Proms 2010: reviews, downloads, prog notes for every premiere

In what must be one of the more impressive season-long engagements with this year’s BBC Proms, composer and conductor Simon Cummings has been posting reviews of every Proms premiere to his (excellent) blog, 5 against 4.

That’s a pretty impressive service in itself. What makes Simon’s efforts even more valuable is that he has gone to the trouble of recording each piece reviewed (from the BBC’s iPlayer stream digital satellite broadcasts), and posting them as MP3s and FLACs – carefully edited to include any surrounding discussion about the piece. And he’s even posted the relevant pages from the original programme notes.

That’s critical completeness.

What I really like about this idea is that it adds a new dimension to live concert reviewing. LCR is a curious business: unlike most other criticism you’re not really recommending something to your readers because most classical concerts are one-offs. “You’ll love this/hate this” is not useful information for something that happened in the past.

The good LCR should try to emulate reporting: it’s a sort of aural journalism. Rather than give your readers a shopping list of what’s cool and what’s not, you’re trying to convey to them something of the aesthetic experience that was listening to that particular piece last night, and trying to put it into a context of larger cultural trends. You’re using the specifics of a particular concert as a way in to describing something larger and more encompassing.

This is especially difficult with music, because the thing itself is so ephemeral: the reader has to take so much of the critic’s description of it on trust. There’s not much room for any to and fro debate since the only evidence that can be presented has already been processed by the critic’s writing and re-presented as opinion. There’s no primary source to return to. (The LCRs I’ve most enjoyed reading in  the past have always been of concerts I’ve attended myself, and so I have the primary source of my own memories through which to read a particular review.)

Debates of that sort – whether they take place publicly or simply within the mind of the reader – are absolutely essential for the continuing vibrancy of any artform. They’re where preconceptions are challenged, adaptations made, and evolution takes place. Without that critical to and fro you don’t have a lively art, you have a passive commodity. The model Cummings presents on 5 against 4 is time-consuming for the critic – not to mention too costly and legally fraught for any newspaper to consider – but it surely is a glimpse of what online criticism could be.

Young Music Critic Competition in the New Statesman

I’m too old to enter this, but if you’re not yet 30 you might want think about it. Either way, you should check out the introduction page, if only for the judges’ summaries of what they think makes a good critic.

Here’s Alex Ross:

Critics are, first of all, journalists, and while there is no such thing as an objective, just-the-facts-ma’am description of music, a good review ought to give a sense of what it was like to attend a certain event. It should have atmosphere, human detail, a sense of context and history. The review must rest on a strong foundation of musical knowledge, yet that knowledge should not be shoved in the face of the reader. And there must be a certain music in the prose. Dull, awkward, or jargonistic writing is a betrayal of the art. Perhaps the greatest challenge is to remain passionately engaged over the long term – not to become jaded, politely accepting, cynical, or, worst of all, nostalgic. To the end, critics must remain open to the possibility of being totally undone by what they hear.

And here’s Roger Scruton:

A critic should be able to recognise all of the following: pretentiousness, insincerity, bombast, kitsch. And he or she should be familiar with all of the following: singing, dancing, smiling, weeping, praying, kissing.

Words to live and work by.

Siding with Mr Black

Can I just say that I love reading Mark Adamo’slethal injections blog posts on contemporary opera. This isn’t about sacred cows, but it is an absolute pleasure to read a critic prepared to go against the corporate opinion of the big papers and the wider new music crowd, and to do so with such coherence, detail and precision. If an opera doesn’t work, no matter how much we’d like it to be otherwise, someone has to have the courage to say so.

Die Soldaten in New York

Or: How many nights do you need to sell out at up to $250 a seat before critics stop calling you perversely obscure?

According to David Byrne’s review of Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s Die Soldaten in New York, more than five. Byrne’s review is full of dumb*, but here’s a quick compare-and-contrast between his oppressively conservative version of the reception of 20th-century music and the more reality-based observations of Anthony Tommasini in the NY Times:

Byrne: As classical music followed this bizarre, perverted road for some half of the 20th century, the audiences left in droves. I hope the composers were pleased, because it seems they got what they wanted in that respect. Their compositional ideas live, and even thrive in movies; but as a form of music and music-theater, they simply died — rumbling and roaring all the way.

Tommasini: An unfortunate drawback of this ambitious production, which seems to have broken the bank of the Lincoln Center Festival, is that the seating area accommodates fewer than 1,000. With only five performances and top tickets going for $250, not everyone who wants to see it will be able to do so. But those who do will experience a miraculous realization of an opera once deemed unperformable.

*”How the singers can memorize atonal, seemingly random sequences of notes is beyond me — it’s an inhuman exercise, a kind of sadomasochism perpetrated by the composer on the poor singers.”

“The playbill refers to the piece as both a monument and a tombstone, since music in this genre couldn’t really develop any further. With this opera, the end of the road had been reached: like a Finnegan’s [sic] Wake of classical music, an aesthetic and formal investigation was carried to it’s [sic] logical — and some might say ridiculous — extreme.”

“György Ligeti’s “Atmosphères,” a piece most of us first heard in the psychedelic sequence of 2001: A Space Odyssey.” (a pedant observes that unless you arrived at the cinema 2 hours late, you first heard Atmospheres before the opening shot; you second heard it at the interval; and then you third heard it (although a different bit) in the psychedelic sequence.)

“At another point, low gurglings evoke the stomach rumblings of an invisible giant, and sometimes surprisingly gentle plinks and plonks sound almost pretty, but for their lack of melody and harmony.”

And so on.

Bernard Holland

Yes, I thought much of his writing on 20th-century music was lamentable. But at least he was saying something. On balance I’m not happy to read that Bernard Holland is leaving the New York Times because the wider point is that he isn’t being replaced, it’s simply that the NY Times is downsizing its classical music coverage. (And they’re not the only ones this week – Detritus brings us news of Melinda Bargreen’s departure from the Seattle Times.) Just another nail in the coffin of public cultural debate.

Amongst all the whooping and hollering going on, Joshua Kosman writes a warm appraisal of Holland’s work.

Double dutch

Just a little follow-up to my Bernard Holland post below. I appreciated reading Kyle’s nuanced response to the Holland review. But he himself links to this Justin Davidson piece on Carter from earlier in the year, which again raises some of the same issues. Kyle talks about the problem with Holland’s review as being a question of terminology: “Our critics need to find a rhetoric in which to discuss the issue that does not make atonality the fall guy”. Absolutely: but I think the problems go further than just terminology to more fundamental rhetorical tropes about what new music is, what it does, and what should be its relationship to its audience. The frankly careless way in which such tropes (dating back at least 60 years) are applied leaps out, I’m afraid, from Davidson’s opening paragraph:

What does it mean to be a great composer if nobody wants to hear your music? That question, which might have been asked of many avant-garde luminaries of the twentieth century, applies with particular force to Elliott Carter, who turned 99 in December and immediately plunged into a hectic centennial year. Juilliard has just wrapped up a weeklong festival of his music, and the Pacifica Quartet undertook the grueling musical pentathlon of performing all five of his string quartets at a single sitting. Carnegie Hall has appointed him to its Composer’s Chair and plans an assortment of tributes, culminating in a 100th-birthday concert featuring a new piano concerto played by Daniel Barenboim and conducted by James Levine.

If all these concerts are being put on by all these ensembles, can it really be true to say that nobody wants to hear Carter’s music? Yet the cliché of modernist music reception is that nobody wants to hear it, so you’ve still got to say it even when the explosion of listening and performance activity you’re writing about flies in the face of that cliché. It’s not so much the terms that Holland etc. use that bother me so much (even if they are in some cases extraordinarily misused), its the casual acquiescence to a single musico-historical narrative without any consideration of an alternative universe of values. And what is modern music doing if not trying to open our imaginations to the possibilities of such alternatives?

Elysian String Quartet, Purcell Room, 10 Jan 2005: thoughts on Classical Music Criticism

uTopianTurtleTop points towards a great extract from the National Arts and Journalism Program’s Reporting the Arts. Of the critics contributing, Robert Christgau, Sasha Frere-Jones and Joseh Horowitz are on the musical tip; together their three contributions make for a provocative read. Christgau reviews the history of rock criticism delineating its difference from film and TV criticism. He concludes that the sheer volume of music being produced these days – 27,000 albums a year by recent estimates – requires rock critics to be gatekeepers for consumers, “people whose lifework is seeking out good music of every sort and telling the world about it”. He also laments the demise of the adventurous writer, constrained by editorial control at a newspaper, or lost in a chorus of inferiority on the net, and charges the daily newspapers to rethink their strategy towards pop crit to allow maverick voices the chance to talk about what is new and interesting in new and interesting ways. Sasha Frere-Jones builds on much of what Christgau outlines, asking the question whether musicians make better or poorer music critics, and establishing what is most important for readers of pop music criticism:

A minority may read pop criticism as prose or philosophy, but to the larger audience it is a betting broadsheet. Will I win, lose or show with my 10 bucks? When answering that question, what constitutes expertise for the relevant critic? Knowing how to play the guitar or, perhaps, knowing how to listen to records in the same way as other listeners?

This is a really great point, picking up from Christgau’s image of the cultural gatekeeper, but taking it somewhere more specifically useful than a plea for greater editorial adventure. “Most of the important figures in pop criticism – Robert Christgau, Greil Marcus, Ann Powers – are not musicians but rather experts in hearing and understanding lateral connections.”

With these two complementary essays in mind, Horowitz’s piece ‘Classical Music Criticism at the Crossroads’ makes for interesting reading indeed. Firstly, I’m delighted to read that there was a time, long ago, when critics – and therefore audiences and promoters – didn’t care about performers. W.J. Henderson wrote in 1934 “Can [the public] ever again be trained to love music for its own sake and not because of the marvels wrought upon it by supermen?” This view is one I’ve long held, but always known was a bit heretical. I don’t honestly care who’s performing a work; I’ve certainly never been to a concert or bought a classical CD purely on the strength of the performers. All I care about is that they programme something I want to hear, and play it well – and for the bucks most performers charge I’d say both of those are essential prerequisites for the job. (But sadly it ain’t true – people will happily pay to hear one of Henderson’s ‘supermen’ play any old crap badly. Again and again.)

This might be why something like the Park Lane Group Young Artists New Year series, which should be essential listening, isn’t for most of London’s new music scene. New performers, programming new works – perfect. The series has been a regular fixture in the London calendar for almost 50 years, but is suffering from falling attendances and a shortage of money – Annette Moreau in today’s Independent talks of a ‘pitiful attendance’ for the concert she is reviewing.

This year 10 concerts (two a night all this week) showcased a total of 28 players, as well 62 contemporary works. Although perhaps not as much as there once was, there is still quite some prestige attached to performing in this series, and for any British performer hoping to make a career in contemporary music it’s an essential early stopping point. So it was good to see the Elysian Quartet (candidates for Rambler house band) on the Purcell Room stage on Monday evening stepping onto this ladder and opening the series. It was also good to see a much better than ‘pitiful’ attendance for this one.

If you’re sitting there with your betting slip, you can safely put the Elysian’s name down. If you don’t care for fat men belching Rossini in their sleep, or associate wet T-shirts with 1970s school fetes rather than Vivaldi, then groups like the Elysian are for you. If you give a toss about the notated music people are writing right now, that other people want to play right now, then an Elysian gig will suit you. Unless you actually live with one of the players, I can guarantee you will hear something good that you’ve not heard before.

I heard three pieces I’d not heard before, and liked at least two of them.Aurelio Tello‘s Dansaq II was a fragmentary thing, in six movements, that seemed to throw a bit of everything possible into the mix. Not like Kurtág – this was really chop and change stuff. Somehow it held itself together, as a Peruvian Inca motif (Tello is from Peru) was put through a series of variations that seemed to cover every aspect of quartet technique – except straight, vibrato-on lushness. Fidgety and surprising; good stuff. Phillip Neil Martin‘s An Outburst of Time, given its London première grabbed me less – it was simply less adventurousness than the Tello. But it was a canny bit of programming – more than 10 minutes into the concert Martin’s piece gave the quartet the space to introduce some fuller lyricism into their playing.

In a completely different way, Dai Fujikura‘s Midnight All Day contained moments of genuine beauty. The shortest, most unified work of the concert, it was built mostly from heavy scrunches of bow on string that mellowed into cleaner tones and chords: the last, and most extended of these, the very last, was a breathtaking effect. It’s the kind of soundworld that wouldn’t be out of place on, I don’t know, some glitchy Scando electronica maybe, which only makes me wonder why bother giving it to string quartet in the first place. Fujikura certainly has the best publicity of any British composer since Thomas Adès (he’s practically everywhere), but I’ve yet to be completely convinced by his work; Midnight is another example of this. It’s a neat little idea that he’s found to base his piece on, and it’s executed crisply and to good effect – but like other works of his I’ve heard it didn’t quite lift off for me. There just wasn’t that extra something in it that made me glad that someone at least had the good sense to put this idea on paper and hand to a string quartet. One day, Fujikura should blow me away – he hasn’t yet.

One composer who does always satisfy however is Stephen Montague. Mentioned previously on these pages as grand ringmaster of John Cage’s Musicircus, Montague composes quirky, theatrical minimalism that feels more lightweight than it actually is. His String Quartet no.1 is an in memoriam for two composer friends, Barry Anderson and Tomasz Sikorski, which uses thematic and harmonic material from their music. The quartet also requires both live electronics and a tape track of electronically altered string quartet sounds, all of which are layered to fill the auditorium at times to bursting point. At times this is an angry response to the premature deaths of two talented composers that has its audience flinching with great surges of volume, but the work comes into its own at the very end with a genuine Stephen Montague touch. The final, subsiding waves of the piece are a quotation from Sikorski’s Holzwege (small orchestra, 1972), a pattern of alternating two-note motifs. One by one the three upper parts of the quartet (the cello, necessarily, remains seated) rise and turn their backs to the audience and each other. At first this looks like a cheap gesture, a gimmick for the end of the work. Each player only has two remember a couple of notes after all, and none of them need to see each other at this stage; if it’s too easy, it’s not theatre. But when the players stop, they start again – backs still to one another, they coordinate perfectly, stop, start, in the breaths of private contemplation. For a full minute, the quartet – threatening to explode itself in electronic rage – has shattered, quietly, like mourners leaving a funeral wake.

It’s a magical effect that calls to mind angels and the smoke of memories rising into the sky, as well as nodding towards the Cage/New York/experimental scene in that is in Montague’s blood. And, in the best possible way, the performers – as bodies, as symbols of a mysterious (dis)unity – became central after all. Performers are central to notated music – someone’s got to play that notation after all – but what matters so much more than who they are is what those performers are doing, their role within the music that they are playing; like any good string quartet the Elysians understand this well.