Forging Sound into Words

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THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS:

An Interview with Bernard Holland

After almost 30 years as music critic of The New York Times, Bernard Holland weighs in on everything from Cosima Wagner’s diaries to Springsteen and the overuse of the meaningless word “great.”

Enjoy.

 

Q. You rarely go to concerts or operas. Does this mean you are tired of music?

A: I’m not tired of music. I’m tired of the music world. In retirement I see classical music from the outside and not as a practitioner. It looks pretty artificial from out here. I’m tired of audiences bullied into ritual obedience  – sit in the dark and shut up; don’t make noise unless I say so; Music up on a stage. Listeners sitting in the dark terrified of coughing, foot shuffling or program rattling; musicians dressed up like waiters.

I have no idea how to fix this.I just went to a friend’s recital and heard five Schubert songs. They were so beautiful I nearly cried..

Q: Do you read about music? Do you keep up with what’s going on?

A: To a degree. Writing coherently about music is rare; I like to see how others do it these days. The doings of the Geffens, or music directors on the move or backstage backstabbing at the Met doesn’t get me going anymore. I pick up Cosima Wagner’s diaries every few years. Fascinating. I may actually finish this winter.

Q: What are you listening to?.

A: Not a lot. Having music going on in the background all day would drive me nuts. You listen or you don’t. I do more at our summer house in Canada . I like CBC2 radio in the car. At night I shuffle through odd piles of cds. Lots of Linda Ronstadt (purest voice I ever heard), Frank Sinatra (I am in awe), Little Richard (amazing for about 10 minutes), and then Haydn string quartets, Schubert piano sonatas. I always go back to Haydn’s Seven Last Words of Christ, Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms and Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians. I like Shirley Horn depending on how much scotch I’ve had. There’s nothing quite as beautiful as the mourning doves in our East Village garden.

Q: What are you reading?

A: Just finished, the new George W. Bush bio, some Balzac and Teffi negotiating the new Soviet order. Next Ian McEwan’s “Nutshell”, Joe Lelyveld’s Roosevelt book, Robert Gottlieb on editing, and especially the new Bruce Springsteen. I don’t expect it to be like Keith Richards’ “Life” (the first chapter of which is among the funniest things I have ever read.) Richards is the sardonic observer. Springsteen is the guts and the nerve endings of a culture. Much to do.

Q: Who are the greatest composers?

A: Someone told me recently about a colleague who is writing a book on what makes great music great. Posited, I assume, is a greatness gene, some rare chemical compound that separates the Fortnum and Masons of music from all the Ralph’s Pretty Good Grocery Stores of Garrison Keillor fame.

It’s a fool’s errand. “Great” is another one of those aerated buzzwords that float beloved into the stratosphere and mean nothing.“Great” seems to invoke size (lots off people like It) and durability (they like it for a long time).

I remember sitting in the Beverly Hills kitchen of a friend and denigrating Arnold Schoenberg’s limited appeal for later generations to Leonard Stein, who was Schoenberg’s longtime assistant and advocate. My argument: history says Schoenberg is great but very few people listen to him. Stein: that Schoenberg deeply moves only a small number of people in no way minimizes his worth or status.

Leonard Stein is right. I am wrong. Technology makes me even wronger. The number of seats filled at Carnegie Hall is not the measure it used to be. The hierarchies of “greatness” are now many and hand-held. We are not one audience agreeing on what is great. We are millions of play lists, each with its own decider.

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First Verified Photo of Former New York Times Critic Bernard Holland, author of Something I Heard

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Beth Wareham talks to Something I Heard author, Bernard Holland

1. You’ve been away from the New York Times for 7 years. Why did you release this book now?

Two close friends – Richard and Dee Wilson – (Richard Wilson is a composer/pianist and holds the Mary Conover Mellon Chair of Music at Vassar) came upon the piece on Glenn Gould and said I should think about a book. It was some kind of tipping point for me and seven years after leaving the paper, I thought “yes, I’ll do a book.”

2. A google of your by-line puts your contribution to music criticism at the Times to over 4600 articles and reviews. How did you begin to approach what you wanted in this compilation?

I remembered certain reviews and started rereading them together. I began to appreciate the work more. Before, I just wanted to enjoy being retired. Now, I can look back at a career and think “it was a wonderful job but there was too much of it.” I needed to put it all aside. I was overloaded.

3. As a writer, you are known as a skilled “aphorist.” How did you get to be that way?

I say it in the book. I had to write hundreds of short reviews. I had strict boundaries and that allowed me freedom. Boundaries are liberating. You know exactly where you are and it really makes you think. I became good at throwing out any word I didn’t need.

I had to operate within a space and that space only. There’s a quote from Stravinsky that says – and I paraphrase – when I begin to compose, I have limitless opportunities. It’s up to me to choose one.

As a writer, you can’t sprawl, you can’t run everywhere. I feel the same way musically about Mahler. I think sometimes in his symphonies, he abuses his space.

4. I have to ask it: What are your desert island pieces?

Haydn’s “Last Seven Words of Christ”
Wagner’s “Parsifal”
Schubert’s G Major Piano Sonata
Liszt’s “The Fountains at the Villa d’Este”,
Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time”
Debussy’s “Iberia”
Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony
Astor Piazzolla’s “Maria de Buenos Aires”
Any Nelson Riddle arrangement of Frank Sinatra and Linda Ronstadt.

5. And finally, what’s your favorite part about being married to me?

You like Jimi Hendrix and I’m cool with that.

Get more of the music in Something I Heard by clicking here on the title.

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Is Classical Music Funny? 25 Ideas from SOMETHING I HEARD by Bernard Holland

 

Something I Heard, Bernard Holland, music critic for New York Times, classical music criticism

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“Holland has a remarkable ability to conjure up the essence of a composer or a piece of music in a few deftly chosen words. He is, I think, an aphorist of unparalleled virtuosity.”
— San Francisco Chronicle

“No one today can match the limpid elegance and intellectual precision of his style…”
— The New Yorker

/Bernard Holland

CRITIC’S CREDENTIALS
The day I put “music critic” after my name people started asking me about music. Before that no one asked my opinion about anything.

ON GLENN GOULD’S “WELL-TEMPER ED CLAVIER.”
He is the most interesting Bach player in memory, but when taken as a model of how Bach should sound, he is a catastrophe. People who blow up buildings get our attention, and sometimes their messages clean out our heads, but we don’t let them be architects.

ON THE FUTURE OF AMERICAN ORCHESTRAS
They will no more grow than Mother Nature will take the liver spots off my hands. We have grown old together.

SYMPHONIC BLACKNESS
There’s a more relevant question behind the one that asks why so few black musicians go into classical music, and that is: Why should they want to?

ON EARLY MUSIC
If the early music movement taught us anything it is that all music is contemporary.

TANGO
The tango is sublimated warfare. It rarely smiles. Elegance, ritual and a deep dignity win out over darker impulses. In a single Argentine dance form the universal paradoxes of romance between two human beings seem to gather.

ON AMERICAN MUSIC
I would trade some Strauss, most of Hindemith and even a little Brahms for the first eight bars of “April in Paris.”

ON ELLIOTT CARTER AND HAYDN
One wonders what kind of music Carter would have written had he, like Haydn, lived his teenage years in frightening poverty.

SCHOENBERG ON HIS CRITICS
“My music isn’t modern. It’s just played badly.”

FARRAKHAN AND HIS VIOLIN
In the green hills of North Carolina on Saturday night, the lion lay down with the lamb. A reputed sower of discord communed with a maker of harmony. Louis Farrakhan, meet Felix Mendelssohn.

ON CASTING BAYREUTH’S “RING.”
Gabriele Schnaut’s Brünnhilde bore down on the helpless listener like a sopranic freight train threatening derailment at any moment. Her Siegfried (Wolfgang Schmidt) could offer only strangled desperation. When we were lucky, Mr. Schmidt landed on no pitch at all, creating a kind of 19th-century German Romantic rap.

HENRY BRANT INDOORS
The Brant aesthetic, when brought under a roof, shrinks to a form of encirclement. Here the audience, Custer-like, receives incoming fire from every direction.

RING FOLLOWERS
Wagner lovers are besotted people, like the sharers of some extraterrestrial visitation who are compelled to gather in cities like Seattle, Vienna, New York, San Francisco and, of course, Bayreuth to trade sightings.

RING FOLLOWERS II
When doom is announced on Monday but does not arrive until Saturday, the “Ring” and its audiences are captives in time, forming a kind of space capsule in which listeners are as much crew members as the performers.

PETER SELLARS AND EL NINO
Mr. Sellars takes his usual role as honorary member and emotional spokesman for the oppressed and the slighted. It must gall him at times to be so showered with attention and success.

OUTIS AT LA SCALA
The brothel scene steams with bare skin, gyrating pudenda and simulated (I think) copulation.

ON THE SORROWS OF YOUNG WEATHER
The sorrows of this story’s title lie in togetherness and loneliness made to stand side by side.

GIACINTO SCELSI AND HIS BLACK HOLE
A Beethoven sonata begins at the front door, takes a trip, meets new friends, goes home. A Scelsi piece closes the front door and digs in the basement.

CASTING WOES AT THE MET
Gorgeous to look at but virtually uninhabited, the Metropolitan Opera’s new ”Traviata” seems to have been the victim of a neutron bomb.

ON AVERY FISHER HALL
This building is cursed and should be leveled. It doesn’t need an architect. It .needs an exorcist.

ON HIGH PAY AND THE THREE TENORS
Perhaps a more apt title for these events would be “Three Tenors, One Conductor and Four Accountants.”

ON BRUCKNER AND CLASSICAL STYLE
Bruckner is a Mozart sonata that ate too much.

ON BLOGGING
All of us should go home, find a dark room, sit down and be silent.

ON MUSIC APPRECIATION
That leap from ”understand” to ”appreciate” is long and blind.

ON CONDUCTING MAHLER
You do not keep “Das Liêd von der Erde” together by snapping your fingers like Harry James.

ON ACOUSTICS AND LISTENING
Good acoustics, like a good haircut, go unnoticed.
Acoustics are to music what bookbinding and typeface are to Faulkner. If our minds are doing their work, Faulkner’s voice will sound the same in the roughest, smallest and most unwelcoming old paperback as it does in the most luxurious special edition.

MYSTERIES OF CONDUCTING
Look no farther than Leopold Stokowski who managed to pack his dessert-like sound into a suitcase and carry it from city to city.

RELUCTANT CRITICISM
The critic’s duty is to report that Mr. Bocelli is not a very good singer.

MOZART FROM MINOR TO MAJOR
Just as we put up our umbrellas, the sun comes out. We don’t know whether to be happy or sad, and so we are both.

ON CRITICISM
Critics may speak German or English but they can’t speak music. Music is sublimely illiterate

ON RELIGION
Messiaen invented a Christianity with no missionaries and a congregation of one.

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