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Analysis, Criticism & Commentary: May 2008 Archives

Funeral Music


Songs in the key of death

Edward Wickham on how modern tastes in funeral music owe it all to a medieval composer who went out in style
Guardian UK

Even if it is an urban myth, it deserves retelling. A bereaved family requested Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody for their loved one's funeral service. A CD was duly played, but the organist allowed it to run on to the next track: Another One Bites the Dust. This is up there with another, perhaps mythical, occasion when an organist misinterpreted a couple's request for "the theme tune from Robin Hood" and, instead of playing Bryan Adams's (Everything I Do) I Do It for You from the Kevin Costner film, launched into this bracing lyric from another era: "Robin Hood, Robin Hood, riding through the glen."

Choice of funeral music dates us just as surely as clothes or what children's programmes you remember with affection. One of the UK's current favourites, according to a recent survey, is Monty Python's Always Look on the Bright Side of Life. The well-balanced funeral or memorial service will, of course, provide an opportunity for both celebration and seriousness: there is a place for Monty Python and Monteverdi. And the best composers of funeral music can turn on a sixpence. Purcell's apparently simple Funeral Sentences masterfully moves from melancholy to hope in just a couple of chord changes.

Read more about this at The Guardian website:,,2282432,00.html

Learning To Be An Elitist

Snob Ven Diagram

How to be a classic snob

Learning the tricks behind having a snotty attitude about orchestral music.

By Joel Stein
Los Angeles Times

Afew years ago, I began working toward my retirement goal of being an intolerable old man. I'm way ahead of schedule on knowing enough about wine to bore anyone, but classical music has proved much more difficult, largely because no matter how much you listen, it does not get you drunk.

But because my cultural 401(k) depends on being able to cite conductors, orchestras and recording years, I called David Moore, a bassist for the L.A. Philharmonic, and asked him to get me on the road to insufferability. Moore met me at the Walt Disney Concert Hall and said that, like me, he got into classical music late – in his case at USC, where he started out majoring in jazz, which he discovered by getting into guitar solos in Rush and Iron Maiden songs. New York is the center of high culture because its orchestra members keep these kinds of things secret.

Read more about this at the L.A. Times website:,0,1045111.column

Go Jam, Young Man

Preston Stahly

Classical Musicians Learn to Improvise

By Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim
Wall Street Journal

Bach employed it at the request of kings, Beethoven used it as a weapon in duels, and women swooned when Liszt got carried away. But at some point in the early 20th century, improvisation disappeared from classical-music performance. Now a new generation of composers and performers is rediscovering it as a central part of the creative process – and, quite possibly, as a remedy for the shrinking of classical-music audiences.

For Preston Stahly, a composer and 1982 winner of the Charles Ives Prize, it's one of the most important issues in music today. He uses the term "avant-pop" to describe his own music and that of a heterogeneous group of other composers who grew up playing rock and jazz while studying counterpoint and 12-tone music in college. The wall separating the two worlds turned many composers away from academia and into an alternative music scene that is driven by composer-performers and chamber-music ensembles capable of playing and improvising in a number of styles.

Read more about this at the Wall Street Journal website:

Performing More Works by Women

Judith Lang Zaimont, composer

Lend Me a Pick Ax: The Slow Dismantling of the Compositional Gender Divide

By Lisa Hirsch

In the world of classical music, as elsewhere, women have made tremendous progress over the last 30 years. Following the introduction of blind auditions in the 1970s, which greatly reduce bias, women now make up about half of the string and woodwind players in American orchestras. Women occupy prominent administrative positions in major musical institutions. Women direct and design productions at important opera houses.

Women also make up about 30 percent of composition students in American colleges and conservatories. While this is a vast and positive change, it's still not easy for women to get their works performed, especially by symphony orchestras. During the 2004-05 concert season, works by women accounted for only one percent of all pieces performed by the 300 or so member orchestras who responded to the repertory survey of the American Symphony Orchestra League (now the League of American Orchestras, or LAO). The following year, with a boost from Joan Tower's widely-performed Made in America, the number rose to two percent.

Read more about this at the NewMusicBox website:

Breakthrough in Vienna


Staatsoper Taps Woman Concertmaster

By Susan Elliott
Musical America

Thursday, May 8, 2008 may go down in history as a major milestone in classical music. The Wiener Staatsoper, most of whose orchestra members comprise the Vienna Philharmonic, appointed a woman as its concertmaster. Albena Danailova, of Sofia, takes first chair in September. According to custom, if all goes well for two years, she will then move into the position permanently.

Her appointment is significant for two reasons: One, she is the first woman to have the post at the Staatsoper, and two, in her new job she will oversee a core of instrumentalists – the Vienna Philharmonic – that has long deemed women musicians to be inferior to men.

Read more about this at the website:

Ballet Thriving in San Francisco


Is ballet's future in America?

San Francisco Ballet's New Works Festival has been warmly received by an eager public. It makes English ballet look secretive and cautious

By Judith Mackrell

I was in San Francisco last week for the launch of San Francisco Ballet Company's New Works Festival. The levels of adrenaline and enthusiasm that were buzzing around put British ballet culture to shame.

It wasn't just that SFB were premiering an astonishing 10 new ballets over three successive days (compared to the two being offered by the Royal Ballet during their entire next season). It was that the city as a whole appeared to embrace ballet so energetically. This ambitious and expansive festival included choreography by Mark Morris, Paul Taylor and Christopher Wheeldon and a newly commissioned score from John Adams – yet most of the funding had been raised from local sponsors.

Read more about this at the Guardian website:

Performers to the Rescue

Kristjan Jarvi, by Peter Rigaud

More power to the performer

By Matthew Westwood
The Australian

Classical music, as it grew progressively more complex through the romantic period onwards, evolved into a mind game where the composer always had the psychological lead.

Musical scores came to be written as if dogma, down to the last pedantic detail; performers, even brilliant ones, became mere instruments to the composer's vision.

That may be a bleak view of the concert hall. But Kristjan Jarvi, the energetic Estonian-born conductor, is disdainful of the pseudo-intellectualism of some contemporary music and the "academic blackmail" to which it subjects performers.

The pianist and conductor is doing his bit to address the perceived imbalance between composer and musician. It's not so much a contest of wills as a spectator sport in which music as well as audiences should benefit.

"It is really important to make the performers feel that they have freedom, that they can express music rather than just play the notes," Jarvi says on the phone from Hanover, Germany.

Read more about this at The Australian website:,,23624489-16947,00.html

Into the 21st Century


Gramophone to put 85 years of classical music articles online

By Mark Brown
The Guardian

Gramophone magazine has always had an impressive list of contributors, from Rachmaninov to Barbirolli to Rattle – but the problem has been reading them all. Yesterday the 85-year-old magazine announced it is putting its entire archive online as well as entering the commercial download market. The magazine has never missed a month's publication since Compton Mackenzie founded it in 1923, even during the war years.

After 18 months' planning, editors said yesterday that, by early September, every word ever printed in the magazine will be available free in its searchable online archive. It also believes the classical music recording industry has been slow when it comes to digital downloads, so by January 2009 the archive will be linked to a download and mail order service.

Read more about this at the Guardian website:,,2277562,00.html