Saturday, August 04, 2007

Chacun a son gout

Joshua Kosman is entertainingly crabby on the subject of Camille Saint-Saëns:
Then there was Saint-Saëns' prodigiously vacuous Second Piano Concerto, which returned to Davies after a mere two years -- far too soon for an exhumation -- under the ministrations of soloist Jean-Yves Thibaudet.

This gets at least one vote for the most pointless piano concerto in the active repertoire, a clattery stream of scales and arpeggios that the pianist must deliver at top speed in a desperate search to keep the audience from expiring out of sheer boredom at the lack of any musical ideas. Thibaudet, in whose playing elegance and virtuosity are so intimately intertwined as to become a single compound virtue, lavished all his considerable flair on the score, but in vain.
He's also honest about this particular quirk:
The only thing on the [2007-08 SF Opera] schedule that leaves me cold is the opening-night Samson and Delilah, and that's a function of my own idiosyncrasies: I have no particular use for any 19th-century French music that isn't by Berlioz (remember, "Gounod" is an anagram of "ungood"), and although I'm an Olga Borodina fan, I'm not, you know, the world's biggest Olga Borodina fan. If you're a little more normal than I am on either of those two points, then even that one should get you going.
Now, I'm a fan of Saint-Saëns (though I otherwise agree with Joshua about the value of 19th century French music), but it's a good thing when critics are clear about which composers they just can't take. I'm willing to bet that every working critic has a little list of works or composers they'd just as soon not review, or maybe hear again for the rest of their lives, whether from outright dislike or overexposure. Here's my list:
  • Rossini comedies. I've seen Barber, I've seen Cenerentola, I've seen L'Italiana (in her guise as Riot Grrrl on Mars), and I've had it. It's not worth sitting through hours of boring music and tired stage schtick for the sake of a good overture and a prima donna showpiece: I have plenty of recordings of Una voce poco fa and Non piu mesta, and that's sufficient. Neither the 20-ton revolving set nor the presence of Thomas Hampson or Nathan Gunn in the title role could drag me to the last two go-rounds of Barber at SFO. The only exception I'm willing to make is for Il viaggio a Rheims, which has a gigantic cast and an astonishing act finale with 14 singers all going at once, sometimes a capella.

  • Carmen. Only if Crespin or Supervia comes back from the dead, despite the great reviews both Hadar Halevy and Kate Aldrich got at SFO last season.

  • The Mozart Requiem, a work I've performed and still don't like very much

  • Any complete opera by Massenet, a composer whose work is best performed as excerpts

  • Palestina. Luckily, I have never reviewed a concert with any work by Palestrina on the program, but anyone who sings early music has had to sing a lot of Palestrina. His music is dull and always fails to move me; many of his contemporaries are far more interesting to sing or hear. I have reached the point where I will skip concerts in which my chorus is performing Palestrina.

  • Copland. Sorry! I cannot stand St. Aaron's music either in wide-open-spaces/Americana mode or in his overblown modernist style.

  • Vivaldi. STOP with the twittering flute concertos! STOP with the damned Four Seasons already!!

  • Most of the second-string German Baroque composers whose music clutters up the airwaves thanks to lowest-common-denominator radio programming

  • Most of Gershwin's concert music, though Jonathan Bellman's performance of the Second Prelude at the Stanford symposium earlier this year did get me.

  • Works I'd skip in a minute because I've heard them too often, but would be willing to hear again with the right cast or after a long enough break: Tosca, Butterfly (I'll probably go see Racette this season), La Traviata, Boheme, Don Giovanni (I'm very glad to have seen and reviewed this year's SFO production, but on the whole, it's done badly when it's done). The prominence of Puccini on this list does say something about opera company scheduling.
Interestingly, if I'd made up this list a decade ago, I would have put Handel on it, through overexposure to Messiah. But in 1999, I caught Semele at the English National Orchestra and have loved every note of Handel since. I'm willing to give Vivaldi's operas and sacred music a listen on the chance that my flute-playing past and too much Vivaldi in elevators are responsible for my visceral hatred of his music.

Anyone care to join me in 'fessing up?


Unknown said...

>Copland. Sorry! I cannot stand St. Aaron's music either in wide-open-spaces/Americana mode or in his overblown modernist style.

Say it ain't so, Lisa!

I've not been reviewing live concerts long enough to have anything I don't want to hear again, so I don't really have a contribution.

Related, perhaps--

If I had a dollar for every time I've read in a program notes that such-and-such composer was not afraid to 1) write a melody, 2) make "beautiful" music, or 3) use tonality, I'd be sitting on the beach while my people typed my blog comments for me.

Anonymous said...

Actually, I run counter to Kosman's tastes on the 19th century French, finding the better third of Saint-Saëns preferable to anything of Berlioz, whose music struck me as the forerunner of the worst of Schumann and Mahler.

So, as long as I'm blaspheming, I note yet another "complete" cycle of Beethoven piano sonatas on SFS' chamber scene this season. I love these works, but is performing all 32 of them _required_ of pianists now?

And why do orchestras, both home and visiting, keep pelting us with Tchaikovsky's Fifth? It's enough to make me want to record an "edited" version that drops the introduction to the finale so that at least we don't give away the ending.

I share your Vivaldi allergy, picking it up in the early '80s from the original yuppie crowd as music that was "pretty, but not challenging", which I think is now KDFC's mission statement.

Now I'll go back to working through my Haydn issues...

Patrick J. Vaz said...

I like your distinction between music you just don't like and music you're tired of -- and I think by now Puccini himself would be weeping with agreement that we should just leave Mimi in her grave for a while. . .
A third category might be "music one should be tired of hearing but isn't" -- for me that would be Messiah, though I know many who sing would disagree with me.

David Bratman said...

I have one pet hate in the standard orchestral repertoire: what I call the Giganticist school. Mahler. Richard Strauss. Scriabin. And their ilk.

Unknown said...

While I doubt it does any harm to share one's tastes and biases, I'm unsure whether is serves a valuable purpose.

Much more valuable would be pointers to gems--performances, composers, works, which you feel are worth checking out. I've "discovered" some treasures that way--from Blossom Dearie to Marc-Andre Hamelin to Finzi's Eclogue.

My own tastes run from loves to preferences to neutrality, but I've never heard ANY music that arouses hatred.

Lisa Hirsch said...

A long comment, or maybe the first of more than one.

Steve, alas, yes, about Copland. I will take suggestions as to the best of the modernist stuff. I have already heard "Billy the Kid," "Appalachian Spring," etc. enough times to have that never again feeling about them.

My list isn't a function of my occasional reviewing gig. It's mostly a result of works I've heard too many times on my own dime.

Ahahaha to your program note bete noir!

Lisa Hirsch said...

Mike, you are just wrong about Berlioz. You have to catch one of his operas or "Nuits d'ete" or something. Amazing music.

The upcoming LvB sonata cycle is Schiff, right? Who else has done it around here in the last decade? We've seen at least 2 or 3 string quartet cycles, though...

S-S and Berlioz aside, there's the dreadful Massenet. Opinions?

Lisa Hirsch said...

Patrick, you are so right.

Um, anything by Wagner, especially Tristan und Isolde.

Also, The Marriage of Figaro, one of the few operas I could bear to see, say, alternate years.

Ah, David, I am a fan of the Giganticist style, except maybe for Bruckner.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Fredric, I certainly talk about things I like, but if you take a look at the context, you'll see that I'm 1) responding to Joshua Kosman's review and blog posting 2) discussing a problem I assume most professional reviews have to deal with.

Third, I think it's reasonable for my readers to know what my biases are.

Unknown said...


If you've heard a piece too many times, you've heard it too many times--I'm thinking of your reaction to the Copland ballets.

My favorite modernist Copland is the Piano Variations.

Gigantic: Mahler is one of my favorite composers.

19th century French: Berlioz!

David Bratman said...

Bruckner is the only Giganticist I like!

And that's because in fact he isn't one. Yes, his works are long, but length per se isn't the issue. The feature of Giganticism is monstrously self-indulgent naval-gazing and a huge waffling over structure. Bruckner is self-abnegatory and has a rock-sure sense of structure.

David Bratman said...

(Did I write "naval"? Criminy. VW's Sea Symphony is naval-gazing. I meant navel, of course.)

Patrick J. Vaz said...

I would also be happy with Tristan and Nozze di Figaro every (or every other) year, but I wish San Francisco would get a new Nozze production -- I hate the one we've seen the last two times.
Oh, and like everyone else, apparently, I don't like Massenet either.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Every Massenet opera seems to have at least five minutes of music you might want to hear more than once. Here's video of the bit you might want to hear in Esclarmonde, which I'm reliable told is mostly dreadful:

Lisa Hirsch said...

Steve, I will try that Copland and see if I like it.

Lisa Hirsch said...

David, form can definitely be a problem in Mahler, but I like his music anyway. Bruckner drives me mad in some way I cannot put my finger on, though I would have said it was meandering form.

Anonymous said...

Another Copland suggestion: the early piano trio "Vitebsk."

I saw your comment at another blog to the effect that the iPod is badly set up for multi-movement works and that this had been communicated to Apple. I agree that it is, though I struggle with it for plane trips because it's so much handier than a CD player + discs; did you ever hear if Apple responded to this?

Lisa Hirsch said...

Wow, I made those iPod comments a long time ago.

I should ask someone who has an iPod. I haven't tracked the issue because I still don't have one and am unlikely to get one.

Anonymous said...

I am willing to be convinced about Berlioz but have yet to hear anything of his I want to hear again other than the last two movements of Symphonie Fantastique.

From where I'm listening, any perception of Bruckner's form as "rock-sure" seems confused with rigor mortis. He's absolutely reliant on his use of form but it leads to some sad redundancies when a surer hand would have been confident to make a cut or three.

The original group of Giganticists seem to share this problem, and enough so that I think the navel-gazing is a fair criticism only of Scriabin. Mahler was aiming for an encompassing of the entire world in his larger works, and he's said as much. Where Mahler and Bruckner go pear-shaped is that it's nearly impossible to keep their long narratives in focus, to the point that you inevitably hit that 5-10 minute stretch where it seems as if the music has lost its way. Which is when it loses me.

iPods: An article in Playlist gave me the best hint as how to deal with the multi-movement problem. I've taken the second approach and edit the song info as I rip it and turn the multi-movement works into "albums", with the actual discs they're on turned into "playlists". Not optimal, but its allowed me to keep track as I've ripped about half my library into iTunes now [about 12 days worth of music].

Patrick J. Vaz said...

Lisa, I'm wondering if your dislike of Copland extends to Thomson (specifically, his operas with Gertrude Stein, which I absolutely love, though I realize many don't). I just got back from Rorem's Our Town, which is kind of "school of" so I was wondering if it was that whole "American" sound you disliked.
As for Massenet, I should have confessed I have a deep fondness for the meditation from Thais because my grandmother loved it. But I don't think I could sit through Manon again.

David Bratman said...

Berlioz can be extremely wayward-sounding in the wrong hands, and wrong hands are many. His music can get very stop-and-start, gear-crashing if played poorly. Some good live performances convinced me of the effectiveness of his work, and MTT/SFS Fantastique/Lelio is one sufficiently good recording.

As well say that Bruckner could use some judicious cuts as look up in a magnificent cathedral and say, "They needn't have made the ceiling quite so high." The spaciousness is the grandeur. Cutting Bruckner would be as pathetic-sounding as a tiny early-music ensemble playing Tchaikovsky's greatest hits (which you can hear on the Hoffnung album). The only effective way to abridge such music would be to find an entirely superfluous large section, and in Bruckner there are none. His structure is sure.

Now Mahler, on the other hand ... Mahler was often insanely digressive, and could lose large sections without missing a thing. Yes, I know he said he was trying to encompass the entire world, but the place he was looking for the world was within his own personal tortured angst. That's what makes his music navel-gazing.

Lisa Hirsch said...

David, I never did post about the outing Mike and I made in June to the Mahler Seventh, but believe me, there were plenty of "oh, god, doesn't he know how to end this thing?" moments in it.

I think Mike is suggesting that Bruckner himself ought to have done some editing, not that conductors should cut his work.

Patrick, no, I like Thomson! I liked The Mother of Us All when SF Opera did it. For that matter...I liked the production I saw at Old First in the early 90s, too.

Rorem seems to me to be an extremely competent bore, though I'd try Our Town. It's at Festival Opera?

David Bratman said...

"doesn't he know how to end this thing?"

That's what killed the famous MTT Mahler Second (the last time I heard Lorraine Hunt Lieberson) for me. MTT managed to sell me on the first four movements, but alas the Second has five, and the sheer badness of the music finally defeated any efforts of the musicians.

"Bruckner himself ought to have done some editing"

Ah, but he did! he did! He cut his own works under the influence of his misguided pupils, the Schalk brothers. Mutilation city. They destroyed Bruckner's reputation for years, and it was only after the restored Haas editions made their debut in the 1930s that his stock rose. But who knows - you and Michael should perhaps listen to the Schalk editions (some of them have been recorded recently) and see if you like them better. I prefer synthesizer Bach over the original, so we all have bad taste somewhere.

Anonymous said...

Hey, now, the Wendy Carlos recordings of the Brandenburg concerti are among my favorites, too!

I think I've heard the uncut Bruckner, most recently the Eighth Symphony in a live performance. At least it felt uncut, as I found myself wanting to gnaw off my ankle to escape the Adagio.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

Yes, Our Town is at Festival Opera, which, in my admittedly very limited experience with them, has absolutely the worst audiences in the Bay Area. If you think Rorem is a competent bore, I don't think this piece is going to change your mind. But if you do go, make sure you stay for the third act, because it gets better (or makes more sense as an operatic piece) as it goes on, and Marnie Breckinridge is very good. That's the summary version. I'm hoping to post on it soon at my blog, in one of my occasional and random attempts to stay current, if you want the longer version.
By the way I kept looking for your comments on that Mahler 7 last June because I wanted to see if I was the only one who disliked the performance (as opposed to those above who don't like the music).

Lisa Hirsch said...

I'm not going to make it to "Our Town;" I'm not curious enough to drag myself out there.

I still haven't gotten anything up about the Mahler 7 and may not at all.