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January 10, 2011 / GG54

LA Phil Live in HD: Could this be the future of classical music?

Review: LA Phil Live in HD
January 9, 2010

I wasn’t sure of the proper etiquette when watching a live concert streamed at a movie theatre. With the musicians 3,724km away from my seat, suddenly many of the often-complained-about concert hall ‘thou shalt not’ conventions became unnecessary.

It was originally labeled as a publicity stunt. Music lovers across North America would flock to their local cinemas to see conductor-wunderkind Gustavo Dudamel, along with his signature curly black locks and the LA Phil, live in HD and classical music would be cool again. But then the repertoire was announced: a spiky, new John Adams composition, Leonard Bernstein’s profoundly heavy and elegiac Symphony No. 1 (more on Lenny to come) and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7. This bold programming is certainly far from being aimed at the lowest-denominator crowd. It raises an interesting question: could this ‘new’ live/recording hybrid be the future of classical music?

There are many of the same pleasures of the live concert hall: the excitement as the orchestra is tuning, the thrill of live musicians playing real instruments, and the fulfillment of sitting through entire works without distraction. All of this along with the benefits of recording technology: carefully balanced microphones with a ‘best seat in the house’ perspective.

Instead, it proved to be just another dirty lens between the listener and the music itself. The orchestra sounded bloated through cinema speakers designed for Hollywood’s usual exploding aircrafts and thumping basses. Digital compression resulted in little contrast between the orchestra’s delicate pianissimos in the Bernstein and rousing tuttis in the Beethoven. The charm of watching a live concert from the other side of continent had the promised HD looking more like VHS. One camera operator had an obsession with the mostly unused organ; though, it’s not every day you see an organ inspired by french fries.

But the savior here was Dudamel or, as he is cleverly branded, ‘Gustavo’. This is a man who, with every single molecule in his body, loves music. And that love is infectious. Hearing the passion and excitement in his voice as he explained Beethoven’s earthquake-inducing final movement made the whole thing worth it. His ability to be natural and candid (or, shall I say, Candide) in front of the camera proved that he is well suited to be the next Bernstein. He was wearing a vest of Bernstein’s; although he wasn’t able to completely fill it.

Of the six people in the theatre, I was the only one born after WWII. Connoisseurs will prefer the real thing and orchestral newcomers could find the repertoire over-ambitious. The sense of excitement of seeing Dudamel was palpable. Today, thousands of people saw a world class orchestra, many for the first and only time in their life. As for the etiquette, there was the unusual sounds of popcorn crunching but one tradition remained: a standing ovation.

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January 1, 2011 / GG54

Black Eyed Peas: Inspired by Dvorak or stolen from Dvorak?

You know what interview question I hate? “Where did you get the inspiration for ___?”. The answer is usually boring, pretentious or both. Musicians usually say the song is about falling in love, a life-changing dream or pretty flowers. Yeah right. But in the case of My Humps by the Black Eyed Peas, the inspiration was surely Czech composer Antonin Dvorak. Take a listen.

New World Eyed Peas

Call it homage or thievery, but surely there is a intellectual property lawsuit here! They each use an identical main theme, and my sources tell me that Dvorak came up with it first.

Here are some more comparisons:

  • Dvorak samples themes inspired by African-American spirituals. Black Eyed Peas sample “I Need a Freak” by Sexual Harassment.
  • Dvorak’s New World Symphony was premiered at the freshly built Carnegie Hall. The video for My Humps premiered on MTV’s TRL (whose studios are located ten minutes from Carnegie Hall).
  • The critics on the New World: “the greatest symphonic work ever composed in this country.” (Henry T. Finck, New York Evening Post). The critics on My Humps: “One of the most embarrassing rap performances of the new millennium.” (John Bush, AllMusic.com).

So there you have it. Two American classics, each with their own unique influences.

Dvorak Symphony No. 9 ‘From the New World’ can be heard on Sound Ideas on January 14.

December 18, 2010 / GG54

Aaron Copland: Just Another Absent-Minded Musician

“Dear Mom,” writes Mr. Copland, “have you seen my pants?”

Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring can be heard on Sound Ideas this Friday.

December 7, 2010 / GG54

The world is ugly, thank goodness for art

The world is ugly. Downtowns smell like garbage and sound like diesel busses and jackhammers. People push, whine and don’t always bring something when they come for dinner. The news is filled with stories of our climate spinning out of control and too much groping at our airports.

The commercials on TV are too loud. Too many walls are painted beige.

Thank goodness for art.

December 2, 2010 / GG54

Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto Meets Pop Culture (Sorry Pyotr)

Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-Flat Minor is one of those classical pieces that has captured the imaginations of millions of classical music fans. And really, it’s no wonder. Right from the big brassy opening you know it’s going to be something special. Then the pianist starts galloping across the keyboard. It’s exciting stuff.

Music like this often transcends beyond the concert hall. It shows up in movies, TV shows… and razor-blade commercials.

Here’s a roundup of just a few places where the Tchaik’ concerto has reared it’s grandiose and lyrical head.

1) Monty Python

2) The Muppets (with Victor Borge)

3) Repulsive 1941 pop-ified version by Freddy Martin and His Orchestra (Tonight We Love)

I often wonder what Tchaikovsky himself would have to say about this…

Hear Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1 played by Lang Lang and the Chicago Symphony tomorrow morning on Sound Ideas.

November 15, 2010 / GG54

Music in the Morning: Better Than Coffee?

Photo: sachman75Though my housemates may disagree, listening to music in the morning is the best way to start the day.

Each evening before going to bed, I load my CD player with the music that will be the overture and prelude to the next day. Then, the next morning I wake up to music that is designed to energize me for the day. Without it, I feel like a coffee addict without his or her morning cup. But with it, I am inspired to get out of bed and get my day started.

I know that I’m not the only one to use music as a morning caffeine substitute. Each day, millions of Canadians wake up to morning radio shows or homemade iTunes playlists. All of this listening is not without its benefits. Researchers have long been studying the cognitive benefits of music. The results? It’s good for you. Just as one wouldn’t skip eating breakfast or brushing teeth, listening to the perfect morning music is the best way to drop the needle on the day.

What is your favourite morning music?

(Photo: sachman75)

November 1, 2010 / GG54

The Conductor: Do we really need him?

Source: NPR's Deceptive Cadence BlogYou’ve seen him (or, in the all-to-rare occasion, her) standing in front of the orchestra madly waving the baton. But apart from looking good in tails, why does the modern orchestra need a conductor?

The cynic in me wants to say to give jobs to people who can’t play instruments, but that wouldn’t be very nice would it?

This video, from the TED conference, does a great job at highlighting just how important the conductor is.

It’s a tough job. The conductor is in charge of communicating a “musical vision” to the orchestra. This is everything from picking speeds and dynamics to cueing entries and cutting off endings. All of this, using only two tools: the baton and body language.

So what makes a good conductor? Well take a look at Leonard Bernstein conducting a movement from Haydn’s Symphony 88. Watch the way he uses a huge range of facial expression to show the orchestra exactly how he wants them to sound. There’s a great art to it, and surely nobody has mastered it as well as Bernstein.