On a Pacific Aisle
Notes from the left coast by the classical music critic of the San Francisco Chronicle
Saturday, May 31, 2008
Thursday, May 22, 2008
This Magic Moment (one in a series)
Brahms, A German Requiem, first movement, nine measures after B
This one snuck up on me during last night's San Francisco Symphony concert, I suppose because I hadn't listened to or thought much about the German Requiem in a few years. My autonomic nervous system knew what was coming, though. About ten seconds before this passage, I suddenly got a little Pavlovian telegram from deep inside that said, "Something you love is about to happen"; a few seconds later I remembered what it was, and sat upright in gleeful anticipation.
On one level, the effect here is fairly standard word-painting. The psalm text shifts from Tränen to Freuden, and Brahms dutifully injects a note of joy into the music; Schütz, the presiding spirit throughout so much of the German Requiem, would have understood and approved.
But what I find particularly moving about this passage is the method Brahms uses to convey a sense of exaltation: He quickens the rhythmic pulse of the music, without changing the tempo or the meter at all. This is a characteristically Brahmsian trick (I'm pretty sure he does something similar in the Second Piano Concerto, although I can't put my finger on it at the moment), adapted from the Renaissance polyphonists he knew and loved so well. And it's a contrast to Wagner, say, who when he wants a change in tempo simply indicates a change in tempo.
What Brahms does here, it seems to me, carries rich metaphorical weight: It's a musical image of locating joy in the mundane. The surrounding structures remain constant, but within the constraints they establish, there's room for the sublime. And the effect is only heightened by its being so temporary — within a few measures the feeling of exaltation has passed, and we're back to the steady, thrumming quarter-note pulse of the opening. But during those few short moments, we had a little glimpse of heaven. Nothing changed, and everything changed.
Tuesday, May 13, 2008
Der fliehender Holland
I was just sitting down to write something about Bernard Holland's strange review of Paul Lewis's piano recital when La Cieca brought word that Holland has taken a buyout and is on his way out. So let me return to Paul Lewis another day, and instead take the opportunity to say a word or two about the former chief music critic of the New York Times.
Holland's work has come in for a good share of bashing around the blögôsphère over the years, and today's news will probably unleash more. But on the old Latin principle of de exemptis nil nisi bonum (speak no ill of the bought-out), I'd rather laud his virtues. For me, three in particular stand out.
• Holland has a remarkable ability to conjure up the essence of a composer or a piece of music in a few deftly chosen words. He is, I think, an aphorist of unparalleled virtuosity. I remember as though it were yesterday — and good Lord, it's been 11 years! — the awe and envy I felt on encountering over my morning coffee this passage about Giacinto Scelsi:
The music, with its emphasis on single tones or at least the implication of a single tone, exchanges one dimension for another. Beethoven has length; Scelsi has depth. A Beethoven sonata begins at the front door, takes a trip, meets new friends, goes home. A Scelsi piece closes the front door and digs in the basement.
That paragraph is both beautiful and true. But even when Holland's notions about a particular piece or about music history in general are wrong-headed — which, let's face it, they often are — they're expressed with wonderful efficiency. He can pack more into a couple of allusive sentences than many of us can into a painstakingly argued paragraph.
• At his best, Holland has been a fearless critic. It's hard to recall now, after so many years during which his anti-modernist bent has hardened into unexamined shtick, replete with reflexive, ill-considered sneers at everyone from Schoenberg on down.
But there was a time when that position was both better argued (on his part) and presented in the context of a more fraught cultural environment. The emperor's-new-clothes argument put forth by Andrew Porter and his ilk — "you'd love Elliott Carter's music as much as I do if only you were as smart as I am" — carried a certain coercive force, and it took real courage to face that down.
Here's Holland, writing in 1988 about Carter's Piano Concerto:
I believe I share with the large majority of musical audiences — trained and otherwise — an utter defeat before most of Mr. Carter's music. Full of energy, power and impressive sophistication though it may be, it occupies a world remote from my senses. The cognoscenti who extol his genius ask us to try harder so that we, too, may leave the ranks of the unwashed and join the anointed.
Posterity, furthermore, fills us with dread; for none of us wish to join the philistines of history who sneered at Schumann and made Berlioz's life a misery. We are in effect buyers in a futures market. The recognition of greatness is the commodity, and none of us want to miss a chance to get in on the ground floor. . .
My broker says, ''Buy.'' My heart says, ''Don't.''
• Finally, Holland has a delightful willingness to get weird, to do the quirky and unexpected thing. I understand that's what drives his detractors crazy — it often drives me crazy too — but when it works, he comes up with stuff no one else could ever have thought of. Who can forget his mad decision to include Count Basie in a roundup of minimalist CDs?
But the best Holland moment ever — and for years I used to bring up this episode whenever anyone said a word against him — happened sometime in the early '80s. (I suppose I could now confirm the details of this story in the Times archives, but I prefer to cling to my memories of it — as the late great Herb Caen used to say about a good yarn, "check it and lose it.")
Holland got sent to Fort Worth to cover the Van Cliburn Competition, and he dutifully filed the necessary reports on all the subsidiary rounds and on the eventual winner. But then, before he packed up and came home, he filed one last report. It was a scene-setter about Dallas nightlife, and in particular about the hard-drinking, rough-and-tumble milieu in a cowboy bar of the sort depicted in the John Travolta/Debra Winger flick Urban Cowboy — mechanical bull and all.
And because it was all done in the best New York Times third-person style — completely straight-faced, completely impersonal — I was two-thirds of the way through the article before it dawned on me what he'd done. He'd gone out and got shit-faced after the competition, and then turned it into a feature for the Times.
Seriously, how can you not admire that kind of journalistic enterprise? Ten to one he put his whole bar tab on his expense report.
Update: Aah, I couldn't resist (sorry, Herb). Turns out the bar was in Fort Worth, not Dallas; it was in 1989, not the early '80s; and there was no bull. Otherwise, though, I'd say my recollection of Holland's brief stint as the Hunter Thompson of classical music criticism wasn't far off the mark.
Wednesday, May 07, 2008
Mi chiamano Meme
When Lisa Hirsch first tagged me with the latest blog meme, I was inclined to let the whole thing pass, partly because I didn't (and still don't) quite grok the point of the exercise and partly because, like Matthew Guerrieri, I had a suspicion I'd seen this one come around before. But when I got double-teamed by the Detritus boys, I figured it was time to hunker down and do as I'd been told (acknowledging that in the meantime, Patrick V. had definitively whupped my ass in the punning-blog-post-title sweepstakes).
So to reiterate, the assignment is like this:
1. Pick up the nearest book.
2. Open to page 123.
3. Find the fifth sentence.
4. Post the next three sentences.
5. Tag five people, and acknowledge who tagged you.
The nearest book to hand these days is The Vicar of Bullhampton, the 36th leg of my life-nourishing pilgrimage through all 46 novels of Anthony Trollope, and the relevant passage looks like this:
"My lord, his father's house is his own, to entertain whom he may please, as much as is yours. And were I to suggest to you to turn out your daughters, it would be no worse an offence than your suggesting to Mr. Brattle that he should turn out his son."
"Yes, your daughters, my lord."
Taken out of context like that, this exchange probably sounds a little Pythonesque. You'll have to take my word for it that the processes of chance have actually coughed up a rather exquisite little moment (Cage would've been delighted), as the fearless and dry-witted title character deftly punctures the hauteur of the odious Marquis of Trowbridge by daring to speak of his wizened spinster daughters in the same breath as young Sam Brattle. The vicar's offense is so grave, in fact, that later, after stewing about it all the way home, the marquis will write an outraged letter of complaint to the bishop, which that wise clergyman will duly laugh off.
But rather than dwelling on this passage, let me take the opportunity to don my fanatic's hat and proselytize for the splendors of Trollope's work. He's the Heinrich Schütz of English literature, the greatest creative artist whose work the average educated Joe doesn't know at all. (Years ago, I ran into a local arts writer on the street while toting a volume of Trollope under my arm. He was intrigued and nonplussed. Trollope's was a new name to him, he said, adding fatuously, "and I'm very well-read!")
Even those who know of Trollope may not realize what a treasure lies here undiscovered. One reason is that too many readers are introduced to him through The Warden or Barchester Towers, two of his dullest and least successful novels. A related problem is the likelihood of coming to Trollope from Dickens, who is admittedly zestier, broader in scope and of course far funnier. If you pick up The Warden while under the impression that Dickens represents the summa of Victorian literature — as I originally did, all those years ago — you could easily conclude that Trollope's writing is wan, flavorless stuff.
But start somewhere else and you will soon find a writer keenly alive to the moral and interpersonal struggles that all of us go through daily, and able to render them with both vividness and subtlety. Trollope's great party trick is to get his characters into moral quandaries that are brought about through no one's fault, but from which there is really no virtuous way out. Sometimes the plotting required is, in its quiet way, worthy of Feydeau. In He Knew He Was Right, for instance, a young clergyman who is a little dull-witted but not at all malicious manages to let each of two sisters believe she is engaged to marry him; yet if you go back through their conversations it's nearly impossible to find the moment when he could have acted otherwise than as he did.
Another of Trollope's great themes is the politics of personal strength, the quality that determines the winner in a battle of wills. The Way We Live Now features, among other things, a young man who can't break up with the American divorcée he's seeing and marry the girl he loves because — well, because she won't let him, that's all. And like any Victorian novelist, Trollope is fantastically good on the question of how to decide what to do with your life (even if the distaff version of that question is, inevitably, "whom shall I marry?").
As I say, Trollope lacks Dickens' verbal flair, but he also completely lacks Dickens' taste for bathos; there's no Little Nell dying laughably within his pages. He also boasts a degree of moral nuance that Dickens — whose characters are almost all clad in big black or white hats — sorely lacks (and by the way, read Richard Russo's Straight Man for the definitive moral takedown of David Copperfield). The one danger in taking up Trollope, in fact, is that you may find your love of Dickens sorely tested.
So where to begin, then? Well, despite what I said earlier, Trollope's greatest achievements are the two six-book series, the Barchester and Palliser novels. The catch is that each of those really must be read in a single stretch; themes and characters recur throughout, and in each series, the last novel only attains its full grandeur with specific reference to the first.
The best single novels, in my opinion, are He Knew He Was Right, as heartbreaking a portrait of obsession and marital dysfunction as was ever written; The Way We Live Now, Trollope's bold, slightly overambitious attempt to take in the entire sweep of Victorian culture in a single book; and The Bertrams, which Tolstoy specially admired.
Those are enough to let you know whether Trollope is your cup of tea. If he is, then other joys await — not only the two great series, but also obscure and no less wonderful gems: Lady Anna, an unusually frank (for Trollope) examination of the class system; the dark morality tale An Eye for an Eye; John Caldigate and Rachel Ray, twin indictments of religious fanaticism; the fresh-faced comedy of The Belton Estate; or the autumnal sweetness of Trollope's last novel, An Old Man's Love.
And more, and more, and more. Because here's the clincher: Trollope wrote 46 novels, most of them in the 500-800 page range. He published, on average, two or three a year, writing for four hours every morning before trooping off to his day job with the Post Office (in addition to his literary accomplishments, he also came up with the idea of the street-corner mailbox). And with one or two exceptions (avoid The Fixed Period at all costs), they're all good.
So once you join the cult, you can be sure that you will never go hungry again. In this respect, Trollope-lovers are the happiest people on the planet. We smile benevolently upon the Jane Austeners, rereading the same six dog-eared books over and over and over; but in our hearts we pity them, and feel grateful to have escaped their fate.
Time now to tag others. Since this meme has bounced around the classical blögôsphère pretty comprehensively, I think I'll pass the torch to some literary, non-musical blogger friends: Cowboy Dave Dickerson (no, he ain't a fer-real cowboy, but he is one helluva stud), Eric Berlin, and Francis Heaney. We'll see what they come up with.
Monday, May 05, 2008
The news on the rialto today is that the Chicago Symphony has signed Riccardo Muti as its next music director, effective in 2010. Bloggers are passing the news from site to site, but I haven't seen any commentary yet on what it all means, or whether or not this is a good call, and why. Big Marc? Andrew? How say you both?
I'd speculate myself, if I knew a damn thing on the subject. My own experience with Muti live has been sparse and inconclusive, and in any case, the issue is not about this performance or that, but the day-to-day operations, both musical and non-. I accept the maestro's testimony, and that of orchestra president Deborah Card, that his recent collaborations with the orchestra have been all kinds of wonderful. But I'm curious about his stated commitment to doing all the grunt work — the auditioning, the fund-raising, the administrative stuff — that comes with an American music directorship. This was the sticking point for Barenboim, and supposedly in Muti's negotiations with the New York Phil. What changed his mind?
The more interesting point, though, is the direction that the orchestra has chosen to go with this appointment. In general, I think there are deep and revealing parallels to be drawn between the building of a sports franchise — a baseball team, say — and an orchestra, and I live in hope that someone who actually knows something about sports (why not Matthew?) will lay out the analogy in detail.
Yet even with my spotty knowledge of baseball, I grasp that, roughly speaking, you can try to win a pennant either by a) attracting proven, high-performing (and therefore expensive) talent — that's the George Steinbrenner method — or b) building a team out of young and still-developing players. The same sorts of options present themselves to orchestra managers.
The problem with the second plan is that it takes time — as well as a good nose for talent. The Pittsburgh and Dallas Symphonies, for instance, have both committed themselves to young, little-known Europeans (Manfred Honeck and Jaap van Zweden, respectively). That means a period of a few years in which those orchestras' reputations and achievements will be more or less put on hold while everybody gets used to each other. And at the end of that time, the leadership is going to look like geniuses or jackasses, depending on how things work out.
To hire Muti, on the other hand, is like signing — well, whoever stepped into Reggie Jackson's cleats after I stopped following baseball. Let's assume that, as with the Yankees, money is no object for the CSO, and figure that, like Jackson, Muti can hit the symphonic long ball. Still, the catch here is that you're grabbing today's glory at the potential expense of tomorrow's. I'm not saying that's a bad decision — who else deserves a conductor like Muti if not the CSO? — only that it's got a comparatively short-term payoff horizon. (Is that a real phrase? If not, I'm proud to have invented it.)
To see the risk of this kind of strategy, you only have to look at our friends the New York Phil, always the poster child for bass-ackwards game-theory decisions. They wanted a big-name music director and couldn't get one; they bought time with Maazel; they bought more time; they wound up back where they started. Taking the long view when it mattered could have helped them avoid that embarrassment (by which I don't mean either the appointment of Maazel or Gilbert, but rather the fumfering and flailing that accompanied them).
On the other hand, there's something smart and self-fulfilling about refusing to settle for anyone but a proven, older, A-list conductor (for as long as there are any around). It makes your orchestra seem consequential, as indeed it should. "We're the Chicago Symphony, dammit!" There's something kinda thrilling about an attitude like that.
Friday, May 02, 2008
I first read The Little Prince at 7, and when I was through I wept with such unbridled, full-throated abandon that my mother speaks of the incident to this day. When I reread it last week in preparation for tonight's opening of the Rachel Portman opera, the book turned out to be twee, smug and sentimental. Who knew?
Not until last night did it occur to me that the problem lay not in the text, but in the reader. Just as Saint-Exupéry had predicted, I've lost the ability to appreciate his little fable. I've become that most benighted of beings, a grownup. How sad.
On the other hand, I can drink scotch now. On balance, I think I got the better end of that bargain.