Book 2.0

I’m very happy to say that I’ve launched the new version of my book on the future of classical music. I trust that it’s tighter and more focused than the last one. I invite you to read it, and then feel free to post comments.

I’m back from Cleveland, and since it’s now 5 AM — that new book episode needed some last-minute (well last-hours) work — I’m not going to say much about my trip. Except that we had an unexpected program change. Garrick Ohlsson, after playing the Barber Piano Concerto on Thursday and Friday, had to leave unexpectedly. So Jon Kimura Parker came in, and did a terrific job, substituting the Beethoven third concerto for the Barber. That gave my conversations with conductor and soloist a delightful glow. Parker arrived at 3 PM the day of his first concert. I turned out to be the first to tell the audience that, and I could tell Parker, when it was time to talk to him onstage, that when he took his bow after playing the concerto the night before — on no rehearsal — he was grinning like he’d just won a gold medal in the Olympic ski jump.

But on a very different note, here’s a thought that a friend of mine offered me recently: High-ranking staff members at major orchestras could be making a lot more money doing something else. But they stay because they’re devoted — devoted especially to the music. I wondered if this was a good thing. Not necessarily, said my friend, because it’s precisely their devotion that often makes people buy into classical music orthodoxy, whether they realize they’re doing it or not. And that becomes yet another obstacle standing in the way of change.

Two quick musical thoughts, about pieces I heard in Cleveland. The Barber Toccata Festiva, for virtuoso organist and orchestra, is a strange piece, harmonically — it’s quite static, both in its lush and tonal sections, and when it’s busily dissonant. Both types of music don’t really go anywhere harmonically, and the piece breaks down into chunks of harmonic stasis, ending finally on a triumphant major chord, which to my ear has no special harmonic significance, since it’s not the goal of any forward-moving cadence. (I’m not saying that this is a problem, please note. But it’s a curiosity.)

The Sibelius Fifth Symphony keeps doing the same thing for amazing lengths of time. It unwinds itself slowly, unfolding variants on more or less the same material. This continues through all three movements, though the last movement finally generates a really striking, vaguely climactic and triumphant motif (which Jon Kimura Parker, backstage, said made him think of a ship rocking on ocean waves). But still the piece keeps unrolling itself forward, until finally nothing can stop the motion except those five famous chords at the end, with the long pauses in between. To me, that’s one meaning of those pauses. Without them, you couldn’t bring the music to any kind of halt.

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