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Friday Miscellanea

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Friday Miscellanea

Another week comes to a close which means it is time for the Friday Miscellanea. Over at his blog, Alex Ross offers a moving tribute to the great pianist Radu Lupu who passed away a few days ago:

In 1970, he made a recording of Brahms’s Intermezzos Opus 117 that is in my personal pantheon of the most beautiful piano records ever made. At a Carnegie recital in 1996, Lupu offered as his last encore the slow movement of Schubert’s “Little” A-Major Sonata, and it wasn’t so much a performance as a glimpse of a perfect world. No pianist gets a lovelier tone out of the instrument. How he does it is a bit of a mystery: the piano is, after all, an impersonal machine of levers and hammers. But an A above middle C sounds different under Lupu’s finger. It glows from within.

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The Baffler has a big think piece on the contemporary role of the composer: A Catastrophic Purity

Most of us belong to three worlds, each with its roots in a different era. The pose of artistic brilliance that I tried to strike in my biography came from the classical music world, which largely took shape in the nineteenth century. The academic program I was enrolled in had its roots in the Cold War university. And the assignment itself was practice for entering the twenty-first-century marketplace. These spheres of activity correspond to the primary social roles that composers since Beethoven have filled: the genius, the technocrat, and the entrepreneur. Composers now are an amalgam of all three, nested inside each other like cartoon fish. The technocrat, who swallowed the genius in the fifties, has been engulfed in recent decades by the entrepreneur. The entrepreneur swims contentedly, predecessors in its belly, disturbed only by occasional bouts of indigestion.

There is a great deal of profound thought in the piece, so read the whole thing.

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Here is a weird twist in music history: Seizing the Means of Audio Production

Approaching the end of his rule, Anwar Sadat issued a series of decrees intended to curtail traffic and to combat noise pollution in Cairo. The ordinances, which officially went into effect on November 8, 1980, and remained a topic of conversa­tion for weeks to come, outlawed the use of car horns and criminalized “blaring loudspeakers, televisions at high volumes, and impromptu tape cassette sidewalk concerts.” Courtesy of the president’s executive actions, audiocassettes, enjoyed loudly by many Egyptians in public spaces, were no longer simply a nuisance. Noisy cassette recordings were now illegal.

The noise unleashed by “vulgar” cassettes alone piqued the interest of re­searchers, artists, politicians, doctors, and security officials, who ostensibly strove to protect the hearing of their compatriots by pushing for certain sounds to be silenced.

The timing makes one wonder: was this part of the reason Sadat was assassinated?

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Norman Lebrecht has a bone to pick with current orchestral programming:

In 2022 Beethoven is unperformable alone and in his own right. In order to play his music in any concert hall you have to furnish it with freshly minted drivel by Wordsmith — “positive vibes”, he calls it, in a pathetic closing cliché.

Every leading American orchestra now has a vice-president for DEI — diversity, equity and inclusion. This person has as much clout as the music director, who is required to sign off programming by a non-musician with social justice as their flag of conviction.

London’s South Bank calls its approach a “new classical music strategy”. The aim is clearly to please schoolmates of Toks Dada, the centre’s young Head of Classical Music, at the expense of the committed, if much older, classical audience. Nobody has shown any projection that this wheeze will succeed.

The pressures for change are driven mostly from without. Arts Council England has a cash-for-equality agenda that it quickly denies when caught red-handed.

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John McWhorter, for me the most readable of the New York Times columnists, avers that Classical Music Doesn’t Have to Be Ugly to Be Good. Mind you, he starts off with the almost obligatory bash at modernism:

Quite a bit of (relatively) recent classical music strikes people that way. And if it does, there’s a chance that what they’re hearing — whether they know it or not — is music composed with the notoriously listener-unfriendly 12-tone method of composition (one type of what’s known as serialism) pioneered by the composer Arnold Schoenberg in the early 20th century. What the bland name 12-tone doesn’t really tell you is that the technique replaces tonality with atonality. As a lay-friendly description in Encyclopaedia Britannica explains, in such a system, “no notes would predominate as focal points, nor would any hierarchy of importance be assigned to the individual tones.” What you wind up with is something like this. The “William Tell” overture or Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, it is not.

Yet some of the method’s practitioners have been given to an idea that this kind of music was an inevitable progress, dismissing a more intuitive yearning for nice-sounding music as a lack of sophistication: The composer Pierre Boulez once declared, “Any musician who has not experienced — I do not say understood, but, in all exactness, experienced — the necessity for the dodecaphonic language is useless” — “dodecaphonic” meaning 12-tone and “useless” meaning you, the rube.

Of course, some of the loveliest music I know was written by that monster Schoenberg... McWhorter's tastes remain rather selective, but I'm just glad he is talking about music at all.

A few weeks ago, I mentioned that William Bolcom wrote modern ragtime pieces. The young composer Vincent Matthew Johnson has done so more recently, and a recording of several of his works by the pianist Max Keenlyside reveals a composer who has taken the torch passed on since Scott Joplin and created ragtime that continues in the Bolcom spirit and keeps the genre ever moving.

There’s nothing quaint here — some of Johnson’s pieces would be beyond the ability of anyone who’s not a seasoned musician. However, one of his pieces is, to me, just ragtime to a T written in modern language: The whole CD is splendid, but I can’t get enough of “Blue-Berry Pancakes,” my favorite five minutes of classical music for this month.

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I think we underestimate the resentment seething under the surface of the popular culture against classical music. Here is an illustrative story: Youth orchestra strikes back at car ad that pokes fun at young players

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I've been listening to a lot of Monteverdi in the last couple of days. Here is a remarkable solo madrigal from his seventh book of madrigals, Lettera amorosa sung by Lea Desandre accompanied by Ensemble Pygmalion:

Here is Radu Lupu with the Brahms Intermezzo op. 118 no. 2:

And here is John McWhorter's favorite piece of contemporary music, Blue-Berry Pancakes by Vincent Matthew Johnson:

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