Category Archive 'Classical Music'
31 Jul 2020

Luca Stricagnoli: Mozart’s “Turkish March” on Guitar

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17 Jul 2020

“None of That Damned Nonsense About Merit”

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NYT Classical Music Critic Anthony Tommasini says “ensembles [need] to reflect the communities they serve, [and] the [hiring] audition process [for musicians] should take into account race, gender and other factors.”

During the tumultuous summer of 1969, two Black musicians accused the New York Philharmonic of discrimination. Earl Madison, a cellist, and J. Arthur Davis, a bassist, said they had been rejected for positions because of their race.

The city’s Commission on Human Rights decided against the musicians, but found that aspects of the orchestra’s hiring system, especially regarding substitute and extra players, functioned as an old boys’ network and were discriminatory. The ruling helped prod American orchestras, finally, to try and deal with the biases that had kept them overwhelmingly white and male. The Philharmonic, and many other ensembles, began to hold auditions behind a screen, so that factors like race and gender wouldn’t influence strictly musical appraisals.

Blind auditions, as they became known, proved transformative. The percentage of women in orchestras, which hovered under 6 percent in 1970, grew. Today, women make up a third of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and they are half the New York Philharmonic. Blind auditions changed the face of American orchestras.

But not enough.

American orchestras remain among the nation’s least racially diverse institutions, especially in regard to Black and Latino artists. In a 2014 study, only 1.8 percent of the players in top ensembles were Black; just 2.5 percent were Latino. At the time of the Philharmonic’s 1969 discrimination case, it had one Black player, the first it ever hired: Sanford Allen, a violinist. Today, in a city that is a quarter Black, just one out of 106 full-time players is Black: Anthony McGill, the principal clarinet.

The status quo is not working. If things are to change, ensembles must be able to take proactive steps to address the appalling racial imbalance that remains in their ranks. Blind auditions are no longer tenable.

RTWT

Can there be any notion more preposterous, more incapable of surviving intellectual scrutiny, than today’s liberal shibboleth of “Diversity”?

Diversity requires abandonment of standards of merit, achievement, and genuine equality of opportunity, accompanied by lots of rationalizations, denial, and outright lying about what is needed to produce sufficient representation of members of various privileged victim identity groups. Note how Mr. Tommasini assures NYT readers that there is

    remarkably little difference between players at the top tier. There is an athletic component to playing an instrument, and as with sprinters, gymnasts and tennis pros, the basic level of technical skill among American instrumentalists has steadily risen. A typical orchestral audition might end up attracting dozens of people who are essentially indistinguishable in their musicianship and technique.

But this begs the question: are there actually many representatives of underclass minorities in that “top tier”? Obviously, there are not, because, if there were, then blind auditions would work to achieve their hiring just fine.

Mr. Tommasini fails also to explain why “diversity” in the sense of more African-Americans in classical orchestras is an urgent problem, while massive over-representation of African-Americans in professional sports is no problem at all.

Why, I often wonder, are blacks, Mexicans and Puerto Ricans, and homosexuals important for “Diversity” but not Finns, Ukrainians, or Belgians? If the answer is that a sob story about past hardships is required, then how come Jews, Appalachian hillbillies, and all those ethnic Catholic blue collar communities count for nothing in the Diversity sweepstakes? Tell us, Mr. Tommasini: what percentage of classical orchestra ensembles are made up of Southern Italians from the Outer Boroughs of New York?

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You can imagine what I thought when I looked up Mr. Tommasini and found that he is a Yale classmate of mine.

05 Jul 2020

A Modest Proposal

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Nebal Maysaud

Now here is something downright exceptional from last year.

Nebal Maysaud (a Lebanese composer of the Sodomitical persuasion) complains that Western Classical Music oppresses persons of color and colonizes Third World cultures operating as an agent of cultural change. All this is the fault of Capitalism. (Personally, I thought most of the really good Classical Music was created by the patronage of pre-capitalist monarchs and aristocrats. Prince Esterhazy did not engage in trade.)

There comes a point in some abusive relationships where the victim wakes up out of their Stockholm syndrome and learns that they need to plan an escape. As you communicate with others and you get a taste of freedom, you learn that the force you thought was protecting you is in truth keeping you in danger.

For those who haven’t encountered abusive relationships, you may support the abuser, or wonder why the victim doesn’t just leave. But you don’t know what it’s like to live in a world where you can’t tell truth from myth.

For the victims who aren’t ready, you may have an urge to push away those of us seeking to help you and stay with your abuser, believing them to be a source of protection.

Unfortunately, not everyone can escape. But having the knowledge that your abuser is an abuser itself can be freeing. It can help you find the next step in your journey towards liberation. But you need a community to fall back on. You need people to talk to so that they can keep you safe, so that they can help you understand the truth, and so that they can teach you the abuser’s techniques and how to fight them.

My fellow musicians of color: it is time to accept that we are in an abusive relationship with classical music.

In my previous articles, I laid out my experiences and reasoning for coming to this conclusion. I started with “Am I Not a Minority?” to explain the everyday racism people of color experience and how it manifests on an institutional level. If you haven’t read it already, I encourage you to explore how institutions uphold their power by choosing which minorities to give access to.

The few scraps given to minorities are overwhelmingly white–occupied by white cisgender women or LGBT+ individuals. The few PoC who are given access to institutional space are most often light skinned and non-Black while also exoticised and tokenised.

And that led me to my second article, “Escaping the Mold of Oriental Fantasy“–a personal history of isolation and colonization, of how Western classical music participates in the act of destroying culture and replaces it with its own white supremacist narrative.

Finally, I shared my attempts at reviving my culture and my tradition, along with the barriers I faced on this journey. My third article, “I’m Learning Middle Eastern Music the Wrong Way,” chronicles the difficulties (and the near impossibility) of engaging with my own cultural musical practices in a proper, authentic way.

From three angles I shared my attempts at being an authentic composer. These articles bring to light the many ways in which the dreams of low-income people of color are obstructed in the Western classical tradition.

Western classical music is not about culture. It’s about whiteness. It’s a combination of European traditions which serve the specious belief that whiteness has a culture—one that is superior to all others. Its main purpose is to be a cultural anchor for the myth of white supremacy. In that regard, people of color can never truly be pioneers of Western classical music. The best we can be are exotic guests: entertainment for the white audiences and an example of how Western classical music is more elite than the cultures of people of color.

RTWT

After the Revolution, you see, a benevolent Central Committee will see to it that persons of color, like Nebal here — and whites as well (!) –, are amply funded to produce music in their native cultural traditions. Everyone will be liberated!

Unless, of course, the State is having production problems, and all those aspiring creatives are marched off to labor camps to mine salt.

27 May 2020

Only Playable Stradivarius Guitar

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Five complete guitars built by Antonio Stradivari survive, along with some fragments of others. Only one is still playable.

In the above video, Rolf Lislevand performs Santiago de Murcia’s Tarantela on the Sabionari Stradivarius guitar.

24 Aug 2019

Carmina Burana

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I stumbled upon this 1975, made for West German television with the collaboration of the 80-year-old Carl Orff, performance of Orff’s Carmina Burana directed by Jean Pierre Ponnelle, with Lucia Popp, Herman Prey, the Bavarian Radio Chorus, the Tolz Children’s Choir, and the Munich Radio Orchestra conducted by Kurt Eichhorn. It’s quite a dramatization.

21 Apr 2019

Rimsky-Korsakov: Russian Easter Overture

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17 Dec 2018

Watch the Drummer on the Right

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10 Oct 2018

Salut Salon: “Competitive Foursome”

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16 Sep 2018

Movements as Background for Reading

13 Sep 2018

Remembering Leonard Bernstein

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It’s Leonard Bernstein’s centenary this year, and Alex Ross, in the New Yorker, commemorates the great popularizing conductor with a tribute mixing praise, uncomplimentary gossip, and this regretful perspective on the passing of both Bernstein and his times.

His charisma was indeed potent, but as Bernstein recedes into history he seems more a product of his time than an agent of transformation. He came of age in the New Deal era, when the federal government sank hundreds of millions of dollars into the arts. He benefitted from the cultural politics of the Cold War, even as he suffered under McCarthyism. He launched music-appreciation projects on television at a time when network executives considered Stravinsky’s serialist score “The Flood,” with choreography by Balanchine, suitable for a mass public. The aspirational America of the mid-twentieth century was looking for a Bernstein—a native genius who could knock off Broadway tunes as fluently as he conducted Brahms—and one was duly found. There will not be another, not because talent is lacking but because the culture that fostered him is gone.

He was obviously talented, but he was, in my opinion, as a conductor, far too commonly heavily-handedly didactic, popularizing, and obvious in his approach. He usually seemed to be less conducting, than lecturing de haut en bas from his perch atop the American cultural establishment to a mass 1950s television audience. I thought his appointment to conduct the New York Symphony a terrible descent into vulgar American populism from the era of Bruno Walter. But every once it a while, he was very very good. I can recall hearing an excellent version of some Haydn Symphonies by Bernstein.

I remember, as the years went on, Bernstein became more political in an extremely obnoxious rich-fashionista-poseur-striking-revolutionary-poses manner. His obsequious dallying with Black Panthers brought down on him the gods’s wrath, delivered in the form of a scathing essay by Tom Wolfe which may become Bernstein’s best-remembered memorial:

Mmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm. These are nice. Little Roquefort cheese morsels rolled in crushed nuts. Very tasty. Very subtle. It’s the way the dry sackiness of the nuts tiptoes up against the dour savor of the cheese that is so nice, so subtle. Wonder what the Black Panthers eat here on the hors d’oeuvre trail? Do the Panthers like little Roquefort cheese morsels wrapped in crushed nuts this way, and asparagus tips in mayonnaise dabs, and meatballs petites au Coq Hardi, all of which are at this very moment being offered to them on gadrooned silver platters by maids in black uniforms with hand-ironed white aprons . . . The butler will bring them their drinks . . . Deny it if you wish to, but such are the pensées métaphysiques that rush through one’s head on these Radical Chic evenings just now in New York. For example, does that huge Black Panther there in the hallway, the one shaking hands with Felicia Bernstein herself, the one with the black leather coat and the dark glasses and the absolutely unbelievable Afro, Fuzzy Wuzzy-scale in fact—is he, a Black Panther, going on to pick up a Roquefort cheese morsel rolled in crushed nuts from off the tray, from a maid in uniform, and just pop it down the gullet without so much as missing a beat of Felicia’s perfect Mary Astor voice. . . .

RTWT

22 May 2018

Weaponizing Bach

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In the LA Review of Books, Theodore Gioia reports on classical music being used as bum repellent.

At the corner of 8th and Market in San Francisco, by a shuttered subway escalator outside a Burger King, an unusual soundtrack plays. A beige speaker, mounted atop a tall window, blasts Baroque harpsichord at deafening volumes. The music never stops. Night and day, Bach, Mozart, and Vivaldi rain down from Burger King rooftops onto empty streets.

Empty streets, however, are the target audience for this concert. The playlist has been selected to repel sidewalk listeners — specifically, the mid-Market homeless who once congregated outside the restaurant doors that served as a neighborhood hub for the indigent. Outside the BART escalator, an encampment of grocery carts, sleeping bags, and plastic tarmacs had evolved into a sidewalk shantytown attracting throngs of squatters and street denizens. “There used to be a mob that would hang out there,” remarked local resident David Allen, “and now there may be just one or two people.” When I passed the corner, the only sign of life I found was a trembling woman crouched on the pavement, head in hand, as classical harpsichord besieged her ears.

RTWT

Gioia has all sorts of problems with this. It makes classical music elitist and turns it into a class signifier. Using music to chase people away is inimical to recruiting the same people into its fan base. And, finally, any non-performative use separates the art from its own native listening experience.

When Karen and I first visited the kennels of the Casanova Hunt at Weston, the former home of that hunt’s founder, Charlotte Nourse, we found the hounds listening happily to Beethoven. Apparently, huntsman Tommy Lee Jones found classical music had charms to sooth the trouble-making breasts of foxhounds.

Mr. Gioia may stroke his chin and frown disapprovingly, but I think it’s more appropriate to admire the ingenuity of people who find other ways of harnessing the power of art.

I bet representatives of today’s establishment intelligentsia would deplore the use of crucifixes to repel vampires, arguing that Religion was intended to be all-inclusive!

20 Mar 2018

50 Seconds of Busoni

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