Classical Bash

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Interesting stuff...

Thought you guys might be interested in reading this...enjoy!

New Vivaldi Work Heard for First Time in 250 Years

Friday, August 05, 2005

What's going ON?!

My post today is more of a vent than a real question. But, nonetheless, I'm going to pose it. What is going ON with classical music? Or just music in general? I'm just so sick of marketing taking precedence over quality. In the case of voice, we have Charlotte Church and a girl named Hayley Westenra. Charlotte has no voice left. It's gone. Probably irreversibly. Why? Because she sang improperly for six years and while the vocal folds are more resilient probably than people think, they're still ridiculously fragile as compared arm or something. Repeated abuse of any part of the body will eventually just wear it out completely. This is exactly what Charlotte did. The producers and record companies were so hungry for profit that they just used her up and spit her out. Has anyone heard her sing lately? She has a breathy, almost ethereal tone. The voice should NOT sound like that. It's not meant to and it means the vocal folds aren't coming together properly. The escaping air only grates against the folds and creates problems like callouses, polyps, abrasions, etc. Simply put, it means this: if you have to have surgery at any point, you're done.

With Hayley, it's more a question of talent. She's only so-so. Why have tastes gone so downhill as to take someone with a half-decent classical voice and say they're the new Renee Fleming? Or Maria Callas or whoever? Half of these so-called "new classical voices" don't even deserve to be in the same ROOM with people like Pavarotti or Callas. Hayley and Charlotte couldn't sing an opera if their lives depended on it. A classical sounding voice does NOT mean "opera voice." First of all, opera is something you train for over years and years. Hayley is 17. Charlotte is 18. The voice doesn't stop maturing until the early to mid-30s. Probably a little earlier, for women. But, people don't know this because they don't bother. They just listen to their Usher and their Justin Timberlake and go on their merry way, thinking that Hayley and Charlotte are some real jewels. They're jewels all right...the kind that are made of glass...

As for performers, Sarah Chang comes to mind. She's a violinist from Philly. Now, she actually has some semblance of talent. But I listened to her "Méditation from Thaïs" and had I not known better, I would have thought it was Joshua Bell. She basically just ripped off his performance. Who's her next subject? Heifetz? Kriesler? It's like those horrible tribute CDs you see..."Sarah Chang plays Fritz Kriesler...AS KRIESLER." People are so afraid to divert from this formula that even classical music stats sounding same-ish. All the same stuff gets regurgitated--excuse me! recorded--and you have one massive "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik" orgy. And not to knock Beethoven but HOW many times do I have to hear the opening notes of the 5th?

Want to listen to something groundbreaking? Listen to "Short Trip Home." It's an album by Edgar Meyer, Joshua Bell, Mike Marshall and Sam O'Connor. It's entirely bluegrass. Using only a bass (fiddle, not guitar), mandolin, banjo, violin and fiddle. Amazing stuff. It gets a little same-y at some points but in all, it's a hell of a lot better than most of what's out there. If nothing else, at least they're trying to bring different music into the public consciousness.

Speaking of Beethoven, you think he would be happy to see the state of music? The man would go on a rampage. HE didn't put his butt on the line composing revolutionary new stuff to see it so familiarized. And yeah, if you started messing with his interpretations, he'd probably get pissed. But I think that secretly, he would have liked it. As long as the interpretations are faithful to what he wrote, I think he might even enjoy it. Isn't that what music is about anyway? Creating? What ever happened to that idea? It got in the way of profit, that's what.

Monday, August 01, 2005


When I visited my friend, Jeff on Sunday afternoon the topic came around to Zubin Mehta's Brahms. Jeff, being the diplomatic individual that he is, tried to skirt the issue by saying how much he enjoyed the Vienna Philharmonic performance that Mehta turned out in the late 1970s. My date for the afternoon, however insisted that Mehta's 1970's recordings with the New York Philharmonic of the Brahms Symphonies (the 2nd in particular) were some of the best recordings out there. Luckily--or maybe not so--I had the opportunity to listen to some of these God-awful recordings the next day. And I have to give my friend credit where credit is due. These were truly horrible recordings.

At the risk of sounding picky, I really have to take issue with Mehta and the New York Philharmonic. Zubin Mehta did a fine job when it came to building the Los Angeles Philharmonic, but his Brahms ( or for that matter, ANY composer) with the New York Philharmonic left a lot to be desired. The string sections have always sounded a little too thin for my tastes, and in Mehta's hands they took on an undisciplined characteristic which annoyed me to no end. Indeed, I always had the feeling that the string section itself was out of balance: as if the violins were too loud and too shrill; the violas all but not existent, leaving a huge gap between the celli and the double basses, which themselves were lacking in strength and discipline. As for the timpani....I could have done better with a tin can and a pencil.

The end result was an entire orchestra which was out of kilter, with anemic violas, celli, and double bases, while a shrill, over-emphasized violin section competed with ear-piercing flutes and trumpets. Moreover, the playing/conducting left a lot to be desired. I expect Brahms to sound rich, luxurious, gentle, conlficted, and impassioned-- as a romanitc composer should sound--and the lack of precision playing from Mehta and the orchestra offered little to nothing in those characteristics. I had trouble with the tempi as well which seemed just a little on the rushed side, but that might have been because the orchestra truly revealed its weaknesses in slow, sustained passages. Overall, I had the distinct impression that I was listening to a rehearsal, not the actual recording. Indeed, there were moments when I thought I was listening to either a very good high school orchestra or a very bad chamber orchestra.

For those who are interested in the Brahms Symphonies,there are plenty of fine recordings out there--some more available than others. For those of you who are keen on historical performances, I would suggest Wilhelm Furtwangler conducting the Berlin Philharmonic. If you're more into modern performances I would recommend either the Berlin Philharmonic under Herbert Von Karajan; the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Sir Georg Solti; the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Erich Leinsdorf and the Philharmonia Orchestra under Otto Klemperer. Any of these sets, if you are lucky enough to encounter them, should present Brahms in the hands of capable musicians.

And yet, I have to admit, that the Vienna Philharmonic performance is to die for. Regrettably I heard it for the first time on a scratchy LP, but beneath the many technical problems which were so common to vinyl recordings, there was a wonderful rendition here. Rich, sensuous strings, golden horns; mellow woodwinds under virtuosic conducting. And to be fair to the New York Philharmonic, I rather enjoyed watching it come back to life once Mehta did the crew a favor ad stepped down from the podium.

As for the New York Philharmonic performances...If you should ever encounter them in CD or LP? Do yourself a favor and leave them where they are. Failing that you might consider ignoring all those warnings against leaving them in the sun on the back seat of your car on a 90 degree day.