Joe Queenan’s A-Z of classical music

Can’t tell your Monteverdi from your Mantovani? Think allegro refers to your grandparents’ car? Joe Queenan is here to help, with his classical music primer.

This is more for a laugh than intended as a serious ‘primer’, but it’s still worth dipping into. It looks like Mr Q plans to work his way right through the alphabet. I came across this today, at which stage he’d reached I & J. I’ll keep the links updated as further material is published in The Guardian.

A is for Amadeus, B is for Beethoven
C is for Carmen, D is for Debussy
E is for English music, F is for Faur
G is for Goldberg, H is for hair
I is for Idiocy, J is for Janacek
K is for Kindertotenlieder, L is for Liszt
M is for Money, N is for Ninth
O is for Overtures, P is for Pavarotti
Q is for Quirkiness, R is for Rite of Spring
S is for Schoenberg, T is for Tchaikovsky
U is for Unfinished, V is for Verdi
W is for Wagner, X is for Xenakis
Y is for Youth, Z is for Die Zauberflüte

Update, 2nd February So, the list is complete. It took longer than I anticipated (it certainly wasn’t a weekly update), but there’s some interesting stuff in there.

Top rating for another Kalliwoda recording

This time it’s String Quartets, recorded by the Tallich Quartet on Calliope, in the reviewer’s spotlight. Reviews such as this (replete with more than its fair share of words such as ‘delicious’, ‘fascinating’ and ‘really beautiful’) make you wonder, firstly, why this composer and his music were neglected for so long, and, secondly, what began this extraordinary resurgence of interest in his output. Our experience of the 5th Symphony at the session back in August was revelatory, and this extraordinary succession of wildly enthusiastic reviews is so intriguing that I for one will certainly hunt down these recordings and add them to my collection. Isn’t it amazing? Despite years and years of exposure to music, there’s still more out there to discover and savour.

Eschenbach says Philadelphia Musicians hated him

Philadelphia Inquirer news article
At a closed rehearsal with the musicians of the Philadelphia Orchestra, outgoing music director Christoph Eschenbach revealed that his decision to leave was sparked by a conversation with the orchestra’s CEO in which Eschenbach was told that “80 percent of the musicians did not agree with his artistic interpretations; that 80 percent of the musicians left concerts feeling great anger; and that the orchestra was a ‘ticking time bomb.'”

I wrote earlier about rumblings concerning Maestro Eschenbach, and these later came to a head with an announcement on 21st October that he is leaving the orchestra at the end of next season. There were mentions at that time of the difficulties which would be involved in finding a successor, and now comes this latest episode in the sorry saga.

How can an artistic relationship continue if feelings are running this high? Surely the wisest thing would be for Christoph to take his shaved head with him and leave gracefully at the first opportunity, perhaps even helping to find someone to step into the breach. Surely the Philadelphia Orchestra can find someone better than this guy, even if he/she isn’t in the big league. Frankly, from my experience, anyone would be better than this guy.

Sydney Opera House needs major renovation

Its facade may be one of the world’s most recognizable sights, but inside, the Sydney Opera House is a cramped, outmoded and fast-aging structure. Some essential renovations are already planned, but “the big question is: should other work be undertaken at the same time that would ensure the Opera House has a future as a venue for the art form for which it was built?” It could cost as much as AUS$700 million…

Follow this link for the complete article from the Sydney Morning Herald. I love the way it begins:

In the second act of Swan Lake, elegant ballerinas, with white tutus fluttering, toes pointed, leap across the Sydney Opera House stage at speed and out of sight into the wings. What waits for them there must rank among the least graceful moves in all the world. 

But it is one that has saved them from disaster, according to the ballet’s artistic director and a former dancer, David McAllister. “The girls would race off the ramp in the second act and we’d have someone there to catch them and push them off to the side, a bit like a football or handball, so the girls didn’t go smashing into the wings,” he says.

There’s also a second article on a similar theme from the same source, which you’ll find here.

‘The Barber’ meets Letterman

Sounds & Fury
I just finished watching the tape of the 8 November Il Barbiére Met-Letterman Show (taped because I had other things to do at airtime), and if it was the Met’s intention to convince those who never attend opera because they know it’s stuffy, old-fashioned fare involving a bunch of screeching singers who just stand there dressed up in antique costumes making exaggerated gestures to no purpose while singing everything, none of it meaningful or of any importance, instead of speaking it like normal human beings, all to music that was passé a century ago, that they were right all along, then it succeeded brilliantly. Whomever was responsible at the Met for putting together this sorry mess ought to be hung by his you-know-whats, and left to twist in the wind (I assume the responsible party was male; if female, modify, mutatis mutandis).

That’s the beginning of an entry from his Sounds & Fury blog by (the still wonderfully opinionated) A.C. Douglas. I love his tremendously long, convoluted sentences, and that first one is a prime example. The important thing, though, is what it has to say about the new direction the Met’s new director is so quickly moving it in. Appearing on the Letterman show was earlier hailed as a hugely significant step. This quote is typical of the pre-event hype: Peter Gelb has been sending every possible signal that the Metropolitan Opera is a new place under his leadership — the kind of place where great art intersects with mainstream American life. And now this: “Opera buffs can get a sneak peak at the Met’s upcoming production of Rossini’s ‘Il Barbiere di Siviglia’ (that’s ‘The Barber of Seville’ for all of you barbarians) tomorrow on, of all places, ‘Late Show With David Letterman.’ It will be the first time Letterman, an opera fan, has had an opera production as his musical guest.”

I must say that I wasn’t exactly over the moon when I first heard about the move, and I’d be very, very wary of Mr Gelb’s too-rapid change of direction, which looks a bit too much like being as different as possible from his predecessor just for the sake of it. I know there was a lot of criticism of the Met productions and how ‘traditional’ they were, how much the Met audiences tended towards being mostly elderly ladies with blue rinses, and how much the Met needed to become ‘more experimental’. But isn’t there a lot to be said for knowing where you stand, or for knowing what to expect? Wasn’t it significant, when members of the Music Group were choosing a DVD version of an opera, how often the comment was made about a Met production: ‘Well, that’s bound to be a good old-fashioned approach anyway, with no ridiculous re-interpretation by prima donna producers.’ And what’s wrong with that? Let the other houses put on their silly nonsense. The Met needs to move much more slowly if it plans to change its tack. Festina lente, Mr Gelb!

Michael Tilson Thomas as ‘The New Lenny’

Keeping Score – Michael Tilson Thomas – Report – New York Times
The field of classical music has long been waiting for some musician to come along who could use television with Bernstein’s galvanizing impact. The closest, it seemed, has been the dynamic maestro Michael Tilson Thomas, a natural who has masterminded some impressive shows. Until recently, though, TV had not been a central component of Mr. Thomas’s work.

That has now changed. Mr. Thomas is the creative force behind a $23 million, five-year project titled ‘Keeping Score’. Developed by the San Francisco Symphony, where Mr. Thomas is in his 11th season as music director, ‘Keeping Score’ comprises a series of PBS television shows, an interactive Web site, a series of radio broadcasts, documentary and live performance DVDs and a program for public schools, kindergarten through 12th grade, that is starting this fall in selected cities in California and Arizona.

The link above leads to the first page of an article by New York Times music critic Anthony Tommasini. Some NYT articles require that you register with the site before being able to access them. In case this happens, I’ve also saved the material as self-contained web archives which you should be able to open directly in your web browser. You’ll find these here: Page 1; Page 2. As I said, these links are just a precaution in case you are asked to register and would prefer not to. MTT’s project is well worth reading about. Strange, isn’t it, that he should step into Lenny’s shoes in this way. Something to do with the gay gene maybe?

Andras Schiff on Beethoven

Guardian Unlimited: Arts blog – music
The lectures given by Andras Schiff on Beethoven’s piano sonatas in May were electrifying — and sold out. Now you can listen to them all online.

One of the best-kept secrets in London was the lecture series Andras Schiff gave in parallel to his electrifying cycle of Beethoven sonatas at the Wigmore Hall. In May a friend managed to get a ticket for me — and I was simply dazzled by the performance he put on — a riveting mixture of erudition, analysis, passion, wit and memory. Schiff talked for more than two and a half hours about three lateish sonatas — and for anyone interested in these peaks of the piano repertoire they were quite compelling.

It seemed such a waste that all this scholarship and revelation should not have a wider audience. I learned from the Wigmore Hall’s director, John Gilhooly, that the lectures had all been recorded — and neither he nor Schiff needed much persuading that the obvious place to podcast them was on the Guardian’s new arts and entertainment blog. Over the next seven weeks you’ll have the chance to download the series of seven lectures.

The first downloads on offer deal with the 3 sonatas from the Opus 2 set. There’s no indication when the others will appear, though I guess it’d be wise to check back around mid-week each week. I’m off now to check this out. Could be good! Follow the link at the top of this entry for links to this first set of lectures.

p.s. I’d no sooner written this entry than the web page with the download links has been updated. It now also contains a link to a lecture about the piano sonata in E flat, op. 7.

Update, 19th November Two more sets of ‘lectures’ are now available (they’ve been difficult to track down, but I managed eventually). Set 2 covers the three opus 10 sonatas, while Set 3 consists of op. 14 nos. 1 and 2, op. 22, and op. 49 nos.1 and 2. It’s developing into quite a treasure trove!

Update, 24th November Part 4 of the series is now available. As well as that, The Guardian have finally got their act together and have posted an unchanging web address which will link to the entire series as it progresses. So this is probably the best place to bookmark if you’re interested.

Update, 11th December This fascinating series has now reached part 6, which covers sonatas number 22 to 26, a group which includes the Appassionata and Les Adieux.

Update, 4th January The series is now complete. The final instalment appeared today. In keeping with András Schiff’s strictly chronological approach, the final batch of lectures covers the final three great sonatas. The complete set extends to no less than 17 hours and 45 minutes of quite fascinating, in-depth coverage of some of the finest music ever written.