A critique of two concerts

Music is one of the most unique performing arts due to the way it has evolved. Styles and melodies considered unfit in one era are displayed prominently in another. The two concerts previewed in this report have two different and distinct techniques. The first performance that I attended was a symphonic concert playing a mix of contemporary and early 20th century works at Carnegie Hall. The second performance was an organ recital highlighted by the by the live performance of Bach’s most well known pieces. Hopefully this term paper will objectively and subjectively critique and compare the two performances.

An orchestra is a collection of a variety of instruments usually consisting of brass, woodwinds, strings and percussion sections. In the concert at Carnegie Hall, the music was abundant in tone color and a variety of pitches and moods. While the Bach music played by the organist could only demonstrate one type of sound, the multitude of instruments at the conductor’s disposal can flood the listener with a variety of sound. The key pieces of music performed were “Music for Violin and Orchestra” by Maazal and “Symphony No. 1 in D major” by Mahler. Maazals piece pits the virtuoso, Maazal, against the entire orchestra. It seems to be a sophisticated concerto with the violinist and the orchestra dueling with each other. Unlike Baroque music, the mood changes constantly, at one moments the violin conveys a tranquil image only to be shattered by the dissonance created by the orchestra. While Toccata and Fugue in D minor is a piece of absolute music, Maazal’s music is program music. The main theme is sort of a violinist’s journey and struggle with the much more powerful monster-like orchestra.

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Objectively, the odd notes from the percussion coupled with the frequent use of
low tone color instruments (e.g. bassoon, bass) created tension. The trills provided by the virtuoso and the strings section displayed a tension reserved only for the shower scene in Hitchcock’s “Psycho”. The dynamics of the piece are deliberately arranged to convey images of peace and fright. When the virtuoso plays his violin for a requiem of the world it knew, it plays in a soft, whimpering manner. On the opposite is the tension created by the orchestra as it goes through a crescendo. Not only does this increase the tension, but conveys the image of a monster running after the “hero” as it drowns out the violin due to its increase in volume. In both cases, the music would not be Baroque. The dynamics of the music (e.g. crescendo) would not be allowed in Baroque while the changes in mood from soothing to homicidal would be a violation of the Baroque spirit. Maazals music is clearly 20th century music.

Mahlers music, on the other hand, is much more difficult to understand than any other piece heard in class, concert or home. The long melodies and abrupt shifts in meter and melody are jarring. Moreover, while the symphony elicits feelings of a funeral, the only requiem it plays is the one for the listeners interest in his music. In short, the symphony is overly long and tedious. It is not as entertaining as the struggle of Maazals violin versus the orchestra. While the symphony tends to be boring it shares many of the same characteristics of Maazals music, 20th century music.
The key characteristics of 20th century music differ from those of the Baroque period. First, there is a variety of tone color provided in the music. In Maazals Music for the Violin and Orchestra violins, flutes, basses and even bongos are used to create images such as a ferocious monster. Moreover, the music played in this piece had dissonance and consonance, another important feature of 20th century music. While Baroque and Renaissance music does not use dissonance extensively, Maazal and Mahler use dissonance as a major tool in developing the music. In the final part of Symphony No. 1 in D major, the music shifts abruptly from C minor to D major. The monstrous orchestra in Maazals music uses unstable chords to convey a horrific beast. In addition to this changing melodies and rhythms are another characteristic of 20thcentury music. The rhythm and melody of Maazals sad violin solo at the end of Music for Violin and Orchestra are different from the calming tones that he plays to soothe the orchestral beast.
Both of these pieces are similar in some ways to Baroque music. First, the melodies are extremely difficult to memorize. The melodies used in Mahlers music and those provided by Bach are not show tunes. This music takes more skill than, for example, classical music, which emphasized more simplicity in melody. The polyphonic sections of both styles of music give the listener variety to sustain his interest (except for Mahler where it is swiftly dispatched). The multiple melodies are evident in Bachs fugues and in the duel between Maazal and the orchestra. Unity is achieved by repetition of the main themes. Mahlers symphony repeats the main theme before it ends while Bachs Little Fugue in D minor continuously repeats the main subject.
Chamber music is different from the orchestral music. It is music employing a small group of musicians with each player to a part. While an organ recital is not technically a chamber music performance, the fact that there is only one player fits the definition of a small grouping this case one musician. Still, the sounds and tones coming from the organ differ greatly from those coming the plethora of instruments of an orchestra. Some of the key works of Bach were arranged exclusively for the organ. The pieces heard were characteristic of the Baroque period: constant mood, difficult melodies, constant repetitions and terraced dynamics. This is in contrast to the music played at Carnegie Hall, where there were, for examples, many changes in the mood of the music and tempo of the music.

The Baroque works have several characteristics that distinguish them from other styles of music such as the classical. First, these musical pieces have a continuity of rhythm, melody and mood. In “Now thank We all our God”, the meter, mood and melody remains constant throughout the performance. This is accomplished through repetition, which unifies the entire Baroque piece. Another important characteristic of Baroque music is that the music can never have crescendos or decrescendos. In “Toccata and Fugue in D minor”, the music does not become gradually louder or softer. The changes in music are in changes in the pitch at which the tones are played, not a change in volume. As such all of Bach’s pieces due the limitations of the organ can only be loud or soft. While word painting is used in Baroque pieces, I could not perceive it, as I do not speak German. The final characteristic of Baroque music is the polyphonic texture of the music. In Bach fugues, when one pitch (e.g. alto) is playing the main theme, another pitch (e.g. soprano) is playing a different melody entirely.

Subjectively, the music played was a change from the dissonant music of Wagner’s “Die Walkure and Debussey’s “Omens of Spring”. There was less tension overall and a sense of completion when one of the works was over. Even in “Toccata and Fugue in D minor”, which had a very ominous theme, the music was definitively ended without any lingering expectations. Still in the recital of Bach’s music, the organist played pieces that were either menacing such as “Piece d’Orgue” or jubilant “Wir danken dir”. The tone color was somewhat limited. In the last piece, “Now Thank We all Our God”, which was arranged for both the organ and the choir working in unison, an organ horn was substituted for the choir. The music, which resulted from this, was a mockery from the choir-assisted version. The horn was a poor substitute when trying to replace the choir.
Overall the Bach music played by the organist was somewhat easy to follow. The repetitions of the chorale preludes stanzas and of the main subject in the fugue provided the cohesion needed to create unity. Moreover, the music maintains it pace and mood so that you can actually expect how the piece should end. While a unified piece can be desirable, it can become boring if there is no element of variation. Unfortunately, a singular organ does not display much tambre. As such, the variety was provided by variations in pitch of the main fugue themes and also the countersubjects of those fugues. Also the polyphonic texture lends itself to variation quite easily as a person’s ear cannot concentrate on all the melodies at once. The result is that a listener will find something new in Baroque piece with each hearing. Therefore, Bach’s music from “Wachet Auf” to the “Piece d’Orgue” has both the unity and variety to keep the listener’s interest.

The feeling of closeness to musicians in chamber music is different from the feeling one receives while listening to orchestral music. While many times, the non-virtuoso players are not displayed prominently in the orchestra (with the exception of Bartoks Concerto for Orchestra), the few musicians, (or in the organists case, one) provided more intimacy with the musician. Not that chamber music is superior to that of orchestral music, it only sounds more personal. Still, orchestral music provides the listener with a variety of sounds and melodies that are just not possible with only a small number of musicians. As such, orchestral music can display a depth and breadth of music unattainable by chamber music.
In summary, the two styles of music heard at the concerts are different and similar in many respects. While the musical styles of the 20th century and the Baroque period can differ greatly in terms of melody and rhythm, they also have many similarities (e.g. polyphony). Also, while orchestral music and chamber have great differences, neither is superior to the other. Rather by hearing both forms of music, the listener can broaden his perspective of music and become more understanding of this art form.
Kamien, Roger, Music: An Appreciation. New York: McGraw Hill, 1998


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