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Kenneth Woods- conductor
cellist, chamber musician, guitarist, composer and author
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SIMON Desbruslais demonstrates his virtuosity in four fresh, vigorous and varied works by three British composers. In Deborah Pritchard’s Skyspace he plays the piccolo trumpet, an instrument familiar through baroque works – famously in Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos – but seldom heard in contemporary music. It suits the soaring lines of Pritchard’s work, the seven sections of which portray varying colours of the sky. The two outer movements of John McCabe’s concerto La Primavera bustle with energy, powered by jazzy percussion, while the middle section has Desbruslais playing a romantic flugelhorn solo. Robert Saxton’s psalm A Song of Ascents re minds one of Bloch’s cello work Schelomo – combining the meditative with religious fer- fer vour. His Shakespeare Scenes allows Desbruslais to revel in playing character studies of Falstaff and Lear among its six sections. He’s given excellent support from the Orchestra of the Swan, conducted by Kenneth Woods, in the first three works, and David Curtis.

–Norman Stinchcombe

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Reviewed in the February 2015 issue of Gramophone Magazine buy Guy Rickards

“Four vibrant, attractive concertos…. by three of Britain’s brightest and best, and performed with dazzling virtuosity and musicianship by Simon Desbruslais and the Orchestra of the Swan…A hugely enjoyable disc, strongly recommended”

Psalm Gramo 1

Psalm Gramo 3

Psalm Gramo 4

Read the whole thing here

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Hear it live for the first time in 25 years on the 31st of January here. 

Four movements for small orchestra, Opus 79, (1958)
Serenade, Badinerie, Sarabande, Villanelle
Duration: 29”

First performance: Vienna Radio, Aug. 1960 (Orchester des österreichischen Rundfunks/Etti)

Hans Gál was born in the small village of Brunn am Gebirge, just outside Vienna. He studied with some of the foremost teachers in Vienna, including Richard Robert for piano (teacher of Rudolf Serkin , Clara Haskil and George Szell) and Eusebius Mandyczewski for composition, who had been a close friend of Brahms. In 1915 he won the K. und K. (Royal and Imperial) State Prize for composition for a symphony (which he subsequently discarded). In 1928 His Sinfonietta (which was to become his ‘First Symphony) won the Columbia Schubert Centenary Prize. The next year, with the support of such important musicians as Wilhelm Furtwängler, Richard Strauss and others, he obtained the directorship of the Mainz Conservatory. Gál composed in nearly every genre and his operas, which include Der Artz der Sobeide, Die Heilige Ente and Das Lied der Nacht, were particularly popular during the 1920s. When Hitler rose to power, Gál was forced to leave Germany and eventually emigrated to Britain, teaching at the Edinburgh University for many years.

Gál’s music enjoyed a brief resurgence in popularity in the years immediately after World War II, and was featured regularly in broadcasts on BBC radio. However, by the 1960s, BBC director William Glock’s programming philosophy, sharply slanted in favour of strictly modernist music, meant that Gál and other tonal composers of the time found themselves unable to get their music on the airwaves of the “Third Programme.” Gradually, performances also became more and more scarce, and Gál was deeply affected by the death in 1964 of his friend and foremost champion, conductor Otto Schmitgen. There were personal tragedies as well- Gál’s younger son Franz died by his own hand during this period. Circumstances for new work in a tonal idiom were similarly bleak on the continent, and commissions for new works in standard genres or for traditional instruments were almost non-existent. Indeed, the main champions and patrons of Gál’s music at this time were recorder player Carl Dolmetsch and Vinzenz Hladky, Professor of Mandolin at the Vienna academy of Music and publisher of mandolin music, who had instigated Gáls’s writing for mandolin in the period back in Vienna between 1933 and the Anschluss in 1938. Now in the 60s, Hladky published and regularly performed Gál’s music with his mandolin ensembles, to which Gál responded with two Sinfoniettas for Mandolin Orchestra, amongst other works.

Gál’s “Idyllikon” was written in 1958- the sole major work to come out of what was for Gál a highly uncharacteristic period of a relative lack of compositional productivity. Even during the dark years of the 1930’s and 40’s, Gál had continued to compose prolifically. The exact reasons for Gál’s temporary drop off in output in the late 1950’s is, of course, unknown, but it was a period of great despair for Gál at the direction contemporary music was taking. Never given to experimental techniques or modern musical languages himself, Gál had always been a staunch supporter of revolutionaries like Alban Berg throughout his early career. Anton Webern and Gál struck up a friendship in the 1920’s when Gál proved to be the only chorus master capable of teaching Viennese singers to cope with Webern’s thorny dissonances. Gál’s sympathy for the modern, however, reached its breaking point with the emergence of aleatoric, or chance, music and total serialism, both of which he saw as a fundamental abdication of the composer’s responsibility to imagine, develop and realize music in the inner ear. The climate for Gál’s music, which had remained favourable even in the post-War years, now turned utterly bleak, too, and it was in these years that his music began to fall completely out of the repertoire.

For a work written in such troubled times, Idyllikon is a strikingly un-troubled work. It marks something of a stylistic breakthrough- the first major essay in Gál’s late, more pastoral style. The four character pieces which comprise the piece deftly balance orchestral virtuosity, sophistication of approach and a largely wistful atmosphere, although the piece ends in wildly extrovert high spirits.

Happily, Idyllikon was one of the few works of Gál’s late period to receive multiple professional performances. Sir Colin Davis, the President of the Hans Gál Society until his death in 2013, gave the last of several early performances with the BBC Symphony in 1976. Since then the work has been heard only once in a studio concert in Switzerland in 1990.

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10- The tuning slide allows a trumpet player to adjust how sharp he or she is to the rest of the orchestra.

9 – Violinists invariably play sharp when they’re under pressure, which is always. This is why they tune their open strings higher than the rest of the string section.

8- High C is a very flat note on almost every oboe, which is why they don’t adjust it unless you ask them to.

7- Bassoonists are faster at adjusting pitch than anyone else in the woodwind section because they never have to worry whether they’re sharp or flat, only how sharp.

6- When playing cello in an orchestra, never sit between the bassoons and double basses, because you can’t.

5- Horn chords are often out of tune because they’re sure you are too far away to tell.

4- The lower note in the timpani solo in Also Sprach Zarathustra is out of tune because everyone knows what it’s supposed to be.

3- When writing string trios, Beethoven usually gives both inner voices in a four-part texture to the viola, because that’s going to work just great.

2- The basses are sure they were playing perfectly in tune until you checked.

1- If you need to tune a woodwind chord with a high note on the e-flat clarinet, don’t.

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It’s been hailed as “the saddest of all keys.” Andras Schiff called it “Beethoven’s key of existential struggle.” It was Brahms’s Tragic key- the world of his brooding First Piano Concerto and his Tragic Overture- both quite symphonic works. Yet Brahms never wrote a D minor symphony- maybe the thought of writing a whole symphony in the saddest of all keys was just too scary to contemplate for even so dark a chap as Brahms.

In fact- one of the striking commonality on this list is how few D minor symphonies end in D minor, and the list includes several of the most inspirationally affirmative creations in any medium ever created by human kind. Perhaps more than any other key, D minor seems to be an obstacle to be overcome, the key great composers struggle to escape. In that sense, it really is the most Beethovenian of keys.

The list follows. Read it then let us know what I missed in the comments.

15- Shostakovich Symphony no. 12
Few works ever written suffer from as dodgy a reputation as this one. Shostakovich’s own comments on the piece were so laced with contradictions and doublespeak that they’ve only fuelled critical scepticism. I never worried too much about the programmatic elements or the critical barbs, and neither should you- put it on, turn the stereo up to “whoa boy” loud and prepare to be blown away. I grew up with Haitink’s fantastic Concertgebouw recording which has the advantage of including a great overture that nobody knows, the Overture on Russian and Khirgiz Folk Themes. But I don’t think you can expect to hear many more exiting performances of anything than the video of Mravinsky on scary form with the Leningrad Phil.

14- Prokofiev- Symphony no. 2
Are any two consecutive symphonies in any cycle more different than Prokofiev’s First (the witty and elegant “Classical”) and his Second- surely one of the noisiest works in the literature. And I mean that in a good way. Once you absorb the thrill of Prokofiev’s bad-boy raucous provocation the work also shows real depth and emotional power. But we love it for the bad boy noise.

13- Haydn- Symphony no. 26 “Lamentatione”
The only way you’re ever going to get a “best symphonies in the key of ____” list on this blog without Haydn is if he never wrote a symphony in that key. He makes quick work of getting on the D minor list with this astoundingly original work from his early years. Thomas Fey’s recording is a good starting place.

12- Bruckner- Symphony no. 3
It is sometimes said of Bruckner’s symphonies that he tried to write Beethoven’s 9th Symphony 9 times. For such a completely original composer, I think that’s quite unfair. His first essay in the key of Beethoven’s 9th is curiously one I struggled with for years- I found the stepwise ascent at the end of the opening trumpet theme banal and it maybe me suspicious of the whole work. Fortunately, age has brought wisdom on this front and I’m looking forward to conducting it very soon.

11- Franck- Symphony in D minor
The classic example of a work of vast audience appeal that was once a staple of our musical diet that has largely fallen out of the repertoire to the detriment of both musicians and listeners. And we wonder why audiences shrink? Francophone Bruckner- what’s not to love? Nobody has ever made a better case for the piece than Charles Munch.

10- Vaughan Williams- Symphony no. 8
John McCabe is unambiguous in asserting Vaughan Williams as the greatest symphonist of the 20th C.. I’m not there yet, but I’m starting to see his point. I certainly don’t understand why this fantastic work isn’t done more often. The Fifth and the “London” are concert mainstays, but the “London” often overstays its welcome. The Fourth is a masterpiece, but not for every occasion, nor is the bleak Sixth or the gigantic Seventh. One would hope this gem of a work would get programmed much more often. The ICA Classics DVD of Adrian Boult conducting this piece is an incredibl document.

9- Rachmaninoff- Symphony no. 1
If Shostakovich 12 has the worst critical reputation of any work on this list, Rachmaninoff’s First Symphony certainly got one of the worst critical receptions of all time after its premiere. Much blame must be assigned to the conductor, Glazunov, who was reportedly terribly drunk and not sympathetic to the piece. It’s Rachmaninoff’s most “modern” work- angry, austere and violent, with hardly a shred of the appealing melancholy of this later, mega-popular works. It feels more authentically Russian than almost any of his other works: closer to the weirdness of Mussorgsky, where his later works take on more of a Tchaikovskian technical perfection. Rachmaninoff went on to be a great composer, but had he developed more along the lines of this work, he might have been one of the greatest. Maestro Noseda’s recording with the BBC Philharmonic makes a great case for the work in great sound.

8- Philip Sawyers- Symphony no. 2
I know- I’m biased, but Philip Sawyers’ work absolutely deserves its place so high on this list (and he’ll be cross/embarrassed I’m listing him, as it’s not very English to appear on a “best-of” list— so you know I mean it). Philip doesn’t actually specify a key on the title page, but the D minor in which it opens and closes leaves no doubt about the fierce and stormy world of this bracing 20 minute masterpiece. With a language that seamlessly integrates a compelling sense of harmonic possibility and intent with twelve-tone technique, it ranges from ferocious intensity to passages the composer once described to me with a note of surprise in his voice as having a “sort of crazed Mahlerian grandeur.” It’s a piece you really have to hear- again and again. And if you want to hear it, you’ll have to listen to my recording of it. Hah! Listen on Spotify here (then buy the CD to keep the music coming)  Philip Sawyers – Symphony No. 2

7-Schumann- Symphony no. 4
The number of this work is misleading- it’s actually his second, and very much a companion piece to the “Spring.” He also revised the two works at the same time in 1853. The work marks one of the most important innovations in symphonic form in musical history- the first few symphony in one movement, the father of Sibelius 7 and the Schoenberg Chamber Symphony and countless others including Sawyers 2 mentioned above (a work Bobby would have loved). Schumann worked for over 10 years to get the transitions right- they make the piece, and that’s why it’s a crime to play the original version against his explicit wishes. The real point of the piece is the fire in its belly- the inspiration and the passion that only Bobby Schumann could muster. Support Vftp and buy my recording (you’ll like it).

6- Sibelius Symphony no. 6

It’s often called “Sibeslius’s most elusive symphony.” I suggest one could also call it his most beautiful. This work is also much more accessible than its reputation- it’s not a tough nut like the Fourth or Tapiola. It’s a work of deepest contemplation rather than struggle. Sibelius 6 is a bit of a rarity in the concert hall, but there are a lot of good recordings. The concert film of Simon Rattle doing the 5th, 6th and 7th Symphonies in one concert with Berlin is a really interesting document, and my god, that orchestra really plays. It’s in the Digital Concert Hall- probably worth a trip behind the paywall.

5- Beethoven- Symphony no. 9
Beethoven 9 not at the top of the list? Am I nuts? Nope- D minor is just that competitive. It’s fashionable among a certain type dis this work. Some can’t get on with the form of the Finale (it makes perfect sense and works). Some don’t get the whole affirmation thing. I don’t get them. Live it’s an even more special animal, with a power to unite audience and performers in pure joy that goes beyond any work. My favourite recordings are Bloomstedt’s 70’s era Dresden performance and Furtwangler’s harrowing wartime aircheck. I’m not sure there will be a convincing HIP recording until someone lets the cellos and basses vibrate in the recit- it makes no sense non vib unless the bass-baritone is going to sing it that way. (He isn’t.)

4- Dvorak- Symphony no. 7
Given the stature of his other works in D minor, it’s a real pity we don’t have a Brahms symphony in this key. Or do we? More than one commentator has answer the question “What is the greatest Brahms symphony” with “Dvorak 7.” It’s only an unfair ranking because, strong as Brahms influence is in it, it’s pure Dvorak through and through- his voice, his language. The rhythmic intricacies and tensions of the first movement are worthy of a doctoral dissertation. Kubelik’s Berlin Philharmonic recording is one of ten best recordings of anything ever made by anyone, anywhere at any time.

3- Shostakovich Symphony no. 5
No musical work more vividly captures the bitter complexities of life in the 20th c. than Shostakovich’s “reply to justified criticism.” Read all about the work here. Surprisingly (and a little sadly), I don’t think a recording has been made yet that does justice to the whole thing. Mravinsky is, of course, indispensable, and the first movement is devastating (if a little too fast at the beginning and ending), but he skates over the surface of the Adagio. Bernstein is magical there (pity about the flute solo), but blows it in the Finale with the Keystone Cops ending. Rostropovich’s take on the Scherzo is the only one that captures the mix of brutality and irony that I think Shostakovich intended. More recent recordings seem to suffer from a lack of tobacco and chest hair. It’s not a symphony that suits an Ikea aesthetic. Overall, Barshai is a pretty good starting point.

2- Mahler- Symphony no. 3
No other work by Mahler so embodies his credo that “the Symphony must be like the world. It must embrace everything.” I find it the most wonderfully bizarre of all his works. What a long, strange trip it is- from the gigantism of the first movement through those quirky and vaguely threatening intermezzi, then the astounding contralto song (very trippy) and the completely wacko children’s chorus. Only Mahler could have had the vision and the mojo to compose a Finale which could pull the whole thing together and launch the listener into an eternity of transcendent love. There are surprising number of really good recordings of this piece, although it’s not easy to find one where the trombone solo, the posthorn solo and the contralto are all on the same exalted level. I’ve always thought Bernstein did it particularly well.

1- Bruckner- Symphony no. 9
If D minor is “the key great composers struggle to escape,” then, truly, nobody ever fought harder to escape it’s icy clutches than poor old Anton Bruckner, who struggled up the perilous ascent to D major in this work for ten years, then died just a few yards from the summit. The Finale was all but finished when he put his pen down for the last time, but friends and neighbors pinched huge portions of the manuscript as souvenirs, and so for most of the last 100+ years, we’ve only really known the work as an awe-inspiring three-movement torso. Even in this form, it’s the greatest D minor symphony ever written. The reason it’s the greatest D minor symphony is the same reason it took Bruckner so long to find a way to get to D major- no piece of music since the Mozart Requiem has made the key of D minor sound as Apocalypse inducing, pants crappingly terrifying as Bruckner 9. The surviving fragments of the Finale can be heard to fascinating effect on the lecture (which he gave in both English and German) disc accompanying Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s very fine recording. There are a number of completions and realizations- Simon Rattle’s performance of the latest Samale/Mazzuca/Phillips/Cohrs completion  in the Digital Concert Hall  is very good. The greatest performances, sadly, are of the torso- all by guys who knew a thing or two about mortality. I grew up with Karajan’s 70’s era Berlin recording and still love it. It was one of the last works Bernstein ever conducted with the Vienna Philharmonic. It was the only time he did the piece, and his interpretation (and their playing) is incredible. But Gunter Wand at age 147 or whatever he was in this film has to win the prize.

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2014 was the year in which the real world finally caught up with Classical Music. As the New Year dawns, we find ourselves all deep in the belly of a whale that looks a lot like society-at-large

In earlier blog posts this year, we looked at how the classical music world has been lulled into adopting the mind-set and business practices of junk culture, and we’ve looked at how changes in the social media landscape have made it harder to disseminate new ideas and new music.

For most of us, the expression “the one percent” first became part of our national dialogue during the Occupy movement a few years ago (remember how that one changed the world?). I suppose there has always been an element of one-percent-ish-ness in classical music because of its elite and competitive nature. Every time someone wins a major orchestra job in the USA, we’re reminded that “over a hundred violinists from top music schools and orchestras across the country came together to audition for this single position.” Classical music has always had a complex relationship with the “real” one-percent crowd, who are often among our most influential funders. The arts can offer the very rich a chance to really contribute to the welfare of society at large- for instance, the Oregon East Symphony was occasionally supported by the Paul Allen (he of Microsoft fame) Foundation. Big money foundation supports small town orchestra doing good work for the win! On the other hand, tobacco and petroleum companies have long used philanthropy to try to whitewash public perceptions of their business practices. More recently, we’ve seen labor negotiations in Philadelphia, Minnesota and other major orchestras in which the power to give transformative sums was used as a bargaining tool by board members to extract painful concessions from the musicians, sometimes at significant artistic expense. Sometimes a symbolic gift proves to be a rather empty gesture- such as the renovation of New York State Theatre which left the New York City Opera homeless long enough that the company never recovered. There was money for naming rights of a building, but not for the art to fill it and bring it to life.

I believe the last few years have brought us a new, more pernicious kind of one-percentism in classical music. A one-percentism that’s far more about internal economics than artistic competition or fund-raising from external sources. It should surprise nobody that our story as an industry has mirrored that of our larger society. During this economic downturn, small and medium-sized business and artistic institutions were first to falter and last to recover, and that the modest recovery in the arts has seen most benefit flow to our own one-percent crowd.

For instance- the post-2008 economic downturn caused a significant contraction in the field of artist management (spoiler alert- this blogpost is not a rant about managers). Without casting aspersions, one might well describe artist management companies as the bankers of the arts world- they don’t make music, sell tickets or put on concerts, any more than a bank builds or sells cars. Like banks, they facilitate the business of others by being gatekeepers, connectors and transaction managers. They’ve historically been in the business of connecting talent with opportunity. Like banks, they also are the largely spared the risks, both financial and artistic, felt by their clients: artists and organizations.

However, since 2008, artist management companies have reportedly seen a sharp downturn in revenue. Many companies have folded, shrunk or wound up, while others have had to make difficult changes. Anecdotal reports from across an industry that takes secrecy seriously indicate that major changes have taken place that have serious implications for everyone in the industry, including our audiences.

What hasn’t changed since 2008 is that top artist management companies still hold a virtual monopoly on who gets booked at elite orchestras, festivals and opera companies. Unless you are Lorin Maazel or Kurt Masur (both of whom famously looked after their own business affairs), self-management will only get you so far in this business. More and more artists- not just newbies, but established and respected pros with a proven track record- struggle to find management that open doors for them with top presenters. Why?

Again and again, I hear reports from across the US and Europe that management companies are focusing 99.9% of their energy on promoting 0.1% of artists. Rosters at the big firms are reportedly getting smaller, and a shrinking number of superstar artists are now doing a huge amount of work. The impact of this has been most keenly felt among singers, where the dangers of overwork are most apparent.

Top level singers these days report singing not only an insane number of performances per year, but doing so in a crazed range of Fachs (voice types). Again and again, I hear of singers being pressured into roles for which they are ill-suited, and having to sing them while fatigued or ill, or risk losing representation. They’re certainly singing scared. Artists dare not take time off for injury or illness. One singer I spoke to recently said “I know I’m shortening my career, but the choice between a shortened career and no career is not really a choice.” Management companies, whose attitude to risk is in some ways similar to bankers (“never play games with your own money if you can avoid it”) are said to be bringing in more retainers and fees, and one major company is said to be considering a system whereby if an artist does not meet their annual minimum in commissions, they owe the management company the balance. I’ve not yet been able to confirm the truth of it, but it does seem of a piece with the larger trends. Finance long ago saw a shift from working on commission to working on fee + commission, and I think the same thing is happening in music.

The upshot for audiences is that more and more, one hears superstar singers singing the wrong roles. It makes the singer look bad and gives an incomplete picture of the music. We’re literally wearing out our stars, shrinking our repertoire and skipping most of a generation of performers. We miss out on great Siegfried’s and Wotan’s because those roles are being sung by Pinkerton’s and Escamillo’s.

However, it’s not fair to place all the blame on artist management companies.  Historically, many agents have made huge, long-term strategic investment in developing artists. The post 2008 economic troubles have meant they have far fewer resources to invest in building new artists, and the shifting of risk to the musicians is surely an indicator of the existential pressures they’re feeling. Twenty years ago, an agency might use revenue from say the top 5% of their clients, the upper class, of artists to subsidize the development of more “middle class” artists. Now, they have income from only the top 1%, barely enough to keep the lights on. Investment in the middle class, or even the rest of the old top 5% is just not there. It’s no longer enough to be a star, just as being a millionaire in New York won’t get you very far in the property market. Stars are falling off the books of management companies left and right- the age of the one-percent, the age of the billionaire is also the age of the superstar.

One solution might be for major orchestras, festivals and opera companies to become less dependent on artist managers and agents. Self-management has already transformed much of the music world.  Twenty years ago, nobody outside of academia really dealt directly with artists- even regional and community orchestras dealt mainly with management companies, and big management companies were actively engaged with small venues. Community Concerts, once the bastion of great music in small towns, was originally a project of CAMI. Nowadays, the national umbrella organization that ran Community Concerts is gone, and the infrastructure built in collaboration with CAMI lives on in small towns across the country where local societies now deal direct with artists. (The value of companies like CAMI can be seen in the huge falloff in quality at many of these series, which focus more on novelty acts and pop).

However, as non- “A” orchestras have started dealing direct with artists, fees have fallen (one wise agent said to me that “no artist should ever have to negotiate his or her own fee”). Artists miss the support of professional advocates in the negotiation process, but, frankly, there’s just a lot less money around at D, E, F or G orchestras.  There’s not even much spare cash to be found at B orchestras. Artists may now be able to engage directly with decision makers in smaller organizations, but those decision makers have far less flexibility to spend on artistic product than they did a few years back. The same shift of prosperity we’ve seen among artists has been mirrored among institutions- we’ve lost much of the musical middle class.

However, it’s not fair to place all the blame on artist management companies, festivals, opera companies and orchestras. Orchestras, festivals and opera companies these days need cash like never before. Cash follows audience, and audience follow superstars. Mere stars are no longer enough to sell tickets. In the end, that B orchestra now speaking directly to that self-managed pianist isn’t going to pay them enough to do much more than cover their costs. However, they might drop $100k on a gala with a superstar in hope that it pulls in enough revenue and audience interest to subsidize the rest of the year. A concert series in my home town this year recently brought on a spirited debate about fees when they reportedly paid a great musician nearly $100,000 for a recital. That’s enough to run a decent community orchestra for a year. Does it make sense? Well, it does if that musician can fill the hall- if they’re the only superstar who can get 1200 people in that market to come out for a recital any more. Even the next most famous cellist in the country would probably have only sold 200 seats.  The presenter who books a one-percent superstar knows they’re likely to break even. Booking a two-percenter, for one twentieth the fee, would probably still lose money, even if the concert with a less famous player was musically superior (I’m not saying it would or wouldn’t be).

Most parents have dealt with at least one child who was a picky eater. It’s frustrating enough when your dear one only eats pizza, pasta and chicken, but what really hurts is when they then announce that chicken is off the list. Audiences that would have once come out for any of the top 10 violinists in the world will have been dumping mere stars like five-year-olds dump chicken. The same thing is happening with repertoire. There was a time at orchestras when subscription sales were so strong you could mostly play what you wanted- if someone wanted to come to hear a marquee programme, they had to subscribe. I still remember the woman in the box office laughing and laughing when I called the Chicago Symphony to ask if I could buy a ticket to see Kubelik conduct Mahler there in his later years. It had sold out completely on subscription even before the season was announced. One or two marquee events drove subscriptions in which you could program some pretty adventurous stuff.  Gradually, it has become less about “the concert that sells the series” and more about “the piece that sells the program.” More to the point, the list of pieces that sell has withered. Just as the 7th most famous pianist in the world will no longer do for most listeners, neither will the fourth most popular Beethoven symphony, or the second most beloved Mozart concerto. Imagine that five-year-old telling you pasta is also off the “will eat” list along with chicken, and you’ll know how the conductor feels when his marketing director tells him “I’m sorry, but Brahms just isn’t good for box office these days. You need a more popular piece on this concert.” Is the message for concert planners in the 20th c. that we have to treat our audience like five-year-olds? Has the junk culture mentality and the star system so permeated our musical world that our diet will soon literally be limited to musical French fries and soda?

However, it’s not fair to place all the blame on artist management companies, festivals, opera companies, orchestras and audience members.

One-percentism is an economic construct, and as one, it’s highly inefficient. Look in the “real world.” A one-percent company like Wal-Mart makes a huge, huge, huge amount of money in small towns- towns that are poorly served by its presence. In places like Pendleton, where I worked happily for many years, one-percent companies drive local businesses of all kinds out of business. Wages go down, quality of goods sold goes down, customer service goes down and investment in the community goes way, way down. A small town orchestra or Community Concerts series used to be able to count on the annual support of all the local businesses- the local bank, hardware store, sporting goods store and department store. Where capitalism once sustained culture, one-percentism guts it. In most small towns, all of those businesses have been taken over by national chains and mega companies that give little, if anything, back to local schools and charitable organizations and do all they can to avoid even paying local taxes. It’s not inherently a problem that Wal-Mart is making mountains of money in a place like Pendleton. The problem is that they’re doing it at the expense of the welfare of the community- they’re making a profit on the misery of others. Similarly, it’s not a problem that a superstar singer is getting paid a fortune to sing Beethoven 9. The problem is that it’s wrong for their voice- they sound bad, the piece sounds bad, we lose audience, we wear out a superstar and end up with one less piece and one less performer for which or whom a huge audience will turn out. Perhaps one-percentism is feeding the “five-year-old” mentality among our audience. If you pay $200 a ticket to see the nation’s fourth-most-famous soprano and you can’t hear her in the hall (I remember hearing dozens and dozens of audience members saying “never again” after spending huge sums to hear a famously small-voiced soprano, made famous over a microphone on TV, in a huge hall in Cincinnati back in the day), you’re not going to risk another $180 on the fifth-most-famous.

A local furniture store in the age of Wal-Mart photo c. Brian Brown

I’m no economist, but it seems manifestly obvious that we’ve reached a crisis point in our society, our whole society, where we’ve become insanely delusional about the efficacy of markets in distributing resources.  I remember a newspaper article about 7 or 8 years ago about a hugely successful and respected elementary teacher who gave up the classroom to become a stripper after a couple of years because she could make something like five times the money.  Does a tobacco company lawyer really contribute more to the welfare of society than an emergency room nurse as the salaries would seem to indicate?

What can be done to restore a healthier economic ecosystem which can sustain our art form? Given that our internal problems as an industry so clearly and painfully mirror those of our society, is it realistic to hope that we can survive be making internal changes and reforms? Can we be a model for structural economic reform that inspires business and political leaders to try to build a more just and cohesive society?

2 years ago | |
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Well, it’s nearly time to say “so long” to another year, and as we work our way through Christmas leftovers and brace for the struggles and adventures that lay ahead, it’s navel-gazing season at Vftp, when we look back at the musical year just past.

The Repertoire Report project has been an interesting one (at least to me) over the years- it’s a way to see what people are up to from year to year and to compare various conductors’ workloads and approaches to programming.

A number of things stand out to me in this year’s Report. Looking at the “most popular” KW-composers in 2014, it’s no surprise that Mozart is the winner- he often has been. On the other hand, a few years back one would never have guessed that Vaughan Williams would be in second place on a KW repertoire list. Getting to do more of RVW’s music over the last few years has been a real revelation for me, and I hope to continue to add more of his music to my repertoire this year. I’d done the Fifth Symphony and and the Tallis Fantasia before, but the Fourth Symphony was an incredible project, and my young colleagues from the Kent County Youth Orchestra played it with ferocious commitment in April. I’ve wanted to do RVW’s “On Wenlock Edge” for many years, but as is so often the case, my admiration for the piece deepened greatly as I learned it.

In the midst of my mini-immersion in the  music of RVW, I was repeatedly inspired by my conversations about his music with ESO composer-in-association John McCabe, who knows and reveres Vaughan Williams’s music like few others. It was a real honor to have him present in Kent for our performance of the RVW Fourth and to play the Tallis Fantasia alongside John’s “Pilgrim” twice.  Fortunately, the year has afforded me a number of opportunities to perform John’s music, and Signum have just released our recording of his trumpet concerto “La Primavera” which is a very important addition to the trumpet literature. For me, the high point of working with John’s music this year was getting to conduct “Pilgrim” for Double String Orchestra twice. It’s a masterpiece- a hugely, hugely important addition to the elite list of the very greatest works for string orchestra. It’s a deeply moving work with a potent mixture of intensity and grandeur, wedded to an astounding depth of craftsmanship. We hope to play it again often.

Dvorak was a big winner this year- I LOVED doing the Fifth Symphony, a work I’d occasionally found problematic as a listener but grew to admire enormously as I studied it. The fall off in popularity of Dvorak’s music after the five or six big hits is a complete mystery to me. The Fifth should be just as engaging for any audience as the New World- while Dvorak’s later work wins points on craft and economy of means, the earlier astounds for the wealth of ideas and thrilling energy of the Finale. It was a pretty good year for Mahler- three symphonies, including my first full public performance of the Seventh, which was a hoot.

Of course, there were some painful omissions from the repertoire list. Many of my favorite 20th c. composers were absent, including Janacek, Debussy, Stravinsky, Messiaen and Bartók. What a waste of a year of one’s life to miss out on doing anything by these giants for an entire year. The biggest omission, however, must be that of Robert Schumann, whose music was agonizingly absent from my calendar for the first time in well over a decade if not more. This is all the more bizarre given that we just completed our Schumann cycle with the Orchestra of the Swan in December of 2013. Fingers crossed that 2015 brings more Bobby!

(This was literally the last Schumann I conducted- the recording incorporates the last several minutes of our concert performance, the ending of our four-year Bobby and Hans mega-adventure)

On the other hand, it was a good year for the music of living composers- lots of performances, a healthy number of premieres and some very exciting recordings. I hope that’s a trend that will continue next year- there are many exciting things in the pipeline!

This year’s balance of cello to conducting seemed to show a slight shift toward more cello, but no concerti for the first time in a few years. That’s fine with me- the best music for cello is the chamber repertoire, and I got to play many of the greatest things in the literature this year.

So then, without further ado, here are the stats!

[If you would like to contribute to the Repertoire Report project, please send your listing of works performed in the last calendar year in alphabetical order to]
* Performances in multiple venues/series= 12

# New to KW repertoire= 28

World-premieres= 7

Number of composers= 49

National premieres= 3

Living composers performed= 15

Works by living composers= 19

Most popular composers

Five works-

  • Mozart

Four Works-

  • Dvorak
  • Vaughan Williams

Three works-

  • Beethoven
  • Mahler
  • John McCabe
  • Schubert
  • Strauss

Two works-

  • Grieg
  • Haydn
  • Jay Reise
  • Tchaikovsky
  • Thomas Whitman

Kenneth Woods- 2o14 Repertoire Report

  1. Bach arr. Sitkovetsky- “Goldberg Variations” # *
  2. Barber Cello Concerto
  3. Beethoven- String Trio in C minor Opus 9 no. 3
  4. Beethoven- Symphony no. 2 in D major
  5. Beethoven- Symphony no. 4
  6. Victoria Bond- Quartet for Shakuhachi and String Trio (World Premiere) #
  7. Brahms Serenade No. 1
  8. Britten- Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings #
  9. Butterworth- The Banks of Green Willow #
  10. Cohen- Two Cello Duos (UK Premiere) #
  11. Copland- Appalachian Spring
  12. Emily Doolittle- “falling still” for Violin and strings (UK Premiere)
  13. Dvorak – Serenade for Wind Instruments
  14. Dvorak- Serenade for Strings
  15. Dvorak- Symphony no. 5 #
  16. Dvorak- Symphony no. 8 in G Major
  17. Elgar- Introduction and Allegro for Strings
  18. Hans Gál – Divertimento for Winds #
  19. Grieg- Selections from Peer Gynt
  20. Grieg-Piano Concerto in A minor
  21. Haydn- Cello Concerto in C Major
  22. Haydn- Symphony no. 44 “Trauer” #
  23. Kurtág- Signs, Games and Messages
  24. LePage/Schubert- Sleep Softly in My Arms #
  25. Levinson- Three Fables
  26. Andrew Keeling- Piano Trio “Unquiet Earth” #
  27. Mahler- Symphony no. 4
  28. Mahler Symphony no. 5
  29. Mahler Symphony no. 7 #
  30. John McCabe- Red Leaves #
  31. John McCabe- “Pilgrim” for Double String Orchestra * #
  32. McCabe Trumpet Concerto “La Primavera”
  33. McIver- Fantasia on Theme of Glennys Pierce # (world premiere)
  34. Mendelssohn- Cello Sonata
  35. Mozart- Oboe Quartet
  36. Mozart- Clarinet Quintet
  37. Mozart- Overture “The Impressario”
  38. Mozart arr. Triebensee  –Harmonium selections fromDon Giovanni 
  39. Mozart- Symphony no 29 in A Major
  40. Thea Musgrave- Green for String Orchestra #
  41. Paganini Violin Concerto No. 1
  42. Penderecki- String Trio *
  43. Deborah Pritchard- Violin Concerto “Wall of Water” (World Premiere) #
  44. Prokofiev A Summer Day – a suite for children #
  45. Ravel- Le Tombeau de Couperin
  46. Jay Reise- String Trio (world-premiere) *
  47. Jay Reise- “The Warrior Violinist” for Violin, Cello and Narrator
  48. Rossini- Overture to William Tell
  49. Kaija Saariaho- “Terra memoria” for String Orchestra (UK Premiere) #
  50. Saint-Saens- Cello Concerto no. 2 in D minor
  51. James Schlefer- “Sidewalk Dances”for Shakuhachi and Cello (world premiere) #
  52. Schnittke- String Trio *
  53. Schubert- Cello Quintet *
  54. Schubert- String Trio in B flat
  55. Schubert- Symphony no. 3
  56. Shostakovich- Chamber Symphony op 110a
  57. Sibelius- En Saga #
  58. Sibelius- Violin Concerto
  59. Strauss- Duet Concertino #
  60. Strauss- Oboe Concerto
  61. Strauss- Serenade for Winds
  62. Tchaikovsky- Serenade for Strings #
  63. Tchaikovsky- Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture
  64. Telemann Trumpet Concerto
  65. Tippett- Concerto for Double String Orchestra # *
  66. Ullmann/Woods- Chamber Symphony op 46a
  67. Vaughan Williams- On Wenlock Edge #
  68. Vaughan Williams- Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis *
  69. Vaughan Williams- Symphony no. 4 #
  70. Vaughan Williams Symphony No. 5
  71. Weber Euryanthe Overture #
  72. Weinberg- String Trio * #
  73. Tom Whitman- “Fire Down Below” for mezzo soprano and string trio(world premiere) * #
  74. Tom Whitman- Two scenes from “Fire Down Below” for String Trio (world premiere) *

Past KW Repertoire Reports:












2 years ago | |
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Happy 85th birthday to Maestro Nikolaus Harnoncourt (née Johannes Nicolaus Graf de la Fontaine und d’Harnoncourt-Unverzagt– I really do need a posher name), cellist, conductor and visionary. Without doubt, one of the most interesting musicians of the last 50 years.

Cellist, conductor, visionary and lumberjack, Nikolaus Harnoncourt

Cellist, conductor, visionary and lumberjack, Nikolaus Harnoncourt

Harnoncourt, to me, represents the what happens when rigorous and questing scholarship is wedded to temperament, insight and a taste for danger. Too often, one can guess every choice of a HIP interpreter before they even give their first downbeat. Not so with Harnoncourt- for him, a historical understanding of style and context opens the door to ever more shocking and thrilling flexibility and creativity. He’s just about the ultimate “point of view” conductor- and we need more of them on the podium.

2 years ago | |
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(Disclaimer- I’ve broken my no-swearing rule in this post. Apologies for any offense. I think Haydn’s music merits a bit of good profanity)

Long-time Vftp readers will know that I’m quite the Haydn aficionado. Last Saturday, I broke a long, heart-wrenching dry spell since my last performance of a Haydn symphony with a very satisfying rip through the Master’s Symphony No. 44 in E minor, “Trauer (“”Mourning”).

A satisfying performance? Maybe that’s not quite the right description. I dare say I was satisfied, nay, even pleased with how the orchestra played it and how the audience responded.

But was I satisfied with the performance the way one is satisfied after a tasty and filling meal? Certainly not- far from being content that the experience had brought some kind of worthy closure to the project, I felt like I wanted to conduct the piece five more times right then. I wanted to gather the audience and the musicians at the foot of the stage and talk about the score for an hour. I wanted to record it, I wanted to sing it. Part of me just wanted to stand on the roof of a tall building and howl at the moon all night in honour of the genius of Joseph Haydn.

(Nicholas Kenyon’s interesting overview of recordings of Haydn’s Symphony no. 44 from BBC Radio 3’s CD Review. Kenyon has many interesting things to say about  the piece, and all the recordings he plays are well played, but in none of them to get the feeling that everyone is giving the music everything they’ve got. To me, the music seems held at arms length by almost everyone)

I’d like to think that the gist of my reaction to the piece was similar to that of many people there (if amplified to a freakish level of intensity). Something about that performance felt very raw, very intense, very primal. I’m thrilled to say it was not a “nice” performance. It left me hungry for more rather than full and satisfied.

One thing I won’t be doing much of in response to that hunger is listening to recordings of the Haydn symphonies. Why? Well, with all the goodwill in the world, many of them don’t excite me very much. There! I said it.

More than any composer I can think of, Haydn has been saddled with a certain patina of earnestness that seems to have penetrated virtually everyone’s approach to his music. I’ve written about this before- about how the “Papa Haydn” image seems to have put a glass wall between us and the scores.

I’ve always liked Haydn. I’ve always liked conducting and playing Haydn. I’ve tried to make myself aware of all the historical and stylistic issues connected with playing his music.

Then, one day, I had my “fuck it” moment. I was rehearsing Haydn’s Symphony no. 92 (Oxford) in a cold, dark, dingy village hall on a rainy Sunday morning. One minute I was conducting a read-through of the first mvt, taking note of obvious problems to fix and having a think about what the “right” thing to do was in terms of phrasing, tempo and vibrato. Then I thought: “fuck it.”

Some little voice inside me pointed out that it seemed a little perverse that almost all the music written by a man widely, if not universally, acknowledged as one of the 10 greatest composers of music who have ever walked the planet, tends to be heard 99% of the time in very nice performances by very nice people, with almost no emotional range- a dynamic range from mp to mf, moderate to sprightly tempos, and sounds neither too smooth nor too rough. Everything is so fucking charming, so fucking elegant, so fucking nice.

I once read an article called “Haydn- the Shakespeare of Music.” It’s a surprisingly apt comparison. Can you imagine King Lear spoken entirely in gently genial tones? Could you endure Hamlet staged entirely in a tea party? How about a Romeo and Juliet in which the Montagues and Capulets conversed politely over scones?

Anyway- back to my “fuck it” moment. I stood there in that perennially damp, grey rehearsal hall and thought: what if this giant of music actually wrote music of huge, immediate, staggering range? What if I’m not supposed to tone down the fortissimos and smooth out the contrasts? What if the scary bits are not supposed to sound “cute scary” or “Classical scary” but actually “scary-scary?” That morning, I gave myself permission to rehearse the Oxford free from fealty to any stylistic authority or creed beyond an honest and creative engagement with Haydn’s text. By the end of that rehearsal, I no longer liked conducting Haydn. I loved it.

So began what has been one of the most rewarding threads of my career- especially when working with colleagues willing to take chances and experiment. There have been moments of frustration- I remember a week with a group of brilliantly gifted conservatory students at a great American festival in which I just couldn’t seem to persuade them to stop tickling and tap-dancing their way through the piece we were working on. I wanted them to play like Vikings, they wanted to play like society ladies. On another occasion I was doing one of the zaniest middle symphonies and the concertmaster just seemed to have a “blue screen of death” moment in the concert. She just couldn’t seem to handle the insanity of the music and totally shut down. Mostly, it’s been great. I knew the musicians of the Orchestra of the Swan and I would get on just fine when David LePage and Simon Chalk (the concertmaster and principal second) started stamping their feet and grunting on the first page of our performance of the Farewell on my very first concert with the orchestra.

(I once worked with a violinist who couldn’t handle the truth about Joseph Haydn)

Last week’s performance of the Trauer came at the end of a serious, quasi-Remembrance Day programme. The concert opened with Ravel’s “Tombeau de Couperin,” continued with Vaughan Williams’ “On Wenlock Edge” and Butterworth’s “On the Banks of Green Willow” and finished with the Haydn. I know there were murmurings before the gig about how unlikely it seemed that a nice bit of Haydn could possibly form a fitting conclusion to such an emotional programme. Surely it would be an anti-climax?

There are all kinds of measures of what makes a special concert, and accuracy and polish are not to be underrated or taken for granted. On the other hand, one also learns over time that it’s not that often that you really feel that pretty much everyone onstage is giving everything they’ve got. Attacking the fortissimos, ripping into the accents. I’m happy to say on this occasion, everyone was. The contrapuntal episodes in the last movement felt like a true barrage, an onslaught. The end of the symphony was shocking in its violence.

Trauer Fireworks

I marked up this contrapuntal episode in the Finale of the Trauer just to show how wild and intricate the music can be. Note how there are two imitative processes going on at the same time (including a lovely canon at the 7th), moving in sequence descending sequence, and then the distribution of parts switches around without breaking the first violin’s stepwise descent from their high D. The next page is every crazier…

I stood there in a cloud of rosin, smoke, sweat and ozone, dumbfounded by the sheer badassery of the music we’d just embraced for the last 25 minutes.

Fortunately, my wife found me before I could make my way to the roof to begin howling at the moon in celebration.

Of course, Haydn’s music can be nice, and pretty much nobody before or since has been able to write music with the kind of charm and elegance he could put on the page. The point is that, masterful as he was in the realm of charm and elegance, he was just as masterful at conveying rage, anguish, irony, insanity, joy, hope, fear, lust, menace, suspense, tenderness and violence.

I realize this post may come off a little self-congratulatory, so let me clarify- I’m not saying “I’ve got this shit figured out and you should do it like I do it.”

Quite the opposite.

Since my “fuck it” moment on that long-ago Sunday morning, I’ve realized that nobody has this shit figured out- the more you get to know Haydn, the more you realize he’s in a different league to the rest of us. Nobody has this shit figured out.

Maybe the issue is that Haydn’s music is so modern, so radical, so outrageous (and so relatively rarely played) that most of us don’t even know where to start with it, so we reach for expert opinion and received wisdom. The received wisdom on Haydn is that his music is very nice. The simple gist of this blog post to listeners and performers alike is that, as I’ve said many times before, in this case, received wisdom is the tiniest edge of the truth. The received wisdom is about 3% truth and 97% unhelpful horse-crap.

There’s a lot of charming music in Mahler, but (as far as I know) nobody tries to import the kind of easy-going Gemutlichkeit vibe of “Ging heut Morgan übers Feld” into the Finale of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony. Why should we try to paint a Sturm und Drang symphony of Haydn in the same Rococo pastels we use for the C Major Cello Concerto?

When I think of Shakespeare, I tend to think of the tragedies, but there’s more to the Bard than misery and death. What makes him Shakespeare is the astounding completeness of his observation of the human experience- when he writes a funny scene, it’s really funny, when he writes a love scene, it’s full of passion and electricity. Haydn’s range on the page is much the same- we just tend to read too much of his music in the same tone of voice. Yes, he can do reason, he can do charm and he can do wit, but he can do everything else, too.

The Trauer is a work conceived in fire and bathed in blood. The next Haydn symphony I conduct might be a hymn to the glory of the universe or a rumbustious depiction of barnyard animals at feeding time. Our job as interpreters is to try to figure out what he’s saying and bring it to life, not to force every dynamic change through a safety valve.


More thoughts on the Oxford Symphony from Vftp

Haydn the Subversive
Back to Oxford
Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag

Other Haydn stuff you should read
Haydn the Yurodivy
Haydn in the Oregonian

How Haydn Stacks Up to the Greats
Haydn- More Talented than Mozart
Haydn- Smarter than Brahms
Haydn- More fun than Mahler

One conductor who always has a point of view about Haydn is Maestro Harnoncourt, here conducting the Oxford

2 years ago | |
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Imagine I suggest we go to the museum together to look at some art.

What do you first imagine we’ll be looking at.

If you’re like most people, you’ll first assume that we’re going to look at paintings. And maybe a few sculptures?

Paintings have been very much on my mind of late. The ESO just premiered an incredible new violin concerto by Deborah Pritchard based on the astonishing series of paintings, “Walls of Water” by Maggi Hambling. Not only was Deborah’s concerto written in response to Maggi’s images, those images were projected (on a grand scale) behind the orchestra during the performance. I’ve always believed that great music can and must succeed as music, without needing any sort of visual crutch, and Deb’s piece does more than work as pure music. However, this carefully calibrated integration of musical and visual works of art made a huge, positive impression on nearly everyone there.

Maggi Hambling_Detail from Wall of water 2

The next morning, I had a bit of free time in London- a rare treat- and so decided to make my way to the Tate Modern. The Tate’s curation has had its highs and lows over the year, but it’s always an inspiring place to go. I’d been exploring the galleries for a good 45 minutes before I came into a space that was primarily devoted to painting. Having come there with paintings on the brain, this really struck me- how much eclectic, diverse and varied the visual art world is that we realize. Imagine a trip to a museum, and you think you’ll be looking at paintings, just as you imagine going to a concert and imagine you’ll be hearing a symphony. I went to the museum and saw sculptures, installations, videos, photographs, collages and more before I’d really seen a single good-old painting.

The first painting a ran into at the Tate Modern the other day. Looks wild, but check out those rectangles.

The first painting a ran into at the Tate Modern the other day. Looks wild, but check out those rectangles.

What a tribute to our colleagues in the visual art world that on a perfect, sunny Sunday in October, this vast facility was packed, literally packed, with thousands of people coming to look at this eclectic collection of art that is so experimental, so radical, so varied that seeing a painting really seemed like a blast from the past.

Not even sure what to call this- a few bits of wood leaned against the museum wall. But it's cool, and dig the parallel lines and right angles. It's as if the frame is all that's left of the art.

Not even sure what to call this- a few bits of wood leaned against the museum wall. But it’s cool, and dig the parallel lines and right angles. It’s as if the frame is all that’s left of the art.

Again I was struck, as I so often am, by the astonishing divergence of fortune between contemporary music and contemporary art. Contemporary art is POPULAR. People come out in the thousands to see all kinds of weird, wacky, challenging, dark, twisted, radical and uncomfortable stuff. People also spend a lot of money on it- contemporary art is big business. Not so in contemporary music- it remains a tough sell. Most people coming to the Tate seem to want to be challenged. A high percentage of people coming to a classical concert don’t. They crave more of what they know- familiar works, familiar genres, familiar forms, familiar languages.

But is visual art really as free from familiar forms, gestures and genres as we assume? However diverse the works were that I saw that Sunday morning, 99% of them shared one obvious formal device- they were all enclosed in squares or rectangles. Sculptures, paintings, collages, videos- all surrounded by parallel lines and right angles.

This beautiful re-imagining of the human form by Alberto Giacometti shows a man standing on an iron square, mounted on a bigger, woooden square

This beautiful re-imagining of the human form by Alberto Giacometti shows a man standing on an iron square, mounted on a bigger, wooden square

Physics makes a powerful argument for parallel lines and right angles- buildings constructed in this way tend to stay standing. Those with diagonal weight-bearing walls tend to have a harder time. Right angles and parallel lines are a primarily human construct. Nature does not produce many rectangles.

Nature abhors right angles, and so does Frank Gehry, but think about what shape most of the windows are in this building....

Nature abhors right angles, and so does Frank Gehry, but think about what shape most of the windows are in this building….

But even in more radically shaped spaces (the Tate, itself a former power station, is a study in right angles), art tends to exist in rectangles. Everywhere you look, you see parallel lines and right angels. Even when the art is chaotic and irrational, the context is, almost always, the simplest and most rational one can imagine.

Does the simplicity and clarity of the frame or the framing device account, in part, for the mass popularity of contemporary visual art? Does the lack of such clarity of context account for the lack of a mass audience for so much music written in the last 80 years?

Penderecki once said of Classical forms: ‘Logic. You must have exposition, you must have development … nobody can do anything better.’ Is the tonic-dominant relationship our right angle? Is the ABA form, or its big brother, the Sonata Allegro form our parallel lines? Surely such an analogue is too simplistic, but it’s one worth thinking about.

It’s been mostly bad news for music since 2008 or so, but I do seem to be having a run of concerts and projects where more and more of the time, the work making the biggest impact on much of the audience has been the newest one. I’ve seen players and audience members deeply moved by brand-new or nearly-new works by John McCabe, Schnittke, Deborah Pritchard, Robert Saxton, Philip Sawyers, Andrew Keeling and James Francis Brown to name but a few. Don’t forget Mr Penderecki, either. Some of these works have been written in wildy dissonant and experimental languages, using tons of extended techniques, others have stuck to traditional genres and a tonally-informed musical harmonic language. All those which have made a strong impact possessed a powerful originality of thought and a keen mastery of the fundamentals of compositional technique. Charlatans are not hard to spot in contemporary music.

This rectangle filled with angsty squiggles (also known as Yellow Islands) by Jackson Pollock looks crazy, but the form is incredible simple and logical.

This rectangle filled with angsty squiggles by Jackson Pollock looks crazy, but the form is incredible simple and logical.

On the other hand, I’ve done two new works by composers I really admire in the last couple of years that I, sadly, felt just didn’t work in the end. Both composers where just as technically accomplished as any of the musicians listed above- both have written other pieces I adore. However, neither piece seemed to work- the audience could sense it, we felt it on stage. Somehow theses pieces didn’t arrive, didn’t cohere, didn’t deliver- they just didn’t work.

Can a picture of a bus stop in Armenia be high art? You betcha, as long as it's Ursual Schulz-Dornburg who takes the shot and puts it in a rectangle.

Can a picture of a bus stop in Armenia be high art? You betcha, as long as it’s Ursual Schulz-Dornburg who takes the shot and puts it in a rectangle.

Is Sonata form the parallel lines of music? Of course not, but, as listeners and performers, we sense that the beginning and ending of a musical work represent the most powerful relationship in a piece of music. It’s more than a hunger to return to the tonic key- Mahler, with his progressive tonality, showed us that sometimes a piece finds closure without returning to home, and yet he, of all composers, also understood the deep, instinctive relationship between the beginning of a journey and it’s fulfillment.  When a piece works, the line at the  beginning finds its parallel in the line at the end- the ideas of the piece, their working out,  and the shape of the piece find a satisfying and logical relationship.

“Logic,” said Maestro Penderecki. “Nobody can do anything better.” Exposition and recapitulation forming parallel lines, development lying at a right angle?  What I find more and more with audiences (if you can get them to the venue in the first place) is that they can happily grapple with any musical language if they can perceive the structure of a work with the kind of clarity of function we perceive in the rectangle that frames a painting, a video, a sculpture or a new visual idiom, yet to be defined and realized, but, more likely than not, one to be found lovingly bracketed in parallel lines and right angles. The simpler and clearer the form, the more powerful the impact of the content. The more radical you can be.

Rothko showed us you could become one of the 5 greatest painters of the 20th c by painting rectangles.

That’s not conservatism- that’s finding a framework for originality that works.

2 years ago | |
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