In the Strad magazine, and on his blog, Slipped Disc, English music critic Norman Lebrecht is posing the age-old question of what a critic's role should be.
It's a debate I have with myself, my manager(s) at the Star, with readers and music lovers every day.
I was particularly intrigued by the first comment on Lebrecht's blog, from someone named Andrew. He wrote: "One directer I know said that critics ought to be guardians of quality, not purveyors of opinion."
This is one of those elegant little epigrams that sounds excellent, but doesn't hold up that well. It sounds good because it sets up a mutable, subjective thing, against something eternal and objective.
But is that what quality is? And quality of what?
I think the best illustration of this little minefield comes from music competitions. The start of the Tchaikovsky competition is a great excuse to note that the laureates of the hundreds of competitions that are held every year have been singled out for the quality of their performances, but that does not assure them of engaging audiences or building a career.
There is another trait -- or combination of traits -- that helps make a successful musician. And others yet that make for a satisfying evening of music. And still others that make for a great recording.
Now try to describe this experience using simple, declarative sentences, in 400 words or less.
I finally have word that I will be able to maintain a blog presence under the Star's digital umbrella. As soon as all the little launch hiccups are cleared up with the Star's new Entertainment site, we'll look at how this blog can be integrated into the site.
I'm off for March Break and, given that my blog may or may not be present as part of the Star's entertainment offerings when I return, I figure it's a good time to pause and thank you, gentle reader, for popping by to visit and share in these miscellaneous musings, listenings and bits of news.
If I counted right, this is my 847th post since the first on March 16, 2009. I was, with the rest of my colleagues at the Star, encouraged to start a blog in the paper's effort to reach as many people as possible every day and also add to the variety of different voices that readers could find under the broad umbrella of a daily news organization.
The Old Skool printed Star still gets more than a million reads every day, as far as I know. Yesterday, for the first time since April, 2009, I saw the traffic figures for my blog and immediately understood why my managers see no point in having me spend a couple of hours every day working on it. I'm told my blog was more popular than many others under the Star's purview, but, to put it bluntly, for me they were a powerful slap in the face. The metaphoric red marks will take a little while to fade from my bestubbled cheek.
My little history with my little blog is a tiny microcosm of the well-documented struggles all news organizations are having with shifting reading and interest habits. Don't let any pundit, expert or visionary convince you otherwise: There isn't a single news organization out there that has any clue what combination of information and social media tools are the right mix to gather up a critical mass of readers while bringing in enough revenue to pay for the delivery of credible news and opinion. It is all a process of trial and error.
In the meantime, what we do -- and what format we do it in -- will continue to be in constant flux.
That said, I've had a ball with this blog. It's been a brilliant way to ask myself questions, to explore new music and to distract my wandering mind with a few grains of sand in the world's giant classical-music sandbox.
I've sometimes begrudged but largely enjoyed the discipline of having a daily post ready by 9 am (I'm slacking off already: it's 9:20 am as I write this) and it could be that I've become so addicted to the post-dog-walk Dear Diary routine that I'll want to continue this blog regardless of whether it enjoys the Star's official blessing.
But we'll see.
I can't very well say goodbye without a musical salutation influenced by the mind-blowing images from yesterday's earthquake in Japan.
I've included the poems (with the lines and verses clumped together to save space):
1. Sea Slumber-Song, by Roden Noel Sea-birds are asleep, The world forgets to weep, Sea murmurs her soft slumber-song On the shadowy sand Of this elfin land; ‘I, the Mother mild, Hush thee, O my child, Forget the voices wild! Isles in elfin light Dream, the rocks and caves, Lulled by whispering waves, Veil their marbles bright, Foam glimmers faintly white Upon the shelly sand Of this elfin land; Sea-sound, like violins, To slumber woos and wins, I murmur my soft slumber-song. Leave woes, and wails, and sins, Ocean’s shadowy might Breathes good-night, Good-night!’
2. In Haven (Capri), by Alice Elgar Closely let me hold thy hand, Storms are sweeping sea and land; Love alone will stand. Closely cling, for waves beat fast, Foam-flakes cloud the hurrying blast; Love alone will last. Kiss my lips, and softly say; ‘Joy, sea-swept, may fade to-day; Love alone will stay.’
3. Sabbath Morning at Sea, by Elizabeth Barrett Browning The ship went on with solemn face; To meet the darkness on the deep. The solemn ship went onward, I bowed down weary in the place; For parting tears and present sleep Had weighed mine eyelids downward. The new sight, the new wondrous sight! The waters around me, turbulent, The skies, impassive o’er me, Calm in a moonless, sunless light, As glorified by even the intent Of holding the day glory! Love me, sweet friends, this sabbath day, The sea sings round me while ye roll Afar the hymn, unaltered, And kneel, where once I knelt to pray, And bless me deeper in your soul Because your voice has faltered. And though this sabbath comes to me Without the stoled minister, And chanting congregation. God’s Spirit shall give comfort. He Who brooded soft on waters drear Creator on creation. He shall assist me to look higher, Where keep the saints, with harp and song, An endless sabbath morning, And on that sea commixed with fire, Oft drop their eyelids raised too long To the full Godhead’s burning.
4. Where Corals Lie, by Richard Garnett The deeps have music soft and low When winds awake the airy spry, It lures me, lures me on to go And see the land where corals lie. By mount and mead, by lawn and rill, When night is deep, and moon is high, That music seeks and finds me still, And tells me where the corals lie. Yes, press my eyelids close, ’tis well; But far the rapid fancies fly To rolling worlds of wave and shell, And all the lands where corals lie. Thy lips are like a sunset glow, Thy smile is like a morning sky, Yet leave me, leave me, let me go And see the land where corals lie.
5. The Swimmer, by Adam Lindsay Gordon With short, sharp, violent lights made vivid, To southward far as the sight can roam, Only the swirl of the surges livid, The seas that climb and the surfs that comb. Only the crag and cliff to nor’ward, And the rocks receding, and reefs flung forward, Waifs wreck’d seaward and wasted shoreward, On shallows sheeted with flaming foam. A grim, grey coast and a seaboard ghastly, And shores trod seldom by feet of men – Where the batter’d hull and the broken mast lie, They have lain embedded these long years ten. Love! when we wandered here together, Hand in hand through the sparkling weather, From the heights and hollows of fern and heather, God surely loved us a little then. The skies were fairer and shores were firmer – The blue sea over the bright sand roll’d; Babble and prattle, and ripple and murmur, Sheen of silver and glamour of gold. So, girt with tempest and wing’d with thunder And clad with lightning and shod with sleet, And strong winds treading the swift waves under The flying rollers with frothy feet, One gleam like a bloodshot sword-blade swims on The sky line, staining the green gulf crimson, A death-stroke fiercely dealt by a dim sun That strikes through his stormy winding sheet. O, brave white horses! you gather and gallop, The storm sprite loosens the gusty reins; Now the stoutest ship were the frailest shallop In your hollow backs, on your high-arched manes. I would ride as never a man has ridden In your sleepy, swirling surges hidden; To gulfs foreshadow’d through strifes forbidden, Where no light wearies and no loves wanes.
I've spent the last week agonizing over which pieces of Ludwig van Beethoven's (1770-1827) should be on the Necessary 100 list of pieces of music that we cannot live without.
One day, my list skews this way. Then, the next day, I change my mind. All in the name of my little game. Surely I have better things to do with my time (and yours).
Well, to mix clichés, I have to stop waffling and draw a line in the sand.
I'm going to distill matters to the point of oversimplification (as is my wont). Beyond writing a library-full of impressive music, Beethoven accomplished three great things, which need to be reflected in the Necessary 100:
Symphonies Beethoven helped shape the modern symphony and there is something special in each of Nos 5 to 9 that makes it a valid candidate for inclusion on the list. I'm choosing three: -Symphony Nos 5 & 6: It's hard to believe Beethoven premiered these two pieces on the same night -- Dec. 22, 1808. The Fifth is angst-filled and mocks all sorts of Classical-era musical conventions. The Pastoral is a gorgeous example of thematic development joined with an evocation of mood and landscape. Together, these two works encapsulate everything that's important to the Romantics, in terms of self-expression and worship of nature, and beloved by 21st century classical music listeners. Like many other pieces I've put on the Necessary 100 list, these symphonies are over-played and over-recorded. But that doesn't take away from their value. -Symphony No. 9: The Fifth and Sixth only hint at what was to come in the Ninth, which had its premiere in 1824. Everyone thinks of the final-movement vocal/choral setting of Schiller's Ode to Joy, but there are three complex and challenging instrumental movements before that. There isn't a dull moment here for anyone on stage -- or anyone listening.
Piano Beethoven's piano sonatas really pushed the boundaries of the instrument as well as playing technique. The piano concertos do the same. I'm picking three pieces covering the span of Beethoven's lifetime: -Sonata No. 8 (C minor, Op. 13). The publisher called it the Pathétique in 1799. The minor-key opening heralds drama that takes the music well beyond the Classical-era sonata form. -Piano Concerto No. 5 (E-flat Major, Op. 73). The Emperor (also named by the publisher) appeared in 1809 and was premiered in 1811. This is a concerto on a symphonic scale. -Sonata No. 32 (C minor, Op. 111). Oh gosh, it's 1823 and we're still in C minor. Or is it C Major? No, it's C minor. No, it's C Major.... Two movements contain a world of difficuties -- and a wealth of rewards.
Strings There are many chamber pieces that should be on the list. I've chosen one of the string quartets and, changing my mind, joining Larry Beckwith in putting forward the violin concerto. -String Quartet Op. 132 (No. 15, in A minor). This piece is titled "Heiliger dankgesang" because Beethoven wrote it while recovering from from illness in 1825. There is an intense intimacy to much of this quartet, which also offers layers and layers of musical structure to appreciate. It's my favourite of a fantastic collection of string quartets. -Violin Concerto (D Major, Op. 61). Here's another work from the composer's rich middle period (1806, in this case). The piece is a microcosm of everything Beethoven does best: unexpected drama, masterful development of themes, quiet lyricism and, even, dancing.
Rather than posting video clips from all of these well-known pieces, I thought I'd post something truly special: a 7-minute section from a three-year-old Beethoven-heavy film, Lesson 21, by Italian director Alessandro Barrico. We are hearing the third of five movements (Molto adagio; Andante) from the Op. 132 String Quartet, as played by Marco Rizzi, Danilo Rossi, Fabio Paggioro, Mario Brunello:
Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) was the most respected composer of his day and wrote for pretty much every form. He knew how to keep his patrons, performers and listeners happy with a rare combination of style and invention. An analysis of any piece of music or opera he wrote shows off the careful work of a consummate craftsman endowed with an incredible sense of humour.
Yet, despite all this wonderfulness, Haydn's works do not appear on any classical Top 40 list. Posterity has let Mozart and Beethoven overshadow Haydn's music from during and immediately after. But there is a lot to love and appreciate nonetheless.
If nothing else, we owe Haydn a huge debt for laying the foundations of the string quartet repertoire. He cast the four string instruments as equals and developed the musical structure of the pieces well beyond the standard sonata form.
His last two complete quartets, Op. 77, dedicated in 1799 to Bohemian Prince Joseph Lobkowicz, are masterworks. Haydn was tired after writing The Creation, but was inspired enough to procude some intimate magic. For sheer musical verve, I've chosen the first one -- Haydn's 66th -- in G Major, in four movements.
Here is Germany's Signum Quartett performing the piece very elegantly at the 60t anniversary Aix-en-Provence Festival in 2008:
I also have to put one of Haydn's piano sonatas on the Necessary 100 list. I played my way through them in 2009, and found a couple dozen which I continue to dip into, because they're such a pleasure to play.
Haydn was writing at a time of innovation in keyboard instruments. The fortepiano was so much more expressive than a harpsichord, and Haydn just couldn't resist. I'm a big fan of Mozart, but, in the solo keyboard repertoire, his sonatas can't hold a candle to Haydn's, which laid the foundations for Beethoven.
Here's a brief (and very shaky) BBC 3 interview with composer John McCabe from 2009, where he talks up the virtues of Haydn's piano sonatas:
Now, which one to pick. I think we should leave the choice open, but that's not allowed on lists, is it? So I'm choosing one I've highlighted here before -- A-flat Major, Hob XVI:46. As No. 31, it is smack dab in the middle of Haydn's piano sonata catalogue, written in 1765, if I remember right.
Here are the first two movements -- Allegro moderato and Adagio -- expressively rendered by Paul Barnes in 2009, followed by a 1983 Japanese performance of the closing Presto by Ivo Pogorelich:
I received my first list of 100 pieces yesterday, from Toronto violinist, teacher and Toronto Masque Theatre founder, Larry Beckwith.
It's not too hard to pick composers, but it's a major challenge to pick individual pieces. Thee are only a couple of composers from Beckwith's list I would not have included. I've bolded those specific pieces that would have been on my list (and I'm adding commentary, text translations and video clips, for the first three).
Heeeere's Larry, being perfectly chronological (the commentary is mine):
From the lists you've already received, it seems important to make the distinction between personal taste and some sort of objective idea of pieces that are valuable or "necessary". There are those pieces that have special meaning in one's life because of a particular performance one heard, or the circumstances - a love affair, the death of someone close, etc - that surround it. These are 100 pieces off the top of my head that I would deem "necessary" to anyone who really wanted to know something deep and essential about the Western classical music tradition (I think the 19th century is over-rated....I don't see Rossini, Donizetti or Bellini as having been innovative in any way, neither were Tchaikovsky or Puccini...lots to argue about!) The last 2 entries may be subjective, but I grew up with a composer in the house who I admire greatly!...and Stardust, well, that's an incredible song with alot of meaning for me:
*HIldegard: Ordo virtutum *Machaut: Messe de Notre Dame *Dufay: Adieu ces bons vins de Lannoys *Ockeghem: Requiem *Josquin: Ave Maria
*Gesualdo: Madrigals, book VI -No ordinary rules of musical theory apply in thiese mesperizing polyphonies. Even Igor Stravinsky felt compelled to make a pilgrimage to this tragic madman's haunted, abandoned castle. Here is No. 17, "Moro lasso al mio duolo" led by Alan Curtis:
I die, alas, in my suffering, And she who could give me life, Alas, kills me and will not help me.
O sorrowful fate, She who could give me life, Alas, gives me death.
*Palestrina: Missa aeterna christi munera *Byrd: Cantinones sacrae (1591)
*Tallis: Spem in alium -The legendary motet written around 1570 for 40 individual voices (eight groups of five voices) is the ne plus ultra of polyphony, and one of the most awe-inspiring pieces of music every written, anywhere. The video comes with bonus visuals of Ely Cathedral, which is just north of Cambridge (Tallis was organist at Canterbury Cathedral):
I have never put my hope in any other but in You,
O God of Israel
who can show both anger
and who absolves all the sins of suffering man
Creator of Heaven and Earth
be mindful of our lowliness
*Monteverdi: Orfeo -Claudio Monteverdi didn't invent opera, but is the only member of the Italian "New School" of composers whose operas have survived. These men looked back to Antiquity to find a way of maximizing drama by blending music and text in a stage play. I would rate the Marian Vespers of 1610 as highly as Orfeo, but it's time for something secular.
Here is Cecilia Gasdia as La Musica, singing the Prologue in a 1998 production of the opera at the Teatro Goldoni in Florence, led by René Jacobs:
From my beloved Permessus I come to you, illustrious heroes, noble scions of kings, whose glorious deeds Fame relates, though falling short of the truth, since the target is too high.
I am Music, who in sweet accents can calm each troubled heart, and now with noble anger, now with love, can kindle the most frigid minds.
I, with my lyre of gold and with my singing, am used to sometimes charming my mortal ears, and in this way inspire souls with a longing for the sonorous harmony of heaven's lyre.
From here desire spurs me to tell you of Orpheus, Orpheus who drew wild beasts to him by his songs and who subjugated Hades by his entreaties, the immortal glory of Pindus and Helicon.
Now while I alternate my songs, now happy, now sad, let no small bird stir among these trees, no noisy wave be heard on these river-banks, and let each little breeze halt in its course.
*Monteverdi: Vespers (1610) *Monteverdi: Madrigals, book VIII *Carissimi: Jephte *Schutz: Musikalische exequien *Purcell: Dido and Aeneas *Purcell: Te Deum and Jubilate *Corelli: Violin sonatas, op. 5 *Couperin: Lecons de tenebres *Charpentier: Medee *D. Scarlatti: Piano Sonata, L. 224 *Vivaldi: "Winter" from The Four Seasons *Handel: Solomon **Handel: Giulio Cesare *Bach: Klavierubung III *Bach: Trauer-ode *Bach: Cello Suites *Bach: St. Matthew Passion *Bach: Well-Tempered Clavier, books I and II *Rameau: Les indes galantes *Haydn: String quartet, op. 76, #2 *Haydn: Trumpet Concerto *Haydn: Symphony #104 *Mozart: Piano concerto in D minor *Mozart: Don Giovanni *Mozart: Clarinet quintet *Mozart: Jupiter Symphony *Beethoven: Violin Concerto *Beethoven: Symphony #9 *Beethoven: String Quartet, op. 131 *Beethoven: Piano sonata, op. 109 *Schubert: Die Winterreise *Schubert: String Quintet in C major (I agree with Scott!) *Schubert: Symphony #9 *Weber: Der Freischutz *Schumann: Piano Quintet *Mendelssohn: Elijah *Berlioz: Symphonie Fantastique *Chopin: Preludes for piano *Brahms: Haydn Variations *Brahms: Piano pieces, op. 118 and 119 *Bizet: Carmen *Dvorak: Serenade for Strings *Verdi: La Traviata *Verdi: Otello *Wagner: Tristan und Isolde *Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition *Mahler: Symphony #5 *Widor: Toccata for organ *Ives: Three Places in New England *Stravinsky: Rite of Spring *Ives: Concord Sonata *Stravinsky: Agon *Debussy: La Mer *Debussy: Pelleas et Melisande *Debussy: Preludes for piano, books 1 and 2 *Ravel: Trois poèmes de Stéphane Mallarmé *Strauss: Elektra *Schoenberg: Moses und Aron *Joplin: Treemonisha *Prokofiev: Romeo and Juliet *Berg: Violin concerto *Berg: Wozzeck *Janacek: Jenufa *Weill: Mahagony *Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue *Gershwin: Porgy and Bess *Shostakovich: Lady MacBeth of Mtsensk *Bartok: Miraculous Mandarin *Bartok: String Quartet #5 *Messiaen: Quartet for the end of time *Messiaen: Turangalila Symphony *Duruflé: Requiem •Duruflé: Ubi caritas •Barber: Adagio for strings •Bernstein: West Side Story •Howells: Collegium Regal Service •Elgar: Dream of Gerontius •Copland: The Tender Land •Britten: War Requiem •Miles Davis: So What •Lutoslawski: Symphony #4 •Boulez: Le marteau sans maitre •Billy Strayhorn: Take the "A" train •Berio: Sinfonia •Berio: Sequenza for Soprano •Stockhausen: Stimmung •Maxwell Davies: Diary of a Mad King •Schafer: Patria Cycle •John Beckwith: Sharon Fragments •Hoagy Carmichael: Stardust
I just found out that current Star plans are to shut down this blog and several others, in a rationalization move that will incorporate them into larger blogs.
In other words, all my stuff here will become part of a larger all-music blog to which anyone at the Star will be able to contribute news, information, reviews and gossip relating to any genre of music.
I've never seen traffic reports from my blog, so I have to take my boss at his word that Sound Mind has not generated a lot of traffic.
My life will not change. But yours, dear, gentle reader, will.
I know I don't like messing about in unfocussed blogs and tend to avoid general ones like what the Star is planning. Is it the same case for you?
Back in the 20th century, a friend of mine returned from a prolonged stay in South Asia with a suitcase. He rented a room painted white and slept on a tatami mat. He made me think of a modern-day monk.
"That's all I need," he declared proudly. Then I watched him reintegrate into Western life. Within three years he had bought a house and had filled it to the brim with found and reclaimed furnishings.
My friend's swift transformation made me acutely aware of how overstuffed our lives are and how, despite our best efforts, it's hard to keep cherishing a lone prized object, when there are 50 more vying for our attention.
Our entire way of life is built upon desire for more. If we stopped shopping recreationally, our economy would collapse -- just witness life in the U.S.A, circa 2011. It's the same with art: books, paintings, music.
If we reduce our consumption of culture, artists starve and potential goes unrealised. It becomes our duty of read, to listen, to devour the fruits of others' creativity.
But I'm interested in how much we really need. There's a growing movement of people who are trying to live with 100 things, led by a guy named Dave Bruno -- an unsound plan for our economy, but a brilliant tonic for our cluttered lives.
I'd like to play a similar game with Western art music. It's like the old music on a desert island game, and this one is particularly challenging, probably impossible.
What are the 100 pieces of music -- including full operas -- that we simply can't live without in 2011?
Email your suggestions, and short justification to firstname.lastname@example.org
I would be very unhappy if I had to surrender this little piece of music from my life. As improbable as it may sound, it is Gabriel Fauré's Nocturne No. 2 for solo piano. There is a full story, a subtantial journey, in its 6-plus minutes. It is pretty, but is also beautifully structured. Even so, I know it doesn't stand a chance of making it onto a Top 100 list.
Here is the great French pianist Samson François (1924-1970) to play it:
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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