Month: February 2020

Technical styles that’ll be full of technology

Because Soho the Dog’s critic-at-large, Helena B., had last week off, I did, too (at least on the newsletter front). Here’s what you may have missed:

Alsop and the Baltimore Symphony live—and work—for the present (Washington Post, February 14, 2020)

At the Kennedy Center, pianists Lewis and Osborne work in miniature (Washington Post, February 19, 2020)

Noseda returns to the NSO podium and, just in time, finds the narrative (Washington Post, February 21, 2020)

The National Philharmonic presents and proposes music of black composers (Washington Post, February 24, 2020)

N.B.: the Baltimore review marks my first published correction in the Post. It was a good run while it lasted.

The Lewis/Osborne recital had me thinking about technology—specifically, the weird development of piano technology. The piano evolved pretty continuously from its early-18th-century origins: wood frames became iron frames, straight-stringing gave way to (mostly) cross-stringing, the key-hammer action went through a bunch of adjustments and improvements, pedals moved from knees to feet, &c., &c. And then, sometime toward the end of the 1800s, everybody decided that the piano had reached more or less its final form. Which is not to say that the piano is a perfect instrument; a large part of piano training, in fact, is mastering techniques for overcoming its quirks. Which maybe was been part of the point. This, the entire late-Romantic piano-playing culture seemed to say, this is the appropriate level of difficulty that every future pianist should be required to overcome. Since then, it’s training and performance that has been the locus of development. Piano writing and piano playing in the 21st century is far beyond what it was 150 years ago! But I wonder how much more innovation can be squeezed out of the piano on the technique end.

One of the things I’ve been fascinated by in 21st-century pop music is the wholesale and unapologetic embrace of technological development. If a sound or a passage is unsuitable, or difficult, or impossible for a standard instrument, the sound or the passage is realized through technological augmentation or substitute, with nobody—performers, producers, listeners—blinking an eye. Here’s a theory: when people talk about musical traditions or styles having or not having “relevance,” maybe a lot of the time what they really mean is that the favored technology of a musical tradition or style is obsolete. “Relevance” isn’t cultural, but an expression of a style’s penchant for embracing (or, if you like, fetishizing) a technological cutting edge. That applies to distribution, too—when I hear someone citing a supposed golden age of classical-music currency and cultural status in the mid-20th-century, I wonder how much of that is simply acknowledging the heyday of the LP as a shiny new format.

(A few years ago now, I started to unpack some ideas related to this for NewMusicBox. Then life got in the way! I should pick up that thread again someday.)


I spent part of today at the Library of Congress, doing some due diligence in the archives of my old teacher, Lukas Foss, for an imminent column. There wasn’t much related to the column, but I did find a couple of birthday cards. There was this one, a 40th-birthday greeting to Foss from Witold Lutosławski:

(The footnote for the non-existent Ondes Martenot part: “The author does not love this instrument”.)

And then there was a draft for a card from Foss himself to (I’m guessing) Michael Tilson Thomas:

Empires rise and fall, but we’ll always have composers goofing off.

I was born a motivation

On the job:

National Symphony Orchestra considers the one and the many (Washington Post, February 7, 2020)

(Plus one I forgot to link to last week:

At the Kennedy Center, Eschenbach casts the NSO in standard but staunch roles (Washington Post, January 25, 2020))

Critic-at-large Helena B. was my date for this last NSO concert. The combination of the Grieg Lyric Suite and the Dvořák Cello Concerto drained her six-year-old’s reserve of patience. But then she was entranced by the Nielsen 4th. The lesson for anyone out there programming a kid’s concert: kettledrums, my friend. Kettledrums.

* * *

RIP Mirella Freni. Here’s a screenshot from a 1988 production of La Bohème at the San Francisco Opera, with Freni as Mimi and—who else?—Luciano Pavarotti as Rodolfo.

If you look carefully, you can see Pavarotti wielding a spoon and tucking into a dish of something behind that wine bottle. According to stagehands, that was a scoop of ice cream that Pavarotti had suggested be served to Freni as part of the Bohemians’ Cafe Momus repast—which Pavarotti then, every night, hijacked for himself. I, for one, am happy that the look on her face at that moment was preserved for posterity.

* * *

The cultural anemometer has been predicting another reckoning with the European classical canon at the center of conservatory musical education, best summed up by Doug Shadle’s call to “Cancel the 19th Century.” One could also cite Andrea Moore’s proposed moratorium on Beethoven performances for his 250th-anniversary year. Given how much iconoclasm has been a part of the warp and weft of music history, I’m always at least open to suggestion about this sort of thing. (Of course, now I’m working on both an article and a lecture on Beethoven. Life comes at you fast.)

Back when I was a theory teacher, I always made it a point to tell students that they weren’t learning 18th- and 19th-century common-practice European musical techniques because that music was somehow better than anything else, but rather because that practice was a) easy to systematize, thus b) easy to teach, thus c) a pretty efficient way to jumpstart your brain into making connections between hearing music, reading music, and playing music.

Still, I would hardly insist that the classical music is the only common practice that can get you from point a) to point c). But there is one possible advantage of traditional classical conservatory-style training that I think about quite a bit. I was reminded of it by this passage, from Shock and Awe, Simon Reynolds’ history of glam rock:

Every once shockingly ‘real’ form of expression eventually becomes a set of mannerisms, emptied out by repetition and the passage of time. This process would play out in music time and time again: rock’n’roll, punk, hip hop—each became a code replicable by inauthentic outsiders, a tradition that outlived its original function or context.

One of the things I have always loved about classical music—even when, career-wise, it wasn’t loving me back—is how it all seems to skip straight past that “real” phase and straight into the mannerist one. The bulk of the canon, after all, pre-dates the whole idea of authenticity. Styles change, but the styles are all and to a large extent purposefully manufactured. There is the score and its realization—which is to say, there is the code, and the replication of the code.

On the one hand, it’s dangerous—empty repetition and all. But, on the other hand, it’s liberating. In theory, we all can make equally strong claims on the tradition, simply because we’re all strangers to it. The original function or context becomes something to be lovingly recreated, creatively mutated, or cheerfully ignored. And if that freedom is in tension with a rigid canon of repertoire and training, well, whose fault is that? One thing at the core of the problems with conservatory training, its brittleness and abuse, might be the inappropriate application and exploitation of authenticity as an existential and moral quality, a quality that’s foreign to so much of the music as it was made and originally performed. The relevant patterns of power are intertwined with assertions of that authenticity; sweeping it away would be a fair amount of work. But a first step toward reforming music education would be to admit that, at this point in history, we’re all inauthentic outsiders to the classical tradition. A second step would be to recognize that as the virtue that it is.

And I could have the faintest idea

Miscellaneous recent coverage:

At the NSO, a program under vibrant control (Washington Post, January 17, 2020)

Kopatchinskaja, Campbell subvert classical conventions (Washington Post, January 22, 2020)

At the Kennedy Center, Eschenbach casts the NSO in standard but staunch roles (Washington Post, January 25, 2020)

Poulenc Trio confronts their namesake’s image (Washington Classical Review, January 26, 2020)

Score: Han Young-Suk helped the world discover Korean dance (Boston Globe, January 30, 2020)

Honeck guest-conducts the NSO, offering the power of sound (Washington Post, January 31, 2020)

That last review originally had a kicker alluding to Current Events. On the one hand, was it a little bit superfluous? Absolutely. On the other hand, this was taking place in Washington, D.C.; I guarantee that everybody in the auditorium was well aware of the what has been happening on the other side of town, and was either hearing the music through that scrim or relying on the music to distract.

On a related note, let me present to you perhaps the greatest painting of the Renaissance.

This is the portrait of Pope Paul III and his grandsons by Titian, painted sometime between 1545 and 1546. It’s a fairly well-known painting, but I find it especially interesting because its perceived greatness is directly proportional to how much one knows about its subjects and its context. First off, you need to know about the Farnese family. Start with Paul III, born Alessandro Farnese in 1468. Paul III could have been one of the most influential popes. He was cultured; he increased the intellect and ability of the cardinalate; and managed to inaugurate the Council of Trent in an effort to bring the church back together after Martin Luther’s Reformation. But he was also insecure: the Farneses had been well-off, but Paul III was the first of the line to attain real power, power that he was desperate to keep in the family.

Alessandro Farnese, on the left, was the beneficiary and victim of that desperation. He was the eldest son of Pier Luigi Farnese, the Duke of Parma—Paul III’s illegitimate son, legitimized by Pope Julius II—and would have been in line to succeed his father except that, at the age of 14, he was instead made a cardinal. The blatant nepotism did not go unnoticed in the halls of power; moreover, it dismayed Alessandro, who not only forfeited his claim to the dukedom, but also his marital prospects. Instead, the rights of primogeniture passed to Alessandro’s younger brother Ottavio—the figure on the right.

What you also need to know is that a) Titian, instead of relying on sketches, worked out his compositions on the canvas, as he painted, and b) this particular painting is unfinished. Which means that, unusually among Titian’s portraits, this one preserves something close to his first impression. X-ray analysis of Titian’s surviving works has shown that, very often, his final, polished versions of his portraits of powerful figures were finessed from a more blunt initial conception into more flattering form. This one, though, was never given that final finesse, and Titian’s keen perception of psychology takes center-stage. The awkwardness is palpable. Ottavio, presumably in the process of prostrating himself to kiss the pope’s feet, looks as if he is about to fall over. The elderly Paul III, hunched over, with an iron grip on the throne, has an expression that is equal parts impatience and paranoid suspicion. (Notice how his eyes don’t quite meet Ottavio’s.) Alessandro, too, has a hand on the throne—obvious symbolism for his assumed succession to the papacy, which never actually came to pass—and peers out from the canvas, as if looking for an escape from the family dynamic. None of the figures seem to be in the same picture. Originally, Titian had Alessandro further to the left, but (presumably at Alessandro’s behest) repainted him to be closer to the pontiff. That results in my favorite detail: Titian then repainted the red table in the foreground, but didn’t ever finish painting Paul’s right hand. His grandson’s ambition seems to be taking an actual corporeal toll, Paul literally consumed by his corruption. Instead of an image of family authority, the painting instead becomes an unusually incisive snapshot of isolation and disintegration, the inevitable corrosion of a blind pursuit of power and influence.

One last moral: you might not have known much about the Farnese family, one of the most powerful in 16th-century European politics. But you probably already knew who Titian was.

* * *

Peter Serkin died last Saturday. I reviewed him a few times; I still think about this recital. (In retrospect, the hook on which I hung that review is a little artificial. Still, Serkin playing pianissimo remains one of the most magical sounds I’ve ever experienced as a concertgoer.) But I think I can best sum up his excellence thus: I heard him as the soloist in three of Seiji Ozawa’s periodic Boston Symphony performances of Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy, and Serkin actually convinced me that it was a good piece. Every note seemed like a newly-discovered surprise, a clue in a twisty, wildly entertaining whodunnit.

In a 2012 interview with Richard Scheinen, Serkin talked about what he learned from jazz:

[T]he quality of making something up on the spot, based on a real sense of discipline at the same time, which is something I really admire in classical music performances, too. With all the work that goes into it, and all the considerations of a composer’s intentions — that there should still be that sense of spontaneity, that it’s happening right now, on the spot.

When I think about the music I loved to hear Serkin perform, I realize it all had that quality, that necessity of seeming to be made up as it went along. When the repertoire wasn’t amenable to that ideal, the result could be eccentric. But when it was, he had me holding my breath.

(I also turned pages for him once. Not my finest hour! He was imperturbable.)

* * *

I was in a Target the other night, and I noticed that season 17 of Family Guy was now out on DVD. Seventeen seasons! I don’t really have an opinion on Family Guy itself, but that unexpected (to me) amount of mileage sparked a glimpse of a theory of 21st-century culture: at the moment, any idea, any style, stance, artifact only has cultural currency in as much as it lends itself to being run into the ground. Even defining patterns of current politics and society can be considered as deceased horses, persistently flogged. We are saturated with recursive familiarity, loops that continue, unbroken, even as they erode everything around them. And I am reminded of one of my favorite old, cheap keyboards: the Casio SK-1, the first consumer-grade sampling keyboard. It was so cheap that your homemade sample (yes, you could only record one at a time) would only be retained in memory so long as you didn’t turn the thing off. I used to think that was a drawback. Now? I’m not so sure.