Book Reviews
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Continuation of List of Compositions

Thursday, October 29, 2009

2:42 pm est

October 29, 2009

Justin Davidson, in the November 2, 2009 issue of New York Magazine, has an article entitled “Arise” and subtitled “How a few Chinese students from the freshman class of ’78 changed composition.” He mentions Chen Yi, Chen Qigang, Tan Dun and Zhou Long. Remember the cold war, when any Russian performer – no matter how mediocre – got attention far beyond that accorded to any American of the same achievements? The romance of the “enemy” artist is a world-wide phenomenon (Russian adoration of Van Cliburn was the same, except that Cliburn, a gigantic pianist, fully deserved to win the Tchaikovsky competition). No matter how important these Chinese composers may be to contemporary Chinese musical culture, they are getting Western attention far beyond their compositional achievements. Tan Dun is the most famous. Turok’s Choice, reviewing his work, finds it derivative, even imitative in a simplistic sense. He plays the “China” hand beautifully – he has had prestigious commissions from the New York Philharmonic and the Metropolitan Opera. His opera, “The Last Emperor,” was released as a DVD by the Met. TC’s review: “Tan’s best ideas are those utilizing the exotic wailing of Chinese opera; when he settles down to Western music, his tawdry borrowings from other composers (especially Alban Berg) are irksome. His opera is more colorful to watch than to listen to.”  Hearing the opera makes one wonder whether his compositional technique is really sufficient for what he undertakes. Davidson mentions the “resonant bowls” he brought to the doctoral seminar at Columbia. Donald Erb experimented with the same sort of thing years before; his works were recorded, enabling Tan Dun to hear the same results as his Philharmonic commission, “Water Percussion Concerto,” well before he adapted them. None of the names mentioned above have produced music of unusual quality. Deserving American composers should be so lucky as to gain the attention they are accorded simply because they were born in China.

2:35 pm est

Friday, July 11, 2008

Defending myself
Googling on myself a while ago, I came upon a review Alan Rich wrote in the San Francisco Classical Voice (July 8, 2003) that takes serious issue with my liner notes for an Andante set of Schubert chamber music. His comments, concerning mine on the C Major Quintet follow:
One flaw in Andante's Schubert album is the error-ridden essay by Paul Turok who claims, for example, that the first movement of this Quintet has no development section. What else, friend Paul, do you call the seething drama in bars 155-266 of that beautifully formed movement.
Friend Alan (we went to graduate school together at Berkeley, later worked together at KPFA, when he was chief music critic of the Herald-Tribune - many years later - he hired me as a stringer) is both a Harvard graduate and a very experienced journalist. Bright as a whip, he has encyclopedic knowledge of everything about music that can be learned from books. Part of this knowledge is knowing where, in traditional sonata form, to look for a development section. He looked there in the Schubert, found something and wrote his snide review. It may or may not be "seething drama," but it certainly does not "develop" materials presented previously, as do most sonata forms in Haydn and Beethoven, Schubert's immediate predecessors. After the double bar (the usual place for the development), Shubert offers a long section based on new materials, which then repeats twice, each time a whole tone lower. This replaces the traditional development section with something completely new. It is a filling of "musical space" that is wildly original for its time and was later taken up by Bruckner. Thus, the first movement of Schubert's C Major Quintet has no development section.
7:46 pm est

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Monteverdi's "Lamento della ninja"
Here's a correction from the New York Times of January 24: A film review in Weekend on Friday about "Le Pont des Arts" mispelled a word in the title of a Monteverdi madrigal... . It is "Lamento della ninfa," not "ninja." This isn't the first time someone at the Times who has no idea what they don't know has produced hilarious copy. Some time ago an article in Travel directed visitors to Monet's home in "Givenchy."
12:54 pm est

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

The Economist views Marin Alsop

The Economist, like most English publications, tends to publish its articles anonymously. Smarmy, know-it-all, coolly-edited prose goes a long way towards suggesting factual accuracy, and by the time one of its conjectures is proven wrong, most readers will have already forgotten the erroneous prediction. It deals mainly with economic and political news, but in the back is a section devoted to the arts. There, the anonymous system breaks down, because once opinion enters the equation, credibility goes by the wayside. An example is the page devoted to Marin Alsop in the December 14 issue. Under the heading “can she win the Baltimore Symphony over?” is a mishmash of fact, conjecture and hype. Basic biography (at 9 she wanted a baton, her father still makes her batons for her, orchestras she has conducted and will conduct, etc.) can be taken as accurate. But a statement like “Ms Alsop is a superb communicator and a conductor who appreciates the symphony orchestra as a flexible instrument…” is hardly an unquestionable fact. “Superb communicator” is obviously the writer’s opinion, and her “appreciation of the symphony orchestra as a flexible instrument,” derived from an Alsop quote featured later in the article, has – as will be seen – some embarrassing overtones. “Her artistic vision overshadows …her oft-mentioned gender” is an interesting statement, because it never would have been said of a male conductor, many of whom have stronger artistic visions than Alsop. “A protégée of Leonard Bernstein and a champion of new music, she has been pigeonholed for too long as both” requires additional comment. Alsop herself is responsible for being “pigeonholed;” she plays the “Bernstein” card regularly. As a champion of new music she seems to fancy the trendy composers "in" for the moment. (Her recording of Bartók’s “Miraculous Mandarin” with the Bournemouth is pallid.) She certainly has not yet to proven herself capable of handling a range of repertory classics, so that the remark “the first two CDs in her Brahms symphony cycle, with the London Philharmonic, are polished and invigorating” is not only an opinion, but a minority opinion at that. I was unimpressed with her mannerisms in the Brahms First and singularly unimpressed by her recording of the Second; even more favorable reviewers were cautious about extolling these interpretations. A source in the New York Philharmonic repeated the reaction of the Baltimore players to her handling of the classics; the word the Philharmonic player used to describe her work was “mediocre.” A later paragraph contains some of Alsop’s observations on being a conductor who is a woman. She denies that gender has anything to do with her success, but then points out that aggressive men are regarded differently than aggressive woman, and suggests that upward raising of the palms while conducting is taken as a sign of sensitivity in men but weakness in women. In other words, after denying that feminism has anything to do with her success, she plays the feminist card anyway. Finally, the explanation of the “flexible instrument” mentioned above: “When you think of Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra, the string sound was the same in Mozart and Mahler and I don't strive for that.” Pace the Economist, and the writer who cajoled them into printing a publicity puff as a factual piece,  Alsop has a long way to go before comparing her with Stokowski will have much validity. Although, as the subject of the article, she is also the recipient of the results of my deconstructing it, I should point out that in the dog-eat-dog world of classical music, performance artists need to do just about anything to gain attention and Alsop's playing this or that "card" is perfectly normal. (You simply don't have to fall for it.) This little essay is as much about what lousy journalism the Economist provided here - although its editors would have a fit at the suggestion that they printed a puff piece -  as her professional imperfections.

1:46 pm est

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