Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Repertoire analysis -- how the sausage gets made (or conducted, rather)

One of the great things about the Internet, in my opinion, is that it's very easy to publish online -- especially in blogs. Take this one, for instance. There's no money in our budget for a hard copy newsletter, but online? It's free to us (and to you) and we can embed videos!

Kenneth Woods is a conductor and cellist who has recently completed an interesting self-study of the works he's conducted during the 2009-2010 season, entitled "Which Composers Are Getting Played?" I find it an interesting read for a a number of reasons:

1) It's an interesting balance of basic repertoire, unusual works, and modern composers -- which goes against my perception that conductors only want to do works by dead white Europeans.

2) Woods talks about the process of working with orchestra and orchestra boards, which explains in part why certain works get done infrequently, or not at all.

3) It's thought-provoking. If you had to learn 75-125 works to conduct in a season, which ones would you choose? How many would you be willing to learn that you might not like very much, but orchestras expect you to perform? How much new music would you program, and how new is new?

That last question's not irrelevant. As Woods says as he goes through his list,

Other composers dear to me, however, have not been lucky. Bartók has been completely absent. This makes me crazy, but I get tremendous (and completely incomprehensible) resistance when trying to program his music. 

Incomprehensible is right! Bartók is an acknowledged master, whose works are mainstays of the repertoire (at least among musicians). Modern? Well, maybe for 1948 -- but that was over a half century ago. Could we please move him to the dead white European male category so we can get his music performed more often? (if that's what it takes)

Just asking...

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Indie classical - sonic spice

A very interesting article appeared in Capital New York. Entitled Indie classical goes uptown: Judd Greenstein on new music, it presents some concepts about contemporary classical music that I (in my own modest way) am trying to accomplish with "Gamut."

Judd Greenstein is a young composer who's equally comfortable in the classical and pop music worlds, and one of many new talents looking for ways to use current popular music gestures to create classical works of substance. Sound like a retrogression? That was what many thought when Brahms wrote waltzes, using the popular music form of the day to create classical works of substance. And some religious leaders were very uneasy about late medieval church composers using popular chansons (songs) as the basis for their masses -- especially when the original tunes had NSFW lyrics!

The indie classical philosophy, while in line with what composers have traditionally done (like Mozart's German Dances, or Mahler's use of landler), is at odds with the overall aesthetic of contemporary music, which has tried to make a clean break with the past. Unfortunately, in doing so, it seems to have made a break with the audience.

As Greenstein says about building an audience for new music, "“You don’t do it by shocking people. You do it by adding spice to their food gradually, by introducing new flavors, by broadening their palette in a way that feels simultaneously comfortable and exciting because it’s both new and familiar.”

It's how music evolved in the past, and it's also part of the philosophy behind "Gamut." Sure, I program plenty of prickly contemporary music -- but only if I think it's worth your while to hear (at least once). I also play a lot of newly-composed music that's tuneful, appealing, and sometimes just plain fun to listen to. Consider it a little sonic spice.

As I like to say, the two things I don't like are bland music and bland food. Don't worry -- on my show we're not talking Thai hot, just a dose of Tabasco every now and again. And yes, when I get some recordings of Judd Greenstein's music in, "Gamut" listeners will be the first to know it!

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Trafficking in sound: Stephen Montague's Horn Concerto for Klaxon Horn and 20 Automobiles

What's the definition of noise? For me, noise is unorganized sound. Which makes music organized sound. If you can't hear the organization, you might think it's noise. But it's not.

I thought about that again while listening and viewing the following work. Stephen Montague is an American composer active in Europe. I first ran across him on an album by rhe Relache Ensemble, where they performed his chamber work Paramell VI. It's an attractive post-minimalist work, and one that's very easy to hear the organization of (which makes it music).

Montague's also created several interesting multimedia works, including the one below. The Horn Concerto for klaxon horn and 20 automobiles was premiered in 1998 as part of the European Music Day festivities. Some might dismiss this work as "noise," or perhaps even something too silly to be worthy of their attention.

But I think that's wrong. While there's a certain amount of whimsy about the work, if you pay attention you'll hear a carefully organized sonic work Montague works imaginatively with his material. The soloist uses several horns, and they're not just tooted willy-nilly. While the pitches of the horns are relative, it's clear that the composer has specified which horns are to be played, and in what rhythm.

The cars, which form the orchestra, are also used creatively. The different pitches of the horns are used to form chords, and not every horn plays at the same time. Plus, Montague uses the revving of the engines (also at different pitches and durations) to further expand his musical resources.

I recommend playing the video without watching it. By removing the visuals, it's easier to hear what's going on musically -- and there's more going on than just a silly joke. But then make sure you also watch the video. Montague understands that the sight of 20 Mini Coopers is an unusual one, and he orchestrates some visual elements to further articulate the musical structure.

While I don't think anyone would argue that the Horn Concerto is a great piece of music, it certainly is one of the more imaginative multimedia works I've encountered. And -- what the heck -- it's a lot of fun, too. Enjoy!

Friday, January 7, 2011

How We Program the Sunday Opera Matinee

Longtime listeners to WTJU's Sunday Opera Matinee ask us, "How do you decide what to program?" Our signature is programming unfamiliar works, sometimes by unfamiliar composers. We tend to limit the number of works from the standard repertoire because opera lovers can see those works on stage, either live or via broadcast, fairly frequently. The world's major opera companies tend to program works from the standard repertoire because those are the works that sell the most tickets. Moreover, singers are reluctant to learn new roles for the stage of works that are unlikely to be staged elsewhere. We are not constrained by having millions of dollars of costs, both fixed and operating, as major opera companies are. So we take advantage of the flexibility to present lesser known works.

The paramount consideration in the programming decision is whether our listeners will enjoy and appreciate the work and the performance. There is no point in programming a performance of any work that is dull, unimaginative, or poorly performed, especially if the work has little to recommend it musically. Given the choice between programming Bizet's Les Pêcheurs de Perles (The Pearl Fishers) or Carmen, we tend to favor The Pearl Fishers, not because it is a better work than Carmen (far from it!), but because many of our listeners will get to hear this work for the first and perhaps the only time. But we will only program The Pearl Fishers when we can find a performance that merits being programmed.

Sometimes we like to introduce listeners to a composer whose works have been largely forgotten. An example is Eugen D'Albert's Tiefland. The work is unique in being the only example of German verismo opera that remains in the repertoire. D'Albert is a largely forgotten composer, but Tiefland remains tenuously in the repertoire, especially in Germany, and it needs to be heard and appreciated more widely.

Some works, despite their musical and/or dramatic flaws, are redeemed by a great performance. Massenet's Esclarmonde, while not the composer's best work, was taken up and recorded by the great Joan Sutherland. Hearing her sing this music about as well as it can be sung merits its being programmed and enjoyed by a wider audience.

Occasionally we encounter a work, either in a staged performance or in a recording, that is so compelling that we must program it, even if it is not familiar to most opera lovers. The live recording of Wagner's early opera Rienzi from Munich with Rene Kollo in the title role and Wolfgang Sawallisch conducting is so compelling that it cried out to be programmed. Deutsche Oper Berlin's production from 2009-10 was so good that we just had to share this flawed but compelling work with those of our listeners who could not see the production live.

Occasionally we will get a request from a listener that inspires a programming decision. A listener asked to hear the great 1953 recording of Tosca with Maria Callas in the title role. We are never jaded, but sometimes we overlook recordings of works that are familiar to us, but that will be heard by many listeners for the first time. Everyone must hear (and see) La Bohème for the first time, not to mention hear Callas sing for the first time.

We do not just program our favorite performances of best-loved works (we went through all of them years ago!), but we do program performances that both entertain and inspire. It takes a lot of work to prepare a presentation for broadcast, but nothing could be more fulfilling than to have a listener tell us how much he or she appreciated being introduced to a new work or a new performance. We've been doing that for two decades, so tune in on Sunday afternoons at 2 P.M. and enjoy! If you have a suggestion or comment, don't hesitate to call us when we are on the air at 924-3959 or email Our Sunday Opera Matinee schedule may be found at our website,

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Classical music: are you a beta tester, or beta blocker?

Alan Kozin forwards an interesting concept in a recent New York Times piece. It examines the tug-of-war between the needs of composers and performers to present new works, and the audiences' desire to remain with the tried-and-true.

Most of the complaints I get during my show, "Gamut," have to do with "modern" works. Why can't I play more beautiful music I'm asked. Well, I put that word modern in quotes because some of the offending works were written as far back as 1930 -- often making them older than the listener calling in! But the other part if it is that the judgement of a work's beauty is something that evolves over time.

Many people thought Wagner virtually unlistenable when his operas were first staged -- yet his "Ride of the Valkryies" have become part of our common musical culture. Ditto with Beethoven, who pushed the boundries of classical music. Now his symphonies and string quartets are considered masterpieces, but contemporary audiences thought they were just a mess.

And that's Kozin's point. All of those tried-and-true works had to be premiered. And sometimes they needed a champion to keep them before the public until the audiences grasped what was going on with the works. As Kozin writes:
Listeners who dislike new music, either because they disdain contemporary musical languages or because they simply want to hear what they already know and love, might argue that musicians should do this sifting on their own and perform only the works that they can say, hand on heart, are masterpieces. And that sounds reasonable, to a point. But where new works are concerned, musicians are, to borrow a term from the computer world, beta testers. The problem is that in music, beta testing necessarily involves listeners as well.
So you'll still hear the unfamiliar on "Gamut," (and a lot of our other classical music shows) for a reason. Because this is music that needs to be heard. And we value your feedback, because that's an important part of being a beta tester -- pointing out what works and what doesn't with the item being tested.

But don't ask us to stick with the same-old-same-old. As great as the basic repertoire is (and there's a reason why those works achieved that status), there's always room for one more on that Olympian peak. And the only way to discover those works is by exploring. As Kozin points out:
If the great masterpieces of the canon were determined entirely by the opinions of the musicians and listeners who first played them and heard them, J.C. Bach would be far more beloved than his father, Johann Sebastian. Salieri would be the star and Mozart the footnote, and Hummel would be the great icon of the early 19th century.
 (Although, come to think of it, we air J.C. Bach, Salieri, and Hummel with some frequency, too.)

In any event, I'll continue to air music of this era (as well as that of the past), in search of that next new masterwork. And be sure to call into the station when you think you've heard it!