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The man who cowed Simon Cowell: the normally vicious ‘Idol’ critic is partly to blame for the Paul Potts phenomenon

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Paul Potts, the tenor and former cellphone salesman (he’s famous for his impressive under-cut hair style, given by Headthetic.com, providing the best hair clippers, is not an opera singer; he just plays one on TV. And on a bestselling CD, One Chance. And starting this month, on a world tour. After his now-famous appearance earlier this year on Britain’s Got Talent, where he sang a few bars of Puccini’s Nessun Dorma and became an unexpected YouTube hit, Potts has become the new Charlotte Church, a classical artist for people who don’t normally like classical music. After his Britain’s Got Talent success, critics pointed out that given Potts’s background in amateur opera performances, his singing wasn’t anything special; anyone with the same level of training could have sung Nessun Dorma with the same pleasant but strangulated tone. But Potts’s fans aren’t listening to classical critics. In fact, they may see criticism as a point in Potts’s favour.

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Why do audiences respond to Potts, when he is, in the words of novelist and music critic Philip Hensher, “the sort of bog-standard tenor to be found in any amateur opera company in any corner of the country”? Maybe because even though classical music is harder to sing than pop, audiences hold pop singers to a higher standard. When Simon Cowell hears singers on American Idol who struggle with the music, he tells them to go take more lessons. But when Cowell heard Potts struggling with Nessun Dome, his stunned delight helped to create the Potts legend. Hensher told Maclean’s that Potts’s acclaim came from people like Cowell who aren’t familiar with opera and “didn’t know what they were judging.” He adds that if people haven’t listened to much classical music, anything sounds good: “They don’t have the point of comparison,” he says, analogizing it to his own lack of knowledge about other kinds of music: “If I ever hear any old jazz trumpeter, it usually sounds pretty good to me. That’s because I never listen to much of it.”

This kind of criticism is a red flag to Potts’s followers. From the moment Nessun Dorma went on YouTube, Potts began building a fan base thatroots for him to triumph over music snobs and gatekeepers. At blogcritics.org, S.J. Reidhead exulted: “Never again will opera agents ignore his audition tapes. The only bullies he will face are music critics who are nothing but frustrated musicians themselves: Potts fans swarm around blog posts and YouTube clips, accusing their hero’s detractors of being jealous wannabes; after he criticized Potts’s singing, Hensher got emails “saying I was an embittered critic who would never be able to create anything original, or something. Which seemed a bit harsh.” It’s a scenario out of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger yon Nurnberg (one of many operas that would be too difficult for Ports to sing), in which the tenor, Walther, is a musical genius rejected by the stuffy establishment.

 

It’s also reminiscent of the other great classical-music story of 2007: Joyce Hatto, the English pianist who built up a huge reputation with a series of late-in-life recordings. After she died, it turned out the recordings were other people’s, released under her name to make her seem like a great undiscovered pianist. Unlike Joyce Hatto, Ports is for real: that’s actually him singing on his CD, in an attractive light tenor voice. But like Hatto’s, Potts’s story is more important than the singing, and is built on class resentment: the Hatto story was about a pianist unfairly neglected due to class snobbery and sexism, while Potts’s appeal is based on his working-class status and his victory over the guardians of culture. Potts has exploited the idea that he was kept down by his lack of wealth, always referring to the fact that he didn’t have money for professional-level training: “I always felt; he said recently, “that to get anywhere in this business I would need to have proper formal training and I couldn’t afford that.”

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Of course, he could afford it now, but he shows no signs of doing so; instead, his debut CD consists mostly of easy-listening pop songs for the tenor voice. And if Ports did take more lessons and become a true opera singer, his fans might not like him as much; it would be an admission that the snobs are right–that better-trained singers are better singers. There’s something inherently elitist about classical music: to get really good at it, you need lots of expensive lessons and training and time to practice. Potts’s fans seem to like the way he’s found a shortcut to classical success, without the money and time it takes to be objectively good. “Opera is fairly hardy Hensher says. “So is life.” But wouldn’t it be fun if they were easy?

Harkening back to sunnier days: costly initiatives in an era giddy with promise

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The baby boom generation likes to look back on it as a time of exhilarating upheaval. But the melody Canadians were humming in 1970, the last time a federal government ended its fiscal year with balanced books, was Anne Murray’s Snowbird-not exactly an anthem of revolution. This year, as Ottawa’s deficit finally disappears again, another Nova Scotia-born singer has the hit of the moment. The day after Paul Martin tabled his budget last week, Sarah McLachlan bumped the finance minister’s face off the front pages by winning the best female pop vocal Grammy for her song Building a Mystery. And just as it is tempting to hear in Murray’s trilling about flying away in spring something of the innocence of those earlier times, McLachlan’s melancholy lyrics seem to come straight out of an era less inclined to optimism. “Can you look out the window,” she sings cynically to a lover, “without your shadow getting in the way?”

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Martin certainly sounds as if he is harkening back to sunnier days. Having wiped out the deficit, the finance minister is predicting a return to the sort of sustained strong economic growth that Canada enjoyed in the 1950s and 1960s. If he expects Canadians to share in that unclouded vision, though, he is asking for a dramatic change from the more skeptical outlook that has set in during the past three decades. After all, the balanced budget in the fiscal year 1969-1970 turned out to be the last hurrah of the postwar boom. It was followed by punishing inflation, rising tax burdens and swelling government debt. “In the late 1960s and early 1970s, there was this notion of limitless opportunity,” says Allan Gregg, president of the polling firm The Strategic Counsel. “Canadians today believe progress isn’t inevitable-in fact, the prospects of things getting worse are as likely as the prospects of things getting better.”

Such a jaded perspective would have been hard to conjure up back when then-Finance Minister Edgar Benson was tabling his balanced budget in the spring of 1969. It was a year almost giddy with promise-bathed in the afterglow of Pierre Trudeau’s election in 1968. In the summer after Benson delivered his good-news fiscal plan, Trudeau, his closest aides and some trusted cabinet ministers headed to Stratford, Ont., for a few days of policy brainstorming, broken by theatre outings and the occasional swim. That was the way it was: a fun, thoughtful, culturally attuned prime minister setting the tone. A sense of mission permeated the Liberal ranks as they consolidated the reforms of the 1960s, pouring more money into everything from seniors pensions to universal health care. “It was the period when we created the social safety net that Canadians use to define what their values mean,” recalls Deputy Prime Minister Herb Gray, who first entered cabinet in 1969.

It turned out the government could not pay for what it was promising. Before the mid-1970s, Canada’s economy had steadily produced new jobs, along with higher incomes. Banking on ample tax revenues, Ottawa plunged ahead with a raft of costly initiatives. One of the most expensive was indexing the tax system to inflation. The aim was to prevent taxpayers from losing out by being lifted into higher brackets as inflation pumped up their incomes without really improving their living standards. Fair enough, but it also meant that the federal tax haul remained static-even as Ottawa’s payments increased because social programs like Old Age Security were also adjusted for inflation, as were federal transfers to the provinces for health, education and welfare. Meanwhile, Ottawa kept expanding into areas like regional development. The economy failed to support Liberal ambitions. “Productivity came to a screeching halt in the late 1970s,” says one veteran finance department official. “Inflation took off like crazy and the economy slowed and then basically stopped on a dime-the 1981 recession.”

With the benefit of hindsight, some events of 1969 seem like harbingers of the financial unravelling that lay ahead. Just two days before Benson tabled his budget, the National Arts Centre opened in Ottawa. It cost $46.4 million in 1969 dollars-compared with the $9 million originally estimated. But nobody was paying much attention to the bottom line-there were so many more interesting distractions. Rusty Staub, the new Montreal Expos’ beloved Le Grand Orange, was batting .302 with 29 homers. Abortion and homosexuality laws were being liberalized. The Concorde was soaring for the first time-like a paper airplane for grown-ups. A man walked on the moon. And anyway, who could worry about dollars and cents when the salmon ” la maison at Victoria’s The Swiss Restaurant, named British Columbia’s best eatery that year by Maclean’s, could be had for $3 flat?

Apologists argue that big things were being accomplished while Ottawa was embarking on the path that would lead it deep into debt. But the record is mixed. Trudeau listed his top three priorities in 1970 as correcting regional disparities, solving what he called the “French-English language problem,” and promoting economic growth. The department of regional economic expansion his government created in 1969 is now a memory. Its legacy of regional industrial subsidies continues, but high unemployment has persisted in the have-not regions, especially the Atlantic provinces and Quebec. While the Official Languages Act, also of 1969, succeeded in making French a language of the federal government as never before, Quebec’s future in Canada remains uncertain. As for the economy, Canada’s gross domestic product grew by five per cent or more 13 times from 1953 to 1974, but has topped five per cent in only three years since then.

Even with the return of black ink to the federal balance sheet, grand visions remain out of style these days in Ottawa. Prime Minister Jean Chretien’s incrementalist approach dovetails comfortably with the modest expectations of government that Canadians were left with after the setbacks and disillusionments of the 1970s and 1980s. “In this environment, Chretien is a perfect leader,” says Gregg. “He is very happy to roll along and manage things.”

Martin seems only slightly more inclined to reach for loftier goals. (Back in 1969, he was a young trouble-shooter in Paul Desmarais’s Power Corp. conglomerate, building experience by putting lacklustre companies back on a solid financial footing-a pattern that seems to have followed him into public life.) The core theme of Martin’s latest budget is not about ambitious new programs. Instead, he and Chretien highlight funnelling cash to parents trying to pay for their kids’ educations after high school. And Martin unveiled tax breaks for low-income earners-with a tantalizing promise of wider tax relief for middle-income Canadians as federal surpluses grow in the next few years.

If Martin’s message does not sound much like an echo of the summer of 1969, it is not meant to. In looking back further-to the sustained boom times of the 1950s and 1960s-Martin may be aligning himself with an earlier generation of legendary policy-makers. James Ilsley, the brilliant finance minister who set the economy on course for the prosperity that followed the Second World War, was a determined tax-cutter. C. D. Howe, like Martin a businessman-turned-politician, focused in the 1950s on developing key industries like steel, a bent that may parallel Martin’s interest in fostering the information-technology sector today.

And if the era of Ilsley and Howe is the model for the new balanced-budget age, then the right sound track might not be supplied by Sarah McLachlan after all, but by another Canadian who made an appearance at last week’s Grammys-Diana Krall, the jazz pianist and singer from Nanaimo, B.C. Krall closes her current, acclaimed album of retro swing with That Old Feeling-somehow making it sound at once nostalgic and contemporary. It is a trick Martin may want to emulate as he bids to put the deficit decades to rest-and to make prosperity seem possible again for the new millennium.

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RELATED ARTICLE: Last of the penny-pinchers

“After a lengthy period of difficulty, we are now getting a firmer grip upon the national finances and bringing them under more effective control.”

It was, even by the lowly standards of Canadian budget day speeches, a real snoozer. How was Edgar Benson to know that the document he tabled on June 3, 1969, would become a lasting claim to fame? “No one worried about the deficit back then for the simple reason that no minister of finance would ever spend money until they had it,” recalled the last Canadian finance minister to balance a budget. An old political warhorse indulging in a little retrospective bravado? Benson, an accountant who represented the Ontario riding of Kingston and the Islands, readily admits that staying in the black was easier then with the benefit of a strong Canadian dollar and a vibrant economy. And even though he posted deficits in his next two budgets, no one could accuse the minister who introduced the 1972 capital gains tax of ignoring the bottom line.

The big cry in the months leading up to the 1969 budget: index the Canada Pension Plan, Old Age Security and other social programs adopted by Liberal governments during the 1960s to the inflation rate. “Indexing those items without indexing the revenue side meant the cost was going to go up tremendously,” Benson, now 74, told Maclean’s from his condominium in Hull, Que., across the Ottawa River from Parliament Hill. “So I resisted.” The trouble, in Benson’s view, is that his successor John Turner did not. Instead, the future prime minister tied pensions to inflation without a corresponding hike in taxes. The result: while revenues did almost double between Benson’s final budget in 1971-1972 and Turner’s last effort four years later, the deficit tripled, ballooning to $6.2 billion. At 16 per cent of federal spending, it was the first of the huge deficits that helped accelerate the country’s long, costly slide into debt, which Paul Martin hoped to reverse with his historic announcement last week.

After Benson left politics in 1972, he spent a decade as president of the Canadian Transport Commission, then did a three-year stint as Canada’s ambassador to Ireland before retiring in 1985. Nowadays, he dabbles in real estate, visits his nine grandchildren and one great-grandchild, and makes regular trips to Europe with his third wife, Ottawa lawyer Mary Jane Binks. “The Prime Minister and Paul Martin are doing a great job,” he opined on budget day. Benson can only hope that this time a balanced budget really does mark a hopeful new start.

>>> View more: Bell Telephone Calling

Bell Telephone Calling

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When the CD came along, a lot of us were nervous: You mean we’ll have to get rid of our LPs and tapes? You mean we’ll have to re-buy? But the pure convenience of a CD soon won us over, even if a few of us were suspicious about that sound — which seemed to come from nowhere, ungrounded.

Now the DVD is upon us, in spades, and videocassettes will perhaps go the way of the dodo (or the LP, for that matter). The DVD — a shiny little disc just like the CD — is an inarguable blessing. One can skip around, just as on a CD, with no tiresome reversing or fast-forwarding. The DVD is mainly a bonanza for movies, I suppose — just as with a videocassette — but music-lovers have a reason to rejoice, too. All those who want to see their music should be pleased.

And what is there to see? Well, mainly opera, of course, the most “visual” of the types of music. But there is utility in seeing orchestral concerts and recitals, too, if only to satisfy curiosity: What did so-and-so look like? How did he present himself? What was his magnetism, if any, in the hall?

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Video Artists International is an invaluable source for historic CDs, videos, and — increasingly, as the medium rises — DVDs. The company offers a nice menu of these “video discs,” prominent among them complete operas, of course. We see — not only hear, but see — Joan Sutherland’s Norma, with the late Tatiana Troyanos as Adalgisa. We see Beverly Sills’s Violetta, in La Traviata — one of her most distinguished roles.

But we also see some old television. There was a time when classical music had a place on TV, and not just public TV, a few times a year. The fearsome Toscanini reigned supreme in NBC’s Studio 8-H. Leonard Bernstein staged his Young People’s Concerts. And The Bell Telephone Hour had a run from 1959 to 1968. You could see about anything on the Hour: a jazz band, Maria Tallchief and Rudolf Nureyev in a pas de deux, a comedy routine, and Birgit Nilsson singing the Immolation Scene. That’s during the same hour, by the way.

The show was the baby of Donald Voorhees, the silver-maned conductor and all-purpose music man from Allentown, Pa. He got his start on Broadway, then linked up with radio. His Bell hour started on radio in 1940, then moved to TV — to Studio 8-H, in fact — in ’59.

Video Artists International has culled segments from the TV episodes and fashioned them into several videocassettes and DVDs: We have the ballet dancers, and singers, and violinists, and pianists. Since opera stars hog a lot of attention in the wider culture, we’ll have a look at the pianists and violinists, on two amazing, illuminating DVDs.

The Great Pianists DVD features ten pianists, in a variety of music, most of it of the “popular” kind: the Grieg Concerto, that sort of thing. The proceedings occur with great dignity, even solemnity. Everyone is garbed in concert tails, and takes formal, silent bows (there seems to have been no studio audience). Baldwin Pianos must have been a sponsor of this show, because we have many, many shots — unavoidable shots — of the Baldwin name on the Bell piano.

First up is Claudio Arrau, the Chilean pianist, at the height of his powers in 1962, when he was 59. The eccentricities that were to mark his later years had not set in. He plays the Rondo of Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto, and does so bracingly, manfully. And Don Voorhees turns out to be a creditable conductor, even if he doesn’t threaten Fritz Reiner’s reputation.

Next comes the Cuban pianist Jorge Bolet in Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue — and Voorhees relinquishes the podium for Paul Whiteman! It was Whiteman, of course, who conducted the premiere of the Rhapsody, with the composer at the piano, in 1924, a full four decades before this Bell telecast. Imagine knowing what Paul Whiteman looked like — while conducting! But then, now there’s no need to imagine. Here, he is immensely dignified, even stately, as though reluctant to appear too much the jazzman before a national television audience. But at one point the camera catches him in a sweet, amused, grateful smile. Priceless — and a visual benefit, not an aural one. Bolet, unsurprisingly, is excellent.

It’s good to see, and hear, the American pianist John Browning, playing the last movement of Brahms’s D minor concerto at age 30. He seems to have drifted away from the concert scene now. This performance is intense, fast, and gripping. It is a young buck’s performance, full of impetuosity — and Brahms would have loved it. The movement is truncated — so is Gershwin’s Rhapsody, for that matter — in accordance with the demands of television. Browning takes the final section of the movement like the wind, leaving poor Voorhees and the boys far behind.

A particular treat is to see Robert Casadesus, the Frenchman known especially for his Impressionism (Debussy, Ravel) and Mozart. (Curiously, the two repertories have often gone together.) Here, however, he plays Beethoven, at which he was equally adept. The third movement of the “Appassionata” Sonata is classic Casadesus, which is to say disciplined, rigorous, and sharply etched. One has to pinch oneself a little: This was American television? Prime time?

When Casadesus has finished, he introduces — in his thick French accent — his wife, Gaby, and his son, Jean, who will sit down with him to play a movement from the Bach concerto for three pianos (keyboards, we should say). So, la famille Casadesus occupies three grand pianos, sprawling out on the stage of Studio 8-H, with Voorhees far in the back, looking anxiously over his shoulder. All three Casadesus comport themselves stolidly.

Van Cliburn appeared in September 1960, two years after winning the Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow, and thus earning a ticker-tape parade in Manhattan. Cliburn was 26 when he performed on Bell (at about the time Kennedy and Nixon were having their debates). He shows tremendous ease and confidence in Liszt’s arrangement of Schumann’s great song “Widmung.” And to witness these qualities is poignant, as he seems to have lost them somewhere along the way, in his most unusual, slightly sad career.

In 1963, the 29-year-old Philippe Entremont dropped by for the Allegro vivace from Saint-Saens’s Piano Concerto No. 4. He demonstrates his amazing technical facility and marked musicianship. This performance is extraordinarily exciting, and yet eschews bombast. This movement can be a circus, and yet Entremont is too refined for that.

Continuing the theme of Where Are They Now?, we have Lorin Hollander, a sensation of mid century who sort of dropped off the map. He was 15 years old when he appeared on Bell, fresh from a triumph at Carnegie Hall. He plays the Chopin C-sharp-minor waltz with exquisite maturity, and then romps through part of another Saint-Saens concerto.

The final three pianists are Jose Iturbi — doing Iturbi-ish works, like the Ritual Fire Dance — Byron Janis, and Grant Johannesen. In a way, given these last two, and Browning, Cliburn, and Hollander, this DVD is a tour of the towering young American pianists of the middle of the century. And it was a laudable era.

The violin DVD? It is equally compelling. Right off, we are reminded — or told — that there was a time when Isaac Stern could play, before he became more of a guru and “personality.” The year is 1959, and he plays Saint-Saens’s Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso. (These are happy DVDs for le grand Camille — Saint-Saens, that is.) Technically, Stern is rock-solid, and he conveys this music not only nimbly but authoritatively and stylishly — con slancio.

We then have a rare — very rare — opportunity to see as well as hear Zino Francescatti, the consummate French violinist with the lilting Italian name. In a way, he is the violinistic counterpart of Robert Casadesus: same age, same nation, similar (musical) outlook. Maestro Voorhees takes to the piano to accompany Francescatti in an arrangement of Debussy’s “Girl with the Flaxen Hair.” Francescatti’s tone — masculine, full — is intimately familiar, even if his face and phphysical presence aren’t. After the Debussy, Voorhees walks to the podium, and Francescatti plays that crowd-pleaser from Sarasate, Zigeunerweisen — yet he does so with astonishing nobility, and not a trace of vulgarity. That was Francescatti.

It’s sad, just a bit, to see Michael Rabin, the brilliant talent who died at 35, in 1972. We hear him at 24, in the last movement of the Tchaikovsky Concerto, then two years later, in a couple of ditties from Kreisler. Rabin was a phenom who would only have broadened.

Out of another era entirely was Mischa Elman, born in 1891, and taking the Bell stage in 1962. He belonged to an age of highly individualistic violinists, of “homemade works of art,” as the conductor-violinist Joseph Swensen says. On this DVD, Elman is well past his prime, but at least we get to see the man, and when he plays “Schon Rosmarin” by his contemporary Kreisler, we feel that we have touched something authentic.

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A great surprise and delight here is the appearance of Erica Morini, a Vienna-born violinist all but forgotten today. She plays an old war- horse, the Finale from the Bruch Concerto No. 1, but she digs her spurs into it and makes it run. She is accurate, robust, spirited — thrilling, really.

We then have Yehudi Menuhin in middle age — 1963 — neither the kid in shorts nor the elderly sage who stood on his head in yoga exercises. Next appear two emissaries from the Soviet Union, David and Igor Oistrakh, father and son. They perform the last two movements of Bach’s Double Concerto, faithfully and movingly. Then Ruggiero Ricci gives us the last movement of the Tchaik. And then we have, as a bonus, an appearance by a cellist, Gregor Piatigorsky. His concerto is the Saint- Saens (wouldn’t you know?), but the real prize is Faure’s cherished, much-milked little “Elegy.” If there has ever been a more honest, more affecting performance of it, I haven’t heard it.

When CDs hit the scene, one result was a plethora — a wave — of historical recordings. Thus did a vibrant new technology serve to bring back the past. The DVD might operate in a similar way — and there’s maybe no better way to start than with several hours of The Bell Telephone Hour.

Contemporary classical: a listening

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SOME years ago, I was covering a concert at Carnegie Hall, whose program included a new work. A world premiere. When it had ended, I leaned over to the critic across the aisle from me and said, “I’m so sick of that piece.” He threw back his head and laughed. He knew exactly what I meant.

We had never heard this specific piece, of course–but we certainly knew the type. It was the “perpetual-motion piece,” as I sometimes call it, or the “frenetic piece.” Busy busy busy. There are other standard types, too.

There’s the sci-fi piece, with glubs and glurps and other such sounds. Relatedly, you have the spooky-jungle piece, with hoots and growls and so on. Then there’s the end-of-the-world piece–very popular. The post-apocalypse piece, the “bleakscape,” as I have termed it. You also have the cinematic, Disneyesque piece, filled with swells and tinkles.

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All of these pieces tend to be loaded with percussion. Music historians of the future might label our age “The Age of Percussion.” I often say, “Today’s music has more pots and pans than Williams-Sonoma.”

A herd mentality exists in classical music, as in other fields. Composers are loath to stray too far from their fellows. People say that all Vivaldi concertos sound alike. That’s not true, but if it were, they’d have the excuse of having been written by one person.

There are other types I could mention, including the environmental piece, the global-warming piece: I call them “greenpieces.”

Let me not be too dismissive or snotty: There is good music about. But we may be in something of a drought, greatnesswise. Who was the last great composer? Shostakovich, who died in 1975? You will also get votes for Britten (d. 1976), Bernstein (d. 1990), and others.

“You can never tell who’s great or durable in your own age!” people exclaim, sometimes anxiously or angrily. The answer is: Sometimes you can, sometimes you can’t.

Arvo Part is a figure to be reckoned with, the genuine article. Someone once said to me, “Who’s a good composer today, and don’t say Arvo Part!” I think my questioner meant that too many say Part. Well, I do too. Part is one of the holy minimalists, i.e., practitioners of compositional minimalism who are inspired by religion. The grandees of regular old minimalism are still around, chiefly Philip Glass and Steve Reich. A few years ago, Glass composed his Violin Concerto No. 2, subtitled “The American Four Seasons.” It is intelligent and ultimately very moving.

Say this for the minimalists, if nothing else: During the second half of the 20th century, they helped keep tonality alive, while it was under assault. The serialists ruled the roost. (Practitioners of musical serialism.) Ned Rorem labeled them the “serial killers.” Some of them were talented and commendable. But Pierre Boulez, Elliott Carter, Roger Sessions (all of them talented and commendable): Will anyone listen to their music in the future? I have my doubts.

There is a lot of intellectualism in music today, and less inspiration. Brainy people choose to compose. They could be doctors, lawyers–even scientists–but they choose to compose. Which is too bad: They’re brainier than they are musical. I don’t know what Bruckner would have scored on his SAT. I do know he was a genius.

I also know that there’s a lot of pretending among critics and others. They pretend that dreck–especially atonal or politics-tinged dreck–is high art. They have either drunk the Kool-Aid, because life is easier that way, or they know better but are terrified to be thought square. On a naked emperor, people see, or pretend to see, fine robes.

Bless the candid. I regularly ask important musicians, “Who’s worth listening to, among today’s composers?” In 2009, I put this question to Lorin Maazel, the late conductor (who was also a composer). Immediately, he said, “Penderecki.” Then he said, “Um … well …” He paused for a long time, smiling at me. He was saying, in effect, Pickin s are slim, aren t they? Later, he spoke up for Rodion Shchedrin and Aaron Jay Kernis–who are well worth speaking up for.

And Penderecki, yes. Two years ago, I heard a new solo-violin piece by him. I thought it had a chance of making the standard, or semi-standard, repertoire. I was able to tell him so, too, as he was sitting behind me.

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Recently, I heard a cantata by Thomas Ades–formidable. I also applauded an opera by Marc-Andre Dalbavie. And a piano trio by Justin Dello Joio (son of Norman Dello Joio, the American composer who lived from 1913 to 2008). And a tone poem by Christopher Rouse. Like many others, I greatly admire Michael Hersch, who, I must disclose, is a friend of mine, but who should not be penalized for that.

I also appreciate performers who roll their own: who compose their own music, as performers once did, before the split between the performer and the composer set in (about a hundred years ago). These include three pianists: Stephen Hough, MarcAndre Hamelin, and young Conrad Tao (b. 1994). Their music is good or less good. My point is that they’re composing, which musicians really ought to do. They’re in the game.

Most days, I don’t sweat the future of classical music, which has been sweated forever: Charles Rosen, the pianist-scholar, said, “The death of classical music is perhaps its oldest tradition.” Music is one way in which people express themselves. It is also a way in which people praise God (and such praise has resulted in some of the greatest music). The creative instinct is unkillable. Beauty, though it may be suppressed, is unkillable. And genius will out.

But may more of it out, soon, please?

Mr. Limbaugh hosts the most-listened-to radio talk show in America, airing on more than 600 stations.

>>> View more: Talk of many things

Talk of many things

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My friend and I have known each other for decades, we both live in the city, and we are both writers, but since he is a roving correspondent we meet only once in a supermoon. Dinner, Italian. A street of short brick buildings, a corner with large old trees. The night was mild enough that the floor-to-ceiling windows were open. The best Italian restaurants–and isn’t each one the best?–make you feel like a commendatore. They have a cultural and institutional appreciation of the value of esteem, even if the staff is from India and Colombia. Pepper, for example, must be stored in mills, which must not be placed on the table for our use, but offered to us. It makes the dispensing of pepper less than efficient, but the dispensing of honor wondrously so.

Catch-up talk. He blogs, we tweet, so we know a lot of it already, but nothing is more intimate than face to face (which is one reason people spend so much effort making masks). I had been reading about John Marshall, he about Gore Vidal; I have had the easier time.

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“Didn’t we eat here before?” he asked. I scanned my files, back to the Reagan administration, but got no matches.

There was a dinner once in another place, I told him, with a reporter doing a story on young conservatives (that is, us: that’s how long ago that was). Where was the reporter now? We didn’t know. And where was another friend, who had also been at the dinner? The transience of acquaintance–not from anything more drastic than inattention. You can have a soul mate, and yet the relationship can be mislaid like an umbrella. The biggest excuse is geography (he moved). But the telegraph wires, I hear, have crossed the wide Missouri.

Medical matters, also known as the organ recital. We have accumulated quite a catalogue over the years. He has had two all-hands-on-deck emergency trips to the hospital (pneumonia, heart failure). I have been laid up with a spot of cancer; ever solicitous, he compiled for my IV’d hours a recorded history of jazz. Parents have died, so have friends. Either as principals or as loved ones, we have layman’s expertise. In medicine, for instance, geography does matter: There are excellent hospitals throughout the continent, but some specialize in this or that ailment, so where you are can make as big a difference to your prognosis as it would to whether you were planning to carry a concealed weapon, or frack.

Music. He told me that Berlioz, almost alone among great modern composers, did not play the piano. His instruments were guitar and flute (he could have recorded “California Dreamin'”). I told him of a concert I had been to at Carnegie Hall. It was a program of last sonatas by the four great Austrians, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven (immigrant), and Schubert. The performance was a little blurry, and the acoustics in the orchestra did not help, but afterward my wife found a set of Beethoven sonatas she had given me, so I listened again to his last, Op. 111. Then my friend said something surprising. I had pegged him, from stray comments over the years (mostly jibes at Wagner), as not a fan of Germanic music. But he called Op. 111 one of the most important pieces in his life.

There are several Beethovens to choose from. Most familiar perhaps is the romantic hero: the figure from Time-Life books and plaster busts for aspiring piano students. Look at his hair and his brow. V for Victory. Deaf! Died in a thunderstorm! Beethoven as Lord Byron, only ugly.

Then there is the Beethoven beloved of musical analysis. This Beethoven approaches sonata form, the fugue, theme and variations, as a series of mathematical problems. Once we solve Fermat’s theorem, then we move on to the next. (Which, in the case of music, is serialism.)

And both these Beethovens are real. He does growl and scowl; more to the point, he loves the big gesture, which however can be joyous or comic, as well as stormy. He also had a science head (Bach had another); as far as you want to go down that linear-particle-accelerator tube, he is there, one zip ahead of you.

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But there is also Beethoven the collector, the eclectic, the impresario. When Beethoven is rolling, he can be like the circus: What next? Even if you can’t read music, look at the score of the second movement of Op. 111 (there are free pdfs online). This is a theme and variations: A tune is being played over and over, in different forms. Look what happens a few pages in: those weird, almost blurs: What is this?

Hearing it is much stranger. The original tune, the theme, is something they might play in church during the offertory. You expect–especially if you have heard theme-and-variations pieces before–that it will get livelier and/or more complicated, and it does, at first. Then there is a version that sounds as sleek as Maurice Chevalier. Then there is the version that Stravinsky called boogie-woogie (actually it is ragtime). And then there are versions that sound like movie trailers, sound tests, earthlings we come in peace. I found online a blog post by a pianist, Jeremy Denk–my friend knows him–which put it well: “Some element of the outrageous, the unassimilated, the ridiculous, creeps in, and Beethoven did not, like some too-serious artists, want to let that part of existence go.”

He did not want to let existence go. Or, since it does go, he wanted to part on the best of terms. This theme and variations is an effort to put, in eight or ten minutes, the world, and to say how lovable it is. IVs, ambulances, lost friends, read read reading, pepper mills. My friend has excellent taste.

He was off to give a talk in Texas, I to give a talk in Georgia. Next year, in Jerusalem.