Category: Listening


Some updates on what’s becoming a busy and exciting spring:

  1. For various reasons, I haven’t attended quite as many concerts as usual this season.  I did manage to make it to a wonderful Handel and Haydn concert last February (Beethoven’s 4th Piano Concerto with Robert Levin; Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony).  Handel and Haydn always impresses me.  They are a fantastic period orchestra, and a major part of why Boston’s classical scene is so great.  Next year I do plan to attend more concerts, since supporting classical musicians is one of my priorities.
  2. I have pretty much stopped writing short fiction in order to focus on completing my first novel.  My novel is becoming quite long.  I guess this shouldn’t be a surprise, since most of my favorite novels are long.
  3. This year I’ve already read several great books.  I was deeply impressed and moved by Han Kang’s The Vegetarian and Fiona McFarlane’s The Night Guest.  I also finally got around to reading Megan Abbott’s early novels.  Die a Little and The Song is You were both excellent.
  4. I have continued taking graduate courses in environmental science.  My goal is to identify specific areas in which I can contribute.  I’m starting to think that waste management and land conservation might be good topics of focus for me.  Waste is something I find myself thinking about/noticing a lot.  It is a large but solvable problem that deserves more press.  And land conservation is a subject close to my heart, as I have always loved being in nature and its fragility frightens me.  Also, if you conserve land, you get the added benefits of species conservation and ecosystem services.
  5. One of the classes I took last semester was a fascinating course in marine biology.  Much of it was wonderful and even entertaining.  There are so many weird and remarkable species in the ocean, and learning about them was a joy.  Parts of the class were also pretty sad, like learning that most species of albatross are endangered.  I came away feeling even more strongly that preserving our planet’s wild spaces and biodiversity is THE primary challenge facing our generation.
  6. Meanwhile, watching videos and documentaries about wildlife has become a serious hobby.  Planet Earth and Blue Planet are both excellent.  There’s also tons of amazing footage on YouTube.  Below are a couple of my favorite videos of sea creatures:

Boston Symphony, Eroica

Last week I went to hear the Boston Symphony play Beethoven’s Third Symphony. The first half of the program—Gossec’s Symphonie à 17 Parties, Mozart’s Concerto for Harp and Flute—was also appealing, but I was really there for the Beethoven.

It used to annoy me to see such a predictable work on the program. Hadn’t everyone heard Beethoven’s Ninth and Shostakovich’s Fifth quite enough? It was no coincidence that I felt this way during the years when I planned on becoming a professional musician. I was well-accustomed to playing the usual warhorses, to the point where I felt tired of them even as a teenager. My friends and I thought the audiences who wanted to hear the same symphonies repeatedly must be philistines. We felt sorry for the musicians who were forced to play the same crowd-pleasers year after year, presumably because the conductors were just trying to sell seats.

Then I stopped playing and started working a day job. With barely enough time to write, let alone read, exercise, or listen to music, it became difficult to investigate composers who had always interested me. I never did get around to reading Gardiner’s new biography of Bach, or learning more about theory. All those annoying adults were right: It’s frightening, once you settle into a professional routine, how quickly life goes by. Years can pass and you don’t even realize it.

One interesting resultant change is that I now love hearing the predictables. As a teen, I looked down on Tchaikovsky’s Fifth, found it trite and cliché. Now I go to the symphony whenever it’s on the program. Ditto for Beethoven symphonies, Brahms, and all the embarrassingly typical choices of your average classical lover. Since I hardly have time to listen to these pieces on my own, hearing them in a concert hall is the ideal place to spend an hour hearing music without distraction. (The cost of concert-going also contributes to this behavior. Concerts are not cheap, and I like to know ahead of time that the splurge is for something I will enjoy.)

So enter Beethoven 3 last Tuesday night. I was really excited to hear it. The struggle, the magnitude, the exploded symphonic form. Quite frankly, after working in an office all day, your soul feels pretty stifled. I wanted Beethoven to make me feel again, to remind me that I was human.

Unfortunately, not long after François-Xavier Roth started conducting, it became clear that this rendition would be otherwise. While I appreciated the brisk tempo, the musicians played with little energy. They sounded tired, quiet, and bored. During the development, there are shocking dissonances that tear the harmonic fabric; these moments should be violent and searing. Instead they were played almost pleasantly, like the most ordinary music in the world.

The second and third movements were better, with exceptional solos by principal oboist John Ferrillo and a rousing trio soli in the horns. But the fourth movement was a mess. The string section was sloppy in several of the fugal sections. The rage of Beethoven’s variations gave way to muddled tameness. The orchestra sounded ready to quit playing and go home.

What I have been wondering ever since is: Do I have the right to feel disappointed? It was the Tuesday night show; the musicians had already played this program two or three times. It’s only human that they were bored, and struggled to hide it.

On the other hand, I am a paying customer, and playing well is supposed to be their job. If you make a living performing—and if you’re lucky enough to be in the Boston Symphony—is it reasonable for the audience to expect an exciting performance?


On listening to all the work of a single composer

These days I don’t listen to as much unfamiliar music as I did in college. This includes work by both famous and obscure composers. I always intend to put music I don’t know on my iPod so that I will listen to it in the morning before work. But this takes effort and planning, both of which are in short supply.

Occasionally I feel panicked when it occurs to me that I might die before listening to all the work of Bach, Mozart, or Beethoven. It seems awful to live a life without having accomplished this. For some reason, this terrifies me much more than the thought of not reading all the books written by my favorite authors.

On the other hand, I’m not sure what it would feel like to listen to all of it and then have nothing left–to know, for instance, that now I had consumed the entirety of Beethoven’s output.

It might be an irrational fear, since a Beethoven piece doesn’t get worn out the more you listen to it. Some of them, like the violin concerto, happen to me all over again each time I hear them. The ideal listening phase starts on the tenth or so listen, when the piece has been absorbed and you can start to enjoy its intricacies.

But I often wish that I could hear the Third Symphony with fresh ears again. I still remember the first time I listened to it. That moment of startling dissonance in the first movement shocked me. Now when I hear it it sounds customary. It’s hard to recover that original feeling of delighted surprise. It’s the same with Radiohead’s album “OK Computer.” The first time I listened to it, it was shocking. Now that I’ve listened to it countless times it might as well be background music.

In the case of Beethoven, a symphony can sound new again if an orchestra really performs well. I had this experience recently at the Chicago Symphony. They gave a thrilling performance of the Seventh Symphony that revived all the suspense and excitement I felt when I was first getting to know it.

In college, one of my professors said he had a friend, a Shakespeare scholar, who was saving one sonnet for himself. He hadn’t read it yet and was waiting for a later time in his career to encounter it for the first time. It struck me as a wonderful idea at the time.

But lately, as with other things, I’ve been thinking, why wait? You never know when your time will run out. It sometimes seems wiser to grab as much of life as possible while you can.

Concerts Attended Recently

October: Boston Symphony Orchestra

Program: Bach’s cantata Ich habe genug, BWV 82; Brahms’s Ein Deutsches Requiem

I have no idea how the Bach sounded. In the row ahead of me were several teenage girls who laughed at the singer’s entrance and spent the rest of the piece knitting, fidgeting, whispering, casting dramatic glances at each other, drinking soda, and eating from a bag of candy that rustled horrendously.

For the Brahms, I was able to find another seat and actually listen to the music. The orchestra played well, but unfortunately this was one of the first times I had heard the piece. I always enjoy a piece best when I know it well. Though “Denn alles fleisch es ist wie gras” is an incredible moment, even on the first listen.

December: Chicago Symphony Orchestra

Program: Manfred Honeck conducting Haydn’s Symphony No. 93; Strauss’s Don Juan; Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7

I was relieved, upon entering the concert hall, to see ushers telling people to stop taking pictures and turn off phones. It gave me confidence that I would actually be able to enjoy the music.

I didn’t have high expectations for the Haydn. Many big symphonies treat classical-era music in the same way that they treat Mahler. Either that, or they play it like it’s the most boring music ever.

I was pleasantly surprised. The CSO performed Haydn with a light, joyous touch. They even switched out their modern timpani for instruments with a more period-appropriate timbre. Their tempi didn’t drag, and they actually seemed to enjoy Haydn’s musical jokes. It was wonderful.

Don Juan was thrilling. The brass section excelled. I was able to hear lower voices that are often not especially audible, especially in the second and fourth horn. The horn solis were magnificent. The trombones and trumpets delivered crisp passages as well. And that oboe solo–what is there to even say about it? Incredible.

Beethoven 7 is such a common concert staple that I almost expected to be bored. But the CSO played with vigor and energy that I haven’t heard brought to this piece in a long time. They made it new again. Particularly impressive was the intensity of their fourth movement. It’s a tiring symphony to perform, but you’d never know it from the drive and tension the CSO delivered.*

All in all, it was quite an impressive concert. Although I found some sections lacking (bassoon and particularly flute–I found myself pining for the sterling perfection of Elizabeth Rowe), others (clarinets, the brass) were excellent enough to make up for it. And the musical energy, the sheer excitement, made me realize I have often missed these qualities at the BSO. The CSO is amazing. I will be back.

*I’m pretty sure the violins were doubling the octave in the trio of the third movement. I’ve heard of certain conductors re-orchestrating this movement and wondered if they were playing one of these versions, but nothing was mentioned in the program notes.

January: Spektral Quartet

I had not heard of this quartet, but decided to go because usually string quartets are pretty decent.

This was a mistake. The quartet struggled with intonation and even basic execution. They didn’t seem to understand their roles within the ensemble. The first violinist was buried in her music and didn’t lead anything. The cellist played like the lowest voice has no special importance. The others played thickly. It is hard to describe exactly what this is like, but it happens when the instrumentalists aren’t listening to each other and as a result you can’t hear the inner voices, just an auditory smear.

During a Stravinsky piece, it was obvious that intonation and rhythm were major challenges. Dissonant intervals, especially sevenths and seconds, were not performed precisely, and just sounded wrong. The second piece on the program was a generic-sounding, forgettable quartet by Philip Glass. (I say this as someone who often enjoys Glass.)

Also performed was a premiere that required the players to both play and sing. A novel idea, perhaps an intriguing one, but one that fell flat when it quickly became apparent that the quartet could neither play nor sing.

Finally, a Beethoven quartet was slaughtered, probably as a matter of ritual. A non-musical friend who attended the concert with me was upset and concerned, saying, “I didn’t know it was possible for Beethoven to sound bad.”

January: Lyric Opera of Chicago

Donizetti’s Anna Bolena

Perhaps unfortunately, my musical life has been mainly confined to the instrumental, and my knowledge of opera is lacking. I feel unable to judge the singers’ abilities, though they all seemed at least competent. I was impressed by tenor Bryan Hymel, who sang Lord Percy. Early in the opera, he struggled to hit one of his highest notes, but recovered quickly and later on hit the same note repeatedly, with confidence. That is the mark of a true performer: having the technical skill, resilience, and basic guts to sing wonderfully even after a misstep.

This review seems to cover specific observations about the singers that I cannot provide.

What struck me most was the banality of Donizetti’s composition. With the perfect hindsight of two centuries’ distance, twenty-first century listeners are often exposed only to the best-of-the-best of classical and early romantic era composers. We get used to Mozart, Beethoven, and company and accept them as standard, to be expected. It is a perverse side effect that, by not listening to their contemporaries–or even to their own second-rate compositions–it can be easy to forget how excellent their masterpieces really are in comparison.

Listening to this opera was a pleasant ear-opener. The music was competent but uninspired, formulaic and mostly forgettable. Not a single melody presented itself as particularly well-crafted or inventive; not a single harmony surprised. Although it was less than thrilling, I appreciated the experience. It reminded me how rare it is for a person to create something truly great, and how remarkable and beautiful it is when that happens.

February: Boston Baroque

Bach, Saint John Passion

I have never been disappointed by the Boston Baroque. Their musicianship is the sort that lets you forget about the real-life difficulties of playing instruments and, like neurons giving rise to consciousness, allows the mysterious phenomenon of true art to emerge.

What else is there to say, really? The chorus was unusually precise, which was a pleasure to hear. The double reeds and flutes struck me as especially strong sections of the orchestra. I could have listened to the recitative all day.  This is the sort of excellence you hope for when you go to a concert.

Literary Links

Once upon a time, in a land unimaginable today, writers could actually make a living by writing stories: a fascinating look at F. Scott Fitzgerald’s finances

Clifford Garstang’s Pushcart Prize ranking for 2015 is up.

Charles May reviews Best American Short Stories 2014.  I admire his critical reviews–he is a discerning reader, unafraid to either confirm or deny prevailing tastes.

An argument against National Novel Writing Month: Do a reading challenge instead.


Also, a thought: No sane writer trying to publish today can wait 3 months for one magazine to reply, with acceptance rates hovering around 1-2%.  You have to simultaneously submit, you simply have to.  I wonder if the few remaining lit mags that don’t accept simultaneous submissions have sentenced themselves to irrelevancy.

Here’s some energetic music for getting through Wednesday: Beethoven’s 8th Symphony, conducted by Herbert von Karajan.  Happy Thanksgiving!