Thursday, November 25, 2021

The Buchmann-Mehta School of Music Symphony Orchestra Conducted by Maestro Lahav Shani

This was the first post-COVID major performance for this orchestra, and everyone involved was thrilled and relieved to return to some semblance of normal performance practice.  This season opening performance presented a varied program featuring strong soloists, full of hits and very few misses.

The first piece, Tchaikovsky's "Rococo Variations" featuring cellist Jan Bogdan, featured some tentative playing by the orchestra, although this soloist's playing couldn't be faulted.  The next piece, Ibert's Flute Concerto featuring Avishai Srugo, demanded more playing from the orchestra, and they were up to the task.  Sometimes a dull accompanying part during a concerto makes for a complacent orchestra.  I loved this flute concerto, it is a modern piece (composed in 1934) full of vibrant, unconventional melodies and strained notes that stretch the range of the instrument in eye-opening ways.

After the break, soprano Yaara Atias performed two arias, the first (Mozart's "Se il padre perdei") was simply fine, but the second (Donizetti's "Il faut partir") was superlative and elicited strong reactions from the audience.  Finally, the full orchestra took the stage for Debussy's "La Mer", which was excellent and superbly conducted by Lahav Shani.  His somewhat underplayed Mahler 1 actually built my anticipation for this performance even more.  The things I didn't like about his Mahler (deliberate tempo and pacing, milking the slower, atmospheric parts) are perfect for "La Mer", and it didn't dissappoint.   

Saturday, November 13, 2021

Opening of the Israel Philharmonic's 85th Anniversary Festivities

The IPO came up with a genius marketing plot to offer a first rate concert for the bargain price of 85 NIS as part of their 85th anniversary celebrations.  The absurdly low price guaranteed a packed house and an eclectic crowd.  On this night, the Bronfman Auditorium may have been the hippest spot to be seen in the city.    

I took immediately to "Prayer For String Orchestra", feeling the music's drawn out, solemn passages in my bones.  The composer of the work, Tzvi Avni, walked on stage for a bow at the conclusion of the piece in a very touching moment.  The next piece, Alphons Diepenbrock's "Im grossen Schweigen" (with Matthias Goerne performing the baritone solo), didn't connect with me in the same way, the lyrics cry out against to the loneliness of nature, but the music leaves me with little of that intended desperation or passion.     

Gustav Mahler's "Symphony No. 1" was beautifully played and elegantly conducted by Lahav Shani, but I found it underplayed in many key moments.  The third movement should alternate between a funereal lullaby and a folksy, slightly absurdist dance, but Shani played it as a rather straightforward slow movement.  I felt the symphony nearly ground to a halt around this point, although he did manage to pull things back together nicely for the second half of the fourth movement, leading to a suitably spectacular finale.  

Friday, October 22, 2021

Bernard Haitink RIP, and is classical music worthless?

When I was first encountering recorded classical music in the 1980's (mainly on cassette tape!), Haitink and von Karajan were the default conductors, their names were on practically anything.  Both enjoyed long and exceedingly prolific careers, and indeed made it a point to record just about everything of note in the standard repertoire, often multiple times.  Recently, I was shocked to discover that he was still actively conducting at age 90, his skills very much intact.    

Just yesterday I was listening to Haitink's recording of Shostakovich's 15th Symphony, coupled with the song cycle "From Jewish Folk Poetry".  In this instance, the "B-side" outshines the main event, Haitink had a sympathetic ear for Jewish themes, his acclaimed recording of Shostakovich's 13th Symphony providing another example.  Haitink reportedly claimed he got his breaks in the music industry only because of better talents being lost to the Holocaust.  That's a debt that can never be repaid, but I'd like to think that he had a mission to fulfill by recording historically fascinating compositions such as these.  "From Jewish Folk Poetry" is equal parts solemn lament and joyous celebration of life, Haitink was equally adept at conducting both styles.  

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Dave Hurwitz's latest rant, titled "How the industry made classical music worthless", goes to show that the music industry's follies transcend genres and span multiple generations of fans.  I agree that classical record companies made a ludicrous mistake by abandoning the prospects of mass marketing in the early 1950's, when every other major genre realized there were mountains of money to be made by selling records.  I wouldn't say that the music is worthless these days, but the reasons for the CD's decline is no different for classical music than for the other genres I've been writing about all these years.  Fans feel swindled by the record companies for paying inflated CD prices from the inception of the medium through the early 2000's.  Once CD burning technologies became installed in nearly every computer, and fans realized that their formerly exalted discs cost pennies to produce (but were routinely sold for upwards of $15-20), an entire generation of paying music fans were lost forever to filesharing and later streaming services.  

As noted by Hurwitz, multiple repackagings have exhausted even the most hardcore fans and diluted the market with inferior products -- this is certainly true for pop and rock as well.  Essentially the entire middle of the market has been hollowed out, leaving only the most dedicated fans willing to shell out money for special conversation pieces (180 gram vinyl re-releases with expanded artwork, Record Store Day exclusives, etc) and those who are happy to dabble in paid or free streaming services and have no use for a physical product.  

One could argue that Haitink and Karajan contributed to this by oversaturating the market and ruining things for future generations, but I personally would not (and not just out of respect for Haitink's recent passing).  Karajan supposedly sold hundreds of millions of records and is still a notable name more than thirty years after his death, he was unquestionably doing something right.   

Tuesday, October 12, 2021

The war against genres is over

I used to hate genre labels.  Privately, I wanted to hatch a master plan to eliminate them completely.  These labels are supposed to divide music into convenient, easily digestible categories, thereby directing the interested listener to what he or she wants to hear, for example, in helping you browse through large inventory in a music store.  However, my chief complaint was that genres actually misdirect people.  Cross pollination across genres had made simple categorization impossible and attempting to shoehorn everyone into a single genre was doing their art a disservice.  Fans had illogical and stupid negative associations with particular genres ("nobody listens to techno!" or  "I like everything except rap and country") that prevented listeners from exploring new types of music. The only solution, I thought, was to alphabetize everything and let the listeners work out what they wanted, free from the genre labels.  This would make the job of journalists and record store employees a bit harder, but would force them to earn their pay by describing the music more colourfully and making informed recommendations by drawing on their (alleged) wealth of experience.  

Twenty years later, and of course the world has changed.  Streaming radio based on algorithms, beginning with Pandora, were able to tailor their broadcasts to the personal taste of the listener.  Genre boundaries came crashing down as the program would collate the music you actually liked and remarkably got better at the task the more you listened.  These days, Google and Youtube recommendations are so advanced, they know my tastes better than I do a lot of the time.  Autoplay meets my approval far more often than not.  As we all know, brick and mortar stores have mostly faded away.  Apps can direct you to great music far better than any craggy record store clerk ever could.

My private war is now moot.  Lately, I enjoy comparing Spotify and Apple Music playlists. Spotify has more tantalizing moods and eclectic playlist ideas than I know what to do with.  A "shoegaze classics" playlist contains many of the usual suspects (but not always their most obvious tracks) but also a broad selection of lesser known bands.  It's a playlist far more steeped in deep cuts and I'm likely to get a few new (new to me) band recommendations each time I listen.  On the other hand, Apple's comparable playlist has a more straightforward selection of bands and songs, and seems to aim at linking fans of different groups rather than curating the best shoegaze songs.  For instance, The Cure's "Plainsong" isn't shoegaze in the least, but I don't know a single fan of the music who doesn't like The Cure, so it's a fair choice.  But Oasis' "Don't Look Back In Anger"?  That's a major algorithm fail.

Neither approach is intrinsically better.  Sometimes you prefer the hits, sometimes the more obscure stuff.  It's all good!   I approve of our computer overlords, etc. 


Wednesday, September 29, 2021

Beethoven's "Unfinished 10th Symphony"

The upcoming premiere of Beethoven's 10th symphony has been making headlines this week, I first learned about it through this feature at The Conversation.  

The article confuses more than it reveals.  It reads like a 1500 word pat on the back for doing something that is poorly defined and poorly described.  The main purpose of the article is to build anticipation for whatever this symphony turns out to be.  

In short, a team of AI researchers and musical consultants took some rough sketches of unfinished Beethoven compositions and attempted to shape them into a completed symphony.  Getting a computer to perform this task requires data, the more the better.  But the sketches contain barely any useful information in this regard, by definition they are incomplete and hardly representative of a completed Beethoven work.  Obviously the team had to rely on Beethoven's completed works to get a true sense of the composer's style.  In that case, what is being "completed" here?  This isn't the first time that computer scientists have trained computers to create music in the style of a famous composer.  If this project had been presented as a reinvention/reincarnation of Beethoven via computer, it would be fine.  But claiming to have completed an unfinished symphony has more sizzle.  

The phrase "Beethoven's creative process" or something to that affect appears six times in the piece, but I never had any inkling of what it is supposed to mean.  Did they teach the computer to throw temper tantums and yell at its programmers?  Is there really a linear, programmable way of extrapolating a piecemeal unfinished product into a polished, performable work?  The descriptions provided in the article are vague.  Usually AI uses the finished products as the inputs for the algorithm.    

Dave Hurwitz made a number of good points in his recent video rant on this article. First, he notes that the sketches they used weren't necessarily written for a symphony.  They were just that, sketches that could have developed into anything.  Assuming they were the basis for a new symphony is an unprovable assumption that is essential to the viability of the entire AI project.  Second, the AI team had to attempt to reproduce Beethoven's orchestration -- how exactly can you try to orchestrate like a deaf person?  Late in his life, were Beethoven's orchestration choices a byproduct of his genius, or inexcusable mistakes on account of his deafness?  There's no way to know.  Trying to sort this out via algorithm is not much more than a shot in the dark.  

The three minute advance clip of the symphony certainly sounds like Beethoven, a bit too much like Beethoven in fact.  It comes across like a variation on the 5th symphony with a dash of the 8th symphony's lighter moments.  There isn't one iota of the fury and pugnacity that appeared in the first movement of the 9th symphony, for instance.  I find it difficult to believe, based on Beethoven's progressions in his later symphonies, that he would have attempted to go retro for his much anticipated 10th.      

Thursday, August 26, 2021

Charlie Watts RIP

 The Rolling Stones' drummer was arguably the biggest paradox in rock.  He was a core member of inarguably the most successful (financially speaking) rock band of all time, even though he didn't particularly care for rock and roll.  In interviews, if you could manage to get him to speak about anything at length, it was most likely jazz.  The artistic and canonical worth of the Stones' music wasn't something he'd brag about.  Is there another musician who approached his level of success who cared so little about his musical "legacy"?  The guy just loved drumming, did a masterful job holding down the rhythm section for the Stones, but his passion was whatever jazz ensemble he was leading on the side between tours for Mick and Keith.

The Stones were known for debauchery, it was even used as a marketing counterpoint to the more clean cut Beatles in the early and mid-60's.  But Watts was as straight as an arrow, never fooled around on the road, stayed married to the same woman for nearly his entire tenure with the Stones.  He had some problems with drugs in the 80's but was otherwise above all the rest of the Stones-related gossip.  

Watts' work for the Stones was solid and unspectacular, but as a jazz aficionado you always got the feeling that he was "dumbing it down" to fit the relatively simple rhythms and fills of rock. His drumming looked powerful but never muscular.  With a nonplussed look on his face from the beginning to the end of their concerts, he made drumming for the Stones look smooth, classy, and effortless.

There have been many deaths in the Stones' circle over the years and the juggernaut always finds a way to continue.  They were already planning to tour without Watts even when he out sick.  I'm sure they'll be just as successful without Watts for as long as they plan on continuing.  But his loss will be felt deep.      

Tuesday, August 24, 2021

EMF, "Schubert Dip"

If you were a Britophile living in North America in the 90's, the story was a familiar one.   Once they'd had some success in the UK, the debate surrounding your new favourite band was always "will they break through in America"?  A couple of years later, when they were on their third album and fourth European tour, the debate parameters almost invariably shifted.  Stateside success was now considered a longshot at best, and the debate question became defeatist -- "why can't they break through in America"?  

When it came down to it, nobody had the answers to these questions.  Manchester bands were all the rage in the late 80's and early 90's, but outside of select college and alternative stations, their music wasn't heard on North American radio.  A few years later, Britpop reached its peak but the music didn't translate for American audiences.  Eventually, Oasis did sell four million copies of "What's the Story Morning Glory" in the US and Blur sold more than 600K of their self titled album.  Oasis were presented as a Beatles retread (hardly a product of the 90's) and Blur mainly sold grunge back to the country of its creation (nothing British about it at all).  The stuff that broke big was rarely what you would have expected or predicted.  

There were some fallow years for British indie music between those two mini-eras.  Jesus Jones were considered hopelessly uncool and not worth hyping in Britain.  But in the US?  "Right Here Right Now" was a major smash, the definitive fall of communism anthem, and reached #2 on the Billboard 100 (kept out of the top spot by Bryan Adams' never-ending run with "(Everything I Do) I Do It For You").  In contrast, it didn't come close to the top 10 in Britain or any European country.  Their album "Doubt" also went platinum in Canada and the US.  

Even more inexplicable was the success of EMF.  The uncoolest copycats to emerge from Madchesters' ashes released "Unbelievable" and somehow ended up with a #1 single on the Billboard 100 in July 1991.  The song was a worldwide hit, reaching the top ten in many European countries, but only reached #1 in the US.  A little bit of context: this was pre-Nirvana when most people under the age of 20 had little clue about "alternative" music, let alone alternative/dance/baggy groups from the UK.  However, C&C Music Factory's "Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now)" went to #1 that year too, surprising many by crossing over from underground dance clubs to the pop charts.  Londonbeat's "I've Been Thinking About You" also hit the top spot that year, as did PM Dawn's "Set Adrift on Memory Bliss".  So pop/house crossovers had a good year on the Billboard 100 in 1991.  Still, who could have possibly guessed that a band of miscreants from the Forest of Dean (where??) would soundtrack the American summer with a number one hit sandwiched between the biggest career successes of Paula Abdul and Bryan Adams?

I haven't heard the album "Schubert Dip" since around 1993, around the time that Britpop took off.  Even when it was released, it felt like an album very much of its time.  By 1993, EMF were practically a relic from ancient times.  But it's been nearly thirty years and the band have reunited three times, so the music remains somewhat timeless at least for some people.  

"Children", the opener, fits that description in spades.  Featuring the oft-used Madchester shuffle beat, acid-y squelches, and a shouty, energetic chorus, it's hard to conceptualize a more 1991-sounding song than this.  But it remains a chest-thumping triumph, and probably should have been an anthem.   "Long Summer Days" and "When You're Mine" are perfectly passable album track fodder that keep the energy level simmering along nicely.  

Then things take a turn towards the ridiculous with what was supposed to be a love song, "Travelling Not Running".  The laid back vibe actually ressembles the polished dance pop that New Order would overuse on "Republic" two years later.  The effortless, acerbic charm that characterizes even the worst New Order songs is nowhere to be found though, the song has no reason to exist other than to show a more serious, sensitive side to the band.  The lyrics are sub-sub-Sumner-ian at best.  The chorus begins: "I could have been, anything for you/I could have been old/I could have been blue."  Read all the lyrics for yourself, nearly every line is a howler.   The next track, "I Believe", is a Madchester paint-by-numbers song that fills out the first side of the album and nothing more.

The next two seconds of music you'll hear are a giant wake-up call -- the half-shouted, half-moaned "OHH", clanging cowbell, gurgling bass, and squealing guitar are the intro to their deservedly huge hit single.  Four ideas that could have clashed horribly but somehow fit perfectly.  The "Paid In Full" beat, the awkward rap, the Andrew Dice Clay samples, the false endings -- all could have come off as silly cliches, but never do.  "Unbelievable" is the sound of a naive band piling all their best ideas into one song and hitting a home run with their eyes closed. 

"Girl Of An Age" is the downtempo teen angst-y track that "Travelling Not Running" tried to be.  You won't find anything profound in EMF's lyrics, but this is a uncomplicated near-ballad that is an effective comedown after "Unbelievable"'s euphoria.  The rest of the album, "Admit It", "Lies", and "Longtime" are mostly padding.  You could call "Schubert Dip" the proverbial great EP stretched out into an album.  EMF obviously knew what kind of band they wanted to be with this album, but they clearly didn't have enough great songs to actually fill an album.

So overall, "Schubert Dip" in 2021 was exactly what I expected -- a perfectly listenable and completely of its time album.  Their ambition still shines through nearly thirty years later, even if the execution couldn't come close to match. Before 90's music became dour, before emo, before grunge, EMF were all about dancing and fun and you still enjoy that in quick doses even today.    

Sunday, July 04, 2021

"Rocketman", dir. Dexter Fletcher (2019)

 My earliest memories of Elton John are from the era of "I Guess That's Why They Call It the Blues" and "I'm Still Standing", that is, the MTV-ready, suburbia-approved, flamboyance-lite version of Elton.  To this day, Elton prancing on the beach in Cannes in the video for "I'm Still Standing" is my default likeness of him, and the juxtaposition between that Elton and the mythical chameleon-like creature who became a megastar in the 70's has informed my opinion of him ever since.  Incidentally, the same is true for David Bowie, who made a similar about face around the same time.   

It thus turns out that my memories begin where "Rocketman" ends, with Taron Egerton digitally inserted into the "I'm Still Standing" video in place of Elton.  It's the exact point when every VH1 "Behind The Music" episode ends, with the return to prominence to conclude the artist's redemption arc.  I can understand why they chose this plot structure for the movie, because who doesn't root for a happy ending?  

As a piece of art, however, there's very little substance here.  Most of the characters are caricatures of record producers, managers, even Elton's wife Renate comes across like a naive simpleton during the few minutes she's on screen.  The plot proceeds in bullet point form, providing only the barest of relevant details designed to set up the intro to the next song.  Dialogue and the relationships between characters are minor interludes while we wait for the music to start up again.  Perhaps, with the success of totally vacuous movie musicals like "Mamma Mia", that's what people really want.

The interactions between Egerton and Jamie Bell as Bernie Taupin are the exceptions, the rare moments when two real human beings were navigating through a set of complex emotions on screen.  There's a scene when somebody praises Elton by effusing about how much the songs speak to them, essentially saying "I feel like I really know you".  Elton more than anyone knew that he was the vessel for Taupin's words.  For a person who spent most of his life to that point searching for his identity, dressing up daily in a land of make believe love and celebrity that revolved around him, that was a bitter pill to swallow.  

The best scene in the movie, and the only one truly approaching high art, is the "Rocket Man" episode, where Elton tries to drown himself in his LA pool.  He's snatched from the pool bottom, loaded into an ambulance, and in one fell swoop (accompanied by dancing paramedics) thrust onto the stage in Dodger stadium wearing a sequin covered baseball uniform.  Those five minutes perfectly encapsulated the illogical excesses of the time.

A better movie about Elton would have focused on a single year of his life in the mid-70's, a blow by blow examination of the madness that could have taken its cues from "Almost Famous" rather than "Behind the Music".  

Thursday, July 01, 2021

Jane Bordeaux, live at Shoham Arts Centre (26/06)

 This was my first post-pandemic concert and it was in a most unlikely place -- a cultural centre in the small city of Shoham.  Surprisingly, the Tel Aviv alt-country hipster vibe translated well to the more upscale suburban population of this town.  And it couldn't have been easy for the band -- with the mask mandate back in place over the weekend, they were faced with a wall of expressionless, masked clones with which to engage with.

Jane Bordeaux are a charming, professional bunch, but I actually find their Americana-drenched songs about heartbreak and whiskey fairly unconvincing.  They're at their best when they delve into sleepy dreampop, more akin to early Beach House.  I'm sure most of their fans (and even perhaps the band themselves) would strongly disagree.  Nevertheless, their perfectly paced 75-minute set was filled with highs and ended with a sweet singalong to the Beatles' "All You Need Is Love".  Tough to find a better band to ease out of a pandemic with -- slowly, gracefully, and without much fanfare.  

Monday, June 21, 2021

Flaming Lips, "The Time Has Come to Shoot You Down ... What a Sound"

Like most fans who grew up adoring the Stone Roses' debut album, I was prepared to hate this track-by-track 2013 remake by Flaming Lips and a motley crew of guest collaborators.  But instead I found it a charming, even mildly ambitious take on the original album.   All hints of the swagger and arrogance of the Roses have disappeared, buried under layers of bleepy electronica and blissed out dream pop.  That could be viewed as a positive depending on your views of the Roses.  Arrogance can be easily construed as a negative, even in the context of rock and roll.  I prefer to frame it as belief.  Bands that emerge fully formed on their debut albums exude a tangible belief in the concept and vision for the band, despite their reluctance (or even failure) to conform to the norms of their time.  The Velvet Underground had it on their debut album, Joy Division had it, Guns N Roses had it.  Anyway, all of that is missing on the Flaming Lips versions.  But the melodies, if anything, shine through even stronger, and the sound palate is far wider. 

It's the Flaming Lips, so of course there are silly, unnecessary excesses.  "Waterfall" doesn't need to switch moods and vocalists midway through, shifting from pretty bedroom pop into screechy noise.  "She Bangs The Drums" is progressing just fine before devolving into an embarrassing space movie electronic squelch-fest.  On the other hand, "Bye Bye Badman" was the throwaway track on the Roses album, but FL transform it into an echo-laden, shimmering, sun-drenched anthem.  "Sugar Spun Sister" unexpectedly turns into a minor epic thanks to a gorgeous ambient shoegaze intro leading into a wonderfully hazy mess that's straight out of "Lovelee Sweet Darlene"-era MBV.  "Shoot You Down", one of the weaker tracks on the original album, turns into a storming 80's synth pop.  Beneath the huge gated drums sound and the twinkly looping synths, you can almost believe it was meant to be a love song.