Thierry Escaich at Boston AGO 2014

The second recital I attended by a “major” artist at the Boston 2014 AGO Convention was, to say the least, when not disappointing, infuriating. Thierry Escaich, the organist who succeeded Maurice Duruflé (1902-1986) at Sainte-Étienne-du-Mont in Paris presented us with a programme consisting of his own works interspersed among others at the Basilica and Shrine of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, aka Mission Church.. I must say, things got off to a pretty good start with the early Brahms (1833-1897) Prelude and Fugue in g. First off, it’s good to hear this piece; Brahms was always first a craftsman even early on (viz., the the two Serenades for orchestra, the three piano sonatas, Piano Trio in B); and that he did have a fondness for the organ. M. Escaich gave a dynamic and clearly articulated performance, if a little monochromatic. Even his performance of Brahms’ choral-prelude on Herzliebster Jesu, Op. 122 #2 was a very smooth performance, albeit, again rather inexpressive and not phrased.

Then things began to deteriorate rapidly: beginning with his own Étude-Choral #3, on the above chorale. What can I say other than it was bountifully dreadful. To go into a description of what was essentially a writing out of one of his improvisations would be a total waste of time. All I can say is that even some of the most angular music I’ve heard that is base on a chorale or hymn or some other tune still affords the listener somewhere in the piece a comprehensible statement of the theme. Evidently M. Escaich doesn’t believe in such things.

Bach did show up on this recital with a completely bland, totally monotonous performance of “In dir ist Freude,” BWV 615 from Orgelbüchlein. I didn’t think it was possible to do that with this sparkling miniature. I love this little gem. It’s one of those pieces you can’t stop practising because it is so much fun to play. There are so many opportunities for colour and expression in this piece; and well, M. Escaich did his best to make it sure that didn’t happen. He started off with one sound, organo pleno, and even through all the repeats did not make one change. Moreover, there was no attempt distinguish one phrase from another. Everything was articulated — or should I say non-articulated — same way from beginning to end. He made a very cheery piece about as lugubrious as a dirge.

Then, next we were treated to another one of his wantonly ugly Étude-Chorals. This time it was #1, based on “Adeste Fidelis.” Again, I could barely determine the melody from all the dissonant filigree. I’m all in favour of disguising a tune at first or even for most of the piece; Vincent d’Indy’s Istar is marvellous example of a theme and variations in reverse. And that’s my point: the listener actually gets to hear the tune eventually. Not here; I’m almost certain if the name of the tune hadn’t been in the title no one would have known upon what melody the piece was based. Lots of colourful effects though. Too bad there wasn’t any music to go with them.

Then followed a thoroughly bland, and phlegmatic rendition of “Christ ist erstanden” BWV 627, again,from Orgelbüchlein. And again, with organo pleno without relief. The only sensation I got from this was, for some reason he felt compelled to add another Bach choral-prelude, so it might as well be this. In other words, he was merely “texting it in” I guess one could say nowadays.

Then came THE BIG PIECES — two movements, “Romance” and “Final,” from the Symphony #4 in g, Op. 32 by Louis Vierne (1870-1937). The “Romance” was ruined by a rushed tempo, no expression, (not observing a number of Vierne’s subtle dynamic markings), and completely ignoring the composer’s phrasing (unfortunately, not unusual for almost any organist). I don’t think he took a single breath during the entire piece. M. Escaich simply walked through this plaintive, sumptuously lyrical, extremely heartfelt piece as if he were sight-reading it. It was depressing listening.

As if that wan’t bad enough. M. Escaich simply raced though the Final with absolutely no regard for anything that had anything to do with the music at all, much less the composer’s intentions. As I write this I find myself becoming very irritated again thinking about how this supposedly first-rate French organist could take one of this great French organ composer’s unique, and most fascinating masterpieces and completely butcher it so cold-bloodedly; all in the name of speed (maybe he was running late for lunch). This is Vierne’s most polyphonic and one of the most rhythmically dynamic works in his oeuvre. The counterpoint is intricate and cross-phrased, with an especially rhythmically driven second theme. All of that was utterly lost in M. Escaich’s frenetic gallop — wrong notes and all — to get through this thing. It was nothing less than appalling.

Then, of course, he had to finish the recital with one of his “celebrated” improvisations. He was given two hymn tunes as themes: “Tidings” and “Slane.” It’s not that they were all that bad, mind you; it was that I failed to see what all the hoopla was all about. If this improvisation was any indication of what he teaches at the Paris Conservatoire then the state of French organ improvisation has succumbed to the level of a first year student’s noodling at the console, and is simply living off a reputation that no longer exists. I’ve known second year piano and organ students who have done just as well, even better. Gerre Hancock he ain’t.

The final insult to me was that this audience of so-called professionals gave this buffoon not just respectful applause, which any civilised audience would have done. Rather, M. Escaich got not just an enthusiastic ovation, he received a STANDING ovation! For what? Abusing a handful of well-known works and then torturing us with his own abominations? Is it any wonder why the majority of classical music lovers in this country hate organ music and openly avoid organ recitals? You have to be a special kind of masochist to enjoy this sort of thing.

Three Rising Stars, #3: Nicholas Capozzoli

Nicholas Capozzoli represented Region III in this 3-in-1 recital. Also eschewing Bach, Mr. Capozzoli began with the beginning “Moderato” of the Symphonie Romane, Op. 73 of Charles Marie Widor (1844-1937). Based of the Gregorian Chant “Haec dies” the piece has a strangely indeterminate character, neither modal (as say Vaughan Williams) or traditionally tonal, one doesn’t get a feeling of direction. This is not the Widor of Symphony’s 4, 5 and 6. It is, at the risk of adding extra musical ideas, much more introspective music. It is Widor at what could be considered to be his most experimental. This not the kind of piece with which one begins a recital. I realise this was an audience of other organists; notwithstanding, it was still an audience, and the last thing you want to do is start off with a confusing, amorphously introspective piece like the first movement to Widor’s last Symphony. Mr. Capozzoli could have taken a hint from his predecessors as to what kind of piece with which you should begin a programme; that is, play something dynamic, something that will engage the audience. It doesn’t necessarily have to be familiar; it just has to be interesting, compelling, a piece of music that tells the audience that you are excited to play for them, and that they will be equally excited to continue listening. In any event, the Widor was played very faithfully, in so far as Mr. Capozzoli followed the M. Widor’s dynamics and bare-bones registrations without imagination, contributing the bromidic effect of the work.

Next came the “Intermezzo,” which serves as the scherzo movement to a Symphonie pour Orgue in b, Op.5 by the French Belle Epoch composer Augustin Barié (1883-1915). Barié studied composition at the National Institute for the Blind under Louis Vierne, who was only thirteen years his senior; but, had evidently made a considerable impact on Barié. Moreover, considering that Barié was only twenty-four when he wrote the his Op.5, the influence is not only understandable, but, as far as I’m concerned, a good thing. The “Intermezzo” could have very well been excerpted from a Vierne symphony. It puts him squarely into the lineage of the Franck school. Mr. Capozzoli followed M. Barié’s registrations and dynamics quite faithfully. But, he could have gone a bit further in using his imagination beyond trying to duplicate the registration called out in the score. Also, Mr. Capozzoli could have articulated the staccatos more distinctly; that would have given the melody a little more definition. Otherwise it was a perfectly adequate performance; i. e.; the type of playing indicative of most organ recitals. Regarding programming again, this would have normally been a perfectly fine choice for a second piece, notwithstanding its nebulous thematic material, if Mr. Capozzoli had elected to to open with something more dynamic than the Widor.

As cited above, Mr. Capozzoli regrettably had to forego the Te Deum by the brilliant in every way Jeanne Demessieux (1921-1968) and most unfortunately “La Vallée du Béhorléguy, au matin” from a suite entitled Paysages Euskariens by Joseph-Ermend Bonnal (1880-1944) another student of the Franck School who studied with Vierne and Tournemire, succeeding the latter at St. Clothilde. Instead, the decision was to go ahead with the exceedingly noisome Évocation II by Thierry Escaich (b. 1965), which although very loud (hence its use as a finale) is nothing less than dreck. Lots of crashing dissonances and a lot of jumping around different manuals over an ostinato bass with no sense of continuity or thematic development. It’s precisely the kind of bewilderingly appalling stuff that befouls so much of contemporary organ music, and is another reason the concert going public (and a lot of organists) shun organ recitals.

I’m always in favour of doing unfamiliar works on a concert programme: whether it’s an orchestra, chamber music, solo instrument, it’s always good to hear something beyond the tried and true. Notwithstanding, there’s a point of diminishing returns. Mr. Capozzoli, or whoever assisted him in his programming decisions, not only went past that point but fell off the cliff. Mr. Capozzoli needs some one who knows what they’re doing, to help him understand how the good programming of a recital works, whether it’s for the general public or one’s peers. People need something, somewhere to which they can relate. And then one must learn to perform those works, whether familiar or obscure, in a manner that reaches beyond the basic notes, dynamics and registrations and make those pieces, at the very least compelling.

Mr. Capozzoli, if you wish to be a concert organist (and this goes for Ms. Mcpherson earlier) don’t be typical.

Three AGO Rising Stars, #2: Ryan Kennedy

Region II was represented by an enterprising and vigorous Ryan Kennedy who decided to eschew Bach in favour of some very virtuosic, even delightful, yet substantial music. Mr. Kennedy got us off to a roaring start with the “Toccata” from Louis Vierne’s (1870-1937) 24 Pièces de Fantasie, 2me Suite, Op. 53. What impressed me initially was the clarity of playing, notwithstanding the sizeable registration. What I also found refreshing was that he understood that he was not playing a Cavaille-Cole organ at Notre Dame but on a big fat Skinner-plus in an American church, and therefore was smart enough to use Vierne’s registrations merely as a guide, not to be taken too literally. His rhythmic drive gave the piece the momentum it needed to get us off to an impellent beginning.

Then he quite cleverly switched gears on us by playing a delightful arrangement by fellow Juilliard grad Raymond Nagem of the Prokofiev (1891-1953) Music for Children Op.65. Here Mr. Kennedy got to show off some of the intriguing solo sounds of which the organ is infinitely capable. This wasn’t flashy stuff; but, it was music of divers, yet elegant variety. This clever arrangement for organ of explicitly didactic piano pieces (in the vein of Bartok’s Mikrokosmos) could serve very well for the young organ student in understanding the amaranthine possibilities at his or her disposal. Moreover, as bit of programming ingenuity these worked very nicely as a transition to the more angular and virtuosic Olivier Messsiaen (1908-1992) works to follow.

Mr. Kennedy played two excerpts from Messiaen’s nine movement suite La Nativité du Seigneur. The first, “Les enfants de Dieu” is trickier than it might seem. The tempo for this piece has to be just right; if it’s too fast the crescendo doesn’t have time enough to give the listener the chance to savour the rich, dense harmonies of those parallel chords; too slow and it loses steam by the time you get to the climax. Then there is a long gradual decrescendo from a mezzo-forte to pianississimo. All I can say is Mr. Kennedy was right on spot for the whole movement. The tempo and seamlessness of the crescendo to that crashing chord was stirring to say the least; but for me, it was the long slow, almost haunting, voyage to an an almost imperceptible causatum that really showed ability to the reveal essence of the piece. To be able to capture the mystery behind Messiaen’s mystical vision of “God’s Children” is no easy feat. Of course having a an organ like Old South Church helps — but, one must have the imagination to go beyond what may be called out in the score, ultimately, to achieve the goal.

So, it was with the second selection: “Dieu parmi nous” (“God among us”). This is the ninth and crowning movement to Messiaen’s suite and its most famous and infamous (for its difficulty). Mr. Kennedy gave a stunning performance that was easily one of the best I’ve heard for its rhythmic precision and sense of continuity. My only quibble is at the very end, the balance between hands feet was off and could have used a little more “meat” in the manuals. The pedal division on this organ be overwhelming (a rarity) and can almost completely bury the manuals if one isn’t careful. But, as I said, I quibble. This was a truly exciting recital — PLAYED ENTIRELY FROM MEMORY — thank you. Which, as far as I’m concerned, explains a lot. Since Mr. Ryan was Region II’s winner I can only presume he is a student of Paul Jacobs. Which also explains a lot. Nice work.

Three AGO Rising Stars, #1: Jennifer McPherson

I’ve decided to treat these three performances as separate recitals. If for no other reason than it will be a little easier to digest in instalments rather than one very long and cumbersome review. Moreover, I felt that each performance should be judged on its own merits rather than as an integrated whole, since there were some distinctive differences among the players.

The second recital to which I attended consisted of three young winners of Regions 1 – 3 of the 2013 AGO Quimby Regional Competitions for Young Organists (or AGOQuRCYO for short ). At first I thought it was “ …Young Artists;” but (fortunately), saw that I was in error. It’s not Artists but Organists. We certainly don’t want to confuse the two now do we. Fortunately, I could not find any biographical information on these three young organists, search as I might through all the convention booklets. I say fortunately, I had nothing to interfere with my evaluation of their playing. What I saw and heard was what I got.

In any event this 3-in-1 recital was also presented at Old South Church. Region I was represented by Jennifer McPherson. Ms. McPherson gave us two very large scale works: the J. S. Bach (1685-1750) Prelude & Fugue in c, BWV 546. Not unlike its other c minor partners the Passacaglia & Fugue, BWV 582 and the Fantasia & Fugue, BWV 562, this is a powerful and dramatic work with full dominant and tonic appoggiaturæ and parallel diminished seventh chords, switching back and forth between triplet and duple rhythms in the Prelude and then a five-voiced fugue which stays almost unrelentingly in minor mode and builds to a monumental conclusion on a blazing C Major triad. At least that’s how I envision the piece. Such was not to be the case. She opened dramatically enough with solid organ pleno (essentially full ensemble without reeds) registration; but, then that was it. The entire Prelude was played with no colour changes, ignoring what texture changes in the score would indicate or imply. Then came the Fugue. Ms. McPherson started off with just a few stops less than the Prelude and played through the notes as if it were a practise session focusing merely on note accuracy and nothing else: no phrase shaping or articulation, no dynamic variety, no colour. In short what we heard was, unfortunately, what has become the standard performance of a Bach prelude and fugue. There is little that is more monotonous than hearing the same loud combination of stops for an entire piece. A person listening wonders why does that all the expressivity of Bach which occurs in every other medium for which he wrote simply disappear on the organ? The frustration level bis enhanced when one thinks of the tonal possibilities the organ offers up to the organist, who in turn either refuses or simply disdains to exploit those possibilities.

I don’t blame Ms. McPherson completely. She is obviously a product of conventional academia where the obsession for so-called historical accuracy at the expense of expressive music making continues to this day, and will, regrettably, continue for some time to come.*

The second offering Ms. McPherson offered was only slightly better and that was the Prelude & Fugue on the Name B-A-C-H by Franz Liszt (1811-1886). This can be a pretty exciting work, as is the case of much of Liszt’s music. It’s not great music by any means; but, in typical Liszt fashion it’s a lot of fun — that is when a little imagination is used and a willingness to let the organ (especially a glorious instrument such as Old South Church, Boston) really rip it can create a lot of excitement.  Unfortunately, one got the feeling that Ms. McPherson was holding back, as if she was afraid to venture beyond what she was told do with this piece. She was in essence “playing to the test.” All in all it was an adequate performance: technically proficient and followed all the dynamics to a tee, but totally lacking in soul. I know Ms. McPherson is young, but, as we shall see next, that doesn’t preclude being a dynamic performer.

* Again, allow me to reference my series of blogs on “So, What’s Wrong with the Organ Anyway?” And,more importantly, Stephen Best’s exquisite essay “On Passionate Music Making”† in which he so succinctly illustrates the transition of the eager, imaginative, passionate young student entering college and coming out as the dry, unimaginative, robot.

On Passionate Music Making

The First of What I Promised

This and the following recital reviews were slow in coming and aren’t the kind of detailed analytical reviews I usually write (when I do write a concert review). Rather, they are more or less reflective impressions. I’m only offering these at this point, not so much because I want to, but, to keep a promise. As the outsider organist who tries to observe organ concerts in a light that is more indicative of standard classical concerts I realise the things I say won’t change anything, but will still grate against a lot of organists’ sensibilities. They’re just my own observations and opinions. I thought I’d start with not only the first, but also the one I enjoyed the most (with one exception). Interestingly enough, the chronology actually followed in a descending progression.
During the week of 22 June 2014 Boston, the American Guild of Organists had their national convention. I had the opportunity to attend a few recitals. Two by what may be considered in the organ world as major artists and one consisting of three of the winners of the nine 2013 AGO Quimby Regional Competitions for Young Organists (one from Region I and two from Region II) . As I noted earlier in my general impressions, even though it was a small sample, I’ve attended more than my fair share of organ recitals by “major” artists and some not so major that my conclusions from the recitals heard here convinced me that little has changed; i. e., the odds of hearing a great performance out of the of recitals presented, notwithstanding their quantity, were few and far between

Craig Cramer on Tuesday (23rd) proved to be one of those lucky exceptions. Dr. Cramer gave a very fine recital that was played with technical mastery and interesting programming on the kind of organ that potentially can be absolutely breathtaking. Dr. Cramer gave us a programme obviously tailor made for his audience. Of the four composers listed only one had even a remotely recognisable name, the other three were most likely unknown to most of even this audience of almost exclusively organists. Nevertheless, that fortunately did not preclude their worth, mostly, as recital pieces or of the large instrument of South Church upon which they were played.
Dr. Cramer began with a lovely work by a composer, who because he was distinctively and almost exclusively and organ composer: Auguste Fauchard (1881-1975 http://www.musimem.com/Fauchard.htm) His Le Mystere de Noël Shows all the trappings of his composition teachers, d’Indy and Vierne, and by osmosis, Franck. It is a set of variations on the chant “Jesu Redemptor omnium,” a Christmas hymn. Also in keeping with the Franck School it requires large hand stretches which can be especially daunting for someone with small hands. This special technical demand didn’t seem to phase Dr. Cramer who executed the work with aplomb, making good use of the colouristic capabilities of the organ including the use of the Zimbelstern in the 4th, or “Star” variation.

The two consequential pieces were at best curiosities. Toni Zahnbrecher (b. 1959) composed the Introduction, Scherzo and Fugue on B-E-A-T-E in 1993, but sounds more like 1893. Actually, it was quite refreshing to hear a work that was well written with adequate contrapuntal skill and a well chosen resulting harmonic language. Dr. Cramer has become a champion of this composer, and of this work in particular. He could certainly do a lot worse in light of the tripe that passes for serious music currently being written for the organ and that the AGO pays for.

The Ethel Smyth (1858-1944) Prelude and Fugue on “O Traurigkeit, O Herzeleid” (“O Sadness, O Suffering Heart) is from a set of six chorale prelude written in the late 1880’s. It was interesting mainly because Smyth was one of that rare breed — a woman composer of the 19th Century who was also highly respected (she was made DBE in 1922); sort of the Clara Schumann of England, except she was much more politically active. The piece served as a pleasant enough a diversion from what had preceded and what was to come, namely the Sonata #2 in d, Op. 60 by Max Reger (1873-1916), the only composer on the programme with any familiarity to a general public.

Reger is relatively popular among organists; he was one of that select group of major composers (Bach, Franck and later Messiaen) for whom the organ was their primary instrument. The Second Sonata is typically Reger in so much as it is big, harmonically chromatic, and contrapuntally very complex. Dr. Cramer took this monster and wrestled it to the ground; but, not without a fight, or so it should receive as proper justification. From the piles of sound in the first movement to the sublime intimacy of the second to the overwhelming complexity and monumental conclusion of the final movement Dr. Cramer was not afraid to overpower us with the majesty of that resplendent instrument. It was a very nicely played recital. Whatever quibbles I may have about not playing from memory and console positioning are moot since Dr. Cramer was playing for other organists, who often don’t get to see the performer at all.

AGO 2014 Boston Impressions

The American Guild of Organist’s (AGO) biennial national convention has come and gone from Boston. And from it my impressions of this specialised sub-species of humanoids has remained pretty much unchanged. The three recitals I attended continued to quantify those conclusions: two by major artists (at least as far as the organ world is concerned) and one which had three young “rising stars” in the organ world as part of some national competition. This is stuff that only the hardcore organ enthusiast can appreciate. I think at one time I was hardcore; but, to paraphrase Paul, when I musically grew up I put aside those organ things. Don’t get me wrong; I love the organ. It truly is the “King of Instruments.” It’s just that it is so very frustrating to hear the organ constantly played with such abundant banality. And the convention, with a few exceptions, corroborated this enduring frustration. In my series What’s Wrong with the Organ Anyway? I’ve pointed out how cloistered, self-indulgent and wholly without imagination the organ world as continued to be. Granted, there are a few who understand the limitless potential of the organ and what’s needed to bring it to the general public so that they too can witness the phenomenal beauty and magnificence of the organ: its illimitable tonal palate, its majesty and sometimes overwhelming power, yet also its asomatous, even intimate delicacy — a quality frequently overlooked; but, those people are very few indeed.

What the public does not need is the continued monochromatic, expressivity barren playing that (again with a very few exceptions) still pervades organ performance. Other soloists in live performance, in general practise, play or sing from memory and the exception is to use a score; whereas, organists do just the opposite. I get a lot of resistance whenever I bring this subject up; and again, it testifies to how condescendingly organists view the concert going public, despite their protestations to the contrary. Organists seem to think that looking at somebody glued to a printed page and doing little else will perfectly entertain their audiences.

I must say, the list of workshops and scholarly paper presentations impressed me. There seemed to be a bit more emphasis on the scholarship and teaching aspects than in the past. Not much, but a bit more. However, there were only one or two workshops that I could see that actually dealt with public performance; i. e., recitals. The church and the vagaries that organists continue to have regarding work in the church (particularly dealing with clergy and lay leaders) still dominates the discussion — understandably so, since most organs are still in churches. The problem is the organ is only used as the principal musical instrument in what are referred to as mainstream churches, and that even less so as time goes on.

The AGO has been struggling with the issue of declining membership in the church for years, and has been at odds with church leaderships as to what works best. Unfortunately, the overwhelming majority of churches have adopted the attitude that traditional hymn singing and and traditional choral and organ music — both new and old — aren’t hip enough to attract new parishioners. As a result, the organ and the organist have more and more been sidelined in favour of “pop” entertainment.. Now, in many churches the organ is only brought out for special occasions such as Christmas Eve and Easter where traditional hymns are actually sung (along with the cheesy pop music). In short, the clergy in their usual coruscating ignorance, have opted for the shortsighted American business model of the quick fix in an ephemeral attempt to fill the collection plates through the medium of pop culture — or at least what passes as popular culture to them.
I

n any event, the continued focus on the church poses a bit of a dilemma for many organists. Mind you, it’s not as if the church is going to disappear tomorrow (unless you’re a Rapture wackoid); nevertheless, the future of serious music in the church is at best problematic. There have been numerous workshops, not just at the Boston convention, but around the country, as well as articles in The American Organist (TAO, the principal trade publication for organists) on how to deal with the current trend toward “praise bands,” prerecorded music, and small to medium sized churches who can’t (or more likely won’t) pay to have an organist. I find it not a little curious that when reading the TAO and seeing the featured new or newly restored big instrument, the little summaries of each chapter and the “Who’s Who” section, one could easily be led to believe that things were just peachy in the organ world. Churches are managing to find or raise these hundreds of thousands — even millions — of dollars for new or restored instruments; that young people all over the country are signing up left and right to learn about and study the organ; that people are flocking to organ recitals .— and paying money. I must say, the paper of the magazine does look very nice with a rosy tint to it.
The Boston AGO convention did very little to help dispel those myths. Although I can understand the that much of the focus would still be on “how to be a better church musician,” attention needs to be directed to the organ as a concert instrument in both solo and ensemble settings. As recitalists organists need to learn from their counterparts in other disciplines on programming and how to present themselves before an audience: what they need to do in order to make going to an organ recital a viscerally compelling experience. That means more recitals in concert halls and churches where the organ console can be seen. There are more facets to this sphere of organ playing covered in more detail in my above referenced series.

The organ has entered into a whole new era. No longer is access to the glorious sounds of the great cathedral or concert hall instruments restricted to just those venues. Nowadays with the continued development and improvements of current and future technology, electronic organ companies such as Roland/Rodgers, Johannus, Allen, Hauptwerk (software) and a host of others are making the sounds of great pipe organs more and more convincing along with the affordability and equivalent space of a grand piano. Less and less will some one who wants to learn to play the organ be subject to the rancorous mercies of the church. That means more and more organists can and will be able to concentrate on actually making the organ a respected concert instrument — again. All that is needed now are some organists who are willing to leap across the moat of organ politesse and start thinking about their audiences; viz. people other than organists. The organ has the capability to dazzle as no other instrument can. All it takes is imagination, mastery of the console beyond the keys and pedal board, good taste in stage presence (sorry Cameron), and a willingness to take risks; subjects that were left wanting at the 2014 AGO Convention, Boston. Hey, there’s always 2016.

Don’t celebrate yet.

Contrary to what some of you might have been led to believe, I will still continue to compose and make my comments here. I wrote the previous column because I needed to say this. This has been something that has been eating at me for a long time; and, I felt that if I didn’t finally express my thoughts and feelings I simply wasn’t going to move forward.
Ergo, for those of you who do think I have something to contribute to this world, I’m sorry to say that you will see my comments from time to time here.

American Music on the Radio on an American Holiday

Being the curmudgeon that I am, modern technology doesn’t generally impress me; and on those occasions where it has, such as Facebook, I have ultimately found it wanting (more about that some other time).  Nevertheless, there are those instances in which technological advancements have not only impressed me, but have actually proven to be most useful.  A case in point: internet radio.  Through the glories of digital technology I now can listen to virtually any broadcast radio station, plus any station which is solely designed to be heard on the internet through streaming, much of it via iTunes.  On any Wednesday I could be listening to a Choral Evensong on BBC Radio 3, or  All Night Classics on the ABC (Australia), or L’Air du Temps on RTBF (Belgium), or something on WFMT, VPR, WRTI, WGBH, WQXR, MPR, or any of the exclusive online services such as Organlive, Connoisseur Classics, or RadioIO Classical, or any of countless live streams available.  That doesn’t include podcasts of programmes I may have missed but can listen to at a later date.

I realise this all sounds terribly prosaic, but there is a point to this:  being able to listen to so many radio stations, especially American broadcast stations, I’ve managed to get a sense of overview as to their idiosyncrasies and programming styles.  American classical music stations are now almost exclusively within the purview of Public Radio.  The result being a certain blandness and predictability.  I have found that, just like pop music today, there is almost nothing which distinguishes one broadcast classical music station from another.  It’s all very generic with a heavy emphasis on Baroque music, shorter works from other periods and (UGH!) the excerpting of single movements from larger works (a mortal sin in my book), and of course, the avoidance of most 20th and 21st Century music (the exceptions I need not mention here).  Baroque is big because (like it or not), with a tiny number of notable exceptions, it has a certain sameness to it; for the other stuff it’s the usual top 40 Classics.

Then there are the announcers who, are either so musically illiterate they can’t even read the liner notes properly including the persistent mispronouncing of names or musical terms.  Then there are the “scholars” who blather on about how extraordinary a piece is, or what a simply marvellous performance we had just heard.  I’ve become exasperated by the “commentaries” with these morons. I really don’t need to have Jill Pasternak of WRTI tell me how beautifully Lang Lang played a Chopin prelude (since I happen to think that Lang Lang is a charlatan); or, Alan McLellan of WGBH telling me what a great interpreter of Aaron Copland Leonard Bernstein was.  Thank you, I already knew that.

Nevertheless, there is one broadcast station that stands out on American holidays.  On those days — Memorial Day, July 4th and Thanksgiving — to its abiding credit WRTI in Philadelphia (90.9 FM) devotes practically its entire classical broadcast day (6:00 a.m. — 6:00 p.m.) to American composers in a comprehensive way that others don’t.  Of the eight broadcast stations to which I have traditionally listened: MPR (Minnesota Public Radio), WGBH (Boston), VPO (Vermont Public Radio), WFMT (Chicago), WQXR (New York), WETA (D. C.), WWFM (Central N.J.), WRTI (Philadelphia) only the last one devotes its time almost exclusively to American music on these uniquely American holidays.

So, why am I making such a fuss over what might seem to some as borderline musical jingoism?  Because, when it comes to American classical music I guess I do have an almost fanatical zeal.  America musically came of age in the 20th Century.  Having been spared exorbitant loss of life and destruction by entering World War I late in the game and not experiencing either World War on home soil, and  stern shepherding during the 20’s (and later) of Nadia Boulanger,  America ended up blessed with two generations of  stunning talent (a list of which would far exceed the scope of this article), most of whom we never get to hear in the concert hall and rarely on the radio or computer during the rest of the year.  So, I say kudos to WRTI during these distinctive holidays —  Jill Pasternak’s sycophantish blather and the unremitting “non-ads” (under the guise of “support” announcements) notwithstanding — Dave Conant and Jack Moore are to be applauded  for their promotion of what is probably America’s greatest yet least appreciated contribution to cultural enrichment of humankind.


 

Some Thoughts on the Playing of Ragtime

Ever since I saw the great Max Morath back in 1971 do his one man show “At the Turn of the Century,” which revolved around the music of Scott Joplin and his contemporaries, I’ve been enamoured with the music of Ragtime piano. It’s the only real piano music, outside of the occasional art song/lied accompaniment, that I play. I love Ragtime. Coming from the pen of a master of the form it’s serious stuff; worthy of any recital — right next to a set of Chopin etudes or Rachmaninoff preludes; which is why I find it distressing that it is not taken more seriously.

Ragtime’s influence on Western music cannot overestimated. What we identify as those distinctively American musical styles: jazz and commercial popular music most definitely had their roots in Ragtime. Nevertheless, the fact that Ragtime was America’s first popular music, and in spite of its problematical origins should not predispose one to question Ragtime’s musical integrity. The great Ragtime scholar Rudi Blesh, to whom we all owe a prodigious debt in keeping the flame alive prior to its rebirth in the 70’s, succinctly explains Ragtime’s importance and originality in his introduction to “Classic Piano Rags” published by Dover. One of the aspects of Ragtime Mr. Blesh discusses, which I wish to cover here is how one treats a classic rag by Joplin, Lamb, Scott and others.

The first issue of concern is tempo. After more than forty years since the rebirth of Ragtime’s popularity via Joshua Rifkin’s seminal recordings of Joplin rags for Nonesuch, and, in spite of the exhortations by the composers (especially Joplin himself) on almost every first page of the score, and the insistence by Ragtime scholars like Mr. Blesh and Max Morath to slow down, people still insist on playing Ragtime fast. Part of the blame goes to the use of Joplin rags (inspired by success of Mr. Rifkin’s recordings) in orchestrated form by Marvin Hamlish as the principal soundtrack music for “The Sting.” Although the soundtrack did a lot to galvanise popularity for Ragtime it left a damaging impression as to how it is to be played. Forgetting the fact the era setting for the movie is wrong (the movie is set in the 30’s, Ragtime’s popularity had eclipsed by the early 20’s), the performances are much too fast. Hamlish simply ignores Joplin’s tempo markings (March Tempo, Slow March Tempo, Slow Drag, Not Fast, etc.) as well as the note in the upper lefthand corner of almost every (particularly the later rags) title page: “Do not play this piece fast. It is never right to play Ragtime fast!” Nevertheless, the Ragtime craze took off; invariably to the detriment of the music. Itzhak Perlman & Andre Previn released a recording during this time which was an abomination of Joplin’s rags. First off they are unbelievably fast. Their whole approach to the music was that every piece was allegro con brio or faster, as if they were trying to see how many rags they could squeeze onto a single LP. Secondly, the fact that they are arrangements for violin & piano is noisome. Likewise, Gunther Schuller, with what was basically a pick up band of New England Conservatory students, released a recording of the Redback Book, which was nothing more than some stock arrangements of which Joplin never approved. Also performed much to fast. Ragtime is piano music, as idiomatically piano music as a Chopin etude. Like Chopin, Joplin has been transcribed countless times. And just like Chopin, the arrangements (Le Sylphides comes to mind) are left wanting. In both cases the essential nature of the music is lost. It simply sounds wrong.

Then there’s the matter of interpretation. Although Ragtime evolved from rather dubious circumstances, and the despite the fact that it had become a popular sensation, Scott Joplin considered his musical form as serious classical music. He became even more serious about it as time went on, even to the point of writing an opera in Ragtime style. Ragtime had developed its own structure to which even this day Ragtime composers such as Max Morath, William Bolcom and William Albright have followed quite faithfully. The typical rag usually followed in an AABBACCDD pattern. Of course, like any musical format, this is a fluid design. Joplin himself occasionally deviated from the formula which he was so firmly established (e.g., Magnetic Rag). This structure goes to the very essence of how to “interpret” Ragtime. One thing we need to keep in mind is that Scott Joplin, Joseph Lamb, James Scott, et al were late 19th Century musicians. Rubato and shifting dynamics were as important to the playing of Ragtime as it was to Schumann, Brahms, or Franck — even more so. With this hybrid blend of popular song and classical intention the performer is afforded a level of flexibility that may not be available in playing a traditionally classical piece. The only other 19th Century composer who comes to mind whose music is open to an equally flexible interpretation is Chopin.

The secret is in the repeats. The concept is basic: you never play something twice the same way. Chopin’s development in the shorter pieces consists of merely taking a very complete melodic idea and repeating it with ornamentation: a style very much in keeping with French Baroque practise, except he wrote out his ornaments instead of improvising them. In Ragtime however, the repeats are literal which poses a different set of problems concerning variety. Gerald Moore emphasises this point in his “The Unashamed Accompanist” when dealing with a strophic song. He demonstrates, in this case (he uses Schubert’s Das Wandern as his example), how the text determines the character of the realisation. The notes don’t change, but the manner in which they are played is. This is not dissimilar to the way one plays Ragtime, even though there isn’t any text to tell the pianist to vary the repetition.

So, how literally or liberally should someone play the repeats in a rag? How much leeway does the performer have? Well, I guess that ultimately comes down to a matter of one’s musical sensibilities, understanding of Ragtime, and (God willing) good taste. As grateful as I am for Mr. Rifkin in making his recordings and by playing them at acceptable tempi, I am frustrated by the lack of imagination or (dare I say) feeling. Each rag is played like every other; i. e., with very little dynamic or tempo flexibility. As I play through each of the eleven different rags I know I become more and more aware of how emotionally profound and complex each one is, and how expressively diverse they are as a group. To play all Ragtime the same way is to do it a great injustice. It would be a disservice to Joplin if one were to play Maple Leaf, Gladiolus, Breeze from Alabama, Solace, and Magnetic all in the same way. Each one has its own integrity as a work and contains a whole variety of expressive possibilities which should be explored, just as one would with each Brahms Rhapsody or Rachmaninoff Prelude.

I realise that the Ragtime “craze” has long since past, and that Ragtime now has a chance to be taken as seriously as its composers wanted. These miniatures are often emotionally profound, notwithstanding their primarily major key modalities. Just listen to, and FEEL the pathos behind the first part (the Louis Chauvin part) to Heliotrope Banquet. Are you really going to play that the way you would the Maple Leaf Rag? You can’t approach the sublimely atmospheric and intimate Solace the same way you would the Chopinesque Gladiolus. Ragtime is primarily a musical form not unlike a rondo or sonata-allegro; but, it is also style of music — one that is much, much more complex and interesting than most have been led to believe. So, if you are planning to incorporate Ragtime into a recital programme, I hope you intend to treat it with the emotional and stylistic complexity that it deserves.

Colon

Welp, the “procedure” was done yesterday, and I must say, 9 hours prior to and for about 5 and a half hours after were some of worst hours of my physical existence. Since they found and snipped three polyps they want me to do it all over again in 3 years. I suppose it’s better than dying of cancer — at least until some of my music is performed and I finish the Piano Quintet.