Tommy Ingram's Eclectic Variety Show

How these curiosities would be quite forgot, did not such idle fellows as I am put them down.

Category: Music

Django, Elgar, and others

I finally got round to seeing Django Unchained. Much like Inglourious Basterds, it’s very funny, very violent, and very disturbing. Tarantino manages the tension in a scene like a virtuoso, Foxx is a badass but with depth, Waltz is an amazing actor, and the other leads distinguish themselves as well. The KKK raid scene with Jonah Hill (who’s beginning to make a name for himself as a real actor) is a particular comic high point. The depiction of the pre-Civil War South is raw and unsettling. It’s something that needs to be seen and rarely is, but it is not for the squeamish. The idea of all this being done by a white guy adds an uncomfortable racial twist to a topic that already has enough—Basterds did not have the same problem, oddly.

I finished Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance II on Friday evening. I hope to put up a full review some time soon, but I can’t do it right now because I’m busy mentally preparing for an important concert. Speaking of which: tomorrow, April 8, is the final performance of the University of Manitoba Symphony Orchestra’s 2012-13 season. On the program is Mozart’s Symphony no. 33 in B-flat Major, K.319; Tchaikovsky’s Rococo Variations (Edvany Silva, cello), and Elgar’s Enigma Variations, op.36. This is the orchestra’s final performance under the direction of Richard Lee, who is leaving the WSO and the U of M after this season. The concert is 7:30 at Westworth United Church. Tickets are $15 or $5 for students.

I’ve had a lot of fun with the Elgar, and it’s taught me a lot about symphonic playing. People familiar with the piece will know that the principal clarinet features very prominently throughout, but especially in the thirteenth variation, where I play an extremely quiet solo above barely audible strings and a timpani played with coins for a mechanical effect. It’s the most tense, poignant moment in a piece full of tension and poignancy. It’s an honour to be able to play it, and a great learning experience besides.

As for Richard Lee, I have gained a lot from my brief period playing under his baton. He is ruthless and uncompromising but fair. He’s done wonders for the U of M orchestra, and I hope he succeeds in his future endeavours.

The really good news is that, with classes drawing to a close, I will soon have the time and energy to post more often in this space. I have lots of ideas floating around that I would love to put into words, and by the last two weeks of April, I’ll finally be able to.

WSO’s 2013-2014 season

It’s finally been announced. The current season, when it was announced last year, appeared to be packed full of crowd-pleasers, many of which turned out to be disappointing. This program, on the other hand, is smaller and full of oddities and surprises, with just enough tentpole works (i.e., Beethoven and Mahler) to keep everything running smoothly. Let’s take a look: Read the rest of this entry »

What’s the use of that?: an apology on a musical career

I am strongly of the opinion that nothing but superlative excellence in art can excuse a man or woman for being an artist at all. It is not a light thing in a world of drudgery for any citizen to say, “I am not going to do what you others must: I am going to do what I like.” I think we are entitled to reply, “Then we shall expect you to do it devilish well, my friend, if we are not to treat you as a rogue and a vagabond.”

—George Bernard Shaw, The Nation, 22 June 1918

He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your ancestors had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.

—Deuteronomy 8:3

Those of us who attempt to enter artistic fields professionally will sooner or later be forced to defend our choice. At an age where all questions about careers and goals sound like power plays or veiled criticism, we are asked to justify ourselves to Philistine relatives and authorities far more often than our colleagues in the sciences, in skilled trades, or in business. Tactically, the best response is to deflect and change the subject. But no matter how deftly we avoid answering the question “What’s the use of that?”, it hangs in the air, ringing in our ears, forcing us to do soul-searching that no one else is ever made to do.

We will leave aside questions of the practicality of entering, e.g., the music business. One certainly hopes that all music students have some kind of plan as to how they intend to make a living. But so much depends on individual cases—where you live, how competitive things are there, how good you are, etc.—that no really general answer to these objections is possible. I propose to answer the objection that is always implied but rarely given voice, namely: just who do you think you are, spending your life on something useless in this world of drudgery? Read the rest of this entry »

Mozart and Prokofiev

Yesterday’s concert was billed as a Valentine’s Day extravaganza because of the presence of extracts from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet on the program. The real main attraction, though, was Mozart’s Piano Concerto in C Major, K.503, one of the finest pieces of music ever written. The soloist, Angela Cheng, played with delicacy and ease. One might object to the character, which was floating and detached the whole way through—this was pure Apollonian Mozart, and I think there are at least a couple points where emotional release is warranted. But it was a satisfying performance overall.

The Prokofiev, which consisted of selections from all the R&J suites arranged to roughly follow the story of the play, hits that sweet spot period in musical history where orchestras were big and harmonies rich but the perverse tendencies of classical composers hadn’t yet completely taken over. The WSO was fortified with several extra musicians, including an oboe, a clarinet, a flute, two percussionists, two extra violinists, two keyboardists, a contrabassoon, and a tenor saxophone. This last was a very nice touch. The sound of saxophone and orchestra is really quite beautiful, and it’s a shame that so few composers have taken advantage of it.

The music draws on a broad expressive palette and was sensitively played all around. In particular the percussion was very good. This year has been a bit rocky, perhaps, but this concert is redemptive. Definitely one of the top two of the year.

Thoughts on adaptations

My review of The Hobbit focused almost entirely on how the movie relates to the book. I thought this was odd as I wrote it—I wanted to mention more specific information about the acting, the visuals, the music, but I couldn’t find a way to work it in and it didn’t seem all that important, compared to the overriding question of how well the transition to the screen was carried off. We know that The Hobbit is a good yarn, we know that Peter Jackson won’t make a movie that’s not at least watchable, we know Ian McKellen can act and Howard Shore can bang out a tune. These are not interesting questions to ask. On the other hand, “Did Peter Jackson fundamentally misconceive The Hobbit?” is.

We’re dealing here with a matter of minor controversy in the genre fiction community. On the one hand are the people who want to be told a story, preferably with guns and aliens and simplistic morality, and don’t care all that much about the way it is told. Such people are the reason that, e.g., Stephen R. Donaldson has a career as a writer. TV Tropes is important to them. Adapting a book to film is, to them, paying it a great compliment, and the result will always be judged based on how well it adheres to the source material.

On the other hand are the more educated and intelligent (but sometimes too clever by half) people, the ones who are able to join in on beatdowns of this guy while simultaneously holding this guy in contempt. They will point out that there is more to a novel than the sequence of events it narrates, that not everything will adapt well to the screen, that perhaps the adaptation should try to be good in its own right, in film terms, instead of slavishly following the book. They have, in general, a nicer and more sophisticated way of looking at the world, and if they read it they’d probably object to my Hobbit review. I think they’d be wrong. Read the rest of this entry »

The weekend’s entertainments

Quartet came out in Canada on Friday. It’s an hors d’oeuvre, but a good one. Billy Connolly is a great dirty old man, the music is very nice, and there’s a shout out to, of all things, Lovreglio’s Traviata fantasy for the clarinet.

The WSO concert was Ligeti, Prokofiev, and Dvorak, and it was a little more mixed. Ligeti’s “Concert romanesc” is a stunning little work by a composer I had underestimated. Unfortunately, Saturday night’s rendition of it was marred by some pretty awful balance issues and insipid tone from the cellos and bassoons. This carried over into Prokofiev (the third piano concerto). The soloist, Nobuyuki Tsujii, is a little too tentative and clean. The piano was actually inaudible at points, sometimes fairly crucial points. And he was too nice. The third piano concerto, especially in the first movement, is meant to be sloppy and vulgar. It’s witty, but foul-mouthed. Wrong notes are acceptable, even encouraged.

The Dvorak (seventh symphony) was much better—it’s pretty clear where all the rehearsal time went. So far this year, the meaty symphonic music has come off well, but the equally important crowd-pleasing character pieces have fallen a little flat.

I’m no expert on disability studies, but I strongly suspect there is something undignified in the way Tsujii was put on display. Like a freak show—“look everybody, blind people are people too! Some of them even play the piano!” The fact that he is blind seemed to overshadow the fact that he’s a fine, well-trained musician playing a great piece of music. The pre-concert talk was all about the challenges of blind pianism, and hardly mentioned Prokofiev. The standing ovation was for his heartstring-tugging story, not because his performance was astounding (it wasn’t).

More standing ovation-related hypocrisy: I confess I didn’t have the strength to stay seated during the whole ovation. In my defense, I defied the crowd at the end of the Dvorak, which didn’t bring many people to their feet because no one had to overcome anything in order to perform it. But the Dvorak was better.

Mahler 7 with the WSO

I have a complicated relationship with Gustav Mahler. For my whole life he’s been in fashion in the classical music world. Recording a Mahler cycle is every conductor’s dream and scarcely a year goes by in any city without at least one performance of a Mahler symphony. Musicians love his works because they’re big and challenging with many impressive moments for the woodwinds and brass, and, not to put too fine a point on it, they almost always require the local symphony to fill out their ranks with freelancers. Audiences love them because they sound like John Williams and audiences pretty much think what they’re told to think.

It wasn’t always this way. In the years following Mahler’s death his works fell into disrepute, largely fueled by anti-Semitism. After World War II he made a comeback, but attitudes toward his music were a little more temperate than today’s abject Mahler worship. Mahler is a great composer, but he’s also a flawed one. As a symphonist he is mid-rank, fluctuating between the top and bottom of the B-list sometimes several times in the same work. His worst tendency is long-windedness.

I know Mahler 7 primarily through the 1970 Kubelik recording, which is 72 minutes long. That’s weighty, but comparable to symphonies by Rachmaninov, Bruckner, and even Beethoven. It’s not unmanageable. Kubelik’s tempos show off Mahler’s best side—the work has a sweeping grandeur of its own, and artificially broad tempos will only distort it.

Last night, at the second performance of the WSO’s Mahler 7 premiere, Mickelthwate took it too slow right from the beginning. True, the first movement begins with a funeral procession, but Jesus Christ, we’ve only got the hearse for an hour, could you please move it along? The solemn and ominous tenor horn call was stretched out to grotesque proportions by this tempo, which was by far the most ill-chosen one of the evening.

The work itself is repetitious, frequently and pointlessly bringing back old themes with scarcely perceptible differences. The fourth movement, while pleasant, is especially bad in this respect. A slow reading will exaggerate this tendency and make Mahler seem even more dreary and German than he already is. While you can’t argue with the playing—the orchestra acquitted themselves well—you can with the music, which is uneven, and the interpretation, which did not play to Mahler’s strengths.

It goes without saying that there was a standing ovation. We’re a long way from the days when Pantages would test out new acts in front of Winnipeg’s ruthless audiences, and these days we’ll stand for anything as long as it ends with a bang (I stood, of course—everyone else was doing it!). There was also a hilariously fulsome review in the paper. But last night’s Mahler was not nearly as good as last year’s, and I think it wouldn’t necessarily end the world if we took a Mahler break for a season or two.

Rite of Spring at the WSO

This Saturday’s WSO concert was The Rite of Spring with two newer pieces: Mijidwewinan by Barbara Croall and the Bandoneon Concerto by Ástor Piazzolla. Not a first half that inspires confidence, to be honest. The “pre-concert chat” revealed Barbara Croall to be somewhat lacking in eloquence, and full of half-remembered quasi-philosophical ideas. It is no great testament to my clairvoyant ability to say that I correctly predicted I would not enjoy her piece.

There have been many Herculean attempts to merge the tradition of aboriginal music with western classical music, and I, as a good patriotic Canadian, have been subject to approximately all of them. Pretty much across the board they’ve yielded results that are incomprehensible to westerners and probably offensive to aboriginal people. I understand the desire to increase aboriginal representation in the concert hall, but it would be nice to do it while creating some worthwhile music.

Daniel Binelli, the bandoneon soloist, was clearly not very comfortable with English, so his interview was very short. He answered the question of whether he had met Piazzolla by playing a badass run on his instrument. Fair enough, I say. He seemed to be having a good time, and music precedes language anyway.

Last was the choreographer and the leader of the dance troupe for Rite. It hadn’t been made clear to me before the concert that there would be dancing. Rite was conceived as a ballet, but let’s face it: it’s a concert work through and through. The dance folks were, as it turned out, in much the same boat as Croall. There was quite a lot of mumbling about nature and the female spirit, but I doubt there was any kind of understanding of what the European philosophical tradition or aboriginal spirituality had to say about these things, let alone what they have to do with Stravinsky.

Croall’s piece was basically an accompanied nap. Croall appeared bored on stage, so I felt no guilt. I was a bit tired and the rest helped me stay conscious for the remainder of the concert.

The bandoneon is related to the accordion, but sounds much nicer. It’s common in Argentine tango music, and Piazzolla was essentially to that tradition what Bernstein and Gershwin were to jazz. The instrument has a unique and beautiful idiom, and Binelli played very well. Unfortunately the piece did not measure up—it had little in the way of unity, development, or interplay. Lots of good ideas, but they didn’t come together. The best parts were with the bandoneon unaccompanied.

Rite was very well played, but the upstage pageantry of the dance distracted from the music. Overall, the concert was disappointing, as was the previous one in the Masterworks series. There’s some good stuff programmed this year, but the first interesting concert isn’t till November, and what I’ve heard so far has been a mixed bag.

I realize we’re trying to attract young people, but look: I’m a young person, and a lot of “new music” bores me to tears. You want to attract young people? Play Scriabin next to Haydn. Play a Mozart piano concerto every other concert. Bruckner. Rachmaninov. Martinu. Milhaud. A deep and hard-won appreciation for the entire classical tradition will make better and more dedicated listeners than a cheap but shallow fondness for the gangrenous stump that is “new music”.

(Don’t believe the paper’s review, by the way. It’s a pack of lies, unless Friday night was drastically different from Saturday.)

The Lebowski Gambit, part 4: The Video Guy II: Electric Boogaloo

Previously…

The video guy redeems himself very slightly by making an interesting point at the beginning of this video.[0:51] He argues that, in a speech about banning certain video games, Hillary Clinton implicitly denies their inherent value by pointing to superficial instrumental values: they can be educational, improve hand-eye coordination, &c. He then argues that Anita Sarkeesian does the same thing.[1:05]

The substance of his point deserves more discussion than I will give it here. I will tentatively allow that this might be what Clinton is up to, but it is unlikely that Sarkeesian—a pop culture critic, whose job it is to believe that pop culture has some inherent importance—is trying to diminish the importance of video games in this way. Indeed, Clinton is trying to ban certain games. Sarkeesian is trying to explore them critically. That difference in context counts for a lot. Read the rest of this entry »

The Lebowski Gambit, part 3: The Video Guy

Previously…

The video guy’s hatchet job of Sarkeesian is in two parts, here and here. Part 1 begins with a childish rhetorical move, and such moves characterize much of its runtime. I will not respond directly to these, as they are beneath contempt.

I had intended to link to specific parts of the video, but my usual method for that (adding ?t=XmXs to the URL) is not working for these videos. This means I have to paraphrase inline, resulting in a lot more “he said she said” than I’d like. I will cite statements from the videos by putting the time at which the statement begins in square brackets like so: [2:30]. Read the rest of this entry »