All the King's Men: Spoilers Allowed
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At the Symphony

Thanks to a much-appreciated Christmas gift from two of our children, my wife and I went to the Mobile Symphony Orchestra concert last night. 

The first piece was Smetana's Overture to The Bartered Bride. Most people who have listened to classical music very much have probably heard this. It's one of those fairly short (under ten minutes) and colorful pieces that serve very well to fill out a recording or a classical radio station's afternoon programming--or to open a concert. I've heard it enough in such settings, and paid little enough attention to it, that I would have recognized it without being able to identify it. I'd never actually listened to it. It was definitely not the reason I wanted to attend this concert.

Well, turns out it's really quite a good piece, irresistibly rhythmic and catchy, danceable I guess if  you have a whole lot of energy. There are good reasons why these old chestnuts stay around. Here, have a listen for yourself:

(And by the way why do we call them "chestnuts"?)

Next was Dvorak's Eighth Symphony. I'm not very familiar with his symphonies, apart from the "New World," which of course I love. I think I've heard this one before, but if so it was some time ago, and only once. I enjoyed it somewhat short of rapturously. But I think I might like it better with closer acquaintance. The last movement is a theme and variations, and I always like those because it's one of the few classical structures that I can actually understand (more or less).

And after the intermission, the Brahms Violin Concerto with Vadim Gluzman as the soloist. This was a real treat. I am not at all in a position to critique Gluzman's playing by comparison with other big-name violinists, but it certainly impressed me. This piece is horribly difficult. I want to say that the violinist Joseph Joachim, for whom Brahms wrote it, initially pronounced it unplayable, but I may be mixing up my stories.

It had been a good many years since I'd heard this concerto, and on hearing it again I remembered that I've always had an odd sort of reservation about the first movement. Despite the fact that what I take to be its main theme (I'm always a little uncertain of what's what in sonata forms) is one of the most sublime melodies ever written, I always feel that there is some sort of disconnect between what the violin is doing and what the orchestra is doing. I'm sure this is a defect in me. Toward the end of that movement it occurred to me that maybe I'm looking at it backward, that I'm thinking of it as orchestral music with solo highlights, but should be thinking of it as solo music with orchestral support. I'm going to listen to it again with that thought in mind. If there is an expert in the house I'd be interested in any light you can shed on this.

For what it's worth, I don't have that feeling, or at least not as strongly, in the second and third movements. 

For some reason Gluzman did not give us an encore, though he was called back at least three times. I hope there is a good reason for that. I'd like to have heard one of those brilliant showpieces that violinists use for that purpose.

I've said this before (see this post), but I am really appreciative of the local symphony orchestra. No, they're not in the league with the major orchestras, but they are plenty good enough to be enjoyable. You don't sit there wincing at the lapses. And I think they've improved a good deal since I first heard them twenty or twenty-five years ago. 

And there's just something about the sound of a live orchestra live (live music generally, I guess), something that I don't think you can get from a recording. I have a pretty good stereo system, and as it happens I've been listening to it more attentively than usual for a couple of months, because I'm thinking of swapping my very good but rather large speakers for a pair someone gave me that are possibly not quite as good, but are considerably more compact. The room (my study or office or whatever you want to call it) is small enough that the space gained would be nice.

So last night at the concert I sometimes found myself comparing what I was hearing with what I get from my stereo, and the very clear result was that there really is no comparison. The live sound, the real sound, is just something altogether different. My brain would have trouble articulating it but my ears have absolutely no doubt about it; they cooperate with my vision to give me a picture of the sound, and the image from the live orchestra is many times larger than that from the stereo. And that's not just a matter of loudness: my stereo can go loud enough that you couldn't stay in the room with it, and yet it would still not be the same as live music.

Years ago I read an article on this subject in an audiophile magazine. The writer described his extremely expensive high-end system and how great it was, and yet: he had a cat which was terrified of thunderstorms, and would zip away and hide under the bed at the first rumble. The writer, like a lot of audiophiles, sometimes liked to admire and exercise his system for visitors by playing various non-musical sounds and marveling at their realism. He was playing a CD of storm sounds very loudly when he noticed that the cat was sleeping not far from the speakers, quite undisturbed.


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Cats can hear frequencies up to about 60 kHz, whereas humans top out at about 20 kHz. A stereo could have very good sound reproduction in the range of human hearing but still not fool a cat!

I have never had a sound system that could make a plausible claim to being lifelike, though I had a friend in graduate school who did. It was amazing to sit and listen to it. You could actually point to the positions of the musicians in the recording space. A $ound $y$tem like that i$ not fea$ible for everyone.

However good the quality of the recording is, there is just something in the air at a live performance that can't be recorded.


Is it because of the acoustics of orchestral halls? Reading this about Boston's Symphony Hall makes it seem so:

To determine the acoustics of Symphony Hall, BSO founder Henry Lee Higginson hired Wallace Clement Sabine, a physics professor at Harvard, to work as acoustical consultant with the architectural firm of McKim, Mead & White of New York. Sabine developed a mathematical formula that enabled him to predict the reverberation time before the building was built, so that an ideal reverberation time of 1.9 to 2.1 seconds could be achieved.

Then, in order to focus the sound on the main seating areas, an optimal shape was selected for the concert hall and space between the rows of seats was kept at 5 inches.

Finally, an acoustically ideal stage was constructed for the orchestra. The walls, ceiling and floor of the stage slope inward to project the sound onto the audience. Today, more than 100 years after it was built, Symphony Hall still offers concertgoers a truly memorable experience.

Hall acoustics certainly make a difference, but they're not the difference I'm talking about. I heard the orchestra Saturday night in an old movie theater, which has ok but not outstanding acoustics. You could put that orchestra in a gym and it would still have that live quality that recordings don't.

Janet, I'm not sure if the "something in the air" you're talking about is what I'm talking about. I think in a live concert there is literally something in the air that you don't get from even the best personal sound system. I think partly it has something to do with space and distribution of sound within the space.

Craig, my stereo (antiquated term) will provide the kind of placement you're talking about, depending of course on the recording. In fact that's what I've been bothering myself with in trying to decide between these two sets of speakers: I think one gives slightly better placement than the other. And it's not all that expensive. Most of the components were bought 20 and more years ago, but I think I could replace it with something just as good for somewhere between $1000 and $1500. Maybe less if I took my time and bought used stuff. Not pocket change, obviously, but not absurd if you love music. You don't have to do it all at once and it ought to last for decades--as long as you don't fall into the audiophile mania that makes people want to upgrade constantly in search of something better.

I should add that I'm not a true audiophile. I don't have the kind of sensitive ears that they do, that can, for instance, detect a bump in response between 1000 and 1200hz. (Actually I'm not sure I believe them.) I won't usually hear any difference between two amps, for instance, unless one is really bad and the other really good. Also, my high-frequency hearing has definitely declined since I was in my 40s or so.

Brahms first movement has two main themes, the first of which you hear at the immediate outset. The second is the one that rises and syncopates, the first solo iteration starts with a g sharp, not sure how else to describe it verbally. Concerti from that late Romantic era definitely are meant as showpieces for the solo instrument, with the orchestra as a kind of supporting partner. The Brahms is particularly rich in melodic material, and it follows in a lot of ways from the Beethoven violin concerto. I recommend listening to David Oistrakh play it, old recording. I don't recall it being deemed unplayable, but I definitely heard that about the Tchaikovsky, which was composed for Leopold Auer.

(I followed you here from Dreher's. I am a conservatory drop out.)

Nice to hear from you. I recognize your name and seem to remember liking some comments from you at Dreher's.

Your recommendation of Oistrakh is right on. I've actually become a little obsessed with this piece, and for some reason went looking for an Oistrakh recording on Tidal. I found one of those all-Russian ones that sometimes seem to be of sort of dodgy provenance in this country, Kyril Kondrashin and some Russian orchestra. The sound quality is pretty poor, but when the violin entered--wow--it was electrifying.

I don't really have that good an ear (or training) and usually get somewhat lost in sonata form. I always have trouble distinguishing the capital-T Theme(s) from other bits that come and go. And remembering them so that I recognize them or variations on them when they appear. I'm embarrassed to admit that I didn't at first recognize the first theme when the violin plays it. I mean I didn't notice that it was the same melody as the opening.

But I sure do love the first movement of this concerto.

Ok, so a friend from England emailed to tell me that there is a recording coming out at the end of March with Beth Gibbons (Portishead) singing Gorecki's 3rd Symphony ("Symphony of Sorrowful Songs") with the Polish National Orchestra. Interesting, I thought, although I was not totally sure that BG has the right voice for it.

Then I googled it and saw that it's conducted by Penderecki. Yes, that Penderecki: Kryzsztof, arguably Poland's greatest living composer. His presence definitely lends gravitas to the project, and reduces my skepticism considerably.

I have always felt that Lisa Gerrard from Dead Can Dance would be an ideal candidate to give the Gorecki symphony a go. But it will certainly be intriguing to see what Gibbons does with it.

Various online sources have it available for pre-order on both CD and LP.

Hmm. Actually I can't imagine Beth Gibbons singing that, but it would be interesting.

I was wondering recently whether to get rid of my LPs of Penderecki's oratorio Passion According to St. Luke and opera Devils of Loudon. The former was something I bought back in college, I think because it was getting a lot of notice. The latter I picked up used for a dollar or two when most people were discarding vinyl. It's questionable whether I'll ever play either of them again. Both, as I recall, are full-on scary-dissonant. I understand he moved away from that later.

I think I'm going to go ahead and order it without listening to any clips first. I like the piece very much, and I doubt it's a vocal train-wreck or it wouldn't have been released. And it's not like it's super-expensive or anything. I've taken worse musical chances.

I don't often listen to vinyl but at the end of last summer I was very happy to have some with me (bought at a nearby thrift shop) over a rainy weekend in a seaside cabin that had no wifi, a TV with patchy reception, and a record player. Smetana and Grieg saw us through. I've always loved Grieg, but I hadn't consciously listened to Smetana before. I listened to him a lot that weekend.

I don't know much of their music apart from the usual handful of really famous pieces. But The Moldau was one of the first pieces of classical music that I really liked.

A lot of used record stores shy away from classical LP's nowadays but we've got one store here in Pittsburgh that has thousands of them, all fairly well organized and priced very reasonably. To give you an idea of their volume, I went in there a couple months ago looking for a specific Vaughan Williams album and was surprised to find that they had at least a hundred RVW records, organized by the featured work(s).

I guess big cities can support that kind of thing. I don't know if my local store has any classical or not, but it's obvious from the racks that if there is any it's not much.

I found that there are some pop albums that you can't give away to stores, at least here. I have several Linda Ronstadt albums (my wife's, actually, from before we were married, and I don't know why she had them in the first place because she has zero interest in them). The local store didn't even want them for free.

It's getting that way with a lot of CD's now too. There are so many copies of certain ones floating around that the used CD stores won't take them.

You want the copy of that Gin Blossoms CD that was popular 20 or so years ago? :-) One of my children bought it back then and didn't even bother to take it with him when he moved out.

It so happens that I opened this thread up today while listening to Penderecki's "Symphony No.4"!

His "St Luke Passion" is a train wreck. I guess a case could be made for using all of the resources of modern music (dissonance, atonality, "extended vocal effects") to tell the Passion story, but only if one first makes the case for using all those resources at all, which I am reluctant to grant.

That Gorecki recording sounds intriguing.

I agree about those resources. Maybe somewhat more willing to grant the case in principle, but no commitment to actually wanting to hear the resulting works.

How is the symphony?

I pre-ordered the Gorecki today from Wal*Mart, of all places. Same online price as most other sites, free 2-day shipping, and an additional discount if you pick it up in-store instead of having it shipped to you directly.

Gorecki from Wal*Mart. Who knew?

The "Symphony No.4" is an enjoyable piece, written in the late 1980s, well after he abandoned tone clusters and all their empty promises. It's not going to change your life, but it's a good modern symphony.

I guess I'll put it on the One Of These Days list.

I've got a disc of his choral music that's lovely. And some of his shorter works for strings, like "Three Olden Style Pieces," are quite good. The chamber music that I've heard, on the other hand, has left me cold.

Oh yeah, now that you mention it, I have a disc of choral music that includes one of his pieces. I don't remember his in particular but the whole disk is good.

Today I learned I can no longer read the word "atonality" without hearing Merle Hazard in my head.

Heh. You could do worse. You could be hearing some piece of Penderecki's St. Luke Passion.

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