Wednesday, September 24, 2008

What's next? "Alex Ross Facts?"

When you look up "bad ass" in the dictionary, you'll see a picture of Alex Ross.

Why is a classical-music critic and blogger now the definition of "bad ass?"

Let's look at the facts:

(1) He just won a MacArthur "Genius" Grant.
(2) He was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.
(3) His book, The Rest Is Noise, is insightful, intelligent, and readable. (And award-winning!)
(4) He is a columnist for the New Yorker.
(5) In the classical blogosphere, he is the only guy about whom no one has a cross word to say.
(6) He's clearly hyper-well-educated, without being pushy or weird about it.

Need I go on? Of course not. No, the only way Alex Ross could be more of a bad ass is if he saved a busload of widows, orphans, nuns, and a president whose popularity rating was above 40% (Reagan or F.D. Roosevelt, depending on your bent, for example) from the clutches of an evil supervillain, while simultaneously addressing the National Press Club and curing cancer. And, well, after the last year, don't be surprised if you see something like that on CNN. At this point, Mr. Ross has only feats of sheer superherodom let to conquer.

I'm being crass, infelicitous, and hyperbolic, but - let's face it - Alex Ross is pretty goll-darned cool by any objective measure. He's clearly earned his "Genius" Grant, as well as the thanks of anyone who cares about art-music literacy in the Republic today.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Add to Meitner, Noether

Pliable has an excellent post on Lise Meitner, the woman who was responsible in no small part for the discovery of nuclear fission, which earned Otto Hahn the 1944 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. In l'affaire Meitner, Hahn comes off as halfway decent, though not nearly as decent as he would have been had he insisted on including Dr. Meitner in the glory.

Another woman whose contribution to modern science, at least mathematics, which is somewhat more precise than experimental science, is often neglected is Emmy Noether.

She struggled to find acceptance in the male-dominated field of mathematics, which, while still heavily weighted toward men today, was something less than hospitable to women in Germany after the First World War. Despite a climate that wasn't conducive to such work, Noether revolutionized the field of abstract algebra in a way that, in my view, is an equal to Évariste Galois' invention of group theory at 20 the night before he was killed in a duel. To see how important Noether's work is to abstract algebra, imagine what it would be like without the isomorphism theorems. It would probably still be workable, but it would look way different.

Add to her struggles to find a place in the academy the fact that she was driven from her post by the Nazis and that she died before her time in a bizarre and tragic manner, and you have a life that was far from the pleasure cruise one might think necessary for someone that smart to produce at her peak levels. She had to work to find her place in institutions that judged her on the most facile and superficial levels, and was driven from her homeland by a more egregious form of that same intolerance. She lived only two years after coming to America, and the mind boggles to think what she would have done with another twenty or thirty years.

Noether received attention from colleagues like David Hilbert and Albert Einstein, and praise of her genius is not wanting; still, I think that an example like Emmy Noether might inspire young people to take an interest in mathematics. The notion that someone like Évariste Galois or Emmy Noether (and they really do need to be mentioned in the same breath) might be out there, but bored to tears by a math class they comprehended long ago or discouraged by various factors, is really astonishing to behold.

Also, when we hear alarmist stories about women in science, it's a pleasant tonic to know that genius is genius, regardless of the gender of the body it inhabits. The beautiful thing about mathematics is that, in its pure form, it requires no laboratories or major research institutions - only curiosity and a lot of paper.

Satisfying Stravinsky from an unusual source

Ionarts reviews the new Rattle/BP disc of some of Stravinsky's symphonies. I've got the Boulez disc, so I don't think I'll be running out to get Rattle's entry.

What I will do, however, is listen to Celibidache's 1984 performance of the Symphony of Psalms, coupled with a Fauré Requiem, as part of EMI's Celibidache Edition.

I don't go so far against the late Director Celibidache as to call him a quack or fraud. I will say, however, that there was music that was suited to his style and music that wasn't. He had interesting things to say about Bruckner and his Brahms Ein deutsches Requiem is among my favorites of a work that I could not do without at times.

His Symphony of Psalms, while lacking the same incredibly precise rhythmic articulation and clarity of Boulez' recording, presents the content of the Psalms a little better in my mind. Indeed, as Ionarts notes, the Symphony was written in a spiritual and religious context, at least in terms of Stravinsky's life. Celibidache represents that nicely.

Another work, out on EMI's bargain series, that does the religious content justice is Franz Welser-Möst's 1996 Bruckner Te Deum. It's coupled with an Alpensinfonie which, given my antipathy to that work, is useless ballast, but it's hard to justify seven dollars for about twenty minutes' worth of music, even music as sublime as the Te Deum. Pick it up, it's good. It might be my favorite modern version - all time honors go to Karajan's 1960 Salzburg performance on EMI, too.

Toward a defense of silence

Alex Ross has a typically wonderful piece about concert mores and the like in the New Yorker.

I generally don't talk much about the whole debate over concerts, historical practice, and music's place in society. I'll do so now, only because Mr. Ross has me thinking about the subject.

Some things deserve to be contemplated and appreciated in silence. Would one read one of Vergil's Eclogues or an ode of Horace in a shopping mall or on a subway train? Only if s/he wanted to look like a pretentious jerk, which might be hard to do considering the abysmal state of literacy in this country today.

Pretense and ostentation can be the only reasons for doing that, largely because it's damned hard to appreciate nuance and beauty when one is bombarded by awful music, bizarre fashions, and parents listlessly telling little Gavin (or whatever) not to do whatever it is that he's decided to do.

The quieter passions really do require quiet, largely because of the protean efforts of concentration that the best of culture can produce. Regardless of his odious politics, about which I can discourse at length, Ezra Pound's Cantos represent - at their best - a work of art with which one must grapple. This is not accomplished in the press and noise of modern society. How, then, should great music be treated differently?

Why, more to the point, should we treat great music differently? If I shouldn't be expected to wrestle with, say, Canto 79 in the midst of a crowd, then why should Bach's Prelude and Fugue in C sharp, BWV 848, require less concentration? The obvious answer is that is shouldn't. The force of intellect required to crack a dense poem and Bach's music really isn't all that different in the final analysis. The difference, of course, is that literature isn't wallpaper and music is. Real silence is rare these days, even in libraries - where sedulous law students labor away at Fed. R. Civ. Pro. 26 and secured transactions - there is a proliferation of iPods and the like.

When music becomes a commonplace, then treating it like a commonplace isn't that big of a deal. No one expects mighty feats of cogitation over lightbulbs and television sets, largely because they're assumed parts of daily life. Music is, more and more, something that you have around so you aren't bothered by silence.

The one bulwark against this dismal tide is, of course, the concert hall and the opera house. Like a liturgy, the rituals surrounding these activities protect against profanation. When one feels the need to put on a coat and tie, to be prompt, to be still, the atmosphere is conducive to contemplation of the materials presented. Or sleep. Assuming prices for reasonably good seats at the CSO is roughly representative, an eighty-dollar nap in a necktie seems excessive, but I'm not going to judge them. It might be bourgeois to take such things so seriously, but these are things that deserve to be taken seriously.

It might not be cool to hold the opinion that serious music requires a certain baseline level of seriousness, but making classical music hip is roughly equivalent to making Latin grammar hip. Youths are as likely to consider Mahler's Kindertotenlieder cool as they are to get excited about the dative of agent and its use with the passive periphrastic. Not very, especially if they want a non-miserable high-school experience. The point is that some things should be held aloof from the ebb and flow of popularity and common standards. It's like a video I once saw showing how the "loudness war" really did its damage: if there is no good culture, then there is no bad culture. We get a greyish mélange of mediocrity, which is only good enough to be spread about indiscriminately.

Oh, wait. There, as the man says, it is.

Friday, September 05, 2008

Gods, Kings & Demons

So, the DG recital disc by René Pape is out there, and, as one would expect, there's a teaser. Pape sings Wotan's monologue from scene 4 of Rheingold, beginning "Abendlich strahlt der Sonne Auge." Naturally.

Mostly Opera has this to say,
However, though represented only by the rather short “[Abendlich] strahlt der Sonne Auge“ (a Wotan/Hans Sachs CD with Christian Thielemann is upcoming) it is plainly obvious that René Pape is the Wotan everyone has been waiting for as long back as memory goes. It has been speculated he will be the best Wotan since Hans Hotter. In fact he will most likely surpass Hans Hotter. The glorious nobleness of the voice, the legato-lines, the phrasing...
I'll go one better: if Pape continues along his current course, it won't be an issue of post-Hotter, it will be an issue of post-Schorr. I'm not entirely sure it won't be "Schorr and Pape" as opposed to "Schorr, then Pape." The man is a phenomenon, in that he seems to have been born to sing Wagner's bass (or bass-baritone) roles. For the last few decades, we've had to make do with a lot of very good singers working with Wagner (Windgassen comes immediately to mind as an example of a singer whose intelligence made up for his deficiencies), but not innately suited to his music. Pape is, and he's young enough still that we might be so lucky as to get a Ring out of him and on records.

Marke's monologue from Tristan, act 2 sc. 3, of course, is equally splendid. Indeed, Pape's nobility makes the emotional impact of the content so damned powerful. Some time back, on one of the standard interweb classical-music message boards, there was a discussion of Marke's music and its perceived dryness (as I recall). Pape takes care of that by delivering an account of the monologue that makes Marke's pain, despite his regal character, easily understood. Now, anyone with a libretto can figure out that Marke isn't happy with the situation, and, indeed, feels pretty darned blue about it. That is simple enough, right? Well, on the off chance it isn't, Pape brings the point home. Talk about a good singer.

The other stuff is good, but Pape could sing Bob Dylan's Shot of Love from end to end and it would still sound good, notwithstanding inherent limitations in the material. I'm not familiar enough with it to make too many judgments. Wagner, though, I know reasonably well, and I know Pape hit a homerun with the Rheingold and Tristan selections.

If you're not in the United States, what are you waiting for with this? If you are, download it from DG, write the ten bucks off, and buy the CD when it comes out in a couple of months. Once you've digested it properly, you can start getting on pins and needles for a Wagner-devoted disc of Pape and Thielemann. That should be pretty great, since both will be in their element.