Michael James Miller, writer and arts critic, died aged 73 on November 14th, 2021, after a long illness with cancer. He was at home in North Adams, MA, his partner Joanna Gabler and youngest son, Lucas, beside him. His last word was “Peace.”
Here is one of the strangest living bits of ceremonial history you will ever encounter, along with some fine, nearly forgotten music ever since. The year 1937 witnessed Paris’s International Exposition, the last continental world’s fair to take place before the Second World War, and something of a nervous set piece for political tensions of the day.
The sad news was released a few days ago: Francesca Zambello, the most innovative opera directors in the world, and who gave the Glimmerglass Festival its greatest years, was ending her tenue after the 2022 season.
Welcome to the world of unselfconscious Mozart as it once was. When this LP first arrived in record bins in 1977, there was nothing stylistically unusual about romantically phrased performances of the composer’s music, delivered by large orchestras with substantial masses of strings. Herbert von Karajan, Bruno Walter, Karl Böhm, George Szell, all recorded “big” Mozart. Towards the end of the decade Josef Krips would turn out some nicely crisp late symphonies with the Concertgebouw for Phillips, a bit reduced in scale, but we were still a long way from the aggressive small dog Mozart which bites at our ankles today and answers to the word “Authenticity."
Raymond Tuttle of Fanfare raised some seldom addressed questions recently about the subjectivity of music criticism. Those questions lead to even greater mysteries, I find. It isn’t often asked, for instance, why music exists at all, but that’s surely where one has to begin, if it is to matter what we say about it.
I’m always intrigued when European orchestras take up the cause of American music, a simple enough notion to understand semantically but difficult at the stylistic level for continentals to adopt idiomatically. Our music’s frequent combination of seemingly naive musical prayerfulness with ungoverned explosive energy has typically left European musicians a bit puzzled, and the Teutonic world at times more than a little stiff and earnest. So I wondered about this release. Could the Swiss sashay down Broadway with that long-legged swagger and impudence implicit in so much of American life? Could Lucerne really let go?
It’s rare that a recording for strings alone wows listeners as a sonic blockbuster, but I celebrate this one from its first plucked, throbbing, filigree-laced chords. John Wilson has effectively reconstituted the Sinfonia of London, known to many in fond memory for Sir John Barbirolli’s unsurpassed 1962 LP of Vaughan Williams and Elgar. Wilson has set himself up for recording purposes in St. Augustine’s Church, Kilburn with stunning results. I don’t think I have ever heard an acoustic more flattering to strings. He also exercises tact in not trying to reproduce the magic of Barbirolli’s program, bringing us instead string works by four of the major “B’s” of twentieth century English music. Only Bax is missing.
How should music scholars write for non-specialists? That is the wide-ranging question that Dave Hesmondhalgh raised in an essay for Naxos Musicology International in November 2019. (NMI is available to anyone who subscribes to Naxos Music Library or whose library does. Click the “Musicology” button on the left edge of the homepage.) Hesmondhalgh lays out numerous beneficial possibilities. But he passes quickly over the single most frequent form of scholarly outreach: books and articles (for newspapers, CD booklets, blogs, online magazines) that address topics likely to be of interest to many. Hesmondhalgh would place this in the category of “traditional public musicology.” He mentions two fine instances: the program notes of Donald Francis Tovey (which were then gathered into the now-classic, multi-volume Essays in Musical Analysis) and the rock criticism of Simon Frith. By profession, I am a historical musicologist. But I got my start as a writer publishing concert reviews. This was, I think, in 1967, when I was 18. At age 66 (in 2015), I began again to publish reviews on a regular basis, now focusing primarily on CDs (though I also write about some books and live performances). It occurs to me that my experiences, struggles, and doubts—or, worse, my haste and lack of doubt!—might be worth sharing here. My examples are two reviews that I wrote nearly fifty years apart and that treat one and the same work (an Offenbach operetta).