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.


San Francisco Symphony, Adams: Harmonielehre, Short Ride in a Fast Machine

In 1996, I went to a San Francisco Symphony concert with a good friend. The program was generally typical of orchestra concerts around the world; an overture, a concerto, intermission, a symphony. In the details, however, lay the brilliance of Michael Tilson Thomas’ musicianship, attitude and salesmanship (a vtial talent for a music director): Rossini’s “Overture to Semiramide;” the Haydn Cello Concerto in D, played by Lynn Harrell; and John Adams’ Harmonielehre. Before the music began I overheard peope in the seats behind us talking about the music, expressing their unfamiliarity with Adams and wondering why the modern piece was placed after intermission, when surely many people would leave so they wouldn’t have to endure a piece younger than they were.

The music on the first half was despatched with verve and charm, and the curious couple behind us decided to stay for the whole show. They had no idea what they were in store for. This was a tremendous performance of a great piece of music, and from the very first, crushing E minor chord, the orchestra played with ferocious intensity. The ovation at the end was one of the most passionate I’ve witnessed, and Adams came out for four standing ovations. Leaving the hall, the same couple talked excitedly about how that was the greatest concert they had ever seen. I don’t doubt it.

Harmonielehre is a standard of the orchestral repertoire, and a masterpiece. The San Francisco Symphony commissioned it, premiered it and made the first recording, and excellent one that has not been equalled by performances led by Simon Rattle and David Robertson. It was surpassed that night, though, and that night has now been surpassed by a new release from the Symphony’s own label, live performances of the symphony and the fanfare “Short Ride in a Fast Machine,” recorded in Davies Symphony Hall in December 2010 and September 2011. composition speaks for itself. It’s an important work, one that found a way to combine Minimalist process with Romantic resolution and express itself with immediate, and profound, emotional and intellectual power. It belongs explicitly inside the history of western classical music, with its bits of Mahler and Sibelius, but it’s not stodgy, and even though it’s a generation old it sounds new every time because it updates the past and shows a new way forward, but there’s nothing off-putting or forbidding about it, in the clichéd manner that had the patrons wary about what to expect. One of Adams’ finest qualities is that he wears his intellectual and learning lightly. It’s always in the context of his pieces, but he communicates that substance with such direct and sincere power that anyone and everyone can accept what they’re hearing without feeling alienated or patronized.

The playing and communication of MTT and the orchestra on this recording are of the highest level. I write this in Brooklyn, and from the East Coast perspective, with maybe one visit a year and a slow trickle of recordings on their own label, it’s easy to overlook that this continues to be the finest orchestra in the country. They play with the utmost refinement, flexibility and musicality, and bear the conductor’s personal stamp of color and power. They’ve already produced the finest Mahler cycle on record and a series of astonishingly accomplished CDs in tandem with their excellent Keeping Score series. In the SACD format, their recordings are the finest engineered classical discs I have ever heard; the sound has weight, resonance yet sacrifices no detail, and the placement of the audio field puts the listener at and slightly above the podium, and at volume that is exciting. The music-making on this disc is forceful, sweeping, joyful. Harmonielehre is deep, humane music, matched here by the visceral and empathic playing. This will be one of the finest releases of 2012. Adams’ composition is an essential part of any music library, and now this is the essential recording of it.

2011 Year's Best Classical

Because it was a good year, another Baker’s Dozen …

Because it was a good year, another Baker’s Dozen …

1. Matt Haimovitz and Christopher O’Riley, Shuffle.Play.Listen/Todd Reynolds, Outerborough: Tied because they are so closely related and so very fine. There are musical and stylistic differences, but the underlying values are shared, making these ideal companions and, most of all, discs you should own.

Reynolds’ release is a disc of him playing his own compositions and another where he plays music written for him by Michael Gordon, David Lang, Phil Kline, David T. Little, Nick Zammuto, Paul de Jong, Ken Thomson, Michael Lowenstern and Paula Matthusen. As a solo player, Reynold’s works with the looping, structuring and processing features of tools like Ableton Live and Max/MSP, and the works written for him make creative use of electronic means as well, building multi-tracked parts, rhythms and electronic sounds. The overall sensibility is at the pinnacle of pop-inflected Post-Minimalism, from Phil Kline’s gorgeous, intense “Needle Pulling Fred” to the chattering flow of de Jong’s “Inward Bound” to the thrashing crunch of Lang’s “Killer,” a piece that combines the best of Bang on a Can classics “Industry” and “Lying, Chearting, Stealing.” It’s fundamentally all Reynolds, the playing and the view. It’s his ecumenical view and smart, refined taste that brings the pieces together, and it’s his tremendous musicianship that is at the core. Across both discs, there is a sense of freedom and spontaneity that come out of his skill and expression as a musician and that gives everything the feeling that it is unfinished in the best sense, that when you hit the repeat button (and you will) you will hear something you didn’t the last play.

Outerborough is the best example of the restless, creative relationship between composition and pop music going on in contemporary classical, as is Shuffle.Play.Listen. Where Reynolds is pioneering original work, Christopher O’Riley and Matt Haimovitz are mixing together a wide range of superb modern classical music with O’Riley’s transformative arrangements of current pop music. The result is densely packed with great sounds.

The first of the two CDs is structured through a suite of music from Bernard Herrmann’s exceptional score for the movie “Vertigo.” In between movements, there is Janacek’s “Fairy Tale,” Martinu’s “Variations on a Slovak Folksong,” Stravinsky’s “Suite Italienne,” (a reduction of his ballet Pulcinella), and “Le grand tango” from Astor Piazzolla. The playing is voluptuously fabulous, chamber music-making of the highest order. O’Riley has great touch and is a sensitive accompanist, while Haimovitz brings his unique ability to vocalize melodic lines to each piece, and everything sings, even the non-vocal compositions. The sequencing of the music is fascinating and rich.

The second CD traverses Arcade Fire, Radiohead, Cocteau Twins, Blond Redhead, A Perfect Circle and Mahavishnu Orchestra-era John McLaughlin. Like with Reynolds, O’Riley and Haimovitz accept as a given the quality of the songs and the play the shit out of them. Haimovitz’s ability to shape lines with the types of catches, fall-offs and the illusion of breathing that comes from the voice pushes these to an urgency of expression that makes the originals all sound a little cooler, and little more withdrawn. “The Pyramid Song” is haunting and plangent, “Melody” is ravishing, “Heaven or Las Vegas” is a flowing pastoral. The exception to this fullness they add to the pop music is the refined focus they give to “The Dance of Maya,” in a superb arrangement. The original is crushingly intense, here it’s quieter but just as provocatively obsessive. This great recording closes with “A Lotus on Irish Streams,” in a beautiful improvisation that rounds off all the music but leaves, like Outerborough, tendrils of questions and possibilities that will have you playing the music all over again.

3. Simone Dinnerstein, Bach: A Strange Beauty: Exquisite Bach playing, and refreshingly intelligent thinking about the composer.

4. Vincent Royer, Scelsi, The Works for Viola: Of all the avant-gardeists, Scelsi is the most deeply strange and, surprisingly, the most accessible. Audiences that know little to nothing of classical music find him compelling for the same reasons the classical world has been slow to turn to him: he speaks without guile and without any interest in the accepted protocols of craft directly from his soul to ours. The voice of his soul is in achingly beautiful microtonality, usually best expressed through string instruments. This collection of his works for viola is completely stunning. I’m thoroughly familiar with Scelsi’s work, yet the intensity of Royer’s playing was unexpected. If Scelsi’s music is a direct communication from the most abstract, non-verbal part of his mind and soul, then Royer seems to be communicating directly with the composer, or acting as a purely transparent vessel between Scelsi and us. It’s rare, even with the finest musicians, to hear such unmannered dialogue and expression with and from the the music. This is music-making on par with Uchida playing Schubert and is at the top of what is a growing Scelsi discography.

5. Chaya Czernowin, Shifting Gravity: I first heard Czernowin’s music at a Composer Portrait in April of this year, and it was enticing, so the release of this CD was a welcome balm for my curiosity. This is more than information, though, this is a terrific, vibrant collection. The music is for string quartets and chamber ensembles, at times enhanced with electronics. Czernowin’s language is right at the sharp point of contemporary classical tradition, making use of dissonance, atonality, gestures of timbre, the sonic power of rock and, always, a careful placement of musical events through times. Her structures and rhythms are subtle but so finely crafted that, as mysterious as the music can be, there is always the sense that something logical and meaningful will happen next, and it does.

6. Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony, Ives/Brant: A Concord Symphony: Charles Ives’ body of work is unfinished. When he reached his compositional maturity, his work became restless, searching, striving, sounding at times like it was putting itself together on the fly. He stopped writing music long before he died, leaving an unfinished and expectant quality about his career, and he rarely finished a piece, in that he frequently went back to printed and published works and revised them. The notes on paper were a start, not an end.

Consider the symphonies — how many did he write? There are numbers 1 through 4, then there are the four orchestral movements that, when put together, become the American Holidays Symphony. He left behind sketches for another symphony, suggesting that someone put them together, and that become the Universe Symphony which exists in more than one, widely different, version. And there’s this, Henry Brant’s orchestration of Ives’ ‘Concord’ Piano Sonata. The ‘Concord’ is the single work that represents Ives’ aesthetic, intellectual, spiritual and moral values (expressed in the composition and also in his book length essay, “Notes Before a Sonata”). Brant’s adaptation turns this into another, true Symphony, and a great one, the most coherent profound of the bunch. The density of the piano writing opens up into clarity, and so the depth and complexity of the thinking can really be heard. Ives wrote all the notes, and of course it sounds like him, but with Brandt’s superior orchestral craft, and sounds like better Ives, as if Brandt was the editor that the older man needed all along to realize his ideas with the greatest expression.

It’s extraordinary music, and in the hands of the best Ives musicians of the current era Tilson Thomas combines intelligence and insight with the demanding technical skill the music requires, and the orchestra responds, in this live recording, with the type of energy and fervor that borders on agitation, and is really exciting. The paired piece, Copland’s cerebral, cool Organ Symphony is played with just as much commitment. The usual exquisite recording quality from the SFS Media engineers. This is some of the finest orchestral playing you will hear, and perhaps the greatest work from America’s most important, perhaps greatest, composer.

7. Marty Brabbins, BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, William Walton Symphonies: Is it a lie if you believe it’s true? Walton’s Symphonies are solid works, this CD makes them sound like extraordinary ones.

8. Joel Frederiksen, Ensemble Phoenix Munich, The Rose of Sharon: A great survey of American music up to and through the Civil War, revelatory in some ways, and beautifully sung and recorded.

9. Pacifica String Quartet, The Soviet Experience Volume 1: Following on their great Shostakovich Cycle at the Metropolitan Museum from 2010 – 2011, the Pacific Quartet is starting to release their studio recordings of the music, filled out with quartets by Shostakovich’s contemporaries (in this first set, the Miaskovsky String Quartet No. 13). If my memory is still reasonably functional, the studio results are even better than the concerts. This first volume spans Quartets No. 5 – No. 8, and the performances have a sinewy toughness and a real understanding of psychological and aesthetic shifts, both quick and subtle, inside the pieces. I really like their lean sound in all this music, and their convey a special haunting quality when the composer calls for con sordino playing. One of their great strengths as a group is violist Masumi Per Rostad, who is one of the finer quartet violists in classical music, and the beauty and musicality of his voice — so important to Shostakovich — really makes these recordings sing.

10. Matthew Jones and Michael Hampton, Prokofiev: Romeo and Juliet (arr. Borisovsky): I find Prokofiev’s beloved ballet score has its longuers, but not on this recording. The arrangement, by the composer’s colleague Vadim Vasilyevich Borisovsky, is excellent, preserving and emphasizing the melodic inventiveness, and the performance by Jones and Hampton is tremendous. They play the music as if it’s the finest they’ve heard, and want to tell us the good news. Hampton is a sensitive and powerful accompanist, and Jones is a tremendous violists, with a beautiful, powerful and flexible sound. A real pleasure throughout.

11. Marek Janowski, Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin, Henze Symphonies 3-5: Amid the fertile plains of Twentieth Century symphonies, Henze’s work stands out. His fascinating idiom constantly wrestles with the legacy of Romanticism in music, in a constantly shifting pas de deux of rejection and reconciliation. That gives his symphonies a compelling mixture of unsettling thrills and soothing moments of clarity and introspection. His own recordings of these works are an essential part of any classical library, and the thinking and playing from Janowski and orchestra are even better here. These works are no longer new, yet they are still fresh, and the time they’ve had to marinated in musicians minds and under their fingers pays off here. I hope these musicians will be recording the rest of this body of work, and if so the project will rival the current Edward Gardber Lutoslawski project as monuments to the most important music of the previous 100 years.

12. Chiara String Quartet, Jefferson Friedman: Quartets: These are fine pieces, Friedman’s voice is a really welcome exploration of what Romanticism means and how it sounds after post-Minimalism. The combination of ferver and agitation, and the balance between tonality and dissonance, the overall clear-speaking, is reminiscent of and and worthy addition to the great, important legacy of George Rochberg (see any and all of the Naxos and New World discography for his wonderful music), and, since this is New Amsterdam, you get remixes from Matmos!

13. Carlos Kalmar, Oregon Symphony, Music for a Time of War: I missed this program at the Spring For Music festival at Carnegie Hall in May, and it was the consensus pick as favorite concert. So it’s been a treat to listen to this SACD, from a series of life recordings from the orchestra’s home. It’s a great selection of music, pieces that have questions about existence, how we treat each other, how we view the future during times in which we may think there is none, from Ives’ existential “The Unanswered Question” to Vaughan Williams’ blistering Symphony No. 4. It’s not just a polemic — these are great pieces that stand on their own as works of beautiful art — but as a whole it does remind us that, despite the relative comforts of our lives, our country is not only at war but committed to being at war for … well, forever. We’ve become the very model of a Nineteenth Century decadent empire, and if the musicians are the only ones to ask the questions we need, then so be it. A riveting, moving way to get the mind racing with thoughts of how things are, and how they might be.

Honorable mention: Quatour Diotima, Agrippina, Ezio, Edward Gardner and the BBC Symphony Orchestra, Kepler Quartet, Vladimir Jurowski and the London Philharmonic Orchestra, Brad Lubman and the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin

Revenge of the Nerds: The Meek's Inheritance

The story of how the digitization of music revealed the music industry’s feet of clay has been told more than once, but it’s never been properly explained. File sharing may be the prevailing symptom, but it’ s not the actual cause. Something preceded the creation of Napster, and that was the desire, even the need for many music fans, to have a Napster. As far as I have seen, after the many books and articles on the subject, no one has touched on the parties responsible, the decisions they made, what they thought they were doing and how they were fooling themselves. Perhaps it’s because it’s been told from the standpoint of business, when it’s really a story about music.

The story of how the digitization of music revealed the music industry’s feet of clay has been told more than once, but it’s never been properly explained. File sharing may be the prevailing symptom, but it’ s not the actual cause. Something preceded the creation of Napster, and that was the desire, even the need for many music fans, to have a Napster. As far as I have seen, after the many books and articles on the subject, no one has touched on the parties responsible, the decisions they made, what they thought they were doing and how they were fooling themselves. Perhaps it’s because it’s been told from the standpoint of business, when it’s really a story about music.

It’s also a lesson in the difference between music as a creative human activity and the music industry (or recording industry) as a manufacturing business. Music is made by composers and musicians, artists. Recordings are manufactured directed by business executives and produced in factories. Musicians understand this difference inherently, and develop the skills to not only produce their art but to manage the organization of their work and careers, on scales small and large. Business executives do not understand this, they’ve proven this in fact, no matter what their words say.

What this means in practice is that when a musician is selling you music, you get music, content, and when an executive is selling you what they call music, you get a package, which may or may not contain some substantial content. Before the digital era, the recording industry sealed LPs and tapes into jackets and boxes, shrink-wrapped them and it was a business. Those packages, more and more frequently, contained one, maybe two tracks that you would hear on the radio and enjoy enough to want the package, yet it was mostly so empty. Those two tracks, if you were lucky, were surrounded by . . . so much packaging, like aural excelsior that you couldn’t through out.

It wasn’t always like this. One of the curious, happy coincidences of history is that recording and reproduction technology was developed as the great era of pop music as a songwriting craft was getting under way. For over half a century, pop music was as song driven art, and each hit song was recorded by multiple singers in multiple styles. People came for the song, and they left with the artist, but content was king. The continued expansion of radio as a medium for music, and the development of the 45rpm single, moved pop music into a star driven form, and eventually the singer was king, with or without content (this story is told extremely well in two excellent books, the critical How The Beatles Destroyed Rock and Roll by Elijah Wald and the impressionistic, brilliant Sonata for Jukebox , by Geoffrey O’Brian). The music industry began selling the star, and that meant getting that one hit record and making the rest of the album as a sort of excuse (the current, long-lasting atrophy is a sad and worrisome example of what might be the twilight of the American experience; vastly overpaid, deeply incompetent executives seeking the next big vastly overpaid, deeply incompetent pop star, because in their tiny, limited, monochromatic socio-economic universe, like can only recognize like, producing the type of inbred offspring incapable of surviving outside their sheltered, decadently cosseted environment).

The only people who were surprised to find that music buyers wanted that one song and were fed up with having to swallow the whole stinking, crappy album, and were champing at the bit to find a way to just get that one damn song, were the music industry executives. They actually thought they were selling music, rather than just a package (by this time the jewel case). I certainly would never imagine that these captains of industry had any decent taste to speak of, but capitalism indicates that they should be self-interested enough to know what their product actually was. Of course, businessmen, seeking favors, handouts, begging for politicians to protect them from competition and living like parasites off the tax laws they successfully game, are not capitalists.

Musicians are. They have to be, they have to survive. And it is so very difficult to make a living playing music, so very difficult to run a band, and ensemble, a performing organization, that those who survive, let alone modestly succeed, prove by doing so that they are for more talented and skillful – and imaginative – managers and administrators than the vast mediocre landscape of CEOs and politicians who claim the wisdom and mantle of executive leadership. When you look at the line of candidates up for the Republican presidential nomination, try to imagine any of them trying to run a their own big band, like Darcy James Argue, or create a career like Cecil Taylor, or produce Make Music New York. Then pick yourself up off the floor when you finish laughing.

To musicians, the ability to not only professionally record and produce their own music, at what is now an exceptionally low cost, and then to distribute it on their own (and this is really the vital thing), has been just the thing they had been waiting for and they have taken advantage of the tools of digital media to a far more creative and greater extent than any business of any kind, especially the ones that base their model on the internet. Because the musicians have content, they also have had it. The best example of this is what symphonic orchestras have done as recording contracts withered and died. Of any groups playing music based on the old pop-songwriter model, it is the orchestras, who are built on centuries worth of content and share that with the public. That’s what they do, it’s all content! The major ones, and many lower level ones, also have recorded their own performances for decades for their own archives. With that, it’s really no step at all to this: a growing catalogue of digital only concerts, recorded directly from the stage and with little or no post-production editing. They’re not recording sessions, they’re concerts, and they’re being recorded anyway, and they music is great, and the musicians play it exceptionally well, and . . . so . . . why the hell not?

For music lovers, this concept is heaven. Not only is great music available to them that they previously could only have heard in the concert hall, but, for almost a year, the only recording of the new Arvo Pärt Symphony No. 4 that was available was the concert one from Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. And last fall, the Berlin Philharmonic went from concert to digital with their tremendous Mahler Symphony No.2 performance in the space of a month. Content, distribution, not a music industry honcho in sight.

Many orchestras have formed their own labels for digital and physical reproduction and distribution; LSO Live was one of the first, and others include the Chicago Symphony, the Concertgebouw and the Philadelphia Orchestra. The New York Philharmonic produced a digital only Mahler cycle under Loren Maazel. You can even watch live performances, via the web, of the Berlin Philharmonic. But no orchestra has done as much with media as the San Francisco Symphony. They started their own SFS Media label to produce their monumental, wonderful Mahler cycle, all recorded in concert, and are continuing to produce new recordings, including their new Ives/Copland concert recording. But the most expansive, ambitious, exciting and satisfying media venture they have undertaken is their “Keeping Score” program, and true multimedia production for DVD, the web, audio and television, where it is now returning, starting this week, for two episodes on PBS (check your local listings or go here to search for broadcast dates and times in your area – in New York City, WNET will air the program on consecutive Saturdays, June 25 and July 2, at 2pm. After broadcasts, full episodes will be available for streaming at

You should watch these, whether you have never heard of Gustav Mahler – the subject this time around – or you know everything about Gustav Mahler. “Keeping Score” is the greatest examination of great music that has been done outside of the esoteric language and analytical techniques of the academy. Michael Tilson Thomas, music director of the Symphony (think of him as a CEO with actual talent and a paycheck he earns) is a protege of Leonard Bernstein, the great explainer of art music to the public. Bernstein was a great, essential figure in American culture, but in this are, Tilson Thomas surpasses him. He has the advantage of new technology and new ideas about media, of course, but it’s to his, and SFS Media’s, credit that the programs exploit their medium’s possibilities to the fullest.

Previous episodes have examined the Beethoven Eroica Symphony, Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, Appalachian Spring from Aaron Copland, the Shostakovich Symphony No. 5, the Symphonie Fantastique of Hector Berlioz and the Ives Holidays Symphony. They are filled with vivid biographical details, things that tell us about the composers and also the specific circumstances and possible meanings of the music. We see the chamber where Berlioz labored at the Cantata that would win him the Prix de Rome, we tour Shostakovich’s apartment, we witness the kind of holiday parade scene that Ives loved as a boy. Tilson Thomas, friendly, charming, lightly passionate, speaking with the inherent confidence that what he is telling us is interesting and important and so never selling, is a brilliant tour guide through the physical, mental and aesthetic geographies of these composers.

These pieces are more than just collections of notes, spaced out at a duration that seems daunting to people not used to classical music. They are intellectual and emotional ideas and experiences put into physical motion. Each composer had the context of their life that brought them to the point of creating their pieces, and this is especially vital for Beethoven, Ives and Shostakovich. All the DVDs are tremendously fascinating, even gripping, and completely entertaining throughout, but the Eroica is so important, and Ives and Shostakovich’s pieces are so deeply mysterious, that the insight Tilson Thomas provides is a thrill, even breathtaking. The final movement of the Beethoven Symphony begins with a jokey tune, in such extreme contrast to the sweep, power and emotional depth of what came before, that it can be disconcerting. But when MTT sits down at the piano and demonstrates how it came about – Beethoven, participating in an improvising contest, turned his rivals music upside down, played that and then spun off a series of variations on it – the great genius and plain humanity of the composer is revealed in a way that is both astonishing and funny. That variations finale is a way of Beethoven demonstrating his own heroic ability, proud, petulant, generous, humorous all at once, like music itself.

The Ives and Shostakovich stories are penetrating. Their music has so much complex, personal psychology, hints of things that we may comprehend but can never truly understand. Meaning in Shostakovich is an impenetrable mystery. Since he could never safely say what he meant, we can never be sure that we know what he means, or that he’s being sincere. Keeping Score shows the reasons for his fear and insecurity, as well as his reasons for his desire to be an accepted artist in the political culture of the Soviet Union. Tilson Thomas doesn’t answer the questions, but he gives us the best ones to think about as we listen to the music. He also penetrates the details of the composition to show us, with music, how Shostakovich created that sound that makes him unlike any other composer. The episode on Ives Holidays Symphony is a tour de force of biography and musicology. Ives psychology is deeply complex and essential to understanding the musical decisions he made. It’s a mix of hero worship of his father and disappointment in that same man, a longing for the memories he had of his home town, whether real or fantastic, an idealization of his country, a need to both carve out his lonely path and be noticed and accepted. There are many fragments of memory, image making and bits of American traditional and popular music in the piece and to hear them in their original context, and even in a small New England town, opens up a beautiful window into the piece, turning something dense and knotty into something transparent and, like Beethoven and Shostakovich, so human that we can understand how a man could say something we ourselves could not image.

But that is the way these programs work, with all the composers, and expect the same from the Mahler programs. There is more to them than all I’ve just written though, the best part: each includes a complete performance of the work in the episode. The stories and analysis that comes before makes you sit up and take notice, really listen, and that adds to the benefit that these are absolutely great performances from what is arguably the finest orchestra and conductor in the hemisphere. The playing, the ideas, are so musical and so polished, with strength, energy, confidence and tremendous phrasing, color and expression. SFS Media has released these as separate audio CDs, and all of them would be excellent first choices for anyone interested in the music; the Eroica and Symphonie Fantastique recordings are the finest I have ever heard, the best out of some extremely fine competition, and the Holidays Symphony is not only better but, strangely, almost too good. Ives has an inherent roughness, even clumsiness and chaos, in his writing that is integral to his art – the sense that he barely has the language to say the strangest, most personal things he wants to express is important – in that a sense of struggle makes his music speak honestly. The San Francisco Symphony plays the music with such unbelievable skill that they make it sound like an accepted, common part of the repertoire. In a way, that’s deeply subversive, and also a fitting tribute, that musicians have set themselves to Ives with such dedication and purpose that he sounds, well, like a “Classical” composer.

This is the second in a series of articles. Read the first one here.

Baby Playlist, #3

Philip Glass: Orpheé; Portland Opera, Anne Manson

This will certainly please fans of Glass, and is a fascinating example of how his late style is developing. Like La Belle et la Bête, this is an operatic adaptation of an accidental libretto, i.e. the script from a Cocteau movie. It suffers from the same problematic detail, Glass trying to wedge the French phrases, diction and meter into his fairly rigid style, which produces a mix of good vocal music and parts where the singers have to try and spit out the words with compressed desperation. That being said, the music is fine and surprising. After going through a polytonal period, Glass seems to be synthesizing different structural ideas into his usual juxtaposition of phrases, and he’s using a lot of rhythms that are new to him. Large sections sound more than a little like ragtime/cakewalk in a way that is completely charming and adds drama and expression. As always, he quotes himself, even using sections identical to the previous work, but this new piece is mostly fresh and winning, seemingly fine live performances at the Portland Opera from the musicians, the conductor and a large cast, especially Philip Cutlip in the title role, and a good recording.

An interesting interview, but Ainsley is wrong about Cocteau being the first to use special effects in movies. Georges Melies, anyone?

Mahler: Songs with Orchestra ; Susan Graham, Thomas Hampson, San Francisco Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas

The final CD in Tilson Thomas’ Mahler cycle is as good as one would expect. Hampson is great in the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen and Graham is even better – deeply expressive, supple, beautiful tone – in the Rückert-Lieder. The set is rounded off with five selections from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, the last track is “Urlicht.” The playing and conducting are beyond exquisite, the SACD sound is like sitting inside the orchestra. SFS Media has produced the finest Mahler cycle, by far – nothing else is in the same league in terms of playing, musicality, expression. One may not agree with the interpretive choices, but there is no Mahler playing like this. The only drawback is the price of the discs, which for Mahler lovers should be no object, but perhaps down the road the producers might repackage it all in a box, for their additional profit and at some savings to the consumer.

Arvo Pärt: Symphony No. 4, Kanon Pokajanen ; Los Angeles Philharmonic, Esa-Pekka Salonen, Estonia Philharmonic Chamber Choir, Tönu Kaljuste

Severely beautiful, and very welcome on CD (the only previous recording had been an iTunes download in the DG Concerts series). Pärt is slowly, inexorably exploring Neo-Romanticism, and his Symphony No. 4 is minimalist in the way Bruckner is minimalist, a large, open scale architecture filled with repeated, small scale gestures. The second, “Affannoso” movement is mesmerizing. The make-weight, excerpts from his Kanon Pokajanen , is luminous, but considering ECM is rehashing this material and charging full price for the CD, it’s not a great value.

Steve Reich: Double Sextet, 2×5 ; eighth blackbird, Bang on Can

Reich is always good, and these are his finest pieces since City Life. It’s also the most sheerly enjoyable Reich recording out there. Double Sextet is like Hard-Bop Reich, taking elements of the “blues” of the early masterpiece, Four Organs, filtering it through the developments of Three Tales, and creating a piece of music that swings more than anything I’ve heard from him. It’s extroverted, basically simple but not simplistic. 2×5 is Reich as Prog-Rock and is not far removed from ultra-high order King Crimson; shimmering guitar, razor edge, interlocking complex rhythms, even a drum kit. The former piece won the Pulitzer, the latter may be even better. Great performances and a great CD.

P.S. The baby seemed to dig Mahler and Reich the best.

May Day

The new month has snuck up on me, but I’ve still been collecting recommended highlights of what’s happening musically, and sometimes otherwise, in New York City and through the wires:

The Russian Stravinsky festival continues through May 8, still with great programming, including all the old favorites (Petrushka, Le Sacre), the great and too little heard score for the ballet Orpheus, Alec Baldwin narrating A Soldier’s Tale and great symphonies.  The festival has so far exceeded high expectations.

Sticking with the New York Philharmonic, at the end of the month they are giving a staged performance of Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre, which may turn out to be the opera event of the season.  This will actually be the New York premiere of this great, scatological, scabrously funny anti-opera.  It’s anti only in the sense that it was made to offend those who think opera is all about divas and tuxedoed patrons and Franco Zeffirelli productions.  It’s a great work, and to my mind a mischievous bit of cultural provocation on behalf of the Phil towards the other Lincoln Center institutions.  I’d like to see some more fights, with music as the ammunition.

Sticking with geography, there are some more excellent events at Lincoln Center in May.  The incomparable Jordi Savall is presenting two of his finest recent projects, Orient-Occident and Jerusalem on the 2nd and 3rd.  On the 22nd and 23rd, Gustavo Dudamel, world’s hottest conductor, brings the LA Philharmonic in for programs that include the local premiere of John Adams new City Noir.

As an adjunct to the Stravinsky festival, and an astoundingly beautiful and fulfilling art form in it’s own right, the New York City Ballet schedule begins in May.  They will be presenting a generous helping of the works of Balanchine and Stravinsky, perhaps the greatest achievements in human culture, as well as an extensive program of other works.  While all arts aspire to music, personally I feel all music aspires to ballet.

Further afield, and easier on the wallet (because that matters too), there are some intriguing events:

May 28 – The Dream Brothers, in conjunction with American Opera Projects, present their original songs to words by Walt Whitman.  This is for everyone who considers themselves an American, or even just a Brooklynite.  In Fort Greene, by donation, no one turned away.  Go.

May 12 – Dedicated music blogger Feast of Music has organized his own concert series.  The next event features Kyklos and The Kontraband.  A great example of being a free fucking agent, a bargain and something you’ll feel good about supporting while you dig the music.

And free, May 21 and 22, the American Composers Orchestra is offering new music in the 19th annual Underwood New Music Readings series.  You’ll hear brand new music essentially at the moment it’s first being played.

In new recordings, the month has releases of CDs on New Amsterdam from Matt Marks and Corey Dargel (listen to samples of Dargel and Marks).  I’ll be reviewing these before they come out, but they are highly recommended by The Big City.  Also, the excellent jazz couple of Frank Carlberg and Christine Correa each have recordings coming out (also to be reviewed) and they are terrifically strong.  There’s a new Mahler set from Naxos collecting their previous recordings, and it’s solid to excellent, at a good price.  And on the local front, stay tuned for live blogging from Vox on May 1, a long form article on City Opera with an interview with George Steel, an exploration of the media success of the San Francisco Symphony, a LOT of classical/jazz/new music CD reviews, continued Treme blogging and, once the drilling on my building stops, The Big City Podcasts will debut!  Stay thirsty, my friends . . .

Mahler Songs


The San Francisco Symphony has released their penultimate recording in MTT’s Mahler cycle, which is so far the finest cycle I know – albeit expensive.

For this recording of Das Lied, MTT uses two male singers, Stuart Skelton and Thomas Hampson. Skelton is superb, as good as I’ve heard in this piece, which is extraordinarily difficult for the tenor. He projects heroically and still imparts true and great characterization and meaning to the text – his bitter vehemence in “Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde” is the first of its kind I’ve heard, and now seems the only appropriate way to perform this music. Hampson is the only problematic feature of the recording. He is a great singer and artist, but can be mannered at times, and does fall into this trap at times. There is a big difference between a woman singing the low part, in which the expression is about a man, and a man singing it, when the expression becomes about himself. This is true to the conception of Mahler as an opera composer who only wrote symphonies, but Hampson does emote to the extreme in his entrance to “Der Einsame im Herbst” – nothing like Janet Baker imperceptibly appearing out of the music itself. Still, he does find greater focus as the performance goes along, and sings beautifully throughout.

As with all the other entries in this cycle, the quality of sound is incredible – in SACD format you are RIGHT THERE! And the playing is as technically assured and musically expressive as one will hear. MTT’s conception has consistently been thought-through, with an attention to phrasing and counterpoint that is wonderful. No Mahler cycle can be both definitive and perfectly done, but this is excitingly, heroically close to that ideal.