Archive for the ‘Why I am not a critic’ Category

A bad start

June 1, 2011

This morning, I accidentally poured water into the coffee grinder instead of into the water reservoir of my coffee machine.

I blame my caffeine-addicted matitudinally withdrawn state.

This must be close to a textbook example of catch-22.

Bleeding chunks

March 20, 2010

On Thursday night to the SSO’s Meet the Music concert.

The program was:

LEDGER Arcs and Planes
BEETHOVEN Piano Concerto No.5 (Emperor)
WAGNER The Ring of the Nibelung: An Orchestral Suite

Alexander Briger conductor
François-Frédéric Guy piano

I went straight from work, as it started at 6.30. This never works really well for me. James Ledger’s piece passed in a bit of a blur – I couldn’t really do it justice. Things improved a bit for the Emperor Concerto, but I still couldn’t get a really clear impression of it. It was enjoyable enough in a pleasant kind of way, but not earth shattering, though things came into clearer focus for me in the second movement (that’s my slow movement fetish). The funny thing about the last movement to the Emperor is that it’s not necessarily all that fast – I expect that it can’t be because it would then become unplayable. The trick is to invest it with the necessary energy. That sometimes happened. But then again, it could still have been I who was failing to make the investment.

In the second half, the proverbial “bleeding chunks,” newly arranged by Briger. I can’t quite work out why Henk de Vlieger’s ‘Orchestral Adventure’ was rejected. I’m not saying that the same piece needs always to be played, but it did have much to recommend it. I suppose at close to 70 minutes HdV’s version was thought too long. As it was almost 5 to 9 before I was walking down the external staircase and on my way back to work this was probably true, though I thought the interval was longer than usual. I’m off the ciggies at present.

To save time, then, all of Das Rheingold and the first two acts of Die Walküre were omitted and we started with the ride of the Valkyries. This seemed a more than tad vulgar. In addition, though I’m not a critic, in the famous “Dum-de-dum dah dah” figure, the “de” of my transliteration was skipped over too lightly so that one only heard the “dums.” This led to a kind of Kartoffeln deficiency. (See note below.) It was only at the extract which marked the beginning of Gotterdamerung that I was able to be drawn into some sort of reminiscence of the drama. Resolution: I want to see a ring cycle again. I’ve only seen one complete cycle, in Beijing in 2005. The experience was memorable and remains memorable as a whole but its details are definitely receding.

Note below

Another reason why I am not a critic. I wrote this post up to “Kartoffeln” on Thursday night after the concert. Then I put it in the bottom drawer. What’s the point of writing about a concert when one’s response to it, as mine was, is so indistinct? Was the problem with the performance or with me?

It’s an old joke that we read the reviews afterwards to see if we had a good time. Of course, the converse can also apply, as in this case with Peter McCallum’s swingeing review. He exempts only the Ledger, and for that I still think that I was the problem: coming straight from work (and just to add difficulty, between 5.30 and 6 pm I drank half a glass of wine – but only half, for God’s sake! – whilst listening to sales-people from Lexis-Nexis spruik their on-line services) I wasn’t really in the best state to take it in. Normally I would have expected things to clear at least by the time the Beethoven got under way. So it’s comforting to learn that I wasn’t alone in my lukewarm response to what ought to be a great work.

Snubbed! -or, Why I am not a critic 3

September 9, 2008

Tonight to hear Gabriela Montero in recital for the SSO at Angel Place.

I should have known things would go badly when, having fed the parking meter to take it to 9.58, I resolved to start the whole process again 2 minutes later so that the same money would take me up to the necessary 10 pm (after which parking is free).  The machine returned all my money except for the vital first $2 coin.  This is not the first time something like this has happened to me, which of course made it doubly annoying.  When will I ever learn?

Once at Angel Place, I still had time up my sleeve. I squeezed into the pre-concert talk, by chance next to a regular commenter on this blog, only to leave early as Dr Robert Curry ran on closer and closer to the start of the concert.  One thing: his musical examples were simply TOO LOUD – a piano doesn’t sound that loud even if you are sitting at the keyboard (though perhaps Gabriela Montero sometimes does).  I also realised that I am too impatient to sit through warmed-up Charles Rosen.  His The Romantic Generation sits ready to hand in the smallest room of my house and is therefore (in randomly selected passages) quite familiar enough already.

Obviously, I wasn’t in a good mood.

So I’m glad I’m not a critic, because that frees me from the obligation to be judicious.

The program was:

BACH trans. BUSONI
Chaconne
(from Partita No.2 in D minor for solo violin)
CHOPIN
Polonaise-Fantaisie, Op.61*
DEBUSSY
L’Isle joyeuse*
GINASTERA
Piano Sonata No.1
MONTERO
Improvisations on themes suggested by the audience and of her own

[*Originally announced: Bach/Siloti, Violin Concerto in A minor and Chopin, Nocturne in F minor Op 55 no 1]

In the circumstances, which I admit may have clouded my judgement, I didn’t really warm to the Bach/Busoni Chaconne (too loud, too fast, I could have done with a few more grandly rolled chords).  The Chopin Polonaise-Fantaisie seemed heavy handed, and Debussy’s L’Isle Joyeuse failed to enchant me (for example, too much accompaniment and not enough of the left hand crossed-hand tune in the middle).

I tried to put myself in a better humour over interval, and the Ginastera was much better.  As I say, this could all have been to do with me rather than Gabriela Montero’s playing.

Then came the much-touted improvisations.

GM declared the rules. To propose a theme for improvisation you had to sing it to her. The first theme suggested was the theme from “The Godfather.” The improvisation (in A minor) started much like her first effort on Saturday – quasi (very quasi) fugal and baroque, interspersed with episodes.

GM called for another. Valorously true to my foreshadowed intention, I suggested the chorus to the Beatles’ “All you need is love.”

Possibly Montero is too young to know the song. To be fair, she may not even have thought I was singing, because it is all on one note (in truth there is a microtone down on “need” but I didn’t articulate this) and I make no great claims for my delivery. She just said “That’s true,” and returned to soliciting the theme that she really wanted.

Apparently, someone with whom Montero had conversed beforehand had asked if she could do “Love me tender” (aka “Aura Lee”). Montero wanted them to sing it to her because she affected (by now I was getting suspicious) not to remember it. Quite frankly, it is that sort of contrivance which gives improvisation on themes a bad name. Why not have rigged mind-reading while you are about it? The Lisztian effort which followed was the most interesting improvisation of the evening – as well it might have been.

The next theme was La Marseillaise, which I like to think was at least subliminally prompted by “All you need is love” to which it forms part of the introduction. By now things French were all the rage, and we had Offenbach’s Cancan, starting with a little Alberti and then wandering in every direction. A certain degree of jazz or ragtime raised a few laughs. Maybe I was still smarting from the snub, but to me this was about as funny as a joke at the opera, which is to say not very.

GM then dealt with “Three Blind Mice” (nominated in writing before the concert) which was for my money the other interesting effort (I wonder why?). She finished with an improvisation on “Summertime.” Here GM allowed herself rather more departure from the literal tune, though at the expense of the real point of this song, which is surely the ostinato in the accompaniment.

Hell hath no fury like a theme-proposer scorned. I’ve heard organists improvise and they do it much better, as did Robert Levin. Now I know why the practice has died out in piano recitals.

Everybody else apparently loved it.

Driving home I got a flat tyre and had to change it.

Why I am not a critic – 2

August 25, 2008

Australia Ensemble – Dean, Crumb, Messiaen

On a recent Saturday night I went with my former piano teacher, P, to see the Australia Ensemble.

The program was, at least on paper, daunting:

Brett DEAN (b 1961): Demons for solo flute (2004)

George CRUMB (b 1929): Black Angels: 13 Images from the Dark Land, for electric string quartet (1970)

Olivier MESSIAEN (1908-1992): Quartet for the End of Time for clarinet, violin, cello and piano (1941) – 100th anniversary of the composer’s birth

I thought I detected some “churning” in the audience. Some of the regular attendees may have stayed away, but there seemed to be more young people than usual present. Judging from the applause, the Crumb, made famous by the Kronos Quartet, had drawn its own crowd of supporters.

The Brett Dean piece was one of a series commissioned by a flautist in a series of commissions which is intended to work its way right through an alphabet of composers – presumably, it will be relatively easy to get the gig if you are an “X” or “Z” composer. It made much of repetitions and returns to the note “D.”

My elder sister first learnt flute, and I myself learnt it as a child when attending Artarmon Opportunity School, and indeed I can stake a (very tenuous) claim to being one of the last students there of the famed Victor McMahon. VM also taught Geoff Collins, who was 4 years above me at Atarmon, and GC really is just about the last true student of VM.

Probably because of this early imprinting, I find that my by now wavering perfect pitch (confused by exposure to Baroque pitches, but largely weakened by age and less frequent playing) remains quite strong for the timbres of the flute. I had no difficulty spotting the returns to D. The piece started with the obligatory modern/agitato mode of modern flute music (partly, in this case, with the intention of being Demonic). I’m not so keen on this sort of stuff (sounds too much just like sisterly practice from the other end of the house) but as it progressed the emotional range became more various and by the end I had quite warmed to it. There were various relatively novel techniques employed (singing, multiphonics etc) but these did not seem at all gimmicky as they sometimes do, but instead totally integrated to the musical expression.

The Crumb is one of those famous pieces which one often hears. At least, one often hears its opening, which is not really at all typical of the piece as a whole. Scored for an amplified string quartet, the piece also requires players to play tuned wine-glasses (with a bow and finally by striking them) as well as tam-tams and maraccas. JP, a former student of P and now a composer, told us at interval how he has scarified his composition classes by cranking the volume right up for that famous opening and even by listening to it in the dark. The Australia Ensemble’s approach was to use the amplification as a means of making available sounds which would otherwise not be heard at all because they are made in novel ways which deprive the instruments of the assistance of their natural resonance. This seems to me the right approach, and certainly in a program which also has acoustic items (the Dean was also, I think, mildly amplified), it saved us from dulling our aural sensitivity with electronically scaled volume.

Performed with the lights lowered and with the array of extra instruments to which the players moved as necessary, the piece has a definitely theatrical aspect. As I have already said, the opening is not really typical of the piece, which includes glass-harmonica-like effects, and a pseudo-viol sound produced by bowing above the fingers on the finger-board. The way the sound is made is an important part of the theatre: if you were just listening to a recording, you might well think “those viols sound a bit odd.” I didn’t worry too much about the elaborate program, but just went with the flow – a kind of “what will they do next?” approach.

JP left at interval. As a composer, he doesn’t go out to listen to any of that old music, and that apparently includes Messiaen.

The Quartet for the End of Time has acquired iconic status, in part because of the circumstances of its original composition, when Messiaen was serving as a French prisoner of war after the defeat at the hands of Germany in 1940. To tell the truth, I’m not sure how often if at all I have heard it played in full. A friend at school who played the clarinet liked to assay the movement for solo clarinet, but I doubt if he was really in a position to give a fair reading of it.

It’s early Messiaen, a bit like Firebird is early Stravinsky, albeit that Messiaen did not engage in the stylistic rebirths that Stravinsky serially underwent. It felt, comfortably, a masterpiece. The performance was entirely satisfying.

There are lots of things I could say about it, I suppose, but it was at this point when I started writing this post that I ran out of puff. What could I really sensibly say to evaluate either the piece or the performance?

That is another reason why I am not a critic.

The Ensemble’s Stuart & Sons piano is at present out of commission as it is being restored/reconditioned. P preferred the substitute Steinway.

Meanwhile, at other performances

On Friday I went to David Robertson’s illustrated lecture performance with the SSO: Debussy – Prelude a l’apre midi (which, strangely, Robertson thought, evoked the atmosphere of an early morning on the Seine) and Jeux (according to Nijinsky a coded narrative of something which probably originally happened at a beat), finishing off in the second half with Messiaen’s Chronochromie.

The evening was enjoyable if thinly attended despite an apparent three-line whip applied to the SSO’s free list. Mr Robertson had much to say of interest, though some of the analogies he drew to the visual arts (projected on a screen behind the orchestra) seemed either forced or arbitrary, and as ever with these things, the first half, which had most of the talking, seemed to go on too long. Overall, the most efficient use of a conductor and 100 players is for the conductor to conduct and the players to play: it seems so extravagant to have them just sitting around while the big man talks.

On Saturday, I went to Opera Australia’s Orlando. There was a (to me) surprising number of empty seats. As Sarah has pointed out, what people think of this production all turns on the [toy] sheep which are used as a running gag. The problem with running gags is that one can easily tire of them. I didn’t tire so much of the sheep as of the audience’s giggling response to them: right at the start Dorinda, the shepherdess, indicates that her job gives an opportunity to observe the comical behaviour of her charges, and the opera as a whole is a sustained essay in the pastoral which traditionally does involve “silly sheep.” Arguably, a director does need to take account of the likely audience reaction, and so perhaps the adverse reactions by the critics in The Australian and the SMH were justifiable on that count.

Of the singers, Rachelle Durkin as Angelica made the strongest impression, though Richard Alexander as Zoroaster also impressed until some strained upper notes in his big aria towards the end.

The performance started at 7pm, which is usually the sign of a long evening ahead. I can only think that some numbers were cut, as we emerged not long after 9.40 and the scheduled finishing time was in fact 9.35. For starters, I am sure that when I last heard Tobias Cole as Medoro at the WA Opera in 2000, he had a long slow aria (memorable because that sort of thing is his forte) which didn’t seem to be the case on Saturday.

You can see that the critical urge is not yet totally overcome. I shall endeavour to offer more systematic reasons why I am not a critic in a later post.

Why I am not a critic – 1

August 23, 2008

Earlier this week I was talking to my friend Dx. He is a pianist. I mentioned I had been to the Bronfman performance of the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto. He asked me how it was. Specifically, he asked me: “Was it good?”

I was at a loss for an answer.

In a general sense, the answer was “Yes.” At least, I enjoyed it. If he had asked me straight after I heard it, I would probably have been able to give a more detailed answer about what I liked and why. But even then I don’t think I would have been able to give the answer Dx was after.

Dx has played the Tchaikovsky Concerto – not necessarily to his own satisfaction – and I know from my own experience that playing a piece sharpens our views about how something should be played. It generally enhances our appreciation of what is difficult and therefore especially commendable if the difficulty is overcome. At least, that is so for me and I know of no particular reason why it should not be for others.

Dx has some fairly positive ideas about what is good piano playing including some quite firm proscriptive views which delineate its boundaries. I think that these are fostered by his ongoing work as a pianist in a similar if more generalised way as my views of playing specific pieces are underpinned by having played them.

I suddenly realised that my own views about good playing have become much woollier, and that this is because I am no longer playing the piano at all.

I am hardly in a position to be surprised about this, but it’s something I need to reflect on. I played the piano regularly from the age of about 7 to 18, and then from 25 to 46 or so. Even in the years from 18 to 25 I played the piano far more than I do now.

I do know that this saddens me. So what am I going to do about it?

It’s also one reason why I am not a critic.