Tag Archives: music

Gnaoua or never

Essaouira is a great place to end a trip through Morocco. The cool air and wind from the sea felt wonderful after the intense heat of the desert. Seagulls wheeled and cried, and waves crashed on the rocky shore and nearby islands. The smells of salt and fish blew through the air.


Walking through the narrow streets in the medina, I fell in love with the shades of blue. Against the high white walls of the old houses, shutters and doors are painted pale blue or turquoise. Sometimes they’re surrounded with a border of yellow. I wanted to paint everything in my house white and golden yellow and pale blue.


And Essaouira is mellow. Even full of Moroccan visitors and European tourists, it felt relaxed and peaceful. If I lived in Europe, I might make it a regular vacation spot.

We were there for the Gnaoua and World Music Festival. (It’s also spelled Gnawa, but I seem to gravitate toward spelling Moroccan names the French way rather than English). Pronounce all the letters: Guh-now-ah. The title of this post, by the way, is stolen from some posters and t-shirts we saw at the festival. Continue reading



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And I don’t even like baseball.

The composer David Lang has a great editorial in today’s New York Times.

It’s “a pitch for new music.” You know how much I love puns. And as a kid I enjoyed baseball, at least the one or two games a year that I’d go to with my dad and my brother and, once in a while, my mom.

Anyway, back to David Lang and his great piece on baseball and classical music. You should read the whole thing, but here are a few excerpts worth highlighting.

Somehow the legendary magnificence of baseball’s past doesn’t get in the way of enjoying what is happening in baseball’s present. Can we say the same thing about classical music? Not always. Our love of the past can enhance what we hear but I often feel that the appreciation of classical music’s glorious past can get in the way of truly hearing the music being made right now.

It turns out that classical music fans do a lot of the same remembering and measuring as baseball fans. Both baseball and classical music have a great sense of history, a tremendous respect for the past, and a slew of nerdy people like me [and me!] who want to know all the details. Both are made of people who argue passionately with each other about who was the greatest.

The strange thing is that music fans and baseball fans remember the past with very different results; appreciation of the past helps baseball fans enjoy the game in front of them, while sometimes classical music’s illustrious past can keep us from enjoying what is happening right now.

It is a real problem — listeners who come to hear new music searching for only the composers and performers who can fly up immediately to some musical pantheon will almost always be disappointed. Not because musicians are worse now, or aren’t skilled, or inspired, or serious, but because “greatness” is not an objective measurement. It is the end result of an unpredictable communal process of the sorting of memories; the listeners of the future will decide if something is memorable through the simple act of remembering it.

I think what baseball projects, and what classical music needs, is the sense that one goes to a live event not to experience greatness, but to experience the possibility of greatness.

The possibility of greatness: yes.

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Watered and buried

The introduction to my latest concert review is up.

For the record: I did not write the headline. “Waterbury” twice in one headline, in the Waterbury newspaper? Gah. And most of the article is behind a paywall, but I’ve put a link below, in case you’re curious. (I should also state that this is the fastest I’ve ever – ever – had to write a review.)

Fortunately, the print version (pdf) had a much better headline – which I also didn’t write.

Also, I love the one web comment:
“Would have been nice to read about this BEFORE the concert. ”

To which I would like to reply:
Dear sir or madam: It’s a review. You can’t write a review before the concert even takes place.

Besides, it looks like the paper did run a preview of the event.

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What do you write about when you write about opera?

The other day, I came across this piece by Mark Prescott, in which he writes:

Most reviews of productions I’ve attended concern themselves nearly exclusively with a detailed analysis of the director’s conception of the drama. The fact that the writer is generally a music rather than theatre expert is even more bemusing.

Of course, my first (and self-centered) thought was: “Oh, crap. Do I do that?”

Sometimes. But.

One thing that Prescott neglects to point out is that, with a new production of an opera that’s part of the repertory, the critics will already know the music, while the production is new. So it’s hardly surprising that the critic will pay attention to what is specific to this production. Yes, the performance of the music is important, but the music itself is already familiar.

The audience can go listen to a recording of what the music (the composition, not that particular performance) sounds like, but there’s nowhere to get an equivalent overview of the staging. So the review will probably include a little reportage.

Also, everyone has their reasons for loving opera. What draws me in is when it’s about something big and complicated and resonant, like Nixon in China or Cardillac. The production will more overtly communicate what the opera is about than the singers’ and orchestra’s performance of the music will.

I wonder if he feels that reviews of new operas also focus too much on the production. A review of a new opera should probably split more evenly, because there’s no more previous knowledge of the music than there is of the production. The elements are usually more integrated,

Does he want something more like this review? A rundown of voices that reads like a sportscast? Really, there are more interesting things to me than a scorecard of how people performed. I mean, it’s a  positive review – “winning performance,” “admirable performance,” “top-notch ensemble,” “lovely sounds” – but there’s no poetry in it. Reading that review does little to communicate the experience of watching and hearing that Romeo et Juliette. It doesn’t do much to make me want to go see the opera.

What also comes to mind is Anne Midgette’s recent piece about multiple critical voices. Every critic will have his or her own slant, focus, interest, etc. The richest and most interesting conversations will be those with multiple voices and opinions.

So I find myself wanting to say, nicely: don’t tell me what to write about. Don’t tell other critics what to write about. We’ll each write about what stands out to us. We’ll write about whatever strikes us as important or relevant or just plain interesting. Because that’s what will make our responses our own.

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This is what it’s about.

I love when music addresses political topics, and this statement completely captures the dynamic between the music and the ideas it tries to embrace and represent.

Of course music cannot actually say anything about politics – music is just music. But political ideas refracted through music achieve a different dimension. The reality of politics on the ground may be too full of practical detail to make good opera, but opera, through being narrated by music, automatically lifts ideas on to an emotional and imaginative plane and we see political ideas in a different light.

David Pountney

Pountney is the librettist and director of an opera, with music by Peter Maxwell Davies, that tells three stories of student activism: from Germany, China, and the United States. And I hope I get to see it.

(Thanks to @NaxosUSA for posting a link to the article.)

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But I *will* make Cardillac puns.

Because what’s a better response to depravity in opera than to make flippant puns? (Cardillac is pronounced car-dee-yak. Like a cross between a car and a kayak, but different.)

I went up to Boston on Sunday to see the New England premiere of Hindemith’s opera, and damn, why isn’t it performed more often?

In other news, I couldn’t resist titling my reviewCardillac: arresting.” And then my friend and fellow music journalist Chris wrote:

Love your title! (and review). I would have not been able to resist making 4 or 5 more heart attack jokes in the course of a review (“don’t bypass this show!” “Sylvan gave a heart-stopping performance” etc.), which only shows how much more class you possess than me, Ms. Astmann.

It’s really not an issue of class. Sadly, I was so tired when I was writing that it didn’t even occur to me to pepper my review with puns! But my fatigue-induced neglect is your heart-pumping opportunity. Bring on your best cardiac puns in the comments section. And read my review if you feel like it.

And if you’re in Boston, please please please go see the last performance of Cardillac tonight.


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Faith in melody

The Hungarian-born Austrian composer Iván Eröd has said:

When I write music I mean for it to be listened to and comprehended. I must therefore use a language that is likely to be understood by a large number of people.

I profess my faith in melody, in form and in creating an effect….

Absolute originality of language is the enemy of communication. Language has to do with convention, agreement; so does musical language.

Think about that. “Absolute originality of language is the enemy of communication.” If it’s entirely original, there’s no point of understanding. Nothing of the communication can be received.

In time, of course, we can learn to understand things that were once original. What once shocked can eventually communicate, even eloquently.

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