Tag Archives: Lully

The Gramophone Awards

            Just back from two weeks in London and Paris, including a visit to the Gramophone Awards on Friday afternoon. It’s been more than a decade since I last attended the Awards. I remember them at the Savoy Hotel (I think), a slightly more glamorous but sedate affair. Now they’re at the Dorchester and they roll along with polished professionalism. Classical musicians, disciplined by the rigours of meter and rhythm, know how to give a snappy thank you and get off the stage. No long speeches and only a few moments of unseemly self-promotion. The affair is surprisingly fun, and a good chance to make a wish list of recordings you’ve missed over the past year (must lay hands on Charles Mackerras’s recording of Martinü’s Julietta Fragments).

            A young string quartet from France, the Quatour Ebène, walked off with the Record of the Year, a surprise given the strong contenders and emotional favorites also in the running. But it was good to see a young group, and a chamber group, get the top prize, and the speech given by violist Mathieu Herzog was charmingly aw shucks. At one point, he pulled out his cell phone camera to take a snap of the audience.

            I begrudge none of the winners their awards. But there were some disappointments and surprises. I was rooting for the Boston Early Music Festival’s recording of Lully’s Pscyhé, really a remarkable accomplishment, to win in the Baroque Vocal category. Festival by festival, the Boston players get stronger and more cohesive, and their track record of opera on disk is something that deserves wider and higher recognition. The festival is run rather provincially, unfortunately, which is one reason I think it hasn’t become quite the international draw it could be if it was better organized. But their opera offerings are always worth the effort, and the Lully recording is impressive by any standard. The award went, instead, to Harry Christophers and the Sixteen, for a disk of the Handel Coronation Anthems. They were also nominated in the Choral Category for their disk of late 19th, early 20th century British choral standards (which I thoroughly enjoyed, as readers of this post will remember).

            The only downside of the awards was the loud and buxom woman sitting a table away who was hitting the vin rouge and blanc as fast they brought it. She was very handsy with the large, saturnine fellow next to her, and they both talked and sneered and grimaced through all of the performances (including some lovely samples from the winning Contemporary recording, the NMC Soundbook, which I haven’t heard and now want very much to find). It was piggish behavior, and something innocent Americans think shouldn’t exist in the imaginary land of English politesse. Dodging pools of vomit on the streets of Soho shatters that naïve illusion, but you don’t expect supporting evidence from a formal occasion of music types. I wonder who she was?

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Cantemir: Western Mind, Eastern Music

CantemirDimitrie Cantemir was born in Moldavia in 1673, just twelve years before Bach was born in Germany. At the age of 15, the young Moldavian prince was hustled off to Istanbul, where he spent 22 years as a “guest” of the Ottoman Sultan. This was a euphemism. Cantemir was an elegantly appointed diplomatic hostage, flesh-and-blood assurance that his home province, now a part of Romania, wouldn’t undertake plans for independence.

He used his time wisely. In Romania, he is known as a polymath, a linguist who mastered Latin, Turkish and Arabic, and an historian who was amazingly accomplished, prolific and erudite. Cantemir’s History of the Growth and Decay of the Ottoman Empire is seen as a source and perhaps inspiration for Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

Among his talents was music. Cantemir learned the court music style of the Ottomans, how to play the long-necked lute known as the tanbur, and the intricacies of the modal and rhythmic patterns that defined their improvisatory musical style. He also developed his own notation system for Turkish music, a system that remained in use well into the 19th century. He used it to document hundreds of musical works, and to set down his own original compositions in the Turkish style.

It was a natural to program music of Cantemir as part of the public programs inspired by the Freer and Sackler Galleries exhibition, “The Tsars and the East.” After mastering all things Ottoman, Cantemir went home in 1710 and proceeded to do exactly what the Sultan feared: he took up arms (in alliance with the Russians) against the Turks. Things went badly and Cantemir was obliged to flee to Russia, where he was welcomed and eventually became an advisor to Peter the Great. And so the axis of Cantemir’s life is perfect for this exhibition: A thick slice through the heart of the contested, vibrant, trade-rich region that connects European Russia with the Black Sea and Balkans.

What does the music sound like? The Smithsonian brought in a mixed ensemble of Western baroque players and Turkish instrumentalists to explore Cantemir’s legacy on June 11. The concert, titled “Composer between Worlds: Dimitrie Cantemir,” seemed to promise some kind of fusion of Eastern and Western styles (Cantemir’s daughter became proficient on the harpsichord while her father cooled his heels in Russia). The instrumentalists on the roster certainly suggested interesting possibilities: Harpsichord, baroque violin, viol and flute, tanbur, guitar, percussion and kemenche (a nasal fiddle held in the lap and played with an almost vocal vibrato and voluptuous sliding tones and trills).

I suppose I was imagining there would be ground bass lines with Turkish melodies atop, but no. The music was Turkish through and through, with the Western instruments providing static harmonic grounding, or playing in parallel with the Eastern ones. Not surprisingly, the Eastern instruments were better at specifically Eastern musical gestures, including microtonal hints and distinctive ornamentation.

Why was it so disappointing? In part, it was because the players were uneven, and the ensemble wasn’t tight. But mostly, the concert failed to deliver on the “between worlds” promise. Cantemir certainly lived between worlds, and without his determination to apply a Cartesian sensibility to Eastern music we’d lack a fascinating record of what Turkish music in the late 17th century may have sounded like. But this music is not between worlds. It is Turkish music haphazardly re-orchestrated to include some Western instruments.

The promise of cultural fusion is infinitely enticing. It’s almost utopian to imagine that two very different forms of music could reach a productive amalgamation during an era when there was no particular fetish for crossing cultural boundaries. Even the few examples of Western music with “Eastern” flavor included on the program (“Turkish” pieces by Lully, Marais and lesser figures) demonstrate the deeply superficial hearing of Eastern music in the Western world. It is fashionable and comforting to talk about the universalizing aspects of music, its cross cultural language, its ability to bring people together. But true musical fusion, music that doesn’t simply co-opt the “other” within a dominant style, is extraordinarily rare. Cantemir was a fascinating man, but throwing a few baroque players into the mix doesn’t make his music cross cultural.

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