Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Less a-Pekka

This past weekend I went down to Chicago for what promised to be an amazing concert: A new premiere of Esa-Pekka Salonen, himself conducting, sandwiched between three stellar twentieth-century masterworks: the perennial La Mer, the underplayed Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta, and Stravinsky's often ignored Symphonies of Wind Instruments. But the Stravinsky was dropped, and Salonen never finished the piece, instead presenting a new-ish work from Arvo Pärt. All in all, a disappointment for me.

Pärt's symphony (his fourth) is the sort of generic, muddled work that just sort of sits there. Pärt has a knack for plaintive, contemplative music, but half an hour of this ruins the effect. The music moves in string gestures at a lugubrious tempo, all in unison, with a smattering of chiming bells and sharp little xylophone clusters and harps. It's gauze, but so much of it that it feels suffocating. There are some nice moments that evoke the sort of shimmering, swelling gestures of Vaughan Williams's Fantasia on a Theme By Thomas Tallis. And a lot of Pärt's earlier music has a nice mastery of texture and shape, the lucid clarity of his vocal writing, the pulsing energy of Tabula Rasa. But this work is one where less would be more, like Morton Feldman, or more would be more, like John Adams. Instead, it's in a sort of purgatory, waiting.

It doesn't help its case that it came after the Bartok, another work scored for strings and percussion, but one that's far more effective at utilizing the orchestration. Hearing it live (I think for the first time!), it really comes out how brilliant the orchestration is, from the folksy strumming in the last movement to the piano four-hand segments, and of course the frequent "night music" idea that Bartok returned to so often, with those eerie tipmani glissandos.

By the time La Mer arrived, the orchestrations seemed almost decadent, but it makes for such a fine pairing with the Bartok, since both are so imaginative, rhythmically playful, with the taut construction of Bartok balancing the freer form of the Debussy. And the performance Salonen delivered was near perfection: crisp, clean layers of rhythm, beautifully shaped phrases, and again that orchestration. I especially love the third movement, when everything drops out except that high violin and the low bass, a sudden expansive stasis amidst the swirl of everything else.

One final thought- another person remarked to me that he loved the Pärt because he could see himself wanting to listen to it on repeat. Giving it some thought, that's exactly my problem: it already feels like it's looping the same ideas and gestures. I can't listen to music like that. He listens to songs obssessively. I mean, one song heard hundreds of time within a month. I like mulitple listenings, but I need space around them, space to contemplate them, and I can't constrain my listening like that. Actually, I prefer rediscovering pieces. Unless they suck.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Georges who?

Office hours seems as good a time to blog as any (since I've finished my AMS abstract and reread the notable passages in Audiotopia, but still feel uncompelled to do real dissertation work). Pair that with a gray, snowy, freeze-your-face off day, the Brahms second piano concerto, leftover spiced pumpkin squares, and wireless, and there's little reason to leave anyway.

Continuing my look back at 2008, the highlight of the art museums was Europe. I'm sad I don't get to much here. I went gallery hopping in KC over the summer, I went to the National Portrait Gallery and Hirschorn museums in DC, and the Met in NYC, but there's little that has stuck with me.

Europe is a feast of architecture, certainly, and I thrive off that. My favorite stop, The Museum of Transport in London, kept me enthralled for hours with tales of early trains, angry letters about subway discomfort, failed plans, old advertisements and maps, and models to play with. The two Tates and the Art History museum in Vienna were packed with masterworks, and the Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin had a Joseph Bueys exhibition, the sort that seriously turn me off (best example: a video of a man slicing sausage while a TV covered in felt plays. Yeah, okay, moving on), though some of it was sort of beautiful in its rusty bleakness but doesn't really sustain a full exhibition.

But my favorite was a small retrospective of Georges Braque. A colleague/competitor with Picasso, Braque helped to create cubism. His canvasses are a bit more orderly, there's a holdover from his pointillist days in the small designs he favored drawing. But whereas Picasso remains a fixture of art history, Braque disappears, despite the fact he painted through the 1960s. And you begin to see why. Picasso kept reinventing himself. Braque continued to work in a cubist mode, creating these paintings that looked like collages, with off angles, and an appealing pallette of colors that looked like once-bright-now-faded, olives, deep yellows, dusty peaches. It reminded me somewhat of another George, that from Act II of Sunday in the Park, the way the paintings seemed to rearrange ideas over and over again, but never really coming up with something new. And then, at the end of his career, two paintings. One a simple drawing of two birds, white and black, on pink and yellow, the other a pointillist drawing of an empty beach. Out of nowhere, a new direction, and a reminiscence of the old. And that's the end. It's the sort of fascinating one-man show, tracing a once-great artist's descent into mediocrity, and yet rescuing him somehow from obscurity. There is a haunting beauty to the elaborate collage-like paintings, an elegaic quality to the seemingly bright colors, and the feeling of familiarity that accumulates after all those canvases. Rarely does a retrospective feel that insightful or necessary.

I hope in 2009 to see more art, to hit my favorite museums, and to see at least a couple shows, works, galleries, or something that I hadn't seen. And to learn something new from those I know.

Thursday, January 8, 2009


The term resolution is a funny one for the music geeks. Resolution is a point of rest, something already achieved, which makes the idea of a New Years resolution a little funny. I'm not exactly going to make resolutions this year, but I do appreciate a moment to take a look at where I am and where I am not.

Let's look ahead first:

This semester I'm back in front of students, and it's a nice feeling (well, not so much today since I'm battling a cold, and talking for an hour and a half on a poor night's sleep and runny nose isn't ideal). I'm teaching about 20 students in a seminar on Sondheim, and I'm anticipating a great semester. The challenge is dealing with a wide range of experiences, both in terms of repertoire knowledge and basic music knowledge. The less challenging part is that I'm not dealing with anyone who doesn't want to be taking the class. The class is also in a far-off and confusing building, but I'm managing. I went in this morning and got keys, saw things, and then went over my material again. I'd forgotten how fast it goes.

I'll also be taking a film historiography class. No comments as of yet.

And finally, I'll be continuing revisions on the dissertation proposal. In other words, continuing my attempts to woo my professors into going along with my ideas. What I'm liking most at this stage is the bigger thinking, formulating a take, listing arguments and counterarguments, questions and suppositions, then throwing it on the table for advisors to continue to examine. What I don't like is explaining it to my relatives, the heaviness of all those books, people who recall books I want, or the elusiveness of certain broad points I want to make (or at least the words with which to make them).

Other things to look forward to:
-summer, hopefully spent partly here, partly at dance camp

-SAM, my favorite conference. Denver this year, an airport I've not had luck with in the past. But hey, there's a hostel nearby for me (anyone else want in?)

-Local conference in February. Usually a good time. You've all applied, right?

-Hearing back from people to whom I have given abstracts. It would be nice to do at least one thing this year.

-Follies this weekend.

-Susan McClary's talk; dissertation workshops; all the other yet-to-come music talks. Free lunches, and usually something eye-opening, and possible socializing after.

-CSO concert in January: Salonen is conducting and has a new piece on the program. Also, the ever-rewarding La Mer, alongside two severely underperformed 20th century gems: Stravinsky's Symphonies of Wind Instruments and Bartok's Concerto For Orchestra.

-My first pre-concert talk, before the much-anticipated ST. Louis Symphony concert here: Sibelius 5, Wagner, Zimmerman, and Adams (the last one, Guide to Strange Places, is unfamiliar and not available. Not available, that is, unless you know people who used to work for Boosey and Hawkes. Sweet! Thanks Jack!). Several other UMS concerts too, including Andras Schiff's last couple Beethoven sonata concerts, NY Phil doing Rite of Spring and Pictures.

2009 looks good. I'll do a series of looking back at 2008 posts in the coming days.