Retirement for a Superstar?

December 9, 2016

I read with sadness the news that Dimitri Hvorostovsky, one of the world’s greatest singers, is leaving the opera stage due to illness. He will be missed by everyone in the classical music world. We pray for his recovery from brain cancer. He will continue to sing concerts as long as his health allows, but clearly he is deteriorating physically. His recordings of the Verdi baritone roles are unmatched, and he has been a consistent champion of Russian repertoire, both in opera and lieder.

A Virtuoso for Our Time

November 29, 2016

Classical music has been buffeted by the same economic and social changes that have recast the rest of music industry–streaming services, YouTube, falling CD sales, smaller recording companies, etc. There have nevertheless been reliable conductors, orchestras and virtuosos with enough star power to sell out large venues throughout the world. Yo Yo Ma, Lang Lang, James Levine, Joshua Bell, and Dmitri Hvorostovsky are a few of the artists in the top echelon today. Some would argue that these virtuosos are not the equal of past giants like Segovia, Horowitz, or Heifetz, but most critics would disagree. There are magnificent performers in nearly every category who now can record their feats in high definition, digital formats for posterity to judge their greatness.

No contemporary virtuoso has changed the public’s view of his instrument so profoundly as Jordi Savall, the Catalan master of the viola da gamba, an instrument barely heard fifty years ago on any stage. A student of the great German early music master, August Wenzinger, Savall first made his mark with a movie soundtrack to the French film on the life of Marin Marais. His rendering of the haunting melodies of Marais’ gamba pieces was so powerful that many outside the world of early music sought out Savall’s recordings. He formed an ensemble, Hesperion XX, that could tour and record obscure repertoire from Medieval, Renaissance and Baroque composers, and vernacular sources.

That was over thirty years ago. Today Savall is recognized throughout the world as a conductor, soloist, record producer, scholar, and media star. His recordings, often based on themes or regional traditions, are top sellers and crossover hits. His performances are sold out in virtually ever city around the globe. If you haven’t heard him, take the time to view this brief YouTube video of Greensleeves. I think you’ll be convinced that this artist transcends labels. He is the world’s greatest instrumental virtuoso, and a fitting exemplar of our multi-cultural, multi-dimensional music scene.

Brains on Music

November 13, 2016

As I have said before in this post and elsewhere, the brain needs stimulation in the form of creative endeavors in order to develop and flourish. Dr. Charles Limb of Johns Hopkins Medical School has a great podcast on this subject. Check it out.

Among the New York Times’ consistently excellent music critics, Allan Kozinn is often the odd man out. He writes intelligently about concerts on the margins, while also standing up for many traditional performances and artists of the old guard. He sometimes sounds a bit prickly, which is one of the things I most admire about him. Today he struck a blow for those of us who loved the “old” Alice Tully Hall and are sad to see it gone.

Liz Diller and Ricardo Scofidio, the architects of the project, are freshening up Lincoln Center, ostensibly because the “closed and elitist” language of this 1960s landmark has turned away the concertgoing public. As with much that is transforming American cultural institutions during the recession, Lincoln Center’s motives for changing its buildings and public spaces are rather short-sighted. Putting more bodies in the seats at the expense of preserving the longstanding value of a cultural landmark, the LC administration hired a trendy, “conceptual” architectural firm to update its public spaces. Unfortunately, a casualty of this makeover was one of the city’s best concert venues.

Kozinn’s appraisal of the Alice Tully Hall renovation is written from the point of view of a discerning listener as well that of a regular patron who demands a commodious venue in which to enjoy many kinds of music. He does not swoon, as many have, over the “transparency” of the cantilevered lobby looming over Broadway. He finds the high tech lighting in the new hall rather gimmicky after the first visit. He minces no words about his view of the acoustics and general performance of the new hall–“I hate the new Tully Hall.”–strong condemnation from a leading music critic in view of the almost universal praise that followed the opening some months ago.

To those who have followed the career of Diller and Scofidio, Kozinn’s views should come as no surprise. Like many contemporary “starchitects,” these designers care little about the experience of patrons who regularly use their buildings. They were among the most arcane, abstruse and arid of the “conceptual” artist-architects of the 1970s and 1980s. Mixing performance, texts and often unbuildable collages in their early work, Diller and Scofidio developed their reputations as “paper architects.” Like Peter Eisenman, Zaha Hadid, and Daniel Liebeskind, they professed their disdain for building–that is, until they began to make money doing it.

It is little wonder, then, that Kozinn finds the new concert hall numbingly dull, colorless, and inhospitable to music. He questions the decision to fill the bright, large lobby with a restaurant rather than leaving space for patrons to mill about the space. He finds little to praise about the hall’s new interior. Pietro Belluschi’s warm wood and comfortable red seats in the old hall were beloved of patrons. I remember many wonderful performances in the Belluschi hall, which was intimate, sonically rich, and popular with performers. Why was it renovated? I suspect that the administration and the architects simply saw a chance to “re-brand” the hall with a hot new designer’s label. Their attitude shows clearly, if ironically, in the choice of a new location for the portrait of Alice Tully that once stood in the lobby–a small vestibule adjacent to the ladies’ rest room.

No one questions the need for a larger lobby and a better circulation system at Tully. The original location at the back of the Juilliard School and tortured entry sequence were hated by everyone who used the facility. The architects improved this immeasurably. Give them credit for this modest accomplishment. But don’t be dazzled by shiny new surfaces and expensive technology, overlooking the obvious flaws in this ill-conceived project. Allan Kozinn has not bought the “propoganda line” that Lincoln Center is employing to sell its renovation plans. To wit, that the new architecture will create “open,” people-friendly spaces that will bring new audiences to what was once a “closed citadel” of the arts. Perhaps New Yorkers should be skeptical too.

Keith Jarrett, Soul Man

February 1, 2009

I’ve called this blog Frozen Music for two reasons: one, architecture is often compared to musical form, and two, I am a practicing classical singer. I follow all kinds of contemporary music with great interest. When something extraordinary comes along, like the premiere of John Adams’ Dr. Atomic, I like to stay tuned.

Last week I was fortunate enough to attend a sublime concert at Carnegie Hall with an architect friend who writes and performs his own songs. I’ve been fortunate enough to perform in Carnegie Hall and have heard dozens of performances there. This one was special, perhaps the most memorable I’ve attended, ever.

Though I’ve followed Kieth Jarrett since his beginnngs in jazz (I attended a Seattle jazz festival in 1970 in which he performed with Miles Davis), I had not heard him in  a solo performance. My friend said I was in for a treat, but to watch for signs of heavy weather. I knew that Jarrett was a tempermental performer, and that some concerts turned into confrontations between the pianist and his audience over things like coughing and lack of attention. On Thursday, when Jarrett entered the hall and addressed the audience, we knew that he was ready to engage with  his American fans–one listener said he’d never seen the artist in such an ebullient mood.

Communication between a performer and an audience is one of the great mysteries of art. Sometimes a fine performance is greeted with less enthusiasm than merited. In other instances a merely serviceable one receives adulation based solely upon reputation. Performers talk about the magic sense of communion that can occur when hundreds of listeners zero in on the groove and catch it. When that happens a community is born, in an instant, and what is shared is mystical. Jarrett, a Gurdieff follower, likes to reach for such sublime heights in every performance. Perhaps that is why many disappoint him.

Recognizing that his concert was on the cusp of a big cultural shift in America, he issued a kind of challenge to the audience upon entering the hall–the way forward wasn’t about economics. Listen and maybe you’ll catch on. He then went to work, laying down more individual works than typical–perhaps half a dozen in each half. The range of themes was dazzling: a gospel anthem, a simple lyric ballad, frenzied conflict, Bartok-like counterpoint, Chopin preludes, straight ahead blues, Afro-Latin rhythms. He seemed to be tapping so much of America in one performance that the audience was left exhausted after the first half. We were in disbelief–how could one human being embrace, or know, so much?

More astounding was Jarrett’s intensity and commitment to his craft. With typical modesty, he once turned and said that in 60 years of playing, he still had many things to learn about the piano, and bowed to it. When playing he entered a zone of soulful engagement with both music and audience. When other musicians close their eyes and reach for a spiritual realm, it sometimes seems forced, or prayerful. When Jarrett does it, he lays everything on the line–you feel his entire body and soul in every note. The piano is an extension of his entire being. This sounds like hyperbole but it is not. The man looks for spirituality in everything he plays.

The audience responded to each improvisation with appropriate applause–serious, engaged, and awe-struck. There was no instant adulation or knee jerk hero worship. Carnegie Hall brings out the true believers, but also the most critical listeners. By the end of the program, the crowd had connected with the man on stage to a degree I’ve seldom seen. He did six or seven encores, and could have played all night. Near the end he acknowledged the significance of the evening with a humble “thank you” to his audience, and a bow to his instrument. He had laid his soul bare and several thousand other souls responded. This is the kind of community that may emerge again, in a country that has lost its way.