Monday, 13 March 2017

Shostakovich Symphony No 4

I have just returned from a concert featuring l’Orchestre Metropolitain de Grand Montréal led by their superstar conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin.  It was held in the new(-ish) Maison Symphonique, and my wife and I could only get seats in the choir, behind the orchestra.  For me, that was a somewhat nostalgic location as I spent many years in my youth singing bass in various choirs from positions pretty much exactly like that one.  The first half of the concert featured Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No 2, with soloist Joseph Moog, which was followed by Shostakovich’s monumental fourth symphony.  With the reputations of the Orchestra Metropolitain and Nézet-Séguin pulling in different directions, I wasn’t sure what to expect, and I certainly wasn’t anticipating writing a blog post about it.  Funny how things turn out, though.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s star is definitely on the rise.  Having only turned 42 last week, he was recently appointed music director of the New York Metropolitan Opera, succeeding the legendary James Levine in what is regarded as the most prestigious opera gig in the world.  Already, he has been music director at the Philadelphia Orchestra since 2012, with his contract being extended to 2026.  He has been guest conductor with the Berlin Philharmonic and Vienna Philharmonic, both traditional welcome-to-the-big-leagues moments.  He has been principal conductor of the Rotterdam Philharmonic since 2005.

By contrast, l’Orchestre Metropolitan de Grand Montréal (the OM) is definitely the city’s second orchestra, and - by reputation at least - by quite a margin.  The Orchestra Symphonique du Montréal (the OSM) still reigns in the city as a stellar orchestra with a global reputation.  Still, Nézet-Séguin, a native Montrealer, has been the OM’s music director since 2000 during which time he has steadily elevated their reputation to the point where he now tours with them internationally.  So it was going to be interesting to observe the extent to which YNS would raise the OM to his level, or whether they would drag him down to theirs.

With the opening piece, Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No 2, there were elements of both on display.  Nézet-Séguin’s Rachmaninov is overtly Viennese in style, loaded with schmaltz, and always threatening to break out suddenly into some kind of polka.  The OM, however, is not the Vienna Phil.  They fall some way short in terms of intonation, rhythmic integrity, tonal richness, and precision.  But YNS does definitely gird their loins to his style of play, and they do respond with commitment and endeavour.  The pianist, Moog, from my back-of-stage vantage point at least, came across as a trifle plodding and wanting for a more effusive line of phrasing in order to match up with YNS’s orchestral palette of choice.  [Question:  Who should be in artistic charge in a Concerto - the conductor or the soloist?]  Regardless of how I felt about it, though, the concertgoers were wildly enthusiastic, and brought him back for an encore, for which he played a solo piano piece I did not recognize, and played it quite beautifully.

After the intermission it was onto the Shostakovich.  The 4th is probably his toughest symphony, both to listen to and - for the conductor - to find an interpretive path which can bring a sense of cohesion.  It was written at a dark time in Stalinist Russia where purges of every flavour were indiscriminately wiping the citizens out.  Shostakovich had completed his opera “The Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District”, which appeared to be rather successful.  However, a couple of days after Stalin himself attended a performance, it was denounced in Pravda as being of dubious morality.  Shortly thereafter, while Shostakovich was rehearsing his newly-completed 4th Symphony, word arrived that this new piece was deemed to be too “formalist” and was not at all compatible with the prevailing doctrine of “Socialist Realism”.  A panicked Shostakovich eventually withdrew the piece, fearing that he would soon be arrested.

A year later, Shostakovich announced his new 5th Symphony, famously prefaced as “A Soviet Artist’s Response to Just Criticism”.  The new symphony, much to the composer’s relief, was deemed acceptable and his reputation rehabilitated.  Many years later, it became clear that the 5th Symphony was in fact a robust and deeply cutting parody on Soviet Russia, and that from that point forward Shostakovich had found and perfected a style wherein he could express his loathing of the Soviet system from within, and without any apparent fear of detection.

All that, of course, is Shostakovich 101.  What is not discussed nearly as widely is this.  The 4th Symphony is a wild and barely-controlled ride through the chaos of Stalin’s purges.  It calls for an absolutely colossal 125-piece orchestra, the largest in the standard repertoire.  Structurally, it is all over the place.  Its two outer movements, both a good half hour in duration, seem to be possessed of very little to hold the music’s progress together.  The shorter second movement meanders along in a manner that prompts you to wonder what the point is.  Overall, you can hardly expect to walk out of a performance whistling its tunes.  It is perhaps - paradoxically - this very absence of form which led to its condemnation as “too formalist”, whatever that term is supposed to mean.  The point is, it's not just Soviet doctrinary theoreticians who find the work tough to get on with.

The 5th Symphony, by contrast, is classically structured.  And that is, to my view, a key point.  In writing his 5th Symphony in response to the potentially lethal criticisms levied at his 4th, he created a fundamentally better-balanced work.  It is a massive advancement in maturity.  In responding to a politically-motivated criticism he actually learned a valuable musical lesson.  You can hear its application to all of his major works for the remainder of his lifetime.  And they are, realistically, the better for it.  Shostakovich himself seems to have accepted that.  He once said that, without “Party Guidance” he might have written more "pure" music.  We can only wonder what that might have meant.  As it was, under the oppressive influence of “Party Guidance”, tempered by his own genius and discipline with the use of parody, satire, and allegory, he became arguably the greatest symphonist - Russian or otherwise - of the entire 20th Century.  But the 4th Symphony, meanwhile, remains a standout within his oevre for its ferocious indiscipline.

So here we come to Yannick Nézet-Séguin and the Orchestre Metropolitan de Grand Montréal.  What can they make of this immense challenge?  Well, from the first bars it is evident that they are up for the challenge, and I am absolutely spellbound.  There are two recordings that stand out in my classical music collection for the sheer level of commitment of the players - Leonard Bernstein’s 1959 recording of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring (to which, after hearing it, Stravinsky’s legendary reaction was “Wow!!”), and Richard Cooke’s 1997 recording of Orff’s Carmina Burana, where the give-it-120% commitment extends to the solo vocalists.  I can now add to that Nézet-Séguin’s Shostakovich 4th.  The first movement in particular was absolutely stunning and I can honestly say I have never heard anything that comes remotely close.  It was absolutely riveting from the first bar to the last.  And if I might have wanted for the Vienna Philharmonic during the Rachmaninov, I would not have substituted the OM for any other orchestra in the world during the Shostakovich.

I know something of absolute commitment.  I once blasted forth from the choir at full volume a bar too early during a performance of Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast!  Sir William himself was in the audience (and I have his autograph on my copy of the score to prove it).  I hope he didn’t mind.  The greatest musical performances all happen when the performers are standing with their toes over the precipice.  Even so, it is very rare - particularly with orchestral ensembles - to encounter that level of commitment.  An orchestra is a naturally disciplined environment, in which there is a preference for individuality to be
subsumed by conformity.  [This is where Jazz and Rock most obviously diverge from Classical.]  So when it does happen, it is a thing to behold, most particularly if the performance is under such expert guidance as Yannick Nézet-Séguin delivered today.

I do have one issue with the performance, though.  Following the shattering onslaught of the first movement, the second movement has nowhere to go, and even Nézet-Séguin finds himself short of somewhere complementary to take it.  The first and third movements are all but devoid of form, and where the first movement is all relentless bombast and aggression, the third is more introspective and contemplative (for some reason it brings to mind the Ruhevoll of Mahler's 4th).  There is no role for the second to play as an intermediary between the two.  It doesn't function as a scherzo as such, nor does it set the table for the finale in the manner of Beethoven.  In fact, I am inclined to suggest cutting it entirely.  I do believe the symphony would work much better as a two movement piece.  Such ideas, though, do not find favour in classical music circles, given that even Klemperer's sugestion of cutting the number of flutes from six to four was considered controversial.

To my ears, as he held the silence for what seemed like an eternity while the last notes evaporated into nothingness, Nézet-Séguin had announced himself as potentially the greatest Shostakovich conductor of his generation.  This from a man who has recently released a Bruckner cycle (which I haven’t heard) in which he apparently announces himself as the greatest Brucknerian of his generation, so the guy has some serious talent.  Even if he’s maybe not quite there yet with his Rachmaninov…

I just want to conclude with some comments on the business of reviewing music.  I have previously written the occasional review of recorded performances.  These are easier to do, since you can play the piece over and over again, or listen to it on and off over a protracted period in order to get your thoughts in order, or just to give your opinions time to gel.  You can’t do that with a live performance.  It’s an ephemeral thing.  I can’t go back and experience it again.  Which is a pity.  I can only write about what I thought I experienced in the moment.  [The late conductor Sergiu Celibidache famously thought along similar lines, and would never record in a studio - he only agreed to his live performances being recorded.]  But, thanks to the miracle of modern technology, there are options here!  The whole concert is apparently going to be shown on TV, broadcast on radio, and streamed on-line.  It will be really interesting to watch it again, and compare what I see and hear with what I have just written.  How well will it stand up?

According to the concert program you can stream it here (although I don’t know yet when it will be available - possibly March 23rd): - the name of the concert is "La force du destin".

Thursday, 26 January 2017

OS X 10.12.3 / iTunes

I have been using the new combination of OS X 10.12.3 and iTunes for a full day now, and have not noticed any particular problems, although I should mention that I have not conducted an in-depth evaluation.  So far, everything seems to be working just fine, and BitPerfect users who which to apply this update should be able to proceed with a degree of confidence.

Friday, 4 November 2016

Thursday, 3 November 2016

The Milk Snatcher

With the US Presidential election unfolding in a way which has the rest of the world mostly recoiling somewhere between disbelief, horror, and pity, I thought it would be a choice time to write a political column.  I don’t believe I have anything helpful to say about either Trump or Clinton, so I’ll focus my column on another political leader that inspired an almost comparable combination of adulation and loathing – Margaret Thatcher.  And just to be clear here, I don’t think that the subject of this column has any practical parallels with the present American situation other than the emotions and divisions that were aroused, although the Thatcherism ‘debate’ mostly arose after her election rather than before it.  On the other hand, a close look at the political situation of Great Britain in the 70’s and 80’s might form a useful point of contrast – maybe dramatically so – with the issues driving the political dialog in America today. So grab a cup of coffee and a cookie there's a lot to cover!

I will try to avoid applying a political slant to my piece, although it is a fair argument to suggest that any piece on a political subject can hardly avoid being slanted one way or the other.  And there are always those who will always insist that a piece that is not slanted their way is by definition slanted the other way.  Nonetheless I’ll try to straddle the middle ground as fairly as possible.  I will say, though, that I lived in England throughout most of the years in question, leaving for Canada in 1988.  During that time I never once voted for Margaret Thatcher, and if I had my time again I doubt that would change much – not that I had any great affection for the alternatives.  But I mention this to give context to the fact that even though I was not politically aligned with her, I always had the greatest admiration for her as a politician, and still do to this day.

Margaret Thatcher was a politician driven by deeply held and carefully considered social principles, something we normally associate with radicals from the left driven by ideals, rather than conservatives from the right driven by self-interest.  At a time and place in which Socialist and Tory governments alike had tended to address the problems of the day by employing varying degrees of pragmatism and consensus, Margaret Thatcher stood out as someone who wanted to tear down the walls and rebuild the edifice.  But what really made Margaret Thatcher so unique, not only from the perspective of analyzing what brought her to power, but also (from hindsight) of how she wielded that power, was the fact that she made no effort to hide her agenda.  She said exactly what she wanted to do, and then set about doing exactly that.  And it is a surprise to many with only a passing view of the legend of the Iron Lady, that she accomplished most of what she did by bulldozing her agenda past a largely unconvinced – even obstructive – cabinet drawn mostly from the ranks of senior old-guard Tories.  Thatcher did not see the Prime Ministership as an end in itself, a high office whose retention became job #1.  For her it was more a necessary requirement to achieving her political goals.  She was not a person whose political positions were carefully selected to best serve her personal ambitions.  Unlike those who followed her.

By the late 1960’s, the core of British industry operated as government-owned monopolies.  Mining, Steel, Shipbuilding, Gas, Electricity, Telecommunications, Transportation, Aviation, and, from 1975, most of the automobile industry, were all nationalized.  These industries, together with the National Health Service, the Civil Service and the Education system, together formed the labour-intensive core of the British economy.  By 1968 a combination of stagnating productivity and increasing competition from overseas meant that inflation had started to take hold, and this resulted in accelerating wage demands.  These in turn drove further price increases for the goods and services being produced, a runaway situation known as a wage/price spiral.  With the greater part of the economy being nationalized, it meant that the government didn’t really have separate levers with which it could seek to control prices and wages.  The two were inextricably linked.  However, at that time, most governments took the view that inflation could be countered by a combination of price and wage controls.  But with the high rate of inflation, the required wage controls proved to be incendiary, and the trade unions were strongly opposed.

The trade union movement was highly organized on a national level and was extremely powerful.  Most of the unions were deeply influenced by far left-leaning – even communist – ideologies, and were well aware that they had the power to bring down the government.  And indeed, in 1975 a strike by the Coal Miners’ union did bring down Ted Heath’s Conservative government and ushered in a more union-friendly Labour administration.  But all this accomplished was to put off today’s problems until tomorrow.  While Labour would quell the unrest by meeting the unions’ wage demands, they had no mechanism available to prevent the resultant price rises which would feed further inflation and thereby erode the wage gains.  With hindsight it was clear that something had to give, but at the time few saw it in such stark terms.  When, in 1979, the unions rose again to exert their power, it was their own Labour government that they brought to its knees – and this time there was nobody to the political left of the government to step in and bail them out.  What they got instead was Margaret Thatcher.

The other major political issue of the day concerned Defense policy, and in particular the Cold War.  At that time, the Western policy towards the Soviet Union was known as “Détente”.  In broad-brush terms, this involved ongoing negotiations between East and West to scale back their respective nuclear threat capabilities.  This ‘thawing’ of relationships was widely seen as being progressive and mutually beneficial.  Even so, Margaret Thatcher was very concerned that while the West, with its more transparent political structures, would by and large follow through with its commitments, whereas the opaque and intransigent Soviets would lie and obfuscate to their great advantage.  Furthermore, even if both parties did in fact scale back their nuclear arsenals to any substantial degree, this would only serve to expose the West to the Soviets’ considerable superiority in terms of conventional warfare.  By contrast, within the Labour Party, not only was there enthusiastic support for détente-driven nuclear arms reduction, there was even a core movement in favour of unilateral nuclear disarmament, something which Thatcher felt was intolerably reckless.

Mrs Thatcher assumed leadership of the Conservative Party in 1975, following Ted Heath’s humiliation at the hands of the Miners’ union.  Between then and her election victory in 1979, she developed the doctrines which were loosely to become known as Thatcherism.  These were broadly as follows.

First, the notion that the only levers available to a government to control inflation were prices and incomes policies was clearly wrong and wasn’t working.  In its place would be a monetarist policy where inflation would be brought under control by strategically managing the money supply.  This would require ruthless cuts in the amount of money fed by the government to any inefficient nationalized industries that proved unable to manage their own internal cost structures.  In other words, most of them.

Secondly, the entire portfolio of nationalized industry would be sold to the private sector, a process which, under Thatcher, would come to be known as Privatization.  Those that were still in good enough shape would generate considerable interest in the marketplace.  However, those that did not could no longer expect to be propped up by the government.  Privatization had the additional advantage that the cashflow received from these sales could be used the plug the holes in the money supply strategy that was needed to bring down inflation.  Another core aspect of the privatization process was that Thatcher felt strongly that these national assets should be sold not to institutional investors, but to the ordinary citizen.  [And indeed, mechanisms were put in place to ensure that private small investors could jump to the front of the queue when it came to the disposal of these assets.  They would do so in droves.]  Related to this politically was a policy to allow Council House tenants (a widespread, indeed dominant, form of social housing) to buy their homes at favourable pricing from their local Councils.  [Again, they would do so in droves.]

Third, the unions had to be decisively beaten and their power severely curtailed, although this would only come to the fore during her second term beginning in 1983.  There would be three major thrusts to her strategy to accomplish this.  As a first step, she would introduce legislation to replace the status quo which was that union members who broke the law would be prosecuted only as individuals, which had the effect of insulating union leaders from the consequences of their policies and actions.  Instead, unions whose members broke certain laws could have their funds sequestered by the government.  These funds were in many cases quite lucrative, and this would prove to be a crucial policy tool.  [Interestingly, the Heath government of 1970-74 had provisionally introduced such a policy, but fell when the striking Miners called their bluff and the government backed down.]  Next, she would introduce legislation to require any vote on strike action to be carried out by secret ballot.  This was massively resisted by the union leadership, who knew only too well that coercion and intimidation were powerful tools which only worked when voters could not avoid disclosing which way they voted.  Finally, she would introduce legislation to outlaw secondary picketing.  This was a practice where a union could arrange for members of one employer’s workforce to picket outside a different business’s premises.  Furthermore, the unions were not averse to employing outsiders - and even thugs - to add to the numbers of picketing workers, and it often became impossible to tell who was and was not a legitimate striking worker.  Violence was often employed.

Finally, a strong stance would be taken towards the Soviet Union.  She felt firmly that the only way to ensure peace was to ensure that the Soviets genuinely respected the capabilities - both offensive and defensive - of the West.  On the other hand, the best way to actively engage with and defeat the Soviets was economically.  Thatcher was convinced that the socialist system was fundamentally weak, and would be ultimately unable to sustain the economic growth that capitalist policies would drive in the West.  In this she found a resolute ally in Ronald Reagan, who held office throughout most of her premiership.

Margaret Thatcher was elected Prime Minister in 1979.  She came to power largely because the country had lost faith in the ability of the previous Labour administration to manage serious conflicts with its own labour movement, and were willing to try something different.  Thatcher never hid what she planned to do, and was quite determined that – come what may – she would deliver on her manifesto.  But I don’t think the country as a whole fully appreciated what that would amount to.  At least not in 1979.  In fact, until the Falkland War appeared unannounced out of left field, most observers believe that she would not have survived her first election, such was the impact of the bitter medicine that her new monetarist economic policy prescribed straight off the bat.  And if the opposition Labour Party had not been so thoroughly derailed by the radicals on their own left wing, most notably in the area of Defence, they would have been well placed to take immediate advantage.  [Indeed, the political self-immolation of the Labour Party during her entire premiership was arguably the most significant factor in her ability to hold onto power, and I don’t do justice to that in this already lengthy column.]  But Thatcher was indeed re-elected, and the full spectrum of Thatcherism was to follow.

Thatcher did, by and large, accomplish everything she set out to do.  She privatized the profitable nationalized industries and starved the irrecoverable ones to death by turning off the spigot that fed them with regular cash handouts.  She conquered the problem of endemic inflation, and oversaw a significant economic recovery.  She emphatically defeated the trade unions, and even outlasted the Soviet Union.  In many ways her legacy is a magnificent one – Thatcherism totally reshaped the Great Britain that she left behind.  But in many other ways it is not.  Her economic policies put many millions of people out of work, with no prospects whatsoever of finding another job.  Whole communities were effectively devastated, and there was little evidence of her much-vaunted economic recovery in large parts of the country – most notably those that suffered most from the loss of traditional industries.  To a significant degree, the economic recovery was enjoyed mostly by the haves, and the have-nots didn’t get much of a look-in – a situation that some may see reflected in many aspects of today’s economy.

It is a fair question to ask whether and how such a cost ever can be justified, one to which there are widely diverging, but equally valid, viewpoints.  Thatcherism undoubtedly caused terrible misery for a huge number of citizens who rightly looked to their government to protect them from such things.  Many, many people still hate Thatcher with such a passion that when she died in 2013 they celebrated the occasion with unseemly joy.  Ding-dong the Wicked Witch is dead. She was that divisive.  But the virulently anti-Thatcher elements have a difficult argument to make when they imply that, given the depths to which the Country had sunk in 1979, and the increasingly radical policy positions of the Labour Party in response, they would have ended up any better off under a decade of Labour Administration.

I don’t have enough space here to provide a thorough treatment of my chosen subject, and there are many significant elements of the Thatcher story that I don’t even begin to touch upon.  I’m already at 2,621 words!  A half-decent treatment would result in a multi-volume book that I could stand on to clean out my gutters.  Whatever your (or my) personal stance towards Margaret Thatcher’s politics, she was an icon for a number of things that I wish were more in evidence in today’s political environment.  First, she actually stood for something, and sought political leadership so that she could make those things happen, rather than cynically cherry-picking hot-button issues as vehicles to deliver her to high office.  Second, she placed a high premium on communicating those things to the public.  She genuinely felt that if only the public fully understood what she wanted to do, and why, they would be fully behind her.  She hated the thought of misleading the electorate, or of failing to get her message across.  Third, she had the incredible strength of character, intellect, and personal toughness required to drive those policies to an effective implementation.  It really doesn’t matter if a political leader has a great vision if they don’t have the leadership ability to actually deliver it in government.  Although she exhibited some significant holes with regard to all three of those attributes, it is hard these days to find a political leader who displays unambiguous strengths in more than one of them.  Frankly, most of them seem to have none of those strengths at all.

Finally, I’ll leave you with this thought.  Don’t you think it is quite remarkable that I can write all of the above without having to frame it in the context of her gender?

Wednesday, 2 November 2016

iTunes - “Up Next”

Those of you who have used the iTunes “Up Next” feature may find yourself frustrated by its limited behaviour.

If I initiate playback of an album, playback starts at the first track and proceeds through the album.  If you click on the “Up Next” drop-down button you will see the remaining tracks in the album listed.  To add music to the “Up Next” playlist, you would right-click on it and select “Play Next”.  This works regardless of whether the selection comprises a single track, a selection of multiple tracks, an album, or even a selection of multiple albums.  The problem is, though, that this has the effect of inserting the added track(s) immediately after the currently playing track.  This may not be what you want.  It’s certainly not what I normally want.  Often, what you really want is for the tracks to be added to the end of the “Up Next” playlist.  Unfortunately, iTunes 12 does not seem to offer that option.

Except that it does.  It is just very well hidden, in the sense that I don’t find it to be intuitively obvious.  What you have to do is drag the selection of tracks and/or albums that you want to add and drop them on the rectangular area at the top of the iTunes window that contains the track progress bar.  When you mouse-over that area immediately before dropping, you will see that the whole rectangle acquires a blue border around its edge.  When you drop the tracks, they will be added to the end of the “Up Next” playlist.  I find this useful to know, although I’m pretty sure most people would have preferred having it as an option in the right-click menu.

Tuesday, 1 November 2016

iTunes 12.5.3

I have been using the new iTunes 12.5.3 for most of the day and it has been working just fine for me. BitPerfect Users can install this update with confidence.

It might be too early to proclaim this from the rooftops, but the early indications are that this update may have finally gone some way to addressing the Gapless Playback problem that has plagued BitPerfect since day one. Those of you that have read this post on Gapless Playback will know that at the end of every track BitPerfect queues up the next track by pre-loading it into memory, but iTunes often provides the wrong information when it identifies what the next track is. The result is that BitPerfect queues up the wrong track, resulting in a glitch when BitPerfect discovers what has happened and switches to the right track. Well, the indications are that Apple has made some changes to iTunes in this area and as result is identifying the correct track most (if not all) of the time. Stay tuned, and as the picture gets clearer I will post a more detailed assessment.

Friday, 28 October 2016

iTunes 12.5.2

I have been using the latest v12.5.2 update to iTunes and everything seems to be working just fine. BitPerfect users can proceed with this update with confidence.