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Analysis, Criticism & Commentary: June 2008 Archives

The Best Music

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Alex Ross, NY Times Music Critic

An Argument for Music

Critic Alex Ross keeps "classical" music current.

by Paul Gleason
Harvard Magazine

The first movement of Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto ended, and Carnegie Hall erupted in applause. Joshua Bell, whose dazzling solos and severe good looks had fired the crowd, pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and wiped it theatrically across his brow. The audience remained enthralled, but Alex Ross '90, sitting in the critic's traditional perch halfway up the left aisle, jotted down his thoughts in a small black notebook.

Ross was less interested in Bell than in how conductor Kent Nagano was molding his new group, the Montreal Symphony Orchestra. Already, Ross heard hints of Nagano's signature sound: a cool, elegant balance. But the concerto itself, he noted during the intermission, wasn't quite together. "Bell performed very brilliantly. But I didn't feel he and Nagano and the orchestra were totally in sync," Ross said. "Bell seemed to be in his own world a bit, and the orchestra was a little eeeehhh…" He made a nervous motion with his hands, as if someone were trying to hand him a small, rambunctious animal.

Ross wasn't planning to review the concert for the New Yorker, where he is a staff critic. He simply wanted to keep up with a favorite conductor and hear the American premiere of a piece by Unsuk Chin, a Korean composer whose opera he had reviewed favorably the previous summer. "Absolutely essential to my mission as a critic is talking about living composers," he said. "It wouldn't be interesting to me to spend all my time evaluating the right way to play Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. I enjoy writing that kind of column, but the greatest excitement is when works come into being."

Read more about this at the Harvard Magazine website:

   http://harvardmagazine.com/2008/07/an-argument-for-music.html

A Romance on Three Legs

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Glenn Gould at the piano

The hunt for the perfect instrument

[Glenn Gould adored his Steinway concert grand No. 318 – then the movers smashed it…]

By John Terauds
Toronto Star

Katie Hafner's suggestively titled book – A Romance on Three Legs: Glenn Gould's Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Piano – is like an executive summary for which someone has condensed all the need-to-know information into a tidy package. In this case, the perplexing eccentricities of Glenn Gould, both man and artist, are wrapped around one of his chief obsessions: finding the right piano.

To get into the spirit, try to imagine how a favourite paintbrush or garden spade feels in your hand. Or consider how your bicycle or car responds to your body's inputs.

Tactile memory is our window on the intimate sensual relationship that a musician has with his or her instrument. Because they're made from wood and other climate-sensitive materials, most instruments end up with a unique touch, sound and personality.

Read more about this at the Toronto Star website:

   http://www.thestar.com/article/447016

A Clockwork Orange… In Reverse

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Prison Bars

Amid Despair in a Venezuelan Prison, Strains of Hope From a Music Program

By Scott Dalton
New York Times

Los Teques, Venezuela – When Nurul Asyiqin Ahmad was taken seven months ago to her cell at the National Institute of Feminine Orientation, a prison perched on a hill in this city of slums on the outskirts of Caracas, learning how to play Beethoven was one of the last things on her mind.

"The despair gripped me, like a nightmare had become my life," said Ms. Ahmad, 26, a shy law student from Malaysia who claims she is innocent of charges of trying to smuggle cocaine on a flight from Caracas to Paris. "But when the music begins, I am lifted away from this place." Ms. Ahmad plays violin and sings in the prison's orchestra.

In a project extending Venezuela's renowned system of youth orchestras to some of the country's most hardened prisons, Ms. Ahmad and hundreds of other prisoners are learning a repertory that includes Beethoven's Ninth Symphony and folk songs from the Venezuelan plains.

Read more about this at the New York Times website:

   http://www.nytimes.com/2008/06/23/world/americas/23venezuela.html

Classical Club Scene

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Gabriel Prokofiev

Gabriel Prokofiev's Nonclassical club night breaks with tradition

Club nights are taking the starch out of live classical music

By Femke Colborne
Times Online

The girl taking tickets on the door is wearing odd stockings. It's the middle of June, but one of the bar staff is sporting a woolly hat, complete with a strategically draped bobble. It's 9.30pm on a Wednesday night at the Macbeth on Hoxton Street, and this is exactly the kind of crowd you'd expect to find in this terrifyingly trendy corner of East London. It's not what you'd expect at a classical music concert, though.

But this is no ordinary classical music concert. Nonclassical, run by Gabriel Prokofiev, DJ, producer, composer and grandson of the great Sergei, is a monthly classical club night that mixes live performances from instrumentalists and singers with sets from electronica DJs. Talking during the performances is not frowned upon – in fact, it's positively encouraged – and drinks are served at the bar throughout the night.

The event is just one of a host of classical club nights springing up in cities across the country, aimed at younger punters who are open to classical music but deterred by the formality of the traditional concert hall. According to Prokofiev, young people are put off going to formal concerts because they don't know what to wear or when to clap, and hate being forced to sit in silence throughout a performance.

Read more about this at the Times Online website:

   http://entertainment.timesonline.co.uk/tol/arts_and_entertainment/music/article4121930.ece

The Metropolitan Opera

Met's cinema shows hit high note

High-def transmissions sparks new interest

By Pamela McClintock
Variety

The Metropolitan Opera's live high-def theatrical transmissions – seen worldwide by more than 920,000 people during the 2007-08 season – are creating new fans and sparking renewed interest among existing opera fans. Findings were included in a poll conducted by trade org Opera America in cooperation with National CineMedia, the Met's distribution partner.

The digital theatrical transmissions have been hugely popular over the past two Met seasons. That's good news for Hollywood studios and exhibs as they begin to look to alternative digital content to fill theater seats, particularly since they can charge more per ticket for special events.

The Met's program, whereby select operas are beamed live into theaters on Saturdays, were the brainchild of Metropolitan Opera general manager Peter Gelb, who was seeking ways to boost opera's profile, particularly in the post-9/11 period, when Met attendance dropped off.

Read more about this at the Variety website:

   http://www.variety.com/article/VR1117987241.html

The Acquisition of Cultural Bling?

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Qatar Foundation

Qatar, land of oil and excess, gives us the first Arabian Gulf symphony

The United Arab Emirates are embracing classical music, but is this anything more than the acquisition of cultural bling

By John Evans
Times UK Online

Last week the Arabian Gulf, land of oil and excess, got its first symphony. The Qatar Symphony is a four-movement piece lasting almost one hour and is scored for full symphony orchestra. If I tell you that it's written by an Iraqi composer who once laboured under Saddam's regime, you won't be surprised to hear that it's a patriotic affair of whimsical folk tunes and strident marches. But if I then tell you that it's the first step on a journey to making the Gulf the new capital of high art and of classical music, you may fall off your seat.

Earlier, before the work's premiere at the Ritz Carlton in Doha, I'd watched a gang of bulldozers digging a hole for the planned skyscraper next to my hotel. Their ceaseless, subterranean activity seemed to me an analogy for the Gulf's classical-music scene. Bit by bit, it's taking shape – a conservatoire here, a concert hall there. By the time this new skyscraper is built, the foundations for a classical-music scene will have been laid. But is the Gulf really hungry for the arts, or is it building a cultural theme park?

Read more about this at the Times Online website:

   http://entertainment.timesonline.co.uk/tol/arts_and_entertainment/music/article4098647.ece

KUSC

KUSC is making classical music relevant

The return of Rich Capparela and Dennis Bartel, and the demise of K-Mozart, boost the station in the ratings.

By Sean Mitchell
Los Angeles Time

In the last year, listeners to classical music radio in Los Angeles have noticed something different about segments of the weekday sound of KUSC-FM (91.5) – evidence of human beings talking to them live between the symphonies and concertos of Beethoven, Mozart and Brahms. It's a change from the public station's deliberately generic classical programming that for the last nine years was prerecorded for distribution to more than 50 other outlets across the country with as little trace of Los Angeles or the announcers' personalities as possible.

Now, in afternoon drive-time, host Rich Capparela serves up irreverent observations about Los Angeles and traffic, along with bits of news he has gleaned that day about the classical world – in addition to selections from the classical canon. In the mornings, another KUSC alumnus returned home: Dennis Bartel shares his quietly ironic views of just about everything alongside the music, indicative of his background as a published author of fiction and nonfiction.

Apparently reflecting public approval of these changes and combined with the demise of its only significant rival, KMZT-FM, KUSC's audience has boomed to an average weekly listenership of 525,800…

Read more about this at the Los Angeles Times website:

   http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/news/arts/la-et-kusc7-2008jun07,0,4571580.story

Rise of the Machines

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Are Digital Orchestras a Sign of the Times?

By David Pogue
New York Times

This past weekend, I attended an astonishing performance of "Les Misérables" performed by 13- to 17-year olds at a local theater program. Two things made it memorable: first, that this program's director was able to find such amazing voices in this age group, especially for a show where most of the characters are men. (In my experience, more teenage girls than boys are interested in theater.)

Second, the production came breathtakingly close to simulating a full professional production – on a church rec-room stage that measures about 30 feet across and 12 feet deep. We're talking tiny. "Les Minirables."

And yet it worked, partly because the carefully built, minimal sets and props were just enough to suggest their big-budget Broadway equivalents – and partly because of a digital orchestra that accompanied the cast.

Read more about this at the New York Times website:

   http://www.nytimes.com/2008/06/05/technology/05pogue-email.html

Better Performance Through Chemistry

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Concert musicians "Brahms and Liszt" with stage fright

By Roger Boyes in Berlin
Times Online

Doping is not just the preserve of suspiciously muscular Tour de France cyclists and incredibly swift sprinters but also, it seems, earnest frock-coated musicians playing Brahms and Liszt on the world's best concert podiums.

"Between 25 and 30 per cent of musicians regularly take tablets or alcohol to combat performance anxiety," says Helmut Möller, head of Berlin's Kurt Singer Institute for Musical Health. Almost paralysed by stage fright, many musicians – and Professor Möller is not talking about Amy Winehouse or the usual suspects from the rock scene – guzzle beta-blockers, medication usually prescribed for heart problems.

Read more about this at the Times Online website:

   http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/europe/article4062427.ece

Conflict of Interest?

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Universal Music Artist Agency

The Manager as Double Agent

By Matthew Gurewitsch
Wall Street Journal

Last fall, the Universal Music Group, owners of the premier classical labels Decca and Deutsche Grammophon, sent shock waves through the industry when they launched, without warning, the Universal Music Artist Agency, offering the company's glamorous roster of recording artists – we are talking the likes of Renée Fleming and Lang Lang – for galas, corporate events, promotional campaigns and even Christmas parties. Mind you, these stars were not Universal's clients.

Under the contracts the world of classical music is used to, the person who negotiates an artist's services for performances, personal appearances, endorsements, recording deals and any other activities is the artist's manager. The historic role of the recording company – whether Universal or a competitor like Sony Classical or EMI Classics – has been to finance recordings and handle manufacturing, distribution, press and promotion, while retaining copyright in perpetuity.

Read more about this at the Wall Street Journal website:

   http://online.wsj.com/article/SB121244733967139457.html

Music directors' salaries are definitely on the upswing

By Charles Storch
Chicago Tribune

At events scheduled here Monday, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra is to officially introduce Riccardo Muti as its music director-designate. Should Muti be asked why he chose to commit here instead of, say, New York, it's likely he will cite the chance to lead our world-class orchestra and reside in our congenial city.

Don't expect him or the CSO to reveal how much he will be paid when he begins a five-year term as music director in September 2010.

Most symphony orchestras are loath to reveal up-to-date compensation (pay and benefits) for top executives and contractors. Like other U.S. not-for-profits, it can expect two or more years to pass before its tax filings, containing pay details, are readily accessible…

Read more about this at the Chicago Tribune website:

   http://www.chicagotribune.com/entertainment/chi-music-salaries-0601jun01,0,6092832.story

Trumpet