Sunday, July 24, 2011

File This Under "Perception Is Everything"

While it’s easy to make fun of bad reviews of music generally recognized as masterpieces today, the idea – as Nicholas Slonimsky did in his wonderful collection called The Lexicon of Musical Invective which should be required reading on every composer’s night-stand – bears consideration when we realize how our perceptions change.

At Friday night’s program of Market Square Concerts’ Summermusic Festival 2011, Fry Street Quartet first violinist Will Fedkenheuer prefaced their performance of Bartók’s 3rd Quartet by saying how a violist friend of his brought a boombox into his practice room and said “you’ve got to listen to this!” Will’s initial reaction to hearing this tape of Bartók’s 3rd implied a proficiency with profanity he was reluctant to share in mixed company, but over time he came to love the work and, after all, here he was, playing it tonight - and giving it, after all, a completely committed performance.

It reminded me of a story I’ve told often (and will continue to tell) how a student of mine at the University of Connecticut, taking a junior-level 20th Century music class, made a dismissive noise as I began introducing the music of Béla Bartók.

“I take it you don’t like Bartók,” I asked him.

“Can’t stand him…”

“And what is it about Bartók you don’t like?”

“Well, it’s all this motor rhythm and aggressive dissonance,” and I don’t remember what else he complained about, but it was a long list and enough to get started on.

So I asked him, “now, I understand you like Mahler’s music.”

“Oh, I love Mahler!” His expression changed to one of near ecstasy.

“So, what is it you like about Mahler?”

“The way he just expands everything beyond recognition, how he builds to his climaxes,” and so on.

I thought I’d go out on a limb. I remembered how it took me a while to warm up to Mahler. “Did you always like Mahler?”

“No, actually – I couldn’t stand it, at first.”

“What was it you didn’t like about it?”

“For one thing, it was just so long, I mean it took forever to get somewhere and I had no idea where he was or where he was going…” and so on.

“So, what changed your mind?”

Nodding his head, apparently recalling the challenge it had first presented and how, after all that work, he had found it to be more than rewarding, he said "Oh, I had to listen to it a lot."


[insert light bulb here]

“Ah,” he said quietly. “I guess I should listen to Bartók more…”

Three years later, I was sitting in the recital hall at the Juilliard School of Music where this student, a gifted clarinetist, was giving his master’s recital. The last work on the program was “Contrasts” by Béla Bartók.

Given that, I want to mention this review I read and I want you to guess whose music it’s describing.

I’ll paraphrase it here, in case the literary style might give it away:

This piece “is a work built upon dry as dust elements,” something that slipped from the composer to prove what “an excellent mathematician he might have become.” He found this composer hopeless, unfeeling, unemotional and arid. To him it was like listening to quadratic equations and hyperbolic curves.

The review concludes with the reminder that “music is not only a science: it is also an art.” While the piece was played with precision, he remarked that’s really the only way you can “work out a problem in musical trigonometry.”

So, who was he talking about? Was it…

(a.) Iannis Xenakis
(b.) Johann Sebastian Bach
(c.) Elliott Carter
(d.) Johannes Brahms
(e.) Béla Bartók
(f.) Arnold Schoenberg

Click on this link to listen to a video of the work this critic was reviewing. And you can read more about the composer and this particular piece in this post.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Hot Time with Summer Music

The past week or so has been busy – though I’d put the Piano Trio, for the moment, on a back burner.

For once, that metaphor sounds appropriate as it’s been in the 90s here since last Sunday, reaching 101° yesterday and shooting for 102° this afternoon. It’s supposed to cool off to 90° by the end of the weekend…

The scurrying scherzo of the Piano Trio reached a snag and I needed to put it aside for a while to sort things out and I think, in a way, I might have. So I’ll be ready to dig back into it in another day or two.

Meanwhile, other than reading and occasionally breaking a sweat just turning a page, I’ve been blogging a lot for Market Square Concerts’ Summermusic Festival 2011 and you can follow them with these links. Performances begin tonight at 8pm at Market Square Church and continues Sunday afternoon at 4pm at Messiah College’s Climenhaga Arts Center in Poorman Recital Hall, then concludes Tuesday evening with an earlier-than-usual start time of 6pm, back at Market Square Church.

As I joked on Facebook, “the music will be hot but it’s inside and it’s air-conditioned!” This is a good weekend not to be at the old Mill on the Yellow Breeches, as beautiful a spot and as quaint a building as that was. Last year, I was tempted to call the festival “Sweatin’ to the Oldies”…

Here’s a general post about the festival, the performers and the repertoire for each program.

This post gets into the whole idea of how people listened to music back in Haydn’s day, how that changed in the 19th Century and how it affects how we might listen to something, familiar or unfamiliar, today. It also includes some video clips of the Bartók 3rd Quartet that’s on tonight’s program (one of my favorite pieces ever, I am soooo looking forward to this).

Since I’d interviewed Bartók’s son, Peter, back in April for the Gretna Music presentation of all six of the Bartók Quartets, I wrote a post about “Bartók, the Man Behind the Music.”

While the Dvořák Piano Quintet “needs no introduction,” here’s a post that includes video performances of it and the 2nd of the Brahms String Sextets, recorded at LaJolla’s SummerFest a few seasons ago.

Usually, Brahms’ music also “needs no introduction,” but I find many of the details of Brahms otherwise uneventful life to have significant impact if not on how he wrote the music but on how I might listen to it in light of realizing Brahms was more a man than the old bearded “marble bust” we usually take him for. So there are two posts, one for each of the sextets. The first post also includes video clips of each of the four movements of the B-flat Sextet.

Meanwhile, hope you’re staying cool out there, wherever you are.

Dick Strawser