Wodehouse: Ring For Jeeves
Ann Cleeves: Raven Black

Some Other Night, Perhaps, Mr. Tchaikovsky

I went to hear the Mobile Symphony last night, and had a very mixed reaction to what I heard. As follows:

Duke Ellington: Suite From The River

I had never heard this piece, a suite from a ballet, before, but I suppose I can say I had some expectations, and that it met them, but that that was not altogether a good thing. My expectations were based on a generally not all that favorable view of jazz-classical mixtures: they tend to suffer from neither-fish-nor-fowl syndrome. The jazzy elements seem stiff, and the classical-y elements limited, and that was more or less my reaction here. I don't want to sound too negative, as it was very enjoyable. But relatively lightweight.

Stravinsky: Suite from The Firebird

The pairing (as they say of food and drink) of this with the Ellington was unfortunate. No doubt it seemed a good idea, but Ellington did not come off well: it was the difference between very enjoyable and magical.

The first Stravinsky I ever heard was The Rite of Spring, most likely when I was a college sophomore taking Dr. Frederick Hyde's music history course at the University of Alabama, ca. 1968. I mention that because Dr. Hyde was a wonderful teacher who deserves to be remembered, and that course was a wonderful experience, which I certainly remember. When I think of him I remember him coming into the classroom struggling with a stack of several dozen LPs, from which he would choose examples to illustrate his lectures. In my perhaps exaggerated memory, there were so many records in the stack that the top ones were always tending to slide off onto the floor. 

I loved The Rite, instantly, and was eager to hear more Stravinsky. The obvious next step was The Firebird. But on one hearing I found it considerably less interesting, almost bland in comparison. And though I've listened to The Rite occasionally over the years, I didn't seek out The Firebird

Well, that's changed now. As of last night, I absolutely love The Firebird. I learned this morning that there are several suites drawn from the score, and this is the 1919 one, apparently the most frequently performed. It is sharp, clear, clean, making use of unusual instrumental techniques--very "modern" in that respect--and yet lyrical, and yet exciting. And I think the Mobile Symphony, whose players are, I assume, not full-time, did it justice. As a recording their performance would no doubt be inferior to the work of big-time orchestras, but last night it had the great advantage of being heard live. And whatever else  might be said about this orchestra, it does not lack energy, which surely has everything to do with its energetic conductor, Scott Speck. I can't recall ever before having the impulse to jump up and yell "Bravo!" at a performance, but I did last night--have the impulse, I mean. I wasn't the only one; there was in fact a standing ovation, which I think is not usual for the second work on the program, especially one without a star soloist. (I didn't actually do it because I didn't want to dump the big coat, hat, and program book in my lap onto the floor.) 

Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto #1

Because I'm so thoroughly in touch with pop culture, I know that "It's not you, it's me," spoken by one member of a romantic relationship to the other as part of the announcement that he/she is breaking up with her/him, is a sort of standing joke. I am resorting to it now in relation to this concerto. I did not enjoy it, but it's not the work, it's me--probably. I can't say why I didn't enjoy it--well, I can say, and I will, but I don't really understand the reaction. I like Tchaikovsky. I like big romantic works with heart-tugging melodies. Granted, the piano concerto is not my favorite genre--I don't think there is one that I would place among my very favorite works--but that doesn't mean I can't enjoy it.

I think it was partly, as with the Ellington, an unfortunate pairing. It was as if I'd had a drink of some of the best whiskey in the world, and, still savoring the aftertaste, tried to eat (drink?) one of those gooey fast-food pseudo-milkshakes. Wrong moment. I was not consciously prejudiced, but something in me rebelled with those first thick, crashing piano chords, accompanied by a famous melody (which was used in a popular song, "Tonight We Love," and I can't keep those words out of my head when I hear the melody).

Part of the problem was the pianist, Maxim Lando, and that began before he ever touched the keys. He came out wearing a shiny gold jacket of the Elvis style, though only waist length. And when he did begin to play, his physical mannerisms were distracting to the point of annoyance: he crouched low over the keyboard in the Glenn Gould style. And those chords were so huge, so crashing, so much more like heavy metal (which I like in its proper place) than I was ready to hear, that I couldn't help blaming the pianist for what is probably the composer's doing. 

And so it went for the entire first movement. The pianist, or the composer, couldn't seem to do anything right for my ears. Things got somewhat better in the second and third movements, and I figured out that I needed to keep my eyes closed to avoid being distracted by the gold lamé (if that's the right word) and the mannerisms. Still, I never really got on board. 

Almost certainly it's not Tchaikovsky or Lando. I'm pretty sure it's me, my frame of mind at the moment. Sometime soon I'll find a recording of the concerto to listen to (I'm not even sure whether I own one) and see if we get along better. Or then again maybe that would be a mistake. Maybe better to wait a while.

In the program notes, Scott Speck has a perfectly reasonable explanation for his choice of these three works.

An unlikely trio of composers. What on earth could have possessed us to combine Peter Tchaikovsky, Igor Stravinsky and Duke Ellington into a single concert? Well, the connections are broader than you might think – and Igor Stravinsky is the key. Stravinsky grew up and spent his most formative musical years in the land of Tchaikovsky – and he spent his last three decades in the land of Ellington.

And he goes on to cite several other connections. Fair enough. It just didn't work for me.


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Perhaps if Stravinsky had been the final piece on the program things would have worked out better for you.

Most likely

They usually like to close with a "favorite."

Yes, it’s a purely speculative thought. Not only a favorite but generally the longest work, and in my experience the only one post-intermission.

Sounds right.

I find that I really have to by in the right mood to listen to that piano concerto. This is not true of Tchaikovsky generally, but I think there's a certain bombast to it (and an absence of his usual charm) that lessens its enjoyability on the average day.

"a certain bombast"--that's a factor in my general mild reservation about piano concertos that I mentioned, the fact that I wouldn't put any one of them in my list of absolutely favorite works. From Beethoven on, the piano itself in that role sometimes comes across that way. There are always points where the composer reminds you that the piano is a percussion instrument. And to my ears Saturday night Maxim Lando really laid into that.

Re: piano concertos I agree in general, but I do like Chopin's two very much, and Schumann's and Grieg's as well. There are some others, but those four come to mind immediately. Although I like piano music a lot, I'm not a fan of the "bombastic" either. Even when it comes to jazz piano I'll take Bill Evans, or Lyle Mays' work with Pat Metheny, over the loud, busy guys.

I don't mean to give the impression that I don't like piano concertos in general. It's just not one of my favorite forms. If I had to pick desert island recordings, there probably wouldn't be a piano concerto among them, depending on how many I was allowed. I haven't heard the Grieg for many years but I used to like it a lot. And I was enthusiastic about Rachmaninoff 3 some months back when someone introduced me to it.

There is a commenter at some site, National Review I think, whose handle is "Everybody Loves Bill Evans." The keyboards in Pat Metheny's recordings generally strike me as overly busy. Lots and lots of notes, but...

I'm thinking mainly of the first couple Metheny group albums, and the debut album specifically. The piano solo on the opening track "San Lorenzo" is an all-time favorite.

I have no idea where the Metheny albums I have fall chronologically. Or for that matter which ones. I think they were all bought used, on a whim. And like so many over the past 20 years, not really given much of a listen. Except the solo guitar one, which I think is called...Water Colors Watermark...?


You may be thinking of New Chautauqua. Watercolors is an ensemble record.

The one with "San Lorenzo" on it is the s/t debut Pat Metheny Group album, which came out in 78 or 79.

You're right, New Chautauqua. I must have Watercolors as well, though I can't recall anything about it at the moment.

Watercolors is okay, but not memorable. I have the original LP but don't play it often.

Needs more Whitesnake.

Nobody anywhere ever needed more Whitesnake.

How about more Taylor Swift?

Better than Whitesnake, at her best. Didn’t I mention actually liking a Taylor Swift song here recently?

Read something the other day about a violist from England who is trying to raise awareness of the viola as solo instrument. Apparently there was a lot of music written for it in the past but it seldom gets heard because of the lack of popularity of the instrument. One of the things this guy has done is to record Elgar's Cello Concerto on viola -- a bold move considering how popular that piece is in England. I have three recordings of it, and know it fairly well -- I'd like to hear the viola version, and may buy it when it appears (if it hasn't already).

Re: Taylor Swift -- I guess as pop music goes she isn't bad. I don't care much for her voice but her songs seem okay, and somewhat more "wholesome" than a lot of today's pop.

Can't say as to whether I've ever heard Whitesnake, but then I've never liked metal so I've paid no attention to it.

One of my children is a violist so I'm aware of some of those transcriptions. It's even possible that I have that recording--I'd have to look. I don't know the concerto that well, just heard it a couple of times.

Taylor Swift, as y'all may know, was Time Magazine's Person of the Year. In some other venue, maybe National Review, someone quoted Time as ranking her with Dylan, McCartney, and others as an important songwriter. I asked other commenters there to name one Swift track that would convince me to consider that claim at all plausible. Someone offered "Anti-Hero." So I watched/heard the video, and although it didn't change my mind about her being a *great* writer, I do like it. It did convince me that she's pretty talented, which is not surprising. It helps that the video, with an embedded comedy sketch, is engaging.


Based on my very limited acquaintance with them, I don't think Whitesnake qualifies as metal. Just big, kind of pompous hard rock.

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