Kid Stuff

THEY’RE STILL OUT THERE
The following, which the good people at Jacaranda received recently and have allowed me to send along, might be worthy of comment. At least I hope so.

Subject: Pretentious Bullshit
I just received your advertising card for The OM Century Final Concert.
Lots of “premiere” performances.  There’s a reason they are premiere
performances.  No one else was interested.
It’s simply not true that every generation has its great composers and
artists.  It’s far more complicated than that.  When was the last great
Greek play written?
Just because someone studied music, understands it, and writes in a form
that seems serious does not mean that their music is worth listening to.
You’re presenting what is largely crap that will be forgotten real fast
except by those who need some kind of identity which is intertwined with
pretentious bullshit.
And don’t think that the words “accessible” and “not as accessible” will
mask what’s going on.  The music you’re presenting is as accessible as a
Straus waltz, it’s just that it’s not worth listening to.
I’m sure Swed loves the stuff.  But then for him, anything new equals
good.

Comments, please.

KID STUFF: Jacaranda’s very large season’s finale takes place on Saturday, May 9, at Barnum Hall, which is the large auditorium of Santa Monica High School, on 4th Street just south of Pico. Something very big by Messiaen will conclude the two-year celebration of that composer’s centennial.
Something even bigger has occupied several hours of my last couple of days, the DVD on Opus Arte (distributed by Naxos) of Messiaen’s huge opera Saint-François d’Assise. Saint Francois d’Assise [DVD Video]The production is from the Netherlands Opera, directed by Pierre Audi, — whom we know from two sublime Monteverdi productions brought here — conducted by Ingo Metzmacher: an extraordinary visual experience, a setting for this humanistic document exactly right for its character and for the message it strives to deliver.
There is no stage, in any theatrical sense. We are spectators at the periphery of a huge room, whose floorboards show their roughness. At one side is a lumber pile of discarded crosses in various disrepair; behind, ringed by scaffolding and partly visible, is Metzmacher and the orchestra. The action moves in and around these gatherings, with François, a stern, suffering figure in his rough robe of animal skins. The ecstasy of Messaien’s orchestra – the clatter of percussion and the howl of the Ondes Martenot, seems to pour down upon us. Saint François is Covina’s own Rod Gilfry, Seville’s Barber and A Streetcar’s Stanley, now a solemn and moving singing actor of rich lyricism and dignified bearing.
He cuts a distinguished figure, tall and stern, in a rough robe that sweeps the floor. (All his saintly brothers are similarly robed, but in different strong colors.)   For three hours the stage colors are mostly drab, contrasted only against the lurid yellow as the Leper makes his tortured appearance, to be cured by François’ kiss. An Angel (Camilla Tilling) comes snooping around the precincts, asking rude questions of the Brethren and drawing unsatisfactory answers. The Angel reappears in resplendent get-up, plays a viol solo and causes François to faint.
Still here?
Then comes the miracle. The stage explodes — and the music too!! – into vivid color. François addresses his worldwide convocation of birds, an enchanted gathering of children, colorfully robed, bare of foot, angelic of mien. They are Birds; armed with colored chalk they scrawl their ornithological names on the broken Crosses. They dance; they leap into François’ arms; the glorious clatter of their music is irresistible. The episode that has been an endless bore in every staged Saint-François I have seen up to now (and even drew boos at the Paris première; don’t tell me, I was there) is now transformed by stage magician  Audi into sheer enchantment.

The juvenile gathering on the cover of the Medici Arts DVD release (also from Naxos) of Janacek’s Cunning Little Vixen is hardly less enchanting These are the kids who play the Vixen’s and the Fox’s scampering offspring at the moment of the opera’s tragic end; some also are used in other animal roles earlier on. We are well supplied with versions of this powerful, moving, irreplaceable opera: a  previous version in Czech with Thomas Allen as the Forester,  a charming animated English version by Geoff Dunbar, conducted by Kent Nagano but somewhat cut, and the creation by East Germany’s Walter Felsenstein, on which our awareness of the opera is mainly based, and which Naxos rescued and issued in an essential seven-disc collection of that legendary director’s work last year.
In this new, exellent version the action occurs, not in the forest of  Janácek’s “merry thing” but in a vast field of sunflowers: almost as good. A railroad track pierces it from right to left: humanity inflicting its misery.  Elena Tsallagova is the chestnut-crowned Vixen, wondrously svelte as she steals the heart of foxy Hannah Esther Minutillo (and us all). Michèle Lagrange is the Forester, somewhat ill-tempered for this wise and all-knowing role. (There was no-one like Rudolf Asmus, who sang it for Felsenstein.) The performance is from the Opéra de Paris; Dennis Russell Davies is the eloquent conductor. A 25-minute video  “bonus” begins with jabberwocky from the ubiquitous Gérard Mortier, but settles down to quite a nice interplay with stage director André Engel and those kids.

THE TIN CUP
This morning I sat in my doctor’s waiting room, a prisoner to Station KUSC during one of the days of its recurrent appeal for funds. The announcer, my good friend Alan Chapman, was talking about “beautiful music” and extolling the role of the station in making that substance generously available. To illustrate his talk he was playing very beautiful pieces:  Liszt’s “Liebestraum,” the “Nimrod” Variation from Elgar’s Enigma, the 18th Variation from Rachmaninoff’s “Paganini” Rhapsody, a mournful moment from Elgar’s Cello Concerto, on and on. He was running these pieces in quick order, seguing from one to the next, never allowing any one to end. All in the name of demonstrating beautiful music or…to my taste, the power of overdoses of beautiful music to drive a listener up the wall.
Some of you have asked about that word “DONATION” to the right of this blog. As with KUSC and KPCC and KCRW, I am attempting to support my work on contributions. Unlike those organizations, at the moment I have no other source of support; as  I noted in a recent report, publications running cultural criticism have been firing their writers right and left these days.
One difference: I can conduct my fund drives without changing the tone of this blog itself. I don’t have to hold readers hostage, as KUSC was doing this morning, or as KPCC was doing for two agonizing weeks last month while the country begged on its knees for news and more news. (Wellll, maybe not the country, but I did.)
David-my-Blogmaster is setting up a Paypal system the workings of which I know now not. Any day, we’ll have that tin cup out on the sidewalk.

9 Comments

  1. BT
    Posted May 3, 2009 at 10:58 am | Permalink

    I’m not sure that “pretentious bullshit” letter merits much comment–the author is making broad, unsubstantiated assertions and seems to have no interest in a dialogue. But, comment I will: there is an extremely conservative view of culture (dogmatically held by that letter writer, far as I can tell) that basically holds that worthwhile culture is something happened in the past–in this view, the standard is “the test of time,” which pretty much eliminates anything new from consideration. Alternatively, one can see culture as an ongoing discourse that is perpetually being renegotiated, a discourse that does not require every utterance to be a “masterpiece” in order to contribute something of value.

  2. Vitelius
    Posted May 4, 2009 at 11:09 am | Permalink

    Somebody needs to send Mr. Pretentious BS a copy of Slonimsky’s “Lexicon of Musical Invective”: We’ve heard this song & dance before, and it was old news even in Beethoven’s time.

  3. MarK
    Posted May 5, 2009 at 12:04 pm | Permalink

    The two comments above contain several good points, including the one about the letter in question not meriting much comment. However, if there is one valid point in the letter, it is that some critics are too excessively biased in favor of anything new. Such bias is understandable and due to human nature – a person who listens to two dozen or so performances each month would certainly be more interested in hearing new stuff than someone who only hears one or two per month and understandably wants to get the maximum quality for the money spent. Besides, one has to be careful while criticizing a new piece if one does not want to be quoted in a book by some next twenty-second century Slonimsky. Also, unfortunately, many critics do not retain the ability of marveling at great masterpieces as if hearing something new and wonderful each time – AR definitely does, which is why it is such a pleasure reading his thoughts about his favorite moments in, for example, Mozart or Schubert.

  4. Posted May 8, 2009 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

    What is one person’s trash is another person’s treasure.

    The mocking comment of “when was the last great Greek play written?” reveals only that this person refuses to acknowledge that there may be other magnificent Greek plays written since the ancient times. That’s like asking “When was the last great play written since Shakespeare”? And I am certain there are people who think Shakespeare’s plays have no merit whatsoever.

    The same is equally true for music composed in the 20th and 21st centuries. What is accepted by today’s public was not always accepted by the public of the past. Beethoven’s music was ridiculed. Wagner’s equally so, particularly his “Tristan und Isolde” for its breathtakingly different tonalities. There is much of those two composers that are not performed today. Does that mean that “No one else was interested”? Or that “it’s not worth listening to”?

    What utter nonsense.

    Trying to expose people like that writer – who obviously wants nothing to do with anything new or unusual – to anything new, experimental, or different is fruitless, for their minds are already made up. I would much rather hear new music and have a healthy discussion or debate whether or not this new work will have an effect.

    Without the performances of new music, how else can I judge the merits of the composition? And, for that matter, how can that letter writer pass judgement on something that person hasn’t heard?

  5. Posted May 11, 2009 at 6:13 pm | Permalink

    KUSC’s fund drives are generally an excuse for me to explore the unheard riches of my record library. But if KUSC did not perpetrate the broadcasting equivalent of Chinese water torture, how would they extract the money to survive from an indifferent public? Reining in the Cerberus of Chapman, Caparella, and Svejda, limiting their fundraising efforts to what was merely tolerable, would probably mean there would be zero classical music radio stations in LA instead of one.

    So, as in our political world, with its questions of empirical torture, the questionable argument for ends justifying means has arisen. Fortunately, there is more clarity in the area of music.

  6. Posted May 11, 2009 at 7:41 pm | Permalink

    …and the greatest of these is clarity

  7. Tom Gossard
    Posted May 12, 2009 at 9:01 am | Permalink

    Why don’t you mention KCSN in your list of subscriber supported stations that have pledge drives? They’re still broadcasting classical music last I checked (yesterday), though with less distinguished commentary as you recently noted. I’m not aware of any classical music on KCRW, though they do have interesting and entertaining music programming otherwise.

  8. Posted May 12, 2009 at 11:07 am | Permalink

    I mentioned KCRW and KPCC only in the context that their fund drives become rather wearying and self-defeating, and end up holding the listeners hostage, not as classical-music stations. AR

  9. Robert Alden
    Posted May 13, 2009 at 10:17 pm | Permalink

    The writer of “Pretentious Bullshit” who disapproved of the excellent Jacaranda series and chose to hide behind anonymity barely deserves a response. I just hope that he, or she, finds something to enjoy besides picking on the creative efforts of others.