Here are your classical link lifelines

Flickr: armchaircaver

Should I be watching ‘Mozart in the Jungle?’

holding-mozart-in-the-jungle-gael-garcia-bernal

A while back a CDA reader recommended I read Blair Tindall’s book Mozart in the Jungle for a look at the seedier side of classical music. I never got around to it, unfortunately. The book was turned into an Amazon TV series, nabbed Bernadette Peters & Gael García Bernal to star, and turned into a hit for Amazon TV.

But wait — the show’s won a couple Golden Globes, and classical stars like Lang Lang & Gustavo Dudamel have made MitJ cameos? Okay, I’m paying attention. Should I be watching this? Continue reading “Should I be watching ‘Mozart in the Jungle?’”

Hilary Hahn on the unbreakable teacher-student bond

I highly recommend reading violinist Hilary Hahn’s Slate piece about her two favorite music teachers — Klara Berkovich & Jascha Brodsky.

When Mr. Brodsky fell ill at 89, I visited him at a care center. Two nurses brought him to a large room, and he sat at a conference table. I assumed we were only there to chat, but I had my violin with me just in case. Sure enough, one of his first questions was, “Sweetheart, what did you bring to play for me today?” I reminded him of the repertoire I was working on, and he proceeded to give me a two-hour lesson. He leaned forward in his chair, singing examples, shaping my phrasing with interpretive gestures, and interrupting me to offer suggestions and corrections. For Mr. Brodsky, teaching was an unstoppable impulse.

Continue reading “Hilary Hahn on the unbreakable teacher-student bond”

Leonard Slatkin throws down the gauntlet on race in classical music

African-American pianist Andre Watts blazed a trail for classical musicians of color. Classical music still, very obviously, has demographic issues, both in audience and performers.
African-American pianist André Watts blazed a trail for classical musicians of color. Classical music still, very obviously, has demographic issues, both in audience and performers.

The inimitable Norman Lebrecht points to an op-ed in the Detroit Free Press by Detroit Symphony conductor Leonard Slatkin. Slatkin asks why there aren’t more African American classical musicians in the game.

When it comes to the African-American sector of the classical music workplace, the changes are barely significant. There remain but a few who are in the forefront of the industry. Many attempts to alter this situation have seemed patronizing, and, in many cases, unfair to all musicians.

I’d say, given a music that is rooted in white, middle-to-upper-class European historic tradition (and throw “male” in there, too), it’s unsurprising that proportionately fewer African Americans have found purchase in the classical music industry.

Denyce Graves is a high-profile, high-octane mezzo-soprano in the opera world.
Denyce Graves is a high-profile, high-octane mezzo-soprano in the opera world.

That’s not to say there are zero African Americans (or Hispanic Americans, or insert-your-group here) but looking out at the sea of faces at a Saturday night show is like observing the Great White Musical Consensus.

A quick gander at the audience from the stage at the Metropolitan Opera.
A quick gander at the audience from the stage at the Metropolitan Opera.

Let’s see. Where to start? Slatkin kind of shrugs his shoulders here:

All music is not for everyone, as different people gravitate to what their hearts and souls tell them is meaningful. But each person must have the ability to pick and choose.

Translation: we have failed to garner a significant portion of the audience whose ethnicity and heritage doesn’t jibe with the white-bread pedigree of classical music. And that sucks.

I’m not criticizing Slatkin because it takes courage to write this, to acknowledge there are essential disparities at the heart of his profession. But damn, if this doesn’t tell you we need better programming, a defter touch to our community work, and a new tack when it comes to marketing this stuff, then nothing will sway you.

Classical music is NOT white people’s music. It’s not music for rich people, and it’s not just for high society. What a snooze that list is just to type. If that’s the reason you’re on this trip, get off.

Classical music is democratic. It’s for the people like Wu-Tang is for the children. Classical music is the movie soundtrack you listened to and loved. It’s the string breakdown in the middle of your favorite pop song. It’s a space where friends kick it to Beethoven quartets and get lost in the sound and a cloud of smoke. It’s snacks and box wine on the lawn at the Pops. It’s the best.

Hearing music outside while snacking and hoisting brews is a rarefied, ecumenical experience.
Hearing music outside while snacking and hoisting brews is a rarefied, ecumenical experience.

Good music is good music. It will be self-evident when we get it out there. Slatkin is off to a good start by owning up to some seriously troubling demographic trends. The best news is that we’re basically at rock bottom — nowhere to go but up.

Further reading: head to Norman Lebrecht’s page because Slatkin is mixing it up in the comments section. Here’s Slatkin’s original piece, “How African Americans changed classical music.”

CSI: Symphony Orchestra — bloodthirsty composers strike again

[**Note: Huffington Post inexplicably yanked Alexander Spangher’s article about composers killing classical music. Possibly because they were feeling mischievous. I’m keeping this up. Expect updated links if/when the article is recirculated.]

The saga continues.

Columbia University student Alexander Spangher has pronounced classical music dead. Finito. Detective Spangher fingered the culprit, too: Colonel Mustard, in the library, with a knife-wrench.

http://bellecs.tumblr.com/tagged/clue
http://bellecs.tumblr.com/tagged/clue

Just kidding. The killer was the composer, with a boring piece, in a drafty orchestra hall:

Ultimately, current classical composers are greatly failing their field. With some notable exceptions, most of current composers seem intent on creating complex and “innovative” music at the expense of aesthetic tolerability. What could be an exciting and revitalizing branch of classical music is ultimately a failure.

Spangher is following a recent spate of death pronouncements from various corners of the web. I won’t link to them, but suffice to say, googling “death AND classical music” will get you where you need to go.

Alexander Spangher, P.I. does have a point, I suppose. The trend arrow heads towards complexity, inscrutability and ponderousness in new classical pieces, at least the ones I’m privy to. We play a music rooted in catchy hooks (“aesthetic tolerability” in Spangher’s parlance), and composers have been running away from them.

But you can’t just lay this one at the feet of the ones writing the music.

They’re responding to a market demand. We just need to start demanding different things. Quit commissioning stupid commemorative works that get archived and quickly forgotten. Quit accepting pieces blindly if they don’t move you (and your audience, by extension). Quit playing boring music.

My solution?

Listen to hip hop, and steal marketing ideas, fast as you can.

Start pushing out mixtapes. Start playing house shows and pop-up shows. Meet your audience where they live, and invite them to come to your orchestra hall performances. When they know you’ve tapped into something exciting they’ll be thrilled to try to get in on it.

Wouldn't it be cool if playing music was like, fun, and fun to listen to? http://www.flickr.com/photos/arcticpenguin/
Wouldn’t it be cool if playing music was like, fun, and fun to listen to? http://www.flickr.com/photos/arcticpenguin/

Don’t blame composers. (But seriously composers: bring your A-game.) Quit making all these damn death pronouncements. Enough finger-pointing, B.D. Wong. Let’s make something.

Faking it: how to come clean to your audience

Until Thursday, Mamoru Samuragochi was a decorated classical composer and a tunesmith whose pen game and personal triumph placed him among the most celebrated of living Japanese composers.

Samuragochi initially made waves writing the scores to a couple of video games: “Resident Evil: Dual Shock Ver” and “Animusha: Warlords.” With the landmark “Hiroshima,” his first symphony, he gained widespread acclaim. Samuragochi moved 100,000 units out the stores — an impressive number for a classical release.

“Hiroshima” also drew attention to Samuragochi’s family’s tragic past. He hails from the Hiroshima Prefecture, and when the US dropped the atomic bomb there in 1945, his parents, according to Samuragochi, were both irradiated.

Did we mention he was deaf?  Media outlets billed Samuragochi as the “Japanese Beethoven.” A deaf composer defying the odds, crafting all this in his head! He was a man for all centuries, maybe the next classical music heavyweight.

Except, he wasn’t. Turns out that Samuragochi may have beenprobably was …….. definitely was a fraud, through and through. A complete huckster.

So … who wrote “Hiroshima” then? What about his “Sonatina for violin?” The video game music?

Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to introduce: Takashi Niigaki.

Samuragochi’s story started to unravel when a music critic, Takeo Naguchi, started poking into Samuragochi’s biography. Mr. Niigaki came forward Thursday with the truth after hearing about Naguchi’s inquest. Turns out all that music that had audiences abuzz was written by a part-time professor (with a full range of hearing).

So what part of Mamoru Samuragochi’s biography is true — is he deaf? Has he written even a note of music? Did critical fervor for Samuragochi’s stuff — really, Niigaki’s stuff — drown out logical questions that follow a seemingly unbelievable backstory? In order: we don’t know; we don’t know; and … probably, yes.

But before you grab the pitchforks and torches, take a hit from this L.

We’ve still got a no-name composer out there (now you know his name! All together: “Takashi Niigaki!”) who tapped into pain and poignancy, wrote a heady piece that won over audiences, and did a tidy 100,000 units. People are paying money to hear this thing. Maybe the fraud leads to bigger sales, bigger performances, more accolades. Everybody loves a good redemption story.

If this really bugs us then that’s on us. We need to stop searching for that tearjerker Hollywood-ready backstory and just start listening. It’s an art and a craft, so pay homage to the real ones. Forget the fakes.

Not to worry for Mr. Samuragochi. I’m sure they’ll let him lace up for a celebrity boxing match.

$6M Strad stolen after owner TASED

Fox 6 Now Milwaukee is reporting that Milwaukee Symphony concertmaster Frank Almond was tased Monday by two hoodlums, who then made off with his Lipinski Stradivarius. Ouch.

It’s amazing more instruments aren’t stolen. Most musicians aren’t built like the Ultimate Warrior, and the upside of a successful theft could be tens of thousands, minus the obvious residual bad karma.

STEAL MY OBOE??????????

Maybe it’s time we start looking at cheaper schemes for getting our classical kicks — like instruments made from uh, bike parts?

Anyway, if you live in Milwaukee be on the lookout for an old-school Dodge or Chrysler minivan, because of course that was the getaway vehicle.

Video game music: classical music’s gateway drug

The Super Mario Bros. theme is arguably -- but seriously, definitely -- the most-recognized video game theme. (Okay, you can make a case for Tetris.)
The Super Mario Bros. theme is arguably — but seriously, definitely — the most-recognized video game theme. (Okay, you can make a case for Tetris.)

The old school video game composers knew how to write a tune.

It just so happens that when you take video game music out of the console, flesh out the harmonies and spread the parts across an entire orchestra, amazing things start happening.

Technology limitations fall away. Bass lines get deeper, textures richer, melodies more soaring and beautiful. Here are a few of the most irresistible.

‘Final Fantasy VII’

Hironobu Sakagachi’s “Final Fantasy VII” put the music front-and-center, offering Nobuo Uematsu’s in-game soundtrack in a simultaneous, four-CD release. It’s MIDI-tastic, but in the hands of an able symphony classical atheists  can have a conversion experience.

‘The Legend of Zelda’

Koji Kondo was the mastermind behind the original theme for “The Legend of Zelda.” The game first appeared in 1986 and went on to sell 6.5 million copies. Safe to say people got pretty damn familiar with the Zelda theme, but they never heard it like this.

Kondo didn’t just pen the big themes for Legenda of Zelda. He also influenced game design by having players play a recorder (warning: very nerdy, detailed tab right there) to access secret levels.

‘Chrono Trigger’

Yasunori Mitsuda presided over this one, although Mitsuda was so driven to finish the orchestration of “Chrono Trigger” that he made himself gravely ill.

Mitsuda’s efforts didn’t go unnoticed. The game’s music has been remixed hundreds of times — it’s as irresistible as a James Brown drum break is for rap producers.

First one’s for free

Composers aren’t the only ones vibing to 8-bit ballads. Berklee College of Music enjoys sell-out shows for its Video Game Orchestra. (That’s their “Chrono Trigger” remix above.) Audiences are twisting up J’s while staid orchestras give over their programming to video game music.

Play it for your friends, bump it in your car and on the subway. Video games will rope unsuspecting listeners into loving classical music. Heaven help our children.