Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Because I can be accused of being too serious...

I don't know where I discovered this, but if only our conductor's could communicate as much of the music by only using the face...(and not the one pictured above)

Of course, it helps to have a "communicative" face as well as the ability to stay serious through the entire exercise, which is, in an of itself, quite funny.


Longing for the academy

Besides working with a variety of interesting and talented students (from whom I have often received as much as I have given) among the things I miss about teaching is the interaction with my colleagues.  It is radically different teaching in a college/university atmosphere than in a public school.  In the latter, informal gatherings with one's colleagues usually take place at lunch time, in a crowded room, with individuals discussing usually the matters of the day, problem students, the latest word about administrators or the teacher's union.  In the former, the topics can range from James Joyce to politics to one's view of his/her discipline relating to the micro and macro worlds.

Karl Paulnack
I long for people like Karl Paulnack, Director of the Music Division of the Boston Conservatory, who, in his welcome address spoke of the ancient Greek's view of music as "[having} a way of finding the big, invisible moving pieces inside our hearts and souls and helping us figure out the position of things inside us."  This is obviously a more "big picture" view of our discipline and not one that we encounter in our day-to-day "grind" of teaching, rehearsing, studying, practicing.

Paulnack also spoke of two significant events:  the composition of Messaien's Quartet for the End of Time and his own personal reflection on the events of September 11, 2001.  The Messaien would still be a profound work without its contextual framework, but--knowing that it sprang from the composer's interment in a Nazi concentration camp--makes it even more so.  The composer took the tools that he had, four players: a violin, clarinet, cello and piano and--like many others in the camps--created art.  As Paulnack states, to those prisoners, "the camps were without money, without hope, without commerce, without recreation, without basic respect, but they were not without art. Art is part of survival; art is part of the human spirit, an unquenchable expression of who we are. Art is one of the ways in which we say, 'I am alive, and my life has meaning.'"

Paulnack found that he was unable to play the piano on the morning of September 12; he even thought, "in fact I contemplated briefly whether I would ever want to play the piano again."  But somehow, life did return to some sense of normalcy, but not without a public outpouring of grief:  in the form of a presentation of the Brahms Requiem, that was assembled in less than a week's time by Kurt Masur and the New York Philharmonic.  Again to Mr. Paulnack, "That was the beginning of a sense that life might go on. The US Military secured the airspace, but recovery was led by the arts, and by music in particular, that very night."

Paulnack shares several other tales, which must be read here.  As Charles Munch speaks of the sacred trust of the conductor, Paulnack likens musicians to therapists for the human soul, or a spiritual version of a chiropractor or physical therapist:  "someone who works with our insides to see if they get things to line up, to see if we can come into harmony with ourselves and be healthy and happy and well."

As our society--both in the micro of our individual communities and the macro of the larger world around us--continues to debate the very necessity of the arts, it seem vital to remember Mr. Paulnack's admonition to his students.  "Frankly, ladies and gentlemen, I expect you not only to master music; I expect you to save the planet. If there is a future wave of wellness on this planet, of harmony, of peace, of an end to war, of mutual understanding, of equality, of fairness, I don't expect it will come from a government, a military force or a corporation. I no longer even expect it to come from the religions of the world, which together seem to have brought us as much war as they have peace. If there is a future of peace for humankind, if there is to be an understanding of how these invisible, internal things should fit together, I expect it will come from the artists, because that's what we do. As in the concentration camp and the evening of 9/11, the artists are the ones who might be able to help us with our internal, invisible lives."

These are the kinds of discussions I miss and people like Karl Paulnack are those that I miss discussing them with...

Friday, October 14, 2011

The profession, past and present, musical chairs

George Szell
Of late I have been reading Michael Charry's biography, George Szell: A Life of Music.  As the conductor, who did remake the Cleveland Orchestra into the finest ensemble of its day, is regarded as one of the old school tyrants of the podium, it is interesting to read a text revealing very little of this side of the man.  Szell's Wikipedia article notes:

"Szell's rehearsals were legendary for their intensity. Absolute perfection was demanded from every player. Musicians would be dismissed on the spot for making too many mistakes or simply questioning Szell's authority. Although Szell was not alone in this practice — Toscanini was nothing if not dictatorial — such firings would not happen today: musicians' unions are much stronger now than they were then. If Szell heard a player practicing backstage before a concert and did not like what he heard, he would not hesitate to berate the musician and give detailed notes on how the music should be played, despite the concert being minutes away. Szell’s autocratic style extended to giving suggestions to the Severance Hall janitorial staff on mopping technique and what brand of toilet paper to use in the restrooms." (Donald Rosenberg: The Cleveland Orchestra Story: Second to None)

Of course, very little of this view of the dictatorial taskmaster is present in the Charry biography (nb: Charry was one of Szell's apprentice conductors).  So what is one to believe?  The wranglings of the critics or the near-adulation of one who was really there?

* * * * * * * * * *

Riccardo Muti
Riccardo Muti has now become firmly ensconced at the helm of the Chicago Symphony and apparently he is experiencing a much better adjustment to the orchestra than his first go-around in the United States: as Eugene Ormandy's replacement at the Philadelphia.  Of course, Philadelphia had known only two music directors from 1912 to 1980!  (Ormandy and Leopold Stokowski)  But it was readily apparent that Muti intentionally set out to change that orchestra, which was renowned for the luster of its string sound, brought about originally by Stokowski's preference for free-bowing.  Muti also was seen in his earlier days as a rather aristocratic podium presence and many felt that he turned the once-great ensemble into just another generically-sounding American orchestra.  Muti had a major falling out with La Scala in 2003, but he had apparently twice been courted by the New York Philharmonic, which he spurned by signing with the CSO in 2008.  All signs are that he has mellowed with age (he turned 70 in July) and is making wonderful music--and wooing important contributors--in America's "Second City."

Muti's predecessor once removed, Daniel Barenboim, has just been named music director of La Scala.  Barenboim, himself 69, is also the general music director of the Berlin State Opera, in addition to other lesser posts.  To say I have no love lost for Barenboim the person would be an understatement; the fact that he fathered two children with his mistress while his wife--cellist Jacqueline DuPre--was dying of multiple sclerosis, remains among the most incorrigible acts I can imagine.  I attended too many performances of the CSO in which he just seemed to go through the motions; it was painfully obvious that he did not desire to assume the myriad duties of an American music director, which--rightly or not--includes schmoozing with the supporters of the ensemble.  As a musician he has no time for consideration of performance practice or adherence to the score; rather, he is a conductor bound by subjective tradition instead of objective truth.  Donald Peck, former principal flutist with the CSO noted in his book The Right Place at the Right Time that the "Danny" they got as a music director was not the "Danny" who had appeared so many times as guest conductor.  Others have noted his arrogance and aloofness while finding inconsistencies within his interpretations of the score.

It is not difficult, in this case, to separate the man from the musician.  I find his music to be as cold and emotionless as his early personal life.  One can never separate ones personal attributes and integrity from the music that one makes, for, as Munch has stated in so many words, Conducting is a sacred trust.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Marketing to the Facebook generation

It is blatantly obvious that the "classical" music world needs to continue to discover new ways to introduce our "product" to a new audience.  Without selling out, the Seattle Opera has created a very humorous depiction of what a modern-day Carmen would face on the internet.

Be prepared to laugh, giggle, titter or whatever you do.  This one's for us music nerds.  The Figaro reference just about slew me!  Read more here.