Carnegie Hall

Keepin' It Real

The power (of the internets) has been restored here at Big City headquarters, and it’s time to squeeze out as much of this immense backlog as I can until Time Warner Cable screws up something else — though I would like to point out that the while their call-centers and customer service offices are atrocious, the gentlemen who have been by to actually effect repairs have been smart and capable. Here’s some timely links and thoughts:

  • February 6, my friends at will be broadcasting the world premiere production of Philip Glass’s The Perfect American, streaming to your desktop/latop/mobile device. This is a live performance from Madrid, meaning 2pm start time EST in the US. If you miss the live broadcast, the archives will be available for free for 90 days, an ideal way to check out the audio-visual riches that has.

    Carnegie Hall has announced their 2013-14 season, and it’s particularly exciting: a series on Benjamin Britten whose centennial is already getting lost in the shuffle of this year’s bicentennial’s Wagner and Verdi (he’s just as great as they), a complete Sibelius cycle from Osmo Vänskä and the Minnesota Orchestra, Gergiev’s sixtieth birthday celebration and a great lineup of concerts organized by composer-in-residence David Lang, with So Percussion, American Composers Orchestra, ICE, Signal, Newband and many other excellent musicians.

    The Brooklyn Philharmonic has announced a change to their schedule, the Bed-Stuy concert will be held at BAM on June 8 and feature Erykah Badu and Yasiin Bey, which is great, but what’s highly disappointing are the cancellations of the Bright Beach and Downtown Brooklyn programs, ones I had anticipated. Something it seems to do with the continued fallout of the surprising and strange saga of Richard Dare …

Maverick Media

American Mavericks is in full swing here in New York City. I have some mixed feelings about Monday’s San Francisco Symphony concert — I’m not sure what John Adams was thinking when he made Absolute Jest, and it’s hard to square Jessye Norman’s substantial career with a performance of John Cage’s Song Books — the audiences have come out, and the orchestra continues to impress me as the finest in the country. The precision, blend and weight of their sound in Ameriques was astonishing. The Tuesday program was one of the great events of the year, with Carl Ruggle’s Sun-Treader, Morton Feldman’s Piano and Orchestra and Henry Brant’s orchestration of Ives’ Concord Sonata. From weighty, dissonant Neo-Romanticism to spacious, still, delicate pointillism and the polyphonic riot of Ives, played with such musical expression — there’s no other orchestra that can do this. Top flight groups like this play the classics beautifully, but Tilson Thomas, his imagination, curiosity and his knowledge and understanding of the range of musical concepts means that a program like this not only works, but astonishes. Sun-Treader is a great work, and has been recorded exactly two times, both under this conductor’s baton. This group also made a tremendous recording the of Ives last year, and I have never heard a finer performance of the Feldman piece, with Emmanuel Ax at the keyboard, hauntingly shadowed by Robin Sutherland. When an orchestra can play the quietest sounds with a exactitude of attack and pitch and fullness of sound like this, the silent spaces in between grow broader, deeper, more profound. Rare playing and a truly rare program, all of us in the hall may never hear these pieces again in concert.

San Francisco is one of the pioneers in matching their content (their programming and playing) with digital media (their own record label, the Keeping Score program), and this festival has lots of extras for those who can attend and even for those who can’t. Go to Q2 for archived audio, check out the above documentary or one about MTT’s grandparents, who were leaders in Yiddish theater, and, if you’re patient, wait a few months, because the orchestral concerts are being recorded for release on the SFS Media label, meaning brilliant, beautiful discs of Adams, Ruggles, Cowell and more.

We're An American Band

We Americans may not know much about history, but we love it nonetheless. Without a basis in facts, that love boils down to the same messy, insoluble arguments people have about things they like. History becomes nothng more than a matter of competing tastes — some of the major genres are The Founding Fathers, the Civil War, The Greatest Generation, I Like Ike, Camelot, The Summer of Love, Fear and Loathing and Richard Nixon, The Apotheosis of Saint Ronnie and Permanent 9/11 — which is dreary enough in normal circumstances but truly abrades the soul every four years.

We also like to think that Americans are some special race, sprung up from the soil of North America after careful, diligent tilling, planting and watering from the Christian God himself. We’re special, there’s never been anyone like us, no rules for me but many for thee. We’re not the end of history, because history never ends, but we act as if we are from someplace outside of history. Is it any wonder that Scientology can be invented and achieve such success here, where it’s all about finding the ideas that the most suckers will spend the most money on?

This is the culture war, but that label is misleading, because it implies that those fighting it aggressively give a shit about culture. Their atavism is that, through most of human history, a small group of men with money and power have ruled society, and that’s how everything should remain. If it’s difficult to reconcile the American conservative claims to both freedom and restrictions on personal liberty, realize that conservatism is about preserving long-standing, inherited power and privilege, nothing more, and that holds true for Andrew Sullivan as much as for Jim DeMint. They have no ideas, all they have is fear that someone, somewhere, might end up with the advantages they have. This is culture as commodity and limited resource, to be defended from interlopers.

Want a good, mordant laugh? Imagine the culture warriors reading Hawthorne or Whitman, watching Martha Graham or Merce Cunningham, listening to something other than Christian Rock — or imagine them realizing that the creator of popular American classical music was a gay, cosmopolitan Jew. They accept music as something that reinforces their prejudices and preconceived notions, which perversely makes them the same as people who listen to and write about pop music without realizing that music is an art that encompasses an almost incomprehensible range of styles and ideas, and that it’s as old as human beings.

There is so much American music, though, and it survives despite the ignorance and abuse of political anger and market depredations. American music as a product and expression of the true, fundamental elements of this culture is as messy and wide-ranging as the history of the country itself. One of the most important keepers of its flame, Michael Tilson Thomas, is bringing it to Carnegie Hall this week, on the tour of his revived American Mavericks idea. MTT put together the first such festival at the beginning of his tenure in San Francisco, and if it’s legacy would have been nothing more than the memories of the concert-goers, it would have held an indelible place in American musical history.

The Mavericks idea is essential to the full flowering of American music as the force in the 20th century, supplanting the long and deserved influence of Central Europe. Schoenberg’s creation of atonal compositional technique and his decamping to Los Angeles are more and more clearly, in retrospect, the last gasp of the supremacy of German musical culture, with a final spasm, after that country itself had been destroyed in WWII, of international ideological influence akin to that of Communism. American music has styles but it has never been much of an ideology, because at the core of it is the specifically American cultural idea of the crackpot, the person tinkering at the margins of whatever field they are in, oblivious to conventional wisdom and accepted norms.

The first notable American crackpot was Louis Moreau Gottschalk, the wild man from Louisiana (a place in the American imagination that always seems foreign). The greatest and most important was Charles Ives, one of the handful of people without whom this country would not be what it was. Ives of course was featured in the first Mavericks festival, the symphony playing his extraordinary “Holidays Symphony, while Lou Harrison read Ives’ introductions to each movement from a chair on the stage. Ives will be in Carnegie Hall too, in Henry Brant’s orchestration of the Concord Sonata, a compendium of the composer’s musical and social values.

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It’s those values that make Ives so important. Musically, he was the son of a crackpot band leader, but Yale tried to iron that out of him, as it currently irons democratic and egalitarian values out of our political leaders. American writing had made it’s national mark early, but musical culture looked to Europe for everything, and had for over a century — there is a fascinating collection of 18th century overtures on the Naxos label, weird early classical pastiches of Mozart, “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” marches and other popular tunes of the era, not great music but great to hear for a window into the ideas and values of the time. 100 years later the leading composer was George Chadwick and the avatar was Brahms. Ives wrote some solid but uninspired Brahms while at Yale and after, but when he finds his own, true American voice, it’s by becoming a crackpot. While he at times struggled with the technical challenges of conveying his ideas in compositional language, his thinking was unbound. By looking at his country as it was and as he wanted it to be, and by both loving and fighting the legacy of his father, he became Prometheus, freeing the song and music in all men in a profoundly democratic way.

To get from there to here took time, effort, thought, obsession. There’s a visual cognate in the reopened American wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The bourgeois objéts of the 18th and 19th century mix with important portraits in a European style, the lovely, delicate Impressionism of Childe Hassam and the great genre paintings of Homer and Eakins. Those two artists mix a sense of American muscularity in physical, intellectual and commercial activity, an encompassing Whitmanesque sense of what they see around them but with more diffidence and sober demeanor than the poet. There’s a quality to the canvasses, especially Eakins, that seems to confront the viewer, to stare back with an implicit sense of pride and challenge, as if to say “you didn’t think these were good enough, did you? And now I care not what you think.”

Eakins, Champion Single Sculls, 1871

To Ives, family man, church organist, businessman, living in the world, society was what mattered, and music was inherently a social activity. His multiple musics in “Central Park in the Dark” are the sounds of the noise that all sorts of different people are making, and when he made all those voices musical, like in his String Quartet No. 2, there are multiple songs in the same space in time. JACK Quartet played that Sunday, along with pieces from two other true crackpots, Ruth Crawford Seeger and Steven Mackey, in a neighborhood concert at Abrons Arts Center, in a great performance. They found the underlying values in the music, giving the discontinuous form a continuity of musical thinking, and it’s also no small thing to hear Ives played with so much technical assurance and such a big, beautiful sound. That’s one of the strengths of Hilary Hahn’s disc of the Ives Violin Sonatas, some of his finest pieces. It’s one of those recordings that gets better with every listening. I had some reservations about what sounded like her reticence or discomfort with some of the music, but with more exposure that turns out to be a very personal way into Ives’ mysterious mind and sensibility. She teases out bits of memory she understands, and plunges through those she doesn’t — this is no criticism, there is really no one who could understand the whole scope and scale of Ives’ mind, and that makes the music so fruitful to perform and record. One thing that is clear, and was clear in her lovely performance at the Stone last year, is that she appreciates music as a social activity. When I studied Ives in graduate school, we sang several of his favorite hymns and patriotic songs before we listened to a note, and with composer and Ives biographer Jan Swafford leading, we did the same before Hahn’s performance. This puts you in the mind of the composer, where making music with your neighbors, even badly, is an inherent part of American life.

America has been singing for centuries. There were two discs of American vocal music issued last year that tell the story in both reach and detail. on Rose of Sharon , Joel Frederiksen and the Ensemble Phoenix Munich tell the story in social, liturgical and political music from 1770 to 1870, a century that put this country on the cusp of what it was to become. Beyond All Mortal Dreams collects a cappella choral music from roughly the last 100 years, works in the liturgical tradition that reflect the ritualistic aspect that is really the main outpost of social music making in contemporary times. They are great recordings in their own right, an have the added cultural depth of European’s looking towards these shores and showing us how much they love our music,.

I hope all this comes across as sympathetic, and not academic. It’s not hard to find faculty members who look down on the music for its technical problems and general non-conformity, The professionalization of creative careers has been a weird curse of the 20th century. Some of the greatest composers in America taught, and some of the most important teachers were able composers, or some combination of the two. I love the Neo-Romantic/Modernist music of William Schuman, Peter Mennin and David Diamond, Roger Sessions was an important teacher and symphonist, Howard Hanson ran the Eastman School of Music, conducted American music on many recordings and wrote solid, lovely and utterly predictable symphonies — all of which have been given excellent recordings by the Seattle Symphony, and Naxos has been reissuing that series. Walter Piston wrote some great pieces, many acceptable ones and important textbooks. Some of them have Ives’ force, none have his wonderful mess. There are limits in the academy.

So students should be thrilled to hear, amidst the thrilling programming of Cage, Meredith Monk, John Adams, Morton Feldman, Varese, Henry Cowell, and even Harry Partch (and others), Carl Ruggles great orchestral work, “Sun-Treader.” Ruggles, rivaling Partch as the crank among crackpots, wrote little more than a dozen pieces in his life, lavishing obsessive patience on each. He wrote what he wanted, proudly dissonant works that are deeply human, exuberant, brilliantly crafted and full of the rough edges that can make even the most sonically challenging works compelling. “Sun-Treader” was the opening piece for the entire 1996 festival. I was excited that night, and even more so when I got to Davies Symphony Hall. I had been living in San Francisco since 1992 and had been seeing the Symphony at least a dozen times a year, and was sensitive to both the makeup of the usual crowd and its variations. It was stunning to see so many new faces heading to their seats, faces I recognized from new and avant-garde music events in the Bay Area. Everyone was champing at the bit, thinking, like me, that they never imagined that they would be hearing Ruggles in person in their lifetimes, and also knowing that MTT is a master of the music. The opening burst from the stage like artillery fire, and no one in the audience made a sound, everyone seemed to be holding their breath. It’s a masterpiece, the music, the kind of thing that reaches into an essential part of the soul and makes you glad to be experiencing life in all its ups and downs. After the last notes, there was that marvelous, and rare, moment when the audience sat in silent contemplation of what they had experienced. Then, not really an ovation but a throaty, passionate, sustained roar. A barbaric yawp, from all of us to all of us.

Recommended further reading and listening:

So Percussion is kicking off American Mavericks tonight with a concert focussing on John Cage, I interviewed them at ClassicalTV

Carnegie Hall has a worthwhile blog, with some interesting infographics and a good rundown of all the things you can see and explore, outside of the music

George Whitefield Chadwick, Symphony No. 2, Symphonic Sketches

Cypress String Quartet, The American Album

Quator Diotima, American Music

Jazz Nocturne, American Concertos of the Jazz Age

Gerswhin, Concerto in F, Rhapsody No. 2, I Got Rhythm Variations, Orion Weiss, JoAnn Falletta, Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra

So Appendix

This week’s column at ClassicalTV is actually a fairly extensive interview with So Percussion, talking with them about next Monday’s concert at Carnegie Hall and the music of John Cage. After, or before, you read it, peruse the selected discography, especially from last year, which was enviably productive:

    Drumming, the disc that put them on the musical map

    So Percussion, their second disc, with David Lang’s The So-Called Laws of Nature

    Amid The Noise, a mesmerizing, abstract ‘pop’ album, with glitchy colors and an equally hypnotic film on DVD

    Threads, a major work in Paul Lansky’s return to chamber music

    It is Time, a smart, fascinating piece from Steven Mackey, again with accompanying DVD

    Caprichos Enfaticos, a colorful, dramatic piece from Martin Bresnick, with Lisa Moore playing piano

    Bad Mango, part of Dave Douglas’ Portable series; So joins the trumpeter in tunes of his, like “One More News” and “Witness,” and come off more comfortable in his idiom than he is in theirs


April Flowers

This April is going to be a great month to get out and about and into concert venues, with a mix of old and new that is probably more exciting than any other time this year. There’s also the unusual as well . . .

April 1Helmut Lachenmann; This last of this season’s excellent Composer Portraits series will feature the composer appearing and performing in celebration of his 75th birthday. Lachenmann makes some of the most involving contemporary music around, working with the basic sounds of instruments and amplification, and his music has a direct and powerful appeal especially to anyone who is moved by experimental rock and jazz. You can watch him perform Weigenmusik here and read the program notes here.

April 2 Opera on Tap, at Barbès; It’s opera in an intimate setting, with alcohol. What else do you need to know?

April 3Sarah Kirkland Snider’s Penelope and William Britelle’s Television Landscape; at the Bell House in Brooklyn, debuts and premieres from each; Snider has a hybrid classical/folk/post-rock song cycle, and Britelle is debuting his new concept album, an extravagant exploration of fragments of cultural memory. I’m eagerly anticipating this show.

April 5 – Dave Tompkins, How To Wreck a Nice Beach; he will be appearing at Book Court, 163 Court Street in Brooklyn, presenting a fairly good sized history of the Vocoder. This is for geeks of a certain kind . . . like me.

April 7 – World premieres from Robert Sirota, Louis Karchin, Laurie San Martin, New York premieres from Richard Festinger and Fabio Grasso; Merkin Concert Hall. Sirota’s Assimilations headlines this great variety of new music. The piece explores issues of ethnic heritage and assimilation in the United States. The all-star Washington Square Ensemble plays.

April 9-10 – The Freddie Redd Sextet, appearing at Smalls. A welcome appearance from one of the greatest hard-bop musicians, always cool, funky and lyrical.

April 11First public concert at the new site for the Issue Project Room, 110 Livingston Street, Brooklyn. This is a real event, not just that the new space is being inaugurated, but via Ne(x)tworks playing Morton Feldman’s String Quartet No. 2, which has a duration of around six hours, and the performance is free! It all starts at 11:00am, so get to bed early the night before, and if you can’t stay for the whole performance (which isn’t expected), hear the live webcast on Q2.

April 13Bach Reformed at Barbès; I highly recommend this duo, their CD is marvelous and in a small setting it’s a wonderful experience to hear them express Bach as if it was bluegrass.

April 15-18Don Byron at Jazz Standard. Byron is bringing three groups into this residency, the New Gospel Quintet, the Ivey-Divey Trio, with Jason Moran, and a new group, Swiftboat, described as “a collective journey into ‘straight ahead’ jazz.” Expect it all to be great.

April 16 & 17CONTACT! The second concert this year in the New York Philharmonic’s new New Music series. Alan Gilbert will conduct, Thomas Hampson will sing, and the program includes a new works from Nico Muhly, Sean Shepherd and Matthias Pintscher. It’s a different venue each day, Symphony Space and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The first concert proved what an exciting series this is, and the international and cross-generations flavor is really welcome.

April 25Gil Morgenstern; the final concert in the Reflections series at the Rubin Museum, music presented with sympathetic ideas about literature and the arts. The program of great music – Biber’s Mystery Sonatas, Poulenc and a work by Bruce Saylor – is augmented by readings from Carl Sagan, Lorca and Dante.

April 29Joan La Barbara and Ne(x)tworks at Roulette; the great singer and experimental composer is going to be performing excerpts from her new work, Angels, Demons and other Muses, inspired by Joseph Cornell, Virginia Woolf and Poe. Expect something delicate and mysteriously powerful. The program also features a work by flutist Yael Acher-Modiano.

Update: April 30Krysztof Penderecki conducts his own works at Carnegie Hall, with the Philharmonia Orchestra of Yale and soloists Syoko Aki and William Purvis.  This is a special event, a major contemporary composer making a rare performing visit.  The program includes a new horn concerto, the compelling modern Romanticism of his Symphony No. 4 and the famous Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima.

Those are individual events, but this month there are also three major festivals either running or beginning:

April 9, April 14-18Louis Andriessen is the composer in residence at Carnegie Hall this year and has been an important contemporary composer and an enormous influence on the current generation of young American composers. His work is being explored through a series of concerts and events. It opens April 9 a concert from the American Composers Orchestra, presenting his work and the effects of his legacy on artists like Missy Mazzoli. The following week is dense with music; performances Andriessen has curated, including the wonderful and unclassifiable Iva Bittová with tap dancer Morris Chestnut, the US premier performance of the composer’s opera La Commedia, Andriessen himself improvising with the great Evan Parker, a weekend of concerts and a chamber music performance/discussion with the composer at Le Poisson Rouge. It actually all wraps up on May 10, when John Adams leads the Ensemble ACJW in an exciting program of his own Son of Chamber Symphony, the Stravinsky Concerto for Piano and Winds and Andriessen’s best-known work, De Staat.

April 19-22MATA Festival 2010; the important, annual showcase of new music by young composers, at Le Poisson Rouge. The Argento Ensemble, the Calder Quartet, Lisa Moore, L’Arsenale and others play works from Matthew Wright, Christopher McIntyre, Lisa Coons, Tristan Perich, Missy Mazzoli, Alexander Sigman and many others. Opening and closing events are free, and a surprising guest, an unnamed famous improviser who I think might have the initials EP will be appearing at the opening.

April 21-May 8 – Valery Gergiev leads the New York Philharmonic in The Russian Stravinsky. The Rite of Spring, of course, but not until the end. The last titan, one of the greatest artists, Stravinsky single-handedly ended one epoch of music and then created a new one. It’s hard to think of a work of his that isn’t a masterpiece in some way, and these great musicians are going to be playing his amazing, ritualistic Les Noces, the Symphony of Psalms, the incredible Violin Concerto, the Symphony in C, the great Symphony in Three Movements, a tremendous concert of the exquisitely beautiful ballet score Orpheus and the powerful opera Oedipus Rex, and the Firebird, Petrushka and the Rite. There’s even more music, but this is already hard to believe. Every concert will be dazzling and intense. See as many as you can.

In new recordings, April has CDs dropping from Nels Cline (review to come), Lee Konitz, Ben Goldberg, Brooklyn Rider, a new recording of Vision De L’Amen, and from Naxos intriguing recordings of Gesualdo Madrigals, George Rochberg Piano Music and the Mahler Symphonies.  Update:  And before you think I’m square, there’s a new Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings recording out April 6 which you are compelled to buy.


A recent rant by classical music gossip Norman Lebrecht makes me wonder just what all his fuss is about. A complaint that the Metropolitan Opera does not produce the most cutting edge work is both absolutely correct and absolutely meaningless. The Met is dedicated to the entire tradition of opera and is already demonstrating that under Peter Gelb’s direction they understand that tradition includes contemporary works as well (an article of mine in the upcoming issue of The Brooklyn Rail will discuss this). They are not an experimental house, they never have been and they never will be, and that’s perfectly fine. If they can, and should, be criticized it is for failing to understand the scope and meaning of the history of opera and again they are proving this awareness. Other houses may and do decide to question that tradition, the Met chooses to present it. Good for them.

In this, in New York City, they are like the New York Philharmonic and Carnegie Hall, which are each like the Metropolitan Museum. These are institutions that are about preserving and presenting a history and tradition to the public, and striving to widen that audience. Their roles are important, just as the roles of avant-garde ensembles and cutting edge art and performance spaces are important. Altogether, they are complimentary. And on a personal level, the Met Opera, the Phil and Carnegie Hall have shown their openness to the interested public. I am an independent writer in every way, hopefully in that my ideas and values are the product of thinking for myself, but especially in the sense that I am completely on my own, working for no one but myself. There are benefits in that I am my own Assignment Editor and the blog format allows me to go on at some length (hopefully not too great). The drawbacks are that I have no institutional resources or connections. I am sent music to review, and I am occasionally offered tickets, but a great deal of what I write about comes from my own decision to spend what is a very limited amount of money. That means there is some bias involved in that I’ve already made the decision that something is worthwhile, but I am confident that my criticism is completely honest.

Because I’m serious about this work, I have presented myself to a variety of New York City performing institutions, offering my work and requesting access to performances so I can write about them and share them with my readers.  Miller Theater has already been a welcome partner in the discussion of great music.  The institutions that at first thought would seem to be stuffy and thus dismissive of someone without an institutional domain in my email address have proven to be accessible, open and generous, putting effort into making it possible for me to see and review their performances, while the institutions that would seem to be cutting-edge, hip, looking for alternative audiences have been silent, rudely unresponsive. So in the coming months my readers will see my thoughts on the wide variety of musical art being presented at the Met Opera, at the NY Phil, at Carnegie Hall, while unfortunately there will be no news from the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Surprising and disappointing, perhaps, but there it is.

As a postscript, I would like to quietly announce a general fundraiser for my work here at The Big City. I do this work out of something more than love, something more like the idea that this is important for the world around me, but it is work. Any donations (via the PayPal button upper right) obviously would go directly to supporting my work generally and make it possible to do some additional things on the blog, such as add more media, including examples of my own work. The same is true for the items on this blog’s Amazon Wish List, which is a mix of things that I would write about specifically, things that would give me context for other reviews and projects, and things that would further my own music production for the long term. If you find value for yourself here, even the smallest donation would be helpful and deeply appreciated. Thank you all, and keep reading.