Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Handel's Messiah

What is it about Handel’s Messiah that continues to move and thrill us year after year? George Frideric Handel wrote many oratorios in addition to the Messiah, and many of them are often performed. But perhaps no other works of the composer, none of his operas and oratorios, popular as they are in their own right, have achieved the universal appeal of this one single work. Every Christmas, we will find presentations of Handel’s Messiah in many different countries all over the world, performed by ensembles making up of the world’s greatest singers and orchestras to church choirs with piano accompaniment. Years ago, a recording of Handel’s oratorio came out of communist China, an officially atheistic country that continues to persecute Christians, especially Catholics, sung in Mandarin!

In Vancouver, the annual performance of Handel’s Messiah is usually done by one of three major choirs in the city. This year the honour went to the Vancouver Chamber Choir, a professional choir making up of trained and experienced singers, augmented by the Pacifica Singers, and conducted by Jon Washburn. The four soloists - Yulia Van Doren, Laura Pudwell, Colin Balzer and Tyler Duncan – did an outstanding job with the various recitatives and arias. I particular enjoyed the timbre of the two male voices and what they did with their respective solos. Soprano Yulia Van Doren has an extremely beautiful voice, but I feel that the clarity of her diction suffers a bit at the expense of this beautiful sound. All the soloists exuded palpable pleasure in what they did.

As much as the arias and recitatives were beautiful in the Messiah, the various choruses are for me the crown jewels of the work. The two choirs did a magnificent job Saturday evening, singing the music with lightness, agility, and much joy. Jon Washburn did a credible job in keeping all the performing forces together; I do, however, miss the energy that Bernard Labadie brought to the work in a previous performance, as well as his pacing of the music.

Why do audiences continue to flock to performances of Handel’s Messiah?

In attempting to become inclusive, our city, in fact, the western world, thought that one must erase one’s own traditions and customs and beliefs to make room for “the others”. Christianity is being rejected for a wide range of “reasons” by those who come from or brought up in such a tradition. The trend, at least for the last decade, has been to reject anything that has to do with one’s parents, one’s parents’ generation, European-centred or European-originated. This whole discussion of Diversity and Inclusiveness has been taken to mean rejecting out of hand anything western, rather than becoming INclusive – to include one’s own roots and traditions, including religion if religion is part of one’s makeup, while exploring, respecting, and understanding others’ cultures, beliefs, traditions, languages, and religions.

We therefore live in a time when Christianity has been increasingly marginalized from our consciousness as well as from the public square. When I witness the continued popularity of the Messiah, I can only assume, or hope, that there exists within all of us a yearning for the message contained within this magnificent work of art, brought alive by the genius of George Frideric Handel.

Recordings by Arthur Rubinstein

Oh, how I wish I have the extra cash!

SONY Classics is announcing the release of Arthur Rubinstein – the Complete Album Collection. According to the product description on Amazon, this is a collection of 142 CD’s, absolutely everything that the pianist ever recorded. From the earliest recordings the pianist made for HMV in England from 1928 to 1940, to the incredible series of recordings he did for RCA Victor until he retired from the concert stage. This collection will be even more comprehensive than The Arthur Rubinstein Collection, released about a decade ago by BMG Classics, which consisted of only about 80 plus CD’s. The collection includes two Carnegie Hall concerts that Mr. Rubinstein gave in 1961. At risk of sounding like a television infomercial, you also get a DVD of Rubinstein Remembered, a PBS documentary on the great pianist, and a 164-page hardcover book. It can all be yours for a little over $300.

I did not have the good fortune of hearing Mr. Rubinstein in concert, but I do remember the excitement every time a new recording of his came out. To be truthful, I do already own quite a number of the pianist’s recordings on compact discs – part of the aforementioned The Arthur Rubinstein Collection. Listening to those recordings now, I continue to be moved by Mr. Rubinstein’s interpretation and playing. For a discography that is as vast as that of Arthur Rubinstein, there will be many highlights. There are of course the pianists many recordings of the works of Chopin, many of which he recorded more than once. In addition, Mr. Rubinstein made some of the most beautiful recordings of both the concerti and solo works of Johannes Brahms. There are some surprises as well, such as his only recording of George Gershwin’s Second Prelude.

Fortunately for us, Mr. Rubinstein was actively recording at a time when the market was not saturated with dozens or more recordings of the same work. Therefore, there are pieces that the pianist was able to re-record, sometimes three or four times. Listening to the same pieces played at different stages of the pianist’s career afford us a glimpse into his artistic development as well as his insights into many of these musical masterpieces. One thing that I do notice is that the young Mr. Rubinstein played with a great deal more freedom than he did in his later years. If I have one criticism of the later recordings, it is that sometimes he played a shade too carefully.

Mr. Rubinstein was different from many virtuoso of his generation in his devotion to chamber music playing. He has, from his earliest years, played chamber music with some of the greatest string players of the century. In his discography, there are many wonderful performances of sonatas, piano trios, quartets and quintets by Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart, Schubert, Schumann, Dvorak, Ravel, and Tchaikovsky. He had a long term relationship with the Guarneri String Quartet, and many concerts and recordings emerged from that friendship.

In an age where the performer often receives more attention than the composer, or even the music, Mr. Rubinstein’s many beautiful recordings remind us of a time when the performer, however great his or her talents, work to serve the music. When he was listening to playbacks of music that he had just recorded, Mr. Rubinstein often said that was a time for him to “take his lesson.” Those who have worked with him, from his fellow performers to recording engineers, often commented upon his complete humility in the face of the composer and the music. Perhaps because of this, we hear a playing that is both simple and direct, and always beautiful.

I might just break open that piggy bank under my bed and see if what is there…

Monday, November 21, 2011

Pianist Lilya Zilberstein

Pianist Lilya Zilberstein gave a solo recital in Vancouver last Friday. Although not quite as familiar to North American concert audiences, Miss Zilberstein, a graduate of Moscow’s Gnessin Pedagogical Institute, is highly regarded in Europe, playing with such artists as Maxim Vengerov and Martha Argerich. Her recording of Rachmaninoff’s 2nd and 3rd piano concerti with Claudio Abbado and the Berlin Philharmonic is spectacular.

Zilberstein has to be credited with original programming for her recital – Chopin’s Rondo in C Minor, Op. 1, Variations brillantes sur le rondeau favori “Je vends des scapulaires” de Ludovic, Op. 12, and the Sonata in C Minor, Op. 4. After the interval, she essayed Beethoven’s Twenty-four Variations in D Major on the arietta “Venni amore” by Righini and the almost-too-well-known Sonata in F Minor, the “Appassionata.”

Other than the Rondo, Op. 1, the Chopin pieces played in the first half were almost all unfamiliar to me. I had seen the score of the composer’s first piano sonata, but had never heard it played. In these early works by Chopin, we can already hear the characteristics that are unique to the composer. However, I cannot help but feel that Chopin had not yet become the Chopin we know and love in these early compositions. I feel that Chopin, at this stage of his musical development, was still thinking more as a pianist than as a composer. In his mature works, the technical and musical challenges to the pianist are parts of the inherent structure of the music, not difficulties for the sake of pianistic effects. The same can perhaps be said about the set of variations by Beethoven.

Miss Zilberstein’s recital was an incredible display of effortless, immaculate, and impeccable piano playing. She has a perfect technique that allows her to do almost anything at the keyboard. I must confess, however, that I came away unmoved by the music making that evening. At first I thought it was perhaps of the chosen repertoire, but I was equally unaffected emotionally by her playing of Beethoven’s Appassionata.

I hope to hear Ms. Zilberstein again, because she is obviously a very great musical talent and dedicated artist. No musician can really be fairly judged on the strength of a single performance. We must be grateful to Vancouver’s Chopin Society for bringing to our stages such internationally renowned artists for these past years. The large and appreciative audience once again shows that live music is alive and well.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

On the Arts

Queen’s University in Ontario just announced that it will be closing its fine arts programme, citing a shortage of resources to continue to sustain the programme.

This is only another reminder of how the arts have been relegated to the sidelines in our society. In Canada and the United States, whenever there are cutbacks, the arts are always the first to suffer. In Vancouver, we spend millions of dollars just to build a new roof for the stadium, but the Queen Elizabeth Theatre, a “multipurpose” hall (which only means that it does not serve any purpose at all) that is home to the city’s opera company, has deplorable acoustics that is a disgrace to our beautiful city. Even the Orpheum Theatre, home to the symphony, is no more than a converted movie house, despite its superficial splendour and opulence.

Newspaper would devote pages to an “Arts and Leisure” or “Arts and Entertainment” section. The implication is, of course, that art and music are things that we do when we have nothing better to do, or that the arts serve no greater purpose than to entertain us. Radio stations advertise “easy listening” music – to me listening to music far from “easy.”

When will we begin to realize that the arts – music, theatre, painting and sculpture – are essential to life? Imagine a world where everything has to be “useful”, and that we are all doctors and engineers, as much as these are noble professions.

Arts organizations, in order to attract new supporters, have had to resort to clever advertising tactics and glossy brochures, in order to project an image that they are just as “funky” as anyone else. Instead of educating the public, elevating the public, to an appreciation of the arts, we now rely on marketing in order to bring people into our concert halls and art galleries. The result is that audience relies on advertising and newspapers to tell them what they should see and hear. Another result is the mass marketing of artists, something that is especially apparent in the world of Classical music. Just look at the latest album cover for pianist Lang Lang, an example of arts marketing taken to the extreme. Those who are willing, so to speak, to sell their souls to the devil, will succeed, whereas many true artists unwilling to compromise end up playing to empty halls, if they get any engagements at all.

I am a great believer in government support of the arts, something that European governments have been doing for a long time. If we devote resources to education, to sports, to healthcare, or to social services, we should, we must, devote as much resources to the arts.
Why do we have the phenomenon of fully enrolled Music Programs at universities and of an overwhelming number of young people being given private music lessons, but not seeing these same young people at concerts and other performances? Home is where the nurturing of music and arts appreciation takes place. How can we create awareness among parents to include arts in their upbringing of their children – museum visits, going to concerts, looking at paintings, even once-a-year’s attendance of the Nutcracker or plays by the local theatre companies?

Leonard Bernstein, that great musician and educator, once said to his orchestral musicians, “The art you care for is precious, treat it with care, gently.” No, music and art do not make our stomachs full, nor do they serve any “useful” purpose. But the idea of arts for arts’ sake should be something that we are reminded of more often.  

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Alfred Brendel Lectures

On Friday, October 21st, I had the privilege of attending a lecture given by the distinguished pianist Alfred Brendel at the School of Music of the University of British Columbia. No stranger to concertgoers and music lovers, Alfred Brendel was of course one of the great pianists of the 20th century. What fewer people realize is that Brendel was and is a prolific writer of various musical topics as well as a poet. His two volumes of collected writings – Musical Thoughts and Afterthoughts and Music Sounded Out, make for stimulating reading for musicians and serious music lovers. Since his retirement from concertizing several years ago, the pianist has been travelling giving lectures on music as well as poetry readings. Vancouver was fortunate to have been one of Mr. Brendel’s stops in his lecture tour.

The subject of Alfred Brendel’s lecture, Must Classical Music be Entirely Serious, drew materials from two essays on the same subject the pianist previously wrote – The Sublime in Reverse and Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations.

With a generous sampling of musical examples played by Mr. Brendel, he set out to show how composers, namely Haydn, in his piano compositions, injected their music with “a sort of innocent mischievousness,” to quote an early biographer of Haydn. In the case of Beethoven, Brendel quoted Friedrich Rochlitz, who wrote, “Once Beethoven is in the mood, rough, striking witticisms, odd notions, surprising and exciting juxtapositions and paradoxes occur to him in a steady flow.” The musical examples chosen by Brendel certainly served the purpose of proving the above points.

Mr. Brendel focused his lecture on three major works, Haydn’s C Major Sonata, Hob. XVI: 50, Beethoven’s G Major Sonata, Op. 31, No. 1, and the same composer’s monumental Diabelli Variations, a work usually treated by most performers with the utmost seriousness, revealing it to be a highly humorous work.

In the music of Joseph Haydn, Mr. Brendel discussed the composer’s “tricks” in his comic traits – breaches of convention, the appearance of ambiguity, proceedings that masquerades as something they are not, for instance, a deliberate show of ignorance of musical skill, veiled insults, and sheer nonsense. The great pianist also devoted much time in discussing humour in the works of Beethoven – the two hands that are unable to play together in the first movement of Beethoven’s Op. 31, No. 1 Sonata, making fun of a prima donna’s coloratura embellishments in the second movement of the same piece, the “abuse” of fugal writing technique for burlesque purposes, and the “laughing theme” in his the final movement of his Sonata in F Major, Op. 10, No. 2.

Alfred Brendel’s discussion on Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations reminds us of the humour that can be found in abundance in this work. I think pianists and music lovers either treat this piece as highly serious, almost like a holy relic, or extremely boring. A pianist friend said that he often falls asleep during performances of the Diabelli, and when he wakes up, the music is still being played. Perhaps it is not so much that the work itself is boring, but performances of this work that fails to bring out the humour and the joy in the music. Mr. Brendel certainly proved his point in the examples that he played for us.

The name of Mozart was not mentioned in Mr. Brendel’s lecture. He thinks that Haydn and Beethoven were predominantly instrumental composers, where sensual beauty of sound was not an innate quality. Mozart, and Schubert, had imaginations that were primarily vocal and, to quote Mr. Brendel, “singing, like sensuality, is hardly funny.” It is also more difficult to discover humour in the Romantic composers, because by the 19th century, music became “an entirely serious business.” Composers and performances in the Romantic era took themselves very seriously, and were expected “to function as heroes, dictators, poets, seducers, magicians, or helpless vessels of inspiration.” Schumann’s monumental Humoresque, great music as it is, is “capricious, lyrical, and unpredictable,” but not funny in the sense he discussed above. Mr. Brendel said that he was completely unable to find any sense of humour in the music of Chopin.

The pianist’s sense of humour and obvious enjoyment in sharing his musical thoughts were not lost on the audience, who responded fully with much laughter. Mr. Brendel is a man with a wonderful sense of humour, who enjoys the Far Side cartoons of Gary Larson, and who once said that his favourite hobby is “laughing.”

I, for one, was, and am, grateful for Alfred Brendel for coming to Vancouver and sharing his insights, his humour, and his obvious joy in music with us.

Monday, October 10, 2011

West Side Story - a Great OPERA

I cannot begin to tell you how much I love Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story.

It is easy to love the music of West Side Story, with all its memorable and catchy tunes – Maria, Tonight, America, to name just a few. Like any musical masterpieces, though, West Side Story is more than the sum of its parts. Looking through the music recently, I was reminded again how innovative the writing is from a compositional standpoint, not just melodically, but harmonically and rhythmically.

Some of the most interesting and innovative music in the score can be found in Bernstein’s writing for the orchestra, which also serves as a sort of Greek chorus to the drama. Because the tunes in West Side Story are so well known, we often overlook the music that serves as intermezzi between scenes, and as introductions to the many beautiful numbers. In the introduction to The Dance at the Gym, for instance, a seven-measure introduction with no key centre, finally settles harmonically, and gives way to a rather raunchy tune, marked “Rocky” in the score. It is also in the same scene that we first hear the famous melody to the song Maria, in the introduction to the graceful Cha-Cha, which precedes the dramatic meeting scene between Maria and Tony.

Bernstein was very interested in Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, and made a wonderful recording of the opera in his last years. In the justly famous Maria, Bernstein, like Wagner, introduces a chord that reappears often, a chord that is left unresolved. Unlike Wagner, Bernstein does not so much resolve the chord, but abruptly shifts the music from B Major to C Major (two completely unrelated keys) in the final three measures of the opera.

In the Tonight ensemble, Bernstein gives us a contrapuntal tour de force, merging the thoughts and emotions of all the main characters. It is one of the most exciting and innovative scenes in the opera where, like Mozart at the end of Act II of Le Nozze di Figaro where, in spite of the complexity of the music, every vocal line can be clearly heard.

Vancouver Opera is opening its 2011 season with a production of West Side Story, using a 30-piece orchestra. I think it is a mistake to perform West Side Story with a small orchestra. When Bernstein recorded West Side Story, he did so with a symphony orchestra, with a full complement of strings. Using an ensemble the size of a Broadway pit band trivializes the music, emphasizing only the “brassy” elements in the score, but taking away, almost completely, the lyricism that is such an important part of the score. 

Towards the end of his life, Leonard Bernstein was upset that people might only remember him as the composer of West Side Story. His fear was that people would overlook his “serious” compositions, and remember him merely as the composer of the famous tunes. Indeed, many critics, especially during Bernstein’s lifetime, have excoriated Bernstein as a composer of serious music, adding that his compositional talents should have been applied towards Broadway and not Carnegie Hall. Critics are almost always suspicious of works of art that are popular, as if popularity and greatness are mutually exclusive.

I think Bernstein should have been proud of being the composer of West Side Story. It is an American work, but it is also universal. It is music that is greater than any interpretation can bear, whether it is the local high school production, or one by the greatest opera companies with the most famous singers. And it is a towering, timeless, masterpiece, a great opera, just as loving and tender as La Boheme, just as brutal as anything Bartok wrote, and just as shattering as Tristan und Isolde

Saturday, September 17, 2011


There is almost always a gap, sometimes a big gap between the intention and the realization of what you are trying to achieve. It is that gap which is so painful. The critic criticizing the concert doesn’t know that you had worked forever in building up a crescendo, and that you didn’t succeed in making it come out.
                                                                                    Vladimir Horowitz

The critic as aesthetic arbiter has, I think, no proper social function, no defensible criteria upon which to base his subjective judgments, and, historical precedent to the contrary notwithstanding, no strong case at law with which to defend them. (The critic) has served as a morally disruptive, and aesthetically destructive, influence.
                                                                                    Glenn Gould

It is perfectly correct to disregard all the bad reviews one gets, but only if at the same time, one disregards the good ones as well.
                                                                                    André Previn

Other than in the arts, in no other profession do we find the critic in procession of such incredible power over our thinking and psyche. Do we see people who are not physicians criticizing the surgical technique of a surgeon? Or someone who has no training in law writing about the arguments of a lawyer in a court case?

Yet this is precisely what we have in music and art, where we have the critic, sometimes with little training in the field, exerting enormous influence on how the audience or museum visitors feel about a musical performance, a painting, a movie, a novel, or a play. How many people would rush to pick up a copy of the New York Times after attending a concert in Carnegie Hall, just to find out how the distinguished critic of the newspaper feel about the performance. Or even before deciding whether to attend the performance in the first place. This in turn would affect how we tell our friends at the next dinner party about how we like the performance ourselves.

Performers themselves have also been guilty of hanging on the word of the critic. Naturally, a great review in a distinguished newspaper can make a career, while an adverse one can send the performer into artistic oblivion, if not traumatize and scar him or her for good.

We ourselves have given the critic enormous power, and we need to regain that power, to not be afraid to form our own opinions.

The arts, music in particular, elicit in all of us an emotional response. For a member of the audience, whether or not we are moved or touched by a performance should be the sole criteria of judging whether it is “good” or not. As Glenn Gould said in the quote above, the critic does not, or should not, have any role as “artistic arbiter”.

Glenn Gould often talked about the circus mentality in a musical performance. If we like someone, we cheer him to the rafters, and we make him a star. If we dislike him or her, we boo until the person leaves the stage. The critic has certainly played a crucial role in cultivating this kind of thinking, because we see a great deal of plain nastiness in music criticism. For one of his recordings, Gould himself infuriated the critics (I hope) by writing four “reviews” of the album, using all the catch phrases and clichés favoured by musical journalists.

Music is perhaps the most fluid of all the arts. As soon as a note is played, or sung, it becomes something that has already happened. An artist can play that same note one way tonight, and an entirely different way tomorrow.

When we try to seize upon something so fluid, we are in fact impeding creativity and originality in the arts and in the inherent process of art making, and taking away what is pure and precious in all our artistic endeavors.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Chopin's Orchestra

One would be at risk of stating the obvious to say that Frédéric Chopin’s two piano concerti contain highly original, ravishing, and brilliant writing for the composer’s chosen instrument. Musicians have been much less fulsome, however, when it comes to Chopin’s writing for the orchestra in these same concerti. Even some of the greatest pianists have considered the orchestral parts for Chopin’s concerti ineffective, if not downright weak. Other pianists and composers have been guilty of “re-orchestrating” Chopin’s writing, or cut out chunks of the tutti when performing the works.

Chopin wrote his two piano concerti at the outset of his career, and he wrote these works in order to showcase his talents as a composer for the piano, and as a virtuoso pianist. If we really listen carefully and examine the scores for these two concerti, we will discover the beauty and the sensitivity of the orchestral writing.

I content that Chopin knew exactly what he was doing when he wrote the orchestral parts for these concerti.

For a composer who did not know how to write for the orchestra, Chopin certainly did not skim on the orchestral forces. The instrumentation for both concerti are remarkably similar – strings, two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, and two trumpets for both concerti, as well as timpani; four horns for the first concerto, and two for the second concerto; a trombone for the first concerto, but bass trombone for the second concerto – rather a large orchestra for an “inexperienced” composer!

What is remarkable, especially in the outer movements of both concerti, is that while the composer marshals his orchestral forces to create some stirring sounds, the orchestral writing is so sensitively written that at no time is the solo piano part ever overwhelmed by the orchestra. This same sensitivity can be found in Anton Dvorak’s justly famous cello concerto, in which the single cello can always be heard along with a similarly large orchestra.

Another aspect of these concerti that catches my ears is the incredible beauty of the writing for the woodwinds, especially in the slow movements. In the slow movement of the first concerto, for instance, the bassoon plays a descending countermelody (first appearing in measure 31) that sets off beautifully the predominantly ascending melody of the piano part.

Yet another interesting orchestral effect can be found in the third movement of the second concerto. When the pianist plays a jaunty unison melody marked scherzando (measure 145), Chopin instructs his string players to play the accompaniment figures col legno (hitting the string with the wood of the bow), an effect that perfectly suits the character of the piano theme.

No one is claiming Chopin to be an orchestrator on par with Ravel or Rimsky-Korsakov, but we need make no apologies for him when it comes to his orchestral writing in these concerti. I find it interesting that no one ever comments upon the orchestral writing in Paganini’s violin concerti, which is much more bombastic, and less sensitively written than Chopin’s piano concerti.

When I listen to pianist Krystian Zimerman’s recordings of the two Chopin concerti, with Carlo Maria Giulini and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, I feel that a sympathetic conductor can make these concerti a true collaboration between soloist and orchestra. Perhaps what we need are sensitive podium maestros who can really bring out the beauty of the orchestral writings in this pair of youthful concerti.

Friday, August 19, 2011

In Search of the True Musician

A recent article in the New York Times bears the eye-catching title Virtuosos Becoming a Dime a Dozen. In it, Mr. Anthony Tommasini, critic for the paper, wrote that, “A young pianist has come along who can seemingly play anything, and easily, is not the big deal it would have been a short time ago.” Mr. Tommasini went on to discuss how technical proficiency at the piano has been raised to an incredibly high level, comparing it to athletes breaking the record for the four-minute mile, once thought to be an impossible feat. 

The role of the interpreter is to bring forth the logic and beauty of a great piece of music, to draw the attention of the listeners toward the music and not the player. We have a problem when the interpreter uses music as a mean to glorify oneself, something that we do see in some of today’s musicians.  Naturally, a great musician will inevitably bring his or her own special view of the music and inject freshness into the score. Even so, the music is, or should be, the focus of the listeners’ attention.

To be sure, musicians like Arthur Rubinstein, Vladimir Horowitz, Jascha Heifetz, Yehudi Menuhin, Herbert on Karajan and Arturo Toscanini, were very strong personalities. But when these artists came on stage, they knew they were there in service to the composer and the music, not to themselves. Today, there are many pianists who can play the piano very well indeed. Nothing seems to elude them, at least technically.

But are they better musicians?

To be sure, we can measure how fast an instrumentalist polish off a Chopin Etude, or a Paganini Caprice, or how many false notes he or she had played. But we cannot quantify interpretation, depth, musicality, or whether the playing moves an audience.  Playing an instrument is not quite the same as running the four-minute mile.

Ever since the advent of the long-playing records, where recorded technology allows the elimination of wrong notes in a performance, audience attending a concert have pretty much expect the same level of polish in a live performance. We live in an age when, with the press (or touch) of a button, we can instantly access a “perfect” performance of any piece of music. Because of this, audiences have come to expect perfection in performance, at least from a technical standpoint. Or they might expect a live performance to sound "just like my CD at home."

I once listened to Yundi Li’s live performance of Chopin’s First Piano Concerto. Afterwards, I listened to one of Arthur Rubinstein’s many recordings of the same piece. In terms of musicality, depth of feeling, and getting into the core of Chopin’s music, Mr. Rubinstein’s performance made Mr. Li sound like a very talented conservatory student. Ironically, Mr. Li’s live performance was technically more polished than Mr. Rubinstein’s studio recording. Can any of the no doubt talented Julliard students playing Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto match the unbearable excitement and indescribable tenderness in Horowitz’s performance of the same piece? Can anyone today play Bach with the same clarity and passion as Glenn Gould? And I challenge any of today’s young keyboard titans to give a performance of greater sweep and sense of grandeur than Alfred Cortot’s recording of Chopin’s Etude in C Major, Op. 10, No. 1.

Yes, there are indeed many pianists today who can play their instrument very well. But look at whom we had in the first half of the 20th century – Emil von Sauer, Moritz Rosenthal, Harold Bauer, Leopold Godowsky, Frederic Lamond, José Vianna da Mota, Eugene d’Albert, Alexander Siloti, Edouard Risler, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Josef Lhévinne, Marguerite Long, Ricardo Vines, Josef Hoffman, Erno von Dohnányi, Alfred Cortot, Ossip Garbilowitsch, Harold Samuel, Egon Petri, Artur Schnabel, Ignaz Friedman, Wilhelm Backhaus, Arthur Rubinstein, Vladimir Horowitz, Myra Hess, Benno Moiseiwitsch, Clara Haskil, Annie Fischer, Walter Gieseking, Alexander Brailowsky, Guiomar Novaes, Simon Barère, Robert Casadesus, Solomon, Rudolf Serkin, Claudio Arrau, Wilhelm Kempff, Dinu Lipatti, Maria Yudina, Mischa Levitzki, Vladimir Sofrontisky – and this list is not even exhaustive. A little later on, we had Alfred Brendel, Sviatoslav Richter, Emil Gilels, Rudu Lupu, Martha Argerich, Daniel Barenboim, Leon Fleisher, Gary Graffman, Byron Janis, Van Cliburn, Maurizio Pollini and Glenn Gould, to name just a few.

Would Mr. Tommasini have said that virtuosos were a dime a dozen then?

The fact is that all the pianists I named above were stupendous technicians, but the difference is that they did not make technical perfection their chief concern. And I believe that is what made them such interesting artists, each in their own right.

It is a happy fact that we still do have great artists in our midst. Thank goodness we still have pianists like Richard Goode, Murray Perahia, Krystian Zimerman, Andras Schiff, and Mitsuko Uchida, pianists who play with musical integrity, and depth of feeling. In the younger generation, I would single out Ingrid Fliter, runner-up to Yundi Li at the 2000 Chopin Competition, and Ingolf Wunder, coincidentally another silver medallist in the 2010 edition of the same competition. Both are original artists with interesting ideas about music. Again, although equipped with a complete technique, they use it in service to the music, to the composer, not as an end in itself. Certainly true artists are not a “dime a dozen”, a phrase that cheapens both the art and the artists. 

And thank God many of these artists would play a wrong note now and again. It serves to remind us that there is a human being playing in Carnegie Hall.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Mahler in Bellingham

There is something very special about hearing young musicians play. Not jaded by “experience”, young people can sometimes bring freshness and excitement to even very familiar repertoire.

Such was the case yesterday at the final concert of the Marrowstone Summer Music Festival, based on the campus of Western Washington University in Bellingham. This is a two-week festival in which young musicians from both the United States and (to a lesser extent) Canada participate in coaching, masterclasses, rehearsals, culminating in performances of both chamber and orchestral music.

There were two full-sized orchestras that played yesterday – a Concert Orchestra made up of younger and less experienced players, and a Festival Orchestra made up of pre-college musicians with more performing experience. In the first half of the concert, the Concert Orchestra gave exciting performances of Brahms's very familiar and justly popular Academic Festival Overture, and Benjamin Brittien’s less familiar but nonetheless beautiful Symphonic Suite from his neglected opera Gloriana. I would judge the Britten to have been more successful than the Brahms. Conductor Ryan Dudenbostel brought incredible energy and excitement to the Brahms, but failed to gage the many climaxes within the relatively short piece. This was unfortunately not helped by the very resonant acoustic of the university’s Performing Arts Centre, and this made for a very loud performance. In the Britten, the conductor was able to bring out more of the many subtle shades of colours to the four sections of this very beautiful suite.

It is difficult to imagine that audiences in Gustav Mahler’s day found his symphonies largely incomprehensible. Today, performances of Mahler’s nine symphonies are inevitably considered as “events” by both orchestral players and audience. The Festival Orchestra’s performance of the composer’s first symphony was extremely successful. Conductor Stephen Rogers Radcliffe had obviously thought carefully about the music, and led the young artists in a highly polished and exciting performance of Mahler’s first symphonic opus. The musicians obviously responded to the kaleidoscopic changes in colour and the angst-on-sleeve feeling of the music. From the hushed opening of the first movement to the exultant finale, musicians and conductor were one as they journeyed through Mahler’s huge orchestral canvas. Only in the second movement did I wish that Mr. Radcliffe had made more of the idiosyncratic rhythm of the ländler. Likewise, in the third movement, at letter 5 (Ziemlich langsam), the playing was perhaps a touch too straight-laced. According to Bruno Walter, Mahler’s one-time assistant, this section should be played with a degree of vulgarity. Nevertheless, this performance was a remarkable accomplishment, especially considering the relatively short (but I am sure intensive) time that the musicians had lived with this music.

Regardless of whether these young musicians would go on to a career in music, an experience such as Marrowstone is an invaluable experience in any young person’s personal and artistic growth. In today’s society, obsessed with competitive sports and popular culture, it is extremely touching to see young people with as much dedication to the arts as many others would to hockey or soccer. These young players give us hope in a future where great music remains an important part of our humanity.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Mahler's Catholicism

During Vancouver’s Cultural Olympiad 2010, music lovers had an opportunity to experience Gustav Mahler’s 8th symphony, nicknamed “Symphony of a Thousand” because of the colossal forces it called for. Any performance of this music is always an "event".

The opening movement of the 8th symphony is a monumental setting of “Veni Creator Spiritus,” a hymn written in 809 by Raban Maur, a Benedictine monk and prelate living in Mainz, to celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit to the apostles on the day of Pentecost.

Listening to that stirring music has always prompted me to think of Mahler’s faith, his religious conviction. Mahler was Jewish by birth, and a great number of musical scholars have dismissed his conversion to Catholicism, accusing him of mere opportunism.

Composers reveal themselves most truthfully in their artistic creations, and an examination of many of Mahler’s symphonies and songs leads me to believe that the composer’s Catholic conversion as much more than just a baptism of convenience.

Before Beethoven, symphonies have been purely instrumental works. But ever since Beethoven, in his 9th symphony, introduces solo and choral voices in the famous “Ode to Joy” finale, composers have been following his example. Four out of nine of Mahler’s symphonies include sung texts, chosen with great care from prose and poetry that have great personal meaning for him. For Mahler, every text he chooses to set to music reflects his own belief and conviction. Significantly, the words he set to music invariably address death and resurrection, life in heaven, and man’s relationship to God.

A solo alto sings the hymn-like Urlicht (Primal Light) movement in Mahler’s second symphony, “I am of God and wish to return to God!” In the finale of that same work, subtitled “Resurrection”, the choir intones, “Oh believe, you were not born in vain, have not lived in vain, suffered in vain,” and ends with, “Arise, yes, you will arise from the dead, my heart, in an instant! What you have conquered will bear you to God.” Here is Mahler, the believer, going beyond the 19th century’s metaphysical view of redemption, declaring his religious conviction for the world to see.

In the composer’s third symphony, a chorus of angels rejoices, “That Peter was freed of sin,” and that, “Heavenly joy is a happy city. Heavenly joy knows no end. Heavenly joy was granted by Jesus to Peter and us for our eternal felicity.” Mahler continues in the same vein with his fourth symphony, which ends with a charming description of heavenly life through the eyes of a child.

Finally, one of Mahler’s many songs, Um Mitternacht (At Midnight), describes a man, anxious and lying awake at night. He is searching his soul, and longing for peace. At the end, he prays the affirming and consoling words, “Lord! Lord over life and death, You are standing on guard, You, You are on guard at midnight!”

Certainly doesn’t sound to me like the voice of a cynical non-believer, who chooses to become a Catholic as a mere career move.

Monday, June 27, 2011

On Hearing Ingrid Fliter's Beethoven Sonata Recording

When I was a little boy, I used to anxiously await every new recording by my musical heroes – Arthur Rubinstein, Glenn Gould and Herbert von Karajan. Since those golden times, the nature of the recording “industry” has greatly changed, and recording companies are much more reluctant to take chances, not only on repertoire, but on emerging artists as well. Image has now become the forefront of any recording company executive, and CD booklets often display glossy, carefully manipulated images of young musicians, making it look more like a fashion magazine than linear notes for the music being played.

I was delighted when EMI announced that pianist Ingrid Fliter had joined their roster of artists. Ever since winning second place at the 2000 Chopin Competition in Warsaw, Ms. Fliter has busily performing all over the globe. Unlike a few of today’s young paragons of the keyboard, Ms. Fliter does not rely upon a vast publicity machine to further herself, and has always put her talent and artistry in the service of the music she is playing. Every recital I have heard her play has been illuminating.

So far, Ms. Fliter has recorded two Chopin albums for EMI – a debut album covering many of the composer’s different genres of music, as well as a recording of the complete Waltzes. Most recently, she has shared with us her thoughts on the sonatas of Beethoven. Her latest release includes performances of three of Ludwig van Beethoven’s thirty-two solo piano sonatas – Sonatas No. 8 in C Minor, Op. 13, ‘Pathétique’, No. 17 in D Minor, ‘Tempest’, and the justly famous No. 23 in F Minor, Op. 57, ‘Appassionata’.

Recorded in the idyllic surroundings of Potton Hall in Suffolk, England, I was amazed at how beautifully the EMI engineers captured the sound of Ms. Fliter’s piano playing. Even the most fortissimo passages, of which there are many, did not sacrifice beauty in sound for the sake of brilliance.

In the Grande Sonata Pathétique, Ms. Fliter immediately commands our attention in the opening Grave section. Unlike some artists, she does not overdo the dotted rhythm. This is of course a matter of personal taste, but in this case it serves to give the music a sense of repose in the midst of high drama. In this sonata, as well as in the other two on the disc, Ms. Fliter has obviously scrupulously studied and observed Beethoven’s dynamic markings as well as the many tempi and performance indications. All of the sf, rf, fp, sfp markings, hallmarks of so much of Beethoven’s music, have been realized to perfection. With the fp markings, Ms. Fliter sometimes give the note, or the chord, a fraction of a second more time for the sound to die away, a very interesting thought.

I like her choice of tempo in the beautiful Adagio cantabile movement, giving the music a forward motion without compromising on highlighting the beauty of the sound. This can also be said of the Rondo-allegro, where she allows the quiet pathos of the drama to unfold.

In the Appassionata, the eerily quiet and deliberately colourless opening contrasts wonderfully and dramatically with the first outbursts of ascending chords at measure 17. And yes, she does keep the tempo very steady in these ascending chords. What strikes me about Ms. Fliter’s performance of this sonata is how she balances the beauty of the individual “moments” with the overall architecture of the piece, giving the impression that the performance is conceived in one enormous arch from beginning to end. The Andante con moto movement, sometimes treated as a mere intermezzo between the two outer movements, is carefully thought out and executed, and the transition between this and the final movement is realized to perfection.

In the third movement, Ms. Fliter even successfully managed the crescendo passages where Beethoven has written single note runs for just one hand, an extremely difficult assignment since the notes can easily become rough for the sake of an increase in volume. (This is akin to what Beethoven often does in his symphonies, giving fast tremolo passages to the high strings, instructing them to play a crescendo with no support from the woodwinds and the brass.) In the presto section, a cause for sin for many musicians, she maintains the drive and the forward motion of the music, without losing the sense of rhythm.

For me, the highlight of this recording is her simply magical account of the Tempest sonata. Hearing her performance of the composer’s middle period masterpiece really shows me how the music foreshadows that of Beethoven’s final compositions. In just the first nine measures of the opening movement, Beethoven lavished the music with five different tempo changes, and almost as many dynamic indications. Ms. Fliter observed the composer’s instructions, not in a slavish way, but to highlight the genius and beauty of the music.

Ms. Fliter’s performance captures my attention with the first chord of the Adagio movement. And even the tricky left hand triplet figures did not disturb the serenity and peacefulness she brings to the music. The return of the theme at measure 51, accompanied by rapid 32nd-note runs in the left hand, stunningly played by the artist, reminds me so much of the unbelievably beautiful return of the theme at measure 130 in the Arietta movement of the Op. 111 sonata. Ms. Fliter deftly manages this incredible thematic recapitulation in the present sonata.

At risk of exhausting the list of superlatives, I simply cannot think of a more beautifully realized rendition of the Allegretto movement of the Tempest sonata. The “magic movement” in this movement, for me, is when Beethoven takes us, ever-so-briefly, into E-flat major at measure 232. I am certain that Beethoven would have been pleased with how Ms. Fliter highlights this special moment in the music.

I do not know how many discs Ms. Fliter’s contract with EMI commits her to, and I do wish for further recordings of her Chopin performances. But after hearing her performances of the Beethoven sonatas on this present disc, I can only say, “More Beethoven please!”

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Evening at Symphony

The first time I heard the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, they played Brahms’ First Piano Concerto with Claudio Arrau, as well as the Symphony No. 1 in C Minor. The conductor that evening was Maestro Kazuyoshi Akiyama, then Music Director of the orchestra. The music, as well as the conducting that evening, made an indelible impression on me. Since then, the orchestra has been conducted by several different Music Directors, but I always recall the dozen or so years with Mr. Akiyama with particular fondness.

So it was with eager anticipation that I attended the Saturday May 2nd concert of the orchestra, when Mr. Akiyama returned to conduct Brahms’ First Symphony once more. During his tenure as Music Director in this city, the conductor has repeatedly shown his affinity for the central European symphonic repertoire, the “bread and butter” repertoire for any orchestra, in particular, the works of Brahms, Schumann, Dvorak, Strauss, Mahler and Wagner. This concert was yet another reminder of what a great (and somewhat underappreciated) conductor and musician we had in our midst all those years ago.

The other two pieces the orchestra played in that wonderful concert were Alexina Louie’s The Eternal Earth, a colourful three-movement that fully exploited the resources of a very large orchestra, and Jean Sibelius’ dark and brooding Violin Concerto in D Minor, Op. 47, with the young violinist Augustin Hadelich.

Originally written for the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, The Eternal Earth is, in spite of its relative brevity, a rich, large-scale work, with two brilliant outer movements, and a more lyrical central movement that serves as the emotional core of the music. Mr. Akiyama brought out the brilliance of the orchestration, and tied the three movements into one organic, cohesive whole.

Mr. Hadelich appeared to be a gentle and unassuming young man, in possession of an awesome violin technique, with musicality to match. Conductor and soloist were of one mind in exploiting the dark, swirling colours of Sibelius’ only major work for the instrument, and the solo violin blended into the rich orchestral fabric perfectly. Like many of the great 19th century instrumental concerti, the Sibelius is as much a symphonic work as it is a solo concerto. Mr. Akiyama is an ideal collaborator for any soloist, and the result was a deeply satisfying and moving account of this popular late romantic masterpiece.

For me, the highlight of the concert was Akiyama and the orchestra’s account of Brahms’ First Symphony, Op. 68. This particular symphony figures prominently in Mr. Akiyama’s repertoire, and as I sat and listened to it again that night, it seems to me that his understanding of this music has deepened over the years. This was muscular Brahms, but without sacrificing the many lyrical moments throughout the piece.

There are two kinds of conductors in the world, ones who conduct the beat and others who conduct the phrase. Mr. Akiyama belongs solidly to the latter camp. Throughout the performance, he was not so much conducting the musicians, but prompting and guiding the musicians through the incredible four-movement journey of the symphony. I felt, from the ponderous opening of the first movement to the last triumphal notes of the finale, that Mr. Akiyama has taken the music through one single, long musical line. Perhaps because of his inspired direction, the musicians played with openness in sound, and with a fervour that we do not always find with other conductors.  

How fortunate we are to have Mr. Akiyama as Conductor Laureate with our orchestra. I only hope for many more years of his continued presence in our musical scene.

Young Artist with a Voice

It is sometimes wonderful to attend a musical event with no knowledge or expectation of the artist performing. Such was the case for me on Thursday, April 28th, 2011, when pianist Yevgeny Sudbin played a solo recital in Vancouver. One can then respond to the music making without any prior exposure to, or bias towards, the artist.

Mr. Sudbin opened his recital with Franz Joseph Haydn’s Sonata in B Minor, Hob XVI: 32. His playing of the opening movement, as well as the subsequent Menuet, is beautiful and spacious, with impeccable timing of Haydn’s many pregnant pauses. The final presto movement was obsessive and relentless, with just the right degree of pathos. The young pianist drew a gorgeous tone from the instrument, which blended in perfectly with the beautiful acoustics of the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts.

The recital continued with four of Dimitri Shostakovich’s from the composer’s Op. 34 Preludes. In composing this set of preludes, Shostakovich followed the same key sequence as Chopin in his Op. 28 Preludes. Sudbin realized these four miniature masterpieces to perfection, highlighting for us the beauty, the black humour as well as the irony in this music.

Mr. Sudbin’s playing of Chopin’s Ballades Nos. 3 and 4 reminded me that even among some of the greatest pianists of any time, there are only a handful who can really play Chopin convincingly. To be sure, the young artist’s playing was extremely polished and musical, but he seemed to me to be wandering from one very beautiful episode to another very beautiful episode. Chopin, especially in the larger scale works, requires an artist who could give the music a structural integrity, where one musical idea serves as the seed for the next.

After the intermission, the pianist continued with Franz Liszt’s Transcendental Etude No. 11 in D-flat Major, the “Harmonies du Soir”, followed without interruption by Maurice Ravel’s equally transcendental Gaspard de la nuit. Perhaps Mr. Sudbin wanted to show the evolution, or relationship, of the harmonic language from Liszt to Ravel. The pianist’s incredibly beautiful tone certainly served him well in the Harmonies du Soir.

Sudbin gave a simply ravishing account of Ondine, the first movement of Gaspard de la nuit. He played Ondine with a very French sound, with the largest imaginable palette of sound colour. The second movement, Le gibet, is probably the trickiest movement to interpret. I believe that this movement should be played with an absolutely strict tempo, and I felt that Mr. Sudbin perhaps tried to make the music move along just a touch too much. The pianist has an incredible facility, and this is apparent in Scarbo, the final movement. But this incredible facility at the instrument seemed to have taken something away from the frightening, hallucinatory aspects of this music. To my ears, his playing of Scarbo sounded too much like his playing in Ondine. I believe that his quest for a beautiful sound took something away from the edge, the frightening intensity that this music calls for.

After an enthusiastic ovation from the capacity audience, Mr. Sudbin gave us two encores, an ardent reading of Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in G Major, and a stormy, exciting account of the same composer’s G Minor Prelude.

This is obviously a very talented young pianist, an artist who has something to say. Mr. Sudbin is booked to play with the Vancouver Symphony next season, in Mozart’s 24th Piano Concerto. If this performance is any indication of what this young man has to offer, Vancouver audience should have a treat in store for them next year.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Thinking of Glenn Gould

The world of classical music has definitely become a lot less interesting since the passing of Canadian pianist Glenn Gould. When I was in my teens, I would eagerly await every new recording by the great pianist and, would often listen to him or read about him in radio or magazine interviews.

Since his very premature death, interests in Gould seem to have grown. Not only does the Glenn Gould Foundation work hard to keep his memory alive, but Sony Classical, Gould’s recording company, as well as the CBC seem to keep reissuing his recordings in one guise or another. Schott, the German music publisher, has been publishing many of his compositions and transcriptions, including his beautiful piano solo arrangement of Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll. Moreover, there have been many books written about every aspect of Gould’s life and art. One can also find videos of the many performances he gave on television.

Recently, there have been the release of two feature length films about Glenn Gould – Bruno Monsaingeon’s Glenn Gould Hereafter, and Michèle Hozer and Peter Raymont’s Genius Within – The Inner Life of Glenn Gould. Monsaingeon’s film focuses on the effect Gould’s music and philosophy have on listeners around the world, while Hozer and Raymont’s film examines the private life of the pianist.

I did notice that musicians who were interviewed about Gould almost always discuss the more technical aspects of his pianism, including his fabled control, as well as the absolute clarity of his musical line. Listeners, not surprisingly, focus almost exclusively on the emotional impact Gould’s music making has on them. To me, more of the listeners seem to have hit the nail on the head when it comes to what makes Gould such a remarkable artist.

I once played Gould’s recording of Bach’s Partitas for a musician friend, and she said she found it remarkable, since she never thought Gould’s playing was so musical! Another friend, also a musician, declares that she prefers the Bach playing of another Canadian pianist, also known for her Bach performances – a comment that caused me to almost fall off my chair!

To my ears, what is remarkable about Glenn Gould’s music making is the incredible emotional intensity his playing conveys. From his recording of Bach’s little Two-part Inventions, to the Goldberg Variations, to his performances of Schönberg, Berg or Krenek, there is a searing, emotional and spiritual quality in the playing that immediately hits the listener. Yes, the pianism of Gould’s playing is always remarkable, but it is the incredibly emotive quality, not in Gould’s playing that draws people to his music. When people remark on the clarity in Gould’s playing, there is, to me, something clinical, even sterile, about that description, and there is nothing “clinical” or “sterile” about Gould’s playing.

This then brings me to what a passionate, romantic, musician Gould was. Listen to his recording of the Brahms Intermezzi, or the slow movement of Beethoven’s G Major violin and piano sonata with Yehudi Menuhin, or Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll, and one hears a palpable feeling of warmth, of love.

In today’s world of the mass marketing of classical music, we can do with a musician like Glenn Gould, who lived life and make music his own way, away from the limelight of the stage (literally), and whose entire life was his art.

Patrick May

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Vacant Podiums

This has been a bad year for conductors. Seiji Ozawa, recovering from oesophageal cancer, has been cancelling concert for more than a year. Ricardo Muti collapsed during a rehearsal with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and has been diagnosed with “extreme exhaustion as a result of prolonged physical stress.” Valery Gergiev is also suffering from exhaustion and has been cancelling performances. James Levine, music director of the Metropolitan Opera and, until last week, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, had to resign his position in Boston because of ill health. Claudio Abbado suffered from stomach cancer about a decade ago, and has been pretty much working as a part-time conductor the last few years. And André Previn is looking quite frail these days.

Are we witnessing a Götterdämmerung, the twilight of the age of the great conductors? Aren’t conductors known for living long fruitful lives? Or is this merely a period of changing of the guards, for a new generation of conductors to emerge?

Conducting is the most inexplicable and mysterious of all musical arts. Theoretically, conducting is nothing more than someone beating time so that all the musicians play together. One can teach the basic technique of conducting in about ten minutes – how to beat one, two, three, four and six. Some conductors look elegant on the podium, others look clumsy. Some conductors conduct with a clear beat, others make vague motions in the air. Somehow, the mere presence of a great conductor standing in front of an orchestra changes the sound dramatically.

Composer John Williams wrote that there are two types of conductors, “The first will offer less than what your ‘inner ear’ imagined the music to be, and the second will infuse the music with a beauty that is beyond what you have imagined.” Obviously the second group of conductors described by Williams is made up of only a small handful of true “Maestros”.

I once witnessed a performance of La Boheme at New York’s Metropolitan Opera, conducted by a competent but decidedly second-rate Kapellmeister. The world class MET orchestra sounded, on that evening, very much likes a passable provincial orchestra. I have witnessed this also with our local symphony orchestra, which sounded a few notches better on evenings with a good guest conductor. So it is true that a great conductor can make a so-so orchestra sound like the Berlin Philharmonic, and a bad conductor can make the Berlin Philharmonic sound like the local high school orchestra.

Among the younger generation of conductors, the one who has been generating the most newsprint, or internet space, has to be Gustavo Dudamel, although it might be too early to tell whether the excitement will last. To my ears, the three most interesting of the younger generation of conductors are Kent Nagano, Myung-Whun Chung, and Yannick Nézet-Séguin.

I do feel sad that we seem to be witnessing the passing of a generation of great conductors. It appears that we will see many “job openings” in orchestras the world over, and that a frantic round of musical chairs will be played in orchestras around the world within the next few years. All we are waiting for are the right persons to come forward. I do hope that there will be many who will have the right combination of talent and charisma to step up to the podium. Although every generation has something new to offer, I cannot help but wonder whether the age of greatness, of a larger-than-life quality in conductors and conducting, is passing?

I sincerely hope that I am very wrong in this.

Patrick May

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Forbidden Music

Well, its official – the folksong Beautiful Jasmine Flower is now being blocked by China’s internet firewall. According to the latest issue of the Economist, Googling the folk song’s name would now only produce an error message. As ridiculous as this sounds, this is all part of the Chinese dictatorship’s efforts to suppress any stirring of a Tunisian-style “jasmine revolution”.

Of course, throughout history, one sees dictators or dictatorships banning specific pieces of music, or certain types of music. During the Nazi occupation of Poland, the music of Chopin was banned. The Nazis also forbade what they refer to as Entartete Musik, or degenerate music. This included music or the composers of such music who did not fit inside the Nazi’s political world view. Music by Jewish composers like Felix Mendelssohn, Arnold Schoenberg, Franz Schreker, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, and Gustav Mahler were all banished from German concert halls and opera houses. Music with Jewish or African characteristics, like the music of Ernst Krenek, was also banned, as was music by composers of modernist music, such as Paul Hindemith, Alban Berg, and Anton Webern. The Nazi applied similar criteria to visual artists, and considered certain art works Entartete Kunst.

In the Soviet Union, Stalin hated Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, wrote an article in Pravda stating his views, and hounded the composer for many years. Shostakovich only later redeemed himself in the eyes of the Party with his triumphant sounding fifth symphony. Throughout their lives, Shostakovich and Prokofiev had to walk the fine line between their creative impulses and not exceeding the aesthetic boundaries set by the Party. Shostakovich said that he always had a suitcase packed and ready, just in case he was going to be sent to the prison camp.

Back in China, all Western Classical music was banned during the Cultural Revolution, as being bourgeois. Even today, with the seemingly enormous numbers of musicians coming from China, the tradition of Classical music in China began actually relatively recently, and it will take many more generations before Classical music really become a part of people’s lives.

Any government that has to resort to controlling even art and music no longer has any legitimate claim to govern. The Nazis and the Soviets had come and gone, and the Chinese government is worried that their number may be up as well. It is indeed a sad state of affairs when a government has to worry about a syrupy little folksong inciting revolution.

I cannot help but wonder whether Puccini’s opera Turandot, which directly quotes Beautiful Jasmine Flower, is now banned in Chinese opera houses?

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Sleepless in Seattle

To sit in front of a great orchestra, under a great conductor, and experience the music making, is an indelible experience. When I was a teenager, I travelled with my family in one of those if-it’s-Tuesday-it-must-be-Rome tours to Europe. We landed in Lucerne, still one of my favourite cities in Europe, and I saw a poster advertising a concert with Zubin Mehta and the New York Philharmonic, of which he was music director at the time. I managed to purchase what must have been one of the last tickets, found the hall, got to my seat, and waited in anticipation.

I live in a city with a good orchestra, but nothing prepared for the pure visceral sensation of experiencing the sound of the New York Philharmonic. The first notes of Dvorak’s Carnival Overture hit me like a tidal wave, and I sat breathless until the end of the piece. It was as if I was hearing a symphony orchestra for the first time in my life. The rest of the concert, with Wieniawski’s first violin concerto (with Sidney Harth) and Beethoven’s Erioca Symphony, was as much a revelation. I left the Lucerne Konzerthaus walking on air.

I had the good fortune to experience Maestro Mehta’s conducting one more time, this time in Vancouver, where he gave a concert with the Israel Philharmonic – Bach’s third Brandenberg Concerto and Tchaikovsky’s sixth symphony.

Then, this past Saturday, February 26th, Mr. Mehta visited the west coast again, this time in Seattle, and gave a concert with the Israel Philharmonic at Benaroya Hall. This concert was part of the Israel Philharmonic North American tour in celebration of the orchestra’s 75th anniversary and Mehta’s 50th anniversary conducting the orchestra. It is moving to see this orchestra, originally made up of musicians escaping Hitler’s Europe, takes its place among the world’s great orchestras. Mr. Mehta, who has devoted much of his professional life to this ensemble, certainly deserves a lot of the credit for the orchestra’s present standards.

After acknowledging the enthusiastic reception of the audience, Mr. Mehta opened the concert with Beethoven’s Leonore Overture No. 3, a touchstone of the orchestral repertoire, and one of the composer’s four efforts in writing a suitable overture for his opera Fidelio. Mr. Mehta lets the music speak for itself, without overly exaggerating the music’s dramatic elements. Mr. Mehta is not a rigid-tempo conductor, and he does not hesitate to give the music a great deal of elasticity, or plasticity. Throughout the evening, it is apparent how the conductor allows the music to breathe, to expand, or tighten, all according to its natural flow.

Few conductors would dare to go on tour by programming the music of Anton Webern – not exactly a composer that tops the classical music charts. The orchestra performed Webern’s Op. 1 Passacaglia, music still steeped in the expressionstic, post-Wagnerian harmonic language. From his first concerts with the Israel Philharmonic, Mr. Mehta has been committed to performing music of the Second Viennese School. He gives an ardent and impassioned reading of this early Webern score, without forgetting to clarify the rather dense texture of the music.

Before the interval, the orchestra went on to play the composer’s 1928 Six Pieces for Orchestra. Written less than a year after the Passacaglia, this music falls squarely into the world of atonality. Perhaps this was Webern’s homage to his mentor and teacher, Arnold Schoenberg’s Five Pieces for Orchestra. In spite of their brevity, the composer fully exploited, in the best sense of the word, the resources of every instrumental group in the rather large orchestral forces, and the music is in many ways just as dramatic as the Mahler that follows. As in the Passacaglia, Mr. Mehta gave a splendid reading of the score, reminding us that there is much beauty in the music’s many dissonances.

After the intermission, the orchestra gave us Gustav Mahler’s Fifth Symphony in C-sharp minor. Mehta’s takes the opening Trauermarsch at a more brisk tempo than many other conductors. As the music progresses, I began to realize the logic behind Mehta’s choice of tempi, and his pacing of the music, from one section to the next, and into the Stürmisch bewegt movement, as it highlights the relationship between these two movements which make up the first part of the symphony. In the final measure of the first movement, Mehta is the only conductor I have heard to direct the violas, celli and basses to actually play the final pizzicato note pianissimo, as written by Mahler. Many conductors would ask for a very thick string tone for this final note, which is not called for in the score. In the second movement, I find especially Mehta’s handling of the brief appearance of the chorale (to be heard again in the fifth movement) intensely moving.

The massive scherzo, the centrepiece of the symphony, at 819 bars, is one of the longest of all Mahlerian scherzos, according to Henry-Louis de la Grange. The Mahler biographer and expert also points out that unlike other scherzos by Mahler, this one contains “no conscious element of parody or caricature”. As in the first part of the symphony, Mehta deftly negotiates through the extremely tricky transitions between the scherzo and the two trio sections, such that the music flows naturally and logically from one episode to the next.

The third part of the symphony begins with the justly famous Adagietto, a declaration of love from Mahler to his wife, Alma, according to conductor Willem Mengelberg. Both in atmosphere and in its thematic material, the movement is reminiscent of Mahler’s song Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen. The strings of the Israel Philharmonic did themselves proud here, playing with great beauty of sound and depth of feeling.

Mr. Mehta made the final pianissimo of the Adagietto so beautiful and drawn out that the French horn entry of the fifth movement took me completely by surprise, and the feeling was one of waking up from a beautiful reverie. Henry-Louis de la Grange writes that this final rondo, “with its absolute mastery of technical means and compositional procedures inspired by the classical tradition, but enriched by his inexhaustible musical imagination, marks a new high point in Mahler’s output.” Mr. Mehta’s handling of this large scale movement is no less masterful. Again, the tempo shifts from one section to the next was so well done that the flow of the music takes on a sense of inevitability until the end. Again, the soloists of the Israel Philharmonic play this music like virtuosi, and with great confidence. The magnificent trumpet chorale, hinted at in the second movement, never sounded more glorious as on this evening.

I feel privileged to have been a witness to this incredible artistic event. I will remember, and be thankful, for the beauty of the Beethoven, Webern and Mahler for a long time to come, and for this wonderful group of musicians for making it all possible.