Recordings: Cheating or Research?

Yevgeny Mravinsky Conducts Shostakovichs 5th

Yevgeny Mravinsky Conducts Shostakovich's 5th

Having had the opportunity to study conducting with some extremely refined and intelligent musicians in my short time, I have noticed a pattern that echoes through the halls of eternal teaching: don’t listen to recordings when you’re studying a score.

Now, I preface this entire post, with the exception of that amazing first paragraph you just read, by saying that I agree with this philosophy, in a vacuum.  So many times recordings provide an imprint on us as musicians and we cannot hear them another way, think of them another way, or distance ourselves from them, which is obviously a problem.  For example, my first experience with Mysterious Mountain by Hovhaness was the classic Reiner/Chicago Symphony recording, which has a generally broader tempo range than any other recording I’ve heard, especially in the first movement.  And I’ve gotten to the point where I damn near refuse to accept anything other than Reiner’s tempo.  I’ve never had the chance to study the score, but I hope when that time comes I’m able to distance myself from my memories, because it’s a recipe for disaster.

The reason I bring this up now is because over the last several years I’ve been particularly keen to the balance recordings try to walk in relation to the Symphony no. 5 of Shostakovich, especially as regards the tempo of the coda in the finale.  It reared its head again last evening when I was listening to a performance featuring the Concertgebouworkest conducted by Jaap van Zweden.  It was a fine performance overall (Zweden has been virtually touring the galaxy with this piece in tow lately), but the coda left a lot to be desired, for me.  I echo these same sentiments in regards to a performance with Lorin Maazel and the New York Philharmonic I also heard recently.

The tempo of this coda is the subject of much debate.  In the score it is marked to be played slowly.  Shostakovich is said to have “authorized” a basic doubling of the tempo when in rehearsal with Leonard Bernstein.  Of course, you can try to have your cake and eat it too by trying to play the middle somewhere.  So what’s right?

If you guessed “there is no correct answer,” I guess you’re probably right.  But this is where the legacy of recordings comes into play and I struggle with this entire concept.  When I attended a conducting workshop in 2007, we discussed the de facto ban on recordings in a seminar, and I asked if recordings weren’t, in fact, documents that should contribute to your research of the music.  I don’t think I explained myself well at all, but the answer was essentially…not so much.

But why?  Take the recorded history of this piece.  When considering the coda taken at a fast tempo, you find names like Bernstein, Ormandy, Maazel, Haitink etc.  When considering the “have your cake and eat it too” approach, you find names like Ashkenazy, Jansons, Alsop, etc.  When considering the slow tempo, you find names like Mravinsky, Kondrashin, Rostropovich.  One need not be a scholar to see which group of names sticks out there.

Mravinsky and Kondrashin combined to premiere more than half of Shostakovich’s symphonies.  They both maintained significant relationships with him throughout their careers.  Rostropovich, as everyone knows, was one of Shostakovich’s closest friends.  They all lived, breathed, and experienced firsthand the Russian history that is inexorably intertwined with Shostakovich’s music.  To paraphrase my mother, “perhaps I’m the asshole here,” but it seems downright foolish not to consider these recordings when doing your research on the score.

Let the record show that this aspect of research should only be done after you have completed your own study of the score…as I said before, this I agree with.  But recordings, to me, are a tool of immeasurable value when “doing your homework” on a piece of music.

Stravinsky was a terrible conductor of his own music, in my opinion, but you’d be insane not to give a listen to the old CBS set of the man himself conducting his greatest orchestral works.  Mahler left us with some piano rolls, notably of the first movement of the Fifth Symphony, and it would be just slackerish to not investigate them.

For those curious to hear the recording that brought this bloody catastrophe of a blog post out of me, I will include the links here…follow the same steps as last time.  The remainder of the concert was interesting and a good listen, including a very fine reading of the Barber Violin Concerto with soloist Vesko Eschkenazy.

And for a means of comparison, here are essentially the two opposing takes on the coda in question from two of the greatest masters we’ll ever know:

Leonard Bernstein, New York Philharmonic

Yevgeny Mravinsky, Leningrad Philharmonic


Something To Listen To: Lorin Maazel & The Pittsburgh Symphony in Mahler’s Symphony no. 7

Gustav Mahler

Gustav Mahler

Those who know me even a little bit know that I love Mahler.

Those who know me slightly better than that know that if I had a gun to my head asking which symphony I like most, I would say the Seventh, although I might just be saying that to save myself long enough to get home to listen to the Ninth.

Those who know me even better than that know that I love the Pittsburgh Symphony going back to the William Steinberg days on through until today.

And those who know my innermost secrets know I don’t really care all that much for Lorin Maazel, having in fact been made fun of by a musical friend of tremendous gifts for recommending his 1960’s Sibelius cycle (it was only $20 at the time!).

But I owe Lorin Maazel a few thanks.  He helped “re-put” the Pittsburgh Symphony on the musical map when he was Music Director in the ’80’s and 90’s after Andre Previn sort of…how shall I say it?…sucked balls for 8 years.  There are a small number of readily available nice recordings from his time there, the best probably being a raucous Saint- Saens “Organ” Symphony, and there’s even another Sibelius cycle for people to make fun of me for.

The recording included here is of the early vintage: October 1989.  The concert took place in Warsaw, Poland.  Let us all look back fondly at what a completely insane time that was…the Berlin Wall would come down in literally weeks and the Soviet Union was in the process of unraveling.  I can’t actually say that any of this has any particular bearing on this performance, but I just wanted to take a look back at the seminal world event of my childhood.

At any rate…on to the performance.

I’ll spare you the program notes on this work, as you could read them somewhere else written by someone much better than I.  In fact, you could read Phillip Huscher’s notes for the Chicago Symphony right here.  He is smarter than me.  We know this.  Suffice it to say, this piece is subtitled “Song of the Night,” a subtitle which Mahler never used or endorsed in any way, so you know it’s good.

This is music of darkness turning to light.  Night turning to day.  And everything that entails:  the march of night itself, those peaceful dreams, nightmares, and the oppression of the sun breaking in to save us or destroy us depending on your mattress quality.  There are two beautiful Nachtmusik movements (#s 2 & 4) that are neither Eine nor Kleine, but they are as lovely as anything Mahler ever wrote (and the 4th movement has guitar and mandolin in it).  The 3rd movement is marked schattenhaft, which means shadowy, and it probably the best musically descriptive direction for a movement I can imagine…perfectly applicable.

The brass player lurking deep inside me loves the Pittsburgh Symphony because of their brass section.  They have a brass quintet that has a Christmas CD affectionately referred to as “Angry Christmas.”  This same quintet has a CD of the Art of the Fugue that would make Bach roll over in his grave, consider exhuming himself, attempt to extract his own DNA, implant it into a cyborg-human hybrid, and live in the days of modern brass instruments.  It’s fucking incredible.  And my two favorite heroes are principal horn William Caballero and principal trumpet George Vosburgh (see comment below regarding principal trumpet possibilities from a PSO guy in the know), both of whom shine like Baby Jesus at your local pageant in this performance.

Maazel’s tempi are pretty much what you might expect out of Lorin Maazel.  I’ll leave it to those of you who know about Lorin Maazel to determine what you think that means.  This is not my favorite performance of this work, but it’s so splendidly Pittsburghian that I simply cannot help enjoy it.  Perhaps some of you will as well.

This performance was captured from WQED’s internet stream, which broadcasts at 56K.  I had initially converted it to a 192K mp3 file, but it had some blips in the sound, so it is now a lossless FLAC file, available at the following links in 4 parts:

Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4

RapidShare is a great service…you can download for free, though it will take time if you don’t sign up for an account (which does cost, but is worth it).  It’s a simple process, and if you have the patience to wait and download the links over the course of a few hours, everything will be completely and utterly free to you, which is nice in these economic times, or when you’re a trillionaire like me.

There are a few tools you will need to listen to this, and these will come in handy if you ever want to listen to any performances from pretty much anyone that are available like this (it’s even legal or something!).  The first is a media player that plays FLAC files.  Get yourself a copy of VLC Media Player here…it’s free and incredibly useful…it plays literally anything I can think of.  Also, because the size of these performances tend to be large, the files need to be broken into parts, and I use a program called HJ-Split, which you can get here…it’s also free.

Wow, that was boring technical jargon.  This blog is about music.  Listen to it if you like!

Four-Minute Warning



This blog post is your warning.  Four-minute warning.

Sunday 8 February 2009 marks the 51st Grammy Awards.  It also marks the third time Radiohead has been nominated for Album of the Year.

If they don’t win the award this year for In Rainbows, look for me on the news.  Because I will walk to Los Angeles, personally steal the award from Robert Plant & Allison Krauss, scratch the name out with a penny, and write “Radiohead” on it with a Sharpie.

I understand that awards shows are meaningless (who can ever forget when the perversely preachy, obnoxious, subtle-as-a-chimpanzee Crash beat out movies like Munich and Good Night and Good Luck that were actually good?).  But I will officially fly off the deep end of sanity if Radiohead gets jobbed yet again, especially if it’s by another artist who should have retired 20 years ago.

In 2001, when Radiohead was nominated for Kid A they were beaten by Steely Dan.  Steely Fucking Dan.  The same Steely Fucking Dan who brought such life-changing songs as “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number.”  Fucking Rikki Don’t Fucking Lose That Fucking Number.  Look, I’m willing to be rational.  Kid A isn’t the most approachable music Radiohead ever put out.  I will readily admit it’s my least favorite of their albums (excepting Pablo Honey and The Bends, which were before they developed their mature sound).  But the least they could have done was have it lose to an actual great album, like The Marshall Mathers LP. That shit was good.  Even so, my insane-o-meter doesn’t really blip all that much over this.

Where I begin to shoot into the red is back in 1998.  When an already well-aged Bob Dylan gave us Time Out Of Mind.  I’ve heard it.  It’s good.  Dylan can really write.  But how in the sweet, innocent name of Baby Jesus Puppies could anything have bested OK Computer? Forget 1998.  How could anything have bested OK Computer in the entire 1990s?  Please Hammer Don’t Hurt ‘Em comes in there, but it’s still not close.  OK Computer is one of the great albums in the history of any of the genres you’d care to classify it in.  I’m happy to debate this with anyone who cares to read this, but first you have to listen to OK Computer and Please Hammer Don’t Hurt ‘Em, then get back at me.

It is with this track record of injustice in mind that I issue my warning to the Grammy Awards.  Don’t do it again.  Robert Plant sings like an elephant being raped by a polar bear, which I have heard, and remember commenting to my friend that they sounded like Robert Plant singing.  Lil Wayne is good, but only because Eminem and Jay-Z hung it up and Kanye West is crazy (maybe he thinks Radiohead keeps getting screwed, too).  Coldplay is like one dimension of Radiohead, only not as good as Radiohead is at that one dimension.  And who the fuck is Ne-Yo?  Just kidding…but he was in Save The Last Dance 2. Not even the first one.  The sequel.  Jesus.

So tonight I ask everyone to pray to whichever God they believe in, or whichever one likes Radiohead, or both.  Because a prayer for Radiohead is a prayer for me not blowing a gasket and ending up in an Orange County jail.

Tom Coburn’s Stimulus Provisions–Just Say No

Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) has introduced an amendment to prohibit any funds in the economic stimulus bill from going to museums, theaters, or arts centers.

The language of the amendment, (Amendment No. 175, as filed) is, “None of the amounts appropriated or otherwise made available by this Act may be used for any casino or other gambling establishment, aquarium, zoo, golf course, swimming pool, stadium, community park, museum, theater, arts center, or highway beautification project, including renovation, remodeling, construction, salaries, furniture, zero-gravity chairs, big screen televisions, beautification, rotating pastel lights, and dry heat saunas.” 

Now, the subject of whether or not this is a prudent measure for the economy is not going to be debated here.  A compelling case is made by my good friend Ken Woods for keeping the NEA money in the package. 

What bothers me is that museums, arts centers, and theaters are lumped in with casinos, swimming pools, rotating pastel lights, and zero-gravity chairs.  What in the holy living hell is the relation between the arts and a highway beautification project? 

At the risk of sounding like Tom Coburn or any other idiot Senator of his ilk: the arts are what separate the evolved societies of the world with those stuck in the Stone Age, many of whom are nations or people we consider ourselves “at war” with.  Now, the nature of that war is yet another subject not worth tackling at this musical hellhole, but we can all agree that we have progressed as a society since that time, and while it isn’t the only factor, the arts is one of the key factors of that progression.  When’s the last time you went and saw the Saudi Arabia Philharmonic?  What exactly is the Iranian government’s artistic commitment to the Tehran Symphony?  And yet, a country like Israel, constantly embroiled in conflicts from all sides, has developed one of the very best orchestras and cultural landscapes in the entire world in 60 years.  This is not meant as a declaration of culture war, but it simply illustrates that part of a progressive society is its commitment and support of the arts. 

I urge you to read Maestro Woods’ blog post as he very clearly explains the economic ramifications of removing this provision.  And you can write to your Senator here urging them to keep the NEA money in.

Let’s cross our fingers.

I Was At A Concert: Canadian Brass

Canadian Brass

Canadian Brass

Last night Sandy I were invited to Columbia, approximately 4 clicks east (I keed…I don’t know how far a click is), to hang out with some folks and take in a concert in Jesse Hall on the campus of the University of Missouri given by the Canadian Brass.  To my surprise, 60% of the members of the world renowned crew were the same as back in the days before I even played horn.  Charles Daellenbach, Gene Watts, and Ronald Romm were all there, along with newbies to me Joe Burgstaller and Jeff Nelsen.

It is important to note that this was my first Canadian Brass live experience.  My mother had been before and recommended it highly.  Consider it duly noted that the entertainment value is one of the all-time highs for any live event I’ve ever been to.  Daellenbach has obviously been doing his thing for decades, because he’s got an uncanny knack for delivery and having the audience on the tip of his finger at all times.  He’s really dry, but he has pretty stellar timing on his jokes.  Gene Watts also spoke several times, and while he’s not quite as entertaining as Daellenbach, he also has solid delivery.  I have to say…he lags SIGNIFICANTLY behind his comrades in musical execution, but he still has plenty of showmanship skills.

The music for the evening was a very nice mixture of styles, as was to be expected.  Some Bach, some Bach by way of Vivaldi, some Bach by way of Christopher Dedrick, and a nameless Gabrieli Canzona comprised the classical portion of the first half.  The intonation and technique, while not totally flawless, were very good, and the balance was unbelievable…such are the by-products of playing together as a chamber ensemble all the time.  Joe Burgstaller played the piccolo trumpet for the majority of this half, and sounded as good as anyone I’ve ever heard playing picc…my complaint about picc playing tends to be that the sound often sounds stifled and nasally, but he has a tremendously full sound, on a par with my good friend James Smock, who will hopefully appreciate that I’m genuinely not saying this to blow smoke up his ass.  Burgstaller was a rock star on the technical work…really crispy, and he nailed the crap out of several high Fs and Gs, which drew a muffled gasp from me on occasion.

Also of note was the aforementioned horn player, Jeff Nelsen.  Very studly player.  Has a really bright sound, which those who know me know I love, strive for, and probably do to way too high a degree.  The horn is the hardest instrument to play for a number of reasons, accuracy chief among them (which obviously was not a problem here), but also endurance.  The horn is often left to play all the roles in a brass quintet, both as solo line, and harmonic bridge, and without nearly as many breaks as our friends.  Personally speaking…I can’t always make it.  Nelsen made it without breaking a sweat…the James Bond of horn playing or something.

The first half closed with three Luther Henderson jazz arrangements (it also opened with one, “Just a Closer Walk With Thee”).  The first was “High Society” featuring Burgstaller playing the famous clarinet solo on piccolo trumpet, which he handled to great audience delight.  What didn’t receive great audience delight because it was buried texturally a little bit was when Nelsen played this same solo in the “shout chorus.”  I leaned over to Sandy and whispered “oh my God” because I couldn’t believe my ears, but it made me want to quit horn right then and there.  The middle song was a nice arrangement of “Deep River” featuring the tuba, which was played nicely.

The finale of the set and the first half was Henderson’s arrangement of “Beale Street Blues.”  This song completely takes me back in time to the days of The Essential Canadian Brass with David Ohanian on horn…the first horn player whose name I ever remembered.  I was a beginning trumpet player at the time who had recently encountered horn as a means to move to the intermediate band where there were no horns but, and this is a literal figure, 32 trumpets.  I don’t remember who loaned me the disc, but I remember being completely enthralled with “Beale Street Blues.”  There’s a part in the middle of the song where the horn has these glissandi from 3rd space C to high C, and the first time I heard them, I knew I wanted to have something to do with horn, because it was bad ass.  It still is.  I was a tad disappointed when Nelsen missed the first two high Cs, but everything else about the song was stellar, including some flutter tonguing that sounded like machine-gun fire.  Music definitely has the power to take you back like that, and I had all kinds of cool memories come rushing back during this song.  Thanks, 5 guys who I don’t know personally.

After intermission, or half time as I’ve been calling everything lately, they started with a tribute to Glenn Miller, which the audience loved.  It’s been so long since I listened to any Glenn Miller that I completely forgot how many amazingly popular songs he was associated with.  Every single song of the medley was ingrained in my and everyone else’s memories…and that didn’t even include my favorite Glenn Miller song (Little Brown Jug for the win!).  Gene Watts introduced the piece making reference to a concert they gave some time ago when they said they would give a free CD to anyone who could name all the songs in the medley, but they had to stop because almost the entire crowd knew them all.  Such is the power of white guys with glasses.

The Barber Adagio came next, featuring Nelsen on horn.  Nothing particularly noteworthy here…this piece, while still beautiful, doesn’t really work in this setting simply because the tempo has to be picked up significantly to accomodate the obvious breathing issues.  It was more the Barber Andante this time, and it doesn’t carry the same weight as the string quartet, string orchestra, or choral versions.  I’m sure I sound like a dumbass for picking on an arrangement, but it is what it is, and frankly, when your group plays so many top-quality arrangements by some of the finest arrangers in the business, you notice the ones that don’t necessarily fit that standard.  Great dynamic contrast, though…some tremendous soft playing at the end.

The last piece listed on the program was the Canadian Brass opera “Hornsmoke” by Peter Schickele.  It was very cute…not particularly musically interesting, but a very charming ten minutes with Burgstaller playing a woman, Romm playing an outlaw, Nelsen playing a heroic cowboy, Daellenbach playing a priest, and Watts playing the narrator (I was hoping for him to start with “way out west there was this fella…fella I wanna tell you about…fella by the name of Jeff Lebowski”).  Watts dominated on his narration.  There was some great writing in the part, with all kinds of head spinning narrative, and he breezed through it.  It was impressive and funny as hell.  Lots of cute interactions between the characters and their instruments.  The musical highlight was when Nelsen, Burgstaller, and Romm come to the front of the stage and sing a cowboy tune in three-part harmony.  I know as great musicians I should have expected them to be competent singers and harmonize well, but I was totally shocked at how bad ass they sounded.  It was incredibly cool.  Obviously the audience loved this tune, as did I.  Wildly entertaining stuff.

They played another Essential Canadian Brass classic as an encore, “The Saints Hallelujah” (which combines “When the Saints Go Marching In” and “The Hallelujah Chorus” for those who aren’t total nerds like myself) featuring Watts on trombone.  It should be noted that he grew up in Missouri and attended the University of, so there’s that.  Nice encore, great end to a wonderful performance, and an amazing start to a wonderful evening with friends.  Friends who, like me, were at a concert.