The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: What makes the classical guitar and classical guitar music so appealing and so popular?

March 15, 2012
5 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Last weekend’s concert by the Madison Symphony Orchestra left me somewhat perplexed or puzzled.

The program was all over the map, though you might say that the underlying theme was deliverance from Wisconsin winter – or what should have been a cold Wisconsin winter but was actually a spring-like break in the typical winter weather.

The guest conductor was Carl St. Clair (below), who was filling again in for John DeMain.

DeMain is finishing up his very successful stint, which ends March 17, conducting “Showboat” at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. Here is a link to a review of that production by The New York Times’ senior critic Anthony Tommasini, who will be giving free public lectures in Madison next week as part of the UW’s Pro Arte Quartet Centennial.):

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/01/arts/music/cant-help-seeking-that-middle-ground-in-show-boat.html?_r=1&scp=1&sq=show%20boat&st=cse

Despite his podium acrobatics and choreography, St. Clair did a fine job in creating a big, beautiful sound and clearly met with enthusiastic, foot-stomping approval from the orchestra players.

The program featured two works with a Spanish flavor, presumably something to take us into sunshine and warmth during March: Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Capriccio Espagnol” and Joaquin Rodrigo’s “Concierto Andaluz” with the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet (below) as soloists.

The big piece on the program was Brahms’ Third Symphony is a curious and difficult, if generally understated work, that, written in a major key with some memorable moments, exudes a certain sense of freedom and joy.

By and large, I agree with the other critics. So below I provide links to their reviews.

But I did find my own reactions left me curious.

I wonder why, for example, they started off with the BIG piece, the  symphony by Brahms? One presumes it is because the symphony has a quiet ending and because that way they could devote the second half to the splashier Spanish works?

You might think of it as a bullfight. Except instead of awarding the bullfighter one or two years, the audience awarded St. Clair and the MSO two loud and long standing ovations.

But not for the Brahms.

It was for the flashy work by Rimsky-Korsakov (below), which, though short on substance, is a terrific illustration of the composer’s mastery of orchestration and ability to show off all the section of the orchestra to maximum effect.

The “Capriccio Espanol” is one of those pieces that, for me, is much more satisfying live than recorded. It is better when you can actually see the music-making taking place rather than just hear it. The popular and also Spanish-like popular “Bolero” by Ravel is another such piece.

The symphony by Brahms  (below) was done well, but I thought needed a little more sweep and tension. It needed less rubato, less freedom and fussing. It needed to move more and be more straightforward.

The secret to most Brahms, I think, is to allow the music to have sentiment without sentimentality. This performance came close, but it needed still more impersonality and distance, more attention to structure than content. It needed to be left alone and speak for itself, to let the composer and the score do the heavy-lifting.

But the really interesting work, at least psychologically, was the concerto by Rodrigo, which is hardly a major work or masterpiece.

The last time it was performed here, by the Minneapolis Guitar Quartet with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra two years ago, it also received an enthusiastic standing ovation.

And what for? I found myself asking myself.

The music itself is pleasant enough but slight stuff, even second-tier in the large picture. It is mostly scales and arpeggios running up and down the keyboard accompanied by some lovely melodies and rhythms.

True, it felt a like cheating when the guitarists amplified their sound through electronic microphones and loudspeakers. I mean, whatever did they do with guitar concertos by Vivaldi and Boccherini before electric amplification?

As for the music, nobody is ever going to accuse Joaquin Rodrigo (below) of being a major 20th century composer, though two of his works — this Concierto Andaluz and the Concierto de Aranjuez (at bottom), which jazz trumpeter Miles Davis made famous – are extremely  popular. But even such Spanish composers as Manuel De Falla, Issac Albeniz, Enrique Granados and Frederico Mompou all rank higher in professional esteem, one suspects, than Rodrigo.

And there’s the rub.

What is it that makes the classical guitar (below), and the music written, for it so popular?

Well, after thinking about that for a week, I think there may a big lesson there for modern musicians and for critics as well as programmers.

That is: The classical guitar and its repertoire are popular and loved by audiences because they are conservative; because they are accessible and go down easy; because they rely on melody and contagious dance-like rhythms; because soothing harmonies have just the right spike of spice to them.

It is not by chance that Schoenberg and Stravinsky, Prokofiev and Shostakovich, did NOT composer music for the classical guitar, at least not to my knowledge.

Now, I do not say this condescendingly.

I myself am a tunes guy. I love melody, which is one reason why I prefer Schubert to Beethoven; Mozart to Haydn, Chopin and Schumann to Liszt; Brahms and Dvorak to Mahler and Bruckner.

But I think what audiences were expressing by their ovation after the Rodrigo was a way to announce that they like music that makes the feel better, music that is easier to live with – as well as the effortless virtuosity of the players of that music.

At a time when so many people lead anxious lives, who wants to deepen the anxiety with art?

Am I arguing for music as therapy? I hope not.

But clearly the public looks for relief from the outside world – despite what so many of the apologists for aggressive or assaultive contemporary music want to say or believe or impose on people.

Profundity has its place; so does enjoyment and pleasure.

In the concert hall, the people vote with their feet and hands.

And this time once again they voted for melody and harmony, for pleasantness and comfort, and – yes – for beauty. That may sound old-fashioned, but there it is: Art serves as consolation and inspiration.

Not such bad goals, really, when you think about it. Especially when they are attained.

Anyway, here are the other reviews of the MSO concert.

Here is the review by John W. Barker for Isthmus:

http://www.thedailypage.com/daily/article.php?article=36173

Here is Lindsay Christians’ review for the Wisconsin State Journal and 77 Square:

http://host.madison.com/entertainment/arts_and_theatre/reviews/symphony-orchestra-makes-spanish-flourishes/article_2fb513dc-b324-5c43-afb3-019b709b33b6.html

Here is Greg Hettmansberger’s review for Madison Magazine and the blog “Classically Speaking”:

http://www.madisonmagazine.com/Blogs/Classically-Speaking/March-2012/Madison-Symphony-Guests-Sizzle-and-Dazzle/

Here is Bill Wineke’s review of Channel 3000:

http://www.channel3000.com/entertainment/30651608/detail.html

But we are all critics.

What did you think of the MSO program and conductor Carl St. Clair?

Why do you think the classical guitar and classical guitar music are so popular?


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