Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Remembrance Day

January 27 is Holocaust Remembrance Day. Today honored the 65th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz in 1945.

Tonight the Chorale's Young Singers Project held its dress rehearsal for concerts January 29 & 30, entitled Lift Every Voice.

Early this morning, our dear friend and colleague, Lisa Relaford Coston, left everyone who had the privilege of knowing her bereft.

In addition to being a world-class musician--a mezzo soprano par excellence, exceptional in everything from Monteverdi to Messiaen, broadway, gospel & jazz--Lisa was a great teacher, mentor, colleague, friend, and even more, she was a great human being. As modest about her gifts as she was generous in sharing in them, she has touched the lives of thousands of students, colleagues, and audiences in Hampton Roads and beyond.

Lisa was THE mentor for the high school altos in our Young Singers Project. Before her hospitalization a couple weeks ago, she helped me lead the first week of rehearsals for YSP. I shared the tragic news with our Young Singers tonight. We had just finished a dress rehearsal of a program devoted to "music of conscience." In addition to being the title of the YSP program, "Lift Every Voice" is the title of the Chorale's 2009-2010. Though this is my second season with the Chorale, it is the first one I planned. No one offered more helpful or insightful advice in those planning stages than Lisa.

In the Judeo-Christian tradition, the phrase "the Lord works in mysterious ways" has assumed the status of cliche. I have never felt its resonance as I do now. The season Lisa--and other singers, colleagues and board members--helped me plan ends with two concerts centered around a cappella Requiem settings. The closing concert of 2009-2010 is entitled "Perpetual Light" and juxtaposes the Renaissance masterpiece Requiem by Victoria with the little known setting by the early 20th century Italian composer, Ildebrando Pizzetti. Our next concert, "Ears Wide Open: Celebrating Women in Music" is programmed around the Canadian composer Eleanor Daley's English language Requeim.

The centerpiece of Daley's beautiful, contemplative work is a hymn-like setting of the anonymous elegy, "In Remembrance."

Do not stand at my grave and weep;
I am not there, I do not sleep.

I shared these words with the Young Singers tonight, telling them that not only our concerts this weekend but the entire Chorale spring season would be dedicated to Lisa's memory.

[Our concert has been rescheduled for Sunday, February 7, at 3 pm.
Lisa's obituary appeared in the Virginian Pilot Feb 1]:

Friday, January 22, 2010

"The serious, open and active form of listening..." MacMillan & music of conscience

"I have long been uncomfortable with the notion that contemporary music should have no connection with the world around us, that the concern to achieve integrity in the abstract is somehow an activity which exists in blissful amoral isolation."

James MacMillan's music speaks even more clearly than his words in making connections and enacting that paradoxical ideal of so much great art: the ability of the work to transcend the specifics of its origin and achieve multiple relevances.

My previous two essays centered on one aspect of the 20th century's avant garde MacMillan obliquely rejects. The 2nd Viennese school and the atonal, 12-tone, ├╝ber-modern music of Schoenberg and his disciples--to Boulez and his circle of renegade ultra-abstract modernists--was certainly preoccupied with "integrity in the abstract."

A devout Roman Catholic, the Scottish composer turned 50 in 2009. He is one of the most vibrant and engaging composers in classical music, and though he has composed successfully in all genres--symphonies and concertos, operas, chamber music--he is especially beloved by professional choral musicians, as his choral output is prolific, and as varied as it is substantive.

That connection to the world around us is nowhere more apparent than in the miniature Communion motet he wrote in response to the Dunblane tragedy. A Child's Prayer is at the heart of the Chorale's upcoming Young Singers Project concert, and is one of many poignant entry points into MacMillan's world. The haunting 4' elegy was written following one of the first school shootings outside the U.S. In 1996, a gunman entered a Scottish elementary school and killed 16 children, a teacher, and himself. MacMillan's musical response was one of the most significant anthems to enter the choral repertoire in a generation.

The a cappella work is framed by a sequence of sustained 5-part chords on the word "Welcome." The piquant dissonances form an impressionist foundation from which an ethereal treble (soprano) duet emerges.

The welcome is addressed to "Jesu" as the solo voices lift the prayer, as if on gossamer wings, upwards: "Deep in my soul forever stay." The middle section of the piece features a recurring device in MacMillan's music--motives derived from Scottish laments--cries and sighs set as turns, mordents or appoggiaturas. The sole word "Joy" inspires a gripping page of music where the duet yields to the full-throated power of the choir divided into 6 sections. As the choir returns to the opening ground-bass like homophony, the angelic duet completes the prayer: "Joy and love my heart are filling/On this glad communion day."

MacMillan was born 300 years after Henry Purcell, one of the great composers in the history of English music, and famous for his austere ground-bass harmonies. No fewer than three exceptional recordings of MacMillan's choral music appeared last year. Two of them are by the outstanding British chamber choir, The Sixteen. And one of those is a live recording pairing MacMillan and Purcell. In addition to A Child's Prayer, MacMillan's stunning motet, O bone Jesu, is featured alongside two other Latin motets from his collection dedicated to the Strathclyde University choir.

The Sixteen commissioned O bone Jesu and first programmed and recorded it with the 16th century work that inspired it, by MacMillan's Scottish "ancestor" Robert Carver. Carver's 19-part setting of O bone Jesu features 20 repetitions of the word "Jesu," each followed by silence giving the congregants time to bow their heads. And while MacMillan's sacred works speak directly to the heart of the Christian faith, that faith is not a prerequisite to an appreciation or response to his music. Still, it is fascinating to notice how listeners--regardless of creed or culture--often describe the experience of certain types of classical music. "Numinous" and "transcendent" and "mystical"--all terms with religious connotations--are assigned to composers from Bach and Beethoven, to Mahler and Messiaen.

In a recent lecture, MacMillan made a similar observation:

"Even in our post-religious secular society, occasionally even the most agnostic and sceptically inclined music lovers will lapse into spiritual terminology to account for the impact of music in their lives. Many people will still refer to music as the most spiritual of the arts."

I couldn't agree more. And his secular works are as committed and engaged as the sacred works like A Child's Prayer. Following Benjamin Britten--whose pacifism inspired "music of conscience" [my term for works connected to social, historical &/or political events] MacMillan belies the notion that great art must be abstract, and created "for its own sake."

His orchestral masterpiece, The Confessions of Isobel Gowdie, is a case in point. Isobel Gowdie was a 17th century Scottish woman accused and tried for witchcraft. MacMillan's symphonic poem depicts the inflammatory nature of such trials while working on a purely musical level as a contemporary example of an orchestral form beloved by composers since the 19th century. One can listen to this work and make associative leaps to modern day witch-hunts (like Arthur Miller's play, The Crucible--an allegory for the McCarthy era) and one can listen to it as work of symphonic music, significant for purely aesthetic reasons. Either way, it is well worth the time!

And that brings me to the title phrase of this little essay on one of my favorite composers from any period.

"The serious, open and active form of listening necessary for classical music could be said to be analogous to contemplation, meditation or even prayer, in the way it demands our time."

The first and last phrases concern me most. The "open and active" listening that "demands our time." That is one of the points I have been repeating incessantly to my Young Singers, as they prepare for concerts next weekend of MacMillan's work in a concert devoted to "music of conscience." It has been a challenging process as it is a demanding program.

And while we have been working on a program--largely built around MacMillan's motet--one of the Young Singers Project mentors and our dear friends is in critical condition following bypass surgery. The other recording by The Sixteen is dedicated to Padre Pio's Prayer. Padre Pio was canonized in 2002, and since his death in 1968, his tomb in Italy is the 2nd most popular Christian shrine in the world. MacMillan's setting of this beloved prayer charts a journey from fear and anxiety to "warmth, confidence...and peace."

The direct and earnest prayer, with the recurring petition, "Stay with me" is a favorite of the founder of the Genesis Foundation. This charitable arts organization commissioned MacMillan and two other British composers, Roxanna Panufknik and Will Todd to compose choral settings of Pio's prayer.

Over 1000 miracles have been claimed on Padre Pio's behalf. Our arts community is united in love and support for our friend, as we hope for another. And while we wait, the connection between music and life is more palpable and vital than ever.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

"Like a lion flayed alive:" Boulez, Barenboim and the VPO

Wallace Stevens' poem "The Great Figure" immediately came to mind when I saw the pieces on the program the Vienna Philharmonic played today at Carnegie Hall. Schoenberg's Five Pieces for Orchestra, Boulez's 5 orchestral pieces, Notations, and Beethoven's Symphony No. 5. Here's that poem:

Among the rain
and lights
I saw the figure 5
in gold
on a red
fire truck
to gong clangs
siren howls
and wheels rumbling
through the dark city

I'm almost surprised we didn't see a red fire truck outside Carnegie Hall following the concert, because the musicians were on fire! I am still reeling from the sheer power of the music the Vienna Phil, under the inspired baton of Daniel Barenboim, brought to life this afternoon.

As I wrote in a post yesterday, the orchestra was presenting modernist works alongside romantic models that inspired them. In three consecutive programs Friday to Sunday (today), they played Schoenberg alongside Beethoven and Wagner, Schoenberg and Webern with Mahler, and today, the trilogy of 5ths by Schoenberg, Boulez, and Beethoven.

My undergrad mentor, "Daddy Dave" Watkins, used to chide the JMU Chorale when we hemmed and hawed over a piece we found too dissonant, unfamiliar, or just plain difficult. "You can't judge something until you know it. And friends, you don't know this piece yet!" Those words still ring in my ears, and I pass on that lesson whenever appropriate.

It is a necessary reminder where the music of the so-called "Second Viennese School" is concerned. Since the father of that school of atonality, Arnold Schoenberg, has been inextricably linked with every negative adjective associated with it, its time to wrest him and his cohorts from a protracted period of exile from the comfort zone of the standard repertoire.

Listening to the Vienna Philharmonic play these difficult, often severe--and just as often colorful, evocative, and engaging--works, I was struck by a couple of things. Yesterday I mentioned the debt film composers owe the old masters (from Wagner to Schoenberg & Stravinsky). As I listened to Webern's Six Pieces last night, I was reminded by the program annotator, Stephen Ledbetter, that Webern assigned programmatic titles to his intensely compact miniatures, as they exorcised the composer's grief following the death of his mother. One hears the haunting & gripping textures of the 2nd movement differently when reminded it evokes hearing "the tragic news of her death."

Though he withdrew the titles when he revised the works, their shadows linger, and the leap from the descriptive, suggestive music we come to expect in films is not so far to make. Schoenberg may or may not have had similar programmatic ideas in mind when he wrote his Piano Concerto for Stokowski and the NBC Symphony in 1942. Though the bru-ha-ha caused by the performance resulted in Stokowski losing his position with NBC, this work remains one of its composers most accessible. And though I hate to use that word--I overuse my favorite alternative, "immediately appealing"--it is the word to use when discussing these composers. Schoenberg, Webern and Boulez ARE accessible. And knowing where they came from and what they were up to helps make more sense of their complex, dense, dissonant, and yes, difficult scores. As the poet Rilke said, "you must hold to what is difficult." The lesson is as true in poetry and music as it is in life.

For Schoenberg, life was difficult, both in Nazi Germany and following his exile, in--of all places--Hollywood. The two works on Saturday night's program, the aforementioned Piano Concerto, and one of my favorites (really!), the Chamber Symphony No. 2, both come from his time in LA. Both works show their composer's debt to tradition--from the Viennese classical style of Mozart and Haydn (especially evident in the ebullient second half of the concerto) to the Romantic world of Brahms (the opening of the piano concerto). Both works unfold in one continuous movement, but have clear--and classically derived--subdivisions along the way. Both show their composer (at age 70), in full command of his gifts as an orchestrator and tone painter. For those unfamiliar with Schoenberg and his school (or interested in giving him another try), listening to the musical colors--the variety of sounds and textures created by the different sections--in the orchestra is as good an entry point as any.

Barenboim played the demanding piano role expertly, and the piece emerged as a series of almost improvised sounding dialogues--pithy & pointed at one moment, lyrical and probing elsewhere. The last movement opens with a short "riff" in the left hand--accompanied by percussion--that is not far away from the world of jazz and ragtime.

The second half of Saturday night's program was an orchestral showcase. Webern's music is THE study in musical compression--he quipped that every piece should be 12 notes and 12 notes only, as you should be able to say what you want with each note appearing just once! The 6 Pieces in their entirety last about 11 minutes. The third movement is just 11 bars long, and yet lacks nothing. I have been fascinated by Webern's music since I first encountered it, and in performances like last night's, I am reminded why I find this austere, acerbic, hyper-controlled music so powerful. Its compactness is directly related to its impact. Webern says in 2 minutes what it takes other composers 20 minutes to say. For someone long-winded like me, that's a good model to return to!

Except for the unwelcome sound of an obnoxious ring tone from an errant cell phone in the balcony just moments before the resigned close of Mahler's Adagio (from his unfinished 10th symphony), the finale of Saturday night's concert was awesome. Mahler has long been at the top of my list of favorite composers, and since each of his symphonies are concert-length themselves, he usually is the center of any program on which his music appears. That he was the coda to a fascinating program of modernists was revelatory. Boulez favors lean textures and balanced sonorities, and keeps any section in check who would err on the romantically indulgent side. His tempi tend to be on the quick side (and this trait has not mellowed much, even though he is in his 85th year). This made for a shorter Mahler Adagio than one might be accustomed to. The long-arching string lines had more forward motion than might be expected (they were a bit breezy for my taste) and no time was wasted in transitioning from one affect to the next.

As it came on the heels of the Webern, I was struck by the fact both composers assign an important voice to the viola--both the opening of Webern's 3rd movement and the opening of Mahler's Adagio begin with a viola solo. And not only do they begin with that voicing, but they begin with the same gesture--a rising (sighing or sobbing?) semitone (1/2 step).

It was a truly great program. I did not expect today's concert would top Saturday night's, and yet it did, and thus I suspect I will need more time for the cumulative effect of hearing so much dense music played so exceptionally to really digest and be absorbed by both my head and my heart.

The Vienna Philharmonic's mission "is to communicate the humanitarian message of music into the daily lives and consciousness of its listeners...The musicians endeavor to implement the motto with which Ludwig van Beethoven, whose symphonic works served as a catalyst for the creation of the orchestra, prefaced his Missa Solemnis: "From the heart, to the heart."

I just love that. And I loved the programs they offered this weekend. And the conductors leading them.

If Boulez's conducting is cool and clean, his music is anything but. And Barenboim must have sparks emanating from his fintertips, whether they're playing the keyboard or clutching a baton. The quote in the title is how Olivier Messiaen--the great French modernist, mystic, and teacher--described his pupil, Pierre Boulez. Of all the composers I've talked about the past couple days, Boulez would be my least favorite. After today, that has changed, and I shall be giving the 1/2 dozen discs of his music I own another listen.

Boulez's 5 orchestral pieces are re-workings of piano pieces called Notations. They are alternately serenely beautiful, evocative & exotic, and overwhelming in density and power. The easiest way to describe their style is to imagine what the child composer of Messiaen and Webern would sound like. Messiaen's exotic, Asian-influenced battery of percussion instruments & bird-call-evoking wind writing is coupled with Webern's compression and highly organized formal control, and the result is music that sounds a bit like both of these influences yet unlike any other.

And that brings me to a crux of these two concerts: how one reconciles the old and new, and how one performs ANY work of art--how one makes sense of it, how one interprets [performs/read/recreates] it. I think their is a Janus-faced approach to it all. That is to say, one view looks back in the direction from which the artist/work came, and one looks ahead to where the artist/work leads.

I can think of no better example than Beethoven. He was a product of the Viennese classical tradition epitomized by Haydn and Mozart. And he was a proto-romantic, revolutionary composer who influenced everyone from Schubert to Brahms to Verdi to Wagner (and everyone else who followed him in Western musical history).

If one looks backward to the tradition Beethoven inherited, one looks to "performance practice" and "stylistically informed" interpretations, whether one is using historic instruments with gut strings and smaller bows, and natural horns, etc. If one looks forward to Wagner and Mahler, the full-bodied, red-blooded romantic sound of the late 19th century and early 20th century is clearly the direction this music should go. More and more these days, the tendency is to look backwards with Beethoven, and "classicize" his revolutionary music, where interpretation and stylistic considerations are concerned, in the name of "authenticity."

Well, from the explosive ictus Barenboim delivered--before he'd completely turned around on the podium and before the applause that greeted his appearance had died down--this performance was going to be a roaring lion of its own. And I have never been so thrilled by a Beethoven symphony. The Vienna Phil played to the hilt--and the bass section made a strong case for why the weighty sound of the "old-school" German-style bow still works. I would have preferred a nod backwards to the 18th century for phrases in the 2nd movement. Especially where the part-writing recalls those suspensions and elegantly crafted counterpoint. The last two movements, however, left nothing to be desired. The strangeness of certain inner movements of Beethoven symphonies (here the scherzo) was in evidence, and Barenboim's reading ran the gamut of dynamic and expressive extremes. The transition to the finale was thrilling. I was so captivated by the barely audible timpani solo, I thought I was hearing this most familiar of symphonies for the first time. That transition--the ghostly echoes of c minor yielding to the unabashed exuberance of that C major theme that heralds the Finale--was so effective I spontaneously wept. The inexorable forward motion of Beethoven's fast movements--nowhere more powerful than here--makes such an impact. I had to contain myself from weeping and dancing for the sheer joy of this music, and I literally leapt to my feet and shouted "YEAH!" at the conclusion. I was glad 2,500 other music lovers shared my enthusiasm.

I wish my students AND colleagues could have been with me today. In the meantime, thank goodness there is so much more music to be made.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Art about Art: labyrinths & references

I am in NYC this weekend for "professional development." In addition to meeting with a few colleagues and discussing some future collaborations, I am attending two performances of the Vienna Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall. Their weekend-long residency, under the leadership of the eminent artists Pierre Boulez and Daniel Barenboim, is focusing on the music of seminal twentieth century composers--Schoenberg, Webern and Boulez himself--juxtaposed with two "giants" that influenced the modernists: Beethoven and Mahler.

Mahler--whose music was not nearly as popular in his lifetime as it has been since the so-called "Mahler Boom" of the 1960's--famously quipped that 50 years after his death his symphonies would be played as often as those of Beethoven. He died in 1911 (2010 is the 150th Anniversary of his birth in 1860), not living to hear his triptych of late masterpieces: the song-cycle symphony, Das Lied von Der Erde, his 9th Symphony, and his unfinished Tenth.

The haunting, other-worldy opening Adagio of Mahler's 10th is--like similar movements that frame his 9th (and also the 6th & 3rd)--as long as many classical-era symphonies in their entirety. This nearly 30' movement will follow performances of Schoenberg and Webern in tonight's concert, conducted by Boulez, with Barenboim at the piano.

I have been talking with my Young Singers Project students about the connections between the pieces we are singing and the poetry, history, and contexts that inspired them (see the previous entry). I find myself sounding increasingly like an old fogey as I rail against the loss of tradition, bemoan the shallow, superficial coasting through life that accompanies the inexorable march of technology, and rage against the dying of arts education in our schools, communities and society as a whole. Of the 32 students in YSP this season, 4 of them raised their hand when asked if they had consulted an actual Encyclopedia for school. I am not a reactionary miser who wishes the internet abolished (this is a blog, after all. Duh). I want the "new" to be experienced with the old. The innovative alongside the traditional. These concerts with the Vienna Phil offer just such an opportunity.

I believe today's students are poised to embrace much of the modernist tradition rejected during the 2nd half of the 20th century. Boulez remarked in an article in last Sunday's Times that the same people who created Serialism killed it. He was referring to his own generation, in the thrall of Webern in particular--who "serialized" music with a system by which every constituent element in a piece of music could fit within a mathematic (ie: scientific) formula. Serialism was a symbolic and substantive volte face rejection of the hyper-expressionist, heart-on-sleeve romanticism that prevailed in post-Wagnerian Germany. Without oversimplifying or digressing too far afield, the avant garde pendulum heralded by Boulez and his generation has swung back. More importantly, the music from the Second Viennese School (Schoenberg, Berg & Webern--the "First" Viennese school being the classical-romantic era from Mozart and Haydn to Beethoven and Schubert) may finally have achieved its time.

Like Mahler, Schoenberg prophesied that his music would be hummed like Strauss Waltzes 50 years after his death. Unlike Mahler, Schoenberg's prediction remains unrealized. The father of atonal music (also called 12-tone or dodecaphonic music) was wrong, according to Barenboim, not about the accessibility of his music but about the future. Again, risking oversimplification, the 20th century ear did not progress the way the eye did in receiving and accepting--even embracing--modern art. My previous post on Barenboim and his book, Music Quickens Time, touches on the importance of the education of the ear. Though we are still not there, I do believe the current generation of young people may help us get closer.

My eldest step-daughter is 21 and her fiancee 19, and they are a singer-songwriter duo in a pop genre one might classify as alternative acoustic. They have both been exposed to classical music, though its not part of their regular fare. I guessed they would find some of my modernist playlists at least acceptable, and so we listened to a number of movements by composers from Stravinsky to John Adams on my ipod during a recent visit. The rhythmic vitality of so much modern music, coupled with the colorful and imaginative orchestral palette, makes for an immediately appealing pairing. Film music--the scourge of the "serious" musician--has done much to open ears to a more varied aural appetite. Even if many film composers slavishly imitate and bowdlerize their models from Wagner to Mahler to Stravinsky--that debt is obvious, and creates a window to introduce the originals("If you liked the soundtrack to "Lord of the Rings" you've GOT to check out "The Rite of Spring!").

I also believe this generation of young singers, players, writers & artists are simply more open. Their eyes and ears have been bombarded with volume, intensity, tension, and dissonance. From film, TV, video games, and the frenetic pace of life itself. And if technology and popular culture have tended towards the simple, expedient & direct, the sheer number and variety of stimuli make for a more complex diet for the senses.

That is all to say, I think today's teenagers and young adults might just dig Schoenberg & co., if they give the Dodecaphonics a chance. And I hope they will. I think the vitality of the tradition--yes, tradition--depends on it.

I am currently reading the 2nd part of a fictional trilogy called Your Face Tomorrow, by the Spanish novelist Javier Marias. Marias' style is innovative. He writes what is dubbed "intellectual thrillers." His literary mysteries--often highly stylized spy novels--blend page-turning action with engaging style and wit. They are also densely textured webs of stream-of-consciousness modernism layered with centuries-spanning literary and historical references. You don't have to know everything from Shakespeare to Garcia Lorca to the Spanish Civil War to James Bond to "get" Marias, but he's even more enjoyable and meaningful if you do.

Innovation is meaningless--if it is even possible--without connecting to tradition. Schoenberg's dismantling of the diatonic scale (do-re-mi-fa-sol...) into the 12 chromatic notes contained in an octave would be pointless without the former's existence. He famously called for the "emancipation of dissonance" and meant the old rules of harmony no longer applied. But if the old rules had not existed he would have had nothing to emancipate in the first place!

The same is true with literature. And painting. And drama. And so on. On the back cover of the first book of Marias' trilogy, the description of the author begins, "Admired by Pahmuk, Coetzee, and Sebald..." That itself is a Borgesian clue to the labyrinthine world of this author (And I use that literary adjective pointedly. Jorge Luis Borges, the great Argentinian writer, is one of the fathers of literary modernism. Labyrinths is not only the title of one of his collections of stories, but it is a metaphor for the Borgesian style. It is a style dense with allegory, rich with references to authors as varied as Milton, Shakespeare, Cervantes, Dante, Homer, Dickinson & Whitman. And with the fertile imagination of Joyce's stream-of-consciousness and Kafka's visionary sense of the mysterious, this modernist style acknowledges its debt to the past while creating a new tradition. Marias is but one of the many writers--the Turkish writer Orhan Pahmuk, the South African J.M. Coetzee, and the late German writer W.G. Sebald--in debt to not only Borges, but Joyce and Kafka).

For the record, I didn't acquire most of my knowledge in school. I did read some great literature in high school--Shakespeare, Ibsen, Flaubert, Fitzgerald, and a fair amount of 19th & early 20th century poetry (in English). And I had a great foundation in music while an undergrad. My love of modernism bloomed after hearing Mahler & Schoenberg & Debussy & Stravinsky & Britten for the first time.

But after I graduated from JMU, I realized there was SO MUCH art--literature of all varieties, theatre, music of all genres, painting/sculpture/photography--and that ALL of it connected to not only its own time and social/historical/political context, but connected to other genres, other artists, other periods, and therefore was not simply worth the time and attention but was an imperative, a necessity. So much self-imposed homework!

Amy and I love to visit museums. And we both love all kinds of modern art. We often will look at a minimalist painting--a "simple" monochromatic square, for example--and quip "why is that art? one of us could have painted that!" We are only half joking. In last week's New Yorker, the critic Louis Menand has an excellent article on the artist and icon, Andy Warhol. Warhol institutionalized "Pop Art" and opened up a Campbell's soup can of worms between "high" (academic, abstract) and "low" (popular, commercial) art that may end up ending that argument after all.

Why was Warhol's painting of those Campbell Soup Cans any more art than the cans themselves? Menand summarizes the art critic Arthur Danto's appraisal of Warhol (Danto was a big Warhol and "pop-art" fan at the time Clement Greenberg was the advocate for the prevailing "academic" school of art, Abstract Expressionism).

"Danto saw the history of a series of manipulations of the relationship between art and reality."

So, a painting of a Soup Can or the subtle altering of a photograph--while not displaying the same technique as either an abstract painting or a representational portrait--is art because it is a commentary, a reflection, a lens, prism or simply an exercise. In music, such an exercise would be given the academic title of an "etude."

Another way of thinking about the "innovations" of modernism--from Schoenberg to Borges to Warhol--is simply a referential one: "It was art about art." And that is reason enough to spend time with all of it.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

"the impossible has always attracted me more than the difficult:" thoughts on Barenboim for the YSP...

The Chorale's flagship educational outreach program is the Young Singers Project. In its 11th year, the YSP is a highly competitive HS honors chamber choir selected from students across southeastern Virginia. This year's roster includes students from Norfolk, Portsmouth, Chesapeake, Virginia Beach, Suffolk, Newport News, Williamsburg, York & Poquoson.

During tonight's rehearsal of our challenging upcoming program, I shared the quote that is the subject of this essay. It is found on page 5 of Daniel Barenboim's new book, Music Quickens Time (Verso Books, 2009). If you keep reading this, I hope you'll be even more interested in Barenboim's engaging book.

I have written previously on music and consciousness, art and society, and how vital culture is to society's well-being. The YSP program is entitled Lift Every Voice, which is the name of the Chorale's 2009-2010 season. The African-American national anthem will not be performed on the YSP program or during the Chorale's 26th season. Rather, the title reflects a year of programming that is eclectic and diverse, surprising and new, and full of meaningful connections across styles, periods, and categories.

The ability to hear different voices at once is as important a skill to develop in music as it is in life. Barenboim, like Robert Shaw before him, speaks of the language of music as being "a necessity rather than a luxury." The different voices we are articulating in this YSP program will, I hope, be but one example of this axiom. Barenboim expounds on this vital aspect of music education:

"The education of the ear is perhaps far more important than we can imagine not only for the development of each individual but for the functioning of society...Musical talent and understanding, and auditory intelligence, are areas that are so often separated from the rest of human life...The ability to hear several voices at once, comprehending the statement of each separate one; the capacity to recollect a theme that made its first entrance before a long process of transformation and now reappears in a different light...Perhaps the cumulative effect of these skills and abilities could form human beings more apt to listen to and understand several points of view at once, more able to judge their own place in society and in history, and more likely to apprehend the similarities between all people rather than the differences between them."

At the heart of the YSP concert are several works reflecting such consciousness. Following two inspiring arrangements by the eminent American composer, Alice Parker, we will offer several songs that give voice to the two World Wars of the twentieth century. The young Canadian composer, Paul Aitken, has written a mesmerizing evocation of his countryman, John MacRae's elegy to the victims of the so-called "Great War" in the minimalist-inspired "Flanders Fields."

Hugo Distler, like his more renowned contemporary, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, resisted the rise of fascism in Nazi Germany and became a martyr. Where the theologian was executed for his role in a plot to eliminate Hitler, the Lutheran composer Distler martyred himself to avoid being conscripted into the SS. The Jewish-American composer, Michael Horvit, has written a stirring memorial to one of the infamous episodes that presaged the horrors the Holocaust would unleash. "Even when God is silent" is a setting of a poem scratched into the walls of a basement during the anti-semitic pogrom from 1938 known as Kristallnacht (Night of Broken Glass), in honor of its 50th anniversary.

We read through these and other consciousness-raising works by composers as varied as James MacMillan (an elegy to the victims of the first school shooting in Scotland), Clare Maclean (a minimalist setting of the first Aboriginal poet published in Australia), Chen Yi, Ysaye Barnwell, and closed with Paul Caldwell and Sean Ivory's partner-song setting of the South African freedom song, "Senzenina" with the Civil Rights era anthem, "We shall overcome." I mentioned Barenboim's book to the Young Singers, and told them a bit about the conductor's bold and original initiative, the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra.

The orchestra is named after a group of poems by the great German poet and polymath, Goethe. As Barenboim points out, Goethe was not only an intellectual giant but was one of the first European authors to express interest in other cultures and started learning Arabic at the age of 60 (this would have been c. 1800)! Co-founded with the late Palestinian critic, Edward Said, the Orchestra is made up of young musicians from across the Middle East. Players from Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Syria, and Egypt play alongside one another.

The heart of his book is devoted to this boundary-defying orchestra, and while the story is interesting enough itself, I find Barenboim's observations about music and society even more engaging. To make music in any type of ensemble,

"one has to do two very important things simultaneously. One is to express oneself--otherwise one is not contributing to the musical experience--and the other is to listen to the other musicians, an imperative facet of music is impossible to play [or sing!] intelligently while concentrating on only one of these two things."

He goes on to say this constant dialogue between expressing and listening was a primary motivation for founding the orchestra (Remember, these are peoples who would have no contact with each other, to the point of not having the freedom to initiate such dialogue if they wanted to. It should give us pause that in a country where such freedom not only exists but is a source of immense pride that differences of race and religion--among others--are not the source of more dialogue. Rather, they stand around like elephants in a room, ignored until something gets broken. But I digress...)

I have often remarked that music is a necessity because it not only inspires, entertains, promotes community, teamwork, improves discipline and self-esteem but moreover, it involves and thus edifies the entire person.

"It requires the perfect balance between intellect, emotion, and temperament."

Indeed. Barenboim goes on to say

"I would go so far as to argue that if this equilibrium were reached, human beings and even nations would be able to interact with each other with greater ease."

Any idealism which dares to imagine such progress in a world so saturated with discord and violence immediately smacks of naive Utopianism. I am proud to join Barenboim as so-accused. I told the Young Singers that if world peace was ever to be achieved, music will play a vital, if not central role. Examples like the West-Eastern Divan orchestra are steps in the right direction. Barenboim acknowledges his group is

"unable to bring about peace. It can, however, create the conditions for understanding without which it is impossible even to speak of peace. It has the potential to awaken the curiosity of each individual to listen to the narrative of the other and to inspire the courage necessary to hear what one would prefer to block out."

Barenboim says his venture is not a political but a human one. I would say the same about the YSP program, and the upcoming Chorale concert devoted to women in music, "Ears Wide Open." No agenda exists except to sing music which otherwise might not be sung in a context inviting connections within and across the music and the poems composed into melody and harmony. Put another way, the aim of every program I lead is to create a space where one experiences the interconnectedness of body, mind, and soul. Again, Barenboim is more eloquent:

"The power of music lies in its ability to speak to all aspects of the human being--the animal, the emotional, the intellectual and the spiritual. How often we think that the personal, social and political issues are independent, without influencing each other. From music we learn that this is an objective impossibility; there simply are no independent elements. Logical thought and intuitive emotions must be permanently united. Music teaches us, in short, that everything is connected."