Raging Against the Good Night

by Sedgwick Clark

I’ve got this good friend, see, and he’s a composer. In his lighter moments he signs his e-mails Darth Vader. At other times he’s pissed at the plight of modern composers who can’t get a hearing and get noticed—especially American composers and himself in particular. He looks at  orchestra programming and sees many European composers getting premieres, and he sees red. He’s got an opera opening tonight in Manhattan, and no one seems to be paying attention. He’s taken to sending me personal blogs, and here’s the most recent:

“You say I am an angry composer, the real questions is, How can a modern composer NOT be angry
This is the second run of [my opera]
The first time, the major papers did not come
And the second as well (with a full time PR person)
New Yorker, Times, Timeout


Yet this is what I get up and read in the Times today, more of things we know like the back of our hands

My feeling is that these institutions should be tried for cultural treason !!”

I remind him that he has gotten good reviews in at least one of those treasonable publications and tell him that someday he may not have us to kick around anymore—then who will help him get recognition? I heard his opera in its first run and enjoyed most of it; some of it is quite ribald, and the audience laughed in all the right places. I could do without his “messages” and told him so, but I’ll be there tonight to cheer him on.

The Mozart We All Know

Sorry, Darth, I’m going to write now about one of those events covered by the treasonable Times. It was one of those increasingly rare completely Mozart concerts offered up by Mostly Mozart. (The pre-concert recital compensated with music by Janácek and Bartók.) Osmo Vänskä, the live-wire Finn who conducted the Minnesota Orchestra last March at Carnegie in the knockout orchestral concert of the season, a pairing of Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge and Sibelius’s Kullervo Symphony, was on the podium. Wise music lovers don’t miss his concerts.

Vänskä programmed three Mozart works in minor keys: the two symphonies in G minor, the 25th and the 40th, and the Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor in between. A serious evening in his purportedly “tragic” vein.

He led a demonic 25th, teeth rattlingly intense in the outer movements, whisperingly delicate in the spooky Andante, with a relatively relaxed lilt in the Menuetto. Its lean, see-through textures and slashing string attacks reminded me of a good original-instrument performance but without the ghastly wheeze of those wretched strings and honky winds. I loved it, but my friend Peter was horrified; he thought it sounded like one of Haydn’s “Sturm und Drang” symphonies and stood by the much more refined Beecham recording.

We agreed about the Concerto No. 20, liking Vänskä’s pointed accompaniment but finding the young Finnish pianist, Antti Siirala, who was making his New York orchestral debut, rather lacking character in this edgiest of Mozart keyboard concertos.

Knowing Vänskä’s predilection for fast tempos, I was expecting high drama in the 40th’s first movement Molto allegro, but his tempos remained within standard boundaries throughout. I think he took all the repeats in both symphonies (a fact I couldn’t check because of the dark lighting in Avery Fisher Hall). I confess I’ve never cared for the Mozart 40th. Only Furtwängler’s hell-for-leather tempos in the outer movements of his late-40s Vienna recording on EMI compel me to sit up on the edge of my seat and wish to hear the piece again. My blind spot, however, does not keep me from recognizing that in all three performances Vänskä’s ear for detail, shades of dynamics (especially the pianissimos), and chamber-music interrelation of each choir was masterful and that the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra musicians were committed to within an inch of their lives.

Those Avery Fisher Hall Acoustics 

It’s a subject debated to death, and when the economy improves, Lincoln Center and the hall’s principal tenant, the New York Philharmonic, will try, try, try again to bring the hall up to snuff. In the meantime, the decision adopted in recent summers by Mostly Moz to move the players out past the proscenium and have seats on each side and behind the orchestra is a good interim solution. It worked well for Boulez’s Rug Concerts in the ’70s and seemed successful at Alan Gilbert’s Lincoln Center Festival Varèse concert with the Phil. I say “seemed” because my press seats were in the first tier on stage left, so I couldn’t judge from my usual perspective down on he floor. Phil spokesman Eric Latzky told me that “New York Philharmonic consensus was that it worked well.” When I suggested adopting it fulltime, he reminded me of the variety of events in the hall and that moving the stage and seating configuration of the hall is costly. (Why can’t these things be easy? Silly question.)

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