February 26, 2009

Spend some time and rock a rhyme / I said, It's not that easy

Wow, Jessica Duchen sure doesn't like Handel very much.
But did he compose anything that has the intense, sublime, genuine spirituality of Bach’s St Matthew Passion? Is there a single Handel aria remotely comparable to its heartbreaking ‘Aus Liebe will mein Heiland sterben?’ Not even the beautiful ‘Ombre mai fu’ is on that level. Where in those operas can we find the degree of perception and compassion that Mozart showed in Don Giovanni? And Handel’s pleasant chamber and orchestral works reduce to Muzak the minute you encounter Beethoven’s.

Beethoven said: “Handel is the greatest composer that ever lived.” He was wrong: he deserved that epithet himself. Handel can’t hold a candle to Bach, let alone Beethoven. A one-man baroque-and-roll hit factory, he compromised his art by selling out.
The problem with comparing Handel and Bach is that, while Handel is a flashy composer, the thing he does better than Bach is something distinctly non-flashy: mixed emotions. Irony, regret, resignation—Handel is astonishingly good at this sort of thing.

Bach does the grip of despair extremely well—"Seufzer, Tränen," for example. But has there ever been a better portrayal of the exhaustion of despair than "Lascia ch'io pianga"? "O sleep, why dost thou leave me?" from Semele is a touchstone of bittersweet. Even "Ombra mai fù" is more than it seems because it's supposed to be funny—but the sheer, simple beauty of it shows Xerxes' lovesick loneliness as well. No wonder Beethoven would exalt Handel that way: Fidelio mines much of the same territory (particularly the first act). And no wonder Handel is at his best—something I think he never gets enough credit for—with the complicated characters of older women, usually powerful, but afraid of the passage of time. Give me Alcina over the Marschallin any day. There, I said it.

But opinions are just opinions. (God knows I purse my lips at enough music that other people love not to get too upset over it.) There's something else about this anti-Handel barrage that's interesting, though.
Occasionally a gifted director will work magic – David McVicar’s Giulio Cesare at Glyndebourne was a case in point. But in lesser hands these operas can feel interminable, and today they are regarded as sacred country, so cuts are frowned upon.
Duchen seems to be criticizing Handel because his music has a low immunity to bad performance. Perhaps she's been lucky enough never to sit through a really poor St. Matthew Passion—I have, and trust me, it's as brutally relativistic an experience of the passage of time as any mediocre Baroque opera. But should that even be a criterion? Is great music, by definition, foolproof? I have a higher tolerance for badly-performed Shostakovich than badly-performed Verdi—but I don't think that really means Shostakovich is the better composer.

In fact, a lot of my favorite pieces and composers are particularly tricky to pull off in performance: Tippett operas, Sibelius symphonies, Sondheim musicals. Berlioz is a continent unto himself in this regard. A spectacular rendition of Kontakte can convince you of Stockhausen's asserted greatness, but how many spectacular renditions of that are you likely to get? A first-rate performance of Carter is thrilling—a second-rate performance leaves the audience downright sullen. Is that Carter's fault? I would be the first to admit that I'm attracted to works of emotional subtlety and ambiguity, and bad performances of those make for long evenings indeed. But if a piece of music has demonstrated its potential to be an amazing experience, I'm less concerned with how often that amazement is likely to happen. Some pieces have a high batting average, but never hit it out of the park. In this case, I prefer the possibility of the long ball.

February 25, 2009

Word Count

Brownian-motion-like arts-funding update:
  • The House Appropriations Committee has proposed raising the NEA's annual budget by $10 million for the next fiscal year. (The nitty-gritty can be found on page 183 of the relevant statement for Division E of H.R. 1105.)
  • In the meantime, state arts funding, already in trouble in Michigan, is also on the bubble in South Dakota and Minnesota.
  • And perhaps Louisiana, after Governor Bobby Jindal—who gave the Republican response to President Obama's economic address last night—prefaced his speech by disparaging arts funding:
    Jindal, tapped to give his party's response to Obama's address to Congress on Tuesday night, said he appreciated Obama's remarks but still had problems with the bill, including funding for the National Endowment for the Arts, "that it's not apparent to me what they have to do with actually stimulating the economy.''
    Somebody has not been reading this blog. (Though, if early reviews are any indication, Gov. Jindal might reconsider the value of theatrical training.)
  • And then there's this report from the Los Angeles Times detailing the first family's arts consumption, with mild speculation as to how that might translate into policy.
The LAT article has an interesting quote at the end, from the director of the Shakespeare Theatre Company:
It sends a good message that the arts count.
That use of the word count has made me raise my eyebrow for a long time. This is because I am a native of not unpleasant and intermittently scenic Niles, Illinois. Tangent: Niles's Wikipedia page currently imparts this wisdom (click to enlarge):

Amazingly! Anyway, at some point, the village had a contest to determine a village slogan, and the winner was this kid who had his visage slapped across a billboard near my house, along with his slogan: "Where People Count." Which promptly became an object of mockery for moppet and adult alike. (My mom used to drive by the sign and say, "In Morton Grove they read.")

According to the OED (yes, I know, argument by etymology, always a suspect maneuver, but then again, it is the Unparalleled Playland That Is The Oxford English Dictionary we're talking about), this use of count dates only from 1885:
1885 PROCTOR Whist App. 186 Many doubt whether good play really counts much at Whist.
It is the absolute form of definition number 14: "To enter into the account or reckoning".

Now, this is a minor thing, and, after all, it's just an offhand comment that I quoted above, but there's a causality implied here that I think is suspect. Would the arts be less likely to enter into the reckoning if the First Family weren't reasonably avid patrons? It's the sort of thing I file in the same drawer as books with titles like Why the Arts Matter. My experience is that, if you're not answering that in a sentence or two, you're usually either a) asserting that the audience is bigger than we think, or b) apologizing for the fact that it's not. In other words, I think asking whether the arts count is the same thing as asking how big a network effect the arts create, and that's something that I think is irrelevant to artistic value.

On the other hand, I'd hardly call raising the public profile of the arts a bad thing, so even I would categorize this as nit-picking. But I find myself more and more attuned to—and fascinated by—the 20-year linguistic hangover from the last round of major cultural warfare. The arts haven't been left with a whole lot of room to maneuver right now, and it's a fine line between realism and diffidence. Like Orwell says, "[I]f thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought."

February 23, 2009

National measure

Reviewing the Boston Philharmonic and Gabriela Montero.
Boston Globe, February 24, 2009.

Theory and Practicing

Reviewing the Manhattan Sinfonietta.
Boston Globe, February 24, 2009.

As soon as I came up with the phrase "mutable sonic orreries" I immediately began tinkering with the idea of starting a steampunk/psychedelica band so that could be the title of our first album. Then I ran the phrase through the Mac's built-in speech synthesizer a few times, and it sounded goofier every time. So I left it in. Sometimes I have a little too much fun at my job.

February 20, 2009

The Boston Sound

James Levine (music director) and Mark Volpe (managing director) held a press conference at Symphony Hall yesterday for the primary purpose of highlighting the release of the first four Boston Symphony Orchestra/Levine recordings on the in-house BSO Classics label. The line-up:
  • Ravel: Daphnis et Chloe (CD and download)
  • Brahms: Ein Deutsches Requiem (CD and download)
  • Bolcom: Symphony no. 8/Lyric Concerto (download only)
  • Mahler: Symphony no. 6 (download only)
Levine talked about each recording, and also played excerpts through a surround-sound set-up, which resulted in a rare and entertaining glimpse of Levine the itinerant huckster—
"Did you hear the dynamic range?" [pause] "Did you hear the top-to-bottom range?" [pause] "The left-to-right range—and especially the front-to-back range?"
—and so forth. He's actually quite good at it.

The CD/download duality is, both Levine and Volpe admitted, experimental—it's designed to see how various releases sell in the various formats. (The download formats are 320 kbs MP3 and WMA Surround HD—no lossless Mac-compatible options as yet.) The all-BSO structure—an in-house label, distributed through the BSO's own website—is based on 1) maximizing revenue and, Volpe seemed to hint, 2) a belief that the major labels other orchestras have partnered with (New York and Los Angeles, for example, both release digitally through Deutsche Grammophon) might not be around for the long haul. "It's basically taking our destiny and putting it into our own hands," Volpe said, "and not relying on media companies, and partnerships with companies that, in their heyday, were significant, but less and less so, given the new world we're living in."

All the releases are live, concert recordings. No doubt this reflects the good-news-bad-news combination of the increasing quality of live recording and the increasing cost of studio recording, but for Levine, it was all good, as he repeatedly expressed a preference for live recording over studio recording, capturing the electricity of a concert hall experience over filling in the repertoire. "I watched this when I was George Szell's assistant," Levine said. "The record company said, 'Dr. Szell, we want to come every week and record a Haydn symphony.' So they did. Meanwhile, he played the Sixth Mahler... the Siegfried Idyll: no recordings. Simply unbelievable performances." Levine specifically cast the BSO's lot with concert recordings. "It shouldn't come from the old aesthetics of studio recording," he said. "What one always hoped would happen was that the technology would make it possible to get an exciting enough, vivid enough souvenir of that live feeling you get at concerts." The BSO had recorded every one of Levine's programs since he took over as music director, but they held off releasing any of them until the technology caught up with that goal. "I thought, what I want is to release a kind of recording that has certain characteristics that are now possible that were not possible this way before, not at this level," Levine said, "and even if they were possible, they weren't the aesthetic of the time, maybe."

Noticeable was an interesting shift in that aesthetic—Levine seemed eager to use recording to build up the BSO as a unique brand, in both sound and repertoire. (Singular was a word that came up a lot.) In the first four releases, you get the BSO's long association with French music (Daphnis); its initial at-that-time modern German orientation (Brahms); its Koussevitzky-incubated reputation for new music (Bolcom—the symphony was a BSO commission); and the addition of Levine's own stamp (Mahler). It's a throwback to the time—not coincidentally, the time that Levine first came into the business—when orchestras cultivated distinct sonic personalities, before the movement towards homogenized versatility in the 70s and 80s. Levine spent a fair amount of time pointing out how big a part the sound of Symphony Hall itself plays in the new recordings. "Even one of the characteristics of the hall that was really fascinating is preserved there," he said. "You know that tendency for the upper-middle to be the strongest register in the room? It is—it always is. We could artificially change it, but I didn't want to."

The orchestra also took the occasion to release Levine's concert repertoire for next season (guest conductor programs will have to wait until March). Most noticable was an October-November series of all nine Beethoven symphonies—something the BSO apparently has never done. (Levine revealed that he himself has never gotten around to conducting the Fourth.) Levine sold it as a chance to rethink the symphonies from the ground up, rather than simply tack them on to programs as a rehearsal-management technique, which I thought was pretty good spin, at the very least. The BSO is also honoring retiring harpist Ann Hobson Pilot with a John Williams commission and an October farewell. Other premieres include a baritone/orchestra cycle by Peter Lieberson, a violin/cello Double Concerto from John Harbison, and the American premiere of Elliott Carter's Flute Concerto. No concert opera from Levine next season, although Mendelssohn's Elijah gets an airing in the spring.

(You can read the BSO's press release about the new recordings here.)

February 19, 2009

Coming up short

Guerrieri: Epitome Rag (2009) (PDF, 5 pages, 313 Kb; MIDI here)

This month's rag (previously) honors February's oddball brevity with 28-bar strains in place of the usual 32. It also gets awfully MGM-esque towards the end, which I attribute to a lingering excess of Valentine's Day candy. (I think Valentine's Day is a bit of a scam, but chocolate-covered torrone is OK by me no matter how sketchy the pretenses.)

(Word builder: the original title was "Brachylogy Rag." I am a big nerd.)

February 17, 2009

What we've had and what's to come

Reviewing Anne Sofie von Otter, Bengt Forsberg, and Brad Mehldau.
Boston Globe, February 17, 2009.

Seriously, "Att angöra en brygga"—a celebration of the ability to park a boat, from the ultimate cinematic expression of man's struggle to simultaneously possess booze and crayfish—is my new favorite song. Here's the original, sung by Monica Zetterlund.

February 12, 2009

Get real

As promised, even more beard-stroking on the question of arts funding.

Today is Abraham Lincoln's birthday. (It's also Charles Darwin's birthday. It's also my wife's birthday. Coincidence? I think not.) Last night, President Obama made these remarks at the rededication of Ford's Theatre:
We know that Ford's Theatre will remain a place where Lincoln's legacy thrives, where his love of the humanities and belief in the power of education have a home, and where his generosity of spirit are reflected in all the work that takes place.

This has been an extraordinarily fitting tribute to Abraham Lincoln that we've seen and heard from some of our most celebrated icons of stage and of screen, because Lincoln himself was a great admirer of the arts. [MG: ceremonies included the awarding of the Lincoln Medal to Sidney Poitier and George Lucas. George Lucas? Anyway, back to Lincoln:] It's said he could even quote portions of Hamlet and Macbeth by heart, as we've seen here this evening. And so I somehow think this event captured an essential part of the man whose life we celebrate tonight.
Not far from here stands our nation's capitol, a landmark familiar to us all, but one that looked very different in Lincoln's time. For it remained unfinished until the end of the war. The laborers who built the dome came to work wondering whether each day would be their last; whether the metal they were using for its frame would be requisitioned for the war and melted down into bullets. But each day went by without any orders to halt construction—so they kept on working and they kept on building.

When President Lincoln was finally told of all the metal being used at the Capitol, his response was short and clear: That is as it should be. The American people needed to be reminded, he believed, that even in a time of war, the work would go on; that even when the nation itself was in doubt, the future was being secured; and that on that distant day when the guns fell silent, a national capitol would stand, with a statue of freedom at its peak, as a symbol of unity in the land still mending its divisions.
There's your stimulus priorities: education in the lede, construction in the main story. No doubt this is reflective of political realities, and Obama is nothing if not a political realist. (Who knows? Maybe trying to sneak $50 million in arts funding back into the stimulus while doing one's best not to mention the subject counts as pragmatism.) But let's bounce something unrealistic off of that.

As part of a proposed transition to a society in which self-organized groups contribute more to what he calls "high-energy democracy," the legal/political philosopher Robert Unger suggests this:
An example of such a reform would be to reserve part of the tax favor received by tax-protected charitable gifts to independent social trust funds, administered by trustees drawn from different walks of life. Groups in civil society could apply to such funds for grants, as they now do to private foundations. We would have expanded the resource base of voluntary action.

—Roberto Unger, False Necessity: Anti-Necessitarian Social Theory in the Service of Radical Democracy, from Politics (new edition), p. xcviii

It's easy to imagine what this would look like in an arts funding context. Donations to arts organizations would still be tax-deductible, but on the receiving end, the NEA would skim off a percentage. Sound like a scam? Actually, it happens all the time—it's not uncommon in colleges and universities, for example. If I give $100 to my alma mater's scholarship fund, I'm really only giving a portion of that—maybe $85 to $95. The remainder is taken by the university to cover operating budgets and administrative costs. (In reality, they would levy the assessment on the payout side. But you get the idea.)

According to the the NEA, charitable contributions to United States arts organizations totaled $13.5 billion in 2005 (the last year for which there's data). A one-percent levy on that almost equals the NEA's current yearly budget. A five-percent levy—and here's where things get interesting—would, in six years, collect enough money (just over $4 billion) that the NEA could maintain their current funding level on interest alone, making the Endowment an actual endowment. (I'm assuming a standard four-percent endowment payout.)

I can think of objections aplenty to this plan, though some of them are mitigated:
  • It won't change anyone's mind in Congress about arts funding. I don't know, I think you could make a case: it's money the government wouldn't get anyway; it rewards private initiative; it could gradually wean the NEA off of budgetary appropriations. Try that one, Tom Coburn: give it six years, and you never have to worry about funding the arts again!
  • Donors would be ticked off. Yeah, probably. But that doesn't stop them from giving to universities and colleges. Stanford levies 8 percent; Yale 12 percent; Harvard varies by school, but tops out at 20 percent. Harvard still raised $651 million last year.
  • Private donors would give less. That's what traditional economics predicts, but as has been noted in this space, the available data suggests the opposite: that increased government spending on the arts creates more private philanthropy.
Here's the fundamental objection to our funding plan, though. Is it realistic? Are you kidding? It's not realistic at all. But what arts organizations and advocates should be asking—what they haven't been asking for far too long—is why something like that is so unrealistic. Why do we take it for granted that such a scheme—any scheme that ambitious—isn't likely to come to fruition? Because of governments? Markets? Both? Does it go against "human nature"? If so, is that nature unchangeable, or the result of societal structures that we assume are inherent and inevitable? The crucial question: what if they're not?

Go back to that last point in the list for a minute, which circles back around to Unger, in a way. Traditional economics often seems to malfunction when dealing with the arts; while one might think that there must be some other economic factors at work, Unger raises the possibility that economics itself is coming up short. While we like to think that institutions and their structures are responses to our beliefs, our nature, &c., Unger continually insists on the reverse—that human nature, the "natural" laws governing politics and economics are actually the result of our institutional structures. If the arts don't follow economic "rules," that may be because the structures of arts organizations are crucially different. And if that's true, then economic or political "reality" may be malleable in as much as we make the corresponding institutions malleable.

Here's what Unger has to say about realism:
Deriding both popular mobilization and ideological contests, this disenchanted idea of politics sees its work to strike compromises with powerful interests, the better to solve disparate practical problems. It imagines the existence of a range of "issues," each of them calling for sober solutions that respect the constraints of political as well as technical feasibility.... Once established, this conception of politics in turn bestows a halo of realism on the arrangements and practices that made it plausible in the first place.

The votaries of this deflationary view of politics flatter themselves on their own realism. They believe that they have discarded the dangerous romantic illusions of an earlier age. They pride themselves on their practical attitude. Nevertheless, the outcome of their false practicality is to leave politics paralyzed, and the basic recognized problems of each society unsolved.

The reason for this apparent paradox is simple. The fundamental problems of a society—both those it acknowledges and those it does not—are entangled in its organization, and in the ideas that represent and sustain it. We cannot solve such problems until we reorganize some of the established arrangements and revise some of the entrenched assumptions. We do not need to reorganize them altogether, or all at once; in fact, we never can. If, however, we treat politics as no more than an exercise in interest-balancing, devoted to finding discrete solutions to separate problems, we never reach the presuppositions. We remain too captive to the limits of our situation to become true realists. From this captivity, calamity alone can release us.
Unger is, to be sure, embracing those dangerous romantic illusions with both arms—but he's also reminding us that the basic right of democratic society is not having to take things for granted. If you believe in the importance of the arts to society, then why wouldn't you think big? I feel like the whole discussion has reached the point of politely ignoring the possible, even the unlikely, in favor of the probable. Theoretically, at least, we have leverage over democracy—and not the other way around. But it takes practice to make that into reality.

I once was lost, but now am found

OK, enough whining. Back to this month's Topic of Fun™: government arts funding!

First, an update: according to this summary, courtesy of Talking Points Memo (and seriously, if that crew doesn't pick up an online-only Pulitzer, you'll know the fix is in), the $50 million funding boost for the NEA, torpedoed in the Senate, has been restored in conference negotiations. Accurate? We'll see when the actual bill gets filed....

More later.

Update (2/13): Still there (Title VII, page 11).

February 11, 2009

I catch the paper boy / But things don't really change

Couldn't call it unexpected, and I never had any real prospect of winning, but solely from an entertainment standpoint, this was totally worth fifty bucks:
Dear Mr. Guerrieri:

Thank you for your interest in the Pulitzer Prizes. We would like to accept your entry but it does not fit within our rules.

Submitted online material must have appeared on a Web site "primarily dedicated to original news reporting and coverage of ongoing stories." In our guidelines, we urge entrants to ask themselves if they "genuinely fit the criteria" and we specify that an entry's cover letter should provide "ample evidence" of an online-only news organization's "primary devotion to original news reporting." We do not find the requirements to have been met.

I am very sorry to disappoint you. Although entry fees are non-refundable, we will make an exception in your case because this is a transitional period for the Pulitzers. In due course, we will return your check.


Sig Gissler, administrator
Pulitzer Prizes
That turned up in my inbox yesterday, a response to my submitting a spiral-bound exhibit of Soho the Dog posts, seeing as how the Pulitzer board had made such a big deal about allowing "online-only" entries this year. Let's look at the details, shall we? (Heck, if I was writing for The New York Times, I could do a six-part series, and that Pulitzer would be in the bag.)
Submitted online material must have appeared on a Web site "primarily dedicated to original news reporting and coverage of ongoing stories."
Classical music has over a thousand years of history. That's not "ongoing" enough for you?
In our guidelines, we urge entrants to ask themselves if they "genuinely fit the criteria"
Hey, self—do you genuinely fit the criteria? No, but my blog does.
and we specify that an entry's cover letter should provide "ample evidence" of an online-only news organization's "primary devotion to original news reporting."
My primary devotion is to my wife. Well, that and plagiarism....
We do not find the requirements to have been met.
By the way, here's what I submitted as the bulk of my entry: reviews from last summer's all-Carter Festival of Contemporary Music at Tanglewood. Until it was pointed out to me, I thought that I had actually gone out to Tanglewood for a week and reported on what I saw. Now I know I was at home the entire time.

OK, OK, I'm no Seymour Hersh. I'm no Woodward and Bernstein. I'm not even Walter Duranty. But if my focus is criticism (or if it was, say, commentary, to bring up another Pulitzer category), why am I getting penalized for not doing more "original reporting"—when, if I had submitted newspaper reviews, the original reporting done by the paper's other reporters would be enough to get me in? Here's what that Duranty-justifying press release says:
a Pulitzer Prize for reporting is awarded not for the author's body of work or for the author's character but for the specific pieces entered in the competition
And yet the specific pieces I entered in the competition won't even be considered because apparently I didn't sufficiently justify my body of work. Guys, warn me when you're going to unleash that kind of cognitive dissonance—I need time to appropriately pair it with the proper mind-altering chemicals.

Like I said, I didn't have any expectation of winning. (I figured that if forcing jurors to read my best stuff led to even one bit of freelance work down the line, that pays for the entry fee several times over.) But the Pulitzer Board's passive-aggressive attitude towards online writing is the comedy gift that keeps on giving.

At least—
In due course, we will return your check.
That'll pay for a few days of drinking like a reporter, anyway.

February 09, 2009

They shop around / Follow you without a sound

Hey, look! The United States Senate, that allegedly august body, went ahead and passed the Coburn amendement, which prevents any of the stimulus money currently being considered in our nation's capital from being spent on the arts. By a 73-24 vote! Let's party like it's 1989! (Darcy, as always, has a good roundup of links and righteousness.)

Having been alive and reasonably mentally alert since the Reagan era (It's morning in America! No, you can't have any coffee) I can't say I'm surprised, nor will I spend much time pointing out that, politically speaking, this is just standard demagogic crap. In fact, I wasn't going to write anything at all about this, since anything I did write would just be repeating things I've already written. But since 1) according to the Senate, I apparently don't have a real job anyway, and 2) we bleeding hearts do like to recycle, I will once again spell out why, if you're objecting to the arts being included in a stimulus plan on economic grounds, your grasp of political economy might leave something to be desired.

So, some salient points. First off, It's a stimulus plan. I saw recently where Greg Sandow, either out of disingenuousness, sloppiness, or ignorance—take three shots if you're making this into a drinking game—kept referring to an arts "bailout," an obfuscatory rhetorical trope I've been seeing lately from opponents of the current bill. So, just in case some of that is not simply cynical misinformation: a stimulus is not a bailout. The object of the bill at hand is not to bail out the arts or anything else—unlike the handouts that automakers, &c. were lining up for a couple months back. The object is to get the economy out of its current stagnation. The economic theories this is based on come from John Maynard Keynes. Keynes is not uncontroversial—I happen to think he knew a thing or two about the pounds and shillings, but there are very smart people who demur—but if you're going to sniff at the stimulus, you'd better be prepared to say why The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money is mathematically unsound, rather than just screaming bailout! on cable TV.

Now, it's not hard to find assertions that the arts shouldn't be part of a stimulus, because, unlike manufacturing jobs, jobs in the arts don't produce anything concrete. First of all: have you ever tried to move a piano? Second of all: in this economy? Doesn't matter. For over a century, the engine of economic health has been consumption, not production. The economy hums when people are spending money, and frankly, the economy doesn't care where that money comes from. The idea that the hundred bucks I get for a few hours of accompanying has less spending power than the hundred bucks a factory worker gets for a few hours of assembling widgets is economically preposterous. If your house is on fire, you don't worry about whether firemen are using filtered water or not.

A related foofaraw is that there are more important things to spend money on than the arts. Even if you think that (I don't, but I'm biased), you're still talking about things, and not about the economy. Remember, the whole point of a stimulus is to jump-start the economy by getting people to spend more money. Which is why I laughed out loud, with a little snort at the end, even, when I read the supposed purpose of the Coburn amendment:
Purpose: To ensure that taxpayer money is not lost on wasteful and non-stimulative projects
Arts money is non-stimulative? Every arts organization I know spends money as fast as they can get it. Every artist I know lives paycheck to paycheck. Compared with the banks, some of whom are still sitting on their supposedly stimulative TARP billions, money for the arts would get pumped into the economy with the indiscriminate speed of an Yngwie Malmsteen solo.

But who am I kidding? Arguments like this are never about economics. They're about scoring political points. And the Coburns of this country can always score political points by whacking the arts. Why? Because we let them.

I heard a talk by high-level diplomat once—the Chatham House rule prevents me from saying who, but this is someone who's carried more than one difficult brief—and that diplomat had this advice for negotiating with tyrants and dictators: get in their face, and stay there. Because if you're not in their face, someone else will be in their face, undoing any progress you might have already made. If you want to know why the NEA is still getting shafted over a $50-million supplement—an amount of money that would fund four hours of the Iraq War—there's your answer. Artists have been playing nice. Someone else has been in the government's face.

What those people dismissing cabinet-level arts representation don't get is that—forget an acknowledgement of cultural and economic importance—even benign neglect requires constant advocacy. (Would you like to lay odds that the tax-deductibility of philanthropic donations to arts organizations comes under renewed scrutiny in the next few years—without a corresponding boost in governmental support?) The engine of American politics runs on money and false zero-sum mentalities. If you want to change that: get in their face.

Look: maybe the Coburn amendment is just the usual grandstanding. Maybe the thin slice of the stimulus in the House version will be restored in conference. Maybe Senator Coburn, once the economic crisis begins to pass, will happily vote for a substantial increase in arts funding as part of the normal appropriations process. (Whoops, I snorted again.) Maybe the administration has a master plan for making sure that the best artists and the arts can expect from their representative government is something more than ignorance. You know what? They better.

February 06, 2009

Introductions and Goodbyes

A master of music's complexities. Remembering Lukas Foss.
Boston Globe, February 7, 2009.

The Globe asked for an appreciation of Foss, so this is kind of a slightly more formal version of last Monday's post (but only slightly). It's a testament to Professor Foss's entertaining nature that there's not very much overlap—though I reserve the right to tell that Katharine Hepburn story for the rest of my life.

February 05, 2009

We are still here

The protest movement that took to the streets of Athens last December—partially sparked by the police killing of a Greek teenager, and partially a vanguard of the wave of economic discontent sweeping across Europe—has finally set its sights on the bourgeois excess of opera, occupying the Olympia Theatre of the Greek National Opera. From the protesters' blog-posted manifesto:
In response to those who understand the rebellion as a brief spark, and undermine and dismiss it by simply saying "life goes on", we say that the fight not only continues, but has already redefined our life on new foundations. Nothing is finished, our rage continues. Our agony has not subsided, we are still here. Rebellion in the streets, in schools and universities, in trade unions, municipal buildings and parks. Rebellion also in art. Against art as entertainment consumed by passive voyeurs. Against an aesthetic that excludes the "Different". Against a culture that destroys parks and public spaces in the name of profit.
Current performances of Tannhaüser and upcoming performances of the ballet Giselle have been postponed. In the meantime, the protesters are having an "Open General Assembly of the Liberated Opera" every evening, which, Critic-at-Large Moe was pleased to see in the above picture, means open to dogs, too.

Other opera news, apart from the revolving-door tenor casting in the Met's Lucia, which I gave up trying to follow:

When the Six Nations Rugby Championship gets underway this weekend, the English squad will have an extra advantage: opera singers, courtesy of the sports-betting company Betfair.
The country's top opera sopranos—led by Christine Rice, one of the biggest stars of English National Opera—will be strategically placed around the stadium to activate the vocal cords of England's 82,000-strong supporters and inspire the national team to glory.

Betfair, the official betting partner of the England rugby team, has trawled the nation's top opera houses to recruit a crack team of sopranos who will elevate the singing standard of traditional rugby anthems such as "Jerusalem" and "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" to give England a competitive edge over their opponents.
As a Betfair spokesman puts it: "[T]he opposition won't know what's hit them when they hear the opera singers belting out the most beautiful chants Twickenham has ever experienced."

Elsewhere, magnificently immodest director William Friedkin has backed out of the operatic version of An Inconvenient Truth, citing the inevitable "irreconcilable creative differences" with the librettist.

And finally, La Cieca's far-flung web of correspondents return reports that Renée Fleming has gone all Rita Streich with her wardrobe.

February 03, 2009

Composer in the Kitchen (2)

(Click to enlarge.)

(Previously.) For Felix on his two-hundredth birthday. Luxuriate in a 9/4-8/3 double suspension in his honor. (More Mendelssohn love here.)

February 02, 2009

There's so much that we share

Reviewing the Lydian String Quartet.
Boston Globe, February 3, 2009.

Composer's Holiday

Lukas Foss, my old teacher, died at the age of 86 yesterday. I was going to write about what he was like as a teacher, but it turns out I already did, in the comments section of an old post:
He was style-agnostic (actually pan-stylistic) and could immediately pinpoint weak spots in any piece, no matter the vocabulary. Other teachers I had would look at what I was trying to do, and offer suggestions as to similar pieces in the repertoire that I could go study. Foss, though, would go through and say no, this note should be up an octave, you need to clean up the voice leading from this harmony to this harmony, this chord should come a beat later, you should separate these contrapuntal lines into separate octaves, etc., etc. And damned if he wasn't right every time. Every so often I'll still send him a piece that I think he might get a kick out of. He sent the last one back with a note: "I'm not convinced by the harmony." Know what? Neither was I, but I thought I could finesse it.

As a person, he's charming and mischevious, and yes, absent-minded, albeit with a crucial caveat. If I see him, I have to re-introduce myself, but if I send him a piece of music, he remembers everything I've written. Every so often, I'd have a lesson where I hadn't actually written anything new; I'd pull out a sketch from a couple years previous and try to pass it off. He'd look through it for a minute, then turn to me and say, "I've seen this." Another student of his and I used to theorize that he deliberately forgot non-musical things in order to pack more music into his brain.

One other highly entertaining thing: he's met everybody. In fact, that same student and I once decided that we would name-drop in lessons, just to try and find someone he didn't have a story about. Bernstein? An endless fountain. Cage? Great material there. I once brought a copy of The Magic Mountain to a lesson; turns out he used to play soccer with Thomas Mann's son. Finally, one day, I was wearing a t-shirt with a picture of Katherine Hepburn on it. "She's seen me in my underwear, you know," he said. Turns out that he once rented her guest house, and she turned up one day and forgot to knock first. I gave up after that.
Here's another story, macabre in a way he would have liked: for a while, I was Professor's Foss's first lesson of the day (he would fly from New York to Boston every Monday, and pack all his week's teaching into one day). So one morning I show up at his office, next door to the faculty lounge. No sign. I push the door open and go in. No sign. I peek into the faculty lounge, and there's Foss, curled up on the floor, not moving. "Oh, great," I think, "he's dead." But I give him a nudge, and he wakes up—and I mean instantly, completely awake, as if he's been up for hours. "It is time?" he asks. He was amused over this for about ten minutes.

He was amused over a lot of things. He loved wordplay—nothing could summon a grin like an outrageously punning title. He enjoyed tweaking expectations of humility or self-deprecation. I first discovered he was teaching at Boston University—thus sealing my grad school destination—when I read an interview with him in the BU alumni magazine. "How often do you see genius?" the interviewer asked. "Every time I brush my teeth," he replied. (If you knew him, you can hear the grin.) I realized once that I had seen Foss tired, seen him bored, even seen him disdainful on occasion—but I don't think I ever saw him angry.

Foss's music, probably because he was hard to categorize, never got as much attention as it deserved. He did avant-garde crazy better than anyone, mostly because his theatrical sense of humor was the final arbiter instead of some conceptual framework. Paradigm, with its theatre-piece vibe and its "insane" percussionist, matches Mauricio Kagel at his own game, and American Cantata was possibly the most atmospherically accurate Bicentennial commemoration the country ever got (which is why it's never, ever performed). And Baroque Variations still remains one of the all-time great—maybe the great—orchestral deconstructions. (It was, in fact, the old Nonesuch record of Baroque Variations, with Cage's Concerto for Prepared Piano and Orchestra on the flip side, that got me hooked on the avant-garde in the first place.) But even The Prairie, with its uncanny stylistic Americana, always gave me the sense, at its core, that it was as much a witty commentary on the artifice of that style as much as a paragon of it. He was a composer for whom "cleverness" was an unqualified virtue.

Foss's music, though, defies a lot of analysis, simply because it's so bound up in performance—he was a composer as fascinated by how you get an idea realized by musicians as what the idea was in the first place. The craftsman side of him valued elegance and efficiency; the mischievous side of him valued the ability to tap into the chaos of live performance, feeding off that chaos, rather than trying to alleviate it. He loved music that purposefully sounded "wrong," music that made you unsure of just how well the performance was going: repetitive figures that start to go down irreverent alleys (as in Solo), entire chunks of counterpoint or harmony thrown out of phase into dissonant multiplicity (as in his Renaissance Concerto). There was a Mozart minuet that he adored simply because at every turn, it zagged instead of zigged. He prized any reminder that music was more fantastic and unpredictable than we could guess.

The last time I saw him perform was at Tanglewood, where he played the keyboard part in Bach's Brandenburg Concerto no. 5 (on a modern piano, a cheeky old-school move) with, among others, James Galway. For much of the piece, you could hear that Foss and the ensemble wanted different tempi; finally, Foss just went with his own speed, ensemble or no ensemble. The thing was, it wasn't angry or vindictive—it was as if Foss decided that, if people wanted two tempi, well, bi-temporal Bach might just be fun, so why not give it a try? That's the image of him I'll remember: in the midst of the scramble, everyone else trying to keep up, while, smiling, he cheerfully ran on ahead. Thanks for the help, Professor Foss.

To please the dull fools

I'm sitting in the library today, and next to me on the shelf is this oddly addictive First-Line Index of English Poetry, 1500-1800, in Manuscripts of the Bodleian Library, Oxford, edited by Margaret Crum and published by the Index Committee of the Modern Language Association of America in 1969. (Reference works always have such enjoyably expansive bibliographic information.) Skip to page 575, and there's a meta-poem about music:
Music dear solace to my thoughts neglected
And to thy voice, her voice atone.

Music the master of thy art is dead
Let's howl sad notes stolen from his own pure verse.

Music, thou queen of souls! get up and string
Strike a sad note, and fix them trees again.

Music thou soft uniter of our hearts,
By whose almighty charms the heaven and earth were made.

Music thou soul of Heaven care-charming spell
As thou enchantest our ears.

Music, tobacco, sack and sleep
The tides of sorrow backwards keep.

Musical sounds some calls harmonious charms
The spark of grief into a sable blaze.

Music's a crochet the sober think vain,
To please the dull fools that give money for wit.
First stanza from an air by Francis Pilkington; second stanza by William Lawes; third stanza by Thomas Randolph; fourth stanza by John Chatwin; fifth stanza by Robert Herrick; sixth, seventh, eighth stanzas anonymous.