Looking Back

On 2013, and some memories from 2012 ….

Trends are for the people who manufacture, package and sell pop music, my experience is subjected and limited to the things that I see and hear. Some of these experiences I chose actively, so there’s a further self-selected quality involved, others are things that cross my desk and surprise me (promo CDs, concert assignments, ideas and content that flow through and across my twitter feed and RSS reader).

In classical music, there were two unexpected and substantial movements in what got played and recorded that were both surprising and deeply satisfying. The first is the notable prevalence of Dvorak’s chamber music on record ((In 2012, the notable movement in the classical tradition was the welcome growth in the prevalence of Carl Nielsen on the concert and recording scene, led by Alan Gilbert, who began a cycle of the extraordinary symphonies with a terrific concert recording of the Symphonies No. 2 and No. 3, and the Dacapo record label, that issued a fantastic and incredibly valuable set of chamber music)). The fame and quality of his Symphony No. 9 “From the New World,” and his concertos boost the importance of his earlier orchestral work, although aside from Symphony No. 7 the rest is all rather middling.

Dvorak’s chamber music is different: expertly written, beautiful and powerful in the manner of Brahms, though with less sturm und drang. In 2013 there were several stellar recordings that came my way, each a rewarding listen and exemplary of the quality of the composer’s work: the Tokyo String Quartet issued a muscular CD that paired the String Quartet No. 12 with Smetana’s String Quartet No. 1; the Cypress String Quartet produced a beautiful disc with the composer’s Cypresses and String Quartet No. 13; and the most brilliant of all might be the Trio Solisti’s [recording] of Trio, Op. 65 and Trio, Op. 90 “Dumky,” a CD of exceptional chamber music playing.

The other movement I had was specific to post-WWII music, where the music I heard in concerts and on recordings was more frequently quiet. All of this music was well-made, but the quiet itself is its own quality and value. I found myself alone in the circle of New York critic’s who were excited and moved by the New York Philharmonic’s fervid performance of Luigi Dallapiccola’s Il Prigionero. That the musical language is dated is one thing, but that it is endlessly loud is another. An opera that eschews dynamics as a dramatic element has crippled itself.

Noise is already a problem in life, the pervasive and damaging noise of cars, the intrusive and mostly terrible music in stores (though credit goes to Union Market for playing “Hang Up Your Hang Ups” when I shopped there Thanksgiving day). There is so much noise pollution, and it is so stressful, that this mind-bogglingly ignorant and insensitive bit of hipsterism from Beardyman and Wired magazine verges on social malpractice. There is so much noise ((here is a reading list that explores the damages))that the people who make concerts can’t hear how it has controlled their aesthetics.

For example, over the summer I went to a showing of the movie Dracula with the Philip Glass Ensemble playing his new score live (an amiably under-rehearsed and sloppy performance). This was in the Prospect Park Bandshell, and there was an opening act, lousy neo–1980s pop from Kishi Bashi that was so fucking loud I thought it was going to interrupt my heartbeat. It was appalling ((I stopped going to clubs in 1984, after I put on my eyeliner and header out to the Ritz for David Bowie night, wherein the PA proceeded to pummel me in the sternum with every bass drum kick. I left feeling physically ill.)). A public park is the last vestige of the pastoral in urban life, a place to hear something other than taxi horns and brakes, yet the people manning the soundboard thought it had to be loud.

The impression I’m left with from that and other venues where amplification is part of the music is that the sound engineers in this places are half deaf from listening to music too loudly through their earbuds and that despite their technical degrees that have shitty ears to begin with, they can’t hear individual sounds and colors and space. They can’t hear music, only volume.

So I’m thankful for Miller Theatre, for their Composer Portraits of Julio Estrada and Rebecca Saunders and Anna Thorvaldsdottir, of Gubaidulina and Neuwirth. And especially for the new composer’s group, Indexical, and Andy Lee, who opened my ears to the beguiling quiet of Jürg Frey and his peers.

What troubles me is that this quiet music is coming from Europe. We need more musicians in America ((The signal movement in 2012 was the triumph of American music after WWII, a story told through Michael Tilson Thomas’ American Mavericks series at Carnegie Hall and Petr Kotik’s tremendous Beyond Cage series))willing to say more with much less volume.


Michael Ludwig, Live in Concert

Everyone who listens to any kind of music, no matter how experienced and knowledgeable, has a ‘who dat?’ moment when they first see or hear someone completely new, especially on a small label with a band or ensemble that has nothing more than a local reputation. That was my feeling when I received this disk in the mail. Yes, the Beethoven Violin Concerto is a masterpiece, and the Dvorak Romance is a lovely piece, but who dat playing?

Well, that is a very fine violinist with a lovely, old-school tone, an impeccable technique and some valuable things to say about the music. Ludwig’s approach is simple in the best way, emphasizing particular ideas and moments and leaving the rest of the music uncluttered, to speak for itself. I like the long line of his playing, the light-handed but inexorable flow from one phrase to another. He undramatically puts, not greater weight, but greater clarity and understanding on particular rises in dynamics and emotion. It’s a real lesson in classical interpretation, in judging moments of value and building the musical logic to get to them, like a flawless and smooth-running plot, with suspense and inevitable, natural release.  Excellent playing of the Romance as well, and flawless accompaniment from the Virginia Symphony Orchestra, which sounds great, and veteran conductor JoAnn Falletta.

Dvorak: Symphony No. 8, Symphonic Variations

An absolutely stellar live recording. Sir Charles Mackerras was a master in this repertoire (as he was with Janacek, and Mozart operas and symphonies, and so many other music). The conductor died in 2010, after a career that spanned recordings from the 78 to CD era, and this posthumous release came out last year. Curiously, there is no information printed in the booklet or on the case that specifies the concert date(s) from which this was drawn. Certainly, it’s from the latter part of his life, though the energy and pointed clarity and drive of the performances make questions of age irrelevant. Although not age that earns experience.

The Symphony No. 8 is one of Dvorak’s fine later works, like Beethoven’s it’s a more Classically flavored work that falls between two monumental Romantic pieces. The performance cannot be bettered, every moment shows complete understanding of the music, complete confidence and clarity. The revelation is the Symphonic Variations, which has never sounded like such a finely-crafted, exciting masterpiece as it does under the hands of the conductor and this orchestra, out of which he has brought the best. Highly recommended.