Monday, March 25, 2013

A response to a "business solution" for striking musicians

With the current San Francisco Symphony musicians' strike, a couple of less-than-qualified individuals from the world of finance have offered their less-than-qualified thoughts on the strike.  One of these people, Anthony Alfidi, founder and CEO of the San Francisco-based Alfidi Capital, offers a unique and compelling solution: just fire the striking musicians (that's even the title of his article).  Here is the link to the blog post that he wrote.  

Dear Mr. Alfidi:
I would like to take this opportunity to offer some of my thoughts in response to your blog post about the current San Francisco Symphony musicians' strike.

First, although I can't claim to know the details of everything going on with the orchestra, other than the fact that there is a strike until their demands for a salary increase are met, I will be among the first to share your perplexity at the desire for a pay increase, considering that most of the world lives well below 85K a year, if they're lucky.  Why that is not enough for the orchestra I'll never know, but life is full of mysteries.    

However, I do take issue with your remarks, which paint musicians who try to make their living through music as a bunch of "takers" who don't deserve to be paid fairly, a charge that I, as a professional musician, find demeaning.  Mathematics aside, let's remember that being a musician (whether it be a performer, composer, or conductor) is a specialized skill that requires, but is not limited to, the following:

1. Years of lessons and master classes that cost hundreds, sometimes thousands of dollars
2. Countless hours devoted to isolated practice and study
3. Traveling far distances for gigs that don't come close to paying the month's rent and bills
4. The very real possibility that we may just have to work a low-paying job until we have the privilege of devoting ourselves full-time to our craft.

Finally, given that many performers aspire to a hold a seat in the world's leading orchestras, the reality is that 99.9% of aspiring performers will never see a place like Davies Hall.  This is not due to lack of talent or ambition, but the field is so competitive and like anything else, highly political.

So, if you really do support and value an orchestra like San Francisco's, it might behoove you to take a moment to think about all that goes into making a career out of music, and not just in terms of dollars and cents.

I found two of your comments particularly insulting:
"I am even willing to solo "O Mio Babbino Caro" on a kazoo if Renee Fleming can't elbow her way through the union's picket line."  

Where should I even start?  I notice that you also chose one of opera's most famous arias, which leads me to believe that your knowledge of music does not go beyond the shallow Top 40 hit list known to the general public.  I'll bet you couldn't even tell me, without consulting Wikipedia, what opera it's from and who wrote it.  This alone makes me question your credibility on musical matters.
"Making over $85K per year to do something a talented high school musician can do for free is pretty generous."

Really?  Could this obnoxious statement stem from the possible fact that you were one of those punks in high school who hurled words like "sissy", "wuss", and other words propriety forbids, at anyone who played the violin instead of playing football?    

And as long as we're on the subject, have you ever considered those professional athletes who pitch a fit when their annual salary of $100 million is reduced to $98 million?  We all know they're overpaid to throw a ball around and sustain critical head injuries.  And it's greedy for world-class orchestra musicians to demand payment equal to that of their colleagues in other orchestras across the nation?  Plus, it also gives me a pretty good idea of just what a "smart" and "savvy" businessman you are when your solution to such a disagreement over wages is to fire them.  You're entitled to your belief that somebody may not be worth a certain amount of money, but one is also entitled to speak up if they feel they are not being paid fairly, particularly if they work in such a competitive field as music.

If you really think playing the triangle or tambourine looks easy, here is my challenge to you: try living one month making a living as a musician.  Not a day or a week, but a month, just to get a feel for the true terror of not knowing whether you can pay the rent for your run-down apartment.  And not somebody lucky enough to play in a world-class orchestra.  Try dedicating each day to something you passionately believe in, regardless of its far-from-lucrative prospects, practicing and studying to improve your craft, but all the while being painfully aware of the loneliness and frustration it sometimes brings. Try never knowing where your next paycheck is coming from, provided you are lucky enough to find a low-wage job in this economy waiting tables.  Try sacrificing your Friday and Saturday nights to play gigs in the middle of nowhere just to be able to eat for the week.  Furthermore, try doing this WITHOUT professional musical training and see how far it gets you.  

Finally, if you equate net worth with self worth, I would advise you to seriously reevaluate your life, and to realize making a living as an artist is challenging enough without some dumb fuck like you looking down your nose at us because you think we have it easy.  

Andrew Desiderio

Saturday, February 23, 2013

An Urban Requiem: A Look at Bernard Herrmann's "Taxi Driver" Score

Driving is not my favorite activity by any stretch of the imagination, but having some music on acts as a good buffer for navigating the congested streets of Philadelphia.  Yesterday's choice for the morning commute was the score to Taxi Driver.  A logical choice, especially since it provided an intensely brooding soundtrack to driving through the ghettos of Philadelphia, (and especially when circling around looking for parking near Temple University). 

The Troubadour of Anxiety:
Bernard Herrmann around the time
he scored Taxi Driver
Taxi Driver was the swansong of legendary film composer Bernard Herrmann (he died Christmas Eve of 1975, only hours after completing the final recording session).  Given its prominent use of the jazz idiom, it's an unusual score for the classically-trained Herrmann, who once expressed a skepticism bordering on distaste for jazz (I believe he was referring to a score by Andre Previn).  Whatever prompted his shift in thinking, Herrmann's musical instincts for underscoring the lonely world of Travis Bickle proved to be correct.  

At the film's outset, Herrmann employs the visceral combination of saxophone and swooning strings to evoke a powerful atmosphere appropriate to the film; it's not hard to imagine a nightclub patronized by the sleazy drinkers and lechers observed by the protagonist Travis Bickle on his nocturnal journeys around New York City.  On the flip side, this music of loneliness is offset by the angry muscularity of a brass and percussion ensemble, softened only slightly by clarinets, contrabassoons, and two menacing harps, as Travis prepares for his apocalyptic killing of "the scum, the dogs, and the filth" at the film's climax.

Taxi Driver: Getting Into Shape

Herrmann had spent the last 35 years of his career honing his genius for writing film scores of dark power, often employing unusual instrumental combinations.  This is apparent in his scores for HItchcock's films, and by the time he reached this final collaboration with none other than Martin Scorcese, he had earned his reputation as film music's troubadour of anxiety. 

God's Lonely Man:
Robert De Niro as antihero
 Travis Bickle
The essence of Travis's psychology is summed up in the score's first two chords: a dissonant crescendo backed by a rapidly accelerating snare drum, racing inexorably towards a violent C major catharsis, then subsiding back into the silence from whence it came.  This motif runs throughout the Taxi Driver soundtrack; crescendos leading to nowhere, the music receding back into its own repetitive pattern and gathering more and more energy for its explosive final release. There are stretches of music in the score repeated bar for bar, note for note, and passages of the sparsest writing reminiscent of Anton Webern.  This aspect of the score gave me the initial impression that Herrmann had fallen back on a rather lazy use of his stock of repeated musical patterns and gestures (as he had done in some of his throwaway scores like The Bride Wore Black), but it recently clicked in my mind that the obsessiveness of Herrmann's musical style reached its ultimate synthesis in this score.  The mechanical rigidity of the score, which is almost entirely in 4/4 time, mirrors Travis, going nowhere, and similarly is trapped in its own stultifying routine, stewing in its rage and sense of negligibility.  The music draws us into his world, as if it is a direct descendant of Travis's weltanschauung: "The days move along with regularity over and over.  And suddenly, there is change."

Taxi Driver: Main Title

The change that takes place in Herrmann's music provides the score's masterstroke, and refutes any charge of lazy writing on the part of the composer.  Travis's thoughts have led him to avenge a teenage prostitute in a bloody shootout at the film's (anti-) climax.  The shootout itself has no music, but the rage that has been steadily gathering bubbles over in the snarling polytonal dissonance of the brass, like a monster has been unleashed in all its fury, and the steady beat of the drums is now a furious rumble.  When a steady drumbeat does return, it is the timpani and bass drum acting as a dirge rhythm backing the funereal incantation of the opening theme in the horns.  On screen, we are surveying the carnage, gradually removing ourselves from a nightmarish battleground, made no better by the excited crowd that is gathering outside, seemingly unbothered by the immense bloodbath that has just occurred.  

Taxi Driver: After the Carnage (begins at 1:32)

Herrmann's final film score is an urban requiem, a chilling document of the decay and crime overtaking America's cities in the 1970s, and would worsen into the 1980s.  More importantly, it is his ultimate testament to the human suffering that breeds such a decline, and its sometimes disastrous consequences.  Travis, like many of us, is forced to repress his deepest suffering and frustration on a daily basis.  Any psychologist will tell you that inner turmoil, if left unchecked, invariably breeds a cycle of despair and desperation.  In the worst case scenario, it may find its outlet in brutal violence.  

But why consult a psychologist for this sad truth?  Even apart from Scorcese's unforgettable film, Bernard Herrmann paints a disturbingly vivid picture of modern America.

(Note: I do not own any of the music or the photos posted on this page.)

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Still Waters Run Deep: A Tribute to Elgar

Last week, I had the opportunity to lead the Orchestra Society of Philadelphia in a reading of three overtures, the most challenging of which was Elgar's robust Cockaigne.  Usually, when I approach a piece from a performer's standpoint, I not only try to internalize the music itself, but I deepen my acquaintance with the composer, how they lived, and with their external world; I feel that such a practice always to some degree informs the way I wave my arms around in front of the orchestra in hopes that they will follow me (also known as "conducting").

As I was preparing to conduct Cockaigne (often with a cup of fresh-brewed coffee at my side), my thoughts turned to Sir Edward Elgar (1857-1934), one of the last giants of Romantic music, and arguably the greatest composer England has produced.  Like the best in music, though, Elgar's musical output transcends its own time and place; it is not "English" music, or "music of the nobility", "idealized jingoistic propaganda music" to paraphrase some of the labels many a confused soul has slapped upon it.  So boldly original and profound is the music that it can be called, if we must resort to labels, "Elgarian" music.

Okay, you may be thinking, "If he's one of the best-known composers, how come I've never heard of him?"  For starters, Elgar's music is probably more familiar to you than you think.  Recognize this little ditty?  (Click the link and scroll to 2:00)

Edward Elgar (above) based the oratorio, which premiered in 1900, on a 19th-century poem by John Henry Cardinal Newman.
Sir Edward Elgar  (The Boston Globe)
For anyone who has ever had the bittersweet experience of participating in or attending an American graduation ceremony, the immortal strains of Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March no. 1 should be recognizable.  Elgar himself was aware of the immense power of the melody, evidenced by what he once told his friend Dora Penny, “I have written a tune that will...knock ‘em flat.” Although many of Elgar’s most inspired works were yet to come, no melodic strain of his matched the memorability of the first Pomp and Circumstance March; he completed five by 1930 (sketches for a sixth were actually discovered and arranged into a performing version in 2006) but none of them come close.  And, dear reader, there is some truth in the inquiry as to why many have never heard of Elgar; his fame rests largely on this piece, which has more or less eclipsed the remainder of his output. As a result, Elgar is often dismissed as a one-hit wonder, and musical snobs regard his music as pompous and superficial (not to mention that his music is exceptionally difficult to play).

But that hardly gets to the truth about Elgar, whose music operates on so many levels that not only indicate a complete command of musical composition, but also a painful awareness of the world around him. All that appeared to be grand, prosperous and ordered in English society in the late 19th- and early 20th century concealed - just barely - the precariousness of a top-heavy socioeconomic structure, fueled by hubris and repressed human insecurities whose only outcome is an imminent, internal collapse of society.

And come the start of World War I in 1914, that is exactly what happened.  

Elgar was in the middle of all this, struggling to pour out his turbulent inner life through music, but perhaps on an unconscious level, he was successful in capturing the similarly turbulent essence of the British Empire at the turn of the 20th century: a toothless grin of hypocrisy and chauvinistic nationalism.  

Let's look at Pomp and Circumstance to clear that up. For all of its visceral power, this piece, when listened to on its own terms, possesses a curiously unsettling strain, a nervous energy hidden by the dignified demeanor of the musical foreground. If you listen to the opening of the entire piece, there is an unmistakably festive aura to the rushing intensity of the strings, but the snare drum gives it a tinge of militaristic authority.  

As for the famous tune, a glance at the score's Trio reveals an almost overwhelming marching beat that appears to overshadow the noble simplicity of the melody. If we look at this in light of Victorian England, we might be reminded that colonialism in Africa, Asia, and South America were at their peak at this time, England overwhelming the "less civilized" world of their military power and domineering presence. The thrilling return of the theme (complete with organ!) at the work's conclusion is tragically effusive; the orchestral masses singing their hearts out with such the poignancy indicates national pride, but there's a melancholic undercurrent that tells us that this is the last hurrah for the Land of Hope and Glory.

What I find the most fascinating about Elgar's music -- particularly Cockaigne, Pomp and Circumstance, the two symphonies, and his second-best known work the Enigma Variations -- are the hidden complexities that come together to create a whole, and how the music capture the entire being of the composer: a deeply passionate and troubled man crying out beneath dignified, stiff-upper-lip facade that he spent his adult life cultivating. Elgar's life behind the exterior was anything but serene, as he was plagued by insecurity, self-loathing, financial troubles, and possibly marital troubles (I have to research this more), finding their supreme outlet in music that is just as mercurial and difficult as the man himself. The obsessively nuanced details of Elgar's orchestration, harmony, phrasing, and especially dynamics suggest, if not a mistrust of musicians, that he viewed music as a living force that can only be brought to life by sensitive musicians who share in his view. For those who accept the challenge, the reward is some of the most heartfelt, passionate, and unsettling music one is likely to encounter

Elgar's music deserves an audience beyond Pomp and Circumstance and the Enigma Variations -- both deservedly popular. His symphonies get the occasional airing-out, which is more than can be said for his oratorios, but greater steps (and risks) must be taken for Elgar to be regarded as a composer of a caliber on par with Beethoven. I tend to avoid grandiose platitudes, but to call Elgar a poet of the human spirit is actually pretty spot-on. He was an artist -- that is, one who keenly felt that creative impulse that lurks within us all -- who aimed for no more (or less) than to uplift us with music, and make sense of the troubled world in which he lived.

I leave you with rare footage of the man himself conducting Pomp and Circumstance at Abbey Road Studios in 1931:

Also, as I was having trouble with formatting, here is a link to the written score of Pomp and Circumstance (the Trio, where we hear the famous "Graduation Song", is on pp. 138-143 of the score).

Recommended Works by Elgar:
Symphonies 1 & 2
Cockaigne Overture
"Enigma" Variations
Cello Concerto, op. 85
Piano Quintet, op. 84
Falstaff, symphonic study in C minor, op. 68
Land of Hope and Glory (a patriotic song that makes use of the Pomp and Circumstance Trio)

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Thoughts on (and inspired by) a recording by Mascagni

It's a Saturday night (July 7), and the Greater Philadelphia region is experiencing one of the most brutal heat waves I can remember.  When the weather gets like this, I dunno about you, but I might feel inclined to stay indoors, read, and/or listen to music.  Often, my musical curiosities lead me to YouTube to track down a recording of some forgotten/out-of the way piece.  Tonight, it was the "Intermezzo" from Act III of Guglielmo Ratcliff by Mascagni.  Pietro Mascagni, for any of you out there who may be unfamiliar with the name, is best remembered for his one-act opera Cavalleria Rusticana; a sensational hit when it premiered in Rome in 1890, it made Mascagni's name and remains one of the most popular operas in the repertoire.  This popularity was not lost on Martin Scorcese, who used the "Intermezzo" from Cavalleria in the opening credits of his 1980 film Raging Bull, the equivocal beauty of the piece both obscuring the brutality of and evoking a sense of pathos for the boxer Jake LaMotta, the film's eponymous raging bull.

Which leads me back to my original point, because the film also uses Mascagni's Ratcliff Intermezzo in its soundtrack, and tonight I happened upon a 1933 recording of the composer himself conducting the Orchestra of the State Opera House in Berlin.  Like the Cavalleria Intermezzo, this short, achingly beautiful piece of soaring passion could only have been written by a fiery composer of Italian opera, and it is made somewhat more poignant by the faded-glory crackle of the recording.  I've always been fascinated by recordings of music conducted by the composers themselves.  Not so much by the composers of today, when it is much more commonplace and even expected of a composer to record his/her own music.  In 1933, however, composers were beginning to take advantage of this new method of preserving their musical legacy for posterity (Elgar, John Philip Sousa, Rachmaninov, to name a few), and in so doing, the recordings they left behind have brought us just a little closer to their now-bygone era, making the composers seem less like phantasmic giants who haunt us through their memorable music, and more like the human beings they were.

Composers recording their music did not catch on immediately at this time, however.  Even though I mentioned Sousa among the first generation of sound-recording creative artists, the composer of "Stars and Stripes Forever" was reluctant to do so, vociferously opposing recorded music on the grounds that by preserving it on record, the very life-force of music would be destroyed, trapped like a bug in amber (to use Kurt Vonnegut parlance).  Also, Sousa correctly predicted that listening to music would ultimately replace making music among the general public.  

As for that last part, he hit the nail on the head; a group of musicians getting together and playing for recreational purposes has become an all-to-rare pastime.  As for the first part of that statement, however, I'm not so sure that a recording, particularly one made by the individual who created the very music being recorded, is where the buck stops as far as performing music creatively.  Unfortunately, so many fine musicians and conductors have fallen into this trap, and listening to the Mascagni recording made me think back to an interview I read with conductor Gerard Schwartz, who spoke about his championship of the music of Howard Hanson (1896-1981), an influential American composer and teacher whose complete symphonies Schwartz recorded with the Seattle Symphony.  The recordings of these symphonies is a monumental achievement; they are, as far as I know, the first to be made since Hanson's own with the Eastman-Rochester Orchestra.  According to Schwartz, Hanson is an example of a composer who has been neglected not because he is a lousy composer, but because most conductors feel stymied by the fact that the composer's own recordings are "definitive", and thus that any new interpretation is superfluous.  

This is an incredibly dangerous mentality for any musician, for once they assume that "there is nothing more to say" because the artist has already said it, they begin to compromise their artistic integrity and to miss the entire point of music.  More than any other art form, music is the most malleable form of expression, relying as it does on the individual performer's projection of the emotional states encoded in the music, emotional states shared in various ways by all of humanity.  

To put it another way, there is no such thing as a "definitive" interpretation of a piece of music.  The whole purpose of performing music is to recreate a series of events in a new and original way each time it is approached.  Only when something is declared dead and beyond any hope of revival does it become the bug trapped in amber that Sousa feared.  To counter Mr. Sousa's argument, I would say that a  recording places at our disposal an opportunity to hear a new perspective on a tried-and-true piece of music, and that numerous recordings of one work give us a wide range perspectives.  Thus, I don't think anything definitive is lost; if anything, it is gained.  What is gained is a definitive benefit of art, and indeed of life itself: the immutable truth that diversity and change are necessities for perpetuating the life force, and for opening us up to new levels of consciousness and insight.  Hearing so much difference may be confusing as all hell at times, and we may want to resist and even hinder its chaotic currents, but hey, it's better than the alternative - boredom and stagnancy, the devil's playground.

All of this from a five-minute recording made by a composer who may never have dreamed that it would find its way to a medium where anyone may hear it at anytime, anywhere.  Perhaps Mascagni would be pleased to read this musing from a musical wanderer who happened upon it on a hot, rainy summer's evening, and moreover, that his music, no matter who is conducting it, has given some humanity to a tortured soul, a raging bull.  I'm sure he would say that if that's the impact his music has had, who the hell cares about an "authentic" recording?

Click the link below for Mascagni's 1933 recording of the Act III "Intermezzo" from Guglielmo Ratcliff.  Note: I do not own the rights to this recording.