in her denunciations.  Probably the best on-line access is this rebuttal from violinist Lara St. John, complete with links to Midgette’s WaPo articles and, as a valuable bonus, a delicious back-and-forth between violinist and critic in the reply section.  Great stuff!

So where does the fact vs. legend quote come in?  Take another look at the critical articles by Stearns and Midgette.  While they cover different ground, each is basically a variation on the “truth is more interesting than fiction” song, as well sung by Stearns in his closing paragraphs:

Do you argue that TV characters have to be exaggerated to hold the screen? Well, their Philadelphia Orchestra counterparts are hardly boring. Violinist Davyd Booth has 80 tattoos, including his “Michelangelo special” – the fingers of God and Adam on his right foot. Violinist Phil Kates never met an earthquake zone that he didn’t try to cheer up with an impromptu recital. And what about the orchestra’s bungee jumping contingent led, during a recent tour stop in Macau, by tuba player Carol Jantsch?

Music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin isn’t even fazed by it all: “Who knows what they do in Philadelphia before they come to a concert?”

Put that in a mini-series. But would anybody believe it?

Actually, I believe that most viewers would believe these things, if a series like MITJ chose to include them in the plot.  Why wouldn’t they?  But what Stearns seems to want is not what MITJ set out to be.  He wants a reality show, but got a fictional series instead.  Given the right director and right participants, a classical reality show like that could be fun.  But would anyone want to see it?  That would be the $10,000,ooo (or whatever the budget is for such a show) question.

Of course, any fictional on-screen depiction of a particular milieu wants to be believable.  If the viewers find the proceedings unbelievable — to have “jumped the shark,” in TV parlance — they’ll tune out.  But here is where I differ from Stearns and Midgette.  In a fictional series, the creators’ principal responsibility is not to show the milieu it has chosen as it really is.  It is to entertain the audience.  And if the prerogatives of audience entertainment lead to distortions, exaggerations and outright fabrications, so be it.

I know that lots of classical professionals get a bit touchy about how their beloved art form is portrayed in the popular media, a touchiness that stems, as I see it, from not unjustified concerns about the music’s decreasing share in the cultural marketplace.  But just as few viewers would disbelieve the exploits of the Philadelphia musicians that Stearns cites in his article, I also bet that very few viewers imagine that MITJ is totally accurate in its depiction of the orchestral scene.  Let’s give the viewers a little more credit than that.

Now, when a journalist like fictional editor Maxwell Scott says “when the legend becomes fact, print the legend,” I’ve got a problem.  Indeed, one of my main gripes about contemporary journalism is the extent to which much of it proceeds from dubious assumptions and narratives that it accepts rather than continually questions.  In journalism, I prefer fact to legend, which I’m sure hardly makes me exceptional.

But in a fictional entertainment, if the legend is more entertaining than the facts, then the legend will almost always win out.  That’s show biz.  If Mozart in the Jungle can push classical music forward in the public’s consciousness even a little, it’s all good.  And that’s a fact you can print.

Spirituals for Dr. King


For many years during my radio career, I took pride and pleasure in broadcasting an uninterrupted sequence of spirituals celebrating Martin Luther King Day, and featuring some of the great African-American singers of the early-to-mid 20th century.  Here’s a somewhat briefer playlist of spirituals, featuring four of the immortals profiled in this old NEPR blog post.  Recordings by the first and oldest of the five singers featured in the blog, Harry T. Burleigh, are not available on Spotify; here’s a YouTube featuring his voice:

So, in Dr. King’s honor:

Coming Up: The Most Beautiful Music. Ever.


Now that I have your attention:

Imagine attending a performance of a new piece of music — sacred music on sacred texts, employing solo voices, choirs and a wide array of instruments. As eclectic, avant-garde and positively psychedelic as anything you’ve heard , the work is nonetheless grounded in something very familiar — old hymn tunes like, perhaps, “Amazing Grace” or “Simple Gifts,” each treated with loving reverence as it flows placidly through the dizzying panoply of sounds.  Entirely new, but tapping into the deepest, oldest vein of spirituality, the music is the most thrilling, moving and beautiful you’ve ever heard.  You wouldn’t want to miss it, would you?

Well, clear the evening January 31 on your calendar, set your ears back 400 years, and get thee to Abbey Memorial Chapel on the campus of Mt. Holyoke College for Arcadia Players‘ upcoming performance of Claudio Monteverdi’s 1610 Vespro della Beata Vergine — Vespers of the Blessed Virgin.

Composed during a time of tremendous stylistic transformation, as the old Renaissance ways were giving way the exciting new performing modes of what we now call the Baroque, the Vespers combine florid solo voices, powerful choirs and a dazzling instrumentarium (the cornetti alone are worth the price of admission) in a manner that, novel for its time, remains fresh and surprising all these centuries later.  Taking their texts from the Psalms, the Song of Songs, St. Luke (the Magnificat) and other biblical sources, the Vespers also frankly indulge in secular, well-nigh theatrical pleasures — little wonder since its immortal composer was also the first genius of opera.   Yet for all that is new in the Vespers, they remain grounded in the plainchant melodies that even then had been sung for centuries — the cantus firmus of a faith, and of a musical tradition.

Wonderful on recordings (those by Boston Baroque and Apollo’s Fire are good choices; the Spotify stream of the latter is included below), Monteverdi’s Vespers really have to be heard live at least once in every music lover’s lifetime.  Ian Watson and the Arcadians always do justice and then some to the great works they perform.  Don’t miss it.

Album du jour: Panda Bear, “Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper”


For those of you my age (I hit the big six-oh this year), give or take:  Do you remember how strange and wonderful the Beach Boys’ song “Good Vibrations” sounded the first time you heard it?  I certainly do.

Something of the same frisson awaits those who give a listen to today’s album, my first musical turn-on of the new year.  The artist, Panda Bear (aka Noah Lennox) is best-known as half of the main creative duo (along with Avey Tare, aka Dave Portner) of the wonderful Baltimore-formed experimental band Animal Collective — and if you haven’t yet sampled their oeuvre, get thee to thy nearest music purveyor, and start with their 2009 masterpiece “Merriweather Post Pavilion.”

Decoding all of Mr. Bear’s musical influences can be rather like composing a tasting note for a big young Napa Cabernet:  Heady aromas of psychedelia give way to a thrilling jolt of electronica, haunted by eerie notes of horror movie soundtracks and clusters of contemporary classical (e.g, György Ligeti, Krzysztof Penderecki), structured on a foundation of “Sgt. Pepper”-era Beatles and “Pet Sounds”-era Beach Boys, but with the vintner’s unique lyrical voice carrying through from start to finish.  It’s intoxicating stuff, all right, perhaps even addictive.

Performed and produced in collaboration with Sonic Boom (Peter Kember), “Meets the Grim Reaper” is Panda Bear’s fifth and most approachable solo album.  Others have described it as his “grittiest,” which perhaps it may be by comparison, though I found that the grit gave extra traction to his sometimes meandering muse.  The songs, based on simple, easily-grasped melodic ideas, are cogent and appealing, saying their piece then moving on.  The formidable electronic array is used with a free but disciplined hand, giving each song its unique color without calling undue attention to the “man behind the curtain.”

All of this could have come across and cold and impersonal, if not for the way Lennox’s distinctive, boyish tenor retains its personal warmth no matter how much electronic manipulation gets ladled over it.  And while one would not normally turn to Panda Bear’s music for intimacy, two back-to-back songs bring us about as close to the artist’s romantic soul as we’ve ever gotten:  A poignant ballad called “Tropic of Cancer” that sounds for all the world like a plugged-in c. 1960 Paul Anka (such as this), and a lovely number called “Lonely Wanderer,” based on a fragment of Debussy’s Arabesque No. 1 (video here).  I could imagine these songs, indeed most of the songs on the album, done “unplugged” (or at least with more conventional live forces) and still holding up, something that cannot always say about albums that go heavy on the electronics.

Quite a few of the top artists of smart contemporary pop are scheduled to release new albums in 2015.  If they’re all as good as “Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper,” then by this December’s centennial of the immortal Francis Albert Sinatra, I’ll be able to sing, “when I was fifty-nine, it was a very good year…”


The classical gap

True Story No. 1: In three completely separate conversations with as many different long-time classical music fans, my interlocutor has used the same phrase to describe a cappella (i.e., unaccompanied) choral music: “It was just singing — no music!”  This story always gets a chuckle from my choral-singing friends, who most certainly consider themselves to be musicians and what they do to be music.

True Story No. 2:  Many years ago, I attended a recital by a top American oboist, featuring among other works, J.S. Bach’s Sonata in G Minor for oboe and harpsichord, BWV 1030b — which, as the oboist explained from the stage, is, “better-known, of course, in its later version in B Minor for flute.”  Of course?  Raise your hand if you knew this already.  Uh-huh…I thought not.

OK, so the nice people in the first story may have been confused.  And the oboist in the second story may have added “of course” to his intro as a verbal tic, without thinking.

But scout’s honor, I could come up with several other instances to demonstrate the same point, which is:  Classical musicians and other insiders (academics, critics, presenters, broadcasters, etc.) often assume a higher level of musical knowledge among the audience than the audience actually possesses.  And the insiders too often operate accordingly, oblivious to or unconcerned about the fact that most of people they’re addressing don’t understand what they’re saying.  I call this difference between insiders and non-insiders (i.e, typical listeners) the “classical gap.”

One more story:  Last year, I taught two sessions of a very general music appreciation course called “The Orchestra Through Time” for Amherst Leisure Services.   Along the way, while tracing the orchestra and its repertoire from the Baroque to the present day, I dropped in some very basic music theory — staffs, clefs, major, minor, flats, sharps, key signatures, that kind of stuff.  With few exceptions, this stuff was a revelation to the attendees, who’d been listening to classical music for years without having anyone explain it to them.  So that’s what they mean by “Symphony in G Minor” or “Concerto in B-flat Major!” (And by the way, the attendees also didn’t know the difference between a symphony and a concerto until I explained it to them.)

Of course, this gap exists outside of classical music as well.  I remember attending a birthday party for a potter friend, attended mostly by other potters, one of whom told a pottery joke.  When I didn’t laugh, the joke-teller said, “Well, I guess it wouldn’t be funny to a non-potter.”  You know, I hadn’t previously given much thought to my sad life as a non-potter.  But boy, I sure felt like a non-potter that night.

Maybe that’s partly why I’ve become sensitized to the insider/non-insider classical gap.  And remember: By “non-insider,” I don’t mean the next person you meet on the street.  I mean the exclusive subset of the population who enjoy listening to classical music.  Even they can’t be assumed to know their G Minor from their B-flat Major.

So what should insiders do about it?  I could list lots of things, and certainly welcome your ideas.  But I will recommend a few crucial steps, before which nothing good will happen:  Acknowledge the gap.  Reflect on it — and I really mean reflect, as in looking at yourself in a mirror.  Embrace it.  It’s a fact of modern classical life, and cannot be wished away.  Ignore the gap, and continue as if it didn’t or shouldn’t exist, and the gap will widen.  You will be tuned out.  Bridge the gap, by first learning how to hear yourself as those on the other side hear you, and it will narrow.  These are good, smart people on the other side, people who pay your salaries and deserve your respect.  Work with them, get to know them, listen to them, and they’ll follow along.  Classical music will be much the stronger for it.

Back into the jungle!

Washington Post classical music critic Anne Midgette has just written her second critique of the new TV series, “Mozart in the Jungle.”  You can read her first critique and my blogged review before continuing.

In short, I found the series, set in the world of classical music and filled with sex, drugs and utter implausibilities, to be a hoot.  Ms. Midgette is far more troubled by the implausibilities, which ruined the experience for her.

Anyhow, here’s my online comment to Ms. Midgette’s latest piece:

I think Ms. Midgette’s critique of “Mozart in the Jungle” would be more apt if the program’s purpose was to depict classical music in a way that classical musicians, critics and other insiders would find accurate. I suspect that the program’s purpose was to be entertaining to a broad audience, the vast majority of whom have little to no knowledge of classical music. A lesson I learned repeatedly in my decades in classical radio was never to assume any specific classical knowledge among listeners, many (perhaps most) of whom would, for instance, not be able to explain the difference between a symphony and a concerto, or to place Bach, Mozart and Beethoven in chronological order. And these were classical listeners!

Thus, when the producers chose the “1812 Overture” in the segment Ms. Midgette mentions, they chose wisely: It’s one of the very few orchestral pieces that a fairly large swath of the audience could be expected to have heard of. Her reasoning of why it was a disappointing choice might make sense to her and to other insiders, but is beside the point, as is her point about the sudden repertoire shift to Mahler’s Symphony No. 8. She’s worried about the implausibility of this plot element, but the producers have to worry about whether viewers even know what an oboe is, much less how many are used in a typical orchestral work.

It might behoove Ms. Midgette or another critic to watch the series again, in the company of more typical viewers, perhaps people who’ve been to a few pops programs or like to sit on the lawn at Tanglewood, but who wouldn’t know an English horn from a French horn. She could stop periodically to offer her insider critiques, and to ask her fellow viewers whether they have any idea what she’s talking about. It could be very instructive.

P.S. (not included online for reasons of space):  Speaking of horns– did you notice how “Rodrigo” admonishes the “French horns” in one segment, even though a real conductor would have just called them “horns?”  Another smart move: the general pubic knows them as “French horns,” so just to call them “horns” would be confusing.

P.P.S.: Overheard (scout’s honor!) in the row behind me at last Friday’s Berkshire Bach concert in Northampton:

Lady No. 1:  “What’s that instrument on the stage?” (referring to a harpsichord)

Lady No. 2:  “That’s an, er, clavichord.”

Lady No. 1:  “Oh.”


Album du jour: Brian Eno & Karl Hyde, “High Life”


By way of memorial, Ireland’s The Journal of Music has just reposted an excellent article by Bob Gilmore, the Irish musicologist and musician who died on Friday at the age of 53.  In the article, “Difficult Listening Hour” (hat tip: my friend, composer Matthew Whittall), Gilmore defended his preference for what he called “difficult music”:

…a kind of music that owes more to Western classical tradition than to traditional, popular or vernacular sources; is usually fully notated; is complex, dissonant and will often not contain any hummable melody or danceable rhythm; is hard to play and difficult to remember exactly. It is the kind of music written by composers like Edgard Varèse, Olivier Messiaen, György Ligeti, Iannis Xenakis, Karlheinz Stockhausen, James Tenney, Horatiu Radulescu, Claude Vivier, Kaija Saariaho and many, many others.

While I like some of the music Gilmore loved, and wouldn’t cross the street to hear some others of his favorites, I appreciated the modesty and gentle humor with which he addressed issues often fought with toxic word-bombs:  Why do so many people shun complex, modernist music?  Are those who claim to like complex modernism really just trying to sound smart, as is sometimes alleged?  What’s the appeal of this incomprehensible stuff anyway?  Only in the final paragraph did Gilmore succumb to the hard-to-resist temptation (which I surely have not always resisted) to feel a little superior about his taste:

People who close their minds to ‘difficult music’ tend to miss one crucial point: for some of us, that very difficulty may in fact be a stimulus. I’m the kind of person — and I’m not alone — that gets bored being told only things I know, by having comfortable conversations that don’t challenge my beliefs or opinions. As with overcoming any difficulty, learning to comprehend a challenging musical style offers an intense pleasure and an excitement that a more familiar style can never provide.

Well, I’d like to think I’m an open-minded sort, open to new ideas of all kinds, even those ideas that challenge my cozy old paradigms.  But I also prefer music that operates at the same pace as my ability to ascertain what’s going on.  A constant barrage of seemingly random detail, whether the detail is really as random at it sounds (i.e., Cage) or not (i.e., Boulez) leads me to what we might call the Five Stages of Hypercomplexity:  Overwhelmed, Frustrated, Annoyed, Bored, and To Hell With It.

So, while in no way begrudging the pleasures such music afforded Mr. Gilmore, his tastes are not my tastes.  But OK, what music floats my boat?  How about music that presents easily graspable ideas, then plays with them in myriad delightful ways, while never exceeding my ability to hear what’s going on?  Sure, I still hear new stuff each time I listen to such music, but only if the initial encounter is so enjoyable that I’m drawn back in to listen again.  This music engages my intellect, but also satisfies my craving for beauty, love, comfort and physical pleasures.  Often, it’s music not of profound complexity but profound simplicity, in which the shift of one note or the addition of one beat says as much as an entire movement of Webern.  This is the music that lately has been on my mind and in my ears, including an album that came out a few months back, but which is my first “Album du jour”of 2015.

“High Life” was the second 2014 collaboration of Brian Eno, the immensely prolific, immensely influential composer, producer and pioneer of “ambient music,” and Karl Hyde, guitarist and vocalist of the well-known techno band Underworld.  What an absolute blast!  Consisting of five onslaughts of volume and energy followed by one gentler epilogue, “High Life” is all about what I wrote in the last paragraph:  easily graspable ideas that are then played with in myriad delightful ways.

Try, for instance, the exhilarating first track, “Return.”  Right from the opening fade-in, you get the basic ideas, introduced one at a time:  A rhythmic guitar drone, a two-chord guitar pattern, a short, infectious percussion pattern, a simple vocal melody, a pulsing bass line, and much later, a circular synthesizer fragment.  For nine minutes, each of these layers is developed in subtle but fascinating ways.  Focus for a minute or so on the two-chord guitar pattern:  Normally according twelve beats to each chord, sometimes the pattern is either shortened or lengthened, or the chord’s texture is enriched, or the way one chord moves to the next is inflected.  Each of these shifts, perhaps not mind-blowing on its own, changes the relationship between this pattern and all the other layers –which are themselves in a constant state of similarly subtle shifts.

Simultaneously simple and complex, incredibly energetic and engaging, this music is, for me, nothing short of mind-blowing.  And every track on “High Life” does the same thing for me — even the somewhat space-agey and progish finale, “Cells & Bells.”  Would I call “High Life” “challenging?” Perhaps, in the way it challenges the listener to pay close enough attention to hear what’s going on.  Would I call it “difficult?”  Naah.  Difficulty was never this much fun.