Album du jour: Larry Gus, “I Need New Eyes”

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In “I Need New Eyes,” Milan-based Greek computer engineer Panagiotis Melidis, who produces music under the name Larry Gus, writes and sings lyrics suffused with pain, doubt, love (which encompasses plenty of the first two) and divers other timeless themes, samples widely from the music of those parts of the world that we Westerners hath decreed to be The World, invents attractively exotic tunes containing about as many hooks as a fishing tackle, plays pert near all the instruments (electronic and otherwise) himself, produces it all into a busy and attractive mid-fi soundscape, and comes up with an eminently listenable and/or danceable album very high in entertainment value. Take it from The Wife, who, as she (brave woman) entered my listening lair during playback, immediately got with the beat and flashed a thumbs-up. And you don’t want to disagree with The Wife, do you?

Album du jour: Ursula Oppens & Jerome Lowenthal, “Frederic Rzewski: The People United Will Never Be Defeated! • Four Hands”

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It’s been twelve hours since my last hearing of the major work on this great new album, and I’m still shaking as I play it back in my head.

One definition of a masterpiece is a piece that both speaks for its time and stands up to the test of time. By that and many other definitions, Westfield, Mass. native Frederic Rzewski‘s  1975 “The People United Will Never Be Defeated!” qualifies as a masterpiece. A set of 36 variations on a Chilean protest anthem (read more about the work and download the album and booklet here), “The People United” is practically as rigorous in structure as Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” and as eclectic as a late-night, free-form Pacifica radio show of the ‘seventies, though much more entertaining. Imagine inviting such varied pianists as Oscar Peterson, Cecil Taylor, John Cage, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Charles Ives, Glenn Gould and Ray Charles to take turns with their own variations, and you get the idea.

Now, one might (I would say should) take issue with the work’s obvious political content — it qu0tes, with evident approval, Bertolt Brecht and Hanns Eisler’s “Solidarity Song” and the Italian communist anthem “Bandiera rossa” (“Red Flag”) — but that’s the zeitgeist for you, as anyone who was near a college campus at the time will recall. If that’s what it took to get Rzewski’s juices flowing, then it worked — “The People United”is a tour-de-force of non-stop creativity, and the kind of artwork that leaves one astonished once again at the capacity of human achievement.

That last phrase goes as well for Ursula Oppens, the work’s dedicatee, who gave the premiere and made the first recording (which knocked me and many other listeners on our collective backsides) of “The People United” going on forty years ago. In the meantime, there have been over a dozen other recordings of it, some very fine, and two, by the composer himself (one audio, one video), essential. Yet another new recording by Russian-German pianist Igor Levit (part of a 3-CD set also containing Bach’s “Goldberg” and Beethoven’s “Diabelli” Variations!!) will be out by the end of the month. Oppens’s remake, beautifully produced and engineered, is vital, deeply felt, and as profound an engagement with the work as I’ve ever heard. It’s the kind of performance Richard Goode would give if he ever played it — and I mean that as a high compliment.

An appealing new piano duet called “Four Hands” follows “The People United”as dessert — or, perhaps, as anti-climax. Never mind. If you’re anything like me, you’ll be so moved and, yes, shaken by the album’s pièce de resistance that you won’t want anything but silence when it’s done. Most urgently recommended.

Album du jour: Max Richter, “from SLEEP”

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Now here’s an original concept for you: Eight hours of music designed to put you to sleep. “It’s my personal lullaby for a frenetic world,” says composer Max Richter of his “SLEEP.” “A manifesto for a slower pace of existence.”

No offense to Mr. Richter, but I do not need someone else’s manifesto to regulate the pace of my existence, anymore than I need yet another pundit to amaze me with the revelation that if you turn off your electronic devices you can actually do cool stuff like talk to other people. Maybe it’s the cynic and libertarian in me and I’m being close-minded about such things, but that’s who I am.

On the other hand, I’m no less susceptible to the soothing powers of music than the next listener, and have been known to nod off occasionally during concerts, especially of the Sunday afternoon (i.e., nap time) persuasion. So, if Mr. Richter has a nice new musical soporific to offer, I’ll snooze to that!

Basic info: Max Richter is a prolific German-born British composer of post-minimalist music for concert, stage, film and electronics. His resourceful and entertaining “recomposition” (his term) of Antonio Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” was one of the biggest classical hits of 2012-2013, and a favorite of listeners to my NEPR classical show. His latest and longest opus, “SLEEP (received) its world premiere this September in Berlin, in a concert performance lasting from 12 midnight to 8am at which the audience (were) given beds instead of seats and programmes,” to quote from the Deutsche Grammophon record label’s website. No word on whether crackers and juice were served prior to sleepy time.

In its full eight-hour version, “SLEEP” consists of 31 distinct selections scored for various combinations of instruments (played by the American Contemporary Music Ensemble, aka ACME), electronics (programmed by Mr. Richter) and wordless voice (the angelic Grace Davidson). I economized in both time and funds, going for the one-hour, seven track single-CD sampler called “from SLEEP.”

And by and large, I found the music to be attractive, appealing and indeed quite restful, if not exceptionally original. In particular, the resemblance of the acoustic (i.e, non-electronic) selections to the music of the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt, especially such Pärt works as “Für Alina” and “Spiegel im Spiegel” (click on titles for Spotify playback) cannot be ignored. But originality and other typical priorities of many modern artists are not prioritized as highly by Mr. Richter. Quite the contrary:

I’m perpetually curious about performance conventions in classical music, our rigid rules that dictate how and what music we can appreciate. Somehow in Europe over the last century, as complexity and inaccessibility in music became equated with intelligence and the avant-garde, we lost something along the way. Modernism gave us so many stunning works but we also lost our lullabies. We lost a shared communion in sound. Audiences have dwindled. All my pieces over the last few years have been exploring this, as does SLEEP. It’s a very deliberate political statement for me.

There’s a bit of straw in that statement, and not just the kind you sleep on. The avant-garde, to the extent one currently exists in classical music, is hardly as devoted to “complexity and inaccessibility” as it once was. Under the influence of the aforementioned Arvo Pärt and others, quite a few younger composers now write in quiet, meditative styles, among them Caleb Burhans, who happens also to be a member of ACME, the ensemble featured on this album.

But once I freed myself of my customary cynicism and put aside my critical judgments, I derived considerable pleasure from this music. And despite Mr. Richter’s admonition that “the short one is meant to be listened to and the long one is meant to be heard while sleeping,” I enjoyed a brief nap during one session with “from SLEEP,” nodding off during the soothing second track, an overdubbed vocal duet with organ called “Path 5 (delta)” and coming to during the very lovely final track, “Dream 8 (late and soon),” featuring Ms. Davidson’s voice tolling like a bell in the middle of (almost) every measure. Nice!

And who in modern times hasn’t ever longed to escape our “frenetic world” for a “slower pace of existence?” A few years ago, the choir I sing in performed a number that ended with (in translation) these words:

Sing, ye birds, your tender ditties, lull the weary past;
haunts of men and busy cities, oh farewell, I rest at last.

In their original German, the words come from a Paul Heyse poem called “Waldesnacht” (“Woodland Night”) published in 1850, and set to music by Johannes Brahms in 1874. Some things never change, however many pundits and artists think that they just discovered them. Now please pass me my pillow…

Take this prize and shelve it!

As posted on the website of the British magazine Gramophone:

One of the most highly-regarded pianists of our time, Grigory Sokolov, has refused to accept the Cremona Music Award 2015 because it has previously been awarded to the blogger Norman Lebrecht.

A quick who’s who and what’s what: The Cremona Music Awards, given in the categories of classical execution (i.e., performance), composition, communication (i.e., media) and project, were established in 2014 by Cremona Mondomusica, an annual exhibition of musical instruments, and Cremona Pianoforte, described on its website as “the one and only trade fair exclusively dedicated to the piano world.” These and a few other musical events take place during CremonaFiere (Cremona Fair), held each September, and which credits itself to be “No. 1 for livestock, bioeconomy and fine musical instruments” — sort of like the Big E with a piano pavilion filled with Steinways, Yamahas and Bösendorfers. Grigory Sokolov is a 65-year old Russian pianist who, though not a household name even in most classical households, is held in the highest esteem by fellow musicians for his immense technique and impeccable musical standards. And Norman Lebrecht is, for better or worse, the best-known classical music journalist in Anglophonia, author of several books and writer of a blog called “Slipped Disc.” His position in classicaldom is, roughly, a combination of old-time gossip columnist like Walter Winchell and Hedda Hopper, current media scourge like Matt Drudge, and love-him-or-mostly-hate-him media celebrity like the late Howard Cosell.

In very short, then, the Cremona Music Awards (given in its inaugural year to pianist Alfred Brendel, composer Michael Nyman and the Venezuelan FuturOrchestra project in addition to Mr. Lebrecht) is hardly the Nobel or the Pulitzer, or even as noteworthy as Gramophone’s own annual awards. Mr. Sokolov, an acclaimed artist of known reclusive temperament, doesn’t need another award, much less so unimportant a reward, to cap off his distinguished career. And Mr. Lebrecht will no doubt continue undaunted to chronicle the classical scene with the jaundiced ear and acid pen of Addison DeWitt, the jaded theater critic played to perfection by George Sanders in the film “All About Eve.”

As for what put Mr. Lebrecht on Mr. Sokolov’s s*** list, there were apparently some nasty and possibly unfactual comments about the pianist’s refusal to play henceforth Britian because of what Mr. Sokolov felt were excessive security requirements, but the blog post in question seems no longer to be available.

So what do I make of this? A few things:

  1. Classical spats like this are good. They show that people care enough to have strong opinions, even if they burst into flame once in a while. Show me an art form without spats, and I’ll show you a dying art form.
  2. Most awards are meaningless tokens of self-promotion, intended to call attention to the awarding organization by bringing in some famous person or two. And as in journalism, so in the arts: such awards are usually handed out by tiny committees to someone who shares the same biases and ideologies as the committee members. I stopped taking them terribly seriously long ago.
  3. The best way to deal with nasty critics, bloggers, journalists or journalistic organizations is not to attempt to squelch them, but to ignore them. It deprives them of the oxygen of notoriety without turning them into free speech martyrs. And it’s quite beneficial to the blood pressure and stomach lining. Anyhow, that’s my usual m.o., and my life is better for it.

Album du jour: Battles, “La Di Da Di”

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Remember, back in the ‘sixties, how AM rock ‘n’ roll stations such as New York’s legendary WABC used to play instrumentals by Duane Eddy, the Ventures, Sandy Nelson, et al., at the end of the hour, then fade them out to hit the timepost for the hourly newscasts? Heck, do you remember hourly newscasts? (An aside: I can remember the predictions of massive listener protests when we decided to drop hourly newscasts from NEPR’s classical shows a few years back, only to hear nary a peep. Then again, radio in the twenty-aughts was a totally different medium from radio in the ‘sixties.)

Something of the twangy, thumping, hard-rockin’ spirit of those classic instrumental artists lives on in the music of the trio called Battles, especially since guitarist, keyboardist, composer and vocalist Tyondai Braxton (check out his fabulous album “Central Market“) left the group in 2010. Now pared down to guitar, bass and drums, Battles specializes in the ultra-precise, rhythmically-intricate sub-genre dubbed “math rock” — another day, another rock sub-genre — which it plays with great energy and skill. There’s nary a note of improvisation on their new album, “La Di Da Di,” but there is constant invention that always leaves you guessing, then delighted with the results. Imagine three race cars hurtling around a track, all the while creating fascinating, ever-changing patterns, and you get the idea — except, I hope, while driving. Fasten your seatbelt and give it a spin.

Album du Jour: Ben Folds, “So There”

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And to think that I might have totally overlooked this wonderful album had my friend Matthew Whittall not done a Facebook post of its ninth track. That track by the way, which follows eight of Ben Folds’s typically inventive and engaging pop songs on the complete album, happens also to be the first movement of Folds’s new Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, performed by Folds with the Nashville Symphony Orchestra conducted by Giancarlo Guerrero. (An aside: I promised Matt that if I mentioned him, I would quote the part of his FB post in which he complained sarcastically of how Folds was “condescended to by career Eurodouche Norman Lebrecht for having the temerity to top the classical charts in benighted America,” referring to this post from Mr. Eurodouche…um, Mr. Lebrecht’s Slipped Disc blog. Duty discharged, with an additional flipped bird in Mr. Lebrecht’s direction for his anti-American snobbery.)

First about those eight pop tunes, as inventive and engaging (as I already said and will say again) as any you’ll hear this year. Who but Folds would pen such a lyric as

Why didn’t you tell me that I got fat

Now I’m crying all the way from the photomat

Because I see I’ve got more chins than

A Chinese phonebook has

as part of a sweet, yearning ballad called “Yes Man?” Adding to the charm, Folds arranged these songs for his own voice and piano, some rock guitar and drums, and the six-piece hipster classical chamber ensemble yMusic, whose sympathy for the pop idiom (not always demonstrated in such crossover collaborations) is evident in every note, not to mention the occasional giggles and other asides left in the final edits. (Special treat: Check out the brief track 7 and see whether it doesn’t make you smile from ear to ear.)

Then about that Piano Concerto, a far more successful stab at long-form classical composition than earlier ones I had written about by such classical wannabees as Paul McCartney, Béla Fleck and The Dear Hunter’s Casey Crescenzo. Actually, to be fair to Folds, his Concerto deserves not comparison to such poor-to-middling works but consideration alongside George Gerswhin’s Rhapsodies (including “In Blue”) and Concerto, Leroy Anderson’s Piano Concerto, and other sophisticated, jazz-and-pop tinged light classical masterworks. Filled with great tunes (the sweeping opening melody coming straight from the world of Prokofmaninoff!), spiced with distinctive instrumental combinations, confident in voice and not overstaying its welcome by one single note, Ben Folds’s Concerto is a damned good piece — and lots of fun to boot. Of course, that may be the American in me saying that, in which case, three cheers for the red, white and blue!

Album du jour: Beach House, “Depression Cherry”

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If one were inclined to associate guilt with easy musical pleasures, which I do not, this album ought to be good for about a year’s probation and community service. Exemplars of a sub-genre known as “dream pop,” the Baltimore-based duo Beach House (Alex Scally and Victoria Legrand) luxuriate in sound for sound’s sake, a kind of updated version of Phil Spector’s “wall of sound.” Tempos tend toward the slower side of moderate, textures are filled with keyboard pedals, ciphers and swirls, melodies, sung by Ms. Legrand and drenched in reverb, soar heavenward. Fans of the Cocteau Twins (remember them?) will enjoy themselves, and will also get a kick out of the mix of live and machine-derived drumming. Play real loud.

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.

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.