Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Larger and Smaller

Two recent news pieces tell us how classical music performance is rapidly changing. The first story tells of the success of revamped 19th century monster concerts, reminding us again that some things never really change. The second is a bit different-a signal that real change is upon us. Or is it revamped 18th century concerts?

On July 9, Carolyn Webb wrote on the remarkable success of conductor Raymond Gubbay, who also heads a franchise called Classical Spectacular(s) that popularizes classical music. The concerts have become an international success. Two concerts at Melbourne's Rod Laver Arena will be among the 30 Classical Spectacular concerts Gubbay will produce this year in Europe and Australia.

The formula is: take the world's most popular classical pieces - from Nessun Dorma to the Swan Lake Finale, Blue Danube Waltz and the Can Can theme. Engage a 90-piece symphony orchestra, 100-piece choir, military band and soloists to perform them. Package it with synchronised lasers, lights and fireworks. Put them on stage in an arena packed with 10,000 people, and, and….ZOUNDS! It’s Jullien and Gilbert resurrected! Maybe they didn’t really die. Shades of Yanni, Andre Rieu, and the Three Tenors!

Gubbay says the concerts introduce classical music to mainstream audiences, (Jullien’s almost exact words) who often go on to patronize the likes of the Royal Opera House. A capacity audience of 5000 turned up to hear the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Band of the Welsh Guards, and the London Choral Society perform a concert of classical music’s greatest hits. Singing, humming and clapping along was encouraged. A second show was added, then two more. This year, Royal Albert Hall will host two, six-show Classical Spectacular seasons. Manchester and Birmingham have been added to the calendar, as have Dublin, Scandinavia, Germany and Switzerland. There are two concerts in Sydney and plans for other Australian capitals next year.

The show does not have a chronology or theme. The conductor makes light banter with the audience, but information on the pieces and composers is confined to the program. Asked why the formula has been so popular, Gubbay says: "I think it's just struck a popular chord with people." Classical music can be fun, and a pleasure to listen to. It's just a great, fun night out. It's not stuffy, it's not starchy . . . we're just saying, come and enjoy yourselves." – words we read often these days from classical music marketers. Will there come a time when the great classics are performed by only a handful of great orchestras; the remaining survivors will entertain the masses? Maybe. But other things can happen too. Read on.

In a July 10 piece by Lawrence A. Johnson, the classical music writer for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, he discusses the musical aftermath of the folding of the Florida Philharmonic Orchestra. After playing its final performance in 2003, many predicted that the organization's demise would prove a fatal blow to the musical scene in South Florida. But, only two years later, far from a death knell, a number of new chamber orchestras are flourishing. What has occurred is a downsizing of the local classical scene and the repertoire being heard – chamber orchestras playing lighter scored Classical and Baroque works, rather than large orchestral music and late Romantic symphonies.

Classical audiences in South Florida are mostly retirees who have the interest, time and disposable income to attend performances. Most of them would rather drive 10 minutes to hear a local chamber orchestra than drive an hour to hear Michael Tilson Thomas and the New World Symphony. Access and convenience are a bigger draw than headline names and musical significance.

These chamber-sized groups can also be more adventurous in their programming. For example, while the 31-member Boca Raton Philharmonic Symphonia will perform works of Beethoven, Prokofiev and Mozart in its inaugural 2005-2006 season, there is also music of Aaron Jay Kernis, George Walker, Charles Ives, Antol Dorati, and a world premiere by Boca Raton composer Stuart Glazer.

I said long ago, that expensive ensembles will fold, but it is not the end of classical music (Applause and the Dinosaurs). Rather, a transition to dynamic smaller ensembles, fresh repertoire, composer stimulus, and new audiences will occur. Exciting times!

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Aoxomoxoa, Or, Gay is "American" is Gay

Do American gays compose classical music in a recognizable American “feminine”style? Read on.

Scott Cantrell wrote a book review/column for the Dallas Morning News on July 2 where he first refers to the Dallas Symphony Orchestra and the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra and their July 4 programs, Fanfare for the Common Man, Lincoln Portrait, Outdoor Overture, and Billy the Kid, then reviews a book that’s been out for some time that focuses on Copland and other homo/hetero sexual composers, masculine and feminine if you will; the thesis being that American gay composers have composed “signature American music.

Mr. Cantrell writes, “Ironically, these (July 4th) celebrations of outdoorsy, big-sky Americana, and of WASP home and hearth, were created by a homosexual Jew from Brooklyn… Copland was one of a group of composers who, starting in the 1930s, cultivated a new nationalist – or at least populist modernist – style. And most of them were gay, including Virgil Thomson, Samuel Barber, Leonard Bernstein, David Diamond, Lou Harrison, Paul Bowles, Marc Blitzstein and Ned Rorem (who) helped define in sound what it means to be an American.”

At this point Mr. Cantrell shifts to excerpting from Dr. Nadine Hubbs, a University of Michigan professor whose book, The Queer Composition of America's Sound: Gay Modernists, American Music, and National Identity (University of California Press, 2004), explores how these composers, “together with certain cultural trends, created those distinctively American sounds.”

If you are unfamiliar with Prof. Hubbs book, what follows is a selective synopsis. By the 1930s, she says, “tonality and atonality had acquired sexual identities, even if they weren't yet widely expressed as such. Homosexual composers probably felt freer to defy the dictates of the avant-garde priesthood precisely because they already felt alienated from the dominant culture. Having less compulsion to prove macho bravery, maybe these gay men felt freer to cultivate a nurturing ‘feminine’ side.”

Mr. Cantrell comments: “They wanted to create an American music recognizably new, yet rooted in history, something fresh rather than frightening. Call that "feminine" if you will; it reached enthusiastic audiences that would never warm to the asperities of Elliott Carter.” Dr. Hubbs continues, “As the country worked its way out of the Depression and into World War II, Copland penned his classic essays in Americana: Billy the Kid (1938); Fanfare for the Common Man, Lincoln Portrait and Rodeo (all 1942); and Appalachian Spring (1944). Thomson got on the Americana bandwagon even before Copland, with his scores for the ballet Filling Station and the films The Plow that Broke the Plains and The River. Copland was a more sophisticated composer, but Thomson, also a hugely influential music critic, was there earlier.

"It was a masculine decade, during the Cold War," Dr. Hubbs writes. "We were quite threatened by the Soviet scare, so we were flexing our muscles. Our musical culture was masculinized by the influx of all those Germans, whose aesthetic ideals were of that sort that Copland and Thomson had arrayed themselves against. But the softer side of modernism flowered in American operas of the 1950s, in works by gay composers including Barber and his lover Gian Carlo Menotti and the heterosexual Robert Ward and Carlisle Floyd. It's still very much in evidence in Mr. Floyd's 2000 opera Cold Sassy Tree.”

Mr. Cantrell observes: “Dr. Hubbs doesn't much venture into more recent decades, but it's still true that many of the most successful classical composers are gay or lesbian, among them John Corigliano, Lowell Liebermann and Jennifer Higdon. By contrast, most of the pricklier modernists, including Charles Ives, Elliott Carter and Roger Sessions, were straight. The openly homophobic Ives chided hostile listeners to stand up and take dissonance "like a man." Indeed, Ives seems to have set up a kind of socio-cultural war between the edgier modernist composers, most of whom were straight, and the "softer" modernists (Copland et al.), most of whom were gay.

“The divide wasn't, and isn't, definitive, but it's surprising how easy it is to line up a dichotomy. By the middle of the 20th century, Schoenbergian serialism was the heterosexual high road. Mathematical rigor made music respectable to the mid-century cult of scientific progress. "Experimentalism and dissonance, precisely because they didn't taste so good – they were a more bitter medicine – were seen as more masculine and bold and daring," Dr. Hubbs says. "Tonality was feminized." Copland and Thomson, conversely, sparked a new vogue for studying in France. "Even now," she says, " 'French' has a connotation of queer, hyper-elegant, sissy." And their pivotal teacher there wasn't a man, but Nadia Boulanger.

“If the more aggressive modernists such as Mr. Carter and Milton Babbitt were the hunter-gatherers of modern music, Copland and company were the nurturers. If one side of the divide was intellectual, the other was sensual. One camp favored abstract internationalism, the other, personalized nationalism. One posited scientific argument; the other cultivated the elegant epigram.”

“Dr. Hubbs tends to interpret this divide as a matter of sexual politics”, Mr. Cantrell opines, “and that certainly played a role. But she also points out the exceptions, the avant-garde camp including Henry Cowell, who was jailed for sodomy, and John Cage, longtime lover of choreographer Merce Cunningham. The ranks of populist modernists included the heterosexual Roy Harris, Walter Piston and William Schuman. And the development of populist modernism in music had much to do with economic and political developments that get short shrift in the book.

"Copland's music is the echo of the American flag. No wonder we'll be hearing a lot of him this (4th of July) weekend,” concludes Cantrell.

It seems to me that the argument flounders. To suggest that a certain idiom is somehow “American” is flawed. Open sonority? Wide chord spacings? Folk tunes? Athletic rhythms? These could be applied to any number of American heterosexual composers. And to suggest that it was Thompson and Copland who created this style is silly. OK, Copland has an identifiable sound. So does any other composer of worth.

Prof. Hubbs is riding the wave of a sexually obsessed society who will rally to anything that smacks of peeping -even of classical composers. Some musicologists, having exhausted their traditional research areas, have been delving into musico-sexuality. Anthony Tommasini thinks they are pioneers. I think they are academic opportunists who must publish or perish. So far the studies have proved little, but conjectured much. This book is an example. There is, as yet, nor will there likely be, a solid connection between the sexuality of a composer and the music. I reject out of hand the suggestion that music is somehow masculine or feminine, depending on its composer’s sexual preference. My pulse also jumps at the notion that a clique of gay composers (1930-1950) has defined “American” music.

The music remains. While biographical details can aid our understanding of a composer’s music, they can also take us into an intellectual quagmire. What’s next? Looking for references to androphilia in Copland's chamber and orchestral compositions? How about looking into Hubb’s work to see if there is a hidden, suppressed, or open code that might identify her as whatever? And what about critics or performers? Will an assistant professor soon write on Masculine Traits in the Later Performances of Three Scarlatti Sonatas As Performed by Mark Kroll? Can a gay properly interpret a straight “masculine”composition, say, of Ives? Oops! Ives wrote with open spacing sometimes. Maybe he too was an androphile. “This is unmusical, politico-sexual reductionism,” fumes Terry Teachout.

“…music moves us in powerful but indistinct ways. It's the one thing that cannot be analyzed or deconstructed for its expressive content, and thank goodness for that.” Tony Tommasini

Igor Stravinsky said that music expresses itself. “That’s why we love it, and never more so than in an age increasingly dominated by aesthetic politicians. It's too blessedly slippery for such misguided folk as Nadine Hubbs to put it in a box and nail the lid shut.” Terry Teachout.

“Gay or straight, black or white, male or female, the challenges are the same: try to understand and appreciate the rich musical values in the work itself, add a healthy dose of individual insight and interpretation, and then give it the most beautiful and intelligent performance possible. That is the responsibility of every performer, and what music is all about.” Mark Kroll (But not for musicologists like Dr. Hubbs).

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Mark Twain's Musical Family

Samuel Clemens, a.k.a. Mark Twain, has many more books written about him than he ever wrote*. He’s an attractive subject, who had a way of eloquently saying ordinary things in extraordinary ways; who led a life that is a magnet for biographers and graduate students; and it may be that his family has also been scrutinized, for surely I am only an interested reader-not a Twain scholar, because I didn’t know until recently that his daughter, Clara, was a singer of some repute and that she married the conductor of the Detroit Symphony. That was a surprise because I remember some of what Twain wrote about opera - and he didn’t disown her. Here is a well-known example:

“….To me an opera is the very climax & cap-stone of the absurd, the fantastic the unjustifiable. I hate the very name of opera - partly because of the nights of suffering I have endured in its presence, & partly because I want to love it and can't. I suppose one naturally hates the things he wants to love & can't. In America the opera is an affectation. The seeming love for [it] is a lie. Nine out of every ten of the males are bored by it and 5 out of 10 women. Yet how they applaud, the ignorant liars! …”
Notebook # 15, July - August 1878

How is it that we who may love opera still laugh at this? That’s Twain. But, it is likely that there were two Twains-one who treated his public which consumed such acidic and humorous remarks with relish, and the Twain who would be unfamiliar to his public, a Mr. Clemens who really cared for music and encouraged his children in their musical aspirations. We know he sang, played the guitar, and the piano. His brother, Orion, wrote: “Samuel Clemens had a pretty good voice in those days and could drum fairly well on a piano and guitar. He did not become a brilliant musician, but he was easily the most popular member of the singing-class.” Albert Bigelow Paine, Mark Twain: A Biography: The Personal and Literary Life of Samuel Langhorne Clemens, 3 vol. (1912).

Twain at the piano
with daughter Clara and friend

And, after an impressive recital by Stefan Czapka in Vienna, Twain revealingly autographed: “All of us contain Music & Truth, but most of us can't get it out.”

Aside from a piano and guitar Twain also owned an Orchestrella.

Mark Twain's orchestrelle.
Postcard from the Dave Thomson collection.
For more on the orchestrelle,
see related article in
Mechanical Music Digest

He was also a product of careful tilling by his wife Olivia. When they married he was somewhat crude, biographers write, but she was elegant and cultivated and slowly she softened and broadened her husband’s refinement. While “Livy” Clemens--from a refined, religious, philanthropic, abolitionist family--did ask her less genteel husband to give up some of his bad habits, letters show it was love--not badgering--that made him change.

Mark Hambourg comments wryly on Sam’s singing even at age 61: “Mark Twain used to keep open house in Vienna and musicians used to drop in for a meal. They were enormous meals, for artists are always hungry people. One day when I arrived, I heard an extraordinary noise, like a dog howling. I wondered if the animal was in pain and discovered it was Mark Twain singing one of the old Mississippi river songs."

Twain was also a close friend of Charles Ives' father-in-law, Reverend Joseph Twichell, who married not only Charles and Harmony Twichell Ives, but also Ossip and Clara Clemens Gabrilowitsch (Twain’s daughter). Sam’s sister, Pamela, was an accomplished musician and teacher of voice and guitar. Perhaps some future studies will tell us more about Twain’s musical proclivities.

Twain’s daughter, Clara, a concert contralto, was born in Elmira, N.Y., in 1874. She had a varied education while growing up, including home schooling; a year at a public high school in Hartford, Connecticut; and tenure at a boarding school in Berlin. At the age of 21, Clara was the only Clemens daughter to accompany Sam on his around-the-world lecture tour in 1895/96. At age 23 the Clemens family went to live in Vienna in order for Clara to study piano under the renowned Leschetizky. Although she would eventually give up piano for singing, she did meet her future husband, Ossip Gabrilowitsch, the Russian pianist, in Vienna.

Not much could be found concerning her vocal accomplishments, but the NY Times printed a favorable review.

WINSTED, Conn., Sept. 22.--Before a large audience in the Norfolk Gymnasium, Norfolk, this evening, Miss Clara Clemens, the daughter of Mark Twain, made her debut as a concert singer. A large delegation of the young singer's friends was present from New York and other places. Miss Clemens was assisted by Marie Nichols, a Boston violinist. Miss Clemens, who is the possessor of a rich contralto voice, was enthusiastically received. New York Times. 9.23.1906

In 1909, Clara invited Ossip to the Clemens home in Redding, Connecticut, to recuperate from an operation he had in New York. By October of that year the couple was married. The wedding took place in the drawing room at Stormfield, Twain’s country home, with the Rev. Dr. Twitchell , as officiating clergyman. The bride was attended only by her sister, Miss Jean Clemens, but her cousins, Jervis Langdon of and Mrs. Julia Loomis, wife of Edward Loomis, Vice President of the Delaware Lackawanna & Western Railroad, were also present.

Clara’s husband, Ossip was pupil of Anton Rubinstein at the St. Petersburg Conservatory and of Leschetizky. His debut was made in Berlin in 1896. He was well-known both as a brilliant pianist and as conductor of the Munich Konzertverein Orchestra, 1910-14, and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, 1918-36. Ossip died in 1936 from stomach cancer, at the age of 58.

Miss Ethel Newcomb of New York City, a friend of Clara, a prominent concert pianist and student of Leschitzky, played a wedding march as the bridal party entered the drawing room. While the ceremony was being performed, Sam Clemens was attired in the scarlet cap and gown which he wore when the Degree of Doctor of Literature was conferred upon him by Oxford University.

Twain was interviewed after the wedding and said: "Clara and Gabrilowitsch were pupils together under Leschetizky, in Vienna, ten years ago. We have known him intimately ever since…The wedding had to be sudden for Gabrilowitsch's European season is ready to begin. The pair will sail a fortnight from now. The first engagements are in Germany. They have taken a house in Berlin."

Among the other guests at the wedding were Richard Watson Gilder, Mrs. Gilder and three daughters, Mr. and Mrs. A. M. Wright of Boston, Mrs. E. F. Bauer and the Misses Flora and Marion Bauer of New York, Miss Lillian Burbank, Miss Marie Nichols, Mrs. John B. Stanchfield, Mr. and Mrs. Frank J. Sprague, Miss Foot, Miss Comstock, Miss Mary Lawton, Mr. and Mrs. Theodore Gaillard, Mr. and Mrs. Charles Hapgood, Mr. and Mrs. Albert Bigelow Paine, and Miss Ethel Newcomb, all of New York-a sparkling and distinguished array of musical and other guests indeed!

Several months after leaving for Europe to settle down, Clara and Ossip returned to Redding to Sam Clemens' bedside just four days before his death, April 21,1910. Clara became the sole heir to the Clemens estate, as both her sisters had already passed away. Caring for the Clemens’ estate became Clara’s lifetime occupation. After Ossip’s death Clara moved to Los Angeles. She remarried eight years later to another Russian musician, conductor Jacques Samossoud, and they moved to San Diego. In 1962, at the age of 88, Clara died in San Diego.

*Berkeley houses the world's largest collection of Samuel Clemens' manuscripts, letters and notebooks. Five full-time editors at the Mark Twain Project produce authoritative editions of Clemens' works. So far, 31 scholarly and popular books have been printed. The project aims to publish 70 volumes by 2010, the 100th anniversary of Clemens' death. And this is only Berkeley.

Saturday, July 02, 2005


The Texas Music Educators Association has turned down a request from a male student who wishes to perform as a soprano in a state competition, the Dallas/Fort Worth Star-Telegram (6.17.05) reports. (I hope the Star follows up on this story.)

A survey about classical-music critics released in May by the National Arts Journalism Program revealed what most of us have already suspected and may be yet another reason why classical music in America is in the shape it’s in. The survey, which was co-sponsored by the Music Critics Association of North America, took place between May and August of 2004, and 181 North American critics participated in it. The results tell us that:

· A majority of the critics are white males in their early fifties.

· More critics work as freelancers than not; 49 percent identify themselves as freelancers, and 47 percent hold full-time staff positions; more than 90 percent of critics feel that “it is [their] job to educate the public about classical music and why it matters.” (If "to educate" means Music Appreciation 101, which is so often the case, this is troubling. The heart of music criticism is a competent analytical review of a performance and/or the work itself. Beyond that, critics merely reflect their taste.)

· The topics they most enjoy writing about are orchestral music, standard repertoire opera, and chamber music; their least-favorite topics are pops and outdoor concerts, crossover music, and jazz. (Rather narrow interests I’d say.)

· Only 20 percent of reviews focus on works by living composers. One section of the survey found the critics relatively unfamiliar with many contemporary composers—too much so to rank their opinion of the composers’ work. (Doesn’t surprise me at all.)

· Opinions of contemporary music vary; more than half the critics surveyed felt that composers were not “breaking genuinely new ground these days,” although four out of five felt that “we can be proud of the new classical works that we have created in Canada and the U.S. over the past 25 years.”

· Younger critics—those 46 and younger—are more likely to be open to contemporary composers.

· The critics’ top five favorite historical composers are Mozart, Bach, Beethoven, Schubert, and Brahms; their top five contemporary composers are John Adams, Arvo Pärt, Krzysztof Penderecki, Ned Rorem, and John Corigliano. (I wonder if they picked these from a list? )

In a recent blog Midori reflects that historically, Western music is a recent phenomenon in Japan and that she-well let her say it: “…I grew up thinking (and feeling) that music was Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, even Stravinsky, Bartok, and Prokofiev. …All other genres of music were exotic and mysterious including jazz and Traditional Japanese music. For me, a Schubert lieder was much more "normal" and "understandable" than the infamous Japanese song "Sakura, Sakura." (AJBlogs) 06/22/05. (They make better cars too.)

SUBWAY MUZAK-A METAMORPHOSIS OR, ANOTHER WAY TO MARKET CDS? - Buffalo NY teens have been hanging around subway stations raising hell and authorities finally hit on a solution: pipe classical music into the stations. The Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority is airing the three B’s to hasten youths toward their destinations. Sad to note, it works. A senior at Bennett High School says, "It's irritating. We want it to go away, It's old people music. It makes you want to get away from it." If you can imagine the Brandenburg #2 in a subway - well, it would likely make me want to get away from it too-and I’m “old people” kid!

They took their cue from other cities. Toronto began filling subway stations with melodies in the mid-1990s after a string of fatal assaults involving gangs of youths. And the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority fills targeted stations with Boston Pops-style light classical tunes to battle youth crime, and the Montreal Metro system employs opera inside troubled subway stops. The New York Port Authority uses operatic strains to roust troublemakers and the homeless from its properties, and in Vallejo, Calif., classical music flows from speakers along downtown streets to deter drug dealers and other villains.

But, Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra reps applaud the NFTA saying, "We want as many people as possible exposed to classical music, so we are pleased to hear about this program. It's a plus for commuters." …We are preparing an assortment of our CDs to send to the NFTA . . . We get sales and great reviews from all around the world. It would be wonderful for them to help increase our CD sales locally." (These are heartbreaking signals in our society.)

GOOD NEWS (almost)-FOR A CHANGE – Detroit may be getting a classical radio station for the first time in eight years, the Detroit News reports. The Detroit public schools and Detroit Public Television shook hands, and the television station will take over the schools' WRCJ 90.9 FM and broadcast classical music during the day and jazz at night. The station will operate at the Detroit School of the Arts and serve as a training facility for students. There has been no classical station in the city since WQRS 105.1 FM switched to rock in 1997.

Last week, ASCAP named the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra as winner of its annual Adventurous Programming Award for orchestras with annual budgets in the $5-$13 million range. They give this award to orchestras that prominently feature music composed within the last 25 years.

Conductor Christopher Seaman said, "Playing new music isn't always good for the box office," says RPO Music Director "At the same time, we know people will like the music once they hear it. It's just a challenge to get them in the concert hall to hear it in the first place. But it's important to keep playing contemporary music because it makes the concert experience seem more vital."
(Bravo, Chris!)

The RPO TRIED to keep Rochester's concert life vital during the 2004-05 season by performing more than a dozen works by contemporary composers including David Diamond, the fine Rochester composer who died June 13.

The San Francisco Symphony, under Michael Tilson Thomas has made adventurous programming its bread and butter, and they won first place for orchestras with budgets exceeding $13 million. The Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, led by Jeffrey Kahane, won first place for orchestras with budgets less than $5 million.

(It’s refreshing to read that someone on that level is doing something positive to assist contemporary programming and performance, instead of carping about how bad everything is.)