Thursday, January 31, 2008

See Those Two Little Dots?

So now we've had two Schubert "Great" C-Major Symphonies in the space of two weeks — led, respectively, by Michael Tilson Thomas in San Francisco and Kent Nagano in Berkeley — and neither conductor took the exposition repeat in the first movement. What's up with that?

I know there's a line of thought out there that says that repeats, and Schubert's repeats in particular, are kinda sorta optional. (Alfred Brendel wrote something to this effect in an essay in the New York Review of Books a number of years back, and I really ought to try to dig it up, because the argument couldn't possibly be as flimsy as it seemed at the time.) But I'm not buying. What's the thinking, that we're all busy people with someplace else to get to? Wouldn't the default position be to, y'know, play what the composer wrote? Maybe I should just be grateful they did all the movements.

Because look, the narrative in a traditional sonata-form movement isn't "Here's some music, now we'll mess it around, now it all comes out nice in the tonic." It's "Here's some music — wait, you sure you've got it fixed in your mind? OK, now we'll mess it around, etc." Skipping the exposition repeat jettisons a structurally essential part of that narrative. It's like a card trick in which the magician doesn't bother to make certain everyone sees the card that's been drawn.

Not only that, but you can lose some great music in the process (though not, admittedly, in the Schubert C-Major). In my callow youth, I got to know the Brahms First through a recording that omitted the first-movement repeat — and with it, one of the most glorious moments in that movement. I'm talking about the jolting shift from E-flat minor back to C minor by sheer force of compositional fiat, a grandchild of Beethoven's similarly willful move from E-flat to C as he launches the coda to the first movement of the "Eroica." It was years before I heard Brahms' scintillating passage, all because some conductor (Bruno Walter, I think, though I could be wrong) decided to drop it on the floor.

I don't mean to be doctrinaire about this, except that yes I do. As a general rule, the composer knows more than you do, for most values of "you." So play the damn repeat, why don'tcha. Or if you don't think Schubert's music is interesting enough to hold up for two go-rounds, then program, I don't know, Respighi or J. C. Bach instead. Sheesh.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Margaret Truman, R.I.P.

I think I can speak for all working music critics when I say that the threat of a punch in the snout from a sitting president is the kind of honor most of us can only dream of.

Read It and Weep

I was sad to have to skip Sunday's Berkeley performance of Messiaen's Vingt Regards by the brilliant Christopher Taylor (called out of town by an unmissable opportunity). Then I read Patrick Vaz's beautiful account of the recital, and was heartbroken.

Monday, January 21, 2008

The Virtual Reviewer

Innovative as ever, Bernard Holland pioneers the New Music Criticism® in this morning's New York Times:
Anyone familiar with the reputations of these three singers can imagine the quality of the performances.

Yessss. I think my work life is about to get a whole lot easier.

• Anyone with an internet connection can determine the music on the program and the names of the performers.

• Anyone with access to the New Grove can learn the background and history of these pieces.

• Anyone familiar with my work can imagine my critical reaction to the evening's performances.

Anyone familiar with music criticism can imagine the possibilities.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Modern Music Explained

During intermission after last night's San Francisco Symphony performance of À l'Île de Gorée, Xenakis' exciting but slightly daunting 1986 harpsichord concerto, I happened to overhear a white-haired subscriber just at the moment of what seemed to be a genuine revelation.

"Oh I see," she said to her friend — "it's weird. Like a Picasso."

Which not only sums it up, as far as I'm concerned, but throws the spotlight, for about the millionth time, on the central problem of 20th-century music. Why is Picasso a useful reference point for understanding Xenakis (or Schoenberg, or Bartók, or Stockhausen) rather than vice versa? Why is there such a vast gap in the rate of acceptance of novelty between music and the other arts (all of them, really)?

It could be a historical anomaly, since it's more obviously true of the 20th century than earlier periods. It could be a function of inherent differences in the art forms (e.g., musical performances unfolding in real time vs. paintings that can be taken in at a glance), although that dodges other questions. Maybe it's a matter of economic and societal influences, or maybe Picasso was a better painter than Schoenberg was a composer (whatever that might mean, exactly). Hell if I know.

What we need is a cultural version of Jared Diamond's magnificent Guns, Germs, and Steel, explaining how different art forms can start out in the same place and wind up so far apart. I bet it all goes back to crop domestication and food surpluses.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Wälsungs in Shropshire

The NYT has the story.
A brother and sister who were parted at birth and adopted by different families married without knowing of their biological relationship, and then won an annulment, a leading anti-abortion campaigner, David Alton, said in the House of Lords on Friday.


A parliamentary transcript of the peer’s December speech, published this week, quoted him as saying that the couple were never told they had been born as twins. “They met later and felt an inevitable attraction, and the judge had to deal with the consequences,” he said.

Thursday, January 03, 2008


Baltimore audiences know new music, to judge from this heartening snippet of Alex Ross's article on Marin Alsop's first season:
John Adams drew a sizable house for his concerts; Tan Dun's sold poorly.