Tag Archives: classical music

Another Beethoven Symphony Cycle? Why?

Why do we have yet another Beethoven Symphony cycle? Its is, in fact, a fair question as well as a good exercise to answer it.

The question is important only if there is a willingness to answer honestly and critically what this question implies. Implicit in this question  is the place of importance we have given these works in our culture. New recordings are only justified if the music has something to say to us the 200 some years after their composition. For me, that was the one of the questions I was asking when I started listening to this series of  on demand concerts from CBC Radio 2 and the Vancouver Symphony orchestra, conducted by Bramwell Tovey.

The Vancouver Symphony Orchestra have always been a fine band of musicians. Like all good orchestras, they shine brightly when they have good leadership and sound dismally bad when they do not. Over the past decades there have been a number of missteps in the choice of leadership. The current choice is not one of theses mistakes. Bramwell Tovey is undoubtedly the best conductor this orchestra has had in decades. In the past three years I have heard the orchestra all to infrequently live. But on those occasions I was impressed. The season closer a number of years ago spotlighted a performance of Igor Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” which was nothing short of brilliantly played. It is a difficult piece for the players, difficult for the audience. If it is not well played it is incomprehensible to the audience. That performance was a winner on all counts!

We come to 2008 and its cycle of Beethoven symphonies; which I am sorry to say I did not hear live. However, the CBC recorded them and they are currently on the CBC Radio 2 Concerts On Demand site. There are five concerts in all and they run consecutively. So I decided I’d listen to them in that order just to follow Beethoven’s creative process as it developed chronologically.

Beginning with the First symphony, as I listened more my interest grew and rather than wearying with the task of listening to some 8 hours or more of music, I found myself listening more attentively. The more I listened the more I realised that I was listening to an important musical event. It is rare for a cycle of anything you name is fabulous across the board, but this won comes pretty close to doing just that. There is an infectious bristle and excitement in the orchestra’s playing. When you have playing of this high caliber from and orchestra you become increasingly aware of the music’s inherent worth, its inherent value spanning two centuries.

By the time i got to the second symphony I was completely won over. This music and this performance made me laugh and smile. This performance almost makes you want to get up and dance!  Wait! This is a clue for us to note in judging this cycle.

The classical symphony in its most clearly defined examples, like those of Johann Christian Bach, is clearly a development of the Baroque dance suite and its rhythmic vitality comes from dance, music and movement.  The two early Beethoven symphonies are more closely aligned with those of the 17th century, but clearly far more extensive and serious works. None the less, they retain this link with the past. Bramwell Tovey and the VSO let his quality shine through. It is always cleanly executed, rhythmically sprung and if you’re not careful, you may end  up dancing. The last movement of the 2nd symphony in D major, with its hick-up opening theme… made me laugh. I thought instantly of the “YEEP” when someone sits on a whoopee cushion. More laughter and this Beethoven Symphony cycle shows promise!

Symphony No. 3 in E flat major was another special performance! The orchestra is again in fine form again and every note is in place! These are turning out to be performances to remember. The horn section fo the symphony shines in the second movement. The audience is as quiet as you could expect, clapping at the right spots and only once clapping between movements. When the final notes of the Eroica sound, the audience bursts into a more than enthusiastic applause. I am guessing at this, but I thinik there is an especially loud and noisey response from the audience when Tovey acknowledges the French Horns. I emphasize the guess work here, this is not a television production and so I can only go on what i would expect from a performance like this one.

The sound engineering on these recordings is superb. Sound engineer Don Harder seems to get better and better at his craft as time goes on. Engineering is really a science, but good sound engineering seems to be somewhat of a black art or wizardry which not everyone who has the knowledge seems to be able to master. There is more than simply getting the equations and calculations correct. One has to be able to understand the sound of a room, how to place microphones to overcome or take advantage of its idiosyncrasies. Harder is one of these individuals.

There is much more to talk about here, but i’ve said enough for one post. I’m going back to listen to these broadcasts again! You should to — these are a special performances.

I started writing this post a week and a half ago. The Monday I had started listening at home then was going to continue whilst I imaged some of the iMacs at the Education Centre where I do volunteer work. The school has a fibre optic connection to the Interent because they have designed and host most of the online courses offered by the Vancouver School Board. Of course the bandwidth is just fine and I managed to listen  to a good portion of the  cycle.

I was quite excited about the fact that this material was available to students here in Vancouver. However when I returned the following Wednesday, I found CBC Radio 2 ‘s site blocked with a red band across the screen saying “Access denied Reason: Internet Radio”. Huh? Yes, the Vancouver School Board has blocked students from listening to the Radio 2 on demand broadcasts.

It is just to much of a coincidence that on Monday I listen to some on demand broadcasts from the CBC and then on the following Wednesday the site is blocked by the VSB’s filters. Slowly but surely the VSB’s filters are blocking access to some of the most useful things on the internet. Do you know why? I do not have any idea who or why anyone would do such a thing. Surely this is not a carefully thought out decision on their part! How much more close to George Orwell’s 1984 can you get? Oh! right! we past that years ago but just how much more Orwelian can you get?

The Fate of Contemporary Composers and their Compositions

The competition piece at the Inaugural Knigge Competition at the UBC School of Music has me thinking about new piano works again. All the works we now consider part of the standard repertoire started life the same way. They were new, unheard compositions which could easily have ended up in the dust bin or completely forgotten. This can easily happen if a work does not get into the hands of competent musicians or if it simply cannot aquire escape velocity. By escape velocity I mean the same thing as a Mars-bound explorer needs a specific speed in order to escape earth’s gravity. Any new work needs the same, except it is measured in numbers of performances. I have no idea what that number is but it is certainly more than one.

This weekend at the Knigge competition, composer Michael Tenzer‘s piece, entitled ‘Invention’ got at least 8 performances. All the performances were good. Some were more convincing than others. As you would expect, the performance by the competition winner was the best. But the question remains; who will ever hear this work again?

Some music is difficult to understand. Composer Robert Schumann’s earliest piano works were almost unintelligible to the average concert goer in the 19th century. Mostly, his work was played at private concerts attended by the inteligencia of the time. We have no such system now. If Kreisleriana were written today, who would play it? Who would hear it? It is quite likely it could remain on the shelf for decades.

Serge Rachmaninov’s first symphony failed miserably because of a drunken conductor who cared nothing for the music and inadequate rehearsal time. It was nearly completely destroyed and only reconstructed from orchestral parts after the composers death. It is actually a magnificent work.

I have no answers. Only more questions. We have no viable distribution system for these works. We have no way for a curious music lover to even find them. I think it only appropriate that I leave this post unfinished.

The Competition Conundrum

The Competition Question: This is likely the most serious question we, as stewards or the serious music in the Western European Musical tradition. By serious music, I mean music which is, in and of itself an artistic, personal or philosophical statement or argument. In other words, it is music without words, music which stands as a statement in and of itself. I do not know of any other musical culture or heritage that has developed its music in a way to embrace statements like we make with musical tones alone.

That said, how does a young artist become known? In the distant past of the 19th century, you would play at various private salon’s and soirée. Public concerets arose from these private appearances. The material performed at concerts was entirely differnet than what appeared on public concerts. Clara Weick made her first performances in this manner and later with the assistance of her piano teacher father was able to become a sensation.

These days there are no equivalent to the Salons or Soirées of the 19th century. All we have is the concert stage and the competition. The competition rose in importance during the 20th century “Cold War” between the Western Block countries and the Soviet Block countries. The competition became a propaganda tool. While the compeititors were really competing and their desire to play well was sincere, the results were tainted by judging that was frequently slanted towards one side or the other. It was expected that someone from the Soviet Block countries would win the U.S.S.R. Tchaikovsky Competition. While there were some notable exceptions, the corruption of the results was almost complete.

That is not to say that the winners were not really good. They were, For example Grigory Sokolov is a Tchaikovsky competition winner and it is steadily becoming clearer that this is a pianist of true integrity and worthy of note. Others have simply faded from the public eye.

That said, we will never know about the heart ache and tears shed by competitors who should have won or placed but were set aside by Cold War politics. The Cold War is now over, but the politics of that war have been replaced by new set of politics – the politics of teacher’s cliques and the competitiveness of Academic institutions. It is sad, but true that a new face never wins the big prize– that almost always goes to someone who is already known to the jury. This type of prize by jury has even filtered down to the level of the local amateur piano competitions.

Just exactly how do you explain to a talented young player why he didn’t win, when he turned in what should have been a winning performance? How do you translate the jurors cryptic comments about metronomes and counting when there are only one or two lines of comment about a performance lasting up to 10 minutes and taking months of preparation? I have recently been put in that situation and has made me think anew about how we shepherd young players from youthful amateuers too seasoned adult performers capable of making a living playing their instrument.

At the same time, we sit on the edge of a precipice. An old order is coming to an end and something new will take its place. The traditional ways of publishing music are now outdated and outmoded. What once took dozens of skilled tradesman, huge investments in printing presses and the creation of cumbersome metal plates now can be done by a single person using a lap top computer. The output from programs like GNU Lilypond, Finale and Sibelius is press ready. It can also be distributed over the Internet and printed by any home inkjet or laser printer. The traditional publishing industry is on its last legs. There is no need for this layer of complexity in our distribution systems.

Likewise, during the late 19th and the entire 20th century it was possible to “publish” a recorded performance. There are huge repositories of recorded performances owned by the companies that package these performances for sale. Of course, these performances can easily be copied and distributed by anyone with a lap top computer. That is what is known as P2P or Peer to Peer distribution on the Internet.

Those publishers or distributors are now disparately trying to salvage and keep their old model alive by litigation. They are demanding stiffer penalties and extended life for their copyright repositories. At this point, the Public Domain is now on life support. Probably nothing published in my lifetime will leave copyright during my lifetime. Likely things published near the dawn of the 20th century will still be copyright when I am no longer here.

You see, the picture is bleak. How does a young peformer (or any performer for that matter) proceed in this new world? Perhaps the answer is partially in the past as well as in the new Internet technologies.

The salon and soirée disappeared because people began communicating in a different manner. We use our own homes for entertainment less and less. More and more our communal activities take place in larger venues. At least that is the way things were at the close of the last century. However, something new is now possible. The Internet holds promise for new methods of communicating.

Let me enlarge on this. Up to now, most of my friends are drawn from those people I meet in my day to day life. It has not been possible for me to meet with someone in Australia or the U.K. simply because of distance. The Internet has changed this. I now have someone I consider a very close friend in Melbourne Australia. I had not considered or planned this. It happened in the virtual world of cyberspace in much the same way as it does in real life. Friendships can now grow and flourish inspite of distance.

Technology had now made video conferencing a reality. Imagine if you will, a Salon or soirée which takes place in cyberspace. Imagine a piano lesson or even a master class which takes place in two or three places at once, the meeting space being in a virtual space in cyberspace. This can now be done without the intervention of a third party publisher or even coordinator. A peer-to-peer network will suffice given sufficient bandwidth and well designed software.

Some things like this are now happening, but they are under the sponsorship of major telecoms acting as the third party publishers. In reality, this added layer is not needed. Currently the need is artificially placed there because of the bandwidth limitations placed on what the telecoms call “residential” customers.

This article should have a conclusion, but it is not written because I do not know how to conclude it. I just don’t have enough information, nor do I know the road forward.