Gatti Berlin Phil : French Modernism Honegger

“Masterworks of French Modernism”, the title of Daniele Gatti’s concert with the Berliner Philharmoniker. Debussy La Mer, the key piece that opened new horizons, a magical work which, like the ocean keeps changing, revealing its depths in good performance. “God is in the detail” said Gatti in the interval interview, explaining how the arc of a performance is built upon many layers of detail.  The term “Impressionism” is a tag that’s stuck because it does describe the idea of creating a whole made up of tiny cells of pure colour.  Impressionist paintings shocked viewers because they seemed to shine from within, because each stroke of paint seemed to glow with inner light.   Now, perhaps The Shock of The New has worn off with millions of reproductions on coffee mugs, t shirts and so onBut in music, every good performance is new, an original recreation in its own right.    Daniele Gatti is too good to do routine, and with an orchestra as good as the Berliner Philharmoniker, there was no way this performance would fail.  There are so many brilliant La Mers around that we’ve all heard better, but also even more that are infinitely worse, and that’s something to be glad about in a world where mediocrity is increasingly prized over excellence. Not a “coffee mug” performance by any means, even if the real revelations on this occasion came in Honegger and Dutilleux.

Arthur Honegger’s Symphony no 3 and Henri Dutilleux Métaboles have both been part of the Berlin Philharmonic’s repertoire for some years. Simon Rattle conducted Métaboles as recently as 2013, with more or less the same musicians.  Although much of Dutilleux’s best work lies in miniatures and chamber pieces, Métaboles  is scored for large orchestra.  It flows over five movements each wiuth a distinctive personality : not variations but a series of developments, characterized by meticulous detail – a kind of refined embroidery.  To borrow metaphors from painting, Pointillism, as opposed to Impressionism.  Gatti’s approach is softer grained than Rattle’s, which may be more authentic but which might appeal to the already converted than to those coming new to the composer.  There is a powerful Dutilleux lobby, so influential that it could demand chapters on Dutilleux in books about Messiaen.  A bit petty, since both composers are very different indeed, and there’s no need to play silly status games. Better to absorb the music on its own terms.  A few years ago, I attended a Dutilleux recital at the Wigmore Hall (read more here). The composer, then aged 92, was present, enjoying himself hugely because Jan Pascal Tortelier’s father was a close personal friend.  Afterwards, my friend and I had a long dinner, leaving close to midnight. And who should we see but Henri Dutilleux, walking back to his hotel around the block. We waved. He beamed.

Herbert Karajan conducted Honegger’s Symphony no 3 (Symphonie Liturgique)  with the Berliners in 1969, so long ago that it’s pointless to compare.  Whoever uploaded the performance to YT knew what they were doing by illustrating it with a drawing by George Rouault. Connections to painting again.  No pretty pointillism for Rouault : his work is marked by ferocious dark outlines, defining the images within . The colours in his famous series of paintings of Christ seem to glow like stained glass even though they are oppressed by savage framework, which is utterly appropriate.

Written in the winter of 1945/6, Honegger’s piece deals explicitly with the horrors of war, and the challenges of a new era. The Dies Irae with its ferocious outcries, expresses anguish.  Rouault’s suffering Christ, depicted in sound.   Honegger, being Swiss was a neutral in occupied France, but no less involved with what was going on around him.  The second movement, De profundis clamavi, is a slow, but not peaceful meditation. What must we do that to counter violence and hate ?  Slower, more amorphous figures, long lines that seem to float on a stream of mysterious detail.  Gatti’s unhurried attentiveness works well: we cannot afford to gloss over these complexities. This is the dark soul of the whole symphony.  The movement concludes with intense outbursts from the brass, angular shapes against the horizontal keening in the strings. The last movement, Dona Nobis Pacem, doesn’t, however, “grant us peace”. Instead, it moves in the form of a solemn procession, lit with violent alarums from brass.  One could visualize a cortege marching at night,  the darkness broken by malevolent flames, whipped by turbulent winds. Obvious connections with Honegger’s masterpiece Jeanne d’Arc au Bûcher written in 1938, when Honegger was well aware of the threat posed by Hitler.  Joan of Arc stands up to invaders, but is martyred.  As the flames rise round her, though, she sees visions of saints and angels, and the voices who lead her return at last, taking  her up to heaven. Peace, of a sort, is achieved but only through confronting evil and suffering : no avoidance, no prettying up.  Honegger’s Symphony no 3 isn’t just a masterwork of modernism but a powerful document of how music can inspire the mind and soul.  Please read my other work on Honegger and especially on  Jeanne d’Arc au Bûcher by following the links below and on the right.

Original Source: Gatti Berlin Phil : French Modernism Honegger

Manic Depressive Schubert ? Der Musensohn

Manic depressive Schubert ?  Der Musensohn D764 op 92/1, a case in point.  Listen to the pounding piano, Schubert’s own instrument, through which he “spoke” without words.  Note the frantic, driven pace, the repetitive figures, tearing along as if driven by some unnatural, manic force.  Such rhythms occur frequently in Schubert. Babbling brooks, for example,  and merry strophic verses. But as any thoughtful reading of Die schöne Müllerin would suggest that the babbling is anything but cheerful.  Whether that brook is a malevolent force or simply a mirror through which the poet works out his  turbulent  emotions, the brook symbolizes something more complex than bucolic landscape.

“Durch Feld und Wald zu schweifen, Mein Liedchen wegzupfeifen,”, through fields and woods, I canter, piping my little song”. Cantering, one foot lifted up the other on the ground, like a prancing horse. Though the muses’s son doesn’t stand still, his movements are controlled and purposeful, like the rhythm of dance. That’s why “Und nach dem Takte reget, Und nach dem Maß beweget Sich alles an mir fort.”  The idea of dance is, I think, critical, since the Muses were often depicted dancing together. ll the arts, united in communal expression.  Thus the pace of this song : fast, and sprightly, but not undisciplined or the dance will collapse into chaos. Although the tempo is fast, it evokes a steady pulse, the very pulse of life that reinvigorates Man and revives Nature after a hard winter.

Lovers are lolling under Linden trees (symbols of sleep and enchantment) but when the Nuse’s son passes by, presumably invisible, “Der stumpfe Bursche bläht sich, Das steife Mädchen dreht sich
Nach meiner Melodie”. Note “stumpfe Bursche”, a kind of bucolic oaf who acts by instinct.  The Muses’s sdon is driven, his feet have wings. The piano evokes delightful diversions, but always returns to the basic, forceful mission. But is the Muses’s son happy ? The punchline “Den Liebling weit von Haus”. He is the favourite son, but driven far from home.   Goethe knew Greek mythology well enough that the sons of the Muses didn’t have happy fates.  It may or may not be relevant that this song was written in December 1822, when Schubert may well have become  aware that his health could not be taken for granted.

“Ihr lieben, holden Musen,Wann ruh ich ihr am Busen Auch endlich wieder aus?”  You dear, sweet Muses, when can I at last find rest in your embrace?  The dilemma of parental love : kids have got to grow up and find their way.  Some performances of Der Musensohn are  so swift that that the piano seems in frenzy, driving the singer almost breathless  Manic, perhaps, but better that than anything too stolid, which misses the element of whirlwind dance.  Today a friend sent me an old favourite, where the bright, fleet footed energy is balanced by Classical elegance. but does not disguise the existential sadness of the Musensohn’s predicament.

Original Source: Manic Depressive Schubert ? Der Musensohn

How I can help, if I visit your school

A piece of mine will be played in the spring at a university. (More later on that.) The conductor and I were talking about how I might be there for the performance.

AlaskaI suggested a visit to the school, to do some of the speaking I’ve often done. Here are some things I suggested. Which, needless to say, I can do anywhere.

Speak about the future of classical music

Of course I do this all the time. Some things I talk about:

  • We all know that classical music is in trouble, but the exact nature of the data isn’t well known. I can clarify it.
  • The changes in the field are more important than its troubles. They offer hope for the future.
  • Because of this changes, classical musicians and music students have many new opportunities. Time to go out in the world, and find your audience!

Building a career 

I do a lot of consulting on this. I can talk to students about how they can brand themselves. And about how to promote themselves, with specific advice about their websites, their bios, and about email they write to pitch projects they want to do.

Finding your own audience

This overlaps with the two other topics. But still it’s distinct. How do you identify the people who’d be likely to like what you do? How do find them, and reach out to them to tell them about you? Once you’ve got them interested — once they come to hear your performances — how do you keep them interested, so they keep coming back?

I can do these things as lectures, or (which I like better) workshops. In a workshop, I talk less, and get the students to talk more.

I can also do career counseling one on one, or in small groups. I’ve done that on school visits for faculty as well as students.

So invite me to visit your school! I love working with students.

Contact me for more info.

And, I should add — I can also talk with the school administration, about curriculum change, and about how to give the school more presence on campus (if you’re part of a university) or in your community. 

Original Source: How I can help, if I visit your school

The most inspiring conference…

…that I’ve ever been at…

This was the DePauw School of Music 21Cymposium, held the weekend before last. I gave the keynote talk, but…later for that. What inspired me about this event wasn’t anything I said, but who I said it to: an audience of classical music changemakers.

And, even more, the other presenters were inspiring. Like my friend Sarah Robinson. Someone who’s built a new kind of classical music career, starting with playing classical music in clubs. And who knows club gigs inside out, so much so that she wrote an essential book on how to do them.

(Full disclosure: I wrote the introduction. But only to support Sarah and the book. I get nothing if you buy it.)

Sarah talked about her career. How she’d been a classical flute player, doggedly learning her orchestral excerpts. Until she realized that didn’t make her happy

So what else could she do? Her career is the answer…an ensmeble that plays club dates in LA, session work there, concerts she organizes, plus classical gigs. She’s happy. Wouldn’t want another life. Though of course her conservatory training didn’t teach her to have a life like that.

And then…

mike-block-blogMike Block! Cellist. Plays in the Silk Road Ensemble, has a crazy project where he records the Bach suites in the bathrooms of major concert halls (really). Invented the Block Strap, which lets him play the cello standing up, the instrument strapped to his chest, becoming just about part of his body.

Came out on stage at DePauw, said he was going to play “an international piece.” Launched into one of the Bach suites, radiant playing, moving all over the stage, almost levitating, the music levitating, too. Joyful musicmaking.

“That was a piece by a German composer,” he said, “based on a French dance, played on an Italian instrument.” And then he went through everything the cello is made of, and where the material came from. All over the world.

Which was fun, but more than fun, because it let classical music be what, in the end, it is — not some creation high on a mountaintop, butt one of the world’s musics, taking its place alongside the others.

Mke talked about his career. Conservatory. Not fun. Then how he freed himself. With one key point — his cello technique never clicked in, he said, until he learned to improvise.

But maybe the most astonishing…

…presentation was by David Wallace, head of the string department at the Berklee College of Music. Berklee: the place you go to learn pop, jazz, record production. But they started getting interest from classical string players, who wanted to go to college for violin or cello, but didn’t only want to play classical music.

Berklee, quick on the draw, beefed up its string program. Got David to run it, a perfect choice — classical violist and composer, folk fiddler, rock player, much, much more

He first showed a video I’d seen before, about the program. Starts with a harpist, who’d always wanted to play jazz. He went to Berklee. He plays jazz now.

But then David told us something…well, truly astonishing. At Berklee, all the string students can and do study with all the string faculty. Who teach all kinds of music, so the students learn all kinds of music.

Teaching and learning strings becomes a community enterprise. David hires Simon Shaheen, an oud virtuoso (who also plays jazz and much else). Now students from the Middle East come to Berklee. And join the fun! Everyone now can play Middle Eastern music with one of its leading performers. And the Middle Eastern players, of course, can join in everything else.

David’s never had so much fun in his life. Oh, and Mike Blocck teaches there, too.

What this means…

I haven’t drawn any morals in what I’ve said, because the conclusions are obvious. The conservatory education we’re used to (and which many of us went through) has its merits. You learn something.

But you learn one thing, and — against the larger canvas of music — it can be limiting. A new generation breaks free of that.

And, as I’ll say in another post, the conservatories — almost with a sigh of joy and relief — are starting to follow.

I’ll put the full text of my keynote up here later on, plus a link to a video, when DePauw makes one available.

Original Source: The most inspiring conference…

Max Brand’s Höllenmaschine


Some men are fossils from the day they are born,  but not Max Brand (1896-1980).  Here he is, in his 80’s demonstrating his synthesizer, which he built in his 60’s to create music out of abstract electronic sound, for which he wrote several abstract, electronic pieces,starting in his 60’s.  The machine  was assembled and exhibited in Vienna, where it still exists, and is still played.  Electronic music would have come naturally to Brand, given his fascination with modernity and mechanical processes. His best-known work, the opera Maschinist Hopkins (1927), of which I’ll write more later, typifies the spirit of the age, influenced by Futurism, jazz, film and experimental art.

Brand didn’t invent electronic music, though, as it was well in gestation even in the 1920’s with Edgard Varèse who was experimenting with new sounds  in the 1920’s and whose Poème électronique was the sensation of the World Fair in 1958, influencing Xenakis, Ligeti, Stockhausen  and a host of composers since.  Below a clip from a 2009 performance of Brand’s Ilian IV (1974) played on Brand’s own machine.

Original Source: Max Brand’s Höllenmaschine

September 18th ! Along the Songhua River

Billboards in North China in 1947 juxtaposing two realities : consumer fashion goods on one side, and an ad for the film On the Songhua River on the other.  Passers by are rushing past. They don’t know that Communism is just around the corner. The film On the Sungari River (the old westernized name for the Songhua) was made almost immediately after the Japanese surrender in North China, almost literally before the embers had finished burning on the battlefield, which gives the film a poignant authenticity few movies attain. It is certainly not to be dismissed as mere propaganda.  Real people lived in real times like this.  We must not forget.

A young girl called Niu-er lives in a village, lovingly epicted by the camera.  Suddenly strangers appear : soldiers on horses, brutalizing peasants into submission. It is September 1931, and the Japanese have invaded. Fourteen years of war will follow, tens of millions will become refugees, China will never be the same again. Nui-er’s parents are murdered (the killing of the mother particularly distressing). The girl and grandfather flee, but soon grandfather dies, entrusting Niu-Er to a lad from their native area,  “You’re going to have to marrt one day”, says the old man !so make the most of it”.. Eventually Niu-Eer’s husband finds work in Japanese operated coal mines, under notorious conditions of slavery conditions. This mineral wealth was why the Japanese invaded North China. The area is still the powerhouse of modern China’s industrial economy.  There’s an accident, many miners are buried underground.  Posters appear, inciting rebellion, but many of the peasant workers are illiterate. The guards break up the demonstration but the workers fight back, though they’re helpless against guns.  Some of the miners, including Niu-er and her husband escape into the snow, to be rescued by partisans. In the final scene, the partisan band walk along the Songhua River, no longer frozen but carrying floes of ice swiftly out to sea.

The film is based on an even more famous song “Along the Songhua River” (松花江上) an art song by composer Zhang Hanhui, which immediately became a smash hit, immortalized now as a patriotic song, heard in many manifestations, and still extremely popular today. How many art songs enjoy that success ?

My home is on Songhua River in the Northeast. There are forests and coal mines. There are soybeans and sorghum all over the mountain. My home is on Songhua River in the Northeast. There are my fellow countrymen and my old parents. September 18, September 18, since that miserable day, September 18, September 18, since that miserable day, I’ve left my homeland, discarded the endless treasure. Roam, Roam, the whole day I roam inside the Great Wall. When can I go back to my homeland? When can I get back my endless treasure?”

Hence the chorus “September 18th, September 18th,”  a date engraved on the consciousness of manyt generations, being the start of the 1931-45 war.  Below tow contrasting versions:

Original Source: September 18th ! Along the Songhua River

The Ingredients of beautiful phrasing

In the course of three piano lessons, spacing, shaping, voicing/balance, grouping, harmonic rhythm analysis, relaxed breathing, singing tone and pulse, etc. were resonating interdependently through beautiful phrases. And with the introduction of two minor scales as a springboard to the repertoire segment, the SPACING of notes, without anticipation or anxiety with a lightness of being dimension, (think “clouds under the arms”) encouraged a limpid expression of horizontally floating notes in legato. (smooth and connected)

Because a step-wise progression in D-Sharp minor (contrary motion) required a preparatory BLOCKING phase that encouraged Note GROUPING, as opposed to up/down, single note-note vertical playing, the student could transfer this particular awareness to her Chopin Waltz in B minor, Op. 69, No. 2. The Relaxed breathing aspect of playing scales without a temptation to grab, squeeze, lunge at or ANTICIPATE NOTES, complemented expressively rendered, poetic lines that permeate Romantic era compositions. (The SINGING TONE as the underpinning)

A video evolved as a synthesis of ideas that arose from an initial exploration of SPACING that enlarged upon itself as various elements of phrasing flowed together in harmony.

Original Source: The Ingredients of beautiful phrasing