August 2012 - Posts
Mitt Romney recently declared that he wants to see the National Endowment For The Arts, and other government agencies conservatives love to hate abolished . This is ominous news if he is elected this November . The NEA gets chicken feed from the government to support the arts in general in America, and abolishing it is guaranteed to be bad news for the arts institutions which are most affected by lack of government support, our symphony orchestras and opera companies .
As I've explained here before, it costs a lot of money to support world-class orchestras and opera companies . They cannot survive purely on ticket sales, even if their performances regularly sell out . It's not their fault that they are having so much financial difficulty today . They offer a world-class product , and there is absolutley no reason for more people not to attend their performances . Generous government support for classical music has been taken for granted for decades in Euope, but now even their classical music organizations are threatened by loss of government support due to economic problems there . But the situation is nowhere near as dire as in the USA.
Furthermore, there is only limited support for classical music in the private sector . It would not be a bad idea if the US government would allocate more funds to keep our orchestras and opera companies alive . It would not even come remotely close to the tax burden caused by the futile and disastrous war in Iraq which all of us taxpayers have had to bear . The livelihoods of so many talented, dedicated and hard-working classical musicians are in jeopardy, not to mention all those who work on their administrative staffs .
Remember - if America's symphony orchestras, opera companies , dance and drama groups flourish , they help the US economy to flourish too . The arts create jobs - potentially plenty of them . And they stimulate businesses . Don't be milsled by the claims of some conservatives that the arts are "frivolous " and not necessary for America . That is a terribly foolish and wrong-headed idea .
So please, if you are reading this post in America and are a citizen , contact your governor, your congressman , etc, and urge them not to allow the NEA to go under . Encourage them to support the arts in America . This is NOT a trivial matter .
August 22 is the 150th birthday of French composer Claude Debussy , often described as the founder of impressionism in music despite the fact that he did not consider himself to be an "impressionist" and disliked the term . He is one of the most important and influential composers of the late 19th and early 20th century , and one of the most original and forward-looking musicians of his time . 20th century music would not be what it is without his bold innovations in harmony and musical structure . He died in 1918 , and classical music was never the same .
So many great 20th century composers fell under his influence and then went on in their own directions ; Ravel, Stravisnky, Bartok , Messiaen and Boulez to name only a handful . Debussy was born into a rather ordinary middle class French family in 1862 , and showed great talent as a pianist from childhood , and entered the prestigious Paris Conservatoire , where he grew tired of the pedantic teaching of harmony and form under tradition-bound teachers . He experimented with unconventional chords which scandalized his teachers and began to compose works ,mainly for piano at first , which broke with all the traditional rules of harmony and musical form .
He escaped the early influence of Wagner , who had been a maverick in harmony and structure himself decades before , and outgrew his youthful infatuation with the titanic German master . After a brief time in Russia as a young man as musical tutor to the children of the wealthy Russian wdow Nadezhda von meck, who had been Tchaikovsky's enthusiastic patroness , he returned to France and began to write revlutionary works which broke all the academic rules of harmony ; they made use of strange parallel chords which were made up of blocks of notes which had been considered anathema for so long, and made use of the pentatonic, or five-tone scale which is so common in Asian music and folk music around the world, and the so-called whole tone scale , which consisats of the notes C,D,E, F sharp , G sharp A sharp instead of the conventional western major scale of C,D,E,F,G,A,B, C . Instead of the straightforward major and minor keys , Debussy made use of strange ambigous harmonies which tended to undermine the sense of nmusic being in any key, although he never used the outright atonality of Arnold Schoenberg and his school .
He abandoned the use of the traditional sonata allegro form which had dominated Eurpean art music since the time of Haydn and Mozart and created works which did not fall into any pre-exisitng musical structure . In his orchestral music , he used the orchestra as a vehicle for color for the sake of color and atmoisphere ; there is a kind of hazy,misty quality to much of his music . He used musical color the way painters use visual color . In addition, he became interested in the music of Asia when he heard it played by asian musicians visiting France ,in particular Japan and indonesia , and this influenced his works to a considerable degree .
Debussy wrote for the piano in a way that attempted to de-emphasize the fact that it is basically a percussive instrument , and tries to make it sound soft and smooth in texture . Many of his piano works have atmospheric descriptive titles such as "The wind through the plains","What the west wind saw", "The sunken Catherdral" , "The girl with the flaxen hair ", "Footsteps on the snow", "Gardens in the rain", etc .
You may have heard some of his famous orchestral works such as "Prelude to the afternoon of a fawn", which describes the erotic dream of a faun in mythical Greece , "La Mer", or the sea, which makes you feel as you were right in the water experiencing the waves , the wind and storms , "Iberia", which evokes a day in Spain, complete with the heat , color and atomosphere of the Iberian peninsula etc . Debussy completed only one opera "Pelleas & Melisande ", based on the enigmatic play by the Belgian playwright Maurice Maeterlinck about a medieval prince who meets a mysterious young beauty in the forest by chance , and makes her his wife, with ultimately tragic results .
This opera is supremely atmosperic and brooding , with little stage action . There are no conventional operatic arias , or other traditional elements of standard opera .
There are a great many recordings of Debussy's music which you can easily order over the internet at amazon.com and other websites . For his orchestral music , try the recordings of such renowned champions of his music as conductors Pierre Monteux, Charles Dutoit, Pierre Boulez and Charles Munch . And many of the world's greatest pianists have recorded his piano works .
With the recent conclusion of the Summer Olympics in London , I thought it might be interesting to make some comparison between classical music and sports . There are certain similarities , such as competitiveness etc, but vast differences . Recently, on Facebook , there was a sort of comparison between the Olympics and the various musical ompetitions for aspiring young classical pianists and violinists etc . Someone there compared the young musicians who compete for the prizes in these competitions unfavorably with the young athletes in the Olympics, saying that the classical musicians are too inhibited by trying to please the judges in order to try to win .
Perhaps the most famous and prestigious of these musical ompetitions is the Van Cliburn ,named after and spponsored by the renowned but now retired Americna pianist Van Cliburn, who achieved international acclaim by winning the Moscow Tchaikovsky competition in 1958 , becoming an instant American hero at the height of the cold war . He received a ticker tape parade in Manhattan, a recording contract with the prestigious R.C.A. record label , became a classical music superstar . Years later, he founded a piano competition to find great young pianistic talents which takes place in Forth Worth in his native Texas periodically .
Aspiring young pianists come to Fort Worth to face a distinguished and highly demanding panel of renowned pianists . There are Gold and Silber medals , and the winner gets a chance to receive representation by presitigious concert management and a handsome cash prize .But comparing sports and classical music competitions is unfair . In sports, there are clear cut winners and losers . There are objective standards for winning and losing . You are either better at what you do than others or you are not .
However , in musical competitions, the judging is totally subjective . Technique is only part of the criteria for excellence . All the contestants have technique in plenty, or they would not have been invited to compete (they send recordings or videos to be considered ). What really counts is the contestants interpretation, his or her conception of a piece . And there are no absolute standards of detemrining who is better here . The panelists often disagree among themsleves about who should advance to the next round of the competition . Who gets eliminated is a totally subjective decision .
Of course, you can tell who plays a difficult piano work with greater speed and accuracy . But is this the most important criterion ? Not really . There are others factors such as tone quality , expressiveness , command of a work's architecture etc . You can't measure any of htese things with a stopwatch or other means ,unlike the Olympics , where a tiny fraction of speed can mean the difference between a gold, silver or bronze medal .
The judges argue among themselves about who should be eliminated in a round or not . Many years ago, there was a gifted young pianist from the former Yogoslavia by the name of Ivo Pogorelich , who later went on to make a major career ,if not without ocnsiderable controversy over his interpretive quirks , and he entered a prestigious European competition . In an early round, the judges eliminated him , not for lack of technique or overall talent, but because they just didn't like his conceptions of the music .
However, the renowned Argnentinian pianist Martha Argerich, still active inher early 70s , felt that he was a pianist of rare brilliance and individuality . She was so angered by the elimination that she resigned from the jury in protest ! These competitions may be an enormous stroke of good luck for the winners , but let's face it - they're a crap shoot !
According to critic, composer , blogger and Juilliard faculty member Greg Sandow, yes . I like Greg; he seems to be a really nice guy , and his criticisms of classical musicians and organizations are certainly well-meant . He's certainly an erudite commentator on classical music . But he's also consistantly unfair and specious in his arguments . He tends to be extrmely captious in his criticisms of contemporary classical musicians , frequently finds them wanting in some way or another, and is always longing for the "golden age" of classical music when supposedly musicians performed with so much more flair, panache, and individuality . He often uses old recordings by legendary musicians of the past as a stick with which to bash today's classical musicians. Of course, he's hardly alone in that . Music critics and famous retired musicians have been doing this for as long as I remember listening to classical music and reading reviews and commentary .And that's over 40 years .
Chalk it up to the human tendency to long for "the good old days ". Some of his latest blog posts at artsjournal.com and on facebook have been discussing his claim that classical musicians today need to play music "more vividly ". He wants them to take risks in interpreting music and not be so pendantically literal . But are they ? I wish I had a dollar for every review of this or that pianist, conductor or other performer in whiuch the critic mercilessly lambasted th eperformer for taking unwante dliberties with the music and not allowing it to "speak for iteself ".
No wait a minute . Either musicians today are too pedantically literal in interpretation or they take too many liberties and distort the music .Both claims can't be true . Why can't the critics be consistent ? And what is "vivid performance" anyway ? Basicaly ,it's what the critic happens to like . If the critic really likes the performer , he or she praises it for interpretive flair and imagination, and if not, he or she blasts the perforner for " dostorting th emusic" and egostical slef -indulgence .
And there also a consistent double standard oin comparing famous musicians from the past and those of the present day, especially young, rising ones . When the legendary musicians on nacinet recordings show their individuality, they are praised to the skies . But when TODAY's musicians show THEIR individuality , they are blasted for not being faithful to the composer . They're damned if they do, and damned if they don't , while famous musicians from the past are praised uncritically .
And here's a rather annoying, question-begging claim Sandow makes in a recent post : the recent why people are not "flocking to concerts" today is because classical musicians don't play "vividly enough". If they did, supposedly, there would be a much bigger audience. But the whole premise of this statement is false and specious . The reason that more people are not flicking to concerts is that they just aren't aware of what a wonderfully rewarding experience this cna be . It's not the musician's fault . Myself, I have heard a great many performances in recent years which contradict Sandow's claim . They were certainly not the least bit lacking in vividness .
So please, all of you who read this post , by all means flock to concerts ! And please tell people to try them . I guarantee you, they won't regret it .