Category Archives: Orchestral

Benjamin Britten

The New Republic has posted an article I wrote about Benjamin Britten, based on last year’s 10oth annviersary celebrations of his birth. I’ve always been ambivalent about his music, loving some of it, indifferent to much of it. But I ended the year loving more of it, especially after making peace with what I call his fundamental tendency to smallness.

Every article about Britten has to deal with his erotic fixation on boys. Here’s how I grappled with that:

That particular psychosexual key may seem to unlock many Britten mysteries. In his biography, Powell devotes a few obligatory pages to unraveling the darker side of the composer’s years as a schoolboy, including the possibility that he was the victim of rape. These questions are not particularly relevant to Britten’s music, though they do explain many of the uses to which he put music, and some of the subjects that he felt needed elaboration through music. Decrying cruelty to innocent young men or boys was a prism through which Britten transcended his own inclinations to smallness. But that same smallness—the middle-class propriety that suffuses everything he wrote with occasional cathartic exceptions—was also a compensation mechanism for the frightening sexual allure of sadism and pederasty. The trope of sadism and innocence was both a form of protest and a heavily cathected nexus of desire that could not be contained within his immensely proper lifestyle. Spiritually and intellectually, the way out of his limitations was too terrifying a road to travel. Auden, a friend from early years and a collaborator on projects such as the operetta Paul Bunyan, seems to have noticed this, and said so, and the 
friendship was sundered.

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A Nod from WQXR

Happy to see my August essay about the challenges faced by orchestras, written for the August 29 issue of The New Republic, was included in the top six essays of the year, as selected by the New York classical radio station, WQXR. Here is the full list:

1. “Pitch Battles,” by Colin Dickey, The Believer, January 2013

2. “In Search of Van Cliburn” by Prudence MacKintosh, Texas Monthly, February 28.

3. “Othello’s Daughter” by Alex Ross The New Yorker, July 29.

4. “America’s Orchestras Are in Crisis” by Philip Kennicott, The New Republic, August 29.

5. “The Battle of Britten” by Leo Carey, New York Review of Books, August 15.

Heat in a Mild Climate” by James Wood, London Review of Books, December 19, 2013

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The Romanian Rhapsody

George_EnescoIt’s not often I go to a concert primarily to hear the curtain raiser, but if you live with a Romanian you have to make certain accommodations. This weekend the National Symphony Orchestra opened its Barber and Rachmaninoff program with George Enescu’s Romanian Rhapsody No. 1. It’s a fantastic show piece, and not played nearly often enough.

Listening to it again last night I realized that if you don’t know Romanian folk music, then Enescu’s rather literal orchestral transcription of classic folk songs will seem strangely modern. Enescu, of course, adds plenty to the mix, but the sound he’s aiming for—the busy, bright, hammered sound of the cimbalom, the slurpy portamento of the fiddle and the almost sea-sick, start-stop rhythmic profile—sounds to us as if the music is chaotic, fractured and chromatic.

Here, for example, is the composer himself performing one of the songs (“Ciocarlia,” or “The Lark”) on the violin. Enescu was an astonishingly great violinist, and a legendary pedagogue, and this clip gives you a sense of why Yehudi Menuhin, Arthur Grumiaux and Ida Haendel all studied with him.

And here is a traditional performance of “Ciocarlia,” complete with the deliciously psychedelic imitation of birdsong that is part of classic renditions.

It’s possible to over think this kind of music, to render it dutifully as “classical music” and leach all the life out of it. Here’s Benny Goodman doing just that with a piece inspired by the “hora” style of Romania folk music.

But great performances of Enescu’s confection have an infectious, semi-drunken, over-the-top spirit, and here’s one of the greatest conductor-clowns bringing down the house, Sergiu Celibadache.

Finally, and just for fun, here is Enescu whistling a “doina” melody, while playing the piano. Bartok also “discovered” doina melodies and repurposed them. But Enescu’s whistle version is just amazingly odd and haunting.

 

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Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra

         Some conductors, standing in front of an orchestra, seem to draw forth sound, sculpting music ex nihilo. Valery Gergiev, the head of the Mariinsky in St. Petersburg, seems more inclined to contain it, as if the orchestra is an insuppressible force which he merely delimits around the edges, holding back crescendos lest they spiral into chaos, topping off magnificent fortissimos before they do damage to the back walls of the auditorium. It is exciting to watch, if the music is energetic and calls for great quantities of sound. If the music isn’t big and bravura, if it is delicate and wants shading and color and refinement, Gergiev can be shockingly disengaged.

            Gergiev brought his Mariinsky Orchestra to the Kennedy Center Concert Hall on Monday evening for a generous, exciting and fascinating program of Stravinsky: The three major ballets written before the First World War for the Ballets Russes. With two intermissions, and a running time of almost three hours, he and his indefatigable players presented these magnificent scores in chronological order, the 1910 Firebird, the 1911 Petrushka, and the 1913 Rite of Spring (celebrating its centennial this year).

            This is the sort of program that American orchestras should be doing, big, challenging, engaging and easy to love. It’s a shame, and a sign of the appalling silos that separate arts institutions in Washington, that the concert—or a similar program—wasn’t presented in conjunction with the National Gallery of Art’s Ballets Russes exhibition.

   Hearing all three ballets in one evening gives one a much more comprehensive sense of Stravinsky’s remarkable evolution during these epic years, and it helps the ear detect common elements of his musical language that might not be so easily detected if each work is listened to in isolation. The full-length Firebird suddenly seems more experimental and less cohesive, and things that might sound uniquely explosive and anarchic in Rite of Spring are clearly gestures deriving from early work, when heard in the context of its predecessors.

            And Petrushka sounds more magnificent than ever. It was the highlight of the evening, because it is a better work than Firebird, and because Gergiev was more attentive to its nuances than he was with the Rite of Spring (played last, and everyone seemed a bit exhausted). The Mariinsky found colors I’ve never heard in the piece, a busy, full-orchestra shimmering, a dozen shades of blinding white and glinting silver. The orchestra doesn’t necessarily exploit the entire spectrum of sonic color, but when it comes to the brilliant hues, the percussive sounds, the nasally high pitches of brass or woodwinds pushed to the point of shrillness, here they can divide and subdivide a small patch of color into seemingly infinite nuance.

            Petrushka ends inconclusively, one of Stravinsky’s wry, bitter gestures. It isn’t a grand summation, just a flick of the wrist and the comic-tragic story is over. Gergiev dispatched this anticlimax with just the right imperious indifference.

            Firebird and Rite of Spring build to noisier endings, and were rewarded with noisier demonstrations. But the latter felt constrained. The opening pastoral elements were already forceful and aggressive, not so much a scenic introduction as a formal, musical setup for what became a seemingly unstoppable drive to the end. The piece was presented as a single, through line of music, rather than a succession of episodes, but one had a sense that Gergiev was in a hurry. His haste in Rite was preferable to his palpable boredom throughout much of the first part of Firebird.

            Is the Mariinsky a great orchestra? Section by section, soloist by soloist, you can always find something wanting: Horns that can produce that round, full, faraway sound; oboes with a honey-colored tone; flutes that sound like they’re made of old wood. The dry string sound, exacerbated by the Kennedy Center Concert Hall’s dismal acoustics, is generally bright and heard to best effect during fast passages. They are, however, far better rehearsed than most American orchestras. Of course they are on tour, so the repertoire is being repeated. But the music is clearly deeply engrained in every player. Gergiev’s responsibility isn’t to traffic cop the complexities of Stravinsky, but resist and direct the impulsive flow of music from his expert players. Spending a few hours without one tentative sound, one loose joint, one scrappy misplaced note, is a pleasure. More American orchestras could do this too, if they had the time and will.

            The concert was presented by the Washington Performing Arts Society.

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Parsifal at the National Symphony Orchestra

 photo (1)   If Parsifal feels blasphemous, it’s because Wagner appropriates and repurposes basic Christian tropes with the same abandon as he uses myth and legend in earlier works, and his own biographical details in his lifelong project of self-promotion. Elemental Christian motives are sliced and diced with the same dizzying freedom as his constantly reconfigured musical material. It’s as if Christianity is a grab bag of ideas and themes–redemption, forgiveness, sin, saintliness–just like any other grab bag of possibilities. There’s nothing sacred here, just material, to be deployed for maximum emotional response.
    But there is a sacred aura, and if Wagner is making some kind of elaborate joke on Christianity, this tremendously moving aura of grave dignity and solemn purpose is the punch line. Music, the composer seems to be saying, can redeem Christianity, can in fact be more Christian than Christianity, can move people and transport them to a spiritual mood more effectively than the smells and bells of actual Christian ritual. Wagnerism trumps theology.
    The pompousness of the story, and its general confusion, tempts one to tune out the narrative and symbolic drama. Nietzsche’s rage against work almost seems to miss the point. Just forget about what’s happening on stage, and listen to the music. The grail, the spear, the redeemer, the holy fool, these are nothing more than narrative leitmotives, to be played in multiple iterations, now fast, now slow, now darkened or transposed. You aren’t meant to think about them too much.
    At least, that’s the way one lover of Parsifal understands the paradox of its power and pretentiousness.
    The National Symphony Orchestra, under the baton of music director Christoph Eschenbach, performed Act III of Parsifal this weekend at the Kennedy Center. It was a concert performance, and that felt like a luxury. Wagner’s incessant recapitulation almost makes Acts I and II unnecessary (there goes a reference to Klingsor, there’s the prelude, there’s Kundry’s desperate, plunging cry). It’s still a 90-minute drama, enough time to enter into the spell of the piece, but without the five-hour commitment of sitting through the whole spectacle (which I have done many times, and will do again, though always with the same trepidation as boarding an economy-class flight to Asia).
    I enjoyed the performance very much. Eschenbach’s approach felt like Wagner seen through the prism of Bruckner, smooth and solid, building over long periods to titanic climaxes, but mostly free of the moment by moment details others conductors prioritize. In the opera house, Act III begins with a genuine sense of exhaustion, both dramatically on stage (the realm of the Grail is falling to pieces) and in the audience, who have already heard several hours of music. Eschenbach helped listeners enter into that sense of spiritual weariness by keeping the introduction almost flat in affect, letting it play itself, rather than highlighting its dissonant melodic contours and anguished tritones.
    But the evening built, to the magnificent procession that leads to the final unveiling of the Grail, and to the arrival of Thomas Hampson as Amfortas. I don’t remember Hampson sounding this good in years. It’s a thrill to hear him singing so well, so commandingly. Perhaps Amfortas shouldn’t sound so robust, but musically, it was compelling. Yuri Vorobiev sang Gurnemanz. It wasn’t the all-powerful approach of Kurt Moll (years ago) or Rene Pape (more recently). But it worked, and Vorobiev even managed to capture not just the calm forbearance of the character, but a taste of his holier-than-thou, churlish side, too. He was sometimes covered by the orchestra, but his voice is a rich, caramel-colored instrument that blended very well with the lower brass and strings. And tenor Nikolai Schukoff managed to finesse a relatively small instrument, giving us an ardent, but wounded Parsifal, even without the full resources of a heldentenor.
    It’s a pleasure to hear the NSO sounding so good. If only they had a chance to regularly play in a hall with more resonance, I think we might be hearing talk of a resurgent orchestra, finally coming into its own. I’d like to hear them in Carnegie.

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A question about social media and the arts

So  much of social media is about recommendations and suggestions: You need to hear/read/see this. We eagerly offer and receive them. Yet in the cultural arena it’s seen as high-handed, even an act of snobbery, to say: You need to hear/read/see this. Why? Lingering resentment over the hurt caused by genuine cultural snobbery a half century ago? Reflexive resistance to any thing that smacks of cultural authority? Simply a matter of tone? Something I’m missing? It’s curious to me that all orchestra programs aren’t structured around a basic suggestion, the conductor and musicians saying: You must listen to this.

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On the American Orchestra

Very happy to see my article about the state of American orchestras is posted on The New Republic’s website. It sparked a Twitter conversation with a host at Vermont Public Radio who clearly feels the perspective offered is snobbish and retrograde. “Yes, we know it’s not 1950 anymore. Get over it,” he says. I wasn’t around in the 1950s, and I strive only to idealize the past selectively and cautiously, when it offers a examples worthy of emulation. But I do think that orchestras have made a lot of bad choices in the past 20 years, that they have sacrificed their ability to lead, educate and develop intellectually engaged audiences. It’s a loss of cultural authority, actively squandered. I don’t think it retrograde to point that out, especially given the tremendous loss of creative, counter-cultural power that orchestras might now wield.

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