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Vespasiano

Classical Music's New Golden Age

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By way of a preliminary disclaimer, I do not endorse all the views contained within the pages of the on-line magazine, City Journal. Nor do I endorse all the views of one of its leading contributors, Heather MacDonald, particularly those of her views relative to Ayn Rand, Objectivism, the centrality of religious faith to morality and abortion rights.

However, when it comes to her commentary on the state of the performing arts, I find that Miss MacDonald is one of the most thoughtful writers on the current scene. Several years ago, Miss MacDonald penned what was, in effect, a vivisection of the Regietheater (think, Eurotrash) trend in opera production that sent shockwaves through the classical music community. It may also have been a factor in the sighs of relief that greeted the early exit of Gerard Mortier, one of Regietheater's leading advocates, from the directorship of the New York City Opera in November of 2008.

Miss MacDonald has done it again, this time with an article in which she states her case (quite successfully, in my view) for our living in a new Golden Age of classical music. That article was met almost immediately with vitriolic criticism from certain quarters within the classical music industry, and Miss MacDonald quickly responded with yet another article in which she took on one of her critics and provided further perspectives in support of her position.

I think these two pieces are quite fine. At the very least, they give much food for thought.

Classical Music's New Golden Age

The Unsustainable Declinism of Greg Sandow

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A long but interesting read:

"The much-publicized financial difficulties of many orchestras during the current recession also need to be put into historical perspective. More people are making a living playing an instrument than ever before, and doing so as respected and well-paid professionals, not lowly drones. There were no professional orchestras during Beethoven’s time; he had to cobble together an ensemble for the premiere of his Ninth Symphony. Even mid-twentieth-century America had no year-round, salaried orchestras. In 1962, most concert seasons were half a year long."

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Really enjoyable!

Recently, I had my own experience that says something about the appreciation of music at least in Sydney. I attended a performance of Sondheim's A Little Night Music at the Sydney Opera House. Granted it's historically new, but what struck me was how loyal it was to Sondheim's original run decades ago. The audience was transfixed AND it was of mixed ages and nationalities.

In short it was not only a magical night of theatre, but also heartening to see so many different types of people enjoying it.

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Thanks for posting these, V. Heather MacDonald is an original thinker and her stance is well-researched and persuasive. And, as she says right up front: It's a re-creative "Golden Age." The creators of that amazing music have, with rare exceptions, run their course. The Irrationalists (read: Atonalists) did their best to marginalize great music, but the dismal product of their efforts has found its niche in poorly-attended, sparse concerts, championed by fewer and fewer conductors and impresarios. The great music continues to draw crowds and electronic audiences.

And, yes, there are those, like Stephen Sondheim -- and certainly Leonard Bernstein, Richard Rogers (himself and with Hart & Hammerstein), the Gershwins, Lerner & Lowe, Frank Loesser, Franz Lehar, Eric Korngold, Carlyle Floyd, Douglas Moore, and Samuel Barber before -- who were/are still capable of creating some excellent works after the Romantic and Verismo eras ended in the '20's.

As a side note, it's ironic that Sondheim has said that he doesn't like operatic voices to sing his music, yet he studied with Nadia Boulanger (Bernstein's teacher in composition, as well), and writes all of his scores with a strict adherence to classic Italian nomenclature, with lines and phrasing demanding considerable virtuousity, even in the more conversational works. I think his prejudice is the result of singers who sing with a manufactured, overly-covered technique and a commensurate vocal and artistic stylistic insensitivity and grandiose, overstated, detached delivery. There is no reason it can't be sung well by a classical singer if they pay attention to the words first and sing with a natural and unforced technique. Another thing that has improved greatly over time, with few exceptions, is the quality of the acting expected in dramatic singing. With the standards set by the big and little screen, it is no longer well-tolerated for a singer to stand and bellow. The musical stage demands believable acting.

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In more recent years, classical music has been kept alive in film scores, and not just in routine pieces, but in works that have actually entered the repertoire

Here, for example, is Ennio Morricone leading orchestral performances of music he composed for THE MISSION and THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fC58MjYDp64

Morricone's fellow-countryman Nino Rota was best known for film score like THE GODFATHER, but he also composed a lot of straight classical music that has come into vogue lately, finally recorded decades after his death in 1979, as witness these movements from two of his piano concertos:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UCfIBdhGxsk

Still living is Angelo Badalamenti, who hails from Brooklyn and first became prominent with music for BLUE VELVET and TWIN PEAKS, but has also composed gems like this short piece for the steampunk movie THE CITY OF LOST CHILDREN:

I think that any hope for the future of classical music in terms of creation as opposed to performance lies in composers like these. Serialism is dead, but "serious" composers can't seem to get their bearings. My wife and I attend concerts by the New York Philharmonic, which has a "resident composer" (I forget his name.). We've heard a couple of his pieces, and they are pleasant, but aimless. Music needs structure.

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It was about a year or so after the end of the First Gulf War, when, through mutual friends, I made the acquaintance of a composer (whose name escapes me at the moment). As it happens, he was working on a piece that was to accompany the reading of an anti-war poem. My friends were also to take part in the performance.

The premiere took place in front of a packed house (perhaps about one hundred people). The 'orchestra' consisted of a violin, cello, flute and IIRC, a snare drum. My friends 'played' the laser discs. That's right. The discs were held by a string and when struck, were dunked in a pan of water. A not at all unpleasing sound, actually. Reminiscent of when my brother and I had to do the dishes when we were young.

Anyway, the audience seemed to love the performance, all the atonality and dissonance one would expect in a modern composition.

After the show, I met up with my friends and the composer. I don't remember exactly what I said, but, it was along the lines of: "What the heck was that?" I recall the composer's answer word for word: "It's just sounds, man."

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After the show, I met up with my friends and the composer. I don't remember exactly what I said, but, it was along the lines of: "What the heck was that?" I recall the composer's answer word for word: "It's just sounds, man."

I guess it was the musical equivalent of graffiti or bad poster art. But I'll bet it was never played again, and certainly never recorded. Of course, I kind of wonder why YOU went to that "performance."

Here's an odd case: Jon Brion. He's known primarily as a pop/rock composer/performer, and yet he did a classical score for MAGNOLIA (1999). Here's a video of a work-in-progress run-through:

And here's a bit of the finished score, used as a background by some guy demonstrating a Steadicam:

You'd think he'd been composing classical music all his life and yet, to the best of my knowledge, he's done nothing like it before or since. I have the CD, and one of the things I've noticed is that he can use reiteration and minor variations on a theme WITHOUT becoming boring. Kind of like Bruckner, although he has nothing else in common with Bruckner.

I mentioned Nino Rota yesterday. Among other things, he also turned LA STRADA into a ballet in 1965. Marcello Rota, who is some sort of relative, conducted this concert performance. As far as I know, the ballet has never been produced in this country.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1EaK-vWbEqA

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Heather MacDonald is an original thinker and her stance is well-researched and persuasive. And, as she says right up front: It's a re-creative "Golden Age." The creators of that amazing music have, with rare exceptions, run their course. The Irrationalists (read: Atonalists) did their best to marginalize great music, but the dismal product of their efforts has found its niche in poorly-attended, sparse concerts, championed by fewer and fewer conductors and impresarios. The great music continues to draw crowds and electronic audiences.

Absolutely! Re-creative this "Golden Age" may be, but that's nothing to sniff at considering the vast quantity of music that has yet to be experienced by so many either as performers or audience members. In that regard, I particularly appreciated Miss MacDonald's discussion of what constitutes "New" music. Certainly, pieces of contemporary vintage belong in that category and it's a wonderful thing for orchestra's, etc., to encourage today's composers. But "new", too, at least from the audience perspective, is otherwise unknown music written 200 or 300 years ago that may not have been heard since then. As a further note: I find it silly this condescending notion that "older" works need to be "updated" or "made relevant" for today's audiences. Pish tosh! Time and again I've witnessed audiences positively responding to and connecting at an emotional level to the music of centuries past in a way that they rarely do with music that may have been written this past week. In and of itself, this is nothing "new", and while this fact may be an uncomfortable one for today's composers given the sterile, academic nature of so much of the stuff they have tended to turn out, it is not necessarily something that can be attributed to a lack of sophistication on the part of today's audiences. Audiences of today, as opposed to their counterparts in the past, really are sophisticated enough to take it all in when the music is played beautifully and honestly. And they are taking it all in -- the very kind of remarkable development that Miss MacDonald celebrates.

As a side note, it's ironic that Sondheim has said that he doesn't like operatic voices to sing his music. . . . I think his prejudice is the result of singers who sing with a manufactured, overly-covered technique and a commensurate vocal and artistic stylistic insensitivity and grandiose, overstated, detached delivery. There is no reason it can't be sung well by a classical singer if they pay attention to the words first and sing with a natural and unforced technique.

Agreed. However, I would say that this approach is essential for superior classical (read, operatic) singing as well.

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Thanks V. Interesting articles.

And thanks John, for the link to Gabriel's theme. I just heard that for the first time on the radio yesterday, and decided that I had to get the recording.

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Thanks V. Interesting articles.

And thanks John, for the link to Gabriel's theme. I just heard that for the first time on the radio yesterday, and decided that I had to get the recording.

That CD is one of my faves. Morricone shows incredible range, as in the weird arrangements for a section called "Penance" (which at 1:26 quotes "Dies Irae," from a medieval chant that has been sampled before by Berlioz and Rachmaninoff, among others):

For a century before there were any movies, "serious" composers were doing overtures and incidental music for stage plays (EGMONT, PEER GYNT), and nobody looked down on them for that. Yet while movie music was considered lowbrow in the age of atonalism, the people who wrote for movies were doing some really innovative things. Morricone's scores aren't just watered down versions of 19th Century music; they're really fresh.

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