Michael Kaiser, president of Washington D.C.'s Kennedy Center, has written in the Huffington Post about the slow but steady extinction of professional arts criticism in mainstream media. He is deeply worried.
His final paragraph:
No one critic should be deemed the arbiter of good taste in any market and it is wonderful that people now have an opportunity to express their feelings about a work of art. But great art must not be measured by a popularity contest. Otherwise the art that appeals to the lowest common denominator will always be deemed the best.
As a recent former critic who still has one foot -- okay, more like a big toe -- in the game, I agree. But that doesn't mean there is no way to find creative ways to join the crowd's, or the cloud's, or the swarm's conversation in a constructive, engaging way.
The cultural universe as we've known it for the past century and a bit is in the middle of a massive realignment -- larger than most of us can even imagine. And I don't think I'm being hyperbolic.
Here is a tiny sliver of an example of what I mean, taken from the pop music side of the business.
Social media isn't really about a new way of communicating, it's a new way of expressing all the weird little quirks that make us human.
Today's AHA! moment came from a story that illustrates a couple of ways people are circumventing Facebook's penchant for spreading our personal news and preferences all over the place.
Guilty pleasures suddenly become public pleasures. Wouldn't I be embarassed if my friends discovered I listen to Il Divo, or Leroy Anderson, when I should be savouring the complex pleasures of Elliott Carter?
Wouldn't you know it, there's now a service available that will mask your true listening pleasures on Facebook with a fake playlist that can help you tailor your image to whatever you feel your peer group would best approve of.
My review of Philippe Jaroussky's Toronto début is on the Star's entertainment website this morning. You can check it out here.
To share the pleasure of last night's concert a little more, here is Jaourssky singing his encore aria, "Alto Giove" from the opera Polifemo, by Nicola Porpora, with Ensemble Artaserse in what looks a lot like the royal opera theatre at Versailles:
The American Ying Quartet -- violinist Ayano Ninomiya along with Janet (violin), Phillip (viola) and David (cello) Ying -- has just released a gorgeous album of chamber music by Russian composer Anton Arensky (1861-1906). It is late-Romantic music at its most vivid, intelligently and expressively interpreted. The disc is also an eloquent argument in favour of programming Arensky's music more often.
(Toronto's Gryphon Trio has programmed Arensky's gorgeous and relatively well-known Piano Trio in D-minor for its Nov. 17 Music Toronto recital.)
The Yings' album doesn't really have a title, but it could have been called The Arensky Variations, because each of the three pieces on the disc contains intricately rendered variations. The most substantial come in the String Quartet No. 2, in A minor. The second of its three movements contains a theme, seven contrasting variations and a coda. The Finale movement includes expert displays of both canon and fugue.
The first and second Quartets date from 1888 and 1894, respectively, written while the gold-medal composition graduate of the St. Petersburg Conservatory was teaching at the Moscow Conservatory (where his students included Sergei Rachmaninov).
The Piano Quintet, recorded with the help of Arensky-loving pianist Adam Neiman, dates from 1899. At this point, Arensky had moved back to St. Petersburg, where he had been appointed music director of the Imperial Choir in 1895.
All of the music here displays a deep mastery of classical musical structure and counterpoint as well as a facility with melody -- in particular being able to fold in the soulds of Russian folk music. There is nothing adventurous in the architecture, but the careful proportions of each movement feel so right, that I don't feel like anything's missing.
Listening to this particular music at this time of year is a music-lover's equivalent of lighting up the fireplace and settling down in a comfortable chaise for a moment of escape from the world's many noises and demands.
I haven't always been a fan of the Yings' interpretations, which I've sometimes thought a bit shallow. Perhaps the addition of Ayano Ninomiya last season made a difference. They are wonderful here, finding poise, balance and extroversion where necessary. Neiman is fleet and elegant, playing as one with the quartet.
Like any commodity, the less you have, the more precious it becomes.
Since the music critic's job at the Star went the way of VHS, I've had little time to listen -- I mean listen, not hear -- to music, making the moments when I can have both particularly precious.
Koren-born Canadian pianist Minsoo Sohn's new recording of J.S. Bach's Goldberg Variations has been one that I keep returning to and, with each listen since the CD arrived in late August, I come to appreciate some new facet of what he has done here.
There's been a mini rush of Goldberg recordings in the last half-decade and, each time I hear a new interpretation in concert or on disc, it comes with a fresh appreciation of Bach's craft, as well as the tremendous amount of thinking that the pianist has to do about how to make each of the 30 variations sound.
Some performers find an inner lyricism. Others treat the Variations as technical exercises broken by slower passages that allow the pianist to catch their breath during this 80-minute marathon.
The beauty in Sohn's performance comes from its underlying clear-headedness, blended with a very strong grasp of the playful nature of Baroque dance forms Bach inserts.
The music shimmers with playful light. Bach's contrapuntal textures are as clear and sparkling as a Swarowski store window. Sohn also refrains from imposing too much Romantic sweetness on the slow sections, making this a refreshing, enlightening and very welcome addition to my reference collection.
Check out the details as well as track samples in the Multimedia section of the Honens music competition website (Honens, as a gesture of confidence in its laureates, has been issuing Sohn's recordings).
Last night, one week after singing his last performance as Orestes in the Canadian opera Company production of Gluck's Iphigénie en Tauride, Rusell Braun stood on stage at Koerner Hall for an intense, all-Mahler programme that began with a performance of Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the Death of Children) that I'll treasure for a long time.
Also on the program was Das Lied von den Erde (Song of the Earth). The accompanists were a chamber ensemble of strings, winds, piano, harmonium and percussion made up of the Smithsonian Chamber Players as well as Royal Conservatory of Music faculty and alumni. The chamber arrangements were crafted by American cellist Kenneth Slowick, in the spirit of Arnold Schönberg's short-lived, post-World War I Society for Private Musical Performances.
(Slowick conducted, wearing an eye patch. I was told that he almost didn't make it to the concert because of a detached retina, wasn't allowed to fly, and so drove up to Toronto from Washington D.C.)
The tenor for Das Lied was Thomas Cooley, who did a nice job, but who sounded strained negotiating some of Mahler's very difficult vocal leaps. Braun, however, was flawless, curling not only his gorgeous baritone but every nuance of possible expression around this arresting music.
After sitting through the concert, I think I prefer the chamber arrangements to Mahler's original full orchestration. The small number of people on stage, as well as the nakedness of each instrumental part further underlines the subject matter, of a person confronting the intense emotions and loss and the inevitability of all things coming to an eventual end, weighed against the eternally regenerative cycle of life.
The songs are written in such a way that the singer is a lone wanderer among the crowd of people and emotions, which are represented by the instruments. They all intertwine in a strange harmonic tangle and travel from dark to light and then back again.
(I imagined it staged as a chamber opera, with the orchestra members and singer moving around a lamplit sitting room with a view of mountains through a large window.)
There are many examples of fine music depicting the messiness of human life, but few pieces present it in as concentrated and highly defined form as Kindertotenlieder. I would have been content to simply hear those five songs performed again after intermission, to further savour the many, many layers of meaning and expression.
I could suggest something to listen to from YouTube, but am not going to. There's a very fine performance of Kindertotenlieder by Dietrich Fischer Dieskau, with conductor Lorin Maazel, from the 1960s, but it just doesn't have the same impact as what I heard last night.
Here is the review I've filed for tomorrow's Star:
It’s nice to have a 229-year history, but the question for Russia’s Mariinsky Orchestra always remains, what can you do for us tonight?
Thrill, entertain and provoke was the answer for an enthusiastic audience at Roy Thomson Hall on Friday evening.
The program represented a deep, sharp sliver of modern history made up of three Russian pieces premiered between 1910 and 1926. The orchestra, led by jet-setting longtime music director, Valery Gergiev, was brilliant. The piano soloist, veteran Russian powerhouse Alexander Toradze, was unorthodox.
Even in a city as richly blessed with symphonic music as Toronto, there are few concerts in a season that open the ears and eyes as widely as this one did.
An all-purpose band that accompanies opera and ballet as well as giving its own concerts, St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theatre musicians have visited 43 countries on dozens of tours since Gergiev took over in 1988.
This program, representing the core of the 20th century Russian canon, is something these musicians can likely play from memory, but nearly every note left the stage with the clear immediacy of a freshly energized ensemble.
In Igor Stravinsky’s 1919 version of his 1910 ballet suite, The Firebird, Gergiev and his orchestra played up the tension between sensuality and rhythmic drive to great effect.
Equally compelling was Dmitri Shostakovich’s sardonic Symphony No. 1 – an expertly structured piece a then-19-year-old wrote for his conservatory graduation.
The conductor stood on the floor at the orchestra’s focal point, without a podium or a baton. He didn’t keep time. Instead, Gergiev relayed his instructions with gently fluttering hands, more veteran choir director than orchestra leader.
The resulting sound was fluid, transparent and utterly compelling.
Less of a sure thing was the evening’s concerto, the fearsomely difficult Piano Concerto No. 3, a touring showpiece Sergei Prokofiev wrote for himself in 1921.
Toradze marked his performance with exaggerated contrasts. He played the loud, brash passages with extroverted panache, but quieter sections sounded as if he were challenging himself to play the piano as discreetly as possible, to not wake the neighbours during a late-night practice session at home.
(Ironically, Prokofiev himself was kicked out of his Paris apartment for making too much noise at the keyboard.)
Through much of the concerto, Toradze’s piano became just one more shade amidst the orchestral colours, which is not the point of programming a solo showpiece.
It did, however, cast this warhorse of a composition in a new light, and that was worth the price of admission, as well.
I've been hugely enjoying Janina Fialkowska's new Liszt Recital album from ATMA Classique, which is a treat from beginning to end. This is one of the year's definitive tributes to Franz Liszt, whose 200th birth anniversary falls on Oct. 22.
The disc's programme is a mix of fireworks and fireside, with the extravagant Valse-caprice No. 6 and Valse de Faust (a memory of Gounod's opera) bookending Liszt's respectful transcriptions of six Chopin songs, Gretchen (a transcription of the middle movement of his Faust-Symphonie) and Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude.'
Failkowska achieves something extraordinary in her blend of flawless technique, complete control and a feeling of genuine spontaneiety. Her playing is never strident or showy or, in moments of total reflection, slack. This is much, much more difficult to achieve than it sounds.
Rather than being in the presence of an ego, the album left me with the impression of being in the presence of a (very) good and faithful servant of the composer.
The piece that has affected me the most is Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude, which I listened to a lot as a tween (it was an Angel LP by Georges Cziffra, if I remember properly). Fialkowska's interpretation is positively ethereal.
The piece is one of a set inspired by the 1830 collection, Harmonies poétiques et religieuses, by French poet Alphonse de Lamartine, which, a couple of years later, deeply affected a 22-year-old composer madly in love with the Comtesse d'Agoult. (Liszt wrote the 10 pieces in this set piecemeal, and didn't get them published until 1853.)
The poem goes on (at length) in signature Romantic style how, after great inner turmoil and unhappiness and some time spent savouring the manifold pastoral charms of the countryside, the Grace of God has calmed and comforted the soul. "Un nouvel homme en moi renaît et recommence," writes Lamartine (A new man is reborn in me).
For those of you who can read French, here is the final, breathless, stanza:
Conserve-nous, mon Dieu, ces jours de ta promesse,
Ces labeurs, ces doux soins, cette innocente ivresse
D'un cœur qui flotte en paix sur les vagues du temps,
Comme l'aigle endormi sur l'aile des autans,
Comme un navire en mer qui ne voit qu'une étoile,
Mais où le nautonier chante en paix sous sa voile !
Conserve-nous ces cœurs et ces heures de miel,
Et nous croirons en toi, comme l'oiseau du ciel,
Sans emprunter aux mots leur stérile évidence,
En sentant le printemps croit à ta providence;
Comme le soir doré d'un jour pur et serein
S'endort dans l'espérance et croit au lendemain;
Comme un juste mourant et fier de son supplice
Espère dans la mort et croit à ta justice;
Comme la vertu croit à l'immortalité,
Comme l'œil croit au jour, l'âme à la vérité.
The full magic of Fialkowska's performance comes from being able to earnestly render Liszt's caresses and sighs with a determined energy, and to carefuly dissimulate the technical hurdles (and there are many) with a gauzy, ethereal peace.
(It helps that Fialkowska recorded on one of Canada's finest concert instruments, a Hamburg-built Steinway at the Palais Montcalm in Quebec City.)
Because Fialkowska's performance is not available on YouTube, I listened to many well-known names looking for something that could rival her interpretation, to share here.
The best I could come up with is a 1948 recording by the late, great French pianist Raymond Trouard (1916-2008), on a funky sounding Pleyel grand. Trouard had as one of his teachers Emil von Sauer, a student of Liszt's.
John Terauds started at the Toronto Star as a freelance writer in 1988, and has been on staff since 1997. He began writing on classical music in 2001, and has been the full-time classical music critic since 2005.
He is also the organist and choir director at St. Peter's Anglican Church, a parish founded in 1863 in downtown Toronto.
If he's not listening to, writing about or playing music, it means he's either asleep, unconscious, walking his dog -- or all of the above.
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