About neuroscience and music (mainly classical). Exploring the relationship of music and the brain based on experience of two careers.

April 20, 2017

"Coachella is Certainly a Place to See Live Music...."

I try to hard understand the enormous changes in music taking place during my lifetime. As an child, I loved hearing the Cleveland Orchestra in my hometown, but the music that orchestra makes today, though by some measures at an even higher level, is no longer what most people mean when they play or speak of “music.” 

Performing arts organizations of all sizes, from small Music at Gretna to the massive Metropolitan Opera are scrambling to retain audiences to support their missions without having to drain dry the wells of patronage. For too many people our music tends to be “classical” in the worst sense of that term: old music outmoded and forgotten. I find myself a little sheepish when I respond to the question: ”What kind of music do you play?” The response is usually a conversation-stopping, “Oh.”

That all came up again this week in my winter hometown, Palm Springs California. The Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival ("Coachella") came to Indio. Though that is 22 miles away, many of the expected 200,000 "fans" paying at least $400 for general admission, some arriving in VW vans, some on commercial flights, some in private planes from LA or Bermuda, spilled out into the restaurants and hundreds of hotels in Palm Springs. The promoters expect to "gross" way over $100 million and pay headliners each $3-4 mil to perform. The 345 restrooms and 6 stages inside huge tents on 700 acres of desert are astounding. The event presents "a whirlpool of commercial potential" according to The New Yorker.

Read more by John Seabrook and Carrie Battan

January 26, 2017

Abbado, Lucerne, Mahler

Just before the New Year I purchased a DVD of Claudio Abbado conducting the Lucerne Festival Orchestra in Mahler's Ninth Symphony. The Ninth was Mahler's farewell to the world: "Each passing minute takes us closer to the grave. Death is awful in its inevitability. We will rage and fight against it, but in the end, something bigger than we can imagine will force us into acquiescence." (Shirley Apthorp in the liner notes) 

The 'Ninth,' probably in the Bernstein recording, gave rise to the despondent "Late Night Thoughts While Listening to Mahler's Ninth Symphony" by Lewis Thomas, contemplating late in his life the possibility of nuclear armageddon that seems to have crept back into my consciousness since November 4. 

Mahler's end was premature in 1911 at age 51, caused by subacute bacterial endocarditis, a condition from which he could have been saved 50 years later by antibiotics and, if also needed, cardiac surgery. Abbado was about 76 years old when he conducted this recording, five years before his more timely, but no less regrettable, end.

The performance, in contrast to the Bernstein recording, is, according to Apthorp, "fluid" rather than "angular," "driven" rather than "accepting," and "talkative" where Bernstein was "silent." However you try to describe it in mere words, the amazing performance kept our entire party on New Years Day totally rapt after dinner. No one asked to me to check football scores! We all respected the "Abbado Pause" -- after the last quiet note died away. Speechless, we wiped away tears.

Everything about the DVD is exquisite: the musicians, hand-picked from the best orchestras in Europe; the filming that, I hesitate to say with Lucerne on my bucket list, offers many advantages over what any member of the large audience in the hall, Kofi Annan and Simon Rattle included, was able to experience; the sound, better of course on a good system but lush and full with earbuds; and especially the view from all angles of Abbado conducting without a score a work he has known all his life. Orchestra members, entirely immersed in the music, effortlessly moved and swayed with him.

Armageddon is not part of the business model of Amazon. Within days my inbox delivered an offer: Mahler Symphonies 1-7 recorded at the Lucerne Festival by Abbado and his orchestra. I snapped up a "like-new" package of 4 DVD's from one of the "other vendors" for $43 plus shipping! I only discovered several weeks after it arrived that the producers had slipped in a bonus Prokofiev Third Piano Concerto by Yuja Wang and Five Rückert Songs by the sublime Magdalena Kožená, mentioned only in small print on the album cover. 

More art has probably been inspired by the Resurrection than by any other 'event' in human history. None comes closer, in my view, to matching the profundity of that idea than the recording in this set of Mahler's Resurrection Symphony, No 2. Mahler was, of course, born into a Jewish family. Why can I not understand why anyone experiencing these performances might not be overwhelmed by humility? 

I will not "rage and fight" against death when that time comes. But I will include these amazing recordings on my final "playlist."