Opus Colorado

A Trio of Accidental Errors
March 25, 2016, 2:05 pm
Filed under: Commentary | Tags: , , ,

I hasten to point out to all of you who read this that I am still taking a hiatus from reviewing. There are many reasons for this pause in my writing, not the least of which is the extensive remodeling of our house. But, the reason I am taking a break from the hiatus (a hiatus from the hiatus?) is the series of misstatements, the demonstration of lack of caring about serious music as an art, and the attempt to make an art form “fun.” Unfortunately, these statements have come from the local classical music radio station, KVOD, and they have finally reached the point where I feel the necessity to say something. The statements, or misstatements, referred to have reached the point of absurdity; however, they do not come from all of the classical music hosts. I stress that point.

It amazes me that some of the classical music hosts can impugn the art that gives them their job. It is most certainly true that some of these individuals are not trained musicians, though some profess, in their biographical statements on the KVOD website, to performing in orchestras, or having some other association with music. One has to wonder at the quality of instruction they received.

As I have said in other articles, we live in a culture that puts music in the arts and entertainment section of newspapers. And art has never had anything to do with entertainment. I have been a pianist for seventy-two years, and I never had the self-image of being an entertainer, nor did I ever feel that I had to sell anything at any performance.

It is true that most classical music announcers are trained only in radio journalism and not in music. Some time ago, it became apparent to me that the public assumes that classical music announcers have some degree of training in music, or at least have some deep affection for music. The fact that they may not have extensive music training is certainly not a blot on their record. However, I can remember many classical music announcers from my youth, who took the time to do even the most cursory research, let alone in-depth research, before they made their announcements on specific pieces of music they were playing on the air. Unfortunately, that does not seem to be the case today. There are certainly those on our local KVOD station who do know what they’re talking about, and surely exhibit the perspicacity to check their facts. They also demonstrate a love for the art of music. However, there are those at the station who, as I said above, want to make classical music a “fun thing,” and who believe that everything they read on the CD liner notes as the gospel truth. They look at music as a form of entertainment, and I can assure you that there is a big difference between art and entertainment. How can anyone describe the work of van Gogh or Marc Chagall or J. S. Bach or Igor Stravinsky as entertainment?

Some of their statements are so far-fetched that they are recognizably absurd. It is therefore easy to assume that these announcers feel that humorous comments attract attention to the station and to classical music. However, it also demonstrates the impoverishment of their own imagination in understanding music as an art, and what art is.

KVOD generates occasional announcements proselytizing classical music. I do not know who writes the announcements, but certainly the announcers who read them should double check their accuracy. A few months ago there was an announcement concerning the music of Mozart; and it makes the ridiculous claim that it was the movie Amadeus that brought classical music to the mainstream, which is an absurd thing to say. Classical music has always been in the mainstream. The host did state that the movie was full of errors, such as Salieri poisoning Mozart, however she did not mention that Salieri and Mozart were close friends, and that Mozart’s children took piano lessons from Salieri. She made a gross error when she said that Mozart died of a heart attack, which he did not. He died of an anaerobic infection similar to gangrene. This fact has been known for 12 years or more (please read Daniel Leeson’s book, Opus Ultimum). We know this, because individuals, including his oldest son (who was nine years old at the time), commented (later in life, as an adult) on how the room was so full of the foul odor of the infection, and Mozart’s body was so swollen, that no one could even approach Mozart on his deathbed. Constanze was the only one who did so.

Another classical music host stated that classical music was full of “oddball terms.” She stated that the use of the word “accidental,” which is a term (for the symbol) used to indicate a chromatic alteration in a scale, was an “oddball term” because the composer used it on purpose. The term, accidental, has been in use for centuries. This classical music host professes to perform in an orchestra, so it would seem that fact indicates some knowledge of music must be present, no matter how slim. I would suggest that she purchase the Harvard Dictionary of Music by Willi Apel and look up at the term Accidental.

The same classical music host expressed great surprise over a musical form known as a Trio Sonata. She said she just couldn’t understand this “oddball” term because it was really written for “… now get this… four instruments and not three.” It truly was hard to tell if her expression of surprise was sincere, or if she was trying to make this seeming confusion humorous. In any case a Trio Sonata comes from the Baroque period of music. There are two upper parts which are written in a similar range, and a lower part which is the supporting figured bass. It is supporting because it outlines the harmonic functions that the composer wishes. In addition, the figured bass, which is often written for cello, also includes a harpsichord to assist in the harmonic outlines. Therefore, it has four parts, but the top three parts are the ones that give the Trio Sonata its name because the presence of the harpsichord, in this period of music history, was assumed.

There is absolutely nothing oddball about this, particularly if one has gained intelligence by learning an instrument, and even a small amount of music history. It is hard to tell if this classical music host was attempting to be humorous or was honestly puzzled. This kind of humor does not attract attention to the art of music. It only succeeds in denigrating it. And, in addition, it makes the host look foolish. Therefore, I am puzzled as to who writes these blurbs.

As I said above, I fully realize that classical music announcers are usually trained in broadcasting first and foremost. However, if they care about the art of music enough to have a host position on the radio, then they should have enough good sense to not sound condescending and silly. If they are truly puzzled, they should do a little research, rather than assail the art.

The frightening thing about all of this is that these individuals may be cavalier in their attitudes toward music as an art, because, for whatever reason, they may never have experienced music, or had the ability to place themselves in the mind of the performer or composer. Sometimes, it almost seems as if they are suffering from boredom. And boredom can certainly be a symptom of the fact that we are out of our comfort zone. It sometimes seems as though they are afraid to react to classical music with their hearts just as we do when we meet other forms of art. Since they can’t stand in front of the stage and jump up and down screaming, they just aren’t sure how to behave. Or how to listen.

It’s that terrific time of year again: Colorado Ballet’s “The Nutcracker”
November 5, 2014, 4:20 pm
Filed under: Commentary

Colorado Ballet presents 54th annual production of The Nutcracker
Made possible by presenting sponsor KeyBank

Colorado Ballet will light up the stage with The Nutcracker, November 29 through December 27, 2014 at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House. This holiday tradition features classic choreography after Marius Petipa paired with Tchaikovsky’s score performed live by the Colorado Ballet Orchestra.

This marks the 54th year that Colorado Ballet’s The Nutcracker has been a part of Colorado’s holiday celebration. The Nutcracker features memorable characters including Clara, the Nutcracker Prince and the Sugarplum Fairy as well as dazzling costumes, onstage blizzards and larger-than-life sets.

The Nutcracker is the best way to kick off the holiday season and it is a must-see for children and adults,” said Colorado Ballet Artistic Director Gil Boggs. “This enchanting adventure will transport audiences to a magical world of awe and wonder. It doesn’t matter how many times I have seen The Nutcracker, every performance is still magic. That is why nearly 50,000 people see our production each year.”

In addition to Colorado Ballet’s professional Company and Studio Company on stage, more than 60 students from the Colorado Ballet Academy will perform as polichinelles, party children, soldiers, angels and sugarplum attendants.

“Year after year, Colorado Ballet’s presentation of The Nutcracker continues to be one of Colorado’s most popular holiday traditions,” said Boggs. “We encourage people to purchase their tickets early because last season, we sold out 19 of the 25 performances and the year before, we sold out 18 of the 24 performances. It is still as popular as ever!”

Performance Schedule and Ticketing Information for The Nutcracker:

Saturday, November 29, 2014 at 1 p.m.
Saturday, November 29, 2014 at 6:30 p.m.
Sunday, November 30, 2014 at 1 p.m.
Saturday, December 6, 2014 at 1 p.m.
Sunday, December 7, 2014 at 1 p.m.
Thursday, December 11, 2014 at 7:30 p.m.
Friday, December 12, 2014 at 7:30 p.m.
Saturday, December 13, 2014 at 1 p.m.
Saturday, December 13, 2014 at 6:30 p.m.
Sunday, December 14, 2014 at 1 p.m.
Sunday, December 14, 2014 at 6:30 p.m.
Thursday, December 18, 2014 at 7:30 p.m.
Friday, December 19, 2014 at 7:30 p.m.
Saturday, December 20, 2014 at 1 p.m.
Saturday, December 20, 2014 at 6:30 p.m.
Sunday, December 21, 2014 at 1 p.m.
Sunday, December 21, 2014 at 6:30 p.m.
Monday, December 22, 2014 at 6:30 p.m.
Tuesday, December 23, 2014 at 1 p.m.
Wednesday, December 24, 2014 at 1 p.m.
Friday, December 26, 2014 at 1 p.m.
Friday, December 26, 2014 at 6:30 p.m.
Saturday, December 27, 2014 at 1 p.m.
Saturday, December 27, 2014 at 6:30 p.m.

Ticket prices range from $25 to $155. To purchase tickets, visit http://www.ColoradoBallet.org or call 303-837-8888 ext. 2.

About Colorado Ballet
Established in 1961 by Lillian Covillo and Freidann Parker, Colorado Ballet is a non-profit organization celebrating 54 years of presenting world-class classical ballet and superior dance in Denver. Under the direction of Artistic Director Gil Boggs, Colorado Ballet presents more than 50 performances annually. Colorado Ballet enhances the cultural life of Colorado through performances of the professional company, training at the Academy, and Education & Outreach programs. Visit http://www.coloradoballet.org.

Sanya Andersen-Vie
Public Relations and Marketing Manager
Colorado Ballet
New address: 1075 Santa Fe Drive
Denver, CO 80204

Phone: 303-339-1630 | Fax: 303-861-7174

Please donate to the New Colorado Festival Orchestra for the music of Théodore Gouvy
July 3, 2013, 9:10 am
Filed under: Commentary

The New Colorado Festival Orchestra was founded by Dr. Horst Buchholz, Dr. MeeAe Nam, and me, to champion the serious music of obscure, but excellent composers, and to promote the music of contemporary composers. We propose a continuing series of such concerts bringing to our audiences works from Colorado, the US, and around the world. We will also make every effort to bring our music directly to the community at convenient venues, as well as establish an outreach program to the public schools.

As our first endeavor, we are presenting six concerts of the music of French composer Théodore Gouvy.

In the late 1980s, I began to concentrate on giving four-hand and two piano concerts. In 1996, I discovered the French composer, Théodore Gouvy (1819-1898). His music for piano was almost entirely for four hands, and for two pianos. In addition, he was a remarkably prolific composer of exceptional music in every genre from piano works to symphonic literature. The New York Philharmonic commissioned works from him in the late 19th century.

In France, the performance of his Requiem Mass organized by Sylvain Teutsch and performed by the Lorraine Symphony Orchestra and the Choeur de la schola de Vienne, attracted the attention of the Gouvy family. They gave one of the family mansions belonging to Theodore’s brother, Alexander, for the Institut Gouvy, and provided it with scores, letters, and souvenirs. In 2006, I was made an Honorary Member of the Institut Gouvy.

In addition to translating his biography, I have begun organizing a series of six concerts of Gouvy’s music that would re-expose Gouvy’s music to the American public. The concerts will include songs, piano sonatas, string chamber music, woodwind chamber music, Stabat Mater and a symphony, and his Requiem Mass and a symphony. The venue for these concerts will be the KPOF Hall in Denver, and the musicians will come from throughout the United States and Italy.

This is the only effort of its kind in the United States, and most of the music presented in the six concerts will be United States premieres. The cost of the Gouvy Festival concerts is $190,000.00. At the conclusion of the Gouvy Festival, the New Colorado Festival Orchestra will remain in existence in order to perform the music of rarely heard composers, and music of the avant-garde. Will you please help us with a donation of at least $100.00? It will enable us to place this important and beautiful music of Théodore Gouvy before the public once again, so that we may help narrow his connections to the great composers of the nineteenth century. Here is the link to the NCFO website: http://newcoloradofestorch.org. If you click on Donate, you will be able to watch the video on KickStarter and make a decision concerning a donation. The different levels of donation are listed on KickStarter along with the corresponding rewards.

Thank you very much for considering a donation.

Yours truly,
Mr. Robin McNeil
Professor of Piano and Musicology, retired

Rap and Language
June 12, 2013, 8:39 pm
Filed under: Commentary

In 2010, in Sacramento, California, an experimental rap group was founded by Stefan Burnett (his stage name is MC Ride), Zach Hill, and Andy Morin (his stage name is Flatlander). They call their group Death Grips, and one of their works, which I heard, is entitled Get Got. The name of the album in which this work appears is “The Money Store,” and the cover art depicts a dominatrix with a leash, which is attached to an androgynous male (a male with breasts), on whose chest is carved “Death Grips.” Of course, that is sure to attract the attention of many of today’s youth.

According to the Urban Dictionary, Get Got is a term used to indicate the death of an individual, as in, “Get out of my face, before you get got!” It can also indicate a connection to pregnancy, as in, “I won’t get got, I’m on the pill.” And, within that frame of reference, it can also indicate a young man who is in need of a girl, as in, “What’s a guy got to do to get got in this town?”

Death Grips’ debut album was called Exmilitary, and NBC New York.com called it a very “… intense, and dark listen.” I have not heard that album, or anything from it, so I can’t address that review, but Death Grips’ one piece that I did hear, Get Got, is anything but intense or dark.

The video of Get Got, which you can find at http://www.last.fm/music/Death+Grips, features MC Ride sitting in a chair in the middle of the street and performing Get Got while doing all of the hand motions that rap seems to require, though in this case they are more arm motions than hand motions. Apparently, Mr. Burnett has not read the Rappers Handbook by Escher and Rappaport. According to that publication, “… hand motions are used to emphasize certain words and give a visual element to a listening experience.” It goes on to say that hand gestures can pump up the crowd at a party (And, just think, in my youth I used to dress nicely to do that) or they can be used to visually cut down an opponent. And, most noble of all, hand gestures should often be used to help the performer concentrate and “stay flowing.” The best rappers, it seems, use the hand gestures so that they seem to be an extension of the verse. But, I must say, that it does appear that hand gestures are entirely necessary to emphasize the words, at least in this piece, which I have heard, because one cannot understand the words at all. What do you suppose ever happened to diction? At the risk of exposing the fact that my imagination might be considered moribund, I always thought that when one sang or recited poetry that the words were the most important. There was, however, one word which was more carefully enunciated than the others, and reappeared often in the refrain stanza of this rap. That word was f—. I am also fairly sure, but not positive due to the poor diction, that I heard the word s—. Other than those two words, I simply could not understand anything else that MC Ride was saying. He also performed the poetry at one consistent dynamic level, and that was loud.

Since this is rap, none of the following elements of music are present except (in this particular album) for a synthesized rhythmic element:

1. Rhythm (beat, meter, tempo, syncopation)
2. Dynamics (forte, piano, etc.)
3. Melody (pitch, theme, conjunct, distinct)
4. Harmony (chord, progression, consonance, dissonance)
5. Tone color (range, register, instrumentation)
6. Texture (monophonic, homophonic, polyphonic, imitation, counterpoint
7. Form (binary, ternary, etc., though composed)

Rap is supposed to be poetry chanted to a rhythmic pattern. Some individuals do classify this as music even though it generally does not contain any of the elements of music, which are mentioned above, except rhythm. Since this particular work, therefore, cannot be classified as music, and since the words in this recording cannot be understood even though they are supposed to be of prime importance, what function does Get Got serve?

This album, The Money Store, has collected some very high scores from several reviewers. Jayson Green of Pitchfork Media gave the album 8.7 out of 10, and in so doing, said, “The Money Store is about as intellectual an experience as a scraped knee. But, it’s just as good at reminding you that you’re alive.” If Get Got is only useful to remind one that he/she is still alive, then why give such a high score. Why not explain that the main thrust of the work, the text, is virtually unintelligible except for a few expletives, and give it the low score that it deserves because the primary subject matter is missing?

Not long ago I taught a class of twenty-one graduate level students in Medieval music. I asked them what kind of music they listened to, and all of them, save one, said they listened to rap and to rock. When I asked them why they did not listen to serious music, i.e., Mozart, Mendelssohn, or Stravinsky, they said that rock and rap allowed them to listen without thinking. I certainly had to agree with that, because how can one think about what is contained in rap when the words cannot be understood.

So many of our youth today wish to avoid any kind of thoughtful contemplation. It certainly appears that they often do not want to confront their own serious thoughts, let alone the serious thoughts of others, because of the potential confrontation that those thoughts may provoke.

This is germane to rap and rock because, with such great frequency, the words cannot be understood, unless one reads the album notes. I do not own the album which contains Get Got, and therefore, I could not read the liner notes. I do not know if the words that I could not understand reflected the cover art portraying the dominatrix and the masochist, or if the words were simply benign.

In serious music, particularly in the Romantic Period, there was a genuine union between music and language when so many composers wrote songs. It was a true supremacy of the language of feelings over the language of fact, and one would suppose that is the direction that rap might take. However, there is nothing notable or noble in this particular work entitled, Get Got. As I have mentioned in other articles, Felix Mendelssohn even wrote a set of short piano pieces which he entitled Songs Without Words (the underlining of that portion of the title is mine). When he was asked about the meaning of some of his songs without words he replied, “The thoughts that are expressed to me by music that I love are not too indefinite to be put into words; but on the contrary, too definite.” He expected some mystery to be felt by the individuals who heard those pieces because, due to the expressivity of the music, one automatically begins to wonder at what the words could be, and how they might fit the music that Mendelssohn wrote. I would like to stress that even though the words are absent, the music is not, and it forces us to think about what might be.

There certainly is not any mystery that might encompass a thought process in Get Got. Because it is rap, there is no music, and because the words are unintelligible, they are absent as well.

If one is going to take something seriously enough to write about it, or to create it, why not take the medium, the language, seriously as well. Rap poets presumably have something to say, but when it is unintelligible, and when it is consistently filled with inarticulate colloquialisms used only for shock value, it only perpetuates a perceived lack of intelligence and artistry by many in the audience.

I have heard other adults say to me that rap poets write in that way to make it “appealing” to members of their own generation. If that is true, then I object to it more strongly than ever, because what it truly succeeds in doing is to strip away any kind of meaning that is important to their performance. If they do not dedicate themselves to their own words, how can they expect others to comprehend the significance and meaning of what they write?

I am fully aware that our current society needs an entertainment factor, and I certainly don’t object to that need. I do find it quite amazing that many of our youth seem to go out of their way to avoid art and music. Colloquialisms may be fine for private conversation, but including them in work that the authors consider important represents a lack of skill.

There have been many artistic movements in the past that have been considered “subcultures.” Wouldn’t it be wonderful if young people today would imbue rap and rock with an undeniable artistic merit, so that we could all step back and be awed by it in the same way that the public was awed by Impressionist painting, or Symbolist poetry?

The Excessive Movements of Musicians
June 6, 2013, 8:48 pm
Filed under: Commentary

I recently attended a concert of a deservedly famous violinist, Sarah Chang, whose movements, while performing, were so excessive that I wondered how she could perform at all. Though I have heard this violinist on recordings, this was the first time I have seen her perform live since she was about ten years old, and yes, she was a child prodigy. She is one of the finest violinists today. As I have written before, there is no question that all musicians must move when they perform or play their instrument.

While playing, she jumped up and down, and twice during the concert, she performed a three-step backward hop on both feet. This is while she is bowing her violin, and as far as I can tell there is no explanation or purpose for that kind of activity while one is trying to play the correct notes and phrasing. At the ends of phrases, she would raise her bow above her head and swing it in a full circle with her arm fully extended. When I saw this performance, she was performing a violin concerto which means that she was surrounded by other musicians which were seated in fairly close proximity. I point out that they had cleared a larger than average space for Ms. Chang, presumably to give her more room for her movements. Nonetheless, I was concerned that she would strike the music stand of the concertmaster. While playing, she would also bend over backwards so far that I considered she might fall down. It was extreme.

I point out that I have often seen violinists who don’t move at all, and seem reluctant to even move their bow arm more than four or five inches. The result is a sound that reflects no variation in phrasing or dynamics, and is devoid of any emotion. This, of course, is the opposite extreme. One does need to move.

The pianist Lang Lang is another example of an individual who is well-known for his excessive movements during performance. He leans back and gazes at the ceiling, swings his arm off the keyboard and behind him, clutches his heart with one hand, buries his nose in the keyboard, and occasionally swings his feet up underneath the piano. He does all of this while contorting his face, and rolling his eyes back into his head.

As I have stated before, movements and performance are necessary. Pianists must move because their thumb and their fifth finger are shorter than their three middle fingers. So a pianist is constantly traversing from the outer short fingers across the longer middle fingers. Every pianist has different hands: the fortunate ones have a great deal of meat on the ends of their fingers, and thus, can curve their fingers more. When a pianist curves his/her fingers, the long middle fingers and the fifth finger become equal in length. The ends of the fingers are where the tone comes from. When a pianist plays passage work that involves many black keys, then one must play with flatter fingers. Therefore, more movement is necessary to stay relaxed and to help reach the black keys. Pianists also need to make sure that the back of their hand is level with their forearm. In addition, they need to let their arms hang naturally from their shoulders. All of this helps to ensure that they will stay physically relaxed. Granted this is a very quick and not very thorough explanation, but movements beyond those mentioned in this paragraph are usually unnecessary.

Many pianists excuse excessive movement by explaining that they have read reports of how Franz Liszt used to move at the keyboard, and, indeed, there are cartoons that were drawn of Liszt in performance which show his hair flying and his hands very high off the keyboard. Before the performances of Liszt, Chopin, and Clara Schumann, audiences were accustomed to see keyboard performers move very little.

Prior to Liszt, Clara Schumann, and Chopin, the piano was the fortepiano, which was the precursor to the pianoforte. Its development was begun around 1700, but the fortepiano was not perfected until around 1750.

The pianoforte, which had just been invented in 1821 by Broadwood, demanded and allowed a new technique to play. Broadwood was the first manufacturer to use an iron frame. Other piano manufacturers followed suit. Due to the iron frame, the piano strings could be pulled tighter than on the fortepiano which was constructed entirely of wood. The result was increased volume, and increased sustaining power – if one held the key down, the sound continued for a longer time than on the fortepiano, and certainly on the harpsichord. No matter how hard one played a harpsichord, its volume would not increase or decrease because of its mechanical restrictions, which, by the way, were not intentional. It was, simply, that technology had not progressed to the point where hammers struck the strings, rather than plectra, which plucked the string.

The fortepiano had hammers that hit the strings, but there was no iron frame which allowed the strings to be drawn tightly. It was capable of increased dynamic shadings in comparison to a harpsichord, and it had a very mellow and lush sound. It was the first stringed keyboard instrument on which one could play legato, and it was an enormous change from the harpsichord even though the actual mechanism was still relatively primitive compared to a modern piano. In addition, there were limits to the speed that could be obtained when compared to the modern piano.

Because of the limitations of the harpsichord, one could not play louder or softer, so there was no need to move a great deal. One simply sat and played, moving only when necessary to help one’s fingers in difficult passage work. Using greater force to change dynamics accomplished nothing.

The fortepiano, with its newer technologies, was a great boon to performers, with its ability to allow them to change dynamics, and its ability to play faster. Composers such as Haydn, Mozart, Schubert, and Beethoven relished the new instrument.

Out of necessity, performers began to perform on the fortepiano because it produced more favorable results. By the time the piano with the iron frame was invented (Its name gradually became the pianoforte, rather than fortepiano, and eventually, just piano.), Beethoven was totally deaf, but nonetheless, partially realized its new potential. However, without his ability to hear, he never realized its full potential. Beethoven’s last Sonata, Opus 111, his Diabelli Variations, and his two sets of bagatelles, were written between 1821 and 1824. He came to the conclusion that the piano was an inadequate instrument, and concentrated on writing string quartets. Of course, there is the age-old question which will never be answered: what if Beethoven had not gone deaf?

Due to the above-mentioned improvements in piano construction, and its vastly increased ability in volume and expression, the piano attracted new performers and composers. In many ways, it is remarkable that composers and pianists alike discovered its potential so rapidly. Keep in mind that the technique required to play the piano progressed just as rapidly, especially because composers Chopin, Liszt and Robert Schumann were writing for the instrument.

Much has been made of Liszt’s “showmanship,” and the way his movements seemed exaggerated. I think much of this excessive movement was exaggerated in the press, and in the letters sent by concert goers to each other. They were unaccustomed to seeing a pianist move in order to draw increased dynamic range, legato playing, and accompanying phrasing ability, out of the instrument. They were also unaccustomed to attending a solo keyboard performance. Certainly, Beethoven and Schubert were the first to do solo recitals, but they were not as popular as they were to become. Chopin, Liszt, and Clara Schumann were inventing new technique all the time for the new instrument, and doing so quite rapidly. Clara Schumann and Franz Liszt were the first pianists to turn the piano sideways, rather than performing while facing the audience. Many people have ascribed this to the vanity of the performer, but they fail to realize that the full sound of the piano was more available to the audience when the piano was turned sideways and its lid opened.

Consideration of the “new instrument,” and its new abilities in creating sound, explain, in part, how increased movement is necessary in order to play it. There are many modern pianists who exaggerate the movements they make, in order, I think, to prove to some of the audience how expressive they are, rather than let the music provide the expression. Rachmaninoff, Horowitz, Rudolph Serkin, Sviatoslav Richter, and John Browning, certainly moved when it was necessary, but not to the extent that Lang Lang does. Rachmaninoff and Horowitz moved hardly at all.

There was a scholarly paper written and presented to the Society for Education, Music and Psychology Research, that, I believe, was presented to the University of New South Wales in 2012. It was written by Jane Davidson, and entitled Bodily movement and facial actions in expressive musical performance by solo and duo instrumentalists: Two distinctive case studies.

In the abstract of the paper, Davidson states that, “The first study examined flute and clarinet performers in both solo and duo settings. Whilst each player has a specific way of expressing musical goals through their bodily movement, there were features common to the woodwind instruments investigated. Detailed analysis revealed that, although many movements were possible, performers used only six basic expressive gesture types. The second study described a performance of the internationally celebrated pianist, Lang Lang, focusing on the relationship between musical effect, bodily movement and facial expression. Analysis also revealed extensive and striking use of combined bodily and facial expression, which was involved in articulating structural features of the music and the narrative of the work. Findings suggest the existence of a repertoire of expressive information used for the generation of expressive ideas, and available to the observers and music performers.”

Concerning the woodwind performers, Davidson states that, “… Yet the woodwind players in the study barely showed any expressions on their faces. One possible explanation for this is that, since they hold their instruments in or close to their mouths, the face is too occupied with the activity of instrument control.” That seems to me a fairly obvious conclusion, and I am not sure that it needs a psychology paper to determine that. I also point out that Davidson did exert an immense amount of effort placing cameras in just the right spot, and aiming at the faces, etc. Her comments, as a result of this study of the flautist and clarinetist were very clinical and to the point.

In her study of Lang Lang, a film was observed of Lang Lang performing one of his favorite composers, Franz Liszt. Camera positions were codified as front view close-up, rear view close-up, side profile shot, etc. The musical score was followed by an assistant who could read music, and comparison was made between content of the score and Lang Lang’s gestures. Admittedly, I read this forty page article hurriedly, but I was struck by the fact that Jane Davidson (I am not sure if she has a doctorate, or if this paper was leading to a doctorate) was thoroughly impressed by how the rapturous visage of Lang Lang so closely followed the score, and, therefore, must be assisting his emotion filled performance.

I found myself wishing that Ms. Davidson was more of a musician, because I think it would have assisted her in the revelations and discoveries made in this paper. I certainly agree that playing a performance on stage in front of an audience takes intense concentration, because one must remember every single note, rest, and phrase. One does not memorize simply by playing the piece so often that one’s hands know where to go. That is the first step, but it cannot be the only step. In addition, being able to concentrate helps one ignore the audience and thoroughly concentrate on the music. And, when one is concentrating so intensely, it seems that it would destroy that concentration, and distract oneself by excessively assuming different motions and facial expressions just to prove to the audience how wondrously expressive one is. I have seen some pianists move to such an extent, that I am sure it is artificial. I fail to understand how excessive movements translate into meaningful music.

Sadly, I know of some private teachers who, when they have a young student who emulates excessive movements they see adult pianists make, do not encourage the student to reduce the movements so that they can concentrate on playing. I have heard them tell the parents that the movements are “impressive” because they illustrate the artistry of their child, and they don’t want to harm the students “spirit.” Do not misunderstand me: I am not saying that movement is unnecessary. Only excessive movement.

I repeat: it seems to me that any movement that comes naturally and is a part of making music is not detrimental. On the other hand, if the movement is contrived, it is extraneous and requires an unnecessary mental effort, that, at the very least, interferes with the flow and the mechanics of making music. Most certainly, it is distracting to the listener, just as Elvis Presley’s movements were distracting, and just as all the guitar smashing in past rock concerts was distracting. However, there is always the consideration that the guitar smashing was an integral part of the act that surpassed the music being played.

There is a violinist who performs only classical music, and is, by all accounts, a superb violinist. He is Korean-American, but recently changed his name from Yoo Hanbin to Hahn-Bin, and now to Amadéus Leopold. He studied at Juilliard with Itzhak Perlman. In spite of his reputation as a violin virtuoso, he wears very heavy makeup, has a very tall Mohawk haircut, and often brings a set of stairs out on stage, and while he is performing, he climbs up and down the stairs. It is unclear to me how this adds to the art of a Vivaldi Violin Concerto or a Brahms Violin Concerto. It leaves me wondering if the trends in rock concerts, where there must be a “show” or exhibition to attract attention to oneself, has become more important than attracting attention to the music with one’s virtuosity. Judging by the photographs I have seen, his appearance and stage antics are so distracting that the music will be totally forgotten.

Brass and woodwind musicians cannot possibly do this kind of thing, because they would risk the danger of changing their embouchure to the point where they could no longer play.

What has happened to the expectation of going to a concert and listening to the music without having to watch antics on stage that have nothing to do with the music? One would hope that a mentor or former teacher would pull them aside and explain what a distraction it is.

There are so many young concert artists today who have remarkable ability. One would hope that the time spent learning to play their instrument, their hours of practice every day, their knowledge of the literature, and the ovation they receive after performing a serious concert in a serious manner, would convince them that they have arrived.

Shouldn’t serious music receive equal time?
May 26, 2013, 8:32 pm
Filed under: Commentary

A few weeks ago I attended a concert that was followed by a celebratory get-together at a pizza restaurant. The orchestra had done a fantastic job, especially considering that ninety-nine percent of the orchestra members were amateur musicians. Amateur musicians are those that, ordinarily, but not always, do not have degrees in music – or at least advanced degrees – but rather, play in community orchestras because they love music and enjoy playing. One of the orchestra members was accompanied by her son who was in his mid-teens, and had taken cello lessons for a few years. I asked him if he was going to attend a good music school when he graduated from high school, and make a career in music. Before he could answer, his mother said, “Absolutely not! There’s no way anyone can make a living in music, and I’m not going to have him wasting his time.”

This was a rather shocking comment, I felt, particularly when it came from someone who was playing in an orchestra. I explained that I had made a good living as a musician, teaching at the university level, and performing concerts around the country. I also explained the conductor of the orchestra had made a very good living performing in a professional orchestra, teaching at a university, and composing. Her response was still adamant and pedantic: “Well, maybe you two, but not very many other people have.”

Her strong statements and her denial were puzzling. Music was important in her life, or she would not have been playing in this orchestra. I could not understand why she wanted to deny the satisfaction she received, and also deny her son from enjoying music “too much” because she thought the effort would be so futile. There are many individuals today who think that when one is making a career in music, that one has to make a rock star salary, or that indicates that one is a failure. It certainly is true that if one wants to make a career in music as a performer or university faculty member, one does have to work hard and practice long hours. Even university faculty members are expected to perform with their fellow faculty members on the required recitals. However, to be successful in any chosen career, one must devote a great amount of time.

In Denver, we have the Denver’s School of the Arts, and, over the years, the discovery has been made that it is quite difficult for many Denver students to pass the entrance audition to become a student at the DSA. Of course, one of the reasons is quite simple: it has been discovered (by A+ Denver, an exploratory committee organized by the city government) that many parents don’t want to spend the money on a musical instrument for their child. Think about that. And, part of the reason for that attitude may be that the parents don’t think that the student can make a living as a musician because they can’t play the instrument right away. Everything these days has to be done in a big hurry, or it won’t be done at all. Another reason they can’t pass the entrance audition is that music and art have been abandoned in the public schools. Researchers have found that many teachers who have degrees in arts education are being hired to teach subjects such as physical education, history, or English.

Of course, the schools share the blame, certainly, along with the public media. National Public Radio has specific programs for classical music. They are usually on Sundays. Throughout the week, and many times a day, various announcers interview musicians, and these interviews very rarely are with musicians who have devoted their lives to serious music. They are almost always with rock stars, country and western musicians, or “world music” musicians. (The study of World Music used to be called ethnomusicology.) NPR prides itself on its intellectual sophistication, and in most subjects they should. For that reason, one envisions all of the NPR announcers as having somewhat elevated tastes in music; however, that perception came to a crashing close not too long ago. There were two NPR announcers sharing the microphone on a reoccurring daily broadcast, when one asked the other who his favorite musician was. The other announcer said that his favorite musician was Lady Gaga. There was no mention of Benjamin Hochman, Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, or the Budapest Quartet. On the other hand, it could be that that announcer had fallen victim to the sheer frequency of references to the pop music culture during the day, and did not have the intellectual stamina to tune into one of the rare NPR classical music shows on the weekends, or to explore it on his own.

Newspapers, as well as radio stations, are also responsible for the abandonment of music. We all know that newspapers are suffering financially, and that many of them have gone out of business or have reduced their staff in order to survive. But prior to their falling on hard times, they often hired individuals with journalism degrees to be art and music critics, even when they had absolutely no knowledge of art and music. There is a local newspaper employee who is the editor of the Arts and Entertainment section of the paper. He has no background in music or art whatsoever. He referred to the conductor of the Colorado Symphony Orchestra as “the guy,” and made further outlandish comments.

There is a music reviewer who writes for a nationally respected weekly magazine that is published in New York City. He has been a music critic for a number of years, even though he has no degrees in music. He has had some composition lessons. In one of his reviews he stated that, “The symphony ended in a disconcertingly blatant fashion.” As a journalist, he certainly knows the jargon, but that means absolutely nothing because he did not follow through with the thought. I firmly believe that he did not follow through with it, because he did not know enough about music to do so.

To underscore the situation, allow me to repeat: print media and radio stations are in a financial decline as digital media takes over newspapers and classical music radio stations. The financial decline is causing executives in both of these areas to cut back on staff. Both radio stations and print media are hiring individuals with journalism degrees who know little about music, but may be very good journalists. They cannot afford to hire those who know something about music.

In addition, everyone points out to the declining audience at concerts, and they seem to be determined to emphasize that those who do not attend concerts are young people. They often make the statement that classical music is boring, and, in addition, they state that there is nothing to do at a classical music concert except listen. I contend that it is not only today’s young people who have been disenfranchised by classical music, but it is their parents who grew up on rock ‘n roll, who do not take their children to classical music concerts. When I was young, my parents took me to classical music concerts all the time, as did the parents of many of my friends. As popular music took over the radio stations, more and more of those listeners were never exposed to Bach, Beethoven, or Stravinsky, or Debussy.

Colorado Public Radio and National Public Radio are certainly following this trend. During the day, National Public Radio has small filler interviews that may last five to seven minutes, and nearly all the time they are interviews with rock stars. It has been over a year since I have heard any composers or performers of serious music interviewed. In addition, Colorado Public Radio now programs an hour a day on their news program, a broadcast from their new “offspring” station, OpenAir. This program, like the station OpenAir, is devoted to popular music. Why don’t they have a broadcast of serious music for an hour every day from KVOD? It is true that CPR does broadcast the Sunday classical programs from NPR, but it’s plainly obvious that popular music gets the lion’s share of airtime. Airtime on both NPR and CPR is also devoted to important announcements concerning rock musicians, such as untimely death, new bands formed, or bands breaking up. Depending upon the popularity of the band, those miniature interviews and announcements are repeated several times a day. Perhaps I have been in the wrong place at the wrong time, but I do not recall any mention of the deaths of Charles Rosen, Hans Werner Henze, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Elliott Carter, or most recently, Henri Dutilleux.

We need to educate young adults and early middle-aged adults; not just the young people. In order to accomplish this, many will suggest that we need philanthropic funding to market great music. Perhaps that would be a partial solution; however, we need to make a concerted effort to convince the media, both printed and electronic, that reducing music from an art to a “fun experience” is not the answer. In addition, orchestras themselves need to perform music that has been recently composed by serious composers, rather than a continual program of the “Great Masters.” Radio stations are particularly guilty of playing no music past 1930 or 1935 for fear of offending the listeners with something that they cannot “whistle on the way home from work.” That is where the classical music DJ must act as a teacher, and explain what the composer is trying to accomplish in the composition of new music. After seventy years as a musician, it has been my experience that if the music is understood, it will be appealing. Radio stations and newspapers that hire journalists, and then assign them to write about music, or to play it over the air, will never accomplish the goal. Every article on music criticism and commentary, and every classical music DJ, must teach.

We must restore the budgets in our public schools for music and art. Our education system has become so concerned with producing scientists and mathematicians that we have failed to teach students their own place in a cultural history of their own, and thus, we have failed to create a complete civilization in which they can take a place.

There are many orchestra boards that are comprised of wealthy individuals, as boards need to be, but are also simultaneously made up of individuals who grew up on rock ‘n roll. While they may be wealthy and able to finance orchestras, they are often the individuals who say that orchestras need to program pop music, or even engage country and western singers, in order to regain young people in the audience. Why should the music be the object of change? Should art museums feature exhibitions of cartoons and video games in order to draw young people to the exhibit? Can you imagine the outcry from art lovers over the denigration of the museum? We need to respond to a multigenerational failure to educate not only our young people, but their parents as well.

One of the facts that we might take notice of is that popular music, hip-hop, and rap, is often accompanied with some kind of video. Why not make videos to accompany classical music? Does anyone remember the incredible TV programs that were created by Leonard Bernstein? Does anyone recall the overwhelming success of Walt Disney’s Fantasia? How many of you readers even remember that Fantasia was an animated film that accompanied some of the greatest classical music of all time: Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, the overwhelming Toccata and Fugue in D minor by J.S. Bach, and Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony Nr. 6? And, there were more. That film was enormously successful, and young people flocked to the theatres to see it.

The media seems to enjoy sensationalizing negative stories, while positive stories do not receive the same kind of coverage. Stories about the demise of an orchestra always seem to get more coverage than the story relating to increased attendance. Combined with the media’s belief that “bad news is good news” because they can sensationalize it, is the belief that the American public doesn’t really want too much information or they will get bored and turn off the TV set. Orchestras need to reeducate the media, perhaps, by sending news releases relating to increased attendance since orchestras have been recovering from the recession. The orchestras, themselves, need to focus on the staying power of symphonic music, rather than succumbing to the negative.

Many radio stations and print media as well, confuse culture with entertainment. Entertainment will always be market-driven: sports events, video games, and rock concerts. Culture is the legacy of our civilization from the past that reaches to the present. Orchestras need to perform works of the present as much as they need to perform the works of the past.

A conductor is not a quarterback; an orchestra is not a football team
April 14, 2013, 7:45 pm
Filed under: Commentary

Once again, the local media has compared the art of music to football. I say once again, because I wrote a previous article on the subject: https://opuscolorado.com/2012/08/06/the-importance-of-being-musically-educated/. This time, however, is not a local radio station doing such, it is the local newspaper: The Denver Post.

In the April 7 issue of the Denver Post, there is an article entitled “New Colorado Symphony Orchestra conductor Andrew Litton is a modern maestro” by Ray Mark Rinaldi. Rinaldi says that if Denver loved classical music “the way it loves football” Andrew Litton would be the next Peyton Manning. I would say to Mr. Rinaldi, “There are individuals in Denver who do love classical music as much as football, and perhaps even more.” What a concept!

Rinaldi goes on to say that Andrew Litton, the CSO’s new Artistic Advisor and Conductor does not quite have the superstar status of the Broncos quarterback. I would inform Mr. Rinaldi that Maestro Litton is an incredibly well-known conductor, and that in the world of symphonies and symphonic music, Andrew Litton certainly does have superstar status. I agree with Mr. Rinaldi when he says Maestro Litton does not get the same kind of salary that Peyton Manning receives, but while one can make a very nice living in the arts (contrary to popular belief), I know of no conductor in the history of music who has received extra pay for being tackled by a bassoonist or a recalcitrant concertmaster. In other words, there is a great deal of difference between sports and art. It is dangerous to compare apples and oranges: just because an individual knows a lot about apples does not mean he should be writing about oranges.

It puzzles the mind when he makes the comment that the movements of Litton as he conducts “shake the long tails of his tuxedo.” What is the bearing of that on the performance? Of what importance is the state of Andrew Litton’s tails on his tuxedo?

Rinaldi discusses the Colorado Symphony Orchestra’s recent financial woes without mentioning the ineptitude of the previous orchestra management coupled with the bizarre behavior of a few board members. There is no mention in the article of the splendid and reliable record of the new management individuals. There is also no mention of the increased morale in the orchestra due to the fact that the CSO now has a conductor who it respects because of his musicianship and the fact that he respects the orchestra’s musicianship as well.

Rinaldi’s constant comparison of the CSO to football displays his cavalier attitude towards the art of music. Since he is the Editor of the Arts and Entertainment section (I have always objected to that combination, because art is art and has never been entertainment. Football is entertainment, Angry Birds is entertainment.), one wonder’s at his constant denuding of music and art of its elegance and seriousness by his use of the language. For example, he says that Litton has the potential to lead the CSO to a “winning season.”

Rinaldi seemed surprised that during rehearsals, Litton is “… measure by measure clear with demands about tempo and volume.” Why wouldn’t he be? He states that Andrew Litton was raised on classical music, as if that were in some way unusual. Would he be conducting the Colorado Symphony Orchestra if he had been raised on hip-hop?

Rinaldi quotes New York Times critic Allan Kozinn: “Mr. Litton’s reading had the virtues of supremely polished surfaces with raw, often savage emotions swirling just beneath them.” I think that Mr. Rinaldi misunderstood what Kozinn was saying, misinterpreting it as a criticism, when it seems he was describing the mood of the music Litton was conducting. Rinaldi follows Kozinn’s statement by saying, “Still, Litton appears eager to score once again as the leader of a U. S. operation.” Rinaldi certainly does try to explain the supposed difficulties that Litton had with the Dallas Symphony, but in describing them, it seems to me that they were the result of improper administration, and, perhaps, squabbles amongst the board members. Unfortunately, much of the article is written in such a way that it is difficult to decide precisely what Rinaldi is trying to say.

In his review of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony, “With the Colorado Symphony Orchestra, fired up, burns through Mahler’s life-or-death Symphony No. 6,” dated April 13, 2013, Rinaldi calls Maestro Litton “the guy” – not even capitalized – and asserts that “He’s [Litton] not a master of control [!]…” and states that, “this conductor is more about optimism than perfection [!]…” but that he possesses a “human side that makes this piece of music right for him.” In making these amazing statements, Rinaldi has demonstrated his complete lack of understanding of what a conductor does, and his complete lack of understanding of what Litton does, specifically. I would like to assure Mr. Rinaldi that any conductor worth his salt is concerned with perfection, that he studies conducting diligently with the intent of learning control, and that control is something that Maestro Andrew Litton has clearly learned to a very high degree.

In addition, Rinaldi comments in his article about Litton’s twenty minute explanation of this symphony before the performance began. Rinaldi explains, accurately, that Litton discusses various themes and has the orchestra play short sections to demonstrate. He says in his article that people will either love or hate this twenty minute explanation, but acknowledges that it served as a “nice reminder of Mahler’s passionate thinking over the piece.” He then goes on to confess that if it were only ten minutes long instead of twenty Rinaldi would have liked it a lot more. So here is an example of an individual writing an article who is afraid of getting too much information on the topic that he is writing about. Indeed, it does not seem to register with Mr. Rinaldi that Litton’s comments might contain important tips about what to listen for during the performance, and thus, more clearly understand the music, and not be distracted by shaking tails of a tuxedo.