Taruskin’s massive history well worth the time

For music only became autonomous when it stopped being useful; and this did not happen until conditions allowed such a thing to happen. — Richard Taruskin, The Oxford History of Western Music, Vol. I
Now that’s a provocative statement, and just one of many I’ve run into while dipping into the first and second volumes of Taruskin’s massive history of Western music.
Through all unlooked-for but much appreciated avenues, I now have in my possession those first two volumes (of five in total) in paperback, and when I have the chance, I’m deep in the study of how music in the early Christian church was mediated by Frankish monks into the suggestion of a tonal-centered system. It makes absolutely fascinating reading, and one of the reasons is Taruskin’s lively style (describing a chant, he talks about a “Kyrie sandwich,” for instance).
Taruskin is probably the best-known musicologist in the country today, in part because he writes for the popular press as well as the media organs of his discipline. I’ve not always agreed with things I’ve read of his, and he doesn’t mind getting into a scrap now and again.
But he knows how to tell this story with passion. I enjoyed my studies in music history in college, but I’ve always been geeky and liked that sort of thing anyway. Yet much as I liked it, my classes, and the material we read in them, were hardly the stuff of heated debate. All of it was good, of course, clear and understandable, but you wouldn’t go there if you needed to raise your temperature fast.
Taruskin’s work is another story. It’s authoritative, and yet at the same time, because of his disputatious style, it reads like the fresh findings of new and important research. It’s edgy and unsettled, which has a way of reminding us how vital this music was to its originators, and how vital it should still be to us today.
This is a good time to be reading this work, with the Christmas holidays upon us, because no other discrete, niche body of popular music is so richly grounded in the past except for communities where folksongs are still handed down by oral tradition. The nifty thing about Christmas music is that you can turn to an all-holiday music radio channel (traditional, satellite or Internet) and hear something like Good Christian Men, Rejoice, which is really In dulci jubilo and dates at least as far back as the mid-15th century, followed by someone singing White Christmas, a popular American song written in 1940 by an immigrant Russian Jewish refugee who escaped a Cossack raid and made a lasting contribution to the popular culture of his adoptive land.
History comes alive in junctions like that, and I think that’s one of the reasons I love the music of this time of year. I not only hear the history of countless people who came before me and heard the same songs, but I hear my own history, and that gives this body of music its unique, poignant power.
Taruskin’s work is not exactly for a general audience, but if you are interested in how Western music came to be and can navigate your way through notated examples, it’s well worth the time and effort to try and understand this magnificent story.

Christmas is time to celebrate arranger’s art

Adoration of the Shepherds (1485), by Domenico Ghirlandaio.

(Apologia: This has been by far the longest time I’ve gone without posting. It’s been an exceptionally busy past four weeks, and not in a particularly good way.)

Now that the Christmas music season is upon us, I wanted to say something, as occasionally I do, about the art of the arranger. I admire great arrangers for some of the same reasons I admire great editors: unsung heroes who don’t get the credit they deserve, but who are passionate enough about what they do to go ahead anyway and help get the message out.

Although, now that I think a little more about it, arranging often is less about editing than it is about repurposing, taking extant material and giving it a brand-new identity. Either way, arranging is one of the most interesting and least appreciated crafts in the whole musical workshop.

And when it comes to Christmas, one of the most important arrangers is Sir David Willcocks, who turns 90 at the very end of this year. Almost every time I hear The First Nowell, for instance, in a church setting, it’s Willcocks’ arrangement, and on one of my favorite holiday recordings, Chanticleer’s Sing We Christmas, it’s the Willcocks arrangement of the old French carol Quelle est cette odeur agréable that lays me out every time. (Here’s a link to a 99-cent download of this performance.)

It should be noted at this point that Christmas carols are hard to arrange for the same reason that pop songs are often tougher than they appear: the actual musical material is quite limited, with the song simply consisting of several verses to the exact same tune and harmonies.

In Quelle est cette odeur, which has four verses, the first is a fully harmonized version of the song, the second is lower voices in unison under a nice descant figure. The third is a solo over “oohs” mostly, and the fourth is another full treatment, this one as close to ecstatic as you’ll ever hear; every time I hear that minor chord on the first syllable of eternelle, in the verse beginning Dieu tout-puissant, gloire eternelle (God all-powerful, eternal glory ….)  I’m inconsolable.

One of the reasons it works so well is that in the second and third verses Willcocks almost completely avoids the minor. Verse two’s chord structure is quite simple, with the barest of Les Adieux-style harmonies in the lower part. In verse three, the harmonies are more complex, but stay basically in the major. That allows him to unleash the minor, though with delicate touches, in verse four, and the effect is magnificent.

That’s the work of someone who knows what he’s doing, and it’s a joy to hear it every time. It’s also a measure of how important the art of the arranger is to our sense of this great season.

100 years later, Schoenberg’s ‘Pieces’ still leave audiences grumpy

stein_score_I_2The four-hand piano reduction of part of the first of the Five Pieces for Orchestra, by Arnold Schoenberg.

This year marks another centenary besides that of Vagn Holmboe: the writing of the Five Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 16, of Arnold Schoenberg.

Saturday night I went to a concert by the local Lynn Philharmonia, the music conservatory orchestra at Lynn University, and did a review for ArtsPaper. The group opened its season with the Schoenberg in the 1949 reduction, but it still made a strong impact – particularly on the audience.

It’s been a long time since I’ve heard so much grousing in the lobby and the seats around me; perhaps that’s to be expected, but it bears noting that this music was written in 1909 and has been regularly available in recordings and performances for decades. But the average concertgoer can’t stand it, apparently, and this brings back the old argument of whether atonality ever will be accepted as a listening experience — with the important exception of as background music for movies and television, usually of the thriller variety.

The Five Pieces lasts about 15 minutes, or thereabouts, and I’ve spent the last couple days looking at the score, admiring its craftsmanship and subtlety. It must have taken enormous courage to write music like this in 1909. Only Charles Ives was doing the same sort of thing, and his music is less abstract; almost everything the American composer wrote has a program. There were other experimenters out there: 1909 was the year Strauss’ Elektra premiered, Stravinsky’s Firebird took shape, and Scriabin finished Poem of Fire (Fifth Symphony).

But those, too, are either theater or programmatic pieces, and while Schoenberg appended titles to each of the Five Pieces, this music is more about musical experimentation than it is evoking any particular mood or event. The third piece is about changing instrumentation to make an essentially static music move, and the other movements have themes that are taken through their paces, albeit in a very compressed, not particularly linear way.( I’m not trying to do hardcore analysis here, just noting some obvious things about the music.)

For the listener, it’s hard to hear these transformations, and the music can sound undifferentiated and formless. And while chords like those are perfectly acceptable, indeed expected, as the serial killer lifts his knife above his head while his victim screams in terror, concertgoers don’t want to hear them as pure music. I’m not saying anything here that hasn’t been said in one way or another for many years, but what struck me about the Schoenberg was that it’s 100 years old and the verdict is still: No, thanks.

image002Der Meister at work.

I think it’s likely that atonal music only will ever be accepted by a mass audience as background music, and that so much of it is so indistinguishable from other pieces of its ilk that most of it is dead as soon as it’s written, at least in a sense accepted by audiences at large. Schoenberg himself went in a slightly  more conservative direction himself after this, if not to tonality; his Violin Concerto, which  I wrote about earlier, is a great piece whose difficult tonal language is ameliorated by its clear narrative structure: this is a piece that is going somewhere, and it’s exciting to follow it.

The music that manages to stand the test of time has a clear personality, whether attractive or not. You can hear someone trying to say something , and you want to stick around for the conversation. It may be that the very nature of atonal music makes it too difficult to let a personality come through, even in the case of someone like Schoenberg.

I don’t really know. All  I can say is that I was struck at how visceral the reaction was to this piece Saturday night, a piece that predates the major wars of the 20th century, and which has long been established as a major canonical work.  True, South Florida audiences tend to be conservative, but  they also tend to be well-educated, so they should have known what was coming. And I think they did, which made their  grumpiness about it even more notable.

I guess Schoenberg still has to win his fight for acceptance, but it seems to me that for the most part, he probably never will.

Vine’s first sonata, and the future of piano writing


Earlier this month I attended a piano recital by Christopher Atzinger, at which the American pianist played for his encore the first movement of the Piano Sonata No. 1 of the Australian composer Carl Vine (at right).

I wasn’t familiar with Vine’s music, though there were some music lovers at the recital who were, and urged me to check out more of his work on the Net. And while I did enjoy the music, I found the sonata movement to be compelling more from the standpoint of what it represents than what it sounded like.

Because what it represents (like the Philip Lasser Bach variations featured on the Simone Dinnerstein disc I wrote about a while back)  is that there are still ways to write for the piano in our own time that are cogent and modern without being non-pianistic. Vine’s piece had plenty of bravura color and massive technical difficulties, but it also had a good contrasting section with a lonely melodic fragment wandering over big, jazz-influenced chords. It held together as a sonata movement, along the path adumbrated by Prokofiev and Barber, primarily, but still was recognizably a sonata movement.

One of the beauties of the old sonata form as handed down from Papa Haydn is that it gives music a narrative structure. That doesn’t mean today that we have contrasting themes in the dominant, or that there be any key centers at all, or that we start with a fast movement.

But there is something to be said about finding a useful way to organize musical thought, and in a time when much music of all stripes — pop, jazz, classical — seems to be about creating music that is about the effectiveness of a sound rather than the effectiveness of a melody, it bears remembering that many listeners have not yet caught up to the idea of enjoying music just as sonic wallpaper rather than argument, though that probably will happen one day.

The question of how to write for the piano these days has been much on my mind lately. The other day I finished a quick rewrite on a piano part for a simple holiday choral piece, and since that song is a very simple one, and written for reduced forces, it took a little bit of thought to come up with a part that would be interesting to hear, worth playing, and effective for the music.

But the piano sonata I’ve been writing and which I’ve not been able to get around to finishing, is another story entirely.  It seems to me that a good piece of American piano music ought to reflect somewhat the history of the way the piano has been played in modern times, and that means a lot of jazz players (Tatum, Monk, Brubeck, Peterson, etc.) and the much more primitive way it’s been played in pop and rock.

Maybe that’s writing music as commentary or history rather than music as music, but I’m hoping rather that it’s about writing music as contemporary music, tapping into the way the piano sounds to much of the audience.

Here’s the first movement of the Vine sonata, as played by a pianist named Joel Hastings:


Neglected pages, overlooked composers


An aria from Stephen Storace’s The Siege of Belgrade (1791).

I could probably write about neglected composers almost every day, which isn’t such a bad idea, as long as a lot of good music gets uncovered.

I heard two things back to back the other day that reminded me again how much nifty music is out there that doesn’t get played much. One of them was a sonata by the short-lived English composer Stephen Storace,  friend of the Mozarts and a writer of great charm and inventiveness, judging by this one performance. I can hear the opening 3-note motif of one of the movements in my head right now.

The audieansstephenstoracence loved this piece, and with good reason. It had all the directness and warmth of Haydn and Mozart, and would fit without difficulty on a program of music including those two composers. If I had some extra scratch for a foundation I’ve been thinking about, I might very well issue a grant to some scholar to come up with new performing editions of his long-lost operas, now known only in vocal score.

The second discovery was the music of Vincent d’Indy, whose work has fallen out of favor, probably partly because of his anti-Semitism but also because it’s modest music in general (at least what I’ve heard; even the Symphonie Cevenole applies). It doesn’t have a big profile, but it’s very well-made and too often neglected.

What I heard was violist Lawrence Power in the Choral Varie, Op. 55, which or225px-Vincent_d'Indyiginally is for alto sax and orchestra, but also is played in a viola version, and it’s a lovely piece, through and through (this must have been the recording). There’s a beautiful brass chorale, very simple, that appears early on and recurs again toward the end, wrapping the piece up beautifully.

After that, it was a performance of the late Concerto for Flute, Piano, Cello and Strings, Op. 89. This was a much later piece (1926, as opposed to 1903) and it has a lot in common with the Neoclassical styles of Stravinsky and Poulenc, but without any of the sharp edges. It’s a far more conservative style, but clear, lucid and engaging nonetheless. What a nice change of pace it would make on a program somewhere, and how much it whets the appetite for a playing of the Symphony in B-flat, for instance, or some of the choral music.

The thing that always gets you when you’re a composer, trying to craft something that will communicate with people, is the thought that all your work might be for naught, and never heard again. Because I’m an American, I think of someone like John J. Becker, to whom Charles Ives was so generous financially and whom he championed.

I have never heard a single note of Becker’s music in concert, though I suppose I could have missed one or two chances. I doubt it, though; in more than 30 years of steady concertgoing I’ve only heard a couple pieces by Wallingford Riegger, one of the more recognizable members of the same school of American composers.

But total neglect doesn’t stop most composers. They keep at it anyway,  even though the entire history of Western music that became canonical comes down to around 200 people, and that’s being generous. It’s closer to 50 men over the stretch of time from roughly 1400 to the present day who get the bulk of performances, and that’s an extremely small percentage of the whole.

Still, I think we’re in a repertory-stretching time, and I’m confident some other composers will join the ranks of those who are treasured down the generations. The American Symphony Orchestra and Leon Botstein gave a concert performance last night of d’Indy’s opera Fervaal, and I will be interested to see what the critics thought.

If Fervaal doesn’t make headway, perhaps some other music by d’Indy could be added to the lists, and it would nice if someone got to work on Storace, too.

Arts journalism summit slighted still-potent power of print


Last weekend, the good folks at the Annenberg School on the campus of the University of Southern California hosted the first-ever National Arts Journalism Summit.

I entered Palm Beach ArtsPaper in the summit contest (hey, we could use the money), but didn’t win; still, we hosted the live stream from the summit on our Website for anyone who wanted to see it. (Yes, it was big of me. Spurned, but I took the high road.) The summit lasted about four hours, and I caught around two hours of it, dropping in from time to time on presentations as well as discussions.

I learned about some interesting projects and heard some good chatter from arts journalists, but in the end it came across as somewhat tentative, and lacking at least one perspective that I thought was important.

And that perspective is the idea of print. At ArtsPaper, all our revenue still comes from print advertising — and yes, I pay everyone who works for the paper; another Web site that claimed the same thing drew astonished gasps from the summit — and frankly, I don’t see print fading away as much as everyone seems to think.

I didn’t catch any reference to actually printing any of these projects from anyone that I saw; everything was Web-based, everything was multimedia. Nothing wrong with that, but ignoring print is not a good idea. People still like it, journalists still like to see their work in ink on a page, and it still has more weight than work on the Web. By that I mean that the great stream of news we hear everyday is still driven by journalists working for print media, or in the case of wire services, work that is headed for print.

That will not change in the near future because the new brands that would supply the news to more established organizations have not yet established reliable brands that everyone respects. The current media organizations whose brands dominate the news discussion today will not only continue to do so, they will get even more powerful. So look for more clout, not less, from the New York Times, the AP, and other respected brands (including relatively new ones such as Bloomberg, which is really the model for what needs to happen).

At best, the vast blogosphere will inspire many like-minded people to express themselves in print, but only the tiniest fraction of them will emerge as national figures around whom brand loyalty can be built. It’s true that a fraction of our society will get all its news from alternative media, but only a fraction. Most of the country will continue to get its information from the mainstream media because that’s where the brands are.

No matter what anyone tells you, most people trolling the Internet are not rejoicing in all the things that are out there, exploring all the reaches of the Web. They are in fact narrowly directed repeat visitors to brands they trust, which means the only hope that arts journalists have is that they create, or become associated with, a brand that means something to people.

Other than that, we’ll have to get our arts news from a very small number of sources, and it will stay that way until someone builds a sustainable brand. And that brand will have to include print in some way, because media companies are going to have to give their customers their product across multiple platforms.

Everyone at the summit seemed to be interested in how journalists would make money at arts writing, and it’s quite difficult. The business model that made arts journalism possible has fallen on hard times, and that leaves us with only two options: Charitable foundations step up to fill the gap, or the media takes another look at the old model and finds that it still has life in it yet. The second of these two options is much more likely; we’re in a period now where this line of work has become totally devalued, and that means arts writers will work for cheap for some time to come.

But eventually, the economy will bring arts writers back to established brands when surviving media companies look to diversify their offerings and say: Hey, what about the arts? The challenge for newer media companies is to follow in the footsteps of someone like Michael Bloomberg and build a brand, and if you are an arts-journalism startup that doesn’t have a broadcast network at your disposal, you’re going to have to supply some of your work in print.

It’s early in the morning, it’s been a long, frustrating day, and my argument is not as coherent as it could be were my brain firing on all cylinders. But I think the direction ahead is clear, and it’s not going to be all that different than what we had. It will take some time, but ultimately arts journalists will be able to make a real living at this work again. People still want it, they always will, and one day the lean days will be just a memory.

I think we’ll need a second stimulus plan to get there, but I’m betting we’ll get one — later rather than sooner, but I think it will happen.

Gilbert’s debut at NY Phil bold, promising

Again, apologies for being so long absent on this blog, but everything else is eating up all my time. This seems to be what’s happening to most of the formerly employed journalists I know. We’re all trying to cobble something together from a whole lot of little bits, and too many of these things get too little of our attention.

Mea culpas out of the way, I wanted to say something about Alan Gilbert.

Last night, I tuned in to Gilbert’s debut at the helm of the New York Philharmonic, and I quite enjoyed it. The first half was wonderfully fresh, and the second, while it lacked much of the fire and power of a typical reading of the Symphonie Fantastique, was nevertheless interesting for the sheer polish of the playing. It struck me as an ideal approach for French music; perhaps not for this particular French composer, but ideal nonetheless for a certain kind of writing.

I found it somewhat remarkable that the critical reaction to Gilbert’s debut seems to have been so unfavorable, but to me it looks like everyone was hoping for a comet, a meteor, a blazing presence who would set the world on its ear and inaugurate a new, must-see season for the venerable NY Phil. What they have, just judging by what I saw, is a thoughtful, precise technician who is interested in a smooth, full sound, and has enough courage to start his debut concert with one world premiere by a challenging Finnish modernist and follow it with a song cycle by Messaien, a composer beloved by composers and musicians, but not audiences.

Still, that took guts, and it should be noted that concert programs in the past couple years across the land have started to loosen up and get more daring, and Gilbert brings his attitude of openness to the field at just the right time. I also liked seeing a conductor who has the beat under control and isn’t about to do anything perverse or arbitrary. Lorin Maazel, who is by every account I’ve heard a kind man and a formidable musician, is, it has to be said, a terrible conductor, someone who seems to decide on the spot to throw out the approach he rehearsed and try something else and dare his band to follow him.

I’ll never forget hearing him do very bizarre things with the Mozart Paris Symphony in West Palm Beach a few years back: You could feel the massed tension of the entire orchestra as it tried to figure out what in the heck was going to happen in the next bar. It was a performance that set my teeth on edge.

With Gilbert, however, you got the sense that playing for him was an orchestra happy to be trying new things like the Magnus Lindberg Expo, which is a lousy piece of music, but quite vividly colored and full of good orchestral effects. Yet it was new, and here was a performance by a bunch of great musicians determined to bring it off. I was reminded as I watched that here on stage were people with a tremendous amount of advanced degrees in music, people who in their college years had played pieces like this many times only to have to settle for the canon once they got regular work.  It must have been liberating to tackle a brand-new score, written especially for them by a real composer with real chops.

And the Messaien Poemes pour Mi, too, sung well and passionately by Renee Fleming, particularly Le collier, which to my ears was easily the most accessible of the set. Fleming’s dark voice and palpable engagement with the text made this performance riveting for me, even I don’t find the music all that compelling. It’s decent, perhaps over-indebted to Debussy, but the sheen and luster of the sound that accompanied the singing was exactly what this music calls for.

The Berlioz was less successful because it had so little red blood; each climax and peroration seemed to be over-prepared and over cautious. I’ve never heard an orchestra make quite so much out of that third movement; it seemed to go on and on in a sort of timeless fashion that was in its own way mesmerizing, again because the sound of the orchestra was so glass-like, so unperturbed.

It seems to me that Gilbert likely is naturally an intellectual, and he brought all that to bear on this performance, and probably a little too much of it. But it says great things about him that he began his entire career at the NY Phil with a sweep aside of the current canon, at least in the first half, and that when he did go for an established work in the second half, he chose one that fit admirably with the first two pieces. Brahms, for instance, or Beethoven, would have been all wrong. But choosing Berlioz was the product of deep thinking about the sound world inhabited by the first two pieces, and it was a sharp piece of programming.

On balance, I’m looking forward to more work from Alan Gilbert. His debut might not have been very exciting in sheer bravado and sparkle, but it was tremendously exciting in what it says about the path he is going to set for one of our country’s most important orchestras.  A steady hand on the podium, a deep interest in fresh music, a careful thinker about programming: That’s a pretty good set of qualities to have, and it bodes well for his, and the Phil’s, future music-making.

In ritual, the sound, strength of religion


Pope Marcellus II (r.1555).

About a month from now, the Miami concert choir Seraphic Fire will give a concert of the great Missa Papae Marcelli of Palestrina, and for those of us who love Renaissance polyphony, this will be a concert we will anticipate with great pleasure.

For me it’s almost impossible to listen to Palestrina’s music without feeling the deep reverence and spirituality at the core of his work. We don’t know all that much about him, but we do know the high esteem in which he was held by church authorities from the pope on down, and the reverence in which his colleagues held him, and there’s no real reason to question the idea that he was a man of true faith.

But the music is beautiful regardless of what the texts actually say, and despite who his original audience was. That’s good for people like me who have little faith, but it also raises some interesting questions about the link between religious faith and the music’s creators, performers and listeners.

For me, the most moving thing about a performance of a piece by Palestrina, aside from the primary thing — the sheer sonic beauty of those melodic lines and harmonies — is its timelessness, like a conversation with angelic spirits that has been going on for eternity. Leave the church, reject all of it, then come back 20 years later and incline your ear to the choir loft: That sound goes on, unbroken, unruffled, serene and secure.

I also think about the history of this kind of music, and the centuries of churchgoers and listeners it had reached. To know that congregations that have been dust for four centuries were listening to the same piece of music, and that it was just as alive for them as it is for me, is somehow more poignant when it comes to Palestrina.

Then again, it may be that I am reacting to the only part of the churchgoing life that really appeals to me, and that is its ritual. I’ve written elsewhere about the importance of ritual, and I still think the same thing today, that ritual is one of the most important parts of human society. (And of course I mean relatively harmless ritual such as intoning the ancient prayers, and not the ritual of something like Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery, which does a sly job of building the repugnant ceremony at its heart as an honorable rock-ribbed tradition.)

But it’s ritual that ties us all together, that reminds us of the things we hold in common. If I go to a church during the Christmas holidays, I go because it’s Christmas, because generations of my ancestors have gone to church on Christmas, and because the other people there are in the middle of one of the most joyful times of the year, and you can feel it; all that goodwill is actually palpable.

If I cannot feel the spiritual ecstasy others feel in the nominal presence of the Lord, I feel something just as uplifting: That of ordinary people, happy to be gathered somewhere festive at the end of another long, hard year, happy to be with each other, happy to be singing the old songs, saying the old prayers, hearing the music of history.

That’s religion enough for me, and I’ll welcome it along with Palestrina when I hear that mass next month (here’s the Kyrie).

‘Abbey Road’ medley may be secret model for classical writers


We have all been frequently reminded from all the Boomers working at the major media outlets that this month marks the 40th anniversary of the release of Abbey Road, the final album on which the Beatles all actually worked together.

It suddenly occurred to me the other day as I heard yet another reminder, this time on BBC World News (available here on PBS at 5:30 p.m. each weeknight), that several of the young composers that I once knew when I was pursuing a musical career 30 years ago cited Abbey Road as a compositional inspiration, and they meant the medley that begins with You Never Give Me Your Money.

The Beatles are just a little bit before my time; my rock era, unfortunately, was the mid-to-late 1970s, but the Fab Four were still the focus of cult-like adoration during that time. I distinctly remember my sister and her friends repeatedly gathering at a neighbor’s house to immerse themselves in the music of the Liverpudlian quartet.

And Abbey Road was the most special of all those records because of that medley, all those catchy song fragments stitched together in high style, some of it symphonic, such as when George Martin’s trumpets reprise You Never Give Me Your Money in the middle of Carry That Weight. What made it stand out for me was the sheer abundance of all those ideas, any of which could have been stretched into full songs.

And that’s what I remember talking about with my fellow would-be composers at music school: how cleverly and beautifully things were stitched together. You couldn’t resist the tunes, even if the record as a whole was marred by that singular English dippiness (Maxwell’s Silver Hammer, Octopus’s Garden: yeesh!) that comes right out of the music-hall tradition. (We’ve got our own embarrassing traditions, most of them much more maudlin, over here.)

That’s when it occurred to me that a lot of composers in their 40s and 50s today who grew up pursuing classical or jazz careers while not ignoring pop and rock might have as their lodestar not The Rite of Spring so much as Abbey Road, side 2.

Consider: It’s eclectic and constructed with short attention spans in mind, which makes it ideal for today’s multitaskers, and I hear a lot of contemporary classical that has the same multiplicity of pop-style ideas that the Beatles record does. The medley, which Martin cobbled together from Beatles fragment, has the same restlessness and mood shifting that I hear in contemporary classical.

What Abbey Road has that a lot of ear-friendly, eclectic classical does not have is powerful melody, and that’s something that’s just about impossible to teach. If a classical composer should arise who can write good tunes, the world will be his or her oyster (not even Paul McCartney can do it, really).

But that’s wandering off point a little: I’ve got a hunch that at the back of every compositional brain of a certain generation is the medley that features She Came In Through the Bathroom Window. It makes a lot of intuitive sense to me; when we ask contemporary composers for their models, we do them a disservice if we only accept answers that have names such as Carl Nielsen in them.

The great composers of the past stuffed all kinds of pop in their pieces. We’re well aware of Central Europe’s craze for Turkish tunes in the late 18th and early 19th centuries thanks to Mozart and Beethoven, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that this durable piece of British pop should be slumbering — like Debussy said of Massenet — in the heart of many of today’s composers.

I don’t know who will admit that, except me, but I know there are a lot more of you out there. Here’s the medley, in the meantime:



‘Cellini’ film shows wisdom of over-the-top approach

AUSTRIA/Maija Kovalevska in Benvenuto Cellini.

Today I took a break from a lot of editing tests, reporting and writing to take in a showing, via Emerging Pictures, of the 2007 Salzburg Festival production of Berlioz’ Benvenuto Cellini (here’s the trailer).

This production, in which all the singing, particularly that of the Latvian soprano Maija Kovalevska and the American mezzo Kate Aldrich, was excellent, got a lot of criticism for its out-there staging. The scene has been changed from the 16th century to the mid-21st, or thereabouts, when wealthy families will be able to rely on robots and/or androids to get themselves primped up for a night on the town (as in the picture above).

And there are all kinds of other bits of manic invention, such as the arrival of Pope Clement VII at the Cellini foundry in a red cruiser with a lighted-cross hood ornament, or the scene in Act I in which the rival sculptor Fieramosca is set upon by a chorus of women bearing brooms. It struck me during the opera that these kinds of things were so memorable they took away from the thrust of the piece.

But then I thought: Well, that’s not such a bad thing. As I listened, I could picture in my mind’s eye a sober, traditionally minded staging of this piece, with period costumes and stiff characters, and frankly, I could also imagine how monumentally dull it would be. The problem is that the libretto, by Barbier and de Wailly, is pretty awful, and a normal staging would be hard to take.

The other problem is the music. It’s brilliant, for the most part, with astonishing orchestration, vivid colors and terrific choral writing that thrums with a kind of excitement and exuberance that fits the image that has come down to us of Berlioz, that of an intellect and an artistic identity on fire. You can hear his influence on Wagner, among other people (Cellini was first performed in 1838), and it is in every sense of the word original.

But, for all its energy and power, it’s also oddly stiff, and this has something to do with Berlioz’ admiration of Spontini, I suspect. I don’t know that much of Spontini’s work, but grandeur and seriousness of intent is critical in the pieces I have heard (and there is a large amount of his music on YouTube, interestingly enough). Berlioz’ music for Cellini has passion and spirit to burn, but the Stolzl production shows that it also is old-fashioned in a grand-opera way.

Much of the music is first-rate, but it falls short of being a first-rate opera, at least for today’s sensibilities, because its melodic inspiration is not that effective, and while the score glimmers with orchestral genius, it also lacks a certain variety that would make the opera easier to take in a more sober staging.

As is, it seems to me that Philipp Stolzl did Berlioz a favor by coming up with this bold, manic staging, indebted as it is to television. movies and pop culture, and so full of the short-attention-span mentality prevalent today. Having so much crazy stuff to look at, so much business (including the theft from Star Wars of the idea of C3PO without a head for Ascanio’s aria), takes the viewer’s mind off some of the stasis of the music.

That’s how it struck me, at least. I greatly enjoyed this production, loved Kovalevska and Aldrich, and especially enjoyed hearing what is probably the best performance overall this opera has ever received. But it also showed that opera, like movies, is beholden to spectacle these days, and that Berlioz’ score, while unfairly neglected, has been pushed aside for other reasons than just its difficulty of presentation.