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Analysis, Criticism & Commentary: April 2008 Archives

A Revolutionary Orchestra

Parkdale Revolutionary Orchestra by Susan Carey

Bold approach breathes new life into classical music

There's nothing so off-the-wall that somebody hasn't thought of it

By Nigel Hannaford
Calgary Herald

Mitzi's Sister is a small club in the Parkdale area of Toronto. Home cooking, a stage, it holds 150 people. Small as these things go. But, it was there just over three years ago, that Parkdale Revolutionary Orchestra first took the stage.

Big moment in the history of music? Too early to say.

However, a few weeks ago, this space dealt with the sort of music that can pay its own way, with no top-ups from the Canada Council. I jested that if classical music was to rescue itself from its socio-economic isolation – its audience shrinks, as it ages – it would have to rebrand itself as something risque, to be enjoyed in seedy little rock-clubs where it's best to sit near an exit, with one's back to the wall. Only when it could make it without a grant, could it once more be considered an expression of contemporary culture.

But, irony is hard these days. There's nothing so off-the-wall that somebody else hasn't thought of it, or done it.

Read more about this at the Calgary Herald website:

The Role of the Arts Critic

Sebastian Smee

The mind of a critic

To judge, educate or entertain? In his final column for Review, Sebastian Smee reflects on the qualities and pleasures of good criticism
The Australian

Professional critics perform a role that, in most aspects, is impossible to defend. Where does one start? With the arrogance of setting oneself up as a public judge of other people's creative endeavours? With the inevitable superficiality of one's responses, as one lurches from one subject to the next? Or with one's repeated failure to get the tone right, to find the right combination of sympathy and discrimination, enthusiasm and intolerance?

The psychodynamics of criticism are easy enough to nail down. Just as children attracted to the police force are, naturally, weaklings desperate to wield power and exact revenge, critics are bookish nerds with bullying instincts.

"Just doing the job," we tell ourselves as we pontificate from the safety of small, book-lined studies in the suburbs where no one can disturb us, let alone take issue with us.

And, of course, we're hobbled by jealousy. Don't doubt it for a second: critics envy artists. Inside every critic is a painter, photographer or sculptor fantasising about the opening of their own sell-out show.

In light of this, no one should be surprised that critics are rumoured to be losing their clout. Entertainment has ousted serious writing about the arts in all but a handful of newspapers and magazines. Criticism has given way to profiles, interviews and all the vapid paraphernalia of publicity.

Read more about this at The Australian website:,25197,23580386-16947,00.html

Get Away With Classical Music

Piano Quartet from National University of Tainan

Let classical music take you on vacation

By Maren Kasulke
Guelph Mercury

In the doldrums? Overwhelmed by the daily grind? Same old, same old?

Many of us can't afford exotic vacations to get away from it all.

But the benefits of a quick trip that extracts you from your complicated web of work worries, family obligations and never-ending chores and appointments can be obtained on a smaller scale right here in our community.

Sometimes, all you need is some mental down time, something that will take you away, give you glimpses at a new perspective and provide you with true mental recreation.

My favourite way to regroup mentally to clear all the buzz and clutter out of my head is to attend a classical concert – something that until a few years ago would have been a pretty alien concept to me. I have always enjoyed music, but found myself drawn toward contemporary music events promising carefree, noisy fun and a roaring good time. I will admit that they fulfilled this promise and I'm still up for that, too.

Read more about this at the Guelph Mercury website:

The Demise of the Brick and Mortar

Tower - Everything music go...

Record Stores Fight to Be Long-Playing

By Ben Sisario
New York Times

Now added to the endangered species list in New York City, along with independent booksellers and shoe repair: the neighborhood record store.

The hole-in-the-wall specialty shops that have long made Lower Manhattan a destination for a particular kind of shopper have never made a great deal of money. But in recent years they have been hit hard by the usual music-industry woes – piracy, downloading – as well as rising real estate prices, leading to the sad but familiar scene of the emptied store with a note taped to the door.

Some 3,100 record stores around the country have closed since 2003, according to the Almighty Institute of Music Retail, a market research firm. And that's not just the big boxes like the 89 Tower Records outlets that closed at the end of 2006; nearly half were independent shops. In Manhattan and Brooklyn at least 80 stores have shut down in the last five years.

Read more about this at the New York Times website:

The Sexy Side of Classical Music

Violinist Janine Jansen by Mitch Jenkins

Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra: A Sex Appeal

By Eddie Silva
Playbill Arts

Let's talk about sex – and classical music.

A couple of years ago the writer Greg Sandow, who discusses the state and fate of classical music on, alerted his readers to the emergence of an audacious new feature in MUSO, a magazine based in the UK that writes about the classical music world the way Spin writes about rock & roll. In MUSO's online version, Sandow heralded, is a section called "G Spot," which features a list of fans picks for sexiest soloists, with pictures and commentary.

For example, violinist Joshua Bell is described to be "As American as apple pie and just as tasty." Pianist Hélène Grimaud is praised for her "gamine gaze." Room is left for praise of the artists' musicianship, "supreme skills across an extraordinary range of repertoire" and "steely pianistic strength," but the message MUSO spreads is that having one gift does not belie the other. And, more importantly, classical can be hot.

Classical music is declared dead, usually with deep regret, by some astute and erudite critic on a regular basis. And just as it is declared dead, it is passionately declared alive and well by another astute and erudite critic – usually the next day. Death and resurrection is a great theme of religion and literature, but a steady dose of it can be emotionally depleting, especially if it happens to be your art form being compared to Lazarus. Within the chronicling of the death-life continuum of classical music, at least one fact is inarguable: classical music's presence near the center of popular culture has diminished considerably over (at least) the last two decades.

Read more about this at the Playbill Arts website:

Recent Musical History of a City

New York City

The New York Canon: Classical Music

By Justin Davidson
New York Magazine

From Laurie Anderson's magnum opus to the definitive Beethoven marathon.

Classical music is global and ephemeral and often aspires to a state of universality: Tonight's Carnegie Hall recitalist may have just flown in from Germany and will be in Hong Kong next week. Even native New Yorkers hone their acts elsewhere before hoping to return. Which makes an awkward fit for a canon of works linked by their inherent New Yorkiness. I've had to wrestle this list into its frame, omitting many memorable musical experiences because they had no special connection to the city, and tying live events to recordings. The New York Philharmonic's performance of the Brahms Requiem in the days after 9/11 was far too magnificent an event to skip. But I left out Philip Glass's 1976 Einstein on the Beach; although the premiere seared itself into the memory of those who saw it, the recording tells only half a story. New York creates as much music as it imports, and some of it is imbued with local qualities that materialize only later. In the mid-nineties, Steve Reich walked around Manhattan recording sounds that he later wove into City Life. It's more explicitly urban than his other works, yet the sense of overlapping rhythms competing in a crowd – the essential sidewalk experience – is equally evident in Drumming, which he wrote more than 30 years earlier. In music, New York sometimes does something supremely un-New Yorky: It hides.

Read about the complete N.Y. canon at the New York Magazine website:

End of the CBC Radio Orchestra

CBC Radio Orchestra

CBC needs to be saved from its supporters

By Kelly McParland
National Post

The CBC is going through one of its regular bouts of self-induced angst as it struggles to rationalize the money it spends with its inability to attract an audience significant enough to justify those expenditures.

This time the argument is taking place on two fronts, one the decision to shuffle the programming on Radio 2 to reduce the emphasis on classical music, the other to kill off the CBC radio orchestra, the last radio orchestra in North America.

The resistance to both moves has been both predictable and fierce. True believers in the CBC may be few in numbers – and becoming fewer, it seems, with each passing year – but they're passionate. And they don't keep their opinions to themselves.

Read the complete article at the National Post website:

Overcoming Early Success

Conrad Tao

The Tao of Early Musical Success

By Barbara Jepson
Wall Street Journal

The stereotypical musical prodigy has remarkable musical memory, brilliant technique, and a prematurely shortened career. Pianist Conrad Tao, who gave a winning performance with the Russian National Orchestra here recently at the Festival of the Arts BOCA, possesses the first two characteristics in good measure. One hopes he will avoid the third, joining the ranks of such successful former prodigies as the 52-year-old cellist Yo-Yo Ma and the 65-year-old conductor-pianist Daniel Barenboim.

But who knows? The 13-year-old Mr. Tao, a student at the Pre-College Division of The Juilliard School in New York, may decide to chuck music altogether. Or he may become overexposed by the age of 25 – one of the risks of turning "pro" earlier than most. By that time, later-blooming peers will have come into their own artistically, providing new faces for concert presenters to book, and the next wave of precocious youngsters will be nipping at his heels.

So why expose young musical phenoms to the marketplace just as they enter the more vulnerable adolescent years? In a field overcrowded with keyboard players, says his teacher, Yoheved ("Veda") Kaplinsky, head of the piano department at Juilliard, there are two ways for artists to stand out. "One is to win an international competition," she says. "It doesn't guarantee anything, but it gives you an entrée. The other is to start out as a prodigy and make your name that way."

Read more about this at the Wall Street Journal website: