Wednesday, July 27, 2022

Joni Mitchell's historic concert at Newport

This was truly the most feel good moment to happen in popular music since forever.  Joni Mitchell returned to the Newport Folk Festival for the first time in over fifty years, performed her first proper concert in nearly twenty years, and the world seemed to stop.  Take the time to watch even a few minutes of her set and feel all the uncertainty and chaos in the world around you melt away instantly.

This story is getting attention for all the right reasons. After hearing that she had suffered a brain aneurysm, I was resigned to the fact that Mitchell would never appear in public again, let alone perform music.  But then came the Kennedy Center honours, and the Grammys appearance, and finally this set at Newport which sprung out of a series of informal jams she'd been having at her home for the past few years.  She nearly died and had to relearn everything (walking, getting out of bed, next to those everyday tasks relearning the guitar seems rather trivial).  She had to regain her passion for singing.  She worked on it privately, with the support of her friends through their informal jam sessions, to the point where she felt good enough to appear on stage again.  Even then, it was uncertain what she'd be up to doing once they arrived at Newport.  

When I was growing up in the 80's, Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen were niche artists, even in Canada.  They were years past their 70's primes and widely respected, but not considered as part of an inner circle of all-time greats.  Rock criticism was dominated by admiration of the stadium-filling classic rock giants (Led Zep, The Who, The Rolling Stones).  Rock stars in the 80's were MTV-ready celebrities with a larger than life aura.  The era of the introspective singer-songwriter writing folksy melodies and confessional lyrics was a fading memory.  

It's been wonderful to see Joni Mitchell get the credit she's due over the past few years, with her albums now frequently mentioned among the best of all time.  The appearance at Newport was the best possible tribute to her: she was feted as an all time legend, treated as a queen seated in a luxurious throne-like chair, holding court in front of thousands of her followers who will never forget those moments they got to share with her. 

Thursday, July 14, 2022

The downfall of Ariel Pink

Armin Rosen's article on the rise and complete collapse of the career of Ariel pink is an exhaustive and exhausting read.  It's probably twice as long as it needs to be.  The avalanche of music insider detail will alienate most music fans, let alone the average Tablet reader.  The elephant in the room is the article's most glaring flaw: is it meant to evoke sympathy for Ariel Pink?  Is it an attempt to start rebuilding his legacy?  Do Rosen and Tablet believe that Ariel's side of the story has been misrepresented, and are providing him a forum (albeit a highly critical one) to fill a journalistic need?     

The Tucker Carlson interview mentioned in the article is a slobberfest of forced sympathy and manipulation, even by the standards of Fox News.  I have no doubt that TC had not heard of Ariel Pink the day before their meeting and has not thought about him for five minutes since, and yet most of the interview is Carlson practically weeping over the tragically unfair state of the man's career.  I will not link to the interview here, but you can easily find it.  Rosen's article is certainly not that.  But if there's one overarching narrative he presents to his readers, it's that Ariel Pink was and is a unique and even irreplaceable talent.  Rosen doesn't say that great art should be above politics.  However, he seems to spin a cautionary tale about being too quick to degrade great art.  History is full of great artists who fell out of favour because they didn't trade in the dominant politics of the day. 


I don't care one way or another about Ariel Pink.  I've never heard an album, and laughed off the term "chillwave" during the scant years when it was popular.  I recognize that Ariel Rosenberg was a problematic and controversal person even before Jan. 6 of last year.  But I don't see how anyone can defend the complete cancellation of a person and his livelihood based on his mere attendance at a protest.  He didn't storm the Capitol, didn't advocate for violence or insurrection, he just stood in place and listened to a speech.  By no measure can it be said that he committed a crime.  And yet R. Kelly was sentenced to jail time only a couple of weeks ago, after more than twenty years of second chances from critics and fans alike.


We could list off any number of artists who have been given free passes for decades: white, black, male, female.  It would only serve to prove that the line between who gets cancelled and who gets left alone is a fuzzy, even arbitrary one.   A musician might have disagreeable, or even odious opinions, and it is ultimately a personal decision whether to continue listening to them or not.  I struggle with these decisions too and don't pretend to have the answers, not when it comes to Morrissey, or Herbert von Karajan, or Brian Eno.  But I don't think cancellation or pressure politics is the answer either.     

Sunday, June 26, 2022

George Gershwin's "Porgy and Bess", recorded by Cleveland Orchestra/Lorin Maazel (1976)

Gershwin's compositions straddled many genres -- jazz, classical, pop -- and some of his music continues to defy categorization even today.  "Porgy and Bess" was intended as an opera and is still referred to as such, but simple labels should always be tossed aside when dealing with Gershwin's music.  "Porgy and Bess" is no more an opera than, say, "Rhapsody In Blue" is a piano concerto.  The labels conjure up strict classical forms and styles -- they obscure rather than describe the emotional essence of the music.  

I'm no opera expert, I'm not even an opera fan, and I would consider myself an unbiased modern listener when it comes to "Porgy and Bess".  For me, it strays frequently into the realm of musical theatre, mainly thanks to its most famous tunes ("Summertime", "Bess, You Is My Woman Now", "Ain't Necessarily So") which have become American songbook standards.  In other aspects, it is unquestionably an opera, such as the turbulent subject matter (with the story unfolding in a suitably epic style), or the vocal timbre of the lead characters.   People would callously argue whether Gershwin was a "serious" composer or simply a opportunist who knew how to cater to public whims.  These sorts of arguments have always been dumb.  A couple of generations later, such polarizing rhetoric would sound silly if one was speaking about, say, The Beatles, but on the other hand, discussions of "serious" artists "selling out" still persist.  Gershwin undoubtedly has a Midas touch, by some measures, he was the richest composer of all time.

A 1975 NYT article about this recording of "Porgy and Bess", the first ever stereo recording of the entire opera, offers a fascinating snapshot of the times.  The article notes that the recording could not have been made even a few years previously due to the charged political climate.  An opera that highlights the stereotypes of South Carolina blacks, with music and lyrics written by northern Jews based on a play and libretto by white southerners?  The work had come to be viewed as racist, and there's little doubt that in today's climate, it would have been cancelled altogether.  Fortunately the citizenry of 1975 were smarter than that, which is not to say that the recording was without controversy.  The cast speak openly about the lack of career opportunities for black performers, the lack of role models, and the racial homogeneity of opera goers.  Sadly, not enough progress has been made on those fronts in the past decades, and other sectors of the entertainment industry are hardly immune ("Oscars So White", for example).    

The full three-hour opera makes for a compelling listen. Its biggest flaw is the lack of truly star-making, transfixing performances, by this cast of mostly (then)-unknown artists.  McHenry Boatwright as Porgy is the clear highlight, with a voice and presence that strongly contrasts his character's physically feeble nature.  His desperate search for Bess in the final scenes is riveting, ending the opera on a wrenching emotional high.  Francois Clemmons dominates his scenes as Sportin' Life, displaying a natural, sleazy charisma that captures the essence of the character perfectly.  Maazel and the Cleveland Orchestra hold their own, although I'm hard pressed to understand exactly what kind of interpretative vision the conductor provided.  I feel that the opera should be, for lack of a better word, bigger.  The Houston Grand Opera recording from the same year -- a proper touring stage productions -- would be my next purchase.       

Thursday, June 16, 2022

Stereolab, Series En Direct volumes 1-7, live recordings 1993-2019

While he was alive, Romanian conductor Sergiu Celibidache refused to release studio or live recordings of his work, which is virtually unheard of for a major conductor. Following his death, his family recognized the demand for the conductor's work and took the decision to release some officially sanctioned live recordings through record label EMI Classics.  His son Serge justified the decision in an essay that was printed in the liner notes to these early releases (my copy comes from a recording of Schumann's 3rd and 4th symphonies, with Celibidache leading the Munich Philharmonic, an orchestra that he worked with for decades).  There is every reason to be cynical when reading the essay (i.e. there is every reason to assume they did it for the money, principles be damned) but I think he makes a number of well-reasoned and thought-provoking statements.    

The main idea is that live concerts are meant to be enjoyed in the moment, as a symbiotic experience between the musicians, audience, and the venue.   This experience is meant to be enjoyed once.   On the other hand, a recording can never be music, much like a photo of a deceased relative represents only a memory of that person.

I thought about this essay a lot while listening to a stellar archive of Stereolab live material, covering their entire career including their recent reunion (1993-2019).   The collection is easily accessible via the live music archive, Volume 1 appears here and can easily follow the links to hear all seven volumes.  I saw Stereolab play live four times, spanning most of their peak (1994, 1996, 1998, 2001).   As you'd expect from such a massive project, the sound quality of these recordings varies widely, but this rarely bothers me when it comes to collecting live recordings.  For me, the draw of the concert recording was to have a memory of the show or tour, or to hear what the band sounds like in a different creative setting.  Since gigs always outnumber studio recordings, this provides many more opportunities to do something creative, to fine tune the presentation of a song, and so on.   Does it replicate the experience of being in the club, arena, or stadium?  Of course not.   But even though the information on the recording is incomplete, the missing information can be filled in based on my own experience.  It's somewhat analogous to file or image compression, where the lost information can be partially reconstructed via algorithm during retrieval and playback.  I can hear these recordings and attempt to place myself there, see the reactions of the band members, feel the sound blasting through the speakers and washing over me.  Sometimes I prefer the grimy textures of audience recordings because they can capture the overpowering, muddy sound of many live venues, and give a better approximation of "being there" compared with cleaner soundboard recordings.  

With Stereolab's studio recordings, I always preferred the early years covering 1991-1994, from the early singles collected on the first "Switched On" compilation, through "Mars Audiac Quintet".  As a live band they peaked much later, but we'll get to that.  In the early recordings (Volume 1), we hear a band with a clear vision of what they want to do, with a fully formed melting pot of sounds cribbed from their idols.  Sometimes the playing is sloppy, the rhythms are not as taut as they should be, and the vocal harmonizing sounds woefully unpolished.  But the drive and power stands out in all the recordings from the first series, which covers 1993-1994.  

All successful and iconic bands come around at the perfect time, filling a specific niche with a sound and message that wouldn't have worked with a difference audience in a different era.  To their fans in the early to mid-90's (and of course I include myself in this grouping), Stereolab were cool because they had a better record collection than you, and you were largely helpless to do anything about it.  They namedropped Can, NEU, and other 70's Krautrock bands when they were virtually unknown quantities to most indie music fans.  Their music was unavailable unless you were lucky enough to get your hands on a bootleg CD pressing.  They talked about obscure French and Brazilian pop that seemed beguiling, exotic, and oh so mysterious -- and by the way, you had no hope of getting your hands on most of it.  

Their timing was perfect.  In the late 80's, nobody would have cared about anything so far out of left field.  But around 1990, the boomer grip on musical discourse was beginning to loosen.  Rock music of the 50's and 60's had been mined to death, collectors and hardcore fans were increasingly broadening their interests.  They looked toward other decades for inspiration (particularly the 70's), and sought out non-American, non-British bands in genres other than rock.  CD re-release and box set mania was at its peak, but plenty of great music remained unavailable on CD.  You had to be a vinyl collector, world traveler, and have good connections to unearth many lost and underappreciated treasures.  Stereolab and their influences arrived as a package deal.  They spoke about them constantly in interviews and proudly boasted of borrowing from NEU, Esquivel, and so on.  I bought the Can Anthology when it was released on CD in 1994, not only because I finally wanted to get my hands on music by this mythical German band but also based on Stereolab's indirect recommendation.  If Stereolab sounded like this other music, then I wanted to have that music too.  

By the latter half of the decade, things were different.  The flood of compilations and re-releases throughout the decade meant that almost anyone with enough money and patience could assemble an uber-cool music collection.  In 1999-2000, file sharing made the concept of a "lost" album nearly redundant.  Almost anything, no matter how obscure, could be accessed and downloaded from your desktop in minutes.  As for Stereolab, they were working with producers like John McEntire and Mouse on Mars, allowing them to reshape their sound in the studio.  Suddenly, it felt like they were chasing trends, rather than leading them.  The effortless cool that characterized their early records was slowly phased out.  The recordings sounded more polished, but also more sterile.  Fortunately, their evolution as a live band followed a different trajectory.  

Volume 2 covers 1995-1996 and incorporates a wider palate of sounds thanks to the "Music For the Amorphous Body Study Center" and "ETK" albums.  They could seamlessly vary from arty lounge pop to furious motorik improvisations. Epic versions of "Contact" and "Stomach Worm" are standouts.  The latter song was recorded in Washington, but I saw an even more mind blowing version played as the encore in Toronto just ten days earlier.  That show still stands out as one of the best three or so concerts I ever saw (shared credit goes to the opening band, Cornershop, who were very underrated as a live act IMO).  I thought I was a near completist for this era, but this volume contains two songs I had never heard of before, "Young Lungs" and "Cadriopo".  Stereolab could do no wrong during this era.  They were never animated on stage, but as a fan watching them, playing this music in this way looked deliciously fun.  The most precious find of all is a scorching version of "The Light That Will Cease To Fail" whose bursts of noise and drone gradually morph into, of all things, "Soup Groove #1", encompassing twenty seven preposterous, glorious minutes for the entire package.   

Volume 3 is the least interesting.  Electronic squiggles and odd noises appear everywhere and rarely mesh well with the music.  Presumably they were trying to stay ahead of the curve and expand their sound palate.  In principle, this could have provided almost limitless new directions for extended jams.  But the chemistry between the new and traditional instruments (including the vintage ones) rarely appeared.  Improvisational passages would check the contractually obligated boxes (since that's what the songs on the setlist mandated), even though there wasn't a cohesive idea about what to do with their time.      

Volume 4 focuses on the "Cobra and Phases Group" period, which was a study in contrasts between the overly slick, plastic-sounding easy listening pop of the album and the muscular, propulsively rhythmic jazz-funk with which they were killing it during their concerts.  After any long hiatus from this album, it's always entertaining to read the infamous 0/10 NME review from Johnny Cigarettes.  The language is crude (to say the least) and the point belaboured to the point that it undermines the review, but the sentiment absolutely encapsulates the opinions of many at the time.  Instead of borrowing sounds, transforming them, and owning them, Stereolab were now striking poses and hiding behind a wall of production sheen.  And I say that as a fan of the album.  One can't deny that it divided opinions at the time.  On stage, things were simpler -- they rocked.  The songs on the album erupted with infectious grooves that the studio versions lacked, and the early stuff ("French Disko", "Wow and Flutter", "The Seeming and the Meaning" sounded better than ever.  They'd been playing these songs long enough to iron out all the rough edges from the early years.  Stereolab were now a razor sharp, tightly synchronized unit, finally at a level that matched their motorik heroes.    

In Volume 5, Stereolab reached their peak as a live act.  Recorded in 2001-2 during the "Sound Dust" tours, this is the closest they ever got to replicating Can: metronomic drumming locked in a singular groove with the bass, rhythmic churning guitar becoming an additional percussion instrument, a perfect meshing of their two lead vocalists with the music.  The songs on "Sound Dust" (arguably their most underrated album) are captivating, otherworldly pop and each one seems to shift gears halfway through, like an album full of "A Day In the Life"s.  In concert, the band were completely up to the task of making these complex songs flow seamlessly from one extreme to another.  They ditched the frivolous electronics and achieved perfect synchronization, could break into a soothing French lullaby just as easily as they could rock out on a furious extended jam.  They never sounded this tight and professional, either before or since. 

Volume 6 spans 2004-2008 and everything sounds the same, but different.  The tragic death of Mary Hansen shook the band to its foundations.  Her contributions were not replaced, for instance, in these recordings, many of her vocal parts on the older songs are simply missing.  In addition, Tim Gane and Laetitia Sadier ended their relationship around the same time.  It's a minor miracle that Stereolab continued as a band at all.  They remained a solid, professional live act but there was a spark missing.  To my surprise, they found that spark in 2006 by touring the "Fab Four Suture" songs, which is an album I had never heard until hearing this live set.  This is as raw and grimy as Stereolab can get, each song is infused with a post-punk like energy unlike anything they had done before.  This material never entered into their regular live sets, and coupled with older rarities (e.g. "U.H.F. - MHP" from "The Groop Played Space Age Bachelor Pad Music", which was never played before this tour and hasn't been played since), it offers us a one-time alternative universe version of the band.  

Volume 7 is dedicated to the 2019 reunion.  They have slipped a tad, Laetitia Sadier's voice isn't quite what it used to be, and they play more tentatively.  At this point in their career, they don't need to take risks, they simply need to present the best possible version of themselves to older fans and newer fans who never had a chance to see them.  It doesn't detract from their legacy, but it doesn't add anything to it either.  

----------------------------------

"The CD will slowly kill one's spontaneity, indeed, every time it is played, it reduces the opportunity to participate in the event.  One hears the exact same development again and again, a fact which encourages a passive listening attitude"

I have written that the extended jams and improvisational moments are hit and miss, but the above quote reminds us that they were never meant for repeated home listening, they were spontaneous musical expressions meant to be enjoyed exclusively in the concert hall.  In their proper context they were thrilling and rarely excessive.  They were usually played at the end of a set packed with shorter, poppier songs.  As counterweights to the bulk of their songs, these epic jams gave the band and audience a chance to zone out and get lost in the music. Even the Mouse On Mars/electronic squiggle era made sense in their late 90's context.  These were musical experiments that were worth trying out. 

Is this seven volume set a fair representation of Stereolab?  I think so, although Serge Celibidache's quote gives me pause.  The complete set totals 232 tracks and about twenty hours worth of music.  The breadth of material is astonishing, covering dozens of deep cuts and miscellaneous tracks that weren't on their albums.  Stereolab were famous for being a record collector's dream, releasing many limited edition EP's, standalone singles, and tour singles (i.e. music sold at the merch booth at their concerts and nowhere else) and this collection of live tracks manages to cover just about every niche and dark corner of their career.  Sure, there are far too many versions of "Percolator", but who cares when there are so many other rare and wonderful tracks included.  The sheer volume of great material, spread over a couple of decades of incredibly varied creativity, is enough to offset an alleged loss of spontaneity through overfamiliarity.   

Friday, May 27, 2022

Andy Fletcher RIP

This feels like a turning point for the blog and possibly my music fandom.  It's the day I have to eulogize a member of my favourite ever band.  Every generation reaches the point where the bands you grew up with gradually fade from relevance, and then fade away forever.  

Tributes have been pouring in for the past two days, praising his contributions to the band.  But prior to this week, you probably had to be a die hard Depeche Mode fan (fortunately there are tens of millions of these) to appreciate what Fletch brought to the table.  He wasn't the singer, or the songwriter, or the lyricist, and wasn't much of a musician.  He wasn't the hidden hand who guided the band aesthetically or ideologically.  Watch the "101" documentary and you'll see shot after shot of a smiling Fletch, looking proud yet awkward in skin tight spandex, dancing behind his keyboard, surveying the crowd, not doing much of any importance.  In recent promo shots, Gahan and Gore still have rock star swagger to spare, whereas Fletch is the grumpy uncle who crashed the photo shoot.  

The best longform Depeche Mode article I ever read is a very famous two parter from the NME, written by Gavin Martin and published on September 18 and 25, 1993 during the Devotional tour.  It's the definitive document of DM's most debauched period.  Gahan's brush with death a few years later is cruelly foreshadowed.  A theme of the article is the open speculation that Gahan wouldn't make it through the tour (he did, and IIRC, didn't miss a single show).  Near the end, a DM insider speaks about the frontman's troubles, while flatly stating that "[Gahan] must know that if it wasn't for Martin there'd be no songs, if it wasn't for Alan the records wouldn't sound the way they do, and if it wasn't for Fletch there probably wouldn't be any money."  

That basically sums it up.  Fletch had settled into a manager type of role (although he hated the word and wouldn't use it to describe himself), handling a semi-infinite list of minute yet crucial details, not the least of which was keeping the peace between the band members.  He took a leave of absence from the band and sat out the Summer 1994 leg of the tour, but was otherwise a constant presence for over 40 years.  But look again at that quote.  Alan Wilder left the band and what happened?  They continued making great albums and toured even bigger stadiums.  Martin Gore's monopoly on the songwriting was later broken and the band still thrived, they still sounded exactly like Depeche Mode.  But without Fletch?  As of this writing, most observers are pessimistic about the band continuing.  He was the glue, the stabilizing presence.  He was the legitimizer, when he was around DM was a band and not an interlude between various solo projects.  

He was the steady hand through it all.  An unlikely teen idol in the 80's, steering the band through the troubled waters of the 90's as they reached the zenith of their coolness, and ensuring they stayed on as a commercial powerhouse well into the 21st century.  By all accounts he was a loyal friend with hardly a trace of a rock star ego, even though he'd toured the world many times over.  How many teen mag regulars from the 80's survived that decade, without ever breaking up, while remaining relevant, and without gloryhogging their way into a reunion tour years later when the 80's because cool again?  Depeche Mode's career was a black swan, and we'll never see the likes of it again.      

Tuesday, May 24, 2022

Colin Davis' Boston Symphony Orchestra Sibelius cycle

Long considered one of the very finest Sibelius symphony cycles, I recently picked this up and wanted to share my thoughts on it.  Until now, I owned only Symphony #2 on a single disc, and had heard #5 separately via streaming.  In both cases, I thought they were solid and very well played, but neither really moved me.  


Symphony #1.  This immediately summons thoughts of swirling winds and heavy snow, conjuring visions of cruel nature that usually don't appear until later in Sibelius' career.  Normally, this comes off as Sibelius' most fiery, romantic symphony, with frequent comparisons to Tschaikovsky.  Davis attempts to thematically connect this early symphony with later ones, and while he certainly succeeded, for me the music is sorely underplayed, with winds and horned suppressed and an over-reliance on (admittedly stunning) strings sonority.  Full points for the inspiration and execution, but very much lacking in excitement.


Symphony #2.  I can't fault the technical work by the orchestra here, but once again I find this to be much underplayed and lacking in excitement.  The first two movements are played relatively quickly, which is a good thing because nothing drives this symphony into dreadful tedium more than lagging tempos, particularly in the slow movement.   But the fourth movement stagnates out of the gate with a brutally slow tempo, and the horns fail to bring the piece to life near the end.  There is little sense of urgency or hard won triumph that usually concludes the piece.  Some might prefer to hear Sibelius 2 with its more patriotic aspects toned down (this is also true of Davis' very ho-hum "Finlandia"), but it's not for me.  


Symphony #3.  This is Sibelius'  most classical symphony, and in my view, the cheeriest and most  difficult to reconcile stylistically with the rest of the works in the cycle.  But Davis drags it into the swirling void and it actually works.  This is a hefty, weighty version that perfectly bridges the bombast of the second with the melancholy of the fourth.  A very pleasant surprise.


Symphony #4.  Considering the bleakness of the third, I was expected total devastation from Davis with the fourth.  Vanska would eventually get there with his Lahti cycle a couple of decades later.  Vanska understood how to pull out all the gnarly, gritty details in this symphony.  Davis' version, like everything in this cycle so far, is wonderfully played but a bit too polished for the mood the music demands, and for what I was expecting based on his interpretations to this point.   


Symphony #5.  The unique vibrato achieved by the BSO's brass section is supposedly an acquired taste. I found it shrill and distracting in the first movement, which takes forever to get rolling and is then rudely interrupted by the piercing tones of the brass.  Fortunately, things get much better from there.  The second movement is unsentimental, perfectly paced, and nicely balanced within the orchestra.  In the third movement, Davis drives the orchestra at a blistering tempo.  This is how Sibelius wrote it, but most conductors and orchestras don't try (or can't) sustain the pace.  It's a heart-pounding start to the finale and barely slows down leading into the swan theme.  Clearly Davis wants the entire finale to sound breathless almost until the end, and while overall it's quicker than I'd like, again I can't fault the vision and execution.    


Symphony #6.  Oddly enough, this comes off as the cheeriest symphony of the bunch, mainly because it's blazing fast, clocking at around 25 minutes whereas most conductors take around 30.  Instead of starting out light in the first movement and gradually slowing to a crawl as the symphony proceeds (with a respite in the third movement), Davis gradually accelerates as he goes.  The final movement is unexpectedly bouncy and light, with nary a touch of grimness even in the final minutes.  Much like the third symphony, Davis conceptualizes the work as a bridge between the sweeping grandiosity of the fifth and the taut efficiency of the seventh.  Davis' sixth comes across very much like a single movement piece with its uniformity in phrasing and tempo.  This symphony way overdelivered for me.  

A major reason why I became so attached to Sibelius' symphonies is their malleability.  The same work can be happy or sad, patriotic or grim, delicate or heavy, containing a menu of polar opposites that can expressed within the same piece of music.  There is no better justification for collecting multiple versions or cycles by the same composer, and Davis' version of the sixth is a perfect example of this.    


Symphony #7.  As I expected after hearing the sixth, this symphony flows consistently and energetically, and the momentum never lags.  I found it a bit lacking in dynamics range -- the highs are never too high and the lows never too low, the climaxes are a bit underplayed, and the softer parts aren't given enough room to breathe.  It's a strong effort but not in the upper tier of sevenths I've heard, although once more I can't fault the playing or the execution.


Overall, this is an inspired cycle, and even though each interpretation isn't to my taste, Davis' vision for each symphony is clearly on display.  He has a concept for how the cycle should evolve, sticks to it, and executes it flawlessly.  For comparison, Berglund's Bournemouth cycle is still my favourite, as it represents the apotheosis of these symphonies played in a wide range of styles by a large, overpowering orchestra.  The bulk of Davis' cycles is great, but lacks moments that send chills down my spine, something that Berglund does repeatedly.      

Wednesday, May 18, 2022

"Bohemian Rhapsody", dir. Bryan Singer, Dexter Fletcher

Many biopics are just an excuse to place the viewer in the moment.  Elements of great moviemaking such as character development and engaging dialogue are tossed by the wayside in favour of providing a big budget immersive "fly on the wall" experience for the viewing public.  "Bohemian Rhapsody" is all that and more.  Rami Malek's performance is electrifying and thoroughly believable, even though he has hardly any memorable scenes or lines in the entire movie.  Essentially he won the Oscar for being the best possible Freddie Mercury impersonator.

The first half of the movie is perfectly fine, if a bit simplistic.  Freddie is presented as a fairly run of the mill rebel who rejects everything that his parents stand for.  The truth is more complicated but it's the simplified Hollywood version, and that's OK.  His relationship with Mary Austin is beautifully explored and is by far the best thing about the movie.  Mike Myers makes an amusing cameo as an EMI executive, complete with the obligatory tongue-in-cheek "Wayne's World" reference.  The second half descends into every "Behind the Music" episode and cliche that you're ever seen, and frequently insults one's intelligence.  The most egregious scene is where Freddie brings Jim to meet his parents and brag about doing Live Aid.  The tears flow on camera and every running conflict in the movie is resolved in preposterous fashion in the space of a few minutes.  Freddie triumphantly declaring that he's doing good deeds and helping to heal the world (thus earning his father's acceptance) is simply grotesque in its arrogance considering the oft-cited criticism of Live Aid, i.e. that the real benefactors were the mega-rich musicians who got even richer thanks to the publicity they received from playing at the concert.  The movie goes out of its way to (unintentionally, I assume) prove those critics right, seeing as the Live Aid set is the climactic scene that the whole movie builds toward, and is firmly presented as Queen's finest moment.   

Wednesday, May 04, 2022

The CEO plays Chopin

An article on Bloomberg about a recently founded for-profit orchestra really rubbed me the wrong way.  It's a free advertisement masking as journalism, with absolutely no analysis or attempts to dig even slightly below the surface of its subjects.   

At first glance it all sounds very exciting.  In contrast to orchestras that survive thanks to arts grants and donations, all while struggling to retain their relevance in an exceedingly crowded entertainment market, here is an orchestra that is refreshingly run like a actual company, with stockholders and everything.  And they plan to turn a profit right from the start!  

How is it possible?  You have to read between the lines to get even a semblance of how it will work.  What do these people know that hundreds of top orchestras in the world have yet to figure out?  The JNO will offer a subscription-style membership service and a premium membership tier to enhance the fan experience.  That's a great way to bring in money, and is presented in the article as something remarkable and novel, but plenty of other orchestras also do that.  The key, I believe, comes from this line: "...operating an orchestra is relatively simple because most of the expenditures are labor costs."  So there you go, as much as they want to present themselves as fair employers paying out "millions of yen in annual remuneration depending on [the musicians'] contribution", the business model is simply to underpay the players compared to what they'd earn from a publicly funded orchestra.  

Presumably the musicians' could also supplement their income through the one-on-one or group tutorials that the JNO will offer its subscribers.  There may be some innovation there, but it could also be little more than a glorified Cameo for classical music fans.  Either way, the JNO will be sure to take its cut out of every appearance.     


Wednesday, April 27, 2022

Klaus Tennstedt's LPO Mahler cycle

My collection of Mahler recordings has stretched into the dozens, with multiple versions of each of his symphonies.  I found myself increasingly drawn to the work of Klaus Tennstedt, mainly based on the incendiary live versions that can be easily found on youtube and elsewhere.  Tennstedt was known as a master of the standard German repetoire, but there was a certain magic to be found when he conducted Mahler with the London Philharmonic.  The LPO was considered the third or maybe fourth best orchestra just in London, whereas Tennstedt, while great, had a lot of competition when it came to the German masterpieces he specialized in.  But the whole was better than the sum of the parts.  The synchronicity between orchestra and conductor was often something to behold, on any given night, this highly motivated group of performers could elevate themselves to being the greatest orchestra in the world playing the finest music ever composed.  

I have gradually been making my way through the entire set, some sixteen CD's worth.  Audiophile note: I bought this set through iTunes, so I listened on 320 kbps mp3's, with the exception of the 8th Symphony, which I have on CD.  


Symphony #1

A disappointing start.  The first movement is slow and tense, but comes across as too passive and underplayed for my taste.   The second movement is light and playful but fairly forgettable, and the third movement gets bogged down by its leisurely tempos and lack of momentum.  This reveals a problem that will recur multiple times during this cycle.  During the inner movements, which often don't build to huge, world-resolving climaxes, Tennstedt can get a bit lost in the plot.  But in his defense, this is a studio phenomenon that didn't happen during his live performances.  In front of an audience, Tennstedt would go all out and the music never lost its sense of purpose.  The fourth movement again drags, and although the final minutes are well played, the payoff can't redeem the symphony as a whole. 

 

Symphony #2 

The first movement snarls and growls, this is a truly heavy funeral march, and its brutally maudlin character is a quality that is lacking in many conductor's performances.  The tension is sustained wonderfully throughout the movement.  The second movement is delightful and again sticks closely to the script intended by Mahler, conjuring up youthful memories from long ago.  The third movement is playful but fairly nondescript, but serves as a setup for the glorious final two movements.  The finale runs nearly 35 minutes, one of the longer recorded finales in the Mahler catalog, but never drags or grows stagnant.  Tennstedt keeps the music flowing wonderfully -- extraordinarily difficult at such a slow tempo -- but builds unbearable tension even during the quieter moments.  In the hands of lesser conductors these quieter moments induce boredom and grind the symphony to a halt well before the finish.  Despite the long runtime, nothing is overwrought or exaggerated.  Tennstedt knows how to extract maximum emotion from nearly every moment.  In live performance, Tennstedt could be even more incendiary, but its easy to see why this was one of his signature pieces even from the studio recording.   


Symphony #3

The first movement is dark, schizophrenic, and masterfully intense.  This is followed by its near opposite, the light and lyrical minuetto of the second movement.  The third movement, the scherzando, is another triumph, a dreamlike gothic folk  number unfurling in slow motion.  The vocal movements then provide an oasis of calm leading up to the finale, particularly the hymn-like fifth movement.  The finale is almost unbearably tense, not as explosive as the live version from Minnesota that inspired me to finally buy this set, but riveting all the same.  Again, Tennstedt was more in his element performing this live, where he could have a complete emotional commitment to the music, staying constantly in the moment on account of the audience. He was a conductor who undoubtedly lost some of that focus while hammering things out for days in recorded setting.   


Symphony #4 

The first movement walks a careful and difficult balance between smooth and sentimental (in its first half), while flipping the switch to become rocky and unsettling in the second part.  The whole symphony kind of wavers between these extremes, which is strange for Tennstedt who usually carries a more consistent vision of Mahler's work.  It's as if he was undecided between two different takes on the music, or perhaps the consistency was broken between different recording sessions.   The third movement (Adagio) is beautifully played with a heart stopping final climax.  In all this symphony is a fine effort, although its two-faced nature did leave me feeling somewhat empty and confused.  


Symphony #5

Often cited as one of the great performances in this cycle, this is a dramatic, gripping account of the fifth.  I have a problematic relationship with this symphony, it's Mahler's busiest and longest (in terms of bars), and unfortunately I find myself exhausted by the end of the third movement unless it's a more flowing, lyrical reading such as Barbirolli's.  The first and last movements are explosive, but I found the third movement (scherzo) to be a bit meandering, and not as punchy or forceful as Tennstedt seems to be going for.  The fourth movement, the famous Adagietto is beautifully played, but too slow for my tastes, although many would disagree.  Overall this is a memorable account of the fifth, albeit a long and draining one, but again, that's my typical reaction to most versions of this symphony.


Symphony # 6 

Once again, Tennstedt nails the outer movements.  The first movement is everything you'd want -- bludgeoning, terrifying, the foreteller of impending doom.  The second movement (the Scherzo in Tennstedt's treatment) makes less of an impression, it's an extended bridge to the third movement but not much more.  The third movement (Andante) is simply gorgeous, among the very best I've heard.  In other versions, this is often the flat movement of the symphony for me, serving as a pause before the epic final movement.  With Tennstedt, it's the love theme for the doomed hero, like something out of a Hollywood tragedy.  

As for the final movement, the challenge for the conductor, in my view, is to maintain the momentum after the hammer blows.  He or she needs to smoothly, inexorably transition to the fateful conclusion, while avoiding the whiff of a huge anti-climax following the second hammer blow.  Tennstedt inverts this typical situation.  I found the passages leading to the hammer blows to be underplayed, leading to a searing final fifteen minutes that does not disappoint.    


Symphony #7 

Through the first two movements, this symphony was a big miss for me.  The first movement is too forced, too grandiose, like an extenstion of the 6th merely plugged into the Tennstedt formula.  It loses much of the offbeat kookiness that characterizes far better versions of this symphony.  The third movement, the scherzo, brings back some of the humour and nearly saves the symphony, and the fourth movement (Andante) is sympathetic, touching.  But the final movement, the Rondo Finale, once again plays it too straight, opting for more formulaic drama rather than madcap chaos. 


Symphony # 8 

I have never really connected with Mahler 8, which is less of a standard symphony than a drama set to music.  It's notoriously difficult to perform, with a million different things going on and the conductor trying to reign in the mayhem rather than truly shape the interpretation.  But undoubtedly, Tennstedt's version is the most effortless that I have heard.  This symphony trips up even the greatest Mahler conductors, and getting to the end can feel like a huge struggle, where the conductor forgets that they're dealing with a work of art and merely tries to maintain the orchestra's focus and will them to the finish.  Tennstedt makes it all sound easy.  This is hardly my favourite symphony but the quality of this performance can't be denied.


Symphony #9 

This performance is very understated throughout, and the shifts in mood seem to frequently confound Tennstedt.  The first movement starts out fiery, but then Tennstedt gets lost for about ten minutes in the middle.  This is a rare case in this cycle where the very slow tempo (run time of the first movement = 33 minutes) is a serious detriment.  The same can be said for the second movement, which begins energetically, only for the intensity to gradually trail off.  Tennstedt's slow, dramatic style doesn't fit the first three movements' schizophrenic struggle between the calm and the storm, which is most noticeable in the third movement.  The build to its climax should be frenetic, anxious, with the conductor instilling panic in the performance while not losing control of the orchestra.  Tennstedt solves this by simply taking things slow, the jaunty feel of the music doesn't pack the right emotional punch.  In the final movement (Adagio), the string sonority is too loose and sloppy.  The final minutes are meant to sound like the last gasps of life, but here the music simply trails off and vanishes with a benign whimper.  Soft climaxes were clearly not Tennstedt's strong suit.  


Symphony #10 (unfinished)

Tennstedt plays only the Adagio, but as was the case with the ninth, the sense of purpose is muddled without a towering climax as his destination.  


In all, this is clearly a set with its flaws, the biggest of which may be the fundamental notion that just about everyone's favourite Tennstedt will be from a live version rather than one of these studio versions.  Nevertheless, this cycle is well worth owning, the passion and inspiration that Tennstedt felt for the music is evident even during the weaker parts.       

Monday, March 28, 2022

Jeopardy Music Expert

Last year I paid almost no attention to new releases.  The only album I listened to multiple times was Low's "Hey What".  

This year I haven't heard a single new album.  Only two have caught my radar: Tears For Fears' "The Tipping Point" (a remarkable comeback story) and Beach House's "Once Twice Melody" (new double album by my favourite band of the past decade).  

Between two small kids at home who tend to wake up early, catching up on work in the evenings, and general exhaustion, I haven't made a new mix in over a year.  The mixes and podcasts will eventually return, because this thing called life is a long haul process, and this is the so-called diary that documents it.  I am hopelessly out of touch with all things techno, having long since given up my BPM Supreme membership and not finding the time to search new tracks and EP's from sites like Beatport.  

However, I'm more than happy to continue buying classical music on iTunes and scrolling through dusty CD bins.  Classical music is still where I find 90% of my musical inspiration these days.  Classical blogs and forums make up the bulk of my exposure to music crit. There is a parallel universe of great albums that I'm decades late in discovering -- who has time for new releases (even classical ones)?  I have no idea how fans find the time to hear 70 CD boxes of material (everything is boxed up relatively cheap it seems), although right now I am finding the time to sort through about 20 hours of live Stereolab recordings (stay tuned!) so perhaps the answer is staring me in the face.  

Music categories on Jeopardy usually center on 80's and 90's material, roughly coinciding with the age and knowledge expertise of most contestants, and I typically ace them.  Contemporary music clues pose a greater challenge.  I didn't know the Grammys had been postponed because of Omicron until I had to look it up while writing this post.  So this is my role these days.  Expert on easy music trivia on an otherwise very challenging trivia show.  In that world, I can still get away with looking like a music savant.  

I wish I had more to write about this days (and/or mixes to post) but freeing myself from any and all trends and buzz-worthy topics means I'm even more unencumbered and can deep dive into thirty years of Stereolab recordings (coming soon!) or Mahler cycles (yep!) without being concerned about its immediate (or long-term) relevance.  As always, I do it for me.