The Friday post

What we want to do is to show people that “classical” music is a living, vibrant tradition that is far from being the museum art of dead men played incredibly formally by people dressed very uncomfortably.

That’s a statement by Armano Bayolo, director of the Great Noise Ensemble, which might be Washington, DC’s leading new music group. It’s printed in the program book for the concert they gave a week ago.

And this is the first of my Friday Posts, in which I’ll pass on things that I’ve found out about, mostly things that show how quickly — widely, deeply — classical music is changing. I can’t do full blog posts on everything that reaches me, but I think it’ll be helpful to pass along as much of it as possible.

And I’ll add some other things that interest me. The blog, as I’ve been writing it, reflects so little that I do, learn, think about. I’d like to fix that.

Something irresistible

turkish blogA Turkish youth orchestra rehearsing the end of the William Tell overture, with unbounded joy. And not exactly sitting still. Some of them started playing their instruments just four months ago, which makes the quality astounding. Much credit to their conductor, who, I’m told comes from Sistema Guatemala, which I didn’t know existed (much less that it was spreading itself into Europe). Many thanks to my Swiss friend Etienne Abelin for tell me about this! Deeply touching

Deeply touching

human req blogSomething else Etienne told me about — the “Human Requiem,” a Berlin performance of the Brahms Requiem, in which the chorus (accompanied by two pianos) sang from memory, while moving slowly around the performance space. Sometimes the singers moved individually, sometimes they moved in groups. The audience, too, was free to move. The effect, I’m told, could be overwhelming; the voices had an almost physical impact. Here’s part of a rehearsal, in which some of that impact really does come across. And here’s a review of the performance, skeptical in part, but also testifying to the power of what happened.

Amazing animation

rite animation 2 blogFrom Stephen Malinowski, a truly amazing — and I say this as a very serious musician — animation of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. (First part, second part.) With bright, sharp dabs of color showing the shape of the music, as you listen. (Much livelier than what comes across in the bit I’ve reproduced here.) The piece comes to life before your eyes. It’s like score reading for people who don’t read scores, though in many ways it’s better than reading the score. Reading the score gives you musical information; Malinowski gives the impact of the music. I learned things I hadn’t quite been aware of — the persistence, in just about every melodic line, of something like the contours of the opening bassoon solo. And the persistence, too, of the crunch! offbeats in the first fast section of the piece, so famous in themselves, but also echoed by sudden jabs throughout the score.

Such a contrast, I have to say, to a Beethoven Ninth iPhone and iPad app from Deutsche Grammophon, with three attempts to visualize the score, all feeble. A truncated view of the score is almost impossible to follow. A view of notes in the piece, represented by horizontal bars, tells you almost nothing. A view of sections of the orchestra — dots lighting up when musicians sitting in each place play — is blah, and rather than enhance what you hear, simply echoes it. Maybe good for people who don’t know the sound of strings from trombones (and, of course, they need to be served), but not useful beyond that.

What you do get, if you pay $7.99 for the full version, is four very different recordings of the piece, a nice selection: Ferenc Frscay, Bernstein, Karajan, and John Eliot Gardiner. Not to sneeze at!

But the Malinowski animation is sheer magic. The performance is synthesized, expertly, with samples, much as orchestral-sounding TV scores are generated. Maybe some people will object to that, but again, it’s an expert job, and didn’t bother me.

Seattle singalong

The Seattle Opera publicized its annual Ring cycle with a Wagner singalong two days ago.

brunnhilde blogFrom an email press release:

All ages, voice types, and shower singers welcome!
(Want to just watch?  That’s ok too!)

Join Seattle Opera for a community sing-along on the occasion of Richard Wagner’s 200th birthday.  Enter a contest for best Ring character costume and/or give your best (or most creative) rendition of Brunnhilde’s “Hojotoho” war cry — judges will award prizes, both men and women are encouraged to join the fun.

Admission is FREE, and yes, there will be cake!

Here’s a story about this from the Seattle Times website, including video (ineffable) of a Brunnhilde contestant.

And a page from the Seattle Opera website, introducing the choral singalong for those who might want to join it.

Very human artist bio

Musicians’ bios, as printed in classical music program books and publicity, are mostly unreadable, long lists of blank achievements, with nothing about what kind of person — or even what kind of artist — the musician is. But here’s a big exception: William Eddins, music director of the Edmonton Symphony, headlines himself on his website as “Conductor, pianist, and really good cook.”

With a bio to match:

Bill has many non-musical hobbies including: cooking, eating, discussing food, and planning dinner parties. He is also quite fond of biking, tennis, reading, and pinball. Unfortunately, due to pianistic paranoia his days in the martial arts are long over.

His bio on the orchestra’s website is more restrained, but still very human.

The Cliburn loosens up

The irrepressible pianist/entrepreneur Jade Simmons hosts all kinds of online things for this year’s Cliburn competition — informal interviews with contestants, tours of Fort Worth fashion and nightspots, reactions from people in the audience after contestants play. This is no small thing — a major relaxtion, major explosion in how an established classical music institution presents itself. Bringing it right into the world we all live in.

That’s it for this week. A lot to write about! And this was only a selection. More in weeks to come, and if you’ve got something you’d like me to mention, let me know.


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  1. Steve Ledbetter says

    Wonderful column today, Greg…i’ll be awaiting each Friday’s edition eagerly. The Rite of Spring animation is sensational. Another thing it shows very clearly, in addition to the ubiquity of the bassoon figure that you mentioned, is Stravinsky’s way of composing in blocks, with abrupt shifts from one to another. I enjoyed all of the items today but that is one to keep and pass on to musician and non-musician alike.

  2. says

    Rossini, Brahms, Stravinsky, Beethoven, Wagner….these are STILL the names we are offering?? Perhaps classical music isn’t the living vibrant tradition we’d all like to think it is.

    • says

      Peter, see Etienne’s comment above. But, beyond what he says, classical music is evolving in many ways at once. Some of them involve far more performance of new music, by mainstream groups, than we used to see. I was struck, just for instance, reading through the latest issue of Opera News, by how many of the singers interviewed talked proudly of how many new pieces they were doing, and how much they liked them. Wouldn’t have seen that 10 years ago. And orchestras are playing far more new works than they used to.

      And then there’s the explosion of indie classical composition. And, of course, what you’ve done with Broadway composers’ classical pieces.

      One thing to understand about my Friday posts, which wouldn’t be clear from the first one: They’re dependent on what comes to my attention each week. Sometimes it’ll be new music, sometimes not.

      But the most important thing is that all these changes evolve together. Changes in how old works are presented help free the field from its old ways, and help open the door to more new music.

      As one final thought, performances of old music aren’t about to go away. I’m very conscious of that, because of my teaching. My students are wedded to the old music, even if they love new music, too. So there’s not much point in haranguing the classical music world, demanding that it abruptly change its ways. Far better to help along the evolution of every change possible, and to make the performances of old music as free and expressive and individual and surprising as they can be. Even in the future, when classical music has been fully reborn, we’ll be hearing the old works, just as theater companies still do Shakespeare and Chekhov, and museums, along with all their terrific shows of contemporary art, are still showing the impressionists.

      • says

        Hey Greg, I understand and agree that the scene is changing, and that’s a good thing. However, as you know the classical music industry is really good at pretending to embrace change while doing effectively nothing. Reading a blog post about examples of the wide and deep changes in the classical industry makes it hard for me to ignore that this week’s examples (and yes, I know it’s only the first week!) contain Beethoven 9, Rite of Spring, and William Tell. If I were writing a comedy sketch about the unchanging classical industry insisting on its relevancy, those are exactly the examples I would have used. You know I deeply support you, and I appreciate that you can only draw from what’s happening in the industry in any given week, but these particular examples are (to me, at least) unpersuasive.

        I’ll do my best to try and find you some others!:)

  3. says

    “What we want to do is to show people that “classical” music is a living, vibrant tradition that is far from being the museum art of dead men played incredibly formally by people dressed very uncomfortably.” And then every example – Rossini, Brahms, Stravinsky and Beethoven – is drawn from the museum art of dead men! Despite a recent major study that shows that audience aversion to new music is largely in the mind of conductors and symphony boards, the Prime Directive must never be disobeyed. Flash strobes, dance while you play – heck, hang the conductor from a rope if you choose – but never, never deviate from the Prime Directive: to play only approved music by dead composers. Sad, because programming art that reflects our time might make all the theatrics unnecessary. But how will we ever know?

    • says

      David, and Peter: that’s not entirely fair – while the examples Greg lists today focus on exciting re-contextualisations of music by dead composers, he has often and will often feature new music, as an absolutely crucial part of the living, vibrant “classical” music culture of today. Why demand that each post has to be perfectly balanced in that respect? I can’t even start to list the new music that has been featured on this blog: Mason Bates, New Amsterdam Records, Nonclassical London of Gabriel Prokofiev, Blind Ear and and and…

    • says

      David, please see my reply to Peter Sachon. I love the passion in your comment, but I think you’re exaggerating, rather greatly, what’s going on in the mainstream classical world right now. As I said to Peter, the amount of new music played has strongly increased, even if old music still dominates. And, as I said to Peter, we’re talking about a greatly varied evolution in the field, in which all the changes gradually flow together. I hope you can see that.

  4. ariel says

    The Rite of Spring is much like dinner theatre — where the dinner is second rate and
    the theatre is even worse .

      • Ariel says

        You know I meant the animation — even before the Stokowski & Disney 70 yr. old
        nonsense down to the present nonsense by Malinowski one imagines there were
        people who think images the moment they hear music . Turn off the sound and the doodling by Malinowski means nothing, just blips – Turn on the sound and a world opens up
        now just the doodles by Malinowski think Rite of Spring -nothing
        Play the music again and think Rite of Spring – The impact – stunning sound .
        A musician looking at the score can in his mind hear the sounds -Malinowski
        and his work tells you nothing -it is all after the fact game playing .
        The interesting thing to note is how the great music can withstand the the likes of Malinowski and those who think music to be a visual experience. Thank heavens one can still go to an art gallery
        and look at a painting in silence without some orchestra or fiddler playing music to enhance the viewing pleasure .It is disconcerting to note how music is game for any lame brain who
        thinks they have an original idea . There are even wonderful words to describe no talent
        “re-contextualisation ” -who would dare stand up to that word ?Certainly not those that
        see music. We need more those that just hear music .

        • says

          Ariel: fair enough that these and all other attempts of combining music and visuals don’t give you anything. And I’m sure the same is true for many other people. Nothing wrong with that. But if you read many of the comments on Malinowski’s channel, you’ll see that for a lot of people, it’s different: they often report a deeper experience and a successful first contact with classical music (“finally I understand something”). A good number of parents report interesting observations of their, sometimes small, children with the visualizations over the years. Why slash those experiences the way you do it? Aren’t they equally valid as yours? You mention “after the fact game playing”: if it were that, I might (partly) agree with you. But in the case of Malinowski’s visuals, you forget the right part of the screen – the “future”. I’m quite sure that it’s precisely this help of building an expectation that leads many people to resonate more deeply with the listening experience and grasp something where otherwise they are lost. And as for the visual experience: I’ve played countless concerts with artists like Abbado, Boulez, Haitink and studied many scores and can assure you that for me the visual component is absolutely crucial in grasping musical coherence. I suppose that different people learn differently: some with a stronger visual sense, some with much less of that and a different focus. Which may explain why some artists connect to these visuals and others don’t and some concert halls, festivals and museums start including the visuals in their programs and others don’t. So many interesting questions to explore and discussions to lead – and this is only the beginning. There’s enormous space to further develop the field of visualizations with music, be it in Malinowski’s style or completely different approaches.

        • says

          One thing I notice about you, Ariel, is that you talk as if you’re always right, and as if everyone who disagrees with you is always wrong. And also that you feel little need to explain yourself. I don’t presume to teach you manners, logic, or writing, but you’d be more useful here if you’d understand that sometimes what you say isn’t clear. That’s no shame. It happens to all writers. And it would help, too, if you’d understand that sometimes it’s not evident why you make some of your sweeping judgments. Malinowski is nonsense, you say. Well, why? I’m happy to hear a view opposed to mine, but you’re not giving me anything to work with. Just a word, delivered like a slap to the face. (I don’t mean my face.) Tell us something about what you don’t like about the animation. And also tell me why people who know music very well, and know that piece well, don’t think the animation is nonsense. I can read the score as easily as I watch the animation. Plus I’ve studied it. And still I learned things from the animation that I didn’t learn from the score, or from hearing the piece many times over my 30+ years in this business. I may be foolish, gullible, or even ignorant, but you’re not showing me why — in loving the animation — I might be any of these things. I’d love to learn from you. Help me to do that!

          • Ariel says

            But I have told you is that music is always about sound – a composer never asks you to see his latest work he asks you to hear it ,and from my over than
            40+ years in the field if the composer hands you the score he expects or hopes you hear it in your minds ear -at least it is so with the composers I have come across. The
            Malinowski doodling, is after the fact -and is sterile without the music – he gets between listener and the music and presents his personal response to the music with his
            doodling . You are not foolish , gullible or even ignorant just go back to the score.
            The score tells everything. Music is about sound ,to think otherwise is not to
            understand the abstract art …animation is about animation which more often than not uses
            sound to enhance itself but it ain’t music and doesn’t explain anything that is not
            already there . I make no sweeping judgement ,facts are facts.

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