Sunday, January 30, 2011

BSO at Strathmore (Haydn/Sierra/Brahms)

Saw the Baltimore Symphony Orch (for the first time actually) at Strathmore last night--no Marin Alsop tho, the conductor was Spaniard Juanjo Mena.

The first offering, Haydn's "La Reine" symphony was what it was. Nicely put together, priddy, and ample opportunity to think about what I was going to eat after the show. The kind of Haydn that makes me think impolitic thoughts about how maybe our HIP commissars are right and this kind of thing should really only be performed by their approved bands.

A new work, "Sinfonia. No. 4" by Roberto Sierra was quite promising. Sierra trades in rewarding, densely clotted textures driven by a disjointed momentum which uses Latin-identified rhythms for its raw material. The third movement, with its haunting combination of piano and woodwinds was especially memorable. The boisterous finale, in which the percussion came to the fore, was plenty satisfying, but I fear at times Mena wanted it to "groove" more than was really warranted. Much of the power of Sierra's work lay in the tension between these rhythmic fragments, while by the end Mena seemed all to eager to lay down a backbeat and be done with it. Oh, and the brass sounded a little anemic for what one would want in that go-for-broke finale.

The Brahms violin concerto was less convincing, I'm afraid. Mena and the BSO seemed to fall victim to that surest death for all Brahms concertos: treating the orchestra like mere accompaniment. Because when you go to a Brahms concerto, and the man is throwing all the weight of the previous century of concerto making into one big 1000 ton statement, you want to see a fight, right? Well this was more of a polite accord. The big foolproof moments couldn't help but inspire some awe, but otherwise the orchestra always seemed a hair too slow or marred by four-square conducting that leeched much of the life out of the piece. Soloist Augustin Haedlich proved on several occasions that he was capable of the right sensibility (including a badass Paganini encore) but these were isolated incidents. Not sure if the tempo was holding him back or what, but in this piece you need to DIG IN and he never quite DUG.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

The paranoid style in cultural commentary

Probably the most offensive thing about this column by Neal Gabler is simply that such an amazingly lazy column could make it into a paper. The argument, about how grassroots democrats are throwing off the shackles of elite taste dictums by not keeping the new Jonathan Franzen book on top of the bestseller list, and how this is also a victory against the tyranny of booooorrrinnggg classical music, or something, is ably and justly busted by both A. Ross and A.O. Scott.

So no need to pile on anymore there. But it is a nice reminder of the strange bedfellows inspired by this kind of thinking. Gabler, judging by writings like this, is no conservative, and I expect he would see little common cause with the dominant conservative rhetoric about "elites", with its suspicion of science, other cultures, vegetables, and of course, pervert art. The disdain Gabler is tapping into (albeit rather clumsily) is left-identified, rooted in an anti-authoritarian impulse to upend the fusty dominant culture that seeks to assert its superiority as a means to suppress authentic experience.

But that doesn't make it any less problematic. People on the left are supposed to have a real analysis about culture and power, but it doesn't work when you just substitute a bunch of posturing and neutered carping about culture you don't enjoy, while blaming a bunch of people that have little actual control. Indeed, Gabler is trafficking in the same rhetoric that allows conservatives to redefine class as a simple matter of aesthetics and cover for the social, political and economic interests who have a real incentive to define culture. Not helpful.

Dept. of nice use of opera similies

Josh Marshall, on liberals' tendency to view politics as an inconvenient sideshow to "real" policy debates:
Democrats often console themselves that even when they don't win elections, usually their individual policies are more popular than those of Republicans. Too bad you can't elect a policy. It's true for instance that Health Care Reform -- which still has more opponents than supporters -- is pretty popular when you ask people about its individual components. But why is that? It's not random, because that pattern crops up again and again. It's another one of the examples where liberals -- or a certain strain of liberalism -- focuses way too much on the libretto of our political life and far too little on the score. It's like you're at a Wagner opera reading the libretto with your ear plugs in and think you've got the whole thing covered.