Monday, January 23, 2012

Music marathon

The Rubin Institute of Music Criticism has been going on this week at Oberlin College. It's a new creation of the Conservatory of Music, funded by Holt publisher Steve Rubin, bringing undergraduate aspiring writers about music, nationally-known big-paper critics and regional critics together around a quartet of big-name performances. It's a strange mix, a competition (for pretty big money) combined with a writers' workshop and a music festival. Not all blended in the wintry bowl, but for me it's been more tasty and substantive fare than the upcoming Super Bowl. I have to say, though, that I'm not happy about teaching students to write by dangling a big ($10,000) prize in front of them. I'm not wild about the prize performance competitions, either, but they're well established in music circles.

The students, 10 of them, have been studying music criticism this fall at Oberlin with regional critics, Don Rosenberg of the Plain Dealer (and president of the Music Critics Association of North America) and my colleagues at, Dan Hathaway and Mike Telin. This week they were joined by visiting critics and writers:  Alex Ross (New Yorker), Anne Midgette (Washington Post), Heidi Waleson (Wall Street Journal), John Rothwell (formerly New York Times) and Tim Page (Annenberg School at USC).

The content of the week came in two flavors (three actually, but I didn't go to the afternoon panels): lectures by the visiting critics and major concerts each night, part of the venerable Oberlin Artist Recital series.

The students' reviews of these concerts, due at 8 am the next day, were published next day on the Institute website, and was a pleasure to watch them work in the hot light of public scrutiny. You can read their work online.  There was also a prize for the best review from the audience, and the best of these were posted as well.

As readers of this blog know, I like to write about music. In fact, I review concerts regularly for I'm not officially involved in the Institute, and I'm not reviewing the concerts individually, but I do have some thoughts about the music after this unusual experience of three concerts in a row (there were four, but after spending Saturday afternoon at the MET HD "Enchanted Island" [about which more in another post] I couldn't manage getting to the fourth, which may well have been the best: the contemporary ensemble ICE).

I heard, on successive nights, a very large orchestra (Cleveland), a solo pianist (Jeremy Denk), and a baroque band (Apollo's Fire). What follows are two possibly grumpy maxims about programming music.

1. Program for the hall you're playing in. Here, the hall was Oberlin's Finney Chapel. It holds 1376 people. The acoustics are warm and pretty consistent through the hall.

Cleveland (led by Welser-Möst) played pieces that packed the stage: the first three parts of Smetana's Ma Vlast, "Orion" by Kaija Saariaho, and Shostakovich 6. (The picture, by orchestra photographer Roger Mastroianni, is of another concert of the orchestra in Finney, with, I'd guess, about 80% of the forces they had on Wednesday. It already looks pretty full.) The Saariaho used quadruple winds and tons of percussion, and of course the strings were at their usual dozen or so per section. What were they thinking? After 45 minutes of Smetana's unabashed and unrelenting Big Sound, we got some 20 or 25 minutes of the even bigger sound of the Saariaho (which was an interesting piece, by the way, full of haunting moments). The effect, in Finney, was ear-numbing. There aren't a lot of nuances in the Smetana, anyway, but by intermission, it was almost impossible to think of nuance. Severance Hall is larger (2100 listeners) and the stage is much more capacious: in both respects, it handles the Big Sound and makes it cycle around the hall. (My cousin the acoustician could explain this much better than I). Fortunately,  Shostakovich works in smaller acoustic units -- a few winds here, a few brass there, the violas alone  . . . and he works by counterpoint, which I'm not sure Smetana ever thought about, and with counterpoint you get two or three different things to listen to, each at a more reasonable volume than the Moldau rolling its romantic waves through your skull.

Apollo's Fire needs a smaller hall for many of the nuances to be heard. The size of the hall seemed to push Sorrell and her players to play at the top of their dynamic range pretty much all the time, with the result that there wasn't room for relaxation of the sound. Jeannette Sorrell also wrongly chose to play her harpsichord version of Vivaldi's "Summer" which was barely audible even in the twelfth row. Violins carry: she should have asked concertmaster Olivier Brault to play it. (Oddly, you can hardly hear the harpsichord in the video of this piece on AF's website.)

It will sound too much like Goldilocks to say that Jeremy Denk on the big Steinway was just right, so I won't say it.

2. Program a concert that you care about and make sure we know why you care about it. Let's start with Jeremy Denk. He opened with two Bach Toccatas, and it was clear from his playing and from the program notes (written by Peter Laki but apparently channeling some of Jeremy's own concerns) that these were meant seriously, as introductions to a program that explored several things: the "toccata" nature of piano music -- the intentional touching of the keys; the intricacy and unsettling quality of Bachian counterpoint, whether in Bach or later composers; and the almost guilty joy of virtuosic intricacy. Those concerns and explorations opened up further in the pieces that followed, three pieces of increasing depth: Beethoven's Eroica Variations; Ligeti's Etudes, Book 1; and the Beethoven Opus 111 sonata. Denk gives the listeners lots of ways of understanding what he cares about, among which are: his seriousness and focus at the keyboard; his articulate comments during the concert (only once, but very apt in helping us understand the Ligeti and its place in his thinking about piano music, Bach, and Beethoven); and his wry and insightful blog (Think Denk).

It was helpful that Apollo's Fire gave us a program note that suggested why the tempest theme was important. Sorrell wrote that she is interested in the possibilities of explicitly transgressive Baroque music (storm scenes, chaos descriptions, madness) in opening up performers (listeners, too?) to "transcend the confines of the notes on the page." Excellent! it's something we all should do. "This repertoire," she continues, "is fertile ground for all of us in challenging ourselves to play sentences, phrases, gestures, and emotions -- not to play notes." (I question whether, apart from reading the note, listeners caught this theme and this intention.)  Disconcertingly, for this challenge, Sorrell also programmed a pretty sentimental modern "Baroque" style piece on the nineteenth-century hymn, "For the Beauty of the Earth"; if you are exploring and specializing in Baroque style, you might well stick with Baroque style.

The Cleveland Orchestra program notes suggested little that would help us see what these pieces meant to Welser-Möst, or what he thought they might mean to us. Nor did his conducting, which as many noted, was detached and almost aloof. The conductor doesn't need to be Dudamel in order to cue us to at least some of what he cares about.