How I discovered Mahler

After decades of near-neglect and sometimes ridicule, the music of Gustav Mahler caught on in a big way in the 1960s — and I thank goodness that I was aware enough then to experience it.
Most Mahler nuts, we’re told, find their ways to this composer through one of the less time-demanding symphonies like the First or Fourth — or maybe the poignant Adagietto movement from the Fifth. My entryway, oddly enough, was through the clangorous finale from the Seventh Symphony on a free Columbia Masterworks LP sampler that my dad brought home in 1966. (I might add that from this one slab of vinyl, I also heard Bruckner, Ives, Nielsen and neoclassical Stravinsky for the first time, igniting lifelong passions for all.) No one ever told me that the Seventh was the tough one that you’re not supposed to get right away. The last minutes sounded like a riotous, even desperate celebration — maybe the cracking apart of 19th century Romantic traditions, to paraphrase Leonard Bernstein, or something bigger and more current.

Read the full blog posting in The Los Angeles Times here and an earlier article here.

How one should behave at a classical music concert

The great debate of our times – about how one should behave at a classical music concert – had a special resonance for me this week. A couple of days before Alex Ross gave his lecture in London on how protocol might curb an audience’s enthusiasm, I went to a concert at the Lincoln Center in New York, given by the London Philharmonic Orchestra under Vladimir Jurowski, the stunning young Russian conductor. The programme was varied and sophisticated: three pieces of music written within five years in the Thirties. The Ravel G Major Piano Concerto, one of the greatest works in that genre, was framed by two pieces by Shostakovich; his Five Fragments, with which I was not familiar, and his Fourth Symphony, with which I was.

Shostakovich spent much of his life looking in his wing mirrors, and rarely more so than in the mid-Thirties, when Pravda denounced him on the orders of Stalin. Stalin fancied he knew a thing or two about music (like Hitler, who actually did), and Shostakovich was not rash enough to disabuse him of this notion. The Fourth Symphony has ravishing moments in it, but other passages sound as though they are crying out to be piped over the PA system of a tractor factory in Sverdlovsk. I don’t think the poor old boy quite knew what he was doing at the time, and the work suffers in part from a structural incoherence. But it was played flawlessly, and the orchestra and conductor deserved the ovation they received at the end. Between the three movements, purists will be glad to hear, we sat sedately and silently.

Yet it was the performance of the Ravel concerto that now brings Mr Ross’s words to mind. It is one of my dozen or so favourite pieces of music. I could bore on about it for pages, but suffice it to say if you don’t know it, go out and listen to it. It requires an Olympic-class soloist to deal with it even half adequately and a genius to play it well. Ravel wrote it after visiting America for the first time, in 1928, and meeting Gershwin, whose work he admired and which became an enormous influence on him in this concerto and its sister, the Concerto for the Left Hand. Jazz is everywhere in the first and third movements: it seems when Americans hear the work they feel it is one of their own, and with some cause. The middle movement could not be more different. It is like a dreamscape of slightly sad but beautiful tunes that need to be played with the utmost delicacy.

Read the full article in The Telegraph here.

Classical elitism

It took me years to find [Radio 3] the [pop radio] station remotely penetrable. For a long while I had no patience, my laziness supported by the thought that just because classical music – and world music, and jazz, and folk, all played on the station – existed didn’t mean I had a duty to listen to it. But music is music: if you love music you will find something to love about almost any music. It just takes time. In the last fortnight I’ve attended, and loved, two classical performances: Satyagraha, a Philip Glass opera about Gandhi; and one by the London Symphony Orchestra, which featured Glass’s fellow American minimalist composer John Adams conducting his own work and that of Benjamin Britten.

It’s through the music of Glass, Adams and Steve Reich, in particular, that many rock fans have found a way into the fear-inducing labyrinth of classical music, through their use of forms and themes, both musical and topical, that seem to form a bridge between the genres. Jazz is often the halfway point at which even adventurous classical and rock listeners stop, and go no further, with their musical explorations. The former look to jazz for its rigour; the latter for its apparent anarchy.

What you get with minimalism, however, is the chance to listen to little motifs, over and over as you would with a pop chorus or riff, changing and swelling with time. As with any relationship you have in life, it repays the investment of listening well. You can do that with pop music, too, but only if you regard quality as something that is detectable, and appreciable, across the board.

Read the full letter in The Guardian here and a comment here.

Is Glenn Gould's solitary string quartet a masterpiece or an unruly child?

Although its origins and first performances have drifted into the mists of time, Glenn Gould’s String Quartet, Op. 1, provides a glimpse into the great composer and musician’s psyche and skill set for those string quartets and audiences adventurous enough to take it out for a drive. Gould finished the 35-minute quartet in 1955, a few months before recording the set of Bach’s Goldberg Variations that would turn him into an overnight piano sensation. Preceded by obscure childhood compositions, an atonal bassoon sonata, and an unfinished piano sonata, the ambitious quartet—redolent of late Romantic Strauss and Schoenberg, with quotations from Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge and Quartet in A minor, Op. 132— is music of consequence, fugal riches, and often darkly sumptuous beauty.

Even so, the quartet would certainly have been long forgotten if its composer were not a legend for his artistry at the keyboard. Fortunately, the fledgling Alcan Quartet, based in Chicoutimi, Quebec, where it is supported by the Canadian aluminum giant after which it is named, has come to the rescue with a splendid new recording on the ATMA label.

The Alcans—violinists Laura Andriani and Nathalie Camus, violist Luc Beauchemin, and cellist David Ellis—are uniquely qualified to help reintroduce the work of this fellow Canadian to a contemporary audience worldwide: the first violinist, Laura Andriani, studied at conservatory with violinist Paolo Borciani of the Quartetto Italiano. Borciani was very interested in Glenn Gould. “I was very touched and intoxicated by the quartet writing,” Andriani says. “Learning the score, however, was a very intense experience.”

Read the full article in All Things Strings here.

The Darmstadt school's British invasion

In many ways, Darmstadt is a typical German city. It has a local beer, an opera house, parks and museums and an efficient tram network, and one night in September 1944 it was devastated by an Allied bombing raid. When people emerged from the shelters, they discovered a city in which four out of every five buildings was ruined. A year later, with the second world war over, reconstruction began. The fabric of the city was slowly restored – buildings, jobs, a political structure – and in the process, more or less by accident, something remarkable happened.

Casting around for ways to regenerate cultural life in the city, its new mayor, Ludwig Metzger, was persuaded by a local musicologist, Wolfgang Steinecke, to consider the possibility of establishing an institute for contemporary music. Because Darmstadt was in the American- controlled zone of occupied Germany, Metzger and Steinecke needed the approval of the American forces to develop their ideas and by happy coincidence the officer in charge of such initiatives was a former Harvard University music student, Everett Helms. The permissions were granted, and in the summer of 1946, American army trucks delivered grand pianos to a hunting lodge on the outskirts of Darmstadt, the temporary home for the first “courses for international new music”.

The courses were initially intended to denazify German musicians by introducing them to the modern music of the 1930s and 40s, music by Bartók, Hindemith, Schoenberg, Stravinsky, all of which had been outlawed as “degenerate” under Hitler. But soon new music by the next generation of composers became part of the courses too and by the early 1950s, the summer school, now subtly redesignated as the “international courses for new music”, was acquiring a reputation as the meeting place for aspiring avantgardistes not only from Germany but across Europe and beyond.

Read the full article in The Guardian here.

Leonard Bernstein on the Mystery Behind the Music

Imagine this: you drop onto the sofa on a Sunday afternoon, switch on the TV and see a dapper young man with a baton standing before an orchestra and demonstrating the patterns conductors use to lead music in different meters — two, three, four and five beats to the bar. He directs his players in a few examples, bits of Beethoven’s Ninth and Schubert’s Eighth Symphonies, Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf,” Waldteufel’s “Skater’s Waltz.” Then he ups the ante, showing how these simple gestures, with subtle modification, are used to coax a fluid, lyrical performance; a playful reading; or an urgently dramatic interpretation from an orchestra.

For 48 minutes, this young conductor — Leonard Bernstein, caught on film in 1955 — brings you into the musician’s world, talking about how tempo, dynamics and phrasing express a conductor’s feelings and beliefs about a piece, and how that expressivity affects a listener’s perception of the music. And he offers you a glimpse of his preparation for a performance.

“Take this opening bar of the Brahms First Symphony,” he says, and then conducts it. “There are 55 notes in it, being played by 100 instruments, and the conductor has to know them all, or he has no right to ascend the podium in the first place. And this is only one bar out of 1,260 in this symphony.”

Even with hundreds of cable channels to choose from today, the likelihood of running into a show like this is slim.

Read the full article in The New York Times here.

Vladimir Horowitz: the tiger who burnt bright

The German word Klaviertiger — which hardly needs translation — might have been invented to describe the musical and technical prowess of the young Ukrainian-born pianist Vladimir Horowitz, who shot to international stardom when he provoked a sensation as a last-minute replacement in a virtuoso tour de force, Tchaikovsky’s B flat minor Piano Concerto. That was on January 20, 1926, in Hamburg, and news of the young firebrand’s success ensured a sellout of the repeat concert. Two years later, the by then 24-year-old scored an even bigger triumph, with the New York public, at Carnegie Hall, despite disagreements with the conductor, Sir Thomas Beecham, over tempi: the young Horowitz was an impetuous speed merchant in a hurry, but capable of huge sonorities unquenchable by any opening of the orchestral floodgates.

Read the full article in The Times here.

The Score: The End of Music by Glenn Branca

We seem to be on the edge of a paradigm shift. Orchestras are struggling to stay alive, rock has been relegated to the underground, jazz has stopped evolving and become a dead art, the music industry itself has been subsumed by corporate culture and composers are at their wit’s end trying to find something that’s hip but still appeals to an audience mired in a 19th-century sensibility.