Sunday, June 08, 2008

Where Is Our Milton Friedman Of Conductors?

Things are looking up on the American orchestral scene.

One month ago, the Chicago Symphony named Riccardo Muti its next Music Director, the best possible appointment for Chicago short of luring Riccardo Chailly to these shores. Muti is a very good match for Chicago, I believe.

On Friday, the Cleveland Orchestra extended—again—the contract of Franz Welser-Most. Welser-Most will remain in Cleveland at least through 2018, a most welcome piece of news. One year ago, when Welser-Most accepted the post of Music Director of the Vienna State Opera, he told friends that he planned to leave Cleveland when his contract expired in 2012. I am most pleased that Welser-Most changed his mind. He is, by a long shot, the finest conductor working regularly in America.

Now it will be interesting to see what the Philadelphia Orchestra does. I am told that Philadelphia’s prime target is Vladimir Jurowski—not because Philadelphia actually wants Jurowski, but because Jurowski is the best candidate Philadelphia expects to be able to land—but I am also told that the orchestra is desperately seeking a superior candidate. Myself, I think that the Philadelphia Orchestra can do much, much better than Jurowski.

Given that there have been some very poor, even inexplicable, American orchestral appointments in recent years—Marin Alsop in Baltimore, Alan Gilbert in New York, David Robertson in Saint Louis, Robert Spano in Atlanta—it is reassuring that our two finest orchestras remain committed to hiring and retaining the very finest conductors.

At least Chicago and Cleveland will not devolve into provinciality. The same cannot be said for many other U.S. ensembles.

I have never understood why America, for over a century, has produced the finest orchestral ensembles in the world, and yet has never been able to produce conductors of the same quality.

The Cleveland Orchestra puts to shame even the finest of European ensembles, and the orchestras in Chicago and Philadelphia, depending on the repertory, are just as fine as the orchestras in Amsterdam, Berlin, Dresden and Vienna. Given this, why are the conductors we produce such turkeys?

I could not help but snort when I heard about Michael Tilson Thomas’s meltdown last week with the Chicago Symphony—a meltdown in rehearsal and a meltdown in performance. Since Tilson Thomas’s engagements with prestigious ensembles are few and far between, I would have thought that he would have arrived at rehearsal fully prepared—especially since the works on the Chicago Symphony program have been in Tilson Thomas’s repertory literally for decades! And how could Tilson Thomas possibly have come to grief in Dvorak’s Eighth Symphony, a work the musicians of the Chicago Symphony can play—and balance—in their sleep?

The Peter Principle, clearly, is at work here. Tilson Thomas, age 63, possesses the skills to work with regional-level ensembles, but he lacks the skills to work with international-level ensembles. International-level ensembles know this, which is why they so seldom—if ever—engage him.

The sad part is not that Tilson Thomas is not particularly good. The sad part is that Tilson Thomas is much better than most of his American confreres, who are even worse than he is. For whatever reason, we do not produce good conductors.

As a nation, we produce good economists. Where is our Milton Friedman of conductors, capable of training and perpetuating generations of fine baton-wielders?


  1. Philly really wants Rattle.

    Among conductors Philly has a realistic chance of getting, Jurowski may be as good as we can get.

    I heard him here twice. I don't know what to make of him.

    I long for the days of Ormandy more and more.

    At least none of the American dogs are being considered here.

    In my world of dreams, I'd want the orchestra to hire Chailly, Thielemann, Gatti or Fischer. All in the right age bracket.

  2. Your American conductors are not in demand here.

    We’ve been trying to figure out for thirty years what you Yanks see in James Levine. He can’t get arrested here. He has never been able to establish a London career. The London orchestras won’t touch him. He can’t buy an engagement here.

    Conlon is never engaged here. Nagano is never engaged here. Robertson? Totally unknown here. Gilbert? Totally unknown here. Spano? Totally unknown here.

    Tilson Thomas bombed at the LSO. Nagano bombed in Manchester. Schwarz bombed in Liverpool. Slatkin bombed at the BBC. All were shoved aside before their contracts were up. It will be a long while before there is another American conductor put in charge of a UK orchestra.

    The only American conductors who still appear here are Maazel, who conducts the Philharmonia once a year, Slatkin, one of the guest conductors of the RPO, and Alsop, who conducts the LSO on occasion (the LSO likes that her fee is so low, and that she will work without rehearsal).

    I have mixed thoughts about Jurowski’s work with the LPO. The orchestra does not play well for him, but he can be interesting in oddball works. He avoids mainstream German music, and what mainstream German music he has conducted here has not been good. I doubt he could get away with that in Philadelphia.

  3. Over the past 2 seasons, I saw these American conductors on the CSO podium:
    Nagano, Zinman, Blomstedt (He doesn’t really count as American, does he?), Robertson, MTT and Slatkin. Of all these I'd say Zinman had the most success with the CSO.

  4. Dan, I have no idea what Philadelphia will end up doing. Philadelphia bought some time with Dutoit, and that probably was a smart move.

    I don't think Philadelphia will be able to get a big name. Chailly and Rattle turned Philadelphia down, pre-Eschenbach, and I cannot think of a big name that might consider a move to Philadelphia.

    Apparently Philadelphia has looked at everyone, from Pappano to Vanska, and keeps returning to Jurowski.

    Is Jurowski ready for such a major group of musicians? I am very skeptical.

    Philadelphians are probably praying, night and day, that Rattle and Berlin blow up in the next couple of years, freeing up Rattle's time.

  5. I have news for you, Calvin: James Levine is not in demand here, either.

    If you hear anything about Michael Frayn's new play, "Afterlife", please pass it on.

    We plan to see it at The National Theatre at the beginning of August. In fact, we already bought our tickets. We will be attending the 2:15 p.m. matinee on Saturday, August 1.

  6. David Zinman--now, there's a name everyone ignores.

    I suspect that Zinman is viewed as too old to take over another orchestra now, although I am told that Pittsburgh seriously considered him before hiring Manfred Honeck.

    Zinman has only had second-level orchestras--Rotterdam, Rochester, Baltimore, Zurich--and he has seemed to be unable to break out into the top tier of conductors.

    He's a good guest conductor, though. He is supposed to be very professional and very efficient with rehearsal time.

  7. 2:15 p.m. on Saturday, August 2.

  8. It opens tomorrow night. I have heard nothing about the play.

    Frayn has been giving a barrage of press interviews, but he has been talking about his life and work, not the play.

    What else do you plan to see?

  9. On that same Saturday night, we will see “The Chalk Garden” at Donmar Warehouse, with Margaret Tyzack and Penelope Wilton. My brother and I saw Penelope Wilton in “The House Of Barnarda Alba” at The National Theatre in 2005, and we were blown away by her performance. We’ve seen Margaret Tyzack in something, too, but I can’t remember what.

    On the following Tuesday and Wednesday nights, we will see Somerset Maugham’s “The Circle” with Susan Hampshire, and Ronald Harwood’s “Taking Sides”, both in Chichester.

    That is as far as we have progressed.

    Calvin, have you been to Goodwood House? It will be open one afternoon while we are in Chichester.

  10. Never been. Goodwood is hardly ever open to the public. I'd take advantage of the opening if you really want to see it. The house is an odd building, in three sections, placed at odd angles.

  11. Yes, we are going to go to Goodwood House. We are going to take the single 90-minute tour of the day, at 2:45 p.m.

  12. Ultimately, I was sadden that Cleveland renewed Welser-Most's contract. He brings a lot to the table, but his conducting results are often mixed (to be polite). I have heard mixed rumors on whether he previously was going to leave when the Vienna appointment became final. I read a quote from him indicating that he would not leave last Fall. He doesn't always do well when in an enviornment with a lot of media scrutiny, and he may want Cleveland to fall back on. (His performances of Mahler #2 in Cleveland and New York were not one for the ages. However, he somehow rallied in the Birmingham, England performance, and the reviews were spectacular even from the London critics.)

    There a several good conductors for top tier orchestras right now, but it does not look like Philadelphia is focusing on them (or perhaps the conductors do not want to go there). I agree that Vanska and Fischer deserve consideration. I'd pass on Chailly; often sounds like no one is conducting. The Philadelphia is still a great orchestra, but it is not without its ensemble problems of late. Per the London papers, Welser-Most was also offered Philadelphia, but selected Cleveland. Generally, the programming in Cleveland is much better and more innovative than in most U.S. cities. Cleveland chose well by not going with Eschenbach, but ten more years of Welser-Most's conducting may prove too much.

    I give Chicago credit for thinking big and going after Muti. The CSO played very well for him, although I tend to think that ensemble has improved since Barenboim left. However, the reviews from the European tour were not nearly as spectacular as the CSO press machine would have us believe, and the programming was a bit underwhelming.

    I heard Muti conduct the CSO in Tchaikovky's 6th and then heard Welser-Most lead the Cleveland in the same work the next evening at Severance Hall--which is far superior than Orchestra Hall in Chicago. Muti had control over the orchestra and provided us with an intense world of sound that seem beyond Welser-Most's conducting powers on many evenings-his concentration powers do not seem that strong. The CSO's strings, which could sound so thin and strident under some prior illustrious music directors, were better than those in Cleveland (or perhaps Muti asked for more), although the Cleveland brass and woodwinds were superior. Ultimately, Muti gave us four disjointed movement with plenty of passion. When Welser-Most was done, he gave us a more coherent reading of the symphony but somewhat devoid of passion. Nothing is perfect I guess, but the big name does not always produce the results.

  13. Hello, Mark.

    I love the Cleveland Orchestra and I love the Chicago Symphony, and I would hate to be without either orchestra. I love the Cleveland strings for their transparency and refinement. I love the Chicago strings for their aggressiveness and the core of steel in their sound.

    I like Welser-Most, but I acknowledge that he is a “cool” musician and a “cool” conductor. Some music-lovers prefer a warmer approach and more intensity in performance.

    Welser-Most wanted Philadelphia most of all, and Eschenbach wanted Cleveland most of all, but neither received an offer from their preferred orchestra. Instead, each got the other’s preferred appointment.

    Philadelphia offered its job first to Chailly, second to Rattle, and third to Eschenbach. Philadelphia at no point offered its directorship to Welser-Most. In fact, Philadelphia was still searching for Sawallisch’s replacement after Welser-Most’s appointment in Cleveland had already been announced.

    Cleveland never offered its post to anyone other than Welser-Most.

    Not everyone thinks that Cleveland’s ensemble has deteriorated under Welser-Most. Tim Page and Garth Trinkl, both writing after Cleveland’s most recent appearance in Washington (2007), stated that the orchestra had never been better, even under Szell or Dohnanyi. Even Donald Rosenberg, who clearly detests Welser-Most, generally credits him with maintaining Cleveland’s exalted standard of ensemble.

    I hope Philadelphia chooses the right conductor. If it does, the current problems should disappear very quickly.

    I worry that Jurowski is not the right choice for Philadelphia. He is not known as a technician, and I believe that Philadelphia needs a good technician right now (among other things).

    That probably is one of the reasons why Philadelphia seems reluctant to appoint him—Philadelphia cannot afford a second boneheaded mistake in a row, and Philadelphia knows that.

    Thank you for your comments.


  14. Jurowski is currently Principal Conductor of the London Philharmonic and next season is only his second in that post, so I cant see him leaving them anytime soon.

  15. Andrew:

    Welser-Most is the real thing, of course. Susan and I heard the Cleveland Orchestra’s guest concert at the Kennedy Center in 2007 and the playing of the orchestra was miraculous. I have never heard a finer orchestra in 30 years of attending concerts. Cleveland is better right now than the Berlin Philharmonic was in its heyday under Karajan. The Cleveland Board is very smart to try to hold onto Welser-Most as long as possible.

    I am not as keen on Muti for Chicago as you are. He’s a fine musician, don’t get me wrong, but he goes for brilliance at the expense of depth. His performances of Germanic music are lacking in warmth and profound understanding. His performances of colorful music—to use one of your own descriptions—are brittle. However, Chicago was wise to go for one of the lions of the podium. Apparently Chicago was unwilling to wait for Chailly once it began to believe it could land Muti. And there was no way that Chicago was ever going to make the kind of stupid mistake that the New York Philharmonic made last year. Chicago is much smarter than that.

    The situation in Philadelphia is a mess. Every time I hear them, they are worse than the time before. Undercoffer did the right thing in telling Eschenbach that 80% of the players were not impressed by his musicianship. That was a smart move. It allowed Eschenbach himself to make the decision to leave. It meant that the Board did not have to make the decision to refuse to extend his contract.

    Just this morning, I read a very negative review of Philadelphia’s recent appearance at Suntory Hall. The review was brutal. It basically called Eschenbach inept, which he is, and it said that the players of the orchestra totally ignored him, which they do. Philadelphia made a big mistake in engaging him. I’m sure you know the full story of how and why Philadelphia settled on Eschenbach in a desperate rush to sign someone, anyone.

    The London Philharmonic is not very good. It would not even place among the top twenty American orchestras. None of the London orchestras are very good.

    For some reason, the Washington Performing Arts Society keeps presenting them over and over (because they’re cheap, I’m told).

    The London Philharmonic was here twice in 2006 and Susan and I went to hear them both times. The string section was not good. It sounded exactly like the Utah Symphony, if you can imagine. The winds and strings and percussion were tepid. They’re coming again next season and Susan and I will be going, but simply because we always buy a full subscription. In 2006, the Washington Post did not even bother to send a staff critic to review either one of their Washington concerts. It sent a stringer to review them both times (different stringers).

    Next season, they are coming with Jurowski.

    I am told that Philadelphia is getting irritated with Jurowski. The orchestra wants him to conduct serious works so it can get an idea of his skills. He is bristling. If Jurowski continues to bristle about conducting the basics, Philadelphia will write him off, which they should.

    I think Philadelphia should look at Ivan Fischer.

    Andrew, did you read the Chicago Sun-Times review of Slatkin’s Chicago concerts? Andrew Patner called him a “utility conductor”. I had to laugh. Thank God Michael Kaiser drove Slatkin out of town. Things are a complete mess at the National Symphony. No one goes anymore. Most of the audience these days is tourists who don’t know better.

    Andrew, I wish you and your family a wonderful vacation in Southern England.

    Susan and I think about you often.

    Ron Brown

  16. Andrew, I haven’t submitted any comments for a long time, so let me go on.

    Susan and I read you (and Josh) every couple of days, but I try not to submit comments. Last year I think I entered too many comments.

    First, tell Josh I was floored by his discussion of “A World Undone”. His discussion of the book was better than any professional reviews I could find online.

    Second, the playing of the Baltimore Symphony has deteriorated noticeably under Marin Alsop. They play every week at Strathmore. Susan and I caught a couple of performances. It was sad. Alsop does not even know how to balance the orchestra. The orchestra no longer plays together. The Temirkanov warmth is gone. The sound is no longer sophisticated. The musicians just go through the motions with her. There is no commitment, no expression, no energy. They obviously don’t like and respect her. It is all there in their playing. Loud. Bluff. Gruff. Tough. No musicality at all. No nuance. No flow. No rhythmic subtlety. It’s shocking. She is the worst conductor I have ever heard. Baltimore needs to figure out a way to get rid of her as soon as possible.

    Third, a few weeks ago Susan and I were out in San Francisco for a few days. We went to a San Francisco Symphony concert of the Brahms Requiem. It was the worst Brahms Requiem I ever heard. The orchestra was lousy, the chorus was lousy, Tilson Thomas was lousy. The whole thing was a disaster. It was an amateur performance.

    The amazing thing—the local reviews called it a triumph! Susan and I were both shrieking as we read the reviews. What total idiots.

  17. The West Coast lives in its own little world. The orchestras out there aren’t any good, and neither are the critics or audiences.

    A year ago Philly toured the West Coast with Eschenbach. The orchestra played like pigs. Their performances of the Brahms First were terrible, but they were lauded—and I mean REALLY lauded—by critics in San Diego, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle. The Los Angles critic said “This is as good as it gets.”

    The orchestra was stunned. “This may be as good as it gets in LA, but this is as bad as it gets in Philly” was how one member of the orchestra put it. People here still talk about how awful those Brahms Firsts were, and how the West Coast critics fell over themselves praising it as if they were hearing Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic in their prime.

    That made me understand how ignorant the West Coast is in music. People out there really don’t have any realization that their own orchestras stink to high heaven. Something mediocre blows into town and to them it’s a revelation.

  18. Mr. Brown:

    Thank you for your kind wishes.

    Your comments are always welcome, Mr. Brown.

    If you liked Joshua’s writing about “A World Undone”, please feel free to tell him yourself. I very much doubt that he would object.

    I think Muti has strengths and weaknesses, but it was important, above all, that Chicago name a high-profile conductor. That Chicago has done.

    Deborah Card’s personal choice to replace Barenboim was David Robertson, if you can believe it, but members of the Chicago Board Of Directors gently took her aside and patiently explained to her that the Chicago Symphony was not the Seattle Symphony and that the orchestra’s patrons expected and were entitled to something a far sight better than the likes of David Robertson. Happily, Deborah Card quickly got the message and moved beyond David Robertson.

    The situation in Baltimore is very sad, but surely no one is surprised. After Alsop was hired but before she arrived, the Executive Director in Baltimore was fired and the Chairman of the Board Of Directors was asked to step down. Both were asked to depart because of their shoving Alsop’s appointment down everyone’s throat.

    What can an orchestra do in a case such as this other than attempt to make the best of a very bad situation? The Baltimore Symphony is committed to bringing in Gunther Herbig for four weeks a year in order to maintain a semblance of authority in Central European repertory as long as Alsop is there. What more can the orchestra do other than pray that she leave of her own accord?

    The National Symphony is such a disaster that probably nothing can be done to improve things at this point.

    I trust that you and Mrs. Brown and your family are doing well. You have all my very best wishes.


  19. Believe me, Dan, when I say that I know how bad those West Coast orchestras are.

    It's gruesome to have to sit through a full concert by the Los Angeles Philharmonic or the San Francisco Symphony.

  20. I have to challenge the statement that none of the London Orchestras are very good! I'd say that the Lonson Symphony Orchestra, London Philharmonic and Philharmonia are all top drawer. I dont think Gergiev would work with the LSO and Salonen with the Philharmonia if they were not. The quality of artists working with the LPO has declined in recent years but on a good night they can still pull off a top performance.

  21. William, by American standards, none of the London orchestras is even remotely top-drawer.

    Further, by American standards, the London Philharmonic, in particular, is very definitely bottom-drawer. Mr. Brown is a very sophisticated man and he knows what he's writing about.

    I've heard the London Philharmonic several times and the orchestra is minimally competent, nothing more. Mr. Brown's Utah Symphony comparison is apt.

    London is an important concert venue and top conductors very naturally want to appear in London. That fact does not, in itself, establish that the London orchestras are of the highest quality. They are not.

  22. Any one heard the LSO live lately? Last year I heard them in Chicago in an all Beethoven program under Colin Davis. Nothing to write home about. Ludwig's music seemed to have lost its edge that night. Two things did stay in my memory though: the rather comical "feet-off-the-ground" playing style of their concertmaster(leader), and sometime vulgar playing from the woodwinds in the Eroica.
    The next night I saw the CSO Mahler 6 with Haitink. Slow but full of nuances that it had an impetus of its own. 90 minutes went by in a flash.
    And the night after, I went to a highly charged performance of Schubert 9 by Klangverwaltung Munich under Enoch Zu Guttenberg. Despite some disagreeable quirky HIP details, overall the performance was refreshing, joyful and quite satisfying. Of the three nights, LSO ranked at the very bottom. By the way, Jurowski was in town with the Russian Nation Orchestra as well, but I missed them. Some reviews I read online were not kind though.

  23. I've been waiting for this post from you Andrew.
    I learn so so so much from your orchestral posts.

    I adore the Cleveland as well. I first heard them at Carnegie Hall under Boulez and was floored. Then that season I went to Severance Hall and saw the Elektra. That was magnificent.
    So was the Cleveland Museum.
    I almost went back to see the Falstaff but Bruson cancelled.
    I am extremely exicted that Franzi decided to extend his contract. I look forward to going back to Severance Hall sometime. Not too excited by the Nozze next year, but it is probably my loss.

    I am apalled at the NYPhilharmonic's choice actually and am so unmoved by Jimmy's lugubrious performances- his Parsifals turned me off Wagner for awhile there.

    Keep it up A&J.

  24. Hello, Leyla.

    Yes, Cleveland is a pretty amazing orchestra, isn't it? I, too, am pleased that Welser-Most has decided to hang around for a while longer. I truly feared that Donald Rosenberg and the New York critics would drive him off these shores.

    It must rankle Welser-Most to have to read rave reviews about so marginal a figure as Marin Alsop, and then read pans about himself.

    I simply cannot explain the New York Philharmonic's selection of Gilbert on any grounds other than the fact that no one else would take the job.

    James Levine: "the finest conductor of our day who isn't any good", to quote a prominent member of his profession.

    Josh and I will be in Boston for the next three years, and we will have to contend with Levine at the Boston Symphony.

    I looked at the Boston concert schedule for next season, and I thought it looked very, very unappealing. We may end up not going often.

    Thank you for your comments, Leyla.


  25. Dear Drew80 -

    I come to you for enlightenment on certain points!

    I usually keep on top of what the San Francisco-based conductors are doing, but I hadn't heard anything about this MTT occurrence in Chicago - what DID happen?

    Also, I found a recent post on another blog where you'd mentioned that "Munich has been trying to figure out how to get rid of Nagano since last summer (which I am told is now a fait accompli)" - what's going on? From all audience and critical accounts, he is dearly beloved by the Munich audiences, but I haven't heard a whisper about any of the politics behind the scenes.

    Commentary about West Coast orchestras... well, first off, it must be admitted that California is a huge piece of land, and San Francisco and Los Angeles are two different crowds. Over the past few years, I've attended some splendid performances given by the orchestras of SF Symphony and Orchestra, but these performances were of less familiar pieces which definitely stoked the imaginations of everyone musically involved.

  26. Dear Drew80 -

    I come to you for enlightenment on certain points!

    I usually keep on top of what the San Francisco-based conductors are doing, but I hadn't heard anything about this MTT occurrence in Chicago - what DID happen?

    Also, I found a recent post on another blog where you'd mentioned that "Munich has been trying to figure out how to get rid of Nagano since last summer (which I am told is now a fait accompli)" - what's going on? From all audience and critical accounts, he is dearly beloved by the Munich audiences, but I haven't heard a whisper about any of the politics behind the scenes.

    Commentary about West Coast orchestras... well, first off, it must be admitted that California is a huge piece of land, and San Francisco and Los Angeles are two different crowds. Over the past few years, I've attended some splendid performances given by the orchestras of SF Symphony and Orchestra, but these performances were of less familiar pieces which definitely stoked the imaginations of everyone musically involved.

  27. I don't think that Donald Rosenberg and the New York critics necessarily have an axe to grind against Welser-Most. I suspect that they have given him the benefit of the doubt often, and have acknowledged his successes. He does get some outstanding reviews, but many negative ones as well from critics all over the world. His Clevleand recording of Beehtoven's Ninth Symphony has not been well received with an exception or two. I heard it the other day right after the start without knowing who the performers were (I guessed right because I was in Cleveland at the time). There were some interesting moments along with many unconvincing ones as well and without an overall conception of the piece. One can call it cool, but that does not make it interesting No comparison here to his last three predecessors in Cleveland--including Maazel. Hardly the fault of Donald Rosenberg and the NY critics. The management of the orchestra obviously loves the fact that Welser-Most has brought benefits to the table, such as the residencies in Vienna, Lucerne and now Salzburg. It speaks nothing about the quality of his music making.

  28. Hello, Exforex.

    I must be short, as I am having a busy day.

    Tilson Thomas dissembled during Chicago rehearsals. His rehearsals were a shambles. The best reading of each piece on the program was the initial run-through—it was all down hill from there. An hour into the first rehearsal, Tilson Thomas had become biting, defensive and non-responsive, not capable of even answering basic questions from members of the orchestra such as how he would beat specific measures in the Ives. It was not a happy week in Chicago.

    The orchestra had to carry Tilson Thomas in the concerts, but the Dvorak, of all things, still fell apart in performance.

    I am told that Munich has lined up Daniele Gatti to follow Nagano in Munich when Nagano’s contract expires. For whatever reason, the American musical press has not been covering Munich. In fact, The New Yorker ran an entirely fictional article last summer about what great work Nagano was doing in Munich. My jaw dropped when I read the piece. I faxed the article to two friends in Munich, who wet their britches laughing. Every word in the piece was a lie, including the words “and” and “the”, if I may plagiarize Mary McCarthy.

    The West Coast orchestras do not measure up in the quality of their sound and in the level of their ensemble. Energy does not make up for such shortcomings in my view.

    Thank you for your comments.


  29. Mark:

    I have not heard the Welser-Most Beethoven Ninth recording. I doubt that I will ever again buy another Beethoven symphony recording unless Wilhelm Furtwangler miraculously comes back to life.

    Like all musicians, Welser-Most is better in some things than in others.

    Myself, I always find Welser-Most to be interesting, even when I do not think that the performance he has offered has been one for the ages. I cannot name too many other active conductors whom I always find to be interesting.

    I always hear a keen mind at work in Welser-Most, and that accounts for something, at least to me. I do not hear a keen mind at work in the music-making of most other active conductors.

    I grant you that Welser-Most is somewhat reticent.


  30. I was very pleased (and relieved) to learn in Moscow of the renewal of Franz Welser-Moest’s contract in Cleveland. It is apparent to me that the conductor hopes at this juncture to remain in his post even longer than the ten years specified under the new terms. I personally hope he makes it to 24. Obviously. the Orchestra and their Director are enjoying a rare if not unprecedented love affair. Franz, it seems, has even been able to dismiss the willful, mongoloid idiocy of Donald Rosenberg, just as Anton Bruckner had eventually come to ignore - but not until it was really too late – the animadversions of Edward Hanslick in his day.

    I get all that.

    At least one contributor to this thread is scratching his head.

    That I do not get, even though I expect it.

    I have the greatest admiration for Welser-Moest and for his work. He is the most underappreciated high profile conductor in the world today. In this regard he is a latter-day Rene Leibowitz. True enough, his inspiration is not always optimum (was Dohnanyi’s?), but I myself cannot get enough of Franz’s music making. Five months ago I traveled from Houston to Miami for the sole purpose of hearing two unimaginably fine concerts by Franz and “This Glorious Instrument.” A few others from Europe made longer trips for the sole purpose of hearing Franz and the Cleveland Orchestra. Right now I’m thinking that when I retire in ten years, I hope to move to Cleveland, so that I can be close to Severance Hall (as well as to the fabulous Cleveland Museum of Art).

    (We can only hope for the Orchestra’s continued, fiscal health.)

    Yes, Franz is the “real thing,” as Mr. Ron Brown has written. And yes, he is a “cool” and “reticent” musician. Franz’s “coolness” is simply part of his nature. Franz’s reticence on the podium is nothing less than an expression of the highest flattery toward his audience – a salient attribute of the man’s character. How so? Franz’s intellect is grossly formidable and thus constitutes a special quality. It was this special quality that captivated Herbert von Karajan so long ago. Franz proffers to his audience an opportunity to share in that special quality through uncommon ascetic means - by extirpating all those meretricious distractions, visible and invisible, which general audiences, for better or for worse, appreciate on purely entertaining terms.

    Unfortunately, only a very, very small portion of Franz’s American audience possesses the desire to be merely entertained in the concert hall or opera house. Moreover, only a very, very small portion of Franz’s American audience has the wherewithal to share in the conductor’s special quality: Is it not reasonable that the product of such a keen mind as his should only be apprehended by other, keenly amenable minds?

    Surprisingly, perhaps, the number of such minds in Franz’s European audiences is also small, but only very small. The slight differential occasions explanations as to why Franz’s European bookings are consistently sold out. It occasions explanations as to why Franz’s concert reviews with the Cleveland Orchestra are always highly positive from the ranks of European critics. Franz’s skill in organizing European residences for the Cleveland Orchestra does NOT in itself evince his special quality, to be sure – but I submit that the SUSTAINING of sold-out engagements, year after consecutive year, in European tour cities has everything to do with Franz’s special quality:

    Europeans pay huge amounts from their pockets in order to hear visiting American orchestras. Why then do patrons cue so orderly in London and cram so disorderly in Stuttgart to hear Franz Welser-Moest and the Cleveland Orchestra? Are napping habits in Europe wanting? Apparently they are, according to the American critic Larry Lash, who reviewed Franz’s Mahler 2 in Vienna for “Musical America,” in an article with the heading, “Snoring through Mahler.”

    When Franz’s took Mahler 2 to Birmingham last fall after the Carnegie performances he did not “rally” his art and the Orchestra to achieve some level of quality that was somehow superior to the quality of the previous American showings. I have sophisticated friends in New York who were present at Carnegie, who were dumbstruck by those New York (and Washington Post) notices. It is embarrassing to admit the sad truth, that the listening minds of European critics and European audiences are generally superior to any in America.

    I know that last sentence to be true first hand. I have lived among European audiences, consistently or inconsistently, for the last thirty-five years.

    Another sad truth to conjure is that there is not one single, major professional critic in America that is in possession of a mind keen enough to share in Franz’s special quality. If there IS, I’ve never read him or her. The criteria for reviewing “classical” concerts are not much different today than the criteria for reviewing pop concerts: the rougher, the louder - the more “vital,” the better. This is exactly why Marin Alsop will always be the darling of the “free” press.

    Peter G. Davis and Andrew Porter are gone, folks. In the spirit then of sharing in “over-the-head,” special qualities, it is sad indeed to apprehend the fact, that today we are left with that imaginary friend – that incorrigible Mary of “The Children’s Hour” – err, excuse me - “The New Yorker,” I mean, and also with the likes of Anthony Tommasini, who at present is leading a campaign to shift America’s attention away from the “big three” orchestras in the East and onto the egregious bands and their affecting conductors in California. And If there is not one single major American critic – all of whom we presume to be in possession of the requisite musical erudition and sensitive listening skills of his or her profession - who can barely grasp Franz’s special quality, how can one NOT expect very many non-professional critics (the patrons) in American to scratch their heads?


  31. Hello, Dane, and welcome back!

    Very well said, my friend!

    How was Moscow? I hope you had a good time, and I am pleased that you have returned safely.

    Hasn't everyone simply given up on American music critics? I do not know anyone who pays them any mind, except I think that Scott Cantrell in Dallas knows orchestras and I think that John Von Rhein and Andrew Patner in Chicago know orchestras, too.

    The rest of our critics are jokes to a greater or lesser degree.

    Dane, I am inconsistent in my spelling of German names, and this is because I do not have an umlaut key on any keyboard I use. I spell Schoenberg one way and Welser-Most the other, and I know this makes no sense and is completely inconsistent.

    A quirk, I guess.

    QUIZ TIME: (1) which active American music critic wrote that Carl Nielsen was Dutch?; (2) which active American music critic described Osmo Vanska as "volcanic" and Marin Alsop as "formidable", but was otherwise totally unable to describe their capabilities any further?; (3) which active American music critic "dreaded" the prospect of Riccardo Muti succeeding Lorin Maazel at the New York Philharmonic?; and (4) which active American music critic wrote that Brahms' Double Concerto was "humdrum" and "unremarkable", as was Dvorak's Eighth Symphony?

    HINT: All such statements were written within the last five years.

    FURTHER HINT: Two of the four questions above have the same answer.

    Glad you returned in one piece.


  32. Tantalizing quiz Andrew.

    I know of two NY critics who absolutely abhorred the idea of Muti.
    I wonder why.

    Symphony Hall in Boston is nice, though the sightlines on the side are terrible. Jimmy was so fat and his hair so big that he completely obscured Karita Mattila when I went to hear the Boston Symphony. Give me Karajan any day, at least he used mousse!

  33. Leyla, you've hit on a point I've always wondered about: why doesn't James Levine do something about his appearance?

    His 70's Afro and those 70's aviator glasses have always looked ridiculous on him, even in photos from back in the 70's.

    Why doesn't he do something about this?

    Isn't this what agents are for?


  34. Thank you, Andrew, for those kind words.

    In purely business terms the Moscow trip was a success, but I didn’t have much fun, otherwise. I never do. Moscow makes me nervous and uncomfortable, and I have too many bad memories to confront.

    And no souvenirs this time, either, Andrew: I wasn’t able to bring back any new scores because the large store I always visited had been closed down. I was informed that I had to visit the State outlet. Forget that. So, I ventured over to another store near the main building of the MGU campus, my old tiptoeing grounds. There I was dismayed at the number of empty spaces on the shelves. All they had was Russian music and some German scores that I already had. This didn’t look good.

    The political climate is changing in Moscow, for the worse, I fear. People are very worried about Medvedev as President and Putin now as Prime Minister. Though no one disappears in the middle of the night anymore, that doesn’t mean it won’t happen again in the future.

    It takes me about a week to fully recover from the depression I bring back from Moscow. Usually by Independence Day I’m my old chipper self again.

    On the lighter side, here are my answers to your quiz: (1) I know that Bob Barnett described Vanska as “volcanic” while reviewing his Nielsen 3rd/4th coupling on Bis records. (2) Mary Tilford (AKA Alex Ross, for the unenlightened) opposed the hiring of Muti in New York – that one is easy: it was the “shot heard round the world.” (3) The “chief” of New York critics Anthony Tommasini called Alsop “formidable.” But, to be fair, he also called her an “American dynamo” and claimed she had a “vision,” two descriptions which could have easily applied to Sylvester Stallone. (I think Stallone would have been a better pick by the Baltimore Symphony, actually.). (4) I’ll have to guess on who called Carl Nielsen a Dutch composer: Mary again, owing to that stupendously stupid comment he wrote regarding Nielsen’s Fifth Symphony.

    I am not very consistent, either, about respecting the German umlaut, Andrew. I admit “Welser-Moest” looks a little weird; but if I write “Welser-Most” (which I really have no problem with), the word “most” makes me think of the English transliteration of the Russian word “moct,” which means “bridge,” and which is pronounced very differently from the German word. It becomes a distraction. Usually I am a stickler for such details, but when I run into a pedantic eyesore like “Die Goetterdaemmerung,” I wonder.

    I become frustrated and even cross with Americans who make no attempt whatsoever to pronounce foreign words correctly, whether they know the language or not. And so, when I write a word like “Zuerich,” ugly as it is, I do so in order to “hear” the word correctly in my head as I read it. Some people think it doesn’t matter at all, when it really does, as in the case of Georg “Never-call-me-George” Groeg, a German businessman from Duesseldorf, who - to borrow from a scene in the restored version of Stanley Kurbrick’s “Sparticus” – had a preference for “clams” only at home (where his name was spelled in his homeland’s orthography - with an umlaut); but when he traveled to Chicago, where he was nicknamed “Palindrome George,” he was able to move comfortably (Amphisbaena-like) between “clams” and “oysters.”

    (That was a joke.)

    All right, there was ONE funny moment in Moscow, at the office; but I’ll have to lead you up to it, Andrew. My friend Yuri at the Moscow office is a fine engineer and, usually, a fine mathematician; but inside his 43-year-old body is the personality of a 13-year-old. On the first Monday evening (unfortunately), Yuri insisted that I go over to his place for a while to watch – can you believe it? – “Star Trek” on dvd! He had recently acquired the original 1966-67 American TV series, never having seen it before. The sound track was in the original English (Yuri is an English-Russian interpreter while I am a Russian-English interpreter). Well, I agreed to sit with him for one episode, “Mudd’s Women,” which I remembered seeing when I actually WAS thirteen years old! So, we are watching a scene in the conference room where three beautiful women are seated, distracting the libidinous crew from the business at hand. So, the iconic Captain Kirk reprimands at his men, “Stop thinking with your glands!” Well, Yuri thought that line was the funniest thing he had ever heard in his life and was literally rolling on the carpet. From that day onward Yuri sought every conceivable opportunity to whisper or speak that line to me – in appropriate circumstances, like watching Irek’s beefy successor dance Swan Lake’s Prince at the Bolshoi; and in inappropriate circumstances, like teasing me about my Moscow-induced paraskevidekatriaphobia.

    I got the little devil back though. On the last Monday, during the final training scenario, anxiety was running high, and Yuri was having difficulty arriving at a mathematical solution which I expected him to get rather quickly. Finally, I barked at him, “Yuri, stop thinking with your glans!” It worked. It defused the tension in the room, and Yuri answered correctly, collapsing in a bought of hysterical laughter. The best part was that Yuri actually understood EXACTLY (after about two seconds) what I had said, a testimony to his daunting interpreting prowess. The others in the room who understood English thought I was either referring to “sweat glands” (a Tommasini-like cluelessness) or that I had simply uttered an incomprehensible non sequitur (a Rosenbergian cluelessness).

    Well, Andrew, I have a lot of catching up to do at the office and a lot of post-Moscow business this week. I may not have the time to write comments as frequently. You understand, I’m sure.

    Have a good week. As always, I look forward to your next posting.

    PS, did I pass the quiz?


  35. Dane, I am so sorry you were unable to pick up a score of the coveted Maw Violin Concerto while you were in Moscow. I can only imagine how disappointed you must be. Please try to contain your sorrow and carry on the best you can.

    In my quiz, I failed to account for the possibility that more than one idiot critic might have written the very same thing. I should have known better, since Justin Davidson, Joshua Kosman, Alex Ross, Mark Swed and Anthony Tomassini are entirely interchangeable, always writing the very same thing: Marin Alsop=good/Franz Welser-Most=bad; Los Angeles Philharmonic=good/New York Philharmonic=bad; John Adams=good/Pierre Boulez=bad. Sometimes, I believe all five writers spent far too much time as children reading “Alice In Wonderland”. Other times, I believe all five writers are actually one person writing under an assortment of pen names.

    In order, the critics I was referring to were Tomassini, Ross, Ross and Anne Midgette. (If you are not keeping up with the articles Midgette is now writing for the Washington Post, you are missing out on a heap of laughs. If I may plagiarize Pauline Kael, Midgette’s writings and thoughts are full of clichés I didn’t even know I knew.)

    Putin is a very dangerous man. That he will stop at nothing was established when he had his KGB agents poison the dissident émigré journalist in London. I have no idea what will be the ultimate outcome of the situation in Russia, although my twofold hope obviously is that democracy prevails in Russia and that Russia contributes meaningfully to the international world order by keeping Gergiev within its own borders.

    Get back to work.


  36. Andrew,

    I do not know. For me, going to a concert and seeing someone well-prepared musically, intellectually, physically is about respect. Respect to YOURSELF firstly, and then the art, then your colleagues, then to the audience.

  37. I love Russia!

    However, I do not like Tommasini.

  38. Andrew,

    Here's one for you: What active American idiot critic called the Los Angeles Philharmonic the most "relevant" orchestra in America. And can you please tell me what the hell that means?

    I'm working, my friend.


  39. J.R.:

    I have never been to Russia, and I would love to go sometime. I don’t want to die without seeing Saint Petersburg.

    You know, Anthony Tommasini is supposed to be a very intelligent man (and a very nice man, too, I am told). His particular area of expertise is the piano and piano literature.

    Why, then, is his criticism so poor? He is supposed to be far more intelligent and far more learned than the other four critics I listed—Davidson, Kosman, Ross, Swed—and yet his writing is, if anything, even worse than the other names on that list (though not by much).

    I have many theories to explain his situation (and the situations of his fellow music critics), but my theories are too long-winded and too boring to enumerate at present.

    I’ll save it for another time.

    I hope tomorrow’s trip to Rhode Island will be filled with joy and good cheer! Have a safe trip, too!

    And eat plenty of cake!


  40. I've fantasized about Russia so many times in my lifetime that I think I have been there already, even though I haven't.

    Tony: Well, at least he adores Renée Fleming...

    I am bringing with me "War and Peace" for my flight to RI tomorrow morning. Do you think I could finish it?

    Oh, I'll eat PLENTY of wedding cake! A mouthful.

    Grand merci for your kind wishes.


  41. Dane:

    All I can do is round up the usual suspects—Davidson, Kosman, Ross, Swed and Tommasini—and take it from there.

    I will eliminate Kosman first, since he is based in San Francisco and presumably would not give such prominence to another orchestra just down the coast.

    I will eliminate Swed second, as there would be too strong a whiff of Babbittry in such a characterization coming from him.

    That leaves Davidson, Ross and Tommasini, all of whom could easily have made such a claim.

    I think I SHOULD nominate Davidson, because he authored that ridiculous article that described the Vienna Philharmonic as “the most important orchestra in the world” but also “the most irrelevant”.

    However, I will guess that Tommasini is the writer you are referring to, with Ross as my backup choice.


  42. And I have no idea what "relevant" signifies in such a context.

    I am still busy working on "galvanic" and "formidable", as used by Alex Ross.

    Remember the character in "Brideshead Revisited" who, when involuntarily pressed to describe a particularly insipid young man, deliberately chose the word "versatile", to signal that his characterization would be utterly meaningless.

    The descriptions "versatile", "relevant", "galvanic" and "formidable", without more, are all meaningless.

  43. I don't think you will be able to finish "War And Peace", J.R., unless you are a speed reader.

  44. Nah, I'm actually not bringing that book with me for my in-flight reading...

    ...I'm bringing André Aciman's Call Me By Your Name", a novel I have read over and over again beginning in January when I encountered the work.

    I know you don't have the penchant nor the tolerance for novels, but you ought to read that gorgeous novel, Andrew. Perhaps on your flight to England.

  45. I will read about that book, J.R.

    I have never even heard of it, I am ashamed to say.

    Thank you.

  46. Andrew,

    It was actually Swed: June 6 2008, LA Times, though he said the same thing a few weeks earlier, adding the adjective "hippist(?)."

    Swed would not read Sinclair Lewis, I'm sure. I think he is a Lillian Hellman fan.


  47. I flunked.

    I thought Swed was a big Dr. Seuss fan.

  48. Andrew,

    Lewis Carroll, I'd wager.


  49. Mark Swed was the damn fool who said the combination of Philly and Eschenbach was "as good as it gets", if you remember my earlier comment. That tells me all I need to know.

  50. I have never heard Eschenbach conduct anything. He had already departed Houston when I arrived in 2002. I can testify, however, concerning the legacy he left behind. While attending a dinner party a couple of years ago I groused endlessly to one elderly lady about the hideous playing of the Houston Symphony. When she had heard enough, she blurted out, “Houston is the greatest orchestra in the world! [Eschenbach] BUILT that orchestra, and everything he learned he learned from George Szell, who built your prr-ecious Cleveland Orchestra!” Well, I remember ruminating over her declaration with more than the usual skepticism, since she had also stated earlier that evening that Joseph Goebbels had been Mozart’s Imperial benefactor.

    When I mentioned this amusing encounter to an acquaintance of mine from Rice, a man having a reputation as knowing Eschenbach much more intimately than most concert patrons, he replied, “One morning George Szell walked up to Chris just before the rehearsal of the Mozart K 503. Szell handed him a lady’s garter and said, ‘Pull up those socks, young man! And KEEP them up!’” My friend then said, “That was THE single most, life-changing counsel that Chris ever received from anyone in his entire life” (!).


  51. I would be eager to hear more about Hans Graf and the Houston Symphony.

    I was in Houston for two weeks on business in January 2007, and I heard the orchestra under Graf in a Debussy-Dukas-Dvorak program.

    I did not think Houston was a bad orchestra, necessarily. The program I heard did not show the orchestra to advantage, but I could hear the makings of a fine orchestra behind the playing. The French works did not come off, but Houston is not an orchestra for French repertory. The Dvorak sounded better, but musicians are generally bored out of their minds by the Dvorak Cello Concerto, and the musicians in Houston were indeed bored that night, as was everyone else, including the soloist, Yo-Yo Ma. Ma should drop the piece from his active repertory.

    I did not know what to make of Hans Graf. Based on that one hearing, I did not think Graf was the right conductor for the Houston Symphony. The musicians were not operating on his wavelength, and conductor and orchestra did not seem to have established a working relationship. Neither conductor nor musicians appeared to be at their best that night, however, and I would like to hear Graf conduct Brahms or Bruckner with the orchestra.

    I have heard Graf elsewhere, as a guest conductor, and I have never known what to make of him. He is capable, but I have no idea whether he can be more than capable.

    I thought the orchestra of the Houston Grand Opera was very poor. I heard “Faust” and “Cenerentola” while I was in Houston, and I thought everything about Houston Grand Opera was provincial—orchestra, chorus, soloists, conductors, stage presentation (the “Faust was a Houston production; the “Cenerentola” was borrowed, from somewhere in Spain, I believe).

    That “Cenerentola” was the one time I heard Joyce DiDonato, and I thought she was competent but nothing special. She was too “American”, with everything upfront and on the surface. I would like to hear her again, however.

    I have nothing against Christoph Eschenbach. I would not even mind hearing him in Minnesota now and again. He may be a touch odd, but at least he has a point of view about the works he conducts. Nonetheless, I think anyone could have foreseen that he was all wrong for Philadelphia.

    As a city, Dane, I liked Houston very much. I also like Texans, who are very, very friendly.

    I was unable to make it to the Houston Museum Of Fine Arts. I hear conflicting opinions about the Houston Museum Of Fine Arts: some people say it is wonderful; others say it does not have a sufficient number of top-drawer works in its collections.

    Houston’s Turner had been loaned to the National Gallery’s Turner exhibition. I remember it. It was a good Turner.

  52. Andrew,

    I haven’t returned to Jones Hall since November 2006. Graf conducted Shoshtakovitch’s Seventh, and I left rather rudely before the finale. Graf seems to be a good conductor, but it will take more time to bring back the orchestra. I acknowledge that he has improved the intonation greatly and has begun to put into place a luxuriant body of sound. But the ensemble is annoyingly inconsistent. Graf will need to stay here a good ten years or more, I think, but that is unlikely. On that particular night in November the playing of the Houston Symphony was an unmitigated disaster. It was this concert that was the topic of my diatribe at the Thanksgiving dinner party. Many years ago a friend of mine was excited about getting tickets to hear Percy Faith’s 101 Strings. I told him that he certainly would get his money’s worth, since he would be able to hear every single, distinct sting! That’s how the Houston Symphony played that night, although the musicians played exquisitely on a purely individual basis – that was painfully obvious!

    I vowed that I would never go back to Jones. I haven’t heard Graf’s Bruckner.

    I have never attended a single performance of the Houston Grand Opera. I have been told over and over for six years that the Opera is an embarrassment and a waste of time and money.


  53. You are right about the city. I enjoy living here. And, yes, the people are generally very open and friendly.


  54. I guess this means you will be boycotting the orchestra's upcoming Nicholas Maw festival, during which Houston Grand Opera will also be presenting "Sophie's Choice" with Marin Alsop in the pit.

  55. I agree with the late John Gardiner's revised review of William Styron's "Sophie's Choice"; namely, that the novel is a haunting major work, though I still think that Styron's first novel, "Lie Down in Darkness," is better, a neglected masterpiece.

    That's about all I want to say about anything called "Sophies's Choice."

    I Do plan to attend the Grand Opera for the premiere of "Die, Rhea!" though. However, that will not happen if Alsop conducts.


  56. I have never read "Sophie's Choice". The only Styron I have read is "The Confessions Of Nat Turner".

    If you allow Marin Alsop to keep you away from "Die, Rhea!", you will miss the Esther Williams water acrobatics--and the aqua ballet is supposed to be the highlight of the entire show!

  57. Andrew,

    The water ballet in Act III IS a highlight, I understand, but the real show-stopper - no pun intended, as you shall see - is supposed to be the chaotic quartet and chorus near the end of Act II, apparently inspired by the melee which closes out the second act of "Die Meistersienger." All through the opera, you see, a women's chorus representing the Etruscan vestal virgins serving Rhea Silvia's old and new selves sings, in thirds, lamentation hymns and prayers to Mars, beseeching the god to sanctify and preserve the pwecious wittle sea cow growing in Zharzha's hypertropic secret place.

    And so, amidst the pell-mell of consternation, consecration, and constipation, an angry fist fight breaks out between the Beirut mayor, dressed in top hat and tails (don't ask), and Zharzha and Ping and Pong, who are the priest and the mayor's hand surgeon, respectively. The scene ends quietly with harmonically rich undulating - you know, minimalist chords in the orchestra (similar to the Klinghoffer 'sea motives'), while the women's chorus sings softly a serene lullaby to the little Rhea Silvia - music which ends touchingly with the couplet, "Enslave this whore tune's toppered liar! . . . engulfed in Fortune's stoppered mire!"

    Now, surely you are captivated now, Andrew!

    Would you postpone your elective surgery if Sylvester Stallone conducted instead of Marin Alsop?

    Would you go, Andrew, if Sylvester Stallone wore his Rocky / Annette Funacello hair do?

    Would you go, Andrew, if Stallone conducted with his shirt off, like Bernstein did once at Tanglewood?

    I would.

    Well, now, considering I've been here for almost 14 hours, and considering I've been pestered almost to death today (but not by you, Andrew), and considering I'm almost deleriously tired, I think I'll go home now and lose myself for an hour or two in the real thing: 18th-century polyphony.


  58. "Captivated" isn't the word.

    However, this certainly DOES sound like a typical John Adams project.

    All right, OK, I'll come--but ONLY if Percy Faith's 101 Strings are in the pit, and Sylvester Stallone smokes a cigarette while juggling oranges during the Act III water ballet.

  59. "Nauseating?"

    I'll be on the floor for most of the rest of the day, Andrew. Thank you for helping me to laugh. I needed that. You and Josh have a pleasant and restful weakend.


  60. Dane, I wish you a good weekend as well.

  61. Andrew,

    Speaking of "Fortune's stoppered mire," are you still engulfed in Goetz Aly's book?


  62. Dane, we have put the Aly aside for now, as well as the Tooze, which we have received. We will read them seriously, in tandem, at the earliest opportunity.

    We have been extremely busy of late, as Josh has mentioned on his blog several times. I don’t know when we will have serious time to devote to the books.

    The last thing I read was a scholarly paper on “coon songs”, if you can believe it. It was fascinating—up to a point.


  63. Dane, are you familiar with any of the following discs, our annual bout of American music as preparation for Independence Day?

    "After The Ball", Joan Morris's debut album on Nonesuch

    The George Antheil album on MusicMasters, featuring "Ballet Mechanique" and the Jazz Symphony

    A Centaur disc of Jerome Kern songs arranged for string quartet

    Neville Marriner's ancient American Bi-Cenntennial tribute album, first issued on Argo, now on Decca (Ives, Barber, Copland, Cowell, Creston)

    Choral music of Samuel Barber and William Schuman on the ASV label

    The original complete version of "Appalachian Spring", conducted by the composer, on Sony

    This year's discs are not very challenging, but last year Josh did not enjoy Gunther Schuller's "Symphony 1965" or William Schuman's Symphony No. 7.

    We decided to go more "populist" this year--and I am reminded, once again, that American music really is not all that interesting, on the whole.


  64. Andrew,

    Alas, American music is sort of a blind spot for me. However, I DO have the original Copland ballet on Sony. My particular disc, part of a Copland series, also contains rehearsal excerpts from the recording session, circa 1974, with the composer conducting. Very interesting. I remember buying the LP.

    I really like the original version of Appalachian Spring, Andrew. I like it much better than the fully-scored suite that Copland later extracted for the New York Phil; and I like it better than the "restored original" with full orchestra, which is available from MTT / San Francisco Symphony. The main differences between the original, which is scored for thirteen instruments, and the ballet suite is that the former has an extended middle section - about 15 minutes - that Copland later deemed too stagey for the concert hall.

    I believe the piece is well suited for the double string quartet plus winds and piano. Such was the largest complement of musicians that Copland could fit into the tiny theater of the Library of Congress, where Martha Graham's Company premiered the work.

    I often think of Copland as more of a highly skilled craftsman rather than as a genuine artist - a minority opinion. But I feel Appalachian Spring is about as close to real American art as anything; and the work is also as "populist" as you can get. The coda of the ballet is one of the most satisfying pieces of American music that has ever been written (in my opinion).

    I have several Antheil works on Naxos, a couple of symphonies and also "Ballet Mechanique." Strangely, I cannot remember a single note from those discs.


  65. Dane:

    I know “Appalachian Spring” in all its variants.

    Leonard Slatkin made a recording for EMI of the complete “Appalachian Spring” score for full orchestra while he was still in Saint Louis, and it is much better than the San Francisco/Tilson Thomas recording on RCA.

    Did you know that it was Eugene Ormandy who, in the late 1960’s, convinced Copland to orchestrate the complete score for full orchestra?

    Copland was a fine composer, but he had a very narrow range (of course, so did Ravel). I think Copland remains our finest composer of art music, mostly because the competition is so poor. He also had an instantly-recognizable voice—which other “finished” composers, such as Samuel Barber, among others, lacked.

    Take away Sousa, Gershwin and Copland, and is there another American composer with an individual voice? None that I can think of.


  66. Andrew,

    Yes, I knew that Ormandy commissioned the full scoring of the middle section of AS; but I wonder, did Copland alter any of the instrumentation in the rest of the score, making it different in any way from the more famous Suite? I never really compared the two.

    Copland certainly has the most easily recognizable style among American composers. His voice is identifiable in his early pieces like "Grog" and "Symphonic Ode."

    Sometimes I can't tell the difference, however, between Howard Hanson and Samuel Barber, as pretty to the ear as those composers' writings can be.

    One William Schuman piece that I like, with reservations, is his violin concerto of 1958. I admit, however, that Schuman doesn't really leave a strong stamp of "Schuman" on any of his work.


  67. What about Bernstein? Does his 1971 "Mass" say "Bernstein"?

  68. Correction: The "middle section" of Appalachian Spring which Copland excised is actually, now that I think about it, from Act III, not Act II, of the original ballet.

  69. Correction to correction: There are no Acts in the ballet, as I should have known, only 14 movements. See how smart I can be with Google?


  70. Dane:

    I believe that Copland, when he orchestrated the entire ballet in the late 1960’s, did not tinker with the portions of “Appalachian Spring” already orchestrated for full orchestra in 1947.

    I have heard the Argo recording of “Grohg”, believe it or not, coupled with “Hear Ye, Hear Ye”, another early Copland ballet. Oliver Knussen recorded both ballets in Cleveland. I think the disc had a catalog life of 30 minutes or less. Copland recycled “Grohg” into another composition, and I think it was the Dance Symphony, but I might be wrong about that.

    William Schuman was an extremely skillful composer, but his scores could have been written by anyone. There is not a shred of individuality in any of his scores, not even the more successful ones like the Violin Concerto or the Symphony No. 3. His music also lacks fervor and passion. I believe Schuman wrote music because he could, not because he had to.

    I have never been able to enjoy the Schuman symphonies, and I have tried very, very hard. The same is true of his peer group, all of whom sound alike to me. I think that most persons could not tell the difference between Paul Creston, Peter Menin, Walter Piston and William Schuman in a blind test.

    I have never heard Bernstein’s “Mass”. Something about that composition absolutely hocks me off. In any case, I have never been a Bernstein fan, whether as composer or conductor.

    Georg Solti always said that it was clear, at least to other conductors, that Bernstein always conducted from the first violin part.


  71. Andrew,

    I'd like to add to the gray, homogeneous mass - Ned Rorem and George Rockberg (with appologies for any misspelling). I liked Rockberg's Violin Concerto when I heard it performed on the radio in 1976 by the BSO and Ozawa. I haven't heard it since. I have no pressing urge to acquire the Naxos recording. I have never been able to listen to any composition by Rorem all the way through.

    Are you aware, Andrew, that many of the "Schuman peer group" wrote underscoring for the majority of American TV shows in the fifties and sixties? My family was (and still is) a TV family, and so I was expected - until I was in high school - to watch those "classics." I know you are too young too remember, but your Dad may remember shows like "The Defenders" and "The Great Adventure." I can recall every single theme from every one of those shows. Funny, they all sound like they were composed by the same person.

    Sometimes I actually think the finest American composers are film composers like Bernard Herrman, Jerry Goldsmith, Alex North, and Elmer Bernstein.

    I think Copland's film scores were marvelous, particularly "The Heiress" and "The Red Pony."

    Are you familiar with Copland's opera, "The Tender Land"? I have the Virgin Classics recording.


  72. Dane:

    I love the Rochberg Violin Concerto. It is one of my favorite pieces of music. When I was a senior in high school, I listened to it every night for a full month, I think.

    I only know it from the Isaac Stern recording on Sony. Stern had Rochberg cut 15 minutes of the score, claiming it was too fatiguing for him to play and for audiences to hear. It is the shortened version that Stern played on the Sony recording (with Pittsburgh and Previn).

    I have never heard the Naxos recording of the complete version, but I plan to some day.

    I have only heard two Rorem works that I liked: the Violin Concerto (the Deutsche Grammophon recording) and the Third Symphony (the Vox recording). In fact, Josh and I listened to that particular Vox recording exactly a year ago.

    I do not like Rorem’s songs. Every time I read that Rorem was a wonderful songwriter, I shake my head.

    I like Copland’s “Red Pony” but the only part of “The Heiress” I know is that portion Copland inserted into “Music For Movies”.

    I have never heard “The Tender Land”, but I think that the Virgin recording was made here in the Twin Cities, if I am not mistaken. Is it any good?

    Those television programs are unknown to me. I had no idea that serious composers wrote television scores.

    Speaking of Elmer Bernstein, do you remember how his score to “The Age Of Innocence” was nothing but a re-write of the third movement of Brahms’ Third Symphony? No one commented upon it at the time the film was released, which greatly surprised me. I cannot think of another Bernstein film score I have heard.

    I know and like Goldsmith’s “Chinatown” score, but I cannot think of any other Goldsmith score that I really liked, except for “Papillon”, perhaps.

    I never really cared for North or Hermann (except for “Taxi Driver”). I never even cared for North’s score for “Spartacus” or Hermann’s score for “Psycho”.

    I guess I just never got into film music. My favorite film composer has always been Georges Delerue, who pretty much stayed out of the way.


  73. Actually, I heard the complete Naxos Rochberg Violin Concerto a couple of times over at my parents' house, but I have never set aside time to give it a serious series of listens, and to compare it to the shortened version.

  74. Wow, Andrew, so I wasn’t wrong about the Rochberg Violin Concerto all those years ago! I’ll have to acquire the Naxos, then. I understand that the Naxos contains the uncut original version.

    Copland’s “The Tender Land” on Virgin is by the Plymouth Music Series conducted by Philip Bruenelle. The performances are just competent. The opera is a noble failure in my mind because the composer made the error of using Benjamin Britten as a model (since Britten was THE standard at the time). He should have turned to Walton. Everyone who has heard the work praises “The Promise of Living” quintet (ref reader reviews on, but my favorite part comes earlier in Act I, when Mrs. Moss opens the box containing her daughter’s newly delivered graduation dress. The alto aria, “This is like the dress I never had,” is magical. But it is too short. If only the composer had been able to sustain such inspiration for the duration. When I heard the orchestral suite that Copland prepared from the opera I was surprised that he had made no reference to this “graduation dress” music. Another, less magical moment comes in Act II, the “sunrise music,” which I feel can be placed alongside other great sunrise music in the literature, such as the prelude to Act III of Nielsen’s “Saul and David.”

    Many years ago while radio giant Karl Haas was broadcasting “Adventures in Good Music,” I remember him asking his audience for suggestions for his show. I thought of a show entitled “Too short for Comfort,” which would feature finished pieces of music that where so good as to make the listener stand up and say, “no, don’t stop now!” I thought of the Copland aria mentioned above, along with the Christmas Eve scene in La Boheme, the “Offertorium” from the Gounod Saint Cecilia Mass, and Villa Lobos’ “Little Train of the Caipira” (After all, how could anyone forgive the Brazilian government for constructing a railway over a span that could have been traversed just as quickly on foot!).

    For some reason Elmer Bernstein as been doing poorly since 1962, the year he wrote his last great score, to “To Kill a Mockingbird,” surely one of the finest scores ever written for the screen. Everything after that seemed blatantly derivative (though it is clear that Copland was the inspiration for “Mockingbird.”) I haven’t heard anything after 1962 that was worth remembering.

    The fact that nobody picked up on the Brahms rip-off in “The Age of Innocence” tells us what a powerful impression someone like John Williams has had on his peers. John Williams is the Mother-of-us-all plagiarist. He loves to rip off Richard Strauss and Prokofiev, dovetailing virtually unaltered snippets into his work as if he were saying, “Ha, ha, I bet you can’t tell this isn’t mine, you movie-going, low-life morons!” I think he does this because he knows that his own composition skills aren’t any good. Or maybe he does this because he really hates film and hates writing music for film.

    Comparing pre-1962 Bernstein, however, to John Williams is like comparing Sondheim to Lloyd Webber.

    I like Alex North’s score to “Dragonslayer.” And I like Goldsmith’s score to “Planet of the Apes.” (The movies themselves can be forgotten.)

    I have always liked Bernstein’s score to “On the Waterfront,” too. But Bernstein had been courting moral declension all his life, and “Mass” says more than anything he wrote about his culminating degeneracy. In that regard “Mass” DOES have “Bernstein” stamped all over it. I am still amazed that the DC police did not raid the premiere of “Mass” when it was first performed at the Kennedy Center in 1971.


  75. As far as other American composers are concerned, I'm pretty ignorant. I have never heard anything by Crumb, Creston, or Carter. And as long as we are in the "C's," from what I HAVE heard from the pen of John Corigliano, please, gag me with a spoon, Valley Girl!


  76. I have listened to lots of Crumb, and I do not understand what some people see and hear in his music.

    Creston's music is indistinguishable from that of the other tonal symphonists who emerged in the thirties.

    Corigliano adopts whatever fashion of the day is in vogue. His music is out-of-date before the ink is dry on the page.

    I would give Elliott Carter a try, though, and I would begin with the Orchestral Variations from 1955. It is Webern, Americanized, and an exceptionally beautiful work.

    The Chicago/Levine recording on DGG is excellent.

  77. By the way, Dane, the Plymouth Music Series--the ensemble that recorded "The Tender Land" for Virgin--is a Minneapolis group, although it changed its name a few years back.

    It also made the only recording of Britten's "Paul Bunyan", also for Virgin.

    Philip Brunelle is still in charge.

    We never go to the group's concerts.

  78. Thank you, Andrew. Ill get the DG recording (Levine actually conducted something well?)

    ERRATUM: The fact that no one noticed Bernstein's plagiarism of Brahms does NOT say anything about the influence of John Williams upon film composers, of course; but it DOES say something about musically ignorant film critics and about musically ignorant movie-goers in general.


  79. I just realized that Elmer Bernstein has been dead for four years. I thought he was just retired. Thank goodness for Wikipedia. Now I know how Howard Metzenbaum felt when George McGovern asked, in 1990, "So, how's George Szell doing?"


  80. How is Mr. Szell? He doesn't seem to get out and about much anymore, from what I can gather. Fritz Reiner seems to have fallen from view, too.

    The Deutsche Grammophon recording with Carter's Variations For Orchestra is out of print. I would not try to buy it online, if I were you, because the couplings--Schuller, Cage, Babbitt--were not good.

    I would try to obtain a copy through inter-library loan.

    This is the ONLY recording Levine ever made in which his version is the finest (because there is no effective competition, of course).

  81. Andrew,

    Didn't Carl Ruggles have an individual voice? I can't imagine anyone else writing "Suntreader."


  82. Ruggles had an individual compositional technique, but I don't hear a unique voice in his music that instantly says "Carl Ruggles, and only Carl Ruggles".

  83. Providence is not without a sense of humor, Andrew.

    Last night, having written about Elmer Bernstein’s plagiarism of Brahms in “The Age of Innocence,” I watched a new Milos Forman film, “Goya’s Ghosts,” on DVD. The interesting story is set in the profoundly troubled times of Spain between 1792 and 1808 and attempts to show the influence of the historical events upon Goya’s art, principally “Los Caprichos.”

    The film music, according to the opening credits, is by Varhan Bauer. So you can imagine my surprise when, during a scene set in French-occupied Madrid, lo and behold I hear on the sound track a minimally redressed, bar-for-bar extended quotation from Ottorino Respighi’s “Pini di Roma.” My attempt to divine some rational connection between the monstrously incongruous choice of music and the unfolding plot only caused my brain to shut down. So, I’ll give Forman the benefit of the doubt and assume that Varhan Bauer’s thinking - not to mention my own reaction to his thinking - was exactly what the director intended, perhaps with a view to the subtitle of “Los Caprichos”: “The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters.”

    Insofar as your challenge is concerned, Andrew, I yield to your reasoning in rejecting my suggestion that Carl Ruggles owned a distinctly individual, composer’s voice.

    While ruminating over Milos Forman's Zen koan practice last night I thought of proposing for your astute consideration, counselor, another American composer, a “monster” in his own right: John Cage. But I soon realized, when reason returned, that even if Cage had written only a single unreasonable work, 4’33”, he would have turned out to be the exact antithesis of Aaron Copland: He would have been a most uniquely COMMON composer, since every single man on the planet, together with his dog – indeed, together with his own disembodied spirit - could have not only composed anything by John Cage but could have even performed anything by John Cage.

    Therefore, permit me, counselor, this final bid:

    I submit for consideration the American composer Alan Hovhaness.


  84. I have never heard anything from the pen of John Cage that I thought was any good, or even interesting. I think he was little more than an oddball.

    I like Hovhaness' Second and Fourth Symphonies, but I have heard an awful lot of dreck from his pen.

    He had an individual writing style, like Ruggles, but did he have an individual voice?

    When I think of an individual voice, I think of music of such unique character, personality and individuality that it immediately identifies the composer within two or three bars--music that could have been written by no one else.

    I invoke the comparison between Sibelius and Nielsen.

    Sibelius had a unique voice that was no one's but his own. No one else could have written his music. A mature Sibelius work identifies its composer immediately. His music has its own unique sound world, personality and character. It is sui generis.

    Nielsen was a fine composer, but his music lacks individuality. It does not have its own unique sound world. It does not have its own unique personality and character, its own unique footprint. Unless the listener already knows the work in question, listening to two or three bars of a Nielsen piece does not make the listener cry out "Nielsen, and only Nielsen".

    Does Hovhaness have his own unique stamp? I don't think so, any more than I think Howard Hanson's music does.

    Respighi lacks his own unique stamp, too, although he was, in many ways, a brilliant composer (and certainly a brilliant orchestrator). I guess that's why Forman used his music as a setting for the wrong century and the wrong country.

    Do you think, under similar circumstances, Forman would have used music of Debussy? I very much doubt it.

  85. In a bit of naked oneupmanship, I recently decided to go one better on John Cage and completed my freshest masterpiece, 9'11", one of my many "tribute" pieces to the victims of September 11, 2001.

    Unlike John Adams, I will not allow pre-recorded voices to mar the simple profundity of 9'11".

    Writing 9'11" allowed me to take a breather from my lengthy oratorio dedicated to the victims of Atocha Station.

    I am trying to find a publisher for 9'11" so that I can sit back and let the royalties roll in.

  86. Andrew:

    The Sibelius / Nielsen example captured me. Sorry for my boneheadedness.


  87. "Tapiola" wouldn't have worked in "Goya's Ghosts", either.

    Nothing would work in 9'11". Not even 4'33".


  88. Are you saying, Dane, that my 9'11" will not enter the active repertory, and become one of the most cherished works in the canon?

  89. It would make me very happy, my friend, to know that you could retire next year and live the dolce vita solely on your 9’11” royalties. But it is unlikely that you will be able to find a pianist to champion the piece, since there is no high profile pianist - and you need an international, box-office soloist - who champions even 4’33”.

    If you orchestrate 9’ll”, however, your chances of success will increase, I’m sure. But then you will encounter many other kinds of problems: The John Cage estate could sue you (1) for exactly 45.55 per cent of your royalties and (2) for orchestrating 4’33” in the first place without the permission of the estate. Then you will have to worry about someone like Milos Forman ripping you off in his next movie about 911 without paying you. Worst of all, Oliver Knussen could plagiarize your work in order to make his next commission deadline, in an antic that would enable him to deliver less than 11 minutes of music for a 20-minute piece.


  90. I guess I'd better stick with my day job, then.

  91. Danen,

    4'33" is 49.55 percent of 9'11", not 45.55.

  92. TDA,

    The playing time of 4'33" is actually four minutes and eleven seconds. The remaining 22 seconds account for the two pauses (11 seconds apiece) between the three movements, which David Tudor, the pianist who premiered 4'33" in 1952, indicated by closing the lid of the piano, rendering the work unplayable.

    Four minutes and eleven seconds is precisely 45.55 per cent of Andrew's 9'11".

    I didn't think the attorneys representing the John Cage estate would dare to seek damages based upon unplayable music. And even though an overzealous lawyer could argue that in the orchestral version the piece would not technically be unplayable simply because the conductor lowered his hands to his side, I decided that the plaintiffs would ultimately forego the five percent purely in the interest of keeping their case free of unnecessary complicatons.

    Hence, I wrote 45.55 per cent.


  93. TDA,

    Correction. Of course, I wrote 49.55 per cent, NOT 45.55, and 4'33" IS 49.55 per cent of Andrew's 9'11"!


  94. 4'11" is 49.55 per cent.

    I retire!


  95. Andrew,

    My apologies to you and to your readership for those preceding two comments, which were written by an unimaginative miscreant co-worker, who bypassed Blogger security (my fault).


  96. No problem at all, Dane.

    I hope you have a wonderful weekend and a wonderful July 4 week.

    Josh and I will not be online next week.


  97. Andrew,

    The best of fun to all of you!