The Shostakovich Chamber Symphony op. 110a: the greatest cover song ever (even including the Clapton Unplugged “Layla!”)

I had the great pleasure of conducting the Shostakovich Chamber Symphony on my Master’s Conducting Recital (followed by Plink, Plank, Plunk by Leroy Anderson, just to give you an indication of my inability to take anything seriously). I knew enough about the whole DSCH motive and his relationship with Stalin and the Volkov-ish idea that the string quartets said everything that the symphonies couldn’t and all that shit, but I never really appreciated just how God damn cool a piece it is. Continue reading

Lorin Maazel’s musical legacy summed up in one performance

Lorin Maazel died today at the age of 84. He had been conducting since the age of 9 and conducted pretty much every single one of the best orchestras on the planet at one point or another. I will always have a soft spot for him because it was under his musical leadership that the groundwork for what would become my favorite orchestra of all, the last decade plus of the Pittsburgh Symphony, was laid.

My personal opinion of Maazel’s conducting isn’t entirely favorable, but like Leonard Bernstein before him he took risks that could at worst be called insane and at best be called insane but in a good way. The above performance highlights much of his strengths and weaknesses: the sense of drama, the beautifully rounded and rich sound, the bizarre and sudden shifts in tempo. I find his output uneven; sketchy Mahler and Bruckner, top-shelf Strauss, extremely underrated Sibelius. His recordings from the 1960′s were probably his best contribution to the medium, though those ’90′s Strauss discs with the Bavarian Radio Symphony are awesome, and in one of them he has neon blue hands on the cover (neon blue hands!).

Ultimately Maazel stands out as one of the few American conductors to reach the absolute apex in Europe, and maybe the only one besides Lenny depending on how stringent your criteria are. His legacy will most certainly live on in an extensive discography and a collection of photographs and videos in which he makes faces that I associate with the 1%. May he rest in peace.

In which I use the words “sesquicentennial” and “fucking,” one of which may have been in my 7th-grade spelling bee

640px-DBPB_1954_124_Richard_StraussIn spite of whatever I have going on this month, I couldn’t let today pass without saying something about the sesquicentennial anniversary of the birth of one of music’s all-time legendary figures, Richard Strauss. The great Mark Berry, of whose talent I am supremely envious, wrote a piece for The Conversation that is a must-read for anyone who likes good writing and Strauss. Deutsche Welle has an alternate perspective that touches on a couple of the same themes with admittedly less journalistic pizzazz. I certainly don’t have anything to add from a scholarship perspective. I will gladly, though, talk about the important place Strauss holds in my life. I’ve written about the man many times before, so if some of these obviously salient points are repeats from days gone by, please accept my apologies, or just be polite and pretend like they’re new. Continue reading

Preemptive “I’m alive”

Blog activity for the month of June is going to be a bit sparse. I’m moving to a new place that’s actually an old place, and so a good portion of my time is going to be spent making that bidness go down smooth. There are a few things I’ve got thoughts on that are rattling around in my head desperately trying to escape, so if I can squeeze some time in, I’ll make that happen. And if not, there’s always July.

Seeya when I seeya, friends, Romans, countrymen, and whoever else may be out there.

With a capital T, and that rhymes with P, and that stands for “Perhaps I’ll write something about the great Meredith Willson since it’s his birthday.”


It’s easy to lose sight of just how fucking great the musical legacy of America in the 20th century really is. On top of the dudes you’d read about in this space like Copland and Barber, there’s also the giants of jazz like Ellington and Basie, the early rock and roll stars like Little Richard and Chuck Berry, brilliant folk artists like Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger, hip-hop pioneers like Run DMC and Grandmaster Flash, and on and on and on and on and on. And yet, you can make the argument that the greatest collection of musical talent that America produced were the popular songwriters of the ’30′s, ’40′s, and ’50′s. George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Hoagy Carmichael, Jerome Kern, Johnny Mercer, Richard Rodgers, Sammy Cahn, I mean Jesus of Nazareth that’s a murderer’s row of great songwriting. Continue reading

Something cool you might have missed: “Praga” by Josef Suk

Adirondack as fuck.

Reverse Adirondack as fuck.

The idea of a piece of music being “derivative” is something I’ve explored a bit in this space previously. Within the sphere of organized sound the possibilities have been virtually exhausted at this point, and if you are composing firmly in the area of tonality, you can remove the “virtually” from that sentence because Tristan and Mahler 7 pretty much won tonality already (I suspect Schoenberg agreed with this………………..).

That doesn’t mean that there’s nothing interesting to be said, though. There are countless works of art that are universally recognized as significant achievements that are extremely derivative. Take the story of the aforementioned Tristan, which predates the awfully similar yet probably more famous tale of Lancelot and Guinevere. Or how about the much-loved-in-these-parts Sibelius 1, which has an incredible Tchaikovsky imprint running throughout it. How about “Brokeback Mountain,” a movie which somehow garnered a reputation for being a world-shattering film even though it’s basically the same “star-crossed lovers who can’t be together because of their families and society and shit” story that’s been around since the same God damns stories that probably inspired Tristan in the first place. It doesn’t make any of those artistic achievements any less deserving of praise. Being able to absorb the essence of a story and repackage it in a manner consistent with your own artistic ideals and beliefs is not as easy as the dismissive term “derivative” implies.  Continue reading