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: Classical 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 »

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.

Review: The Aesthetics of Music

Looking at Roger Scruton’s political credentials, it’s easy to imagine him as some kind of slobbering reactionary, the philosophical equivalent of Victor Davis Hanson and John Heath. I was quite disheartened when I saw this, because I had already committed myself to reading The Aesthetics of Music and wasn’t eager to subject myself to a 500-page book that would be more accurately entitled Bitching About Schoenberg. Luckily for everyone, Roger Scruton is not nuts; he just has some bad philosophical odours here and there. A quick glance through the preface was enough to set my mind at ease. Whatever else he may be, Scruton is a real philosopher and a real musician interested in making a real contribution to the field of aesthetics, and though he ultimately comes down against the Schoenbergian tradition, he gives Schoenberg his due as a composer.

As Scruton notes in the preface, music is extremely important to the philosophy of art, but it has been under-served by the great philosophers. On the few occasions they do turn their attentions to music, many of them (e.g. Kant) only show their ignorance and apathy. The fanciest pre-20th century thinkers to remark on music are Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, and Boethius, and all of them are writing about something so removed from our experience of music it hardly seems relevant (as I recall, Augustine’s treatise never mentions pitch). Whole aesthetic philosophies have crumbled because their creators never bothered to consider how music fits into their scheme. The 20th century saw a proliferation of aesthetic philosophies and therefore a large number of works on the aesthetics of music from various perspectives, but we have seen very few accounts as complete as Scruton’s and his work would be valuable for this alone, even if it was completely incoherent. Read the rest of this entry »

Listening List: A beginner’s introduction to early 20th century music

So you know a bit classical music. You go to the symphony now and then, and you like Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms—all the big names of the 125ish-year period that most orchestras focus on. But you’ve tried to listen to some newer music, and just couldn’t get into it.

(If this doesn’t sound like you, go away. This post isn’t for you.)

When someone mentions “twentieth century music”, the image that pops into your head is probably of John Cage playing the piano with a hammer, or dancers for some avant-garde ballet company screaming and karate chopping each other. In other words, weird bullshit. Or maybe you think of Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern and their twelve-tone (“atonal”) style. Music that is meant to be read, not heard.

So you’ve been understandably reluctant to listen to anything new. You’re not alone. Many people are in the same position, and while most musicians and composers would sneer at them for not understanding anything they didn’t hear on Bugs Bunny, it’s not their fault. We’ve developed a poisonous musical culture over the last century that is deeply impractical and often hostile to audiences, so we should hardly be surprised when audiences don’t respond well to it.

But there’s more to the music of the twentieth century than silly pageantry, unpleasant noises, and experimentation at the expense of coherence. It’s a rich and extremely varied musical tradition. The breakdown of rules once thought to be inviolable has meant anarchy in some circles, but in others it just opened up new possibilities. There’s a lot of twentieth-century music in the “classical” tradition that people would appreciate. It’s not talked about as much because there’s simply more you can say about the latest concerto grosso for slide-whistle, theorbo, and tenor muskmelon.

So here is a list, in no particular order and with no serious scholarship behind it, of early twentieth century works that would speak to a general audience. I’ve focused on transitional figures and pure twentieth century composers, not holdovers from the nineteenth century like Rachmaninov and Sibelius, who belong to a different tradition. Some of the mentioned works were written in the 1890s, but they are still part of the “twentieth century” movement.

These are pieces that your dad could enjoy. And who knows: after broadening your horizons with some of this stuff, you might just hear that concerto grosso with fresh ears. Maybe you’ll see where the composer was coming from. Read the rest of this entry »