Album du jour: Gabriel Kahane, “The Ambassador”


So, I picked up two new CDs, the other day.  One, Gabriel Kahane’s “The Ambassador,” is an intelligent cycle of ten songs about Los Angeles, written and performed in a jazzy, sophisticated contemporary singer-songwriter idiom.

The other is tenor Jonas Kaufmann and pianist Helmut Deutsch performing Franz Schubert’s immortal 1827 song cycle “Winterreise” (“Winter Journey”).

Which new CD comes closer to representing for today’s listener what Schubert’s work represented in its own time and place?  This is not a trick question.  Indeed, how you answer this question says a lot about about where you stand on the many issues pertaining to music’s present and future status in our culture.

Let’s consider what “Winterreise” is for the present-day American listener.  It’s a nearly-200-year old piece of music, sung in a foreign language that one either speaks through circumstance of birth, or learned in school, or (most likely) has to follow by reading the program notes while listening.  The musical idiom — melodies, harmonies, rhythms, etc. — is very much of early 19th-century Vienna, as well it should be.  The vocal style, while unexceptional for the minority of listeners versed in it, would sound unnatural in most of our current music.  I mean, people don’t grow up singing that way any more.  You have to go to a fancy, expensive conservatory to learn how to do it well.  And while we have plenty of 14-song albums…er, cycles, today, one that features just one voice and an acoustic (ahem) piano playing written (i.e., non-improvised) music is not something most people encounter in their lives, even most smart and sophisticated people.  The thought of listening straight through to such a work, either from CD or (even less likely) in a dark, quiet concert hall, where one’s behavior is strictly circumscribed, like church, would rarely if ever occur to them.

In short, the new Kaufmann/Deutsch “Winterreise,” while very, very beautiful, is also destined to be enjoyed, at least domestically, by a very small, very rarefied audience.  If you’re part of that audience, you know how heart-breakingly moving this music is.  But you’re in a tiny minority that’s not likely to get larger anytime soon, if ever.

Now let’s consider what “Winterreise” would have represented in 19th century Vienna.  For sure, it was even then and there music of rare artistry.  No doubt many would have found the work dark and forbidding.  But whatever barriers that existed between the music and its listener were placed there by Schubert, not by the work’s basic idiom.  Fundamentally, it would have been a collection of songs in the vernacular, both words and music, and performed in a scoring and style that would have been the norm for its day for any reasonably cultivated listener.  Yes, it would have been “art” music, but its art would have been much closer to the daily life of its time than today’s culturally-approved “art” music (e.g., classical, jazz) is to ours.

OK, that’s the Schubert.  Now how about “The Ambassador?”  The bare facts:  33-year old composer and singer-songwriter Gabriel Kahane wrote the words and music to ten songs exploring different facets of Los Angeles, drawing his subject matter from literature (Ray Bradbury, Raymond Chandler), cinema (Mildred Pierce, Pulp Fiction, Die Hard), place (Ambassador Hotel, Griffith Observatory, Union Station) and historical events (a tragic shooting).

Kahane sings the songs himself, in a smooth, attractive pop-music voice that might remind you of Justin Vernon (aka Bon Iver), Adam Guettel or many others.  The scoring, if you will, is primarily for voice and pop quartet (including keyboards, electric guitars and drums), with strings and horns added on assorted songs.  The idiom, as I wrote earlier, is sophisticated, somewhat jazzy singer-songwriter, with resemblances to Sufjan Stevens, Steely Dan and no doubt others that you would pick out.  Without question, this is a musical work of considerable artistry, probably not destined for the top of the charts. But has already earned plenty of cultural buzz, along with raves from the likes of the New York Times, NPR and the smart musical press.

In short, Gabriel Kahane’s “The Ambassador” is a highly artistic, decidedly non-dumbed-down musical work in the current musical and linguistic idiom.  Even if you didn’t care for it, there’s little chance that you wouldn’t “get” it.  It places no barriers between itself and your comprehension.

So those are the facts, ma’am (my own LA reference).  What do you think — is Gabriel Kahane closer to being”today’s Schubert” than even Schubert himself?  Actually, that’s unfair to the many other fine musicians, male and female, now working in similar styles, including the ones I mentioned above.  And it has nothing to do with a guess, which would be all it is, that Kahane or anyone else working today will have Schubert’s durability.  Let’s enjoy ourselves today and let the future take care of itself.

Of course, you couldn’t really answer this question until you’ve heard Kahane’s piece.  Which you should.  Immediately   It’s a brilliant and beautiful work which will repay many hearings, and which, I believe, represents some of the finest, most serious and most enjoyable music being made in present-day America. Just as Schubert’s “Winterreise” did in 1820’s Vienna.

My problem with “Klinghoffer”

Many of those who’ve criticized the Metropolitan Opera’s cancellation of the “Live in HD” transmission of the Met’s upcoming production of John Adams’s “The Death of Klinghoffer” lamented the fact that the cancellation removes an opportunity to debate the contentious issues surrounding the opera.  Well, the Met’s critics may not get their chance to see “Klinghoffer,” at least without heading to Lincoln Center.  But they sure got their debate.  The cancellation itself has engendered all the debate anyone could want.

And as my Facebook friends (and anyone else with the misfortune to be in earshot) can attest, I’ve had my say and then some, mostly about the opera’a alleged antisemitism and appeasement of terror.  (About the cancellation, I have been unequivocal: once scheduled, the theater transmission should not have been cancelled.  It makes the Met look indecisive and too easily persuaded, and cheaply bestows the status of free-speech martyrdom on Adams and his collaborators.)  Yet for all that, I don’t think I’ve quite gotten to the heart of what most disturbs me about “The Death of Klinghoffer.”  So, for what I hope is but can’t promise will be the last time, here goes.

In 1985, a man named Leon Klinghoffer was shot and killed aboard a cruise ship, then his body was dumped into the ocean.  Whatever its geopolitical implications, Mr. Klinghoffer’s death was primarily a personal tragedy.  A human being was killed.  His loved ones grieved, and continue to grieve to this day.

Not long after (or perhaps even during) their successful collaboration on the 1987 opera “Nixon in China,” a creative team headed by theater director Peter Sellars, and also including composer John Adams, librettist Alice Goodman and choreographer Mark Morris, began the conceptualizing that would, in March 1991, result in the premiere of “The Death of Klinghoffer.”  In very short, the opera dramatizes and semi-fictionalizes the circumstances of the real Mr. Klinghoffer’s killing, using him and his wife Marilyn (who died in 1986) by name as characters.

In other words, “Klinghoffer” uses a then-recent real-life personal tragedy involving non-public people (unlike “Nixon in China,” whose characters are major historical figures, hence fair game) as the basis of a work of art that, without regard for the feelings of anyone involved, appropriates a personal tragedy for the artistic and political purposes of the opera’s creators.

I find this to be an act of unconscionable arrogance and callousness.  If Sellars, Adams, Goodman, Morris et al. had something important to say about about terror, or Middle East relations, or whatever else was on their mind, they could have invented their own scenario and left the Klinghoffers the hell out of it.

As it is, the Klinghoffers’ daughters, who attended the premiere anonymously, despised the opera then and despise it now.  Whatever our personal feelings about artistic freedom, can’t we also see the overriding virtue of sparing the feelings of the Klinghoffer family?  In a statement following the Met’s cancellation, John Adams wrote that “My opera accords great dignity to the memory of Leon and Marilyn Klinghoffer.”  Never mind the unmitigated gall of a composer crediting his own work with “great dignity.”  The Klinghoffers’ daughters, who have a greater right than Adams to speak on their parents’ behalf, vehemently disagree.  I’m on their side, as I think we all should be.

Let Leon and Marilyn Klinghoffer rest in peace.  And until they repent, let the creators of “The Death of Klinghoffer” be denounced for their shameless artistic vandalism.

A rocker’s first symphony


Casey Crescenzo of


presents his first symphony

For fans that want something more

So proclaimed the promotional sticker on one of several dozen CDs in the new release bin at Newbury Comics in Northampton, where I stop in every Tuesday, new release day.  And I have to say, the sticker did its job.  I’d heard and liked a couple of CDs by the prog-ish Rhode Island-based The Dear Hunter (not to be confused with Deerhunter, Deer Tick, Deerhoof, Matthew Dear or Loney dear).  Now their lead guy has written a symphony?  Good for him, though I thought it a bit much to promote it as “his first,” as if others will now follow at Haydnesque pace.  And the final bit, about “fans that want something more” — that’s me!  Who says marketing doesn’t pay off?  I bit.

That’s the front cover at the top of this post.  The back cover informs us that the piece was “performed by the Brno Philharmonic Orchestra, Mikel Toms, conductor.”  For those who just got excited at the notion that a real live European orchestra would pick up a work by an American rocker, relax.  As my darling wife says in such cases, “for money, you can get.”  And the Brno Philharmonic, like many other orchestras in Eastern Europe, gets less money than most, hence their near-ubiquity on inexpensive CDs and vanity projects.  Their recording costs are less, too.  The Brno Philharmonic has found a lucrative market for its services, and shouldn’t be begrudged a single koruna of their earnings.

Then, at the bottom of the back cover, they tell us that the music was “composed and arranged by Casey Crescenzo.”  You don’t see this kind of thing very often on classical CDs.  One normally assumes without being told that the work was not only composed by its composer, but that he/she also did the arrangements (i.e., orchestrations).  Indeed, it’s only the exceptions to that rule that get pointed out, e.g., the many recordings of Modest Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition” orchestrated by Maurice Ravel.

But in the non-classical spheres, including rock, pop and Broadway, it’s not to be assumed that the composers do their own arranging.  Indeed, from such legends as Nelson Riddle and Robert Russell Bennett to the many mostly anonymous folks who help make movie and TV soundtracks sound so good, arranging has long been both a noble art and a very dignified profession.  And it’s especially not to be assumed that pop and rock musicians do their own arrangements when they attempt symphonic scores.  In fact, and unfortunately, it can’t even be assumed that such “composers” (I use the scare-quotes advisedly) have mastered the rudiments of music, as I detailed in one of my old NEPR blogs.

Having no clue as to the sharpness of Casey Crescenzo’s classical chops, I decided to listen to his symphony without prejudice.  What I heard was inoffensive, unexceptionable and not glaringly incompetent.  But boring?!  Everything, from tempos to orchestration to harmonic idiom, stuck to a nice, safe middle course.  Not a single moment struck me as original, or surprising, or moving. There were some fairly pleasant melodic ideas, but as for symphonic development — nada.

A fairly prominent solo piano part (uncredited — indeed, the CD package includes no further background information) might have helped if it weren’t the most rudimentary, least virtuosic piano writing I’ve ever heard in such a piece.  There wasn’t even enough there for trashy, campy fun, as in Richard Addinsell’s immortal “Warsaw Concerto.”  If someone had told me that “Amour & Attrition” was a rejected and rediscovered early ballet suite by, say, Aram Khachaturian (of “Gayane” and “Sabre Dance” fame), I might have believed it for a second.  But in the end, Crescenzo’s first symphony isn’t even that exciting.

And that’s when I googled around from some background info on Crescenzo.  What did I find?  Sure enough, the dude can’t read or write music.  But with the right toys — voilà!  He’s a symphonist!  And so can you be, right?

Listen, I’m not here to put the Monty Python foot down on Casey Crescenzo’s “attempt to grow.”  Sure enough, his symphony has made it to the top ten of several CD charts, not that it takes very many units sold for that to happen.  Nor am I saying that rock musicians have no business trying classical scores.  Some, such as Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood and The National’s Bryce Dessner have written some terrific classical pieces.  But these composers, unlike Crescenzo, actually have something interesting to say in the classical field and, one way or another, acquired enough skill to cultivate and shape their ideas into cogent, coherent long-form works.  That’s not too much to ask for, is it?  (I’ll get to some of Greenwood’s and Dessner’s music in a future post, as well as a forthcoming classical CD by Arcade Fire’s Richard Reed Parry.)

But never mind how the piece came about or who wrote it.  Here’s the deal:  If The Dear Hunter did rock concerts and CDs as safe and boring (not to mention minimally competent) as Crescenzo’s symphony, they’d have a fan base of approximately zero.  Why should Crescenzo think he can get away with boring classical music, or even want to?  Classical music may need all the help it can get, but it already has enough boring pieces, thanks.

Albums du Jour: Owen Pallett & Jack White


If Owen Pallett had come along before 1900, he would likely have become a violinist-composer, in the manner of Antonio Vivaldi or Fritz Kreisler.  If he came along earlier in the 20th century, chances are he would have become either violinist or composer, but not both, at least to any significant degree.  As it happened, the 35-year old Canadian violinist-composer-lyricist-singer-keyboardist-arranger-producer has come along at a time that allows him the freedom to use all his talents to make his very own, very special music.

That Owen Pallett does so in the field of pop music rather than in the more respectable fields (especially classical) is another thing that makes him a man of his time and ours.  If you still harbor any doubts about the artistic potential of pop, check out Mr. Pallett’s latest (his third) album, “In Conflict,” and ask yourself whether he could have expressed himself more fully in any other kind of music — or whether you would have enjoyed his music any more if he had.

OK, maybe there’s a bale or two of straw in that last sentence, and I’m arguing against few if any adversaries.  Good; I’m glad that’s behind us.  As for “In Conflict,” it’s a delightful way to get to know Owen Pallett’s unique muse — breezy, elegant, melodic, haunting, beguiling, understated, romantic, slightly elusive (especially the lyrics) and compulsively listenable.  Perhaps if he had been born at the right time and place, he would have become another Francis Poulenc.  Fortunately there already was a Francis Poulenc, and there is now an Owen Pallett.



On the other hand, Jack White is a born, bred-to-the-bone rocker, with all the exuberance, excesses, flamboyance, notoriety, volume and visceral thrills that rock entails.  He’s also, for all that, a disciplined musician — at least sometimes.  When he channels his prodigious gifts and outsized persona into cogent, well-constructed songs, as he does on “Lazaretto,” his new album, the results can be electrifying.  And they are.  I haven’t enjoyed anything he’s done this much since the White Stripes‘ final album, the delirious “Icky Thump.”  Heck, I probably haven’t enjoyed a straight-out rock album this much since Led Zeppelin, Cream, the pre-Geritol Rolling Stones, and other icons of my rock-strewn youth.  (There were other favorites at the time of whom I’m not quite as proud of today, and whose names will therefore be withheld.)  Catchy tunes, smart arrangements, fabulous band, great production, and Mr. White at the helm.  Good stuff.

The Digital Ring


A report in this morning’s New York Times brought to my attention something I had previously been unaware of, even though it is taking place fairly close by, in West Hartford, Connecticut.  But far from being merely local in impact, the report is likely to spark considerable debate in the national and international classical community.

As you can read, a newly-formed organization called the Hartford Wagner Festival is launching a complete live performing cycle of Richard Wagner’s epic four-part “Das Ring der Nibelungen” (“The Ring of the Nibelung”), with four performances this August of the Ring’s first opera, “Das Rheingold.”  The other three operas are planned for the following three summers, with the complete “Ring” cycle scheduled for 2017.

One might think that an effort to mount these or any great operas in these perilous times for the art form would be welcomed and encouraged.  Well, this effort hasn’t, at least by some very (ahem) vocal opponents.

What’s their problem?  It’s that rather than employ actual instrumentalists, the Festival will feature live singers accompanied by a digital rendering of Wagner’s original orchestration.  “Small companies just can’t really afford to hire 80, 90, 100 musicians in order to put on their productions, which is why so many small companies either use a piano, or a couple of pianos,” Festival founder Charles M. Goldstein was quoted as saying in the Times.  “I had the idea that small local companies, instead of using two pianos, could use some sort of digital sound to put on small productions.”

And that has a diverse cohort, including orchestral musicians, musicians’ unions, opera companies and musical connoisseurs, up in arms, for reasons ranging from artistic desecration to deprivation of employment for the players.  Some of the singers who’ve signed up for the cast have even been threatened with career damage if they persist with the productions.  And one lead singer in “Rheingold” has dropped out under the pressure.

What do I make of this?  Of course, I can’t judge how effective the digital rendering of Wagner’s innovative and imaginative orchestrations are until and unless I’ve heard it.  (You can read how that digital version was prepared either in the Times report or on the Festival’s website.)  But neither would I preemptively rule out the possibility that it could sound fairly decent, if never as good as the real thing.  These digital toys have gotten pretty darned sophisticated nowadays.

As for the labor and economic arguments against the Mr. Goldstein’s concept, however, I don’t mind saying that I’m on his side, at least in this case.  I know that may make me a target for some of the same anger that has been sent in the Festival’s direction, but please hear me out.

First of all, the Hartford Wagner Festival has not deprived a single musician of an employment opportunity he/she would otherwise have had.  As Mr. Goldstein wrote on the Festival’s website, “This project of presenting “Das Rheingold” was originally conceived to use a digital orchestra and was never intended to use a live orchestra. There was never an opportunity for instrumentalists to be involved in the first place and consequently there is no loss of work for them. The project was solely designed to employ and test the use of a digital orchestra in a performance situation as the state of the art of sampled instruments has progressed immensely in recent years.”

Second, the Hartford Wagner Festival does provide rare opportunities for others in the operatic field.  Mr. Goldstein: “We have, however, provided opportunities for 32 singers, conductors, pianists, production staff etc. [emphasis his] that they would not have had without our production of “Das Rheingold.”

Third, while I prefer the use of full orchestras over either reduced ensembles or electronics in music theater, the final verdict on this will not be delivered by me, by orchestral musicians, or by any number of disgruntled connoisseurs.  It will be delivered by the whole audience, by way of attending or not attending.  Like it or (mostly) not, musical tastes and standards change.  And as in contentious matters of language, where common usage prevails to the chagrin of rule-makers and standard-setters, the growing acceptance of electronification of our music is something we may decry, but we can’t stop.  Our preference for acoustic music, though noble, is also increasingly exceptional — and, in many cases, increasingly unaffordable.

Listen, I can’t blame orchestral musicians for acting and speaking out in their economic self-interest.  I’m sure I would do the same were I among them.  But could I also ask them to take a step back and view things from a broader perspective?  For instance, we just had the Metropolitan Operas’s General Manager, Peter Gelb, tell a BBC interviewer that, the way things are going, his company could go bankrupt in two years.  The Met!  THE MET!!  To paraphrase the song, “if you can’t make it there, you’re not gonna make it anywhere.”  Next to which, I hope you’ll agree, the issue of a company in Hartford “depriving” musicians of opportunities that never existed seems pretty small, doesn’t it?



Bravo, SSO!


The Springfield Symphony Orchestra just announced the programs for its upcoming 2014-15 season.  And I’m here to tell you that the lineup of seven classical concerts coming to Symphony Hall (Springfield, that is) over the next year is among the most exciting ever.  Kudos to Music Director Kevin Rhodes and the SSO management.

What should so excite about a mere seven concerts, when the “big” orchestra down the pike is performing many times as many over the same time, not to mention the upcoming Tanglewood season?  Well, for one thing, I believe that one’s music, like one’s vegetables, are best when fresh and local.  The SSO is an invaluable asset for the area, worth supporting and cherishing.  For another, the “local” band is no slouch; indeed, as anyone who’s heard them recently knows, they’re pretty damn good.

And heck, maybe it’s the professional music programmer/presenter in me, appreciating a job well done under serious constraints of budget and scheduling.  Pulling off seven classical concerts per season for an orchestra like the SSO, and doing so at the highest artistic level, poses challenges unlike, and in some ways greater than, those faced by an orchestra like the Boston Symphony.  As Kevin Rhodes describes it, “Orchestras like ours, meaning orchestras playing between 6 and 10 classical programs per year, are on a very different internal and developmental clock than orchestras with a more full-time type of schedule. It takes us several seasons to play the quantity of repertoire that one of those larger organizations might get through in a year.  Add to that the fact that there is a Grand Canyon-sized gulf in the difference between playing that many concerts within nine months verses 36 months in terms of collective growth, and I think one begins to see the minor miracle that the Springfield Symphony is.

“The way that these musicians coalesce into a cohesive ensemble within 2 days of rehearsal when they haven’t seen each other in a month or more compared to one of those other orchestras who come back together after 1 day off following a concert is indeed truly miraculous.”

Now though, as Kevin and the orchestra start their fourteenth season together, they’ve reached what he describes as a new era.  “We have now reached a point of both mutual familiarity and experience whereby a virtuoso concert such as our opening night (September 27), featuring Bolero, La Mer and Pictures at an Exhibition, all works we have played together over the years, is something we can plan with confidence. If this was our 5th or 10th year together, that would be a chancy proposition, but now we know we can do it.”  I love this program — three old chestnuts, to be sure, but which add up to an absolutely fabulous wallow in orchestral richness.  If this program were a meal, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg would have tried to ban it.

Then on the second program (October 11), impressive young violinist Caroline Goulding will take the solo on a work whose inclusion on the series, for all the work’s beauty, could still be considered daring, Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto “To the Memory of an Angel” (watch an excellent performance here). Those who’ve never this haunting, lyrical work live should prepare to be moved.  Combine the Berg with two of Tchaikovsky’s Shakespearean tone poems, the well-known “Romeo and Juliet” and the great but seldom-played “The Tempest,”and you have a concert to enrich the mind, heart and soul.

I could go through each concert program this way, but let me instead point just a few highlights:  UConn professor Kenneth Fuchs‘s evocative “Out of the Dark” along with Mendelssohn’s “Italian” Symphony and Beethoven’s Violin Concerto (January 24), a thoughtful pairing of Bernstein (the Piano Concerto-like Symphony No. 2, “The Age of Anxiety”) and Beethoven (the “Pastoral” Symphony) on March 14, and to conclude the season on April 28, a thrilling bout between two Russian heavyweights:  Rachmaninoff (Piano Concerto No. 2) vs. Stravinsky (The Rite of Spring).

There’s an essential rightness to each program, as if the works were meant to be heard together.  This does not just happen.  It takes imagination, inspiration, and of course, the right orchestra to pull it off.  Back to Kevin Rhodes for the final words:  “All throughout the season one will find these kind of mixtures which we simply could not have done prior to this precise point in time. In an era when many of my colleagues are seemingly constantly wishing to “move on” to a new community, I am quite thrilled and delighted to have such an incredible musical family as the Springfield Symphony and such an appreciative musical home as the Pioneer Valley!!”

Album du jour: Fennesz, “Bécs”


“That’s not music.  That’s noise!”

I bet you’ve heard that timeless kvetch at least once in your life, in response to sounds you were grooving to.  If not, you’ve lived too sheltered an existence.

But noise has been a legitimate part of music for quite some time.  I’m not taking here about the inadvertent, unwanted noises that can mar performances, such as coughs, shuffling feet and falling music stands.  Those are bad noises.

I mean the myriad effects, from tone clusters to distortion to feedback that, when well modulated, add depth and texture to the music, at least for some listeners.  I guess it’s like cilantro — some love it, others can’t bear the slightest amount.  But in its defense, noise has been part of the aural landscape since forever.  Who doesn’t thrill to a good crack of thunder, or find peace in the undulating white noise of waves rolling onto the shore?  Little wonder that these sounds, or their simulation, should have become colors on the musicians’ palette.

And some musicians have gone even further, using noise as a primary element of their music, thus creating a whole family of musical genres and sub-genres.  Ambient, Industrial, Glitch, Japanoise — where to start making sense of it all?

That’s where today’s album comes in.  It’s the product of a 42-year old Austrian guitarist and composer named Christian Fennesz, who usually goes by just his family name.  A past collaborator with, among others, the noted Japanese multi-instrumentalist/composer Ryuchi Sakamoto and the late American indie-rocker Sparklehorse (Mark Linkous), Fennesz has also produced solo albums that explore the confluence of noise and pop, some leaning toward one stream, some the other.

His latest, “Bécs” (Hungarian for “Vienna”) is an excellent example of how noise, used creatively, can enhance the music’s visceral and emotional impact.  Consisting of seven compositions layering multiple guitar- and computer-generated textures, “Bécs” evokes influences as disparate as the Beach Boys, Aphex Twin and Philip Glass while creating its own musical world, complete with atmosphere, geology and, perhaps, the first sparks of life.  The noise comes in all sorts of colors of flavors, but even at its most imposing, never completely halts the melodic and harmonic flow of the music.

Check out the title selection on the album page — really loud, if possible.  And if someone within earshot kvetches “that’s not music, it’s noise,” you’ll have a ready response.  “You bet it is!  Isn’t it great?”

The New York Times’ shocker!


No, the headline to this post doesn’t refer to the New York Times’ controversial firing of its executive editor Jill Abramson.  Neither do I mean the paper’s public editor, Margaret Sullivan, raking Book Review editor Pamela Paul over the coals for daring to publish a review that Ms. Sullivan disagreed with.  (I’m on the reviewer’s and Ms. Paul’s side, if you need to know.)

What I’m drawing your attention to from a few weeks back no doubt meant little to the typical Times reader.  But in its own small way, it’s something heartening and hopeful to those of us eager to have our beloved classical music move forward to a better, more audience-friendly place.

It came in Vivien Schweitzer’s review of a recital by pianist Peter Serkin at New York’s 92nd Street Y (photo above).  Mr. Serkin, one of America’s finest and most serious pianists, is by his own admission not a crowd-pleaser.  “I think that programs show integrity when there is no attempt to win anyone over at all,” he said in a 2011 conversation published on the 92Y Blog, and quoted by Ms. Schweitzer in her review.

True to that spirit, Mr, Serkin’s program under review consisted of one work by 16th/17th Dutch composer Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck, three by veteran American Modernist* Charles Wuorinen, one piano rarity by Danish symphonist Carl Nielsen, and Beethoven’s “Les Adieux” (“Farewell”) Sonata.  Other than perhaps the fairly gentle Beethoven, there’s not a winner-overer in the bunch, with Wuorinen’s brand of gritty dissonance being an especially tough sell  — especially, apparently, to the half of the hall that declined to attend.

Normally, a close, long-time reader of Times’ classical reviews like me would have expected unreserved praise for Mr. Serkin’s thorny, audience-unfriendly programming.  From former critics Paul Griffiths and Edward Rothstein to current chief classical critic Anthony Tommasini, the Times’ critics have been staunch advocates of difficult, cerebral Modernism, despite/because of its lack of audience appeal.  And don’t think readers haven’t picked up on this.  After our last session, one of the attendees of a classical appreciation class I recently taught, someone whose musical knowledge would have to be described as very general, made this very observation, unprompted by me or anyone else within earshot.  Huh!

Anyhow, after turning her attention to Mr. Wuorinen’s works, Ms. Schweitzer shocked my world with the following paragraph:

It is often remarked that contemporary audiences have a greater appetite and appreciation for Modernist art than for Modernist music. But abstraction can be easier for the eye, than the ear, to absorb. A set of abstract shapes and colors can mesh into a mesmerizing visual whole, but the ear (or certainly my ear) struggles to process a series of notes and gestures that seem to have no connection to one another. Rigorous methods of composition can sometimes result in bafflingly disjointed sounds that resemble a nonsensical sentence.

All right, to you it may not be such a big deal.  Indeed, this point has been made many times over.  But to me, its appearance in a Times review is a sign that, however belatedly, perhaps the “paper of record” is finally getting with the times, if you’ll pardon the expression.  Not that Modernism has to be banished from the current concert scene.  But rather than persist in blaming the audience for not coming around to the music the critics prefer, even decades after the music’s heyday, it’s extremely refreshing to read a critic taking the audiences’ tastes seriously enough to ask why this might be, and to draw a conclusion that does not insult the audiences’ taste or intelligence.

As for Mr. Serkin, he may of course program as he likes, and adopt whatever relation to this audience he chooses.  If his audience responds to his refusal to win them over by their refusal to be won over, it’s not the audience’s fault.  How nice for a New York Times critic to say so.

*By “Modernism,” Ms. Schweitzer and others who use the term are not referring to current musical styles.  Rather, the term refers to a variety of loosely related musical styles of the 20th century, most of them extremely dissonant, composed by such leading figures as Pierre Boulez, Karlheinz Stockhausen, György Ligeti, Luciano Berio and Elliott Carter.  You might think of musical Modernism as the sound equivalent of Jackson Pollock, James Joyce, Ezra Pound, Samuel Becket, et al.

Album du jour: tUnE-yArDs, “Nikki Nack”


Hey, I know what Smith College should do at commencement this Sunday!  Forget about bringing in some fancy big-name speaker, since it’s impossible to find one who is a) ideologically pure enough to pass muster and b) not a crashing bore.  It would be so much better if instead they had the group tUnE-yArDs, featuring Smith alumna Merrill Garbus, rock the crowd with a few choice tunes.  That would give ‘em something they’ll long remember!

For those who haven’t had the pleasure, Ms. Garbus is a young (well, 35 is still young to me) woman of many voices, from coo to shout to growl to yodel, a multi-instrumentalist, an imaginative word-and-tunesmith, and an unstoppable, irresistible force of nature.  On her first two albums “BiRd-BrAiNs” and “WHOKILL,” her basic m.o. was to layer her voice and percussion via looping, while adding live vocal and instrumental textures and shredding on her electric ukulele.  Self-recorded on crude equipment, “BiRd-BrAiNs” was an out-of-left-field lo-fi delight.  The more studiophonic “WHOKILL,” which added two saxophones and the agile bass of Nate Brenner to the mix, elevated Merrill Garbus’s reputation to that of a leading creative figure of indie music.  What to do then, for a third album?

Mostly, you go light on the uke, rely less on loops and more on overdubs, synths and programming, invite in such guest performers as fiddler Sam Amidon, Haitian percussionist Daniel Brevil and the vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth, and open the sound up very wide.  Compared to the first two, this is a produced album, with each song — make that each composition given its own instrumentarium and sonic mood.  Oh, the raw energy is still there in abundance, several of the pieces sounding like campfire shouts and jump rope chants writ large.  But there are new levels of nuance and blink-and-you’ll-miss-it detail that demand and repay multiple hearings.  I can’t think of a better album to demonstrate why this old classical coot has become so enamored of what these crazy kids are playing today.  If this music doesn’t lift you up, you may be beyond uplifting.

Now, I’m much more of a music than a lyrics guy, so I won’t go on to a critical analysis of Merrill Garbus’s poetics.  Let’s just leave it at this:  she’s saying something, and she says it with a much confidence as she shows in her music.  I couldn’t think of a better lesson for the new graduates of Smith College.

Album du jour: David Krakauer, Matt Haimovitz, et al., “Akoka”


On the cold and rainy night of January 15, 1941, in the unheated Barrack 27 of Stalag VIIIA in Görlitz, Germany, an audience of some 400 prisoners-of-war and guards listened in rapt silence as four musicians, performing on ramshackle instruments, gave the first performance of one of the great chamber works of the 20th century.  While it is doubtful that even the most devoted practitioner of historically-informed performance would want to recreate the premiere of Olivier Messiaen’s “Quatuor pour le fin du temps” (“Quartet for the End of Time”), this amazing backstory adds even further resonance to a work of stunning originality, power and spirit.  (For the full story, Rebecca Rischin’s For the End of Time: The Story of the Messiaen Quartet” is highly recommended.)

What’s that?  You’ve never heard Messiaen’s Quartet?  Well then, you’re in for an extraordinary musical experience, one which will grow with each hearing.  In eight movements, variously scored for one, two, three or all four instruments, Messiaen combines his favorite preoccupations, such as birdsong, rhythmic and melodic symmetry, synesthesia (e.g., musical rainbows) and fervent, sentimental Catholicism into perhaps this incredibly original composer’s most accessible large-scale work.  Not for nothing has the Quartet appealed over the years to audiences steeped in psychedelia, mysticism, minimalism, new age philosophy, eastern religion and just about every other alternative life- or musical style associated with adventurous youth.

On their splendid, just-released 2008 live concert recording (with violinist Jonathan Crow and pianist Geoffrey Burleson), clarinetist David Krakauer and cellist Matt Haimovitz have framed the Quartet with a works that pay tribute to the remarkable clarinetist of its premiere, an Algerian Jew named Henri Akoka.  As prologue, the four musicians collaborate on a mostly-improvised, electronically-enhanced piece (credited to Krakauer) called “Akoka,” transforming elements of the Messiaen into a Klezmer-ish lament and dance filled with clarinet smears, cello scrapes (much like those Matt Haimovitz employed in his celebrated version of Jimi Hendrix’s “Anthem”), scratchy violin off-beats and strummed piano strings.

For the epilogue, Canadian producer Socalled (Josh Dolgin) “merges live samples of the musicians with old radio broadcasts, hiphop, cantorial singing and markers of time…” into a piece called “MEANWHILE…”  Of all the album’s ten tracks, this will probably age least well, especially its rapped passages.  For the present, it’s a stimulating modern commentary on a great musical work.

But it’s the performance of the Quartet that commends and rewards most of our attention here.  Not that there aren’t excellent alternative versions in the current discography, but this one can take its place with the best of them for both individual and ensemble excellence.  To cite just a few examples:  The quiet central passage of the 2nd movement, “Vocalise, for the Angel Who Announces the End of Time” has rarely been as mesmerizing.  David Krakauer’s superb rendition of the 3rd movement clarinet solo, “Abyss of the Birds,” is filled with personality, subtly reminding us that for all its mellow mellifluousness, the clarinet was also the instrument par excellence of the red light district, the shtetl and the Roma encampment.  And Matt Haimovitz’s modulation of both tone color and vibrato in the sublime 5th movement duo, “Praise to the Eternity of Jesus” are wondrous to hear — artistry of the highest order.  

Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time is best experienced live — what great work isn’t?  In the meantime, and for keeps, this fine, imaginative CD is highly recommended, and will fit right into your shelf next to your Mahler, your Moby, your Moondog and your Mozart.  At least that’s where it is on my shelf.