Thursday, March 31, 2005

Nibbles

While musician friends- brass players, singers, and choir leaders prepared for Easter, I was struck by the sameness of their activities. There were the popular Requiems, Passions, cantatas, etc for Holy Week. But, for Easter Sunday, the Resurrection, the centerpiece of Christian belief, there were the usual Handel/Beethoven Hallelujahs, various brassy anthems that incorporated Easter hymn tunes, but little else. But, there is plenty else available and useful. There are so many other big Amens and Hallelujas. Bach’s et Resurrexit, is worth the rehearsals, and I have always liked Flor Peeters’ Entrata Festiva, Horatio Parker’s Light's Glittering Morn, Schuetz’s Ich weiss, dass mein Er-loeser lebt, Honegger’s Cantique de Paques for women, and for large, able choirs, The Resurrection (from Christus) – Liszt-and there is so much more. For an extensive list with comments on Easter anthems, and more, see http://choralnet.org/resources/ . While the Requiem offers inspiring texts and mysticism to composers, the Resurrection hasn’t prompted either text or music to match.

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On diminishing audiences, one of the reasons that critics and reviewers are so popular today is because they are surrogates for participation. Many prefer to read about a concert than to attend it. Reading a column allows one to talk, and maybe even to think, about it as though the opinion were theirs. But, the reality is, there is probably as much musical criticism as there is music, but a larger percentage of it is bad.

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While it’s easy to learn who is performing at a concert, it is becoming more difficult to know what is being performed. The business of classical music has become so desperate that it has forgotten the foundation of its business.

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Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Applause and the Dinosaurs

For whatever reasons, there is increased interest in audience behavior lately. There are those who want silence during music with applause only at the end of a multi-movement work; others think it’s OK to clap between movements; still others don’t seem to mind talking during performance-as long as it’s them. I’d guess that some want to clap and talk whenever they feel like it. Promoting such informality has to do mainly with “saving” classical concerts from further decline by making them more casual and palatable for more people. But, I suspect it’s only a sign of more to come.

We are changing, manners and morals are changing, musics are changing, orchestras and management are changing -all signs of a dynamic culture. Change causes stress in old-timers who find their values being upset. It causes stress to youngsters too, who are confronted with (to them) pointless tradition. In the same way as we came to the formal applause/silence customs from notorious informality (check your history), to silent temple worship, we are at the door again to Crystal Palace informality. We may as well get used to it. But, will Concert Companion, artists talking to an audience, talking by an audience, or claqueuers after bravura passages, make much difference in the size of, or appreciation by, audiences? Let’s take a leap to concert halls.

The cavernous halls built to accommodate thousands of music listeners are historically recent. It was a good idea while it lasted but, as far as classical concerts are concerned, its horizon doesn’t appear very bright now. Maybe we should start accommodating the fewer numbers with smaller halls and diverse ensembles, which may ultimately lead to a new “New Music” of composition, literature, performance, and audience.

Thirty-five years ago Alvin Toffler wrote in Future Shock, that consumer taste in the future (that’s now!) will become more and more fragmented; that we would be faced by overwhelming and confusing multiple choices, and new niches for these tastes will be formed, viz. foods, specialized industries, computer dating -you name it. It has clearly happened in popular music, just as Toffler said it would, with its plethora of styles and audiences large enough to warrant a radio station to broadcast, or organize a concert for, an exclusive, narrowly-defined style. And look what’s happened to the record industry.

Taste has changed in classical audiences too but there have been few changes to accommodate them. Some classical music listeners hail only Wuorinen or Babbitt, while others groove with Reich and Glass. Many sway with Menotti or Rorem; some dream with Debussy and Hovhaness, or dance with Stravinsky, Dukas, etc. Others powder their wigs with Bach and/or Pachelbel. Still others wallow in hard core Romantic literature. I won’t toy with the point further.

So what do we do with all these fragmented tastes? In some larger cities it is evident by the many ensembles each devoted to a different music causing the large halls to have fewer sales. But, elsewhere, the practice is to put more, or some of each style, in a concert, so audiences will enjoy something even if they hate the rest. Instead, many would rather play a choice CD at home in their pajamas and save $150. It may be that there are as many, or more, classical music lovers as ever. But, the typical concert hall audience decline seems to be occurring in all but a few places in America. A restaurant featuring a take it or leave it one meal only of a Cobb salad, a duck Lorene sandwich, turnip greens and grits, creamed Jello, and just a sip of Chateau Margaux 1787 or Corteux 1989, wouldn’t last long. The musical palette is changing quickly and heading into new territory. We can admire the dinosaurs, but they are dead.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

keys and symbolism - da capo

Things I can’t wait to read: Alex Ross on Radio and his take on E-flat minor
Jos. Horowitz on Classical Music in America

My blog on key symbolism provoked some response, namely that whatever the attached symbolism is, it lies with the listener. If I feel that C major represents jubilance, happiness, victory, etc. then that’s what it is – for me and whoever else shares that feeling-purely subjective. It’s probably true that many composers have selected particular keys to express particular feelings (but see below) and lists might be made about who wrote what in what key to show an agreement. But, we might find as many exceptions, too.

What I found hard to concede is, if a listener knows a piece is in “melancholy” G minor, and it is transposed down to “somber” F minor, would it sound melancholy or somber to that listener? Would “fate knocking at the door” sound as powerful in B-minor? The answer seems to be-no and yes. Play the C major Prelude from WTC Bk I in D major and the response is different. A friend said, “It’s not as calm - and brighter.”

To be sure, the matter has bothered us for some time. Aristotle and other ancient thinkers defined in detail the emotional/ethical features of the tonalities used in those times. This was typical for Middle Ages aesthetics too, with some additions and corrections. Later, it developed into a principle and a number of tables of tonalities and affects were made. I previously mentioned Berlioz. Here’s Charpentier's table for major tonalities:

C-dur - cheerful and warlike
D-dur - joyful and VERY warlike
E-dur - quarrelsome and irritable
Es-dur - cruel and stern
F-dur - violent and hasty
G-dur - tender and joyful
A-dur - joyful and pastoral
B-dur - majestic and joyful
H-dur - stern and sorrowful

Such tables, and others such as Scriabine’s table of colors, et al, are clearly subjective.

In his Characterization of Tonalities R. Shumann wrote that the difference between major and minor is a “creative, masculine principle” and a “passive and female one". On tonalities he remarks: “The simplest feelings need simple tonalities, more complex feelings seek for more rare ones, less common to the hearing sense". But, he derided assumptions that E-minor is "the girl in white with a bow on the bosom" and G-minor is"unpleasant feeling" and "the gloomy biting one's lips".

So, is “affect theory" right or wrong, and are the semantics of tonalities and the rules of handling them arbitrary? Schumann hints that "the truth lies in the middle, as usual. …The process that enables the composer to choose this or that fundamental tonality to express his feelings, is as inexplicable as the creative process of the man of genius, who creates both the new idea and a form, which serves as a container for it". He goes on: "One cannot say that any certain feeling, in order to be expressed adequately, needs to be translated into music by means of only one certain tonality". But, he can't agree with those who believe that "everything can be expressed in any tonality".

The question is muddled (or settled), by Stravinsky who says, "Music is, by its very nature, essentially powerless to express anything at all, whether a feeling, an attitude of mind, a psychological mood, a phenomenon of nature. . . ." Poetics of Music

Closer to our own time, the Special Research Interest Group (SRIG) of MENC has acontinued interest in affected response. See Music Education Research, An Anthology from the Journal of Research in Music Education, 1998.

Finally, it must be conceded that instruments and ensembles have historically changed their pitch with no performer/audience outcry. C minor tuned to B would unlikely cause an uproar. Choral conductors often don’t hesitate to drop or raise the pitch of an a capella piece if it will better suit the sound or tessitura of the singers.

Maybe Alex will figure it out.

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Radio? So, Who'sListening?

It can be argued that a sign of our time is a lack of responsibility and leadership. Decisions are too often made from polls and bottom lines. This is evident by business decisions made by those classical radio executives who cannot see further than spread sheets with declining numbers.

WETA-FM in D.C. is among the more recent stations that have decided to drop classical listening. Diana West, writing for the Washington Times, is “on the mark” replying to the station executive who was quoted, “It is painful, but my job is to steward this public radio station in the best possible way," Daniel C. DeVany, WETA's vice president and general manager, said. Ms. West then observes, “This was a new one: The general manager was making it sound as if it were in the public interest for public radio to "steward" classical music right down the drain.… Call it decline, call it a trend, but don't call it stewardship. Because what the classical fade-out tells us more than anything is that the "custodians of public taste" have left the building.” (Washington Times 03/04/05)

In Pittsburgh, the Post-Gazette reports that Pittsburgh's non-commercial classical music station, WQED, just wrapped up its winter fund drive, with seriously disappointing results. Station officials pointed out that that almost no one is making any money playing classical music on the radio these days. (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 02/22/05)
Is that a prognosis?

Current states, "News programming is much better than classical music at raising money to keep a station going. A listener-hour of NPR news may generate twice as much listener income and much more business underwriting income as classical or jazz." (Current 02/16/05)

These are discouraging items that can be heard all over the country. But, if we tune in to the stagnant stuff that is broadcast on most of these stations, it’s little wonder. And many stations have low power with a broadcast area of 45 miles ( +- ) with airless pockets within that. Others have announcers that can’t speak music. Some have both these and other detriments. If these go down the drain, who cares? No one is listening anyway. Most classical radio has become muzak.

Without citing where she got her stats, Pam Dixon writes, “ More people than ever are listening to classical music, and the audience is much broader than once thought. It's not just the elite listening to classical music stations; it's everyone from teen-agers doing their homework to teachers driving home from work” (Radio Guide Vol 1 No. 9 ). Pam, there is a difference between hearing and listening. One requires attention. What is needed, more than anything else, is adventurous programming that will smack a listener to attention. Ditto orchestra concerts and their declining audiences.

It must be added that everything in the world doesn’t have to pay for itself. How does having a baby pay for itself? A student is “worth” $3,340 to a school board? Does a new TV pay for itself? We can list the cost of everything but are dumbfounded by their value. Really true for the arts.

A yet to be written history of business in classical music should reveal how we got into this mess. The decline is one of leadership and responsibility to the value of music. The consequent station decline is merely a reflection of that lack.

Friday, March 04, 2005

Batons and Balance Sheets

Dear Reader, I’m still struggling with this blog page technical stuff. Sometimes it just doesn’t do what it promises. Please be patient during my learning phase.

My last (and first) post dealt with key symbolism and while it was quite clear to me then, it took a note from Alex Ross, and later, in one of those incomparable moments of dazzling insight, to really muddle it. To make it brief, I didn’t consider the too obvious fact that we each hear differently. That fact deflated my thesis, but also tossed the often accepted “list” of key characteristics, such as noble, deathly, ethereal, etc. that are attached to keys- as soon as we ask, “as heard by whom”? Given that, there is no logical extension to perfect pitch either. Nobody mentioned it, but what about “keyless, non-tonal”, or “atonal” music? Well, the scenery was interesting, but I was driving too fast. Let’s take another trip.


Conductors and the Orchestra Business

St. Louis. More and more orchestras are hiring conductors for non-musical desiderata. I was living in St. Louis teaching theory, conducting, and orchestration as an adjunct professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis (UMSL) during the time the SLSO was searching for a new conductor. In April 2002, Hans Vonk, who had been suffering from Lou Gehrig’s disease, stepped aside as music director, shortly resigned, and died in August, 2004. The search for a replacement began in Summer 2002.

So, what did they look for? - someone who could get along musically and personally with the orchestra and management; someone who was experienced, preferably young, and could project a feeling of energy and enthusiasm-traditional stuff; but equally important, it had to be someone who would participate in the St. Louis community. It took almost three years before they signed David Robertson to a three year contract. “In today’s symphony environment it is vital to have a music director who brings a multitude of qualities to lead an orchestra…. I know he will become very active in this community and will be a tremendous ambassador for St. Louis.” said Randy Adams, SLSO President and Executive Director.

What does that mean? Well, aside from conducting, it means raising money for the orchestra from arts and business groups, being visible at community events, etc. But, a key requirement was that the conductor was to be a baseball fan and would attend the games and root for the St. Louis Cardinals! I’m not making this up. No one said how many Cardinal players are required to attend SLSO concerts.

Chicago. A few miles north, in Chicago, Daniel Barenboim decided that he would rather dedicate his time to music than to fund-raising and other extra-musical duties, and resigned. As you might expect, the management is looking for a conductor who, in addition to the musical responsibilities, will raise money and appear to be a model Chicagoan.

“…Beyond being a superior conductor, a fine musician and a strong leader who's respected by the orchestra, he or she should be thoroughly familiar with how American orchestras function in a changing social and economic landscape. And the next music director should be willing to help the organization stump for funds, a role Barenboim has declined to play but one that has become essential.’" Chicago Tribune 02/27/05- Bravo, Mr. Barenboim.

These examples are clear admissions that orchestra management, there and elsewhere, is unwilling or incapable of doing its job and are redefining the role of a conductor-who is becoming a music director and assistant to the executive director. And, like administrators in every facet of American life, these businessmen have somehow become the baton wielders.

Mr. Ormandy, please stay at rest.

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

key symbolism

What-another music blog site? Well, this one hopes to be different from the others-not that I’m dissatisfied with them. It’s just that I want to express myself on some issues and knowing my peculiar mind, they might be interesting to other musical readers. I don’t intend it to be a regular daily/weekly blog. But, when I have something on my mind, I’ll post it.

Within the past two weeks there have been allusions to the emotional connection to certain keys. Alex Ross started it with his review of Ladu Lupu’s CD of Brahms’ Op.117 , when he wrote, “There is a certain symbolism in the key structure of this piece. The "A" section is in E-flat, which is Beethoven's "heroic" key, the key of the Eroica and the Emperor. …But the middle section is in E-flat minor, which is for many composers the key of death.”

There was a quick follow-up in TheFredosphere: Alex Ross restarts the key character discussion. Alex identified E-flat minor as the key of death, so I rushed to my own key classification table to find out what I think about it. Some keys I can describe clearly: I know E minor is the key of loss, remoteness, loneliness, and nobody is ever going to talk me out of that opinion. Other keys I find harder to express concisely, and E-flat minor is one of them. Sure enough, on my list I chickened out and made a lame joke instead of describing it (where I referred to it enharmonically as D-sharp minor). Looking at the related keys, I see I called C-sharp minor is "desperate" and G-sharp minor is "really desperate." I suppose I could extrapolate from my own list and align my opinion with Alex's at the same time by calling E flat minor ‘suicidally desperate.’”

To be sure, this isn’t a new discussion. Berlioz, the super Romantic, writing about the violin, provided a description for every key and wrote that certain instruments such as the C clarinet, had distinct emotional characteristics. Many persons have attached certain characteristics to, say, Bach’s Bm, or Beethoven’s EflatM Archduke, or Chopin’s Csharp minor.

However, in my view, this is problematical if we view the development of pitch in relation to keys. The sound of the pitch D and its scale formation is contingent on its vibrations per second. If my piano drops a semitone, I only think it’s D (unless I have perfect pitch. More later). It is vibrating D flat.

We have to know that A440 became standard pitch only in 1939. Prior to that there was no agreed universal pitch standard and orchestras and instruments all tuned variously in different parts of the western world. As late as 1885 Vienna adopted 435.4, in 1880 Steinway in New York tuned to 436, but in London Steinway tuned to 454, while Erard tuned to 455.3! In 1877 Chappel tuned to 455.9 and in 1834 the Vienna Opera adopted A436.5. Imagine what that did to instrumentalists who performed in concert with the piano. In Beethoven’s time Broadwood’s C fork was 505.7, a semitone lower than today. Even in the same city pitches varied. In 1811-12 Paris, A was 427 at the Grand Opera while the Conservatoire used 440. During the 18th century and earlier the tunings were even more varied.

So, if FM at 440 is heard as pastoral today, what would it have been to Handel, whose personal fork was tuned to 422.5? Bach, like all Baroque composers, frequently had to transpose parts due to different tunings of organs in different churches. Would the characteristics then change? If the Bm Mass actually sounded closer to Bflatm, or Cm, would the symbolism change? Would it be heard or felt differently?

Perhaps it’s only visual. Six flats on a stave do look lugubrious, and they probably put string players in a bad mood, while they smile at two sharps.

Then there is the matter of those poor souls who have “perfect” pitch. I wonder if anyone had it before 1939? This gift may have been called “imperfect” then. Anyone have more on this?