the viennese sound explored


There is a fantastic multimedia article in today’s New York Times about the venerated Vienna Philharmonic and what makes its sound so unique in a world full of sound-alike ensembles. Well worth a read/look/listen!

criticizing the critic

In today’s New York Times Anthony Tommasini reviewed pianist Stephen Hough’s recital at Carnegie Hall. A major component of Hough’s recital was a piece of his own invention, his Piano Sonata No. 2 “Notturno Luminoso”.

My problem with this review is that there seems to be no critic alive (with the possible exceptions of Steven Smith and Alex Ross) who is not afraid of praising a work or a performance without also giving some sort of sly, backhanded dressing down of same. Here is what I mean:

At 51, Mr. Hough has established himself as an extraordinary pianist, a thinking person’s virtuoso. Whether he is a towering composer is another question. Music history usually takes some time to make those calls. And, from this one hearing, I cannot claim that Mr. Hough’s Second Sonata is destined for a slot in the repertory.

But it is an exhilarating and inventive piece, brilliantly conceived for the piano. Mr. Hough, a polymath who also conducts, paints and writes poetry, is a lively writer on music who contributes a blog to The Daily Telegraph in London that is essential reading. Not surprisingly, he wrote a vividly detailed program note for his sonata.

The title “Notturno Luminoso” is meant to suggest the experience of a fantasy on a sleepless night in a brash city setting. As the piece, loosely organized in three parts, opens, we hear steely chords thick with clusters, like Messiaen’s harmonies but with a touch of bracing Copland or early Carter.

Now, what was wrong with saying it was an ‘exhilarating and inventive piece, brilliantly conceived’ without saying that it also might not be ‘destined for a slot in the repertory’? Is it too much to simply enjoy a piece without also downgrading its chances at entering the repertory? How many of Liszt’s piano works were criticized at their premieres because the critics were concerned with whether any other pianists might not be up to their virtuoso challenges? I would guess that contemporary critics of Liszt were more concerned with the performance of the great pianist/composer, and with the novel techniques he may have introduced in his compositions, rather than if pianists would be playing his works fifty years hence.

Does this seem strange to anyone else but me?

team building

J Richard Hackman

Today’s New York Times published an obituary for J. Richard Hackman, an expert in team dynamics. In his 2011 article Six Common Misperceptions About Teamwork for the Harvard Business Journal, Hackman wrote:

“Misperception No. 2: It’s good to mix it up. New members bring energy and fresh ideas to a team. Without them, members risk becoming complacent, inattentive to changes in the environment, and too forgiving of fellow members’ misbehavior.

“Actually: The longer members stay together as an intact group, the better they do. As unreasonable as this may seem, the research evidence is unambiguous. Whether it is a basketball team or a string quartet, teams that stay together longer play together better.”

Not only sports teams or string quartets – symphony orchestras could also be considered in this statement. It’s a shame that many managements don’t subscribe to this view instead of seeing an endless supply of eager, young talent emerging from conservatories and music schools to replace higher-cost musicians.