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January 2011

Tony's Top 10

The GreatestFor those who care, Tony Tommasini just released his final list of the Top 10 Composers of all time in this morning's Times. As some of you will remember from my own Top 20 list a couple of weeks ago, I disagree with Tony on a number of fronts, not the least of which is his refusal to include any living composers (though as the Times' Chief Music Critic, I can understand his not wanting to piss off anyone he might know personally.) And, you just have to laugh at his rationale for putting Verdi - who didn't even make my list - above Wagner:

"Verdi was a decent man, an Italian patriot and the founder of a retirement home for musicians still in operation in Milan. Wagner was an anti-Semitic, egomaniacal jerk who transcended himself in his art."

Note to Tony: if we were to eliminate Assholes from any list of the World's Greatest Artists, the museums, theaters and libraries in this country would be half-empty. At least.

Anyway, here's the list, in order:

  1. Bach
  2. Beethoven
  3. Mozart
  4. Schubert
  5. Debussy
  6. Stravinsky
  7. Brahms
  8. Verdi
  9. Wagner
  10. Bartok

More than half of these guys (sadly, there are no women on either of our lists) show up on my own list, which is frankly more than I expected. And, in retrospect, I do regret leaving off Debussy, who wrote some really unique, radical stuff that led the way for folks like Ravel and Boulez.

But, Mozart, Schubert and Verdi? No. Engaging and delightful as their creations might be, these guys wrote music for hire, not for eternity. They were craftsmen first, artists second. One could say the same of Bach, who approached composing as an occupation rather than as a calling, but Bach still managed to wield profound influence on his successors (albeit 100 years after his death.)

Who would I replace those three with? How about we start with Messiaen, who was arguably the most ecstatic and wondrous composer in history? Are we really going to leave Mahler - whose music was delivered wholesale from a realm beyond our understanding - off this list? And, anyone who prefers Verdi to Puccini seriously needs their head examined. (Wagner, after listening to Verdi's Requiem, put it simply: "It would be best not to say anything.")

I'm still not entirely sure what the point of this whole exercise was, but if nothing else, it did ignite some fierce debate: over 1,500 music lovers (incl. your's truly) took the time to write in with their own variously considered lists/ complaints/ grievances. So, at the very least, it's good to know people still give a damn.

Thoughts? Comments? Fire away.

P.S. You can vote for your own Top 10 (from a weirdly-selective list) here

Reminder: Ecstatic Music Festival

Emf_logoA quick reminder that the inaugural Ecstatic Music Festival is taking place all this week at Merkin Concert Hall, with events that have already included Monday's 7 1/2 hour Marathon and last night's collaboration between Nico Muhly, Valgeir Sigurðsson and the Chiara String Quartet.

Tonight's show might be the most radical of the bunch, featuring So Percussion performing (and collaborating) with Dan Deacon. Hard to tell what to expect, but according to So's Eric Beach, "This might be the craziest thing we've ever done." See below for a video that tells the story.

More on all of these concerts - as well as an interview with festival curator Judd Greenstein - soon to come.

The Phil Goes To the Movies

Laphillive(photo: Genaro Molina, Los Angeles Times)
So, everyone knows by now the success the Met has had with it's live HD broadcasts to movie theaters all around the globe. But, when the LA Phil announced last year that they would start doing the same with select Sunday matinee concerts from Disney Hall - a venture emphatically called LaPhil LIVE - one had a right to be suspicious. Without the visual element of opera, what would cameras focus on, other than L.A.'s young and photogenic music director, Gustavo Dudamel? How would the sound compare to being inside the concert hall (esp. one as acoustically wondrous as Disney Hall?) Would theatergoers be loudly munching on popcorn throughout the performance?

As those who were following my live tweets already know, the behind-the-scenes footage - modeled after the Met broadcasts - was a mess. Host Vanessa Williams came off as stiff and artificial, relying heavily on cue cards - when the dude with the iPad managed to get himself in position, that is. Backstage technicians seemed frantic and hapless when they found themselves in the camera's unforgiving path. Even LA Phil President Deborah Borda seemed unsure of herself while being interviewed by Williams. Jeez, didn't you guys block this out beforehand???

DSC04585The only one who seemed unflappable amidst all this chaos was Dudamel, who mugged for the camera and cracked jokes (When asked to identify the clear liquid he was gulping backstage, he growled: "Tequila!") moments before striding confidently onstage. Duda, who turns 30 later this month, fortunately hasn't had to unlearn how to be a Divo. Yet.

The camerawork was also haphazard. Too often, the camera would cut away from the musicians just at the moment of crescendo to a pointless pan of the ceiling. The closeups of Duda were of random length and timing. And, for all their playing prowess, orchestra musicians tend not to be the most photogenic bunch: noone really wants a closeup of a bassoonist's distended cheeks, or a violist's sweaty brow. 

DSC04583But, enough about the negatives. The audio, projected in full HD surround sound, was loud, penetrating, and crystal-clear. (Unfortunately, the digital mics also picked up the persistent coughing of the in-house patrons.) And the audience, at least in the Regal Union Square theater where I saw the performance, was cooperative and enthusiastic, clapping after each piece as if they were part of the actual audience.

What really made things fly, though, was the program Duda chose for the broadcast. Kicking things off was John Adams' Slonimsky's Earbox (1995): a wild, propulsive piece for large orchestra, full of clanging cymbals and bass drums that rolled through the theater like a runaway train. Bernstein's "Jeremiah" Symphony, which featured the talented young soprano Kelley O'Connor, exhibited a range of emotion: from fiery rage to desperate sorrow. As the music quietly faded at the end, the camera closed in on Duda, holding there as he held the silence for what seemed like an eternity. (Remember, this was all done live.)

DSC04582But, what really impressed was Beethoven's 7th, which Duda and the Phil took at a furious clip, and completely nailed. And, in this case, seeing made all the the difference: I was blown away by the energy and precision of their playing, bringing to mind Vienna or Berlin the way the string players dug into their instruments. 

Adams - who, as it turned out, also watched the performance from the Regal Union Square  - apparently agreed, telling the NY Times that the LA Phil displayed "a level of playing I haven’t heard in that particular repertory.” As for hearing his own music performed in a movie theater, he said: "I was so excited I went through half a bag of popcorn."

The next LA Phil LIVE broadcast is set for March 13 and features an all-Tchiakovsky program, also conducted by Dudamel. Tickets available online or at one of 450 theaters across the country. It's worth checking it out, especially if they manage to work out some of these kinks. And, hey, you never know who might turn up.