Sunday, August 29, 2010


One of many books open on a shelf or table or stand is The Monster Loves His Labyrinth: Notebooks by the poet Charles Simic. Wry, epigrammatic, and breezily swinging between the worlds of poetry and prose, a (slightly longer than) typical entry reads:

"My ideal is Robert Burton's The Anatomy of Melancholy, a catalog of many varieties of mopiness human beings are subject to, everything from the gloom caused by the evils of the world to the kind caused by lovers' squabbles. Burton, who is one of the great stylists in the language, wrote the book to relieve his own low spirits. The result is the most cheerful book on general unhappiness we have."

We could adopt that last statement to describe many a melancholy-tinged opera: the most beautiful music ever heard--as the soundtrack to a tragedy!

Yet isn't that oxymoronic irony precisely WHY we venerate tragedy? (And isn't "oxymoronic" as fun to say as it is to write? Right? But we were writing about tragedy & art...). The beautiful AND the tragic: pain and suffering made meaningful through the transformative power of art? If that is not exactly it, then maybe it's the opportunity art affords in both vicarious experience and (as close as we can come to) objective observation. Through the tragedy given life via art I can better comprehend the political machinations that end in regicide, and more fully empathize with the all-too-human protagonist while experiencing the vicarious thrill of winning the battle/seducing my lover/defeating my adversary.

I mentioned Camus recently, and his collection of Lyrical and Critical Essays has been in the mix. He ends a notebook-like piece on travel, "The Sea Close by" with this operatic image:

"I have always felt I lived on the high seas, threatened at the heart of a royal happiness."

The opera quiz question from that quote: in which opera might Albert Camus feel most at home? I'd vote for The Flying Dutchman. Bluebeard's Castle could also apply, as we can easily leap from the pirate's "high seas" of freedom to the threat of land-locked prison.

Back in real life, the dedicatee of Arvo Pärt's 4th Symphony, Los Angeles, is a Russian political prisoner, A. Khodorkovsky. Commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the symphony is also concerned with guardian angels, whose presence the composer does not question. When asked what "idea" was behind the "guardian angel" subtitle, the 75 year-old composer (whose voice is mellifluous as his placid music) would have none of it. "What idea?!? There is no idea. It is reality. They are all around us. If more people could realize this..."

I heard the UK premiere at the BBC Proms (online). The quote above is from an interview with the composer, the one below is from the online program notes.

Pärt wrote of the symphony as "an expression of great respect for a man who has found moral triumph and personal tragedy. The tragic tone of the symphony is not a lament for Khodorkovsky, but a bow to the great power of the human spirit and human dignity."

Now there's a great description of the role of the tragic in art. Pärt's music traces an arc through it's three-movement structure, maintaining an undercurrent of calm (characteristic of his "holy minimalist" style). This stoic foundation generates material that unfolds and unfurls before returning to the still center. It is music for the soul.

In addition to Pärt's 75th birthday, it is the 250th of the soulful (and woefully neglected) composer Luigi Cherubini (I omitted Cherubini from a recent post about 2010 celebrations). Cherubini wrote one of the great tragic operas of the period in Medea. It was one of Maria Callas' most famous portrayals, but has since fallen out of fashion. Brahms had three portraits in his studio: Bach, Beethoven, and Cherubini. Beethoven thought Cherubini was the greatest composer of his (and their) day. Cherubini is buried a few feet away from his much more famous younger friend (whose bicentennial is also 2010), Chopin.

Ah, memory. And our relationship to it and history. Chopin has no need of an anniversary to be played or appreciated, and Cherubini can't get a notice even with a milestone occasion.

Before I do my part to correct that imbalance by playing my Callas recording of Medea (with a young Renata Scotto as the Seconda donna), I will share a few lines of a favorite poem by William Meredith.

The central line of "About Opera" is one answer to the question of why we respond so enthusiastically to this unnatural, excessive, melodramatic, implausibly over-the-top art form:

"Isn't this how we've always longed to talk?"

He closes with a wonderful quatrain that is both endearingly awkward and pitch-perfect in metaphor:

"What dancing is to the slightly spastic way
Most of us teeter through our bodily life
Are these measured cries to the clumsy things we say,
In the heart's duresses, on the heart's behalf."

(from Effort At Speech: New and Selected Poems, William Meredith. Triquarterly, 1997).

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The most wonderful time of the year...

I am not going to write about carols nor the Holidays. It is the time of year when Artistic Directors of all shapes and sizes write and edit their new Fall season program books. In my case, this means typing out the programs themselves (the real fun is in choosing them) and writing program notes (rewarding in itself, to write about one's loves).

And for the two organizations at whose helm I stand, I also draft, revise & revise again an opening letter--a welcome and hello, a pitch & manifesto.

C.S. Lewis, writing on the eve of WWII, inspires me every time I consider:

"If men had postponed the search for knowledge and beauty until they were secure, the search would never have begun."

One of my jobs is to motivate and inspire community members to participate in arts organizations like the Chorale and Opera Roanoke. I used to take the tack the critic, Virgil Thompson dubbed the "music appreciation" racket: This stuff is good for you; it makes you smarter, more urbane, more sophisticated, more cosmopolitan AND cultured, etc, etc. It's healthful.

That approach, though valid on at least one level, can be condescending and moralistic. Though I still quote music's ameliorating effects on individuals and communities when writing grants and talking to corporations (music students score higher in other academic areas; musicians are more likely to volunteer & vote and are therefore, statistically speaking, better citizens!) I try to appeal directly to the heart when it comes down to it, because that's where this music touches me.

Donald Barthelme wrote, "one of the properties of language is its ability to generate sentences that have never been heard before." Music shares the same ability to generate combinations of sounds that have never been heard before in exactly the same harmony. We could ponder that metaphor alone for some time: the always individual & unique character of harmony in music.

Pause to consider the multiple resonances of the word "harmony." Not only "harmonious," and mellifluous adjectives (like those to describe music) are conjured, but so are harmony's opposites: discord, dissonance. From "harmonious marriage" to "political discord" a range of stimuli and responses appear in our consciousness and resonate in our bodies. With music, we can consider both the intellectual & philosophical resonances and thus better appreciate the idea of "harmony." We can also reflexively respond--pierced to the heart or punched in the gut--to the visceral power of the music. Harmony affects us in many ways. This is just one possible example of how an "artistic" experience comes to be.

Music is also special for offering participants the opportunity to hear something new--something different, something special--with every hearing. This truth resonates on two levels. While a painting may offer the viewer new insight with every viewing, only the live arts (like music and theater) offer the same along with what I will term "reception multiplicity." The opportunity to receive stimuli on more than one level, in more than one way. The painting changes the viewer, the viewer does not affect the painting. The music affects the listener, AND the listener affects the music. Because every live performance is unique, the audience-performer(s) dynamic becomes a factor in that equation.

If that seems academic and/or esoteric, here's another inspiring quote about creativity, inspiration, dreams & plans:

“Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men's blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will never die, but long after we are gone will be a living thing, asserting itself with ever-growing insistency. Remember that our sons and grandsons are going to do things that would stagger us. Let your watchword be order and your beacon beauty. Think big.”

The 19th century Chicago architect, Daniel Burnham said that. I know it courtesy of my friend, the architect Steve Wright, one of the best board members I've ever known. Steve always knows exactly what quote to share with me or which question to ask in order to bring me back to artistic center. Sometimes, even we preachers of the "gospel of the arts" need our own dose.

The Grandaddy of arts preachers was Robert Shaw, the father of American choral music in the 20th century, the conductor who put the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus on the map, and one of the best advocates for the arts we've had in speech and print.

He was fond of saying "falling in love requires three things: being in the right place at the right time for long enough time. Beethoven is not loved if Beethoven is not met. We have to play/sing/listen to Beethoven to meet him and fall in love with him."

And music is oh-so-worth the time! Lawrence Kramer has written a wonderful book of arts "sermons" with the rather bald title, Why Classical Music Still Matters (I wrote a "Musings" blog last August, called "Bearing the Music of the Heart" for those enquiring minds who want to read more about the book). He speaks of how

"This music provides as much insight as it invites; thinking about it gives me a means of pondering big questions of culture, history, identity, desire and meaning...The music stimulates my imagination and my speculative energies while it sharpens my senses and quickens my sense of experience."

That resonates with me. I'd bet it would with most professionals musicians & musicologists who, if forced to admit, still crave the (multiple leveled!) euphoric joy created by the experience of making music.

Kramer puts the message another way: "Don't deprive yourself of this pleasure, this astonishment, this conception!"

The great British symphonist Ralph Vaughan Williams wrote to his colleague, the great Finnish symphonist, Jean Sibelius, "You have lit a candle in the world of music that will never go out."

One of the reasons these candles are inextinguishable is because "great" art transcends the specific & temporary to resonate with the universal and timeless. How else can we account for the fact that at any given moment in history, somewhere in the world, someone is performing Handel's Messiah, Beethoven's 9th symphony, and any number of other monuments to the history of western music, one of the richest traditions any civilization has ever had. Period.

Conductors have been saying for generations that every one [both conductor & generation] must find/create their own Beethoven 9th symphony--the "Ode to Brotherhood &/or Freedom, Triumph, Peace, Glastnost, etc..." (depending on your generation).

“Classical music offers both an antidote to the distractions of the world and the adaptations required to negotiate them…It will invite you to hear meanings it can have only if you can hear them, yet it will give you access to meanings you had no inkling of before you heard the music.”

That means, along with pop-culture (entertainment like TV & movies), classical music can be a means of escape. It is entertainment as it stimulates our senses. And (and here's one avenue where it often parts ways with "mere" entertainment) it transcends the mundane to create meaning, impart substance and provide significance.

“Music teaches the value of a moment by giving that moment value,” wrote the poet, Anna Kamienska.

For all the reasons we've noted above, Norman Rockefeller wrote that philanthropy was "not a duty but a privilege."

Our audiences should feel the same way about attending our concerts and operas.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Why Mahler 7

I am often asked by musician colleagues why my email name is "mahlerseven." No one questions the composer half of the name, but why Mahler seven? One answer is that Mahler 3, 5 & 9 were unavailable. Another is that it's my favorite number. The real truth is that I am a champion of the unsung underdogs (in everything but sports, where I like the Yankees, Lakers, and Roger Federer).

Mahler's 7th is the least appreciated and most misunderstood of the composer's 10-odd essays in the genre. The more I chewed on that, the more I relished my choice.

It is a particularly good time for Mahler's 7th Symphony, AKA: The Song of the Night. I have recently referred to the daily broadcasts of the BBC Proms, and in this sesquicentennial celebration of Mahler's birth (2011 is also the centennial of his death) the Proms have already offered Mahler 8, 3, 4, 5, & this past week, 7. (You can listen online for two more days to Ingo Metzmacher's interpretation of the enigmatic symphony played by the German Symphony Orchestra of Berlin--NOT to be confused with the Berlin Philharmonic, which appears in a September Prom under Sir Simon Rattle to play Mahler 1 and Beethoven 4).

The Proms broadcast was inspiring--WHRO & Performance Today listeners may have caught Fred Childs' frequent mentioning of the novel fact the "prommers" clap whenever they please. If a final cadence--regardless of where in a work it appears--so inspires them, there is a burst of spontaneous applause. The 20+ minute opening movement of Mahler 7 ends with a rousing march, and elicited such applause. So did the middle Scherzo, and of course, the rousing Rondo-Finale. I enjoyed the performance, notwithstanding the inconsistency of the playing.

I was pleasantly surprised to find my BBC Music magazine waiting for me in my VB mailbox the night after listening to the Proms broadcast on my laptop in Roanoke. The "disc of the month" was none other than a live recording of Mahler 7, featuring the BBC Philharmonic, led by Gianandrea Noseda. The cover touted the "high-octane performance," which not only lived up to that moniker but surpassed it.

Mahler's 7th is the last of his middle-period triptych of "pure" symphonies (each of his first 4 featured voices &/or wordless settings of songs). The 5th & 6th symphonies are paradigms of the genre, and rank among the most popular and critically acclaimed works by any symphonic composer. Beethoven was hero or nemesis--or both--to every symphonist who followed him. As one of the first great conductors in western music, Mahler also tackled Beethoven as an interpreter. This dual relationship to Beethoven had the effect of raising the stakes for Mahler the composer.

Mahler's 6th is the most classically balanced of his symphonies (though it is Brucknerian in scope and length at 80'). It is in the minority of his symphonies comprised of the standard 4 movements. The 7th superficially resembles the 5th in construction--it is a five movement structure with a rondo-finale following an adagietto fourth movement which follows a central scherzo. Both symphonies also feature striking & imposing--though very different--opening movements.

The subtitle, "Song of the Night" has stuck with the 7th because Mahler labeled the 2nd & 4th movements "Nachtmusik" (Nocturne or Serenade). These nocturnes are scored for unusual consorts of instruments in chamber music textures, and one hears why composers ever since are so taken with Mahler the orchestrator--here was a composer "tone-painting" with new brush-strokes. Along with Richard Strauss, Mahler invigorated orchestration to bring new color to a familiar palette. If you're unfamiliar with this sui generis symphony, start anywhere and just listen: each movement is its own unique sound world. It's no wonder the piece has been so misunderstood. Innovation so often is.

Noseda's performance, after an initial couple hearings, ranks alongside my favorite interpretations. In no particular order they are: Abbado's (2nd) recording with the Berlin Phil, Bernstein's (3rd) recording with the NYPO, and Boulez's with Cleveland (all three are on the DG label). Making the shortlist are David Zinman's new super-audio-DSD recording with the Tonhalle (Zurich) and Rattle with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra.

A great interpretation of this symphony must strike an Apollonian and Dionysian balance between the odd symmetry of the form (the five movements offer more contrast than continuity), the unusual scoring, and the architectural pacing required to get the massive opening movement off the ground. Since so many details beg for attention, the balance between highlighting felicities of orchestration, motivic gestures & poetic evocations must not supplant pacing the arc of the whole (for comparison, I have recordings that vary in length from 62' to 80' with every variation between).

It meets one of my criteria for being a great work--versus merely very good--because new details emerge with every listening. All of the interpretations I mentioned strike that balance of eliciting crystalline clarity of detail while not micro-managing a detour from the forward thrust of the symphonic canvas. Mahler's music--like Beethoven's--has an inexorable drive, regardless of the tempo. That might be the best comparison between the two great composer's very dissimilar 7th symphonies. Each movement is literally propelled by forward-moving rhythm.

The opening motive of the symphony is, in fact, a rhythmic one. Said by the composer to represent a "rowing" motion, it conjures the romantic image of a boat on a lake at night. Once that poetic world is entered, the nocturnal associations accumulate quickly.

One of my favorite moments in ALL of Mahler comes 2/3's of the way through the opening movement (the "Golden Mean," the "Vanishing Point"--ah, the potency of numbers...). The full orchestra slowly unites around the principal themes, and swells like a great wave about to crest and crash. It yields just before the climax, as if in mid-air, to lull back to the rowing calm of the opening.

Speaking of numbers, I have always loved the number 7. But that's as original as being a Yankees fan (though I hope a source of less contempt). Given the near-universal status of 7 as a special or "lucky" number, its mystical and spiritual qualities make it symbolic. It is the latter resonance with which I identify. I came across a droll quote by the writer Terry Eagleton that parses one of the distinctions between religion and spirituality:

"There is a document that records God's endless, dispiriting struggle with organized religion, known as the Bible."

Mahler's symphonies document his struggle as a thrice-outcast artist: "a Bohemian [Czech] in Austria, an Austrian among Germans, and a Jew throughout the world."

He predicted his symphonies--most of which were misunderstood &/or maligned during his lifetime--would not become popular for 50 years. Bernstein helped usher in the "Mahler Boom" in the 60's. It has only crescendoed since.

Among other reasons to add Mahler 7 to your favorites:

*The eerie colors & qualities of the 2nd and 3rd movements. If the opening Langsam is a grand romantic nocturne, the first true nocturne (Nachtmusik I) is otherworldly. The Scherzo is literally shady. Schattenhaft (shadowy) is the marvelously ambiguous stylistic directive.

*The mandolin solo in the 4th movement (Nachtmusik II). Sing the opening violin theme--it's nothing but a simple descending (diatonic) scale, and yet it's magical.

*The timpani flourish that heralds the Rondo-Finale--it contains all three of music's building blocks in one swift motive: rhythm, melody, and harmony. That's not your average writing for the kettledrums!

*The ebullient, eccentric, infectious & irreverent Rondo-Finale as a whole (Mahler mocks everyone from Lehar to Wagner to himself). I am reminded why I love this composer--and music itself--every time I listen.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

"An ideal of international harmony..."

Last week I wrote about musical birthdays & ended with a reference to the daily BBC Proms broadcasts available online (

Earlier this spring I wrote a series of essays on Greek myths, with Prometheus figuring chief among them (see April's posts).

I began the year writing about the polymath Daniel Barenboim--conductor, pianist, author & cultural ambassador. Speaking of his youth orchestra comprised of Jews, Muslims & Christians from all regions of the middle east, Barenboim wrote that music 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."

Yesterday, one of the features of the Virginian Pilot was an engaging profile of the new president of Regent University, Carlos Campo. One of the points of focus was Carlos' activism in the area of immigration reform. He is part of a conservative movement--in dialogue with the Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi--that advocates enrolling "illegals" in education and service programs as a path to citizenship. This sensible, middle-ground platform (Campos eschews the extremes of amnesty and deportation) is an example of the dialogue Barenboim advocates.

The 65th "anniversary" of the bombing of Hiroshima was observed this week. The main headline of today's New York Times reads "Across Nation, Mosques Meet Opposition."

I led off a recent post on a new Civil War-era musical work (on my Opera Blog) with a reference to the current debate about states rights (vis-a-vis immigration reform in Arizona). I admired Carlos' transparency in his Pilot interview. He clearly stated the immigration issue was "personal" (he is Latino) and is not related to his work as President of Regent.

I may be blurring those lines here, but let me offer the caveat that my opinions do not necessarily reflect those of the Virginia Chorale or Opera Roanoke, members of either organization, their directors, trustees, and/or patrons.

As usual, I am merely attempting to connect a few dots.

Currently playing on my recently downloaded bbc iplayer is a broadcast from earlier this week of two Mahler symphonies (no.'s 4 & 5) played by the World Orchestra for Peace. Founded in 1995 by the late Hungarian maestro, Sir Georg Solti, this venerable ensemble is made up of musicians from 70 orchestras representing 40 countries. Every player is a principal from the likes of the MET, Vienna, Berlin, London, Paris, Warsaw, Chicago & the Concertgebouw orchestras. And they sound like it.

I am not a partisan of the Russian oligarch maestro, Valery Gergiev, but I put aside my bias while listening to him lead the (literally) central symphonies of my favorite composer. The finale of the 5th--my favorite symphony, period--was so inspired I literally burst into tears at its frenetic and thrilling close. But then again, I have the genes that make such emotional responses to stimuli not only possible but regular. I'm curious to know if anyone else responds in a similar fashion. The andante (3rd movement) of the 4th and the famous adagietto (4th movement) of the 5th also provoke emotional responses. As do the opening and closing movements of Mahler's 3rd, 7th & 9th symphonies, the choral finales of the 2nd & 8th, the slow movement of the 6th, and the single greatest solo vocal movement in Western orchestral music, the closing Abschied of Das Lied von der Erde.

You have four days left to listen to this broadcast online (all of the Proms are broadcast live, GMT. They remain online for one week for archival listening).

"What does Prometheus mean to man today?" asks Albert Camus at the head of his lyrical essay "Prometheus in the Underworld." The French-Algerian Nobel prize winner first came to my attention as a teen, when I discovered my favorite British alternative band, the Cure, had based their song "Killing an Arab" on Camus' first novel, The Stranger.

I believe we would have more productive dialogue in our country--about immigration reform and, among other things, Islam--if more people were taught to read (and to listen) intelligently.

One of the reasons we commemorate horrific anniversaries like the atomic bombing of Hiroshima is to be reminded the difficult lessons of history are forgotten if they are not actively remembered. This is one of the themes imbedded in Camus' novels and non-fiction. History and justice are blind. They both depend upon human beings for vision. This is not as simple as it sounds.

Camus cynically notes "Prometheus was the hero who loved men enough to give them fire and liberty, technology and art. Today, mankind needs and cares only for technology."

I do not completely share this view, though it's truth resonates with my experience. I posted a link on my Facebook profile to a study of artists in U.S. society called "Investing in Creativity." In one statistic of jarring disconnect, a near unanimous majority of respondents acknowledged having been deeply moved or inspired by artistic experience. Though 96% of folks claimed to highly value art, only 27% felt artists themselves contributed much good to society.

Camus observes that "myths have no life of their own. They wait for us to give them flesh." Prometheus returns in contemporary life whenever the Solti's and Barenboim's of the world act on their vision. Every creative act is an affirmation of life. That affirmation may not be as harmonious as a Mahler symphony, and it may be seen or heard only once. As Solti's widow, Valerie notes about the "sound" of their orchestra,

"every ensemble is remarkable. Music is wonderful. It never fails you."

The UN recognized the contributions by the World Orchestra for Peace in its ability to create "cultural diversity and dialogue" and help establish a "culture of peace."

In creating his utopian, eminently impractical orchestra, Solti asked--and aspired towards--"what could be achieved with an ideal of international harmony."

The arts can't bring peace. But they create spaces where human beings of all varieties can listen. That's something.