A week ago Saturday brought to a close the New York Philharmonic season as far as my attendance is concerned. It’s been a pretty disappointing first year for symphony concerts here in the Northeast in my opinion. Good-and-occasionally-very-good-but-not-great performances of Strauss, Mahler, Bruckner, and Beethoven (James Ehnes excepted!) from the NYPO, the bullet-riddled corpse of Schumann 4 in Philly, and a respectable but ultimately unspectacular Rachmaninov 2 from the band on the Jersey side left me wondering just when the Phil was going to bring the pain and fucking represent as their reputation suggested they should have been doing all along. I got my wish thanks to John Storgards and the genius that is Sibelius.
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.
Symphony no. 2, mvt. 4 by Johannes Brahms
It’s pretty obvious that Brahms was going to end up on here at some point. It’s also pretty obvious that choosing a single one of the sixteen symphonic movements that Brahms composed could essentially come down to a coin flip if you lived in a dimension with 16-sided coins. Brahms probably has the highest compositional “batting average” of anyone who ever lived and wrote music; pretty much every surviving work is a varying degree of great. The symphonies in particular are each among the very finest in the entire output, and not surprisingly they’re performed with Metamucil-like regularity. Continue reading
It’s a tried and true formula to stuff the music of our time down the throats of reluctant concertgoers by sticking it in the middle of musical Wonder bread. A tag line like “come for the security of dudes like Liszt and Tschaikovsky, please for the love of God stay for this thing that you’ve never heard before!” might be snarkier than what’s warranted, but it would at least be straightforward and honest. It’s a pity, frankly, because it’s a tremendous joy to hear music written by human beings who remain among the breathing. We’re all set in our ways and we all have favorites and comfort zones and all that, but hearing something genuinely “new” to your ears is loads of fun, even if the work fails to move you. We bear the same responsibility as those patrons in Vienna whose job it was to distinguish between Beethoven and, say, Louis Spohr, and that SHOULD be one of the best parts about hearing live music.
Symphony no. 2 “Mysterious Mountain”, mvt. 3 by Alan Hovhaness
Mysterious Mountain is one of the absolute apexes of twentieth-century music. In a way it seems like the musical equivalent of hipsters who like PBR and shitty hats, damn near dripping in what you’d like to think is irony for things like “tonal harmony” and “Baroque form.” But perhaps more than any composer not named Anton Bruckner, Hovhaness was a genuinely spiritual man whose compositions ultimately manifest the simple worship of life, nature, and beauty. Continue reading
It’s been a long, strange gap between top 10 lists here at Everything But the Music, mostly because I like to tell myself that I’m busy and don’t have as much time as I’d like to dedicate to writing. The truth is that I’m lazy and these are a lot of work to compile, fun as they may be. At any rate, with the incredible success the previous lists enjoyed (tens of page views!), I figured now was as good a time as any to dive back in and give the fans what they want, or perhaps the exact opposite of what they want depending on your viewpoint. Without further ado, here it is: the definitive, inarguable list of the ten best symphonies numbered 2. Continue reading
Commenter Aparna S alerted me to this performance of Rachmaninov’s Symphony no. 2 conducted by the notorious-around-these-parts Eivind Gullberg Jensen and posted it in the comments section of the infamous “worst conductor in the universe” post under the auspices of strongly disagreeing with my position. After watching it from start to finish, I wanted to make sure that it didn’t just get buried in the comments of an old post, because it is an outstanding performance on every level. Gone is the unnecessary and intrusive bullshit I felt pervaded Jensen’s conducting, and in its place is a tremendous feel for the nuts and bolts of a piece that can degenerate into useless noise in the wrong hands. I am tremendously impressed – this is one of the finest Rachmaninov 2’s I’ve ever encountered. I hope that this is just the beginning of my NEW Jensen experience.
Thank you for bringing this performance to my attention, and I hope everyone enjoys it as much as I did.