what i talk about when i talk about music (apologies to murakami)

It’s a funny think, writing about music. Yes, it’s like dancing about architecture, but it’s also pretty darned appropriate to do so. Some of the best writing I’ve read, fiction or non-fiction, has concerned itself about music or the fine arts in general. Music, in particular, lends itself to abundant discussion due to its ineffable nature. As Rilke put it in his Letters to a Young Poet:

Things are not all as graspable and sayable as on the whole we are led to believe; most events are unsayable, occur in a space that no word has ever penetrated, and most unsayable of all are works of art, mysterious existences whose life endures alongside ours, which passes away.

There is so much in our human existence which is beyond our comprehension. Hence, the creation of religion and great works of art. Each attempts to describe the indescribable in terms that resonate with our pathetically finite bodies and souls. For me, music is where it’s at. I love the dramatic arts, the visual arts, film, most everything that claims to be art. But music for me hits the sweet spot of profundity – even when it’s not ‘high’ art. Some of the most moving songs for me in my recent life have been popular songs, from such bands and artists as Coldplay, Ben Folds, Brandi Carlile, and Barcelona. I must make a distinction here, before the fine art police come down on me for conflating popular music and ‘art’ music. First of all, the distinction is becoming less and less of an issue with each decade that passes, so it’s largely moot. (And plus, in the days when the ‘western canon’ of classical music was still ink drying on vellum, there was really no such distinction.) Second of all, I think that the issues addressed in each genre are similar, but often take different tacks in that pursuit. Popular music might deal with falling in love and breaking up from the perspective of the individual, in all its banality (which, by extension, makes it approachable to all of us – we can relate to the average dude who gets dumped on his birthday, for example). Art music might take falling in love and place it in the continuum of the universality of love, and what love means in the vast expanses of the world and the universe. Both approaches are equally valid. When Ben Folds sings about a love that spans a lifetime, as he does in The Luckiest, it successfully takes a simple text (though elegant in its simplicity) and creates a story that spans decades in the space of a four minute-plus song. It’s a gorgeous ballad, and one that never fails to tug on my heartstrings for a variety of reasons, all of which I’m not going to bring up here. But here’s a version similar to that which he sang with the Oregon Symphony a few weeks ago:

And then, there’s the art music approach – in this case, let’s use the subject of death, and the anticipation of death. Perhaps the most effective of all the great composers in this particular area might be Franz Schubert (at least in the area of the art song), most particularly in his fantastic song cycle Winterreise. In the twentieth song of the cycle, entitled Der Wegweiser, the protagonist of the cycle is on a deserted road on a dark and snowy evening. He ponders why he takes the road less travelled, and on his uneasy and unceasing quest for these deserted byways. In the end, he knows that he is seeking the road that no one returns from – that which leads to death. Personal, evocative, yet universal and probing in its approach to the greater meaning of life and death as it applies both to the individual and to mankind as a whole (especially in the context of this monumental collection of songs). Here is Dietrich Fischer Dieskau with Murray Perahia, pianist.

Both are great in their own way. Clearly, the Schubert has already stood the test of time. Will the Folds? Only time will tell. But my point is this – music has that special quality of being able to address issues with great subtlety (or not) with or without a text. For example, is there a greater valedictory statement of leave-taking than the finale of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony? Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra, Myung-Whun Chung, conductor.

More on this in a future posting. And I promise a bit of writing on the opening concert of the Oregon Symphony’s 2014-2015 classical subscription series from last weekend, too.

R.I.P. Claudio Abbado (1933-2014)


a terrible loss

Yakov Kreizberg - Photo: Marco Borgreve

“Music allows us to really find our inner self, to be free to search for those things that we normally don’t have the opportunity or the time to search for. It opens up many, many doors within us. It opens the doors to our soul, to our feelings, to humanity as a whole.” – Yakov Kreizberg

I just learned that the wonderful conductor Yakov Kreizberg, has passed away at his home in Monaco. News reports only say that he’d had a “long illness”, which seems to be code these days for some variety of cancer. He was only 51 years old.

I’m so saddened by this, because he was one of the best conductors that we’ve worked with here at the Oregon Symphony. He was very much a personality of the Old World, patrician and soft spoken, but also very much a mensch, and beloved of most everyone who worked under him. The performances we did of Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra, Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony and Mahler’s First Symphony will forever be etched in my mind as defining musical experiences.

I had somewhat of a second-hand personal connection with Yakov (as he was known to everyone), several friends of mine went to the Berkshire (now Tanglewood) Music Center with him when he was a conducting fellow, and had told me many funny stories of his time with them there. They came down to visit us when he was conducting in Portland, and there was a wonderful mini-renunion, filled with warmth and reminiscences.

I’m just so terribly sad about the loss of Yakov – he was destined to be one of the greats, and he was struck down in mid-career – 51 is when conductors seem to have reached their stride and a level of maturity that adds depth to their work.

Rest in peace, Yakov. We’ll miss you.

New York Times obituary.
Obituary from The Australian.
Obituary from the Guardian newspaper.
Obituary from Nice Matin.
Obituary from Qobuz Magazine.
Obituary from the Philadelphia Inquirer.
Notice from his management, HarrisonParrott.
Notice from Norman Lebrecht.
David Stabler’s chronology of Kreizberg’s appearances with the Oregon Symphony.
Remembrance from former OSO president/current president of NEC, Tony Woodcock.
A remembrance from pianist Stephen Hough.
Notice from Parool.nl.
Notice from Badischer Zeitung.
Notice from National Public Radio.
Collection of videos from Thousandfold Echo blog.
Yakov Kreizberg’s website.

Click to enlarge image.


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