2014: Iowa Public Radio has given me a
page where you can find my blog postings, concert audio,
interviews, and playlists (url is
Just how exceptional IS classical music's "woman problem"? My
- Alex Ross of The
New Yorker discusses it further
- Anastasia Tsoulcias of
NPR discusses it further
May 2014: "Yiddish is not a funny
language! No language is inherently funny" - Yuri Vedenyapin
proves his point with two heartrendingly beautiful songs in
live set from IPR. Yuri, an expert on Yiddish
dialects, also talks about the king of prewar Yiddish standup comedy, whose "Weinstein? Einstein!" routine
prefigured "Who's on First?"
May 2014: The great
bass-baritone, humanitarian, teacher, and civil-rights pioneer
Simon Estes dropped in to IPR and spoke with me about his life
and work. You can hear our interview at the link; to call
him "inspiring" doesn't even come close!
Live set at IPR's studio by the glorious
early-music ensemble FATHOM - I had no idea how beautiful
three voices and three viols could sound together! Give it a
November 2013: Stream
The awesome Trio 826 talk with me and perform in IPR's studio.
November 2013: Stream
Zingaresca (Oleg Timofeyev and Vadim Kalpakov, Russian
guitars) perform and speak with me in IPR's studios.
If you want the best in Russian-Roma music you really
have to come to Iowa...
November 4, 2013: Stream
here:Tony Arnone playing Bach live and speaking with me at
November 4, 2013: The Golden Age of Bach Playing, Post
amazon review of the Dunedin Consort's new recording of Bach's
April 20, 2012 -
The Bassists did WHAT? Loving the Twitter feed
- a day-by-day posting of the diary entries of the London
Symphony Orchestra's timpanist, Charles Turner, written during
their US tour of 1912 - the first US tour ever undertaken by a
European orchestra. Gareth Davies of today's LSO is
posting them 100 year to the day after they were written. It
interests me partly because I'm fascinated by the US in 1912,
an extraordinary year in our history, but also because the
diary gives a musician's-eye-view of the
legendary maestro Artur Nikisch. I especially
love the part where they do two gigs in
Des Moines. They played in the Coliseum, and Turner writes, "It is
like a barn. Can't play half loud enough" (today, by the way,
Des Moines has a beautiful Civic Center with excellent
acoustics). Right now (so to speak) they are in Milwaukee,
where my dad was to be born six years later.
BUT HERE'S A
QUESTION: Turner writes,
"More trouble with Nick[isch]. He gets on the Basses and gets
the bird back." SO: what did
"give the bird"
and "get the bird"
mean to an English musician in 1912?
Today it would mean the basses made an obscene gesture, and although the LSO was a self-governing organization
from Day One in 1904, I find THAT hard to imagine.
APRIL 21: I wrote to the LSO, and
LSO Administrator Jo Johnson answered brilliantly -
"It seems that the etymology of the phrase 'giving the
bird' is booing and hissing, like a goose, as opposed to the
more obscene gesture we know these days. It was apparently in
use in the music hall/ vaudeville era - 1920s - to get someone
unpopular off the stage. We can probably assume that giving
the bird to the Maestro was more like tutting or grumbling
loudly enough to be heard! "
here's a page with the LSO tour itinerary (it ended April 28)
and the programs.
April 19, 2012 -
While prepping for interview of
Marlboro, I read Alex Ross's superb
"The Music Mountain" in
to This. Vivid portrayal of the life force that is Mitsuko Uchida, one of my favorite great pianists,
quoting the Mitsuko-isms that emerge from her brain
to the world with welcome frequency. An example, "For the
Germans, the greatest thing since Karajan.
Karajan, of course, was the greatest thing since Hitler." Alex
doesn't say to whom she refers - only, "an overhyped
instrumentalist"; otherwise I'd have guessed it was Christian
Thielemann... anybody have any specifics?
Also love her
comment on prodigies: "Do you want yourself to be operated on
by a genius twenty-year-old heart surgeon? Do you want to go
to the theater and see a teenager play King Lear?"
April 3, 2012 - More on
Ken Woods' post on the slow movement of the Brahms Piano
Concerto no. 2, discussed below:
can't recall where I read it discussed, but it clearly is an
hommage to the slow movement of Clara Schumann's Piano
Concerto in A minor, op. 7, which also has a cello solo.
This fact strongly supports Ken's belief that this is a
"Clara" movement. (Jon Bellman has shown that the first
movement of the Symphony no. 1 is too, by finding unmistakable
allusions in its development section to Schumann lieder.)
Also, Ken is clearly right that the MM doesn't apply so much
to the beginning of the movement. I feel that it means more
with respect to the piano's entry - clearly meant to be played
2012 - Martin Pearlman has (a)
written an extraordinary article in Early Music America
(not online) about Armand-Louis Couperin,
long neglected by (among many others) me in favor of his
cousin Francois; (b)
produced, after decades of work, an
edition of his music, which he
is - get this - giving away free online
(what a guy!); (c) made some VERY wonderful recordings
of his music, also free at the link; (d) pointed out to you
pianists that his music would
sound great on your instrument.
March 17, 2012 -
Great post by Greg
on the storm movement in Beethoven's
Pastoral symphony. We may think of Disney cartoon storms, but
to Beethoven and his listeners it was more like our experience
of a tornado; a thunderstorm was life-threatening and truly
terrifying. Thus the "song of thanksgiving" that follows feels
so profound, even religious (Beethoven inscribed, in German,
"we thank Thee, God" over the hushed moment near the end).
March 15, 2012 - Truly
great article by Jed Distler, classifying musicians into "line
guys" vs. "chord guys." Incredibly enlightening.
Feb 24, 2012:
by conductor Ken Woods on the slow movement of the Brahms
Piano Concerto no. 2 and its
relationship to a Brahms song about the death of a young
person (I'd add only the connection to Clara Schumann and her
children). It sheds light on one of my long standing
This movement is the only one in Brahms with a really puzzling
metronome mark: quarter note=84, about 50% faster than most
pianists play it. It’s the only MM mark in Brahms that’s far
removed from what musicians actually do; a few of his other
MMs are on the fastish side, and many more are on the slowish
side, but most are pretty close to intuitive practice. So why
is this one so far off? It’s not a mistake: Brahms was very
careful about MMs, providing them only for a handful of works,
and only after much care and thought. Further, the MMs in this
concerto were meant to guide conductors of his upcoming
performances when he toured the concerto – testing it out in
Meiningen, premiering it in Budapest and then around Europe.
I’ve heard some very intelligent theories for the movement’s
speed. The pianist/composer Gianluca Cascioli points out that
this movement has a 2-against-3 meter; the “3” is in the bass
line, and, Gianluca says, it is only audible at the fast
tempo. The great musicologist Walter Frisch makes a very
different case: that it’s a matter of genre: Brahms heard this
movement as a “serenade,” a type of orchestral work which was
lighter and faster than a symphony. The arguments are both
most performers (e.g.,
none of this matters: the movement
right at a slower tempo. I think this has to do with its
profound emotional content, and I think Ken's comments about
the song points us to what that content is. (Although the song
is in cut time...) Perhaps Brahms was afraid the movement
would sound sentimental-schmaltzy if played for deep feeling -
which only supports Ken's view - but if so Brahms has been
proved wrong time and again. I’d like to hear a pianist try it
at the MM (actually, Horowitz and Toscanini come fairly close,
so I have my wish), but I don’t think it will ever catch on.
There’s just too much there there.
Feb 19, 2012:
Our Conversation about Beethoven's Ninth and Gustav Leonhardt.
Here is a
transcript of a fascinating conversation I had with some
friends on Facebook. The opener: "The
late Dutch harpsichordist Gustav Leonhardt detested
Beethoven's 9th, esp. the finale, which he called "the
quintessence of platitude" and "the most vulgar music ever
written." [All i've since been able to track down was, "“That
‘Ode to Joy’, talk about vulgarity! And the text! Completely
puerile!”] What would you say to Leonhardt - the
master of the subtle, esoteric art of the French clavecinistes
- about this topic?"
Jonathan Ahl: "Platitude?
Perhaps. But, even if true, I would think LVB elevated
platitude to a higher art form in that movement."
LvB was embracing the vulgar in its highest sense. He knew
exactly what he was doing. He considered dropping it and
replacing it with a purely instrumental finale in a minor key,
but decided against it. Fortunately."
"Vulgar literally means 'common'. Since the 9th appeals to so
many people, his comment is
true. If he wants something exclusive he should listen to
"Seid umschlungen, Millionen! Diesen Kuss der ganzen Welt!"
The theme is like a drinking song; Beethoven knew exactly what
he was doing.
Jonathan Bellman: I
heard something like this from the revered musicologist
Nicholas Temperley, at the University of Illinois when I was
doing my masters. Always one to exercise self-control, I—a
first-year masters student, remember—jocularly riposted,
"Don't worry; I won't tell your Chair!" L-o-n-g pause. "I
gather you disagree," he said, frowning slightly. When I
extricated myself, it was another day of mental "goddammit,
Jon, again? AGAIN?"
Fred Smith: It sounds like the musical equivalent
to the most tiresome variety of academic political
Michael Goodleman: I can't image
anyone perceiving the Ode to Joy as vulgar. In my humble
opinion it's one of the most spiritual orchestral pieces ever.
But at the same time Mr. Leonhardt may not have had the
consciousness to appreciate it.
think you guys are right that this is about Leonhardt, not B9.
But it's not PC so much as the opposite. Leonhardt lived on a
17th-century canal in Amsterdam in a 17thc house, beautifully
restored and filled with 17th c antiques and instruments (and
18th c ones as well). He felt that music went way downhill
after the French Revolution (I hope he didn't feel that way
about political arrangements!). He played baroque composers as
if Beethoven, Wagner, and Stravinsky had never been born, and
thus was exceptionally convincing. And to any claveciniste at
Versailles, Beethoven's 9th would sound supremely vulgar, and
its sentiments Jacobin. So this approach contributed to
Leonhardt's artistic greatness, even if it would deprive most of
us of a powerful artistic experience. Freude, schone Gotterfunken!
Thanks Barney - I'm sure you're right. Very enlightening
Rabbi Alan Green: Wonderful discussion!
Thanks to all for participating.
Feb 5, 2012: So where does that leave
"Historically Informed" Brahms orchestral performance?
In my last post, I noted that
Norrington is wrong about vibrato. Brahms clearly expected
vibrato from orchestral strings, and probably well varied
and modulated vibrato at that. My own writings suggest that
his "fast tempos" are largely a myth - what we know of Brahms's
tempi suggests he often took slowish ones. And how about
small ensemble size? Styra Avins demolished that one;
Brahms preferred a large ensemble if it could play well. Proportional tempo schemes tying
together large works? Fuggedaboudit; that one was easy to
What's left? Well... gut strings
instead of steel, but sounding sweeter than anything you
hear in England today; wooden pre-Bohm flutes instead of metal;
Vienna horns; leather-covered timpani with hard sticks. Portamento,
more than we hear today, but less "thick" and coordinated than in
Mengelberg - some players would slide while others did not,
creating a much lighter portamento sound. Indeed, free bowing and fingering in
string sections for the most part.
So yet again: Norrington, Gardiner,
and Mackerras are giving us a modern style of Brahms playing.
Turn to pre-war recordings by the likes of Clemens Krauss and
(here's an example) for a sense, at least, of period sound and style.
February 4, 2012: Norrington Is Wrong
about Vibrato - I had the good
fortune of reading through a pre-pub copy of a major study of
19th-century orchestral string vibrato by David
Hurwitz, to be published in Music and
Letters. It is thorough, definitive, and
devastating. (You can read his informal writings on the topic
here.). The conclusion: the clean,
non-vibrato string sound that Sir Roger Norrington proclaims
as historical is nothing of the sort; orchestral
string vibrato was normal, rather than "just an
ornament" to be applied occasionally. Contra Norrington,
when Bruno Walter first heard the Vienna Philharmonic in the
1890s he was taken by what he described as their special vibrato, and in 1960 he
said that the VPO's vibrato was basically the same. Richard Taruskin is
again proved right when he says that Norringtonian HIP has
little to do with
history and much to do with high-modernist taste.
I occassionally think of Sir Roger's
current revulsion toward even a trace of vibrato as a kind of obsessive-compulsiveness.
I may be wrong; it may have more to do with Norrington's
generation rejecting Romanticism and Norrington seeking a
unique career niche. In any case, Hurwitz has settled the
matter, and all musicians who care about these topics really
should seek out his writings ASAP.
February 2, 2012: Stephen Fry on
Wagner!!! Genius on genius - a BBC
January 26: George Szell: Was His
Strength His Weakness? Donald Peck,
principal flutist of the Chicago Symphony, in his
excellent book on his years in the
Chicago Symphony: "He made mistakes on the podium, which
resulted in the orchestra's looking bad. There was a terrible
episode during one performance of Beethoven's Sixth Symphony.
Szell was most emphatic, stating, 'Watch me! Watch me! After
the storm scene, I will make a cut-off before we go on.' The
concert came. He did not make the cut-off. Half of the
orchestra did make a cut-off as he had admonished, and the
other half didn't. It was a scramble..... he might
conduct or not conduct, give entrance cues or not give them.
All in all, that three-week period was rife with conductorial
errors." WAIT! I thought Szell was the ultimate technician.
Not so. The diagnosis? Szell
was a giant,
writes Kenneth Woods in his excellent blog, but was
diminished when he was not in Cleveland: "[He] still inspires
awe and fear in his colleagues who knew him in Cleveland, but
less admired where he worked as a guest. ...He would have been
an even greater conductor outside Cleveland had he just let
players relax and play and not tried to control everything....
[he] had to rehearse and drill every detail in rehearsal until
it was encased in concrete. The concerts always fell apart
because he had hammered any and all flexibility out of us
[says a player to Woods], then he would get inspired and try
to do something different and couldn’t show it, and we were
never sure whether to rely on what we saw in the concert or
what he said in the rehearsal.” Chimes exactly with what
Donald Peck said. The takeaway for leaders not only of
orchestras but of anything is kinda obvious...
Jan 22, 2012. Thank you for the kind
Kenneth Woods! It's an awesome CD, folks - hear it!
Jan 18, 2012. What Inspired the opening
A Love Supreme?: Alex Ross
notices that the sequence of
fourths that open John Coltrane's A Love Supreme
is identical to that which begins the Fifth Symphony of Jean
Sibelius. He does not posit a direct influence; these
two great musicians could have arrived at the same motif
independently. I'm going to step out on a limb and speculate
that what led Trane to think about
this sequence was working on his absolutely matchless
interpretations of My Favorite Things, heard
to special advantage in
this take with Eric Dolphy. If there's
anything to this idea (and who can know what really goes on in the
mind of a genius), props are in order to Richard Rogers for
great song and then to Trane for recognizing
the musical potential of this Broadway hit and realizing it so fully.
Jan 15, 2012: Naida Cole Plays Like One
Bourree-Fantasque. After you hear her untrammeled manic
joy - the sheer visceral delight in playing repeated notes
insanely fast, for example - every other performance seems
anemic. And after you hear her mystical, sad Satie, everyone else seems
shallow. Take my word for it:
Dec. 16, 2011:
January 28, 2011: Backgrounder (by me, not an expert on
Hungarian politics) on Andras Schiff
and Hungary's Media Laws. UPDATE JANUARY 19,
2012: Damn - I was right. And
things have gone downhill.
Jan. 20 2011: The Bach Violin Glut of the 2000s and Its
Puzzling Gender Gap [down for editing]- Jan 20 version; no fewer than 26 violinists recorded
the Bach cycle in the last decade. The gist:
1) that's a lotta supply; a stab at why; 2) whether or not you
used a period instrument could be predicted partly by your nationality
and partly by your gender - if you used a modern instrument, bookmakers
could give almost 4:1 odds that you were burdened with a Y chromosome.
Next edition of Inside Early Music will never happen,
but it would seek gender balance, and would look more into gender
and the early-music movement.
Dec 23: Three notable music books of 2010 that
I actually read? I was gripped by (1) John Butt, Bach's
Dialogue with Modernity: perspectives on the Passions
- if you're into Bach, especially the Passions, you must read
it; it's game-changing; (2) Jonathan Bellman's Chopin's
Polish Ballade: op. 38 as a narrative of national martyrdom,
which joins the short list of books about a single work that
open up huge vistas of social, cultural, and political history
(another example: Late Idyll by Reinhold Brinkmann);
and (3) Alex Ross's Listen
to This, which you can sample by reading this linked
chapter on how
the process of recording changed music radically. .
For me, it is the classical-music book of the decade,
except possibly for Alex's other book, The
Rest Is Noise. I don't mean this as hyperbolic
praise: the book revisits many of the essays that shaped my
musical thought during the 2000s, and adds an end-of-decade
perspective. PS: the chapter on Brahms - the last - is the best
single essay on the composer I've read.
July 30, 2010: How to play "The Moonlight" first
movement - like Gianluca Cascioli. Here he is playing it for
a masterclass: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jnvb4_02ZmE
Gianluca explains in his Decca recording interview (ok,
conducted by me) why it has nothing to do with moonlight, and
why he plays it as fast as he does. "C-sharp
minor is a strange, almost sinister key; it does not relate
to something as Romantic as moonlight. Instead, the reference
that strikes me is the passage in Don Giovanni when
the Commendatore dies after being stabbed by the Don. Beethoven's
triplets are close to Mozart's triplets, and the rhythms in
Beethoven's melody are similar to the Commendatore's rhythm....Beethoven
wrote down the Commendatore scene among his sketches, which
means that he was particularly struck by it.....he
wanted to take Mozart as a starting point (a good one!) just
to get somewhere else, far away...... It is difficult to describe
in words the feeling you have while playing, but Czerny's description
comes close to my own: a dark night with a choir of ghosts
heard from far away...
One element behind my choice of tempo is that the listener
must concentrate almost completely on the melody - the choral
in the soprano. At slow tempos, very often one hears nothing
but the slow triplets, as if they were the melody. But the true
melody in the soprano gets lost in the piano's decay of sound,
as the notes become disconnected. [My next question was:Does
the alla breve meter, two per bar, also imply a fastish tempo?]
GC: This was less important to me. For one thing, if you
count two beats in a bar you might easily get it much too fast.
It must flow, but it must be extremely calm, almost still. Also,
what this time signature implied for tempo in Beethoven is not
July 26, 2010
Very fine obit of
Wendy Allanbrook in today's NYT, by Jim Oestreich.
She embodied the word "humane."
July 15 2010: Very sad to hear of the death at age 67 of
Wendy Allanbrook (Wye
J. Allanbrook), a great musicologist and great human
2010: RIP Sir Charles Mackerras, at age 84. Alex
Ross, as usual, says
it perfectly: "He had a gift for leading a kind of
performance in which nothing out of the ordinary seems to happen
and yet everything goes radiantly right." Nice ideal in
legendary Bruno Walter
did NOT like modern flutes, and
he did not like the power of postwar clarinet playing. Martin
Mayer, in 1960, quotes him: "Think what the flute has
gained up top of the range," he says, "but it has
lost its beauty. Jean Paul wrote of 'the moonshine of the
flute.' Who would now say, 'the moonshine of the flute"?
[ILet me note that German and Austrian flutes were still made
of wood during Walter's early career; German-speaking flutists
resisted metal flutes and the Boehm key system precisely because
the French had adopted them].... As for modern playing:
"That is just a gentle clarinet," he said [of
a clarinet solo in the Schumann Piano Concerto]. "But
today they all play trumpet." Quoted in the excellent
biography, Bruno Walter: A World
Elsewhere, by Erik
Ryding and Rebecca Pechefsky, p. 404.
Elijah Wald's history of what actually happened
in American pop music in the 20th Century (misleadingly titled
"How the Beatles Destroyed Rock and Roll") - I endorse
the review in the New York Times book review and recommend
the book highly.
Daniel Leech-Wilkinson's book on what actually
happened in 20th-century classical music performance:
Changing Sound of Music: He's brought research
methodology to new levels of accuracy, and is intellectually
fearless and original. And his book is available free
online at http://www.charm.kcl.ac.uk/studies/chapters/intro.html
January 14th, 2009 - You have been reading Greg's five-part
posts on where Classical Music is in 2009, right? Read it:
RE: post 1: I wrote the following comment
to Greg: "Just a loose thought about yet another possible
reason why the [classical-music] audience has aged [over the
last half of the 20th c, relative to the population as a whole
- Greg demonstrates it carefully and has some excellent ideas
on why. I suggested adding one:} "(1) music became more
and more a marker of group membership - it had been that for
centuries, but became more so; (2) people had increasing numbers
of options about which group to become a member of: more mobility;
(3) crucially- "the young" increasingly became a group
you could identify yourself as a member of. Having one's own
music (to mark off "us," the young, from "them,"
the old) became increasingly important (4) having lots of different
"musics" to choose among became increasingly possible
(recording being a big part of this? And prosperity/leisure?)......
None of this is to replace anything you [Greg] said - it'd be
just one more element."
for Puck: - oxytocin for Helena and Hermia; vasopressin
for Lysander and Demetrius. [re "Anti-love
drug may be ticket to bliss" - John Tierney's angle,
in the New York Times]
- So... year-end roundup time. Entry #1: the winner of the
Pulitzer Prize in music, David Lang's The Little Matchgirl
Passion. Deeply haunting music about a problem very
much of the moment: starving children. The committee is no longer
in an uptown
ivory tower. It's also telling that no CD is out - the piece
was distributed free online
here. No waiting. The age of Youtube.
December, 2008 - Entry
# 2 Newspapers may be dying and music-critic gigs disappearing,
but I'm struck by how good the critics in the USA are in 2008.
Midgette on the staff of the WaPo is a prime example.
- Felix Mendelssohn devotees: Strongly recommended
background reading is Deborah Hertz's brilliant and superbly
Jews Became Germans.
designed to be the most unpopular song ever written.
You, of course, will love it. Especially the rapping opera singer -
Your Hands Say Bravo!
above reminds me of a previous question about whether It's
OK to Applaud between movements at a classical concert.
The proscription against that sure chimed with the proscription
against "histrionics." Anyway, I hold with those
who say Express yourself! See: Alex's short essay
and Greg's post
the 2nd edition of Lydia Goehr's The
Imaginary Museum of Musical Works
(published in 2007). Our core sense
of what music IS (at least for classical fans) turns out to
be about 200 years old.
not just give Alex
Ross his Pulitzer right now and be done with
Rest Is Noise.)
So I wrote in October. I'm delighted that the NY Times
has since put it on its "10
Best Books of 2007" list and that the Washingon
Post, LA Times, Economist, Time,
Newsweek, and Slate put it
on their best-of-year lists. His writing has by itself improved
the future of music.- Jan 1, 2008
tone of moral outrage sounds Wieseltierian (that neologism is
not a compliment), and he bullies the
defenseless, but Richard Taruskin
state of classical music
is not to be missed. (Much more essential, though, is his
History of Western Music. There he had to seek the
tone of the balanced observer - although his difficulties with
that role are part of what make the book so compelling.)-
BBC Music Magazine liked this website: "[A]
refined voice... intriguing articles
on early music and performance from a wide variety of publications. A
cleansing experience after all this mud-slinging." - April 2002
I also mention my modesty and avoidance of self-promotion...?) This
means that at least one person has visited this site!
chapter on "Conducting Early Music" appears
in The Cambridge Companion to Conducting (ed. Jose
A. Bowen, 2004). Kind review here
My archived shows
Wisdom of Crowds with
James Surowiecki and Joyce Berg. Better: just read The
Wisdom of Crowds. My followup read will be Cass Sunstein's Infotopia.
of The Wisdom of Crowds is well worth reading: http://www.powells.com/review/2004_06_24.html
. BUT - see this new study http://palmdesert.ucr.edu/conferences/economica2007/erikson-gdi.pdf
- showing why prediction markets are LESS successful than polls at
predicting election outcomes.
my interview with Daniel Altman
about his first book, Neoconomy
(now available for $0.01 at Amazon...)
an mp3 of Studs Terkel (on
his book And They All Sang) - WFMT called with the opportunity
to do a short interview with Studs, and everyone was on vacation, so...
I did it. What an honor.
I just interviewed the brilliant Rebecca Sheir of Alaska Public
Radio about her Third Coast-award-winning documentary, The End as Beginning:
An Audio Exploration of the Jewish View of Death. I'll play parts of it
interspersed with the documentary on KSUI tomorrow. Here's the interview
itself (17 minutes) rebecca mp3
to Invest- revealed! - a short transcript
from when I used to host radio shows on this. Still pretty timely. (TIPS
are yielding a little less, but not enough to make a difference to what
me: sherman.bd at gmail