There's been a flare-up of of the old I'm-an-artist vs Selling-out-to-the-Man debate in the classical world in the last few weeks, ignited by highly respected violinist Gidon Kremer.
Many people reading these letters have voiced support for the position of the artists. The veneration of Art has been the norm since the rise of the artist as an independent entity in the post-Goethe world.
While I appreciate and can even sympathise with this position, I think it's wishful thinking. I'll try to explain what I mean with a minimum of words.
In a world where everything is a commodity -- from the morning coffee to the over-the-counter sleep aid -- music, poetry, sculpture are also commodities. Someone needs to want to buy it. Do do that, the artist needs to create desire.
That desire can be personal as well as collective, such as when a city or state decides to nurture its artists so it can boast of a rich cultural life. It is a form of vanity.
Desire is best fed by stroking our vanity. It works for Rolex, GoodLife Fitness and organic white asparagus as well as for the Verbier Festival, where we can rub programme notes with the finest and brightest on a sun-dappled Alpine slope.
Any child contemplating a career in the arts, even if they are the most talented creature ever to walk the face of the Earth, should, I believe, be informed, early and often, that they will need to create and maintain desire in order to survive as an artist.
Some of it is by effective schmoozing. Some of it is by clever programming. The bulk of it, of course, is through strict self-discipline and a total devotion to the project at hand, so that they are only ever offering their very best for public consumption.
Each festival, competing with hundreds of other festivals and thousands of leisure-activity options, needs to spin their own webs of desire to thrive.
It all sounds a bit crass and crude, I know, but, if we look back over the patron-artist dynamic over the centuries, has it ever really been any different?
I guess what I'm trying to say is that no artist should ever be allowed to take his or her audience for granted. Conversely, especially in the age of fragmented audiences and easy file sharing, we should never take our artists for granted.
Having stated my position, and acknowledging that the Art vs. Commerce debate is here to stay, here is the argument from the other side:
Last month, before the start of the Verbier Festival (which is currently streaming many of its concerts on www.medici.tv for free), Kremer withdrew. The Festival said it was because of illness. British music critic Norman Lebrecht revealed that it was because Kremer was sick and tired of the celebrity spin cycle associated with the business -- and high-profile festivals in particular.
The two are actually writing about slightly different aspects of the same thing.
Luisi's main point:
We see many young, gifted musicians who reach the most important music places in the world, pushed by managers and sought after by presenters who must constantly offer “fresh meat” to the audience: the next Netrebko, the next Pavarotti, the next Bernstein, the next Rubinstein, the next Oistrakh. They are “the nextes” and they don’t have time to be themselves, to develop to be themselves – many of them will disappear soon (we already have seen how many have disappeared after a couple of CDs, after concerts in Salzburg, Verbier, after productions in Milano, New York or London) although they might have talent and skills for a serious career.
This is the reason I appreciate this wonderful Gidon Kremer letter, because it is fresh, ironical, true and it comes from a real artist which constantly worked on himself trying to improve himself, refusing to be pushed by whomever.
Kremer's main point:
Many festivals these days unfortunately allow mixing self-enchantment with entertainment – (be it crossover or “events”) and they succeed to remain a magnet for all those, who want to be seen or hailed.
Yes I am a bit ironic and with a bitter feeling in saying these words;
REAL artists like those that we still remember, haven’t vanished completely. But the “greenery” of Verbier rather contributes to forgetting them and hails mystifications and substitutes of those, who truly served ART. Opposing such a tendency, I simply want to find peace with myself. Lately being warn out by so many dissatisfying partnerships, I simply need a rest. I do hope this will be the best remedy for the hype that surrounds many of us.
Kremer and Luisi have many, many allies. But would Kremer be able to write any of these things if here were a 21-year-old conservatory graduate looking for his first professional gig?
I'll leave the last word for this side of the argument to a seemingly unlikely sympathizer of Kremer's, music producer Kwame:
I spent a couple of hours with Toronto clarinettist Kornel Wolak yesterday and, once we got the business part of our meeting out of the way, I peppered him with questions about his instrument. I quickly realised that the orchestral world is like a microcosm of the city: We acknowledge and respect our neighbours, but we don't necessarily spend time to understand where they come from and what their everyday challenges might be.
I played clarinet (B-flat and bass) in high school, but I barely got past figuring out fingering and making a semblance of an acceptable noise before I graduated and left the woodwind behind forever.
So, given that I play the piano and the pipe organ, which contain thousands of individual components, one of which will randomly act up on any given day, I have to admit that I unthinkingly classify most other instruments as simple.
As Wolak told me about the differences between different makes of clarinets, how difficult it can be to find a professional-grade instrument that is balanced from lowest to nightest notes, that easily plays legato and that has a pleasing tuning, it was clear that a clarinet may have fewer keys than a piano, but making the right match between player and instrument is no easier to achieve. It is an idiosyncratic bond as intense and, with any luck, as rewarding as a happy romantic pairing.
I also assumed that the simple adjustment of a lever here and a piece of new cork there would be enough to keep a clarinet going for decades. Also not true; the moist breath of the player, frequent swabbing and the cycles of seasons can take their toll on the wood. For Wolak, an intense performer, this means a life cycle as short as three years before the instrument needs some major attention.
Even that is not simple: Wolack books three days with a technician in Indianapolis whenever one of his clarinets needs a major going-over.
Like me and my neighbours, every musical instrument is as quirky as the next. As with people, the more time you spend with it, the more you expect from it.
That said, Linsey Pollack is here to make fun of everything I just wrote:
Last night, Sir Thomas Allen described "The Estuary," one of six song setting of poems by Ruth Pitter (1897-1992) by Michael Head (1900-1976) as 'The most perfect depiction of a river I've ever heard."
I had never heard the song, published in 1945, before, and found the interpretation enchanting.
When I got home last night, I did a bit of research and discovered that there's only one recording of it in existence in current CD catalogues: a 2002 EMI CD (no. 208285) with Jonathan Lemalu and pianist Roger Vignoles.
There isn't a hint of it on YouTube or anywhere else where I'd be able to plunder a copy to share here.
There's little of anything available from this prolific composer, who wrote in a spare, tonal style stuck somewhere at the turn of the 20th century.
I thought I'd reproduce "The Estuary" poem anyway, just because it's so right for a beautiful summer's day. A bit earlier in the recital, Alen had suggested Frank Bridge's 1911 four-movement orchestral suite, The Sea as a must-listen. So, to accompany the verse, here is conductor Sir Richard Hickox and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales from a 2002 Chandos CD (no. 10012).
The Estuary, by Ruth Pitter:
Light, stillness and peace lie on the broad sands, On the salt-marshes the sleep of the afternoon. The sky's immaculate; the horizon stands Steadfast, level and clear over the dune.
There are voices of children, musical and thin Not far, nor near, there in the sandy hills; As the fight begins to wane, so the tide comes in, The shallow creek at our feet silently fills:
And silently, like sleep to the weary mind, Silently, like the evening after the day, The big ship bears inshore with the inshore wind, Changes her course, and comes on up through the bay,
Rolling along the fair deep channel she knows, Surging along, right on top of the tide. I can see the flowery wreath of foam at the bows, The long bright wash streaming away from her side:
I can see the flashing gulls that follow her in, Screaming and tumbling, like children wildly at play, The sea-born crescent arising, pallid and thin, The flat safe twilight shore shelving away.
Whether remembered or dreamed, read of or told, So it has dwelt with me, so it shall dwell with me ever: The brave ship coming home like a lamb to the fold, Home with the tide into the mighty river.
This final video clip includes a personal favourite that Allen put on his programme last night: "My Own Country," the last of "Three (Hilaire) Belloc Songs," from 1927, by Peter Warlock, as sung by Benjamin Luxon (it's the third of the first three songs on this clip).
Everyone who attended the tribute concert to Maureen Forrester in Stratford yesterday received a lavish coffee table-worthy programme filled with background, anecdotes, written tributes and pictures commemorating a particularly generous life.
I didn't have a chance to look at it until I got home last night.
Among the many beautiful tributes inside is one from Colin Firth. I hope no one minds that I'm going to reproduce it here, in its entirety:
Maureen's son, Daniel, and I were roommates while studying acting at the Drama Centre in London in the early 1980s. When he first came to stay at my family home in Winchester, I decided to force a piece of music on him -- a piece by Frederick Delius that had enthralled me since I was a child. To my surprise, Danny recognized it immediately. Not the piece, but the voice. It turned out to be that of his own mother. He then checked the record sleeve and discovered that at the time of the recording his mother was pregnant -- with him. I'd spent years in love with the voice of the woman who was singing with my future friend inside her!
Daniel was subsequently adopted by my family and was in frequent demand as a holiday guest. This became a reciprocal arrangement and I came to experience Maureen's hospitality, her generosity, her formidable intelligence, her trust, her eccentricity, her candour, her experience and her wisdom. I stayed in her home on Lake Muskoka and to my delight the adoption exchange continued for some years. All that was missing in this wonderful new relationship was that I had never heard Maureen sing live.
That changed in 1986 when I was visiting some old friends in Missouri, and one of them excitedly mentioned that Maureen Forrester was singing Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde that evening in the university auditorium at the end of the street. That night, Maureen sang magnificently -- thrilling her audience, not only with her voice, but also with her wit, warmth and her mighty energy. Following the performance, I proudly took my friends backstage where she was surrounded by adoring fans. As I approached, I became somewhat concerned that -- out of context -- she might not recognize me immediately and there would be an awkward moment. I needn't have worried as the howl of delight and surprise, which she let out from across the room when she saw me, would have filled the Royal Albert Hall.
That may have been the last time we met. That cry of welcoming recognition is my abiding memory. From the same voice that had camptivated me onstage a few moments before and in my home as a child. All those things, as well as her words of advice and encouragement, are gifts I will always carry: her friendship, her acceptance, her voice, her family and my cherished lifelong friendhip with Daniel.
What could possibly go better with this than "One Charming Night," from Henry Purcell's Fairy Queen, as recorded by Forrester with the Vienna Radio Orchestra and conductor Brian Priestman:
One charming night Gives more delight Than a hundred lucky days: Night and I improve the taste, Make the pleasure longer last A thousand, thousand several ways.
Glossy German newsmagazine Der Spiegel has published an interview with Nike Wagner, one of Richard Wagner's great-granddaughters, and one of the many family members who, at one time or another, has vied to head the Bayreuth Festival.
Among the many things that get touched upon in the interview, which includes candour about the family's closeness with Hitler (they wouldn't go to be on New year's eve until the Fuehrer had called with his wishes), is an admission that Richard Wagner didn't think much of his father-in-law, disdaining his music as well as his showmanship.
For anyone curious about the personal side of the music world, the article is worth a read in translation here.
Because this is the 200th anniversary year of Franz Liszt's birth, I've been hearing far more of his B Minor Piano Sonata than I would care to. It's a wonderful piece that is about far more than mere show, but Liszt left stacks and stacks of music that we are not hearing.
But there's a reason that the Sonata is on everyone's fingers. And I don't think that, among this year's recordings or concerts, I've heard as cleanly laid-out an interpretation as from Haiou Zhang, a young Chinese pianist of Lang Lang's vintage who left the Beijing Central Conservatory for northern Germany rather than the United States.
Zhang's career has been thriving in Europe. We've had three tastes of him in Toronto thanks for the enthusiastic support of conductor Kerry Stratton. And his new Liszt album is well worth checking out. There are four other pieces on it, besides the Sonata, providing an overview of Liszt's styles and proclivities.
Rather than some Liszt, here is Zhang in a live performance Venetian Boat Song from Felix Mendelssohn's Songs Without Words in Spandau last November (Mendelssohn was only two years older than Liszt -- and his music was the object of Richard Wagner's multiple anti-Semitic tirades):
Maureen Forrester would have turned 81 tomorrow, had she not died last June.
To make up for the long-overdue memorial tribute and to mark the big birthday, former CBC Radio 2 producer Neil Crory has literally pulled out all the stops, assembling a live and via-video collection of a who's who in the music works to pay homage to one of the great singers of the second half of the 20th century.
Stratford Summer Music and the Stratford Festival have organized a massive memorial at the Avon Theatre. It starts at 3 p.m. If you need more information, you'll find it here.
I fell in love with Brahms' Alto Rhapsody the first time I heard it, and I'm pretty sure the soloist was Maureen Forrester.
Here she is performing live with the Boston Symphony and conductor Seiji Ozawa (who had been music director of the Toronto Symphony previously) at the Tanglewood Festival in 1971:
Here's a translation of Goethe's poem:
But who is that, on one side? His track loses itself in the bushes; Behind him spring back The twigs together; The grass stands up again; The desert swallows him up.
Ah, who will heal the sorrows Of him for whom balsam turned to poison? Who drank hatred of men From the abundance of love! Once disdained, now a disdainer, He feeds secretly on His own worth, In unsatisfying selfishness.
If there is on your psaltery, O father of Love, one sound Acceptable to his ear, Refresh his heart with it. Open his overclouded gaze To the thousand springs Hard by him who thirsts In the desert.
The four members of the oboe section made clever merry at the National Youth Orchestra's annual talent show, just before the start of their concert tour on Thursday. (You can read more about it in today's Star.)
The oboists are Véronique Guay (from Montreal's South Shore), Aidan Dugan (Ottawa), Ron Mann (North Vancouver) and Hugo Lee (Toronto):
For all of our astounding technilogical sophistication, the mysteries of wood still somehow seem beyond us.
Every few years, a news item flashes by announcing that a scientist has formulated a molecular explanation for the magic sound of Stradivarius violins. A deeper reading usually reveals that some part of the mystery has not been explained, usually because we're missing some secret ingredient in the varnish, or that there are no old-growth spruces left in that Val di Fiemme woods where the old masters sought their materials.
I bring this up because Le Figaro in France today published a short profile of La Roque d'Anthéron music festival master piano technician, Belgian Denijs de Winter, calling him "the piano whisperer." (The festival begins today, running to Aug. 21.)
In the article, de Winter says that one of his great accidental discoveries, many years ago, was that, contrary to all of the accepted wisdom in the piano world, exposing the wood of a piano to repeated changes in humidity levels is actually good for its sound, because it allows the soundboard to loosen-up, thereby improving its ability to transmit vibrations from the strings.
He went so far as to build a climate-controlled room in his Brussels piano-rebuilding workshop to observe this more closely.
If you can read French, you'll find the article here.
So, this is a long, roundabout way of suggesting that we poor little humans, instead of working against nature, as is our wont, might remind ourselves to accept her into our plans and calculations.
It's just really hard to quantify in scientific language.
JAN LISIECKI ON A ROLL
Young Canadian sensation Jan Lisiecki is a guest of the La Roque d'Anthéron festival tomorrow -- same day as Yuja Wang.
Today, he has just finished giving a recital at the Verbier Festival in Switzerland -- a recital that should be available for free streaming at www.medici.tv by Sunday.
It's part of an amazing summer for him, which has put him in the big leagues. We're lucky that Stratford Summer Music has managed to snag him for three days of recitals: Aug. 4 to 6.
Thanks to David Guion for suggesting "La nuite- froide et sombre" as a piece to distract us from oppressive summer heat.
So much of what is magnetic about Renaissance polyphony comes from the tension generated by the voices as their lines slide, rub and trip by each other. You don't even have to know what the words are saying to immediately get a sense of mood and atmosphere.
Imagine an vast, dark great room, one of those medieval rooms with a fireplace larger than a Toronto studio condo, with a cluster of friends and neighbours making music together after dinner.
The lyrics come from 16th century poet du Bellay, this 1576 setting for four voices is by Orlando di Lasso.
La nuict froide & sombre
Couvrant d'obscure ombre
La terre & les cieux,
Aussi doux que miel,
Fait couler du ciel
Le sommeil aux yeux.
Puis le jour luisant
Au labeur duisant,
Sa lueur expose,
Et d'un tein divers,
Ce grand univers
Tapisse & compose.
I'd translate it this way:
The cold, dark night Covers with sombre shadow Both earth and sky, As sweetly as honey It causes from the sky to pour Sleep into the eyes.
Then gleaming day Working its way along Turns up its beams, And with its many hues Furnishes and arranges This great universe.
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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