“A Pianist Who Bucks The Trend”

Marc-Andr Hamelin c. Nina Large6.jpg
Nice story/podcast from my friends at WQXR today lamenting the current state of the encore in classical music.  “It’s a failure of imagination and it’s a failure of artistic expression” huffs the critic from The Telegraph.

Chopin’s Nocturne in D flat, Op 27 N. 2, is wheeled out so often it’s a wonder the audience don’t sing along like the crowd at a rugby match. Traumerai, from Schumann’s Kinderszenen, I’ve heard so often it now has no more significance than elevator muzak. And as for [Liszt’s] La Campanella, if I never hear those bells again it will be too soon.

Then’s there’s this “cake-smasher” of Percy Grainger’s arrangement (kinda sorta) of “In Dahomey…”  If you can read music, follow along…if you dare!

 

 

 

Miscellaeneous Musings: the NY Phil, Howard Theatre, WYPR, No Depression, Pete Seeger…

Any resemblance to Mike “I Was Just Thinking….” Barnicle is purely coincidental….

  • Kind of amazing to hear the wall-to-wall media coverage of the New York Philharmonic’s trip to North Korea….startling and gratifying to hear snippets of the New World Symphony in the middle of network newscasts. Worth reading:  Anne Midgette’s column in the WaPo on this not being a case of bringing Great. Western. Art. to poor benighted souls behind the Bamboo Curtain….

But in Vienna, Austria, there is another image of them: as conducting students. The elite conducting class at the University of Music and Performing Arts there has trained no fewer than 17 North Korean students in the past decade.

  • Which reminds me of a similar history-making venture I helped to orchestra for NPR in 1999: The Milwaukee Symphony’s trip to Cuba, which was the first time a US orchestra had performed on the island since the Philadelphia Orchestra had been there in 1959.  ‘Course, it was a little easier for our NPR crew to move around the country than it was for the delegation traveling to North Korea this week…I remember that producer Laura Bertran even managed to lend some technical and logistical help to the struggling public radio station in Havana to broadcast the concert live on the island. (Oh yeah, they played Gershwin, too….the Cuban Overture, natch)  Click here to hear some of the music from similar symphonic excursions in the past,  and here for a similar Washington Post story on other “Diplomacy Concerts” of that past half-century.
  • On the other hand, for the same station to air during afternoon drive a six-month-old repeat of a Mario Armstrong “Digital Cafe”  feature?  About an Internet startup being Beta tested?   With a casual disclaimer that “some information may be out of date?”  Incredibly. Lame.
  • Pete SeegerIt’s nice to see Pete Seeger getting his props from PBS this week, with an American Masters portrait airing tonight on most PBS stations around the country. Except, that is, in DC, where despite Pete being on the cover of the Post’s TV Week,  the local pubtv powerhouse WETA inexplicably is running a show a three-year old show on Judy Garland.    Huh?   I’ll have more to say on Pete in a later post.

Required Reading – The Well-Tempered Web


In the Oct. 22 issue of the New Yorker you’ll find
a Critic At Large piece called “The Well-Tempered Web” – in essence, a Postcard from the Brave New Media World, written by Alex Ross. There’s a reason Ross is at the top of the list on my blogroll….this is one of the best, most stylishly written and comprehensive snapshots of what’s happening with classical music online, and its implications for the future. Ross writes about a lot of the things I’ve been trying to see and describe in this space, though, in my experience, the scenario is not quite as rosy as he paints. Sample grab:

Classical-music culture on the Internet is expanding at a sometimes alarming pace. When I started my blog, I had links to seven or eight like-minded sites. Now I find myself part of a jabbering community of several hundred blogs, operated by critics, composers, conductors, pianists, double-bassists, oboists (I count five), artistic administrators, and noted mezzo-sopranos (Joyce DiDonato writes under the moniker Yankee Diva). After a first night at the Met, opera bloggers chime inwith opinions both expert and eccentric, recalling the days when critics from a dozen dailies, whether Communist or Republican or Greek, lined up to extoll Caruso. Beyond the blogs are the Internet radio stations; streaming broadcasts from opera houses, orchestras, new-music ensembles; and Web sites of individual artists. There is a new awareness of what is happening musically in every part of the world. A listener in Tucson or Tokyo can virtually attend opening night at the Bayreuth Festival and listen the following day to a première by a young British composer at the BBC Proms.

Those who see the dawning of a new golden age should bear in mind the “Snakes on a Plane” rule: things invariably appear more important on the Internet than they are in the real world. Classical music has experienced waves of technological euphoria in the past: the Edison cylinder, radio, the LP, and the CD were all hailed as redeeming godsends for a kind of music that has always struggled to find its place in American culture. At the end of such bouts of giddiness, classical music somehow always winds up back where it started, in a state of perpetual fret.

Thanks, Alex. I’ll go back to fretting now. I think there’s still a critical missing link having to do with music education (or lack thereof) and the general broader cultural awareness of events outside of the roar of the pop-culture surf, which is what’s driving the UTunes: Music 1.01 project.

Ross also makes a marvelous point about the utterly transparent online accessibility of arguably the most inaccessible of all composers….Arnold Schoenberg. Throwing copyright concerns to the winds, the Arnold Schoenberg Center in Vienna has created a transparent, robust, and comprehensive site dedicated to the inventor of “twelve-tone” music, a man some (like John Adams, f’irnstance) to have led classical music down a 75-yeard spiritual dead-end.

On the site, you can read immaculate digital reproductions of Schoenberg’s correspondence, listen to his complete works on streaming audio, examine his designs for various inventions and gadgets (including a typewriter for musical notation), and follow links to YouTube videos of him playing tennis.

And there’s this trenchant “deep catalog” observation:

Classical music, with its thousand-year back catalogue, has the longest tail of all. In Naxos’s case, thirty to forty per cent of its digital sales in the U.S. come from albums downloaded four times a month or less. Thus, a not insignificant portion of the company’s revenue comes from titles that, by Justin Timberlake standards, don’t exist

Required reading, if you care about classical music.

Link

Cleveland Rocks!

Disclaimer: This is posted by a card-carrying member of Red Sox Nation, now smarting over a 3-1 deficit in the ALCS…

Monday was a good night for Cleveland at the Jake and at the Ken Cen, where yours truly got the chance to see the fabled Cleveland Orchestra up close and personal. Not that they’ve been strangers here…their press dept. helpfully pointed out that the orchestra has played 57 times in DC, including 43 times in the Kennedy Center’s 36-year history.

And they are still as good as advertised: In his excellent NPR Listener’s Encyclopedia of Classical Music my old friend Ted Libbey writes: “The Cleveland Orchestra is very nearly in a league of its own, a crack ensemble with an esprit de corps matched by only a handful of orchestras in the world. Its recordings are the discographic gold standard. ” Hard to argue with that assessment, on disc or in person. Monday night the orchestra had plenty of virtuosity on display, to go with usual crack ensemble playing and spot-on intonation. And, unusually, pride of place to the viola section, who were seated opposite the first violins, with the cellos and second violins filling in the middle around conductor Franz Welser-Most.

On the program: Mozart’s Symphony No. 28. Not a symphony you hear all that much, but with some absolutely propulsive outer movements with some feverish fiddling. You want a “discographic gold standard?” The October ’65 recording made by George Szell and the Clevelanders (reissued on CD in 2006) is still amazing. Clarity, balance, and speed – with no sacrifice in precision. When critics talk about Szell’s ability with Mozart as “chamber music for symphony orchestra,” they’re talking about recordings like this.


But the Mozart was merely a warm-up for what came next: The Guide to Strange Places by John Adams. I’ve blogged about Adams before and doubtless will again, and while I didn’t love everything about the piece (at 24 mins I think it’s about five minutes too long), it’s pretty damn cool, with cascading blocks of sound moving through, over, and around the orchestra. Or, in the words of the New York Times: “a jarringly turbulent piece, channeling its energy into shifts of clashing colors, both visual and emotive.” And a visual treat to watch the internal ballet of the stand-sharers in the violin section turning the pages for their stand partners as carefully-
and quickly- as they would for any virtuoso pianist.

But what really grabbed me was not so much a “Strange Place” but a location thoroughly familiar to us hardy Harpers Ferry residents. Adams’ inventive scoring includes a Doppler-effect freight-train rumbling through the brass and percussion sections….a sound I hear routinely as long freighters go rumbling into the night through the Harpers Ferry Gap.


Adams absolutely nailed the sound. Despite the fact that nearly everything Adams has written is available on CD, you can only hear this snippet of the Guide on Adam’s extremely well-done website.

Strange but true footnote: This piece represents a connection between the Pulitzer Prize- winning composer and the 2nd president of the US beside the fact that both were born in Massachusetts: The “Guide to Strange Places” was commissioned and first performed by the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic at the Concertgebouw. And before he succeeded George Washington, the “other” John Adams was the first US ambassador to the Netherlands, where his efforts at diplomacy are seen as so significant that he recently merited a three-part series on Radio Netherlands called Adams in Amsterdam. And then I found out there’s a John Adams Institute in Amsterdam…an independent, nonprofit foundation dedicated to furthering a longstanding tradition: cultural exchange between the USA and the Netherlands. Founded in 1987, the John Adams Institute continues to expose the best and brightest American writers and thinkers to audiences in The Netherlands.

Back to the concert…the Clevelanders closed out with a performance of Tchaikovsky’s “Pathetique” Symphony (No. 6) that was everything as advertised. Ted Libbey again:

It is still fashionable for critics to dismiss Tchaikovsky as one of two things: a superficial manipulator or a self-absorbed boderline hysteric wallowing in his own emotions. He was neither…He managed to create worlds of feeling in his symphonies. Tchaikovsky biographer David Brown calls the Pathetique “The most truly original symphony to be composed in the 70 years since Beethoven’s 9th.”

As the first truly tragic symphony, concerned with loss, isolation, and despair, it projects a negative image of Beethoven’s triumphant aspiration, in place of spiritual transcendence, it seeks annihilation. This marks a fundamental turning point in the history of the symphony. Psychologically, the Pathetique symphony marks the beginning of modernism.
The Clevelanders did not disappoint. And the Kennedy Center audience behaved…no applause at the end of the third movement, to my surprise.

Lots of applause at the end, and no encore either. Now they’re off to Carnegie Hall and the Musikverein. And I’ll have more on Adams in a bit.

Postscript: The Washington Post review of this concert can be found here. Don’t know how the reviewer got the impression was a U.S. Premiere, however, since DC’s own National Symphony Orchestra played it on their East Coast Tour three years ago.


The Classical Convergence


Waking up from summer vacation…

Remember the car ad from a few years back? Special “Bob” lane on the highway and at the tolls, even a “No Parking – Except for Bob” sign. And the kicker – when “Bob” finally gets pulled over, the cop merely removes his sunglasses and says “Oh, it’s you Bob.” and lets our driver go.

There is a tale, perhaps apocryphal, that the “Bob” commercial was inspired by the legendary driving antics of Herbert von Karajan, who indeed had his own personal rules of the road (not to mention custom-built cars direct from the Porsche factory) during his salad days in Berlin. Of course, it meshed perfectly with von Karajan’s brilliantly-burnished reputation as the supremely talented, driven, impervious, willful, and accomplished Maestro to end all Maestros. Exceptional in all ways; a god among mortals. Now, fast-forward to 2007. Sir Simon Rattle, no slouch with the baton, is the kinder, gentler, face of the Berlin Philharmonic. But I doubt he has a “Singularly Simon” lane on the Autobahn. More to the point, the “Bob” ad comes to mind when I consider the changes – some would say crisis – wreaking havoc in the classical music world of today. It’s Topic A among any manager, agent, musician, administrator, (or even us hardy media producers) even remotely connected to the art form.

Earlier this summer the subject got a thorough going-over at Artsjournal.com with a “group blog” called Engaging Art: A Public Conversation, timed to coincide with the American Symphony Orchestral League (before they changed their name!) conference in Nashville, not to mention a new book called Engaging Art: The Next Great Transformation of America’s Cultural Life, edited by Steven Tepper and former NEA chief Bill Ivey.

As a public conversation, it’s pretty impressive stuff, with contributions from some of the industry’s heaviest hitters and deepest thinkers, offering opinions that range from brutally pessimistic to cautiously optimistic. It’s worth your time (and yes, it’ll TAKE time!) to read it all.

So what’s the verdict, and what does it have to with “Bob?” Reading through the anguish and the gallows humor, what emerges is that Age of Exceptionalism for classical music is over. The World (of music) Is Flat. Or, as the ever-salient Greg Sandow puts it, “..the arts don’t just represent art any more, since so much terrific art happens outside their boundaries. That makes the arts (as opposed to art) seem increasingly stale.”

Bingo! No more special lanes. No more customized parking spots….no more classical-music-only critics in Your Hometown Daily News for the 3 – 6 per cent of the population that attends classical music concerts. In the democratized world of iTunes, Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms need to compete with Beyonce, Bjork and the Notorious B.I.G..

Classical music is, in short, entering what Henry Jenkins of the MIT Media Lab describes as today’s “convergence culture:”” a new territory where old and new media intersect, where grassroots and corporate media collide, where the power of the media producer and power of the consumer interact in unpredictable ways.”

And that’s not necessarily a bad thing; it is, however, merely a game-changing, life-threatening disruption to the status quo. And while we’ve had our gaze upwards, watching what the ground tremors are doing to the mighty redwoods in
the forest, we haven’t looked closer to the ground, where there’s a riot of vitality, energy, and colorful new growth.

*Classical music accounts for 1-3% of sales in “traditional” stores: it’s 11% on iTunes.

*Just as an outsider – Apple & iTunes – re-shaped the recorded-music industry, MySpace (whose origins are far removed from the world of IMG and Columbia Artists) now has 3 million artist pages.

*The top “beach-listening podcasts” for the summer of 2007? Pat Conroy or Sue Grafton? Nuh-uh. Try “Pride and Prejudice” and a series called “The Classic Tales Podcast,” featuring works by Edgar Allen Poe, Arthur Conan Doyle and Thomas Hardy, on iTunes’s top 100 podcasts list. Who says intense listening to long-form artistic creations is dead?

*How about those 500-plus classical-music groups on Facebook?

*The record industry’s woes are well-documented, but what about the publishing industry? Last year ASCAP reported record revenues – and record royalty payments to its members, who divided up $680 million – a hefty 5 per cent increase.

*Finally, this vital statistic from the National Association of Music Manufacturers, who also reported record sales last year of musical gear, to the tune (sorry, couldn’t resist!) of $7.5 billion. The reason? According to their Harris-commissioned research, in 1997 about one in four Americans (24%) between the ages of 18-34 owned or played a musical instrument. In 2007, that number is now almost one in three – 32 percent!

What’s going on here? To be sure, this isn’t all due to the fact that kids putting down their Playstations and trudging over to the piano bench to learn Czerny etudes. But it does suggest that our commonly-taught and understood about the value, order, rank, and hierarchy of music – and music education – is being stood on its head. Henry Juszkiewicz, co-owner of Gibson Guitars, told the LA Times: “We are looking at the first creative generation,” “The cost of creative tools has gone down. And now you have the ability to share with other people your creation. These two fundamental, solid changes are allowing the younger generation to be actively creative .”

It could be argued, in fact that we are entering a new “Golden Age” of unprecedented access, discovery, and creation of music. Virtually the entire history of musical composition is only a few keystrokes away from the average American.

The dizzying pace of technological innovation has made the production and distribution of music similarly ubiquitous. “Mass Media” no longer means just mass consumption of content; it now represents mass creation.

So what about classical music, bent on teaching, preserving and showcasing starkly individual, timeless, and lofty musical ambitions? Will we be subjected to “Missa Solemnis Mashups?” That’s a scary thought to many. But we also have the potential now to perform a world-wide “Messiah meetup.” As it is today, people already line up around the block to do “Messiah sing-alongs.” Can you imagine staging a December event with Handel’s oratorio, arguably the most beloved (and certainly the most translated) work of Western music, using technology tools to make it truly a global mass-participation event? I can see the headlines now: “Handel Works Server Havoc: ‘Messiah’ Sing Meltdown.”

(Hey, I can dream, can’t I?)

But this is not to minimize, or trivialize, the challenge before the classical-music community. Once the “special lanes” are removed (and we are surely witnessing that on the fundraising level as well), the symphony orchestra, in the form as we know it today, may not survive my generation. In other words, Beethoven will still be around, but the context in how we hear, perform, and present Beethoven will be fundamentally altered in ways that we are just just beginning to glimpse. Strap in and hang on, because it’s going to be an exciting (and terrifying!) ride.

Lots more to say on this subject (the whole blog, really) but more about what’s popping up in the classical underbrush in coming days and weeks…


The Experience Economy (Engaging Art, Pt II)

Note to self: Spare the prose and save the reader.


Have to confess that after reading ALL of the various posts and comments in Doug McLennan’s “gangblog” called Engaging Art: A Public Conversation, my first takeaway is sheer exhaustion – we got some lonnnng posts, ripostes, and rants going on here! On Sunday Artsjournal.com Editor Doug McLennan attempted a rather breezy summary (links are mine; prose is Doug’s):

Robert (Levine) says he tends to think things stay the same. Greg (Sandow) suspects (okay, more than that) that fundamental change is afoot and that the traditional arts as we have known them in the recent past are finished. Moy (Eng) is energized by the possibilities of change, and Ed (Cambron) thinks the museum model for symphony orchestras might be the best. William Osborne seems to think that lack of public funding is at the root of all that ails us in America. And Molly (Sheridan)? She seems amused by all the hand-wringing. (have I managed to mangle and mischaracterize everyone’s positions?)

Steve Tepper, (from the Curb Center for Art, Enterprise & Public Policy, and one of the honchos behind the whole exercise), on the other hand, came back with an even more reductive summary:

Many of the postings and reactions to the book vacillate between “technological determinism” and “technological realism.” The first group imagines that our patterns of engagement will change dramatically because of the introduction of new technology, alerting us to a number of possible scenarios: death to experts and professionals; rampant choice and diversity; hyper-active and interactive audiences who dictate every detail of their experiences; constant mediation through screens and electronic devices; etc. The others tend to believe that there is nothing truly “new” about “new technology” and that it is simply returning us to habits and modes of engagement that were popular in earlier times. Others simply see technology as a useful tool, but not as transformative of social and cultural life.

Regardless if you are a determinist or a realist, I think it’s worth noting the rest of Doug McLennan’s commentary:

It’s interesting to me that everyone who creates anything these days is having some version of this conversation. Certainly anyone in the arts. But also Disney and CBS and Universal. And Starbucks and the Los Angeles Times and BMW and Coke. We’ve moved from being a service economy to an experience economy. Service is now assumed. The question is what’s the experience going to be.

Some of these entertainment companies (and even car companies now think of themselves as entertainment companies) have been losing audience at rates the arts would find catastrophic. Top-rated TV shows, radio stations, recording companies and newspapers are seeing their audiences down by 30-40-50 percent from what they were when the 90s began. By comparison, the 90s were the biggest expansion of the arts economy in American history. Even the softening of arts audience numbers since 9/11 is nothing compared to some of the retreats in the commercial sector.

The changes in audience behavior we’ve been talking about here are all things that commercial “content” makers are also addressing. I’m not sure they have any better answers than we do yet.

From my travels around the county I think he’s (mostly) right: these conversations are suddenly taking place, and not just in the creative arts. And everyone’s groping and guessing for clues, let alone answers. I say “mostly,” however, because there are still a few world-is-flat types who are putting their hands over their ears, intoning, “I cannn’t HEARRRRR YOU!” And too many of them are working in the music business. Oh, wait, I forgot: The world IS flat again….

The Arts in Atlanta

Another travel day for the RoeDeo, today passing through (as any Delta passenger inevitably must) the well-worn corridors of Atlanta-Hartsfield airport. And, being early to the gate, the lucky lottery winner of the Highly Coveted Electrical Outlet – incurring of course the Wrath and Envy of My Fellow Passengers. But, hey, I’m not being selfish, it’s not like I’ve got both the laptop AND the cellphone plugged in…as I’ve witnessed on previous journeys. A violation of the Unwritten Code of Airport Travelers Connectivity, in my book. Such is the life of modern-day travel for the biz-nizperson. On the plus side, your choice of three different Wi-Fi providers here, but the fact remains, is there an airport in the country that doesn’t have a pathetic paucity of kilo-juice in its waiting areas? Crown, Club, and Champagne rooms don’t count.

But I digress. I do that a lot. Logged a lot of Deltamiles to and from here during the Robert W. Woodruff Foundation years @ NPR, a remarkable decade-plus of support for cultural programming from a remarkable organization. (A few years ago in a big investigative piece on the administrative and accounting practices of charitable orgs, the Washington Post found that the RWW Foundation had one of the very lowest administrative and overhead costs [read: executive salaries!] of any major non-profit.) Anyway, from the Woodruff fund folks help to underwrite a whole slew of activities – live broadcasts, CD recordings, Olympic shows, choral masterworks conducted by the late Robert Shaw, the “King Celebration” concerts, just to name a few. And in return, they got the inevitable underwriting tagline that was a staple of NPR programming in the nineties: “…the Robert W. Woodruff Foundation, for coverage of the Arts in Atlanta.”

Needless to say, I still keep eyes and ears cocked as to whazzup with the Arts in Atlanta, which are in many respects flourishing: In the wee hours of this morning the Alliance Theatre Company was named a Tony winner for “Outstanding Regional Theatre Company;” The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra has a terrific and adventurous Music Director in Robert Spano – and they’re building a brand-new Santiago Calatrava-designed Symphony Center; the chamber music and jazz concerts at Spivey Hall are as terrific as ever, (old friend Pierre Ruhe of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution recently called it “the No. 1 attracter of musicians at the peak of their artistry, even if they’re not yet well-known names. ) and, in the NW Atlanta suburbs, the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre, boasting a 2,750 seat theatre, opens Sept. 15.

Witness, then, the strange story splashed across the front page of today’s Atlanta Journal-Constitution: “State of the Art Kennesaw Arts Center Closes:

“Less than a year after opening to great fanfare, the stage has gone dark at the privately owned $35 million Dozier Centre for the Performing Arts in Kennesaw.

Its state-of-the-art recording studios, video-editing facilities, dance studios and classrooms are empty, and about 530 performing arts students have been told there will be no more classes. Its resident theater company, the 5-year-old Big Top Theatre, has folded. And the Cobb Symphony Orchestra — which was thrilled to have a home after 56 years with no fixed address — has been given one year’s notice to leave.

On Saturday, the Dozier Centre will officially become a church.”

Huh? Whazzat? How can you design, develop, build, an arts center – and they really spend $35 million on a modest regional arts center? – and then fold it in LESS THAN A YEAR? HELLO??

“The journey from symphony to Psalms is a confusing story, made all the more mysterious because many key people involved — from multimillionaire founder Don Dozier to public officials — aren’t talking publicly.”

I’ll bet it’s confusing. And the article makes it even more so. You have to read down a bit, but you do eventually discover that this church they’re talking about is also being run by the self-same millionaire Mister Dozier, who was “inspired by the musical artistry of his daughter, Emma,” to build the 85,000 square foot facility (including a 614-seat concert hall) in the first place. Until, I guess, zoning rules and politics interceded. Or maybe just bad acoustics were to blame? Pierre Ruhe also labled the Dozier as a doozy of a “Disappointment” for 2006:

The Dozier Centre for the Performing Arts, which opened in August in Kennesaw, should have been a fine new music hall for the northern suburbs. A music and education center, the facility looks great, but clogged acoustics mean it’s yet another of metro Atlanta’s mediocre spaces for music.”

Ouch. Still, a passing strange story from the Southland today….