Friday, April 27, 2007

Slava, R.I.P.

The world is a quieter and sadder place today.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

News from the Big Apple

New York, April 25 — Conceding that the task of finding a music director to succeed Lorin Maazel was "far beyond our capabilities," officials of the New York Philharmonic yesterday announced a plan to make the orchestra's podium available to "anyone who wants to take a crack at" the job.

"After years of trying to locate and hire a music director who would make this organization culturally relevant again," executive director Zarin Mehta said at an imaginary press conference, "we had to finally accept the fact that we simply don't know how to do it.

"I mean, we're flailin' here."

Instead of appointing a single music director whose artistic vision could provide the orchestra with a distinctive character and sense of direction, Mehta said the new plan — which he called the "wiki model" of orchestra management — would divide leadership among a principal conductor, various guest conductors, a composer-in-residence, a festival director, and the guy who brings the donuts to the morning staff meetings.

"If collaborative projects like Wikipedia teach us anything," he said, "it's that the collective intelligence of a community is always better than a single guiding figure. Right here in the orchestra world, you can look at the Pittsburgh Symphony's experiment with multiple leadership — that was a tremendous success.

"Oh wait, no it wasn't."

The New York Philharmonic's move comes on the heels of the Los Angeles Philharmonic's electrifying decision to appoint 26-year-old Gustavo Dudamel as its next music director — a development that Mehta treated with barely concealed scorn.

"This whole idea of conductors being exciting, dynamic, or innovative figures has been completely discredited," he said. "Look, this orchestra tried something similar with Leonard Bernstein, and that was a total fiasco.

"Oh wait, no it wasn't."

The ghost of Virgil Thomson declined to comment.

Update: Matthew Guerrieri maps it out for you.

Monday, April 16, 2007

I Give Up

Composer, pianist, conductor, critic, blogger extraordinaire — and now hilarious cartoonist to boot? It is to weep.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Frame Down

If 4' 33" adds a frame where none had been, the widely remarked-on Joshua Bell stunt does the converse. Take the Bach Chaconne out of the museum and plunk it down in the subway at rush hour, and it turns out that many people don't recognize it as Great Art — or have too many other things on their mind to react to it with the kind of pious reverence some might expect.

I'm not sure why this comes as such a surprise to so many people. As Cage understood and demonstrated, the presence of the gilt frame is not value-free; it fundamentally changes, even defines, our experience of art.

The writer does uncover some fascinating variations among the responses to Bell the busker, and I'm not wholly out of sympathy with the exercise. But he lost me early, with this bit of transparent phoniness:
These were masterpieces that have endured for centuries on their brilliance alone, soaring music befitting the grandeur of cathedrals and concert halls.

Oh please. Next time around, let's put a priest in the metro station elevating the Host, and see how many commuters stop to take communion.

Frame Up

Belatedly catching up with Steve Smith's eloquent recap of Pierre-Laurent Aimard's Zankel Hall concert, I was startled to find him treating Cage's 4' 33" as though it were an O. Henry story, susceptible to plot spoilers:
At its inception, 4' 33" was about challenging preconceived ideas of listening as mediated by the concert hall experience. That's a good trick, but it really only works once, after which reported accounts spoil the surprise.

With all respect, that's nonsense — as I, at least, discovered the first time I actually heard the piece performed, after years of merely knowing about it. Sure, 4' 33" is "about" rethinking the way we listen, but only in the same sense and to the same extent that Beethoven's Ninth is "about" rethinking the question of whether a symphony can have words in it. Before either piece has that kind of propositional content, it has auditory content.

4' 33" consists of a particular group of sounds, around which Cage placed the gilt frame of Art. Experiencing the piece means listening to those sounds, no less than in the case of the Sibelius Violin Concerto. It doesn't sound like Aimard was prepared to let anyone do that.

To suppose, as Steve and evidently Aimard do, that the ideas behind the piece exhaust its essence is like mistaking the act of putting an item on a to-do list (memo to self: listen attentively to ambient sounds) with actually, you know, doing it. I would never claim that 4' 33" repays as much repeated listening as Der Ring des Nibelungen — that's one of the things that makes the latter a greater work of art — but once would probably be a good start, spoiler or no.

Afterthought: I once heard the poet and memoirist Mary Karr talking in a radio interview about the importance of memorizing poetry. She said that a poem is the only kind of artwork that you can keep with you in all its dimensions, and that struck me as wise and true. Your memory of Le Sacre or The Potato Eaters or Moby-Dick will never be other than incomplete, but memorize Kubla Khan and you can carry it with you in its entirety. It occurs to me that 4' 33" — which you can arrange to have performed for you at any time you choose — may actually be in the same category.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Profiles in Courage

Until today's news that 26-year-old Gustavo Dudamel would be taking the reins of the L.A. Phil, I didn't think there was anything an American orchestra could do that would surprise me quite this much. Well, let's rephrase that. I didn't think there was anything that would fill me with such awe at an orchestra's sheer fearlessness (as opposed to thinking, "Jeez, I would never have guessed that even [exec's name here] could come up with something this bone-headed").

Awe, and also a bit of unease. This is a kid, fer chrissake — and after 15 minutes of genius they're going to toss him the keys to the van and say, "Here, you drive now"? How good could that Tchaikovsky Five at the Hollywood Bowl have been? How good does the Tchaikovsky Five get?

It's the kind of thing that makes you want to mutter, "I sure hope you folks know what you're doing" — if not for the fact that Deborah Borda, the L.A. Phil's executive director, is someone who knows exactly what she's doing. And so a decision that might have seemed entirely dubious coming from any number of other administrators becomes an insanely, excitingly bold step in a new direction.

Really, the joke's on me. Like a lot of people, I've been whining for years about orchestras that make safe, obvious, overly pasteurized decisions. And now that the Phil has decided to take a big blind leap into the semi-unknown — to take a risk that's truly worthy of the name — it's like that bluff has been called. I can't wait to see how it all shakes out.