Collected Stories « PREV | NEXT »: The 'Book' was free, the payoff priceless

August 12, 2011

Talking about Music

Most pre-concert, post-concert, and connected-to-concert talks are, quite frankly, a waste of time--and I say this as someone who has given a few of them myself.  You might pick up a bit of history or a brief passage to look out for, but more likely you are made impatient by the unhelpful summaries, critical gobbledegook, and stiltedly informative manner of the speaker. 

Last night, however, I went to a talk at the Music@Menlo series that was, if anything, as good as the concerts it accompanied.  Granted, the speaker was Ara Guzelimian, the acknowledged master of live music talks, whose interviews with Mark Morris, John Adams, and Paul Jacobs have delighted me in the past.  But in this case Guzelimian transcended even himself.  He had put together a two-hour evening about late Brahms that was intended to enhance Music@Menlo's three weeks of marvelous Brahms-related concerts.  I know they were marvelous because, prior to the talk, I had already attended two of the concerts--but I didn't fully realize how marvelous Brahms himself was until Guzelimian led me through the steps to that realization.

His argument--which he amply proved in the course of the evening--was that Brahms was both the last classicist and the first modernist.  (Even fans of the composer tend to take one side or another in this argument; Guzelimian is rare in advocating both.)  He talked about the earlier composers who had influenced Brahms and the later ones he had in turn influenced; he elaborated on the pianist (Clara Schumann), violinist (Joseph Joachim), and clarinetist (Richard Mühlfeld) who had inspired some of his greatest works.  But best of all, he brought the excellent musicians from the Music@Menlo community to the stage to help him illustrate his points.  To hear Wu Han play side-by-side piano pieces of Milton Babbitt and Brahms (Babbitt was, apparently, a lifelong fan of the German master), and then to hear her elaborate on what she loved about each passage, and how the two pieces reflected each other, was a rare pleasure--and it was Guzelimian who evoked these revelations from her, in a completely warm and informal way.  It was like being present at a rehearsal, or a heavenly music lesson, in which we were treated to the most insider-ish observations voiced in plain speech.

And then, as a finale, Guzelimian brought on the five players who tonight and tomorrow will perform the Clarinet Quintet in the closing concert of the festival:  David Shifrin on the clarinet, Philip Setzer and Ani Kavafian on the violins, Yura Lee on the viola, and Paul Watkins on the cello.  I had heard Shifrin do the Brahms clarinet trio and a couple of the clarinet sonatas the preceding Monday, so I already knew how great his playing was going to be--but what I didn't suspect was how, in the small setting of the Martin Family Hall, even this grand quintet could be made to seem intimate and personal.  Before and during their snippets from the Adagio and their full performance of the first movement, the musicians exchanged comments with Guzelimian about exactly how the passages worked, and why they worked.  Again, it was almost like being at a rehearsal, but even better, because they were directing their observations at intellectual clarity for us, not just practical clarity for themselves. 

I haven't heard such great music talk since the day I went to hear Alex Ross's touring version of The Rest Is Noise, with Ethan Iverson performing the piano illustrations.  At the time, I figured I'd never hear anything like it again, but last night's experience certainly rivaled it.  I hope it signals a new trend in music talks.  We should be so lucky.
August 12, 2011 10:19 AM | | Comments (0)

Leave a comment

















Archives

Creative Commons License
This weblog is licensed under a Creative Commons License.


About

    ARTicles ARTicles is a project of 
    the National Arts Journalism Program, an association of some 500 journalists in the United States. Our group blog is a place for arts and cultural journalists to share ideas and information, to celebrate what we do, and to make the case for its continuing value. ARTicles is edited by Laura Collins-Hughes. To contact her, click here.
    more

    ARTicles Bloggers Meet our bloggers: Sasha Anawalt, MJ Andersen, Alicia Anstead, Laura Bleiberg, Larry Blumenfeld, Jeanne Carstensen, Robert Christgau, Laura Collins-Hughes, Thomas Conner, Lily Tung Crystal, Richard Goldstein, Patti Hartigan, Glenn Kenny, Wendy Lesser, Ruth Lopez, Nancy Malitz, Douglas McLennan, Tom Moon, Abe Peck, Peter Plagens, John Rockwell, Werner Trieschmann, Lesley Valdes and Douglas Wolk. more

    NAJP NAJP is America's largest organization dedicated to the advancement of arts and cultural journalism. The NAJP has produced research, publications and discussions and works to bring together journalists, artists, news executives, cultural organization administrators, funders and others concerned with arts and culture in America today. more

    Join NAJP Join America's largest organization of arts journalists. Here's how more

see all archives

Contact: articles@najp.org