Month: April 2008

Hub helmer headlines crix confab

At a Boston Symphony Orchestra press conference with James Levine yesterday, the always voluble music director had some interesting things to say about where new music fits in running an orchestra. Levine has fashioned the BSO into perhaps the leading major-orchestra exponent of a kind of serious, mostly American modernism—the living composers for the 2008-09 season are Carter, Schuller, Kirchner, Boulez, and Previn (the last with the composer conducting). The BSO hasn’t completely ignored other contemporary styles, but, as with Golijov and Adams performances in the past couple seasons, they tend to come in with guest conductors. Levine talked about this, saying that he saw his job as not so much personally ensuring a wide variety of music, but making sure that what is performed receives a fully committed performance, and that it would be irresponsible for him to conduct music that he can’t establish a strong personal connection with; better to leave composers he doesn’t feel close to—which also include Bruckner and Shostakovich—in the hands of conductors who do. (His impression of a lot of neo-tonal new music is that it has too much “pastel droopiness.”)

Levine was asked about the pros and cons of his modernist programming: “The most gratifying aspect is that I have lots of warm feedback”—something he loves about the city. But the downside was more fascinating: “The only sad side of it is, some kinds of music take more time for people to want to hear it, and I can only present it at certain intervals.” Levine firmly believes that all music will find an audience as long as there are regular chances to hear it—he made comparisons with the BSO’s current project, Berlioz’s Les Troyens, which wasn’t even fully published until the 1960s; he pointed out with wonder that he made his 1972 BSO debut with what was the Tanglewood premiere of Mahler’s 6th. But he also clearly believes that the orchestra should be a specialist in all historical genres of music—much of the discussion was about the various ways the programming is designed to keep all kinds of styles and composers, new and old, in front of the players on a regular basis.

Perhaps because Levine has perhaps been pouring his modernist energies into this summer’s staggeringly encyclopedic Elliott Carter festival—or, always a consideration, perhaps because of marketing concerns—the upcoming season is pretty light on even 20th-century repertoire, especially in comparison with the BSO’s multi-concert Beethoven-Schoenberg series of two years ago. Levine clearly loves the idea of presenting modernism in such an illuminating context: he talked at some length about all the ideas that pairing was able to encompass, and self-deprecatingly lamented a dearth of similar inspirations. It’s in keeping with Levine’s new-music enthusiasms, his championing of a generation of composers who, in his view, never found the audience they deserved because listeners were more swayed by the idea that those composers were breaching the historical tradition, rather than continuing it. Levine takes a long-range view of modernism—”Music made a great leap forward with the Beethoven late quartets,” he said, starting a parallel tradition that Schoenberg carried on—and there’s quite a bit to be said for simply getting the music out there: anyone familiar only with Charles Wuorinen’s thorny reputation had a chance to be sensually surprised by last season’s BSO performances of the Eighth Symphony. But I later found myself wondering if that focus on context was the cause or result of Levine’s comparative neglect of younger composers: one could say, after all, that really new music doesn’t need a presented context—we’re already living in it.

Levine did say something rather striking, subtly turning a half-century of critical energies on its head. “What can you do,” he said, “when there are still people out there trying to sell the idea that unless a piece of music has [a tonal orientation], it’s not music?” I never thought of anti-atonalists as actively “selling” their position, but it makes sense; it takes just as much energy to deny something’s worth as to proclaim it. Maybe that’s why I tend to like both tonal and atonal music with equal enthusiasm—because I’m too lazy to take on an aesthetic belief system that requires actual effort to maintain.


Lisa Hirsch tagged me with the following meme.

1. Pick up the nearest book.
2. Open to page 123.
3. Find the fifth sentence.
4. Post the next three sentences.
5. Tag five people, and acknowledge who tagged you.

Wait a minute—those directions sound awfully familiar. Even memes are in reruns now? Civilization really is going to hell in a handbasket. But I knew that already.

Anyway, here you go.

Well, this trick of the trade was well-known to me. I therefore decided to speak to the young white-washed eagle in the overt slander!

‘Ruler of the firmament! Son of the mightiest bird!’ I told the feller in jeering vernacular, ‘thy sister my darling, thy name?’

—G.V. Desani, All About H. Hatterr

I’m not much of a fiction reader, but back in the day, I searched high and low for a copy of this one, and it was worth it—consider yourselves lucky to have it readily available. I won’t tag anyone else, lest this thing turn into the Beethoven’s 5th of memes.

Observation car

Reviewing Boston Lyric Opera’s “The Abduction from the Seraglio.”
Boston Globe, April 26, 2008.

A bit of research too arcane for the Globe: an itinerary between the five co-producers of this production—Opera Pacific, Opera Colorado, Houston Grand Opera, Kansas City Opera, Opera Minnesota, and BLO—would cover approximately three times the distance of the original Simplon Orient Express Istanbul-to-Paris route.

Miso, Soy of Man’s Desiring

The Marujyu Soy Sauce and Seasoning Corporation (est. 1844) has a new product: Bach-infused bean paste.

A food company here has produced luxury miso bean paste made while music by maestro Johann Sebastian Bach played constantly during its 150-day fermentation process, company officials said.

Marujyu’s President Tomoaki Sato was inspired by a similar Mozart sake, which will be duly assessed as soon as a bottle finds its way to Soho the Dog HQ. The Bach effect apparently enables a pretty fair mark-up in the Japanese market—300 grams of the stuff will go for over six bucks, which is more than you’d expect to pay for a whole kilo of paste born in silence. (Unless it’s John Cage silence, in which case you can make pesto.)

The air up there

Despite the Canadian Broadcasting Company’s recently-acquired talents for sowing consternation, at least they’re doing right by Canada’s leading avant-garde trickster, R. Murray Schafer, on the occasion of his 75th birthday—all week long, Radio 2’s evening program The Signal is running tributes. The party kicked off yesterday night with a live recording of my favorite Schafer opus, the inimitably mischievous “…No Longer Than Ten (10) Minutes”—you can listen to the entire Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra birthday concert online. The program also includes the string-quartet-and-string adventure “Four Forty,” not to mention Schafer’s own idiosyncratic contribution to the concerto repertoire—”North White,” for snowmobile and orchestra.