Christmas Break Reading List

I’m presently quite absorbed by the new Harvey Sachs biography of Toscanini, but also in progress or waiting to be opened are Leonard Slatkin’s Leading Tones (which includes amusing anecdotes and astonishing stats on the premieres that man has given – what a contribution to the field!) and Fred Hersch’s Good Things Happen Slowly. Then there is the reading in prep for the grad course I will be doing next semester: George Perle, Douglas Jarman and Dave Headlam on Berg, and David Schiff’s unique The Ellington Century. I’ve been reading and re-reading Perle since I studied with him decades ago, always with pleasure and profit and not a little awe at his command of the material; but there is also much to learn from Jarman and Headlam.

Let me repost a couple of seasonal links:  a reminder to work on your eartraining at Christmas time, as well as a Christmas cookie recipe in the manner of the Roman Missal.

Orchestration Hit Parade

I am teaching orchestration at my day job this fall, so I was especially struck by the following aphorism in Leonard Slatkin‘s recent book Conducting Business:

There are only three scores you need to study to learn how to orchestrate: Beethoven’s Eroica, the complete Nutcracker and Ravel’s L’enfant et les sortilèges.

Intriguing choices, with one each from the classical, romantic and 20th century periods. I don’t think anyone would take exception to the Beethoven, but the other two choices are a little more offbeat. Both the Tchaikovsky and Ravel are from what Ned Rorem would broadly call the “french” side of the musical universe; there is nothing here from the “german” world of Wagner, Mahler or Strauss (though Virgil Thomson tried to make a case for Mahler as a “french” composer). Notice that Slatkin cites the complete Nutcracker, which involves more heavily scored music than the lighter textures that dominate the divertissement that constitutes the familiar suite (is there anything in music quite like the airborne quality of the Overture in that suite?) Thus with the complete version, you get a fuller picture of romantic period practice. The Ravel that is usually taken up by orchestration classes is the orchestration of Pictures, partly because of its excellence, partly because it is usually published with Mussorgsky’s piano original right there on the same page as Ravel’s orchestral version. But L’enfant is an astonishing piece, too little known. Including it adds a piece with voices to the list. And there are elements in the Ravel that point toward instrumental practices normally associated with much later in the century, for example, George Crumb’s music.
So what do you think of Slatkin’s list? What would be your three pieces?

Here is the beginning of L’enfante, Simon Rattle conducting at Glyndebourne:

Current Reading List

There are times when I concentrate on a single book, but this is one of those moments when my attention is divided among several items:

North of Hope – Jon Hassler. I’ve just started this big novel of ordinary people in small-town Minnesota and I am already caught by it. Quietly funny, wonderfully observant.

Zen Catholicism – Dom Aelred Graham. Thomas Merton makes mention of this book in a journal entry. It’s a bit dense and dry, and some of it is over my head, having never studied Aquinas. But it addresses some fundamental issues in the light of the insights Zen has to offer. Thoughtful, nourishing reading.

The Creative Habit: Use it and Learn it for Life – Twyla Tharp. There is a sub-genre of  how-to book that talks about how to be an artist; examples include Art & Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland; and Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. It sounds like a horrible idea – like the famous answer to the question  “what is swing?”, if you have to ask how to be an artist, you’ll never know –  but all these books do have something to offer, and I find myself quoting from them to my students and taking some of their insights to heart. The Tharp book is crisp, direct, and forceful in tone, with exercises at the end of each chapter that spring from Tharp’s own experiences.

Conducting Business – Leonard Slatkin. – When I circulated my orchestral song cycle From a Book of Hours (excerpts here – scroll down) to a great many orchestras a number of years ago, Leonard Slatkin was one of only two maestros to take the time to write a letter in return. Known as a terrifically important champion of American music, Slatkin offers a mix of memoir, advice to aspiring conductors, and commentary on the orchestral scene. There is a brief section dealing with how various conductors have re-scored Beethoven that is hair-raising for those of us who were not aware of how common this kind of thing is.