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August 2012 - Posts

Once Again, The National Endowment For The Arts Is Threatened

  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 . 

Posted: Aug 22 2012, 11:19 PM by the horn | with no comments
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Birthday Of Claude Debussy - The Composer Who Broke All The Rules

   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 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 . 

Posted: Aug 22 2012, 07:46 PM by the horn | with no comments
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There Is No Olympics For Classical Music

   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 !


Posted: Aug 21 2012, 11:13 PM by the horn | with no comments
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Do Classical Musicians Need To play Music "More Vividly ?"

  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  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 .

Posted: Aug 15 2012, 11:28 PM by the horn | with no comments
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