SS 64 | Shostakovich: Symphony No. 5 in d minor

by Glenn on October 22, 2017

Dmitri Shostakovich (1906–1975)
Symphony No. 5 in d minor, Op. 47

Allegro non troppo

first performance: 20 July 1937
Leningrad Philharmonic | Yevgeny Mravinsky

It’s challenging enough to be an artist. You need to get paid. And, ideally, you get paid from the act of creating the art itself. I suppose you could be independently wealthy or happy with your day job, so who cares if your art makes any money but, normally, as an artist you have an idea for this thing you want to create and your central challenge is to get someone to pay for it or, at the very least, pay attention to it. Which means you don’t exist in a vacuum. You live with this tension of “I want my art to be true to myself” and “I need to people to like ‘my’ art”. Your art must please someone. Or, as Bob Dylan said it so profoundly, “You’ve got to serve someone.” That’s the realm where the artist who is paid for his work largely functions. Read the rest of this entry »

SS No. 63 | Shostakovich: Symphony No. 4

by Glenn on October 17, 2017

Dmitri Shostakovich (1906–1975)

Symphony No. 4 in c minor, Op. 43

i. Allegretto poco moderato—Presto
ii. Moderato con moto
iii. Largo—Allegro

I listened to a recording by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Vladimir Ashkenazy.
Recorded: Walthamstow Assembly Hall | January 1989
Label: London | D-125172

Cover artwork for Shostakovich's Symphony No. 4, performed by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Vladimir Ashkenazy. Read the rest of this entry »

Learning to Enjoy “Ristening” Again

by Glenn on October 10, 2017

At 54, I feel a certain anxiety about, among many things, the short list of books I read each year and, cumulatively, looking at the limits of age and time will never read this side of eternity. On the one hand, I do read some books every year which puts me, according to this study, in the 70th percentile, above those people who have not  touched even one book this year.

The same study referenced above says that Americans read an average of 12 books a year. This number is skewed, though, because the median number of books read is four, indicating that at least some people who read books read lots of books. The number that was important to me was the 17 books per year read by college graduates. I’d like to be better than average.

Over the Christmas holiday in 2015 Read the rest of this entry »

Sabrina: In the World and of the World

by Glenn on September 17, 2017

I like to think of old movies as a kind of refuge for the Christian. When they were produced, there were standards of decency which, in comparison to what is commonplace today, are not overtly inconsistent with the life of faith.


Still, it’s remarkable how you cannot always accept the tenets even of older films. Though they may not indulge in the coarse language, nudity, and overt sexuality that have been culturally normalized in my lifetime, they are not presentations of the gospel and in subtle ways are not consistent with a Christian life.

A few weeks ago, we watched Sabrina, the original, classic one with Humphrey Bogart, Audrey Hepburn, and William Holden. I’ve watched this a number of times over the years.

Read the rest of this entry »

SS No. 62 | Shostakovich: Symphony No. 8

by Glenn on September 8, 2017

Dmitri Shostakovich (1906–1975)

Symphony No. 8 in c minor, Op. 65
Allegro non troppo

first performance: 3 November 1943
Yevgeny Mravinsky | State Symphony Orchestra Read the rest of this entry »

The Death of Meredith Kercher and the Trials of Amanda Knox

by Glenn on September 4, 2017

I’ve spent some time this summer considering a criminal event from nearly ten years ago, the murder of Meredith Kercher.

The journey began when I listened to Amanda Knox’s Waiting to Be Heard: A Memoir Read by the Author. (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2013).

Cover artwork of Amanda Knox's Waiting to Be Heard: A Memoir, Read by the Author

Read the rest of this entry »

Just for Fun: Allan Sherman

by Glenn on September 1, 2017

Earlier this week I was between audio books in the car. I needed a palate cleanser and turned to an artist from my childhood, Allan Sherman. Not sure how many times I played Sherman’s My Son, the Celebrity on the record player as a kid.

Read the rest of this entry »

Adventures in Classical Programming

by Glenn on August 24, 2017

When you program a concert of classical music, it’s tough to be creative. As an audience, we generally don’t like the unfamiliar—surprises can be dicey.

A typical evening might be a short and upbeat piece to start out the evening, a concerto of some type heading into the intermission, and a major symphonic work to close it all out. That’s seems to be the expectation or at least the common practice.

You can experiment with “new music,” which could be either music that is literally new or music that hasn’t become part of the mainstream canon, yet, but these tend not to be the works that get people to show up to concerts. Assuming limits of time and money, you go to hear things you like to hear. The unfamiliar is may be a delightful epiphany or a moment that leaves you wondering, “What was that?”

Recently, I heard some inventive and enjoyable programming from one of the BBC Proms. It took a couple of sittings (up to and then after the intermission), but I caught a replay of Prom 37, an all-Rachmaninov program. I think the announcer referred to it as an immersion.

The program I heard featured two familiar and wonderful works by Rachmaninoff, the Third Piano Concerto in d minor before the intermission and the haunting Second Symphony after. (These were the works that I imagine got people in the door.)

That program would be pretty traditional, except that both of these big orchestral works were preceded by a small choral work which then rolled seamlessly and immediately into the orchestral performance.

The choral group was the Latvian Radio Choir. According to the announcer, the program opened with the lights in the auditorium dimmed. The choir began singing in the foyer and then processed forward through the audience. They sang a chant that was part of Rachmaninov’s All-Night Vigil (Vespers).  The chant had an uncanny resemblance to the opening of the piano concerto.

There was a basic point being made, which was that Rachmaninov has a connection to the chant of the Russian Orthodox Church.

I tend to think of Rachmaninoff as a part of “Western” music history, but his music has ties to the Russian Orthodox Church and has an “Eastern”/“Byzantine” quality about it, including especially melodies which follow small intervallic patterns. It was wonderful to hear that direct connection.

I hadn’t listened to the piano concerto for ages. It was gloriously played here by Alexander Gavrylyuk accompanied by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra conducted by Thomas Dausgaard. Gavrylyuk was called upon to play an encore, Rachmaninoff’s “Vocalise.”

Following intermission, the Latvian Radio Choir started things off again, this time with an Easter Chant which rolled into the symphony.

This was remarkable programming. It would have been just fine listening to the concerto and the symphony by themselves, but the choir added an other-worldly dimension to the proceedings. I’ve only come to be exposed to the music of the Orthodox Church late in life. It’s a remarkable experience.

I don’t know if I will have the time for it before it disappears, but the Latvian Radio Choir was presenting the All-Night Vespers in their entirety later that night for Prom No. 38.


The All-Night Vespers is pretty glorious listening. It’s in Russian, which goes right past me, but the music itself is gorgeous, the effect of which is like holding a sleeping puppy. It goes to work on you. You have to slow down. This is not great music to approach with anything like impatience—you simply won’t make it through. It’s well worth listening to. The Latvian Radio Choir features a rather straight choral tone—nothing operatic about the singing—which adds a kind of minimalist approach to the aesthetic. There’s nothing extra going on, just the pure sound of the Vespers.

The announcer describes this as “one of the most profound and transporting pieces of choral music in the repertoire.” It was the last major work Rachmaninoff wrote following the Russian Revolution and before he fled Russia to the West. The announcer said Rachmaninoff had stopped going to church by this time but he hadn’t lost his love for the music of the Russian Orthodox Church. Some of the music Rachmaninoff appropriates from the 11th century. Others he creates as “conscious counterfeits.”

A City Is A Magnifying Glass

by Glenn on August 15, 2017

I didn’t know life here in Portland was so bleak that it warranted an actual road sign. This can be seen headed Eastbound on Burnside coming up to 32nd, near Music Millennium, whose owner, Terry, was leaving the office as I was heading back to the car. (Had to stop and take a picture.) We know each other from commercial activities and as we chatted I asked him about the sign. He had had to do some detective work and told me his theory, which has been reported in Willamette Weekly:

A post shared by Glenn Austin (@glenneaustin) on

Someone from a small Midwest city (population c. 215,000) once told me they thought there was a lot of sin here in Portland (population c. 640,000). I didn’t have a great response. Mostly, it was silence as I tried to process the statement. Read the rest of this entry »

Prom 2 | Elgar’s Symphony No. 1

by Glenn on July 29, 2017

It won’t be available to listen to much longer, but the performance of Elgar’s First Symphony by the Staatskapelle Berlin with Daniel Barenboim at the Second BBC Prom is fabulous.

My embarrassingly and unjustifiably large collection of recordings of Elgar’s Symphony No. 1 consists of nearly 80% performances by English/British orchestras. It’s remarkable when a German orchestra, say, chooses to play/record this symphony, even more so when they take it on the road and play in England.

In a review of the performance, Andrew Clements wrote,

“Much more than most of his British contemporaries, Elgar has always seemed a thoroughly European composer, whose stylistic roots delve so deeply into the Austro-German tradition, and hearing his music played by an orchestra at the very heart of that tradition reinforces those affiliations.”

The Staatskapelle Berlin with Mr. Barenboim released a recording of this symphony not too long ago. My memory is that it was quite good, but I’m wishing they were going to make the recording now. What I heard in this performance was striking in its color and concept. The Berlin players bring out the operatic quality of this music nicely. The string players use a tasteful amount of portamento, which adds a kind of nostalgia to the recording. The playing is clean and tight. It feels like they own the work better than they did.

The two inner movements are connected in the music. In this performance, Barenboim tied them to the last movement by not taking any sort of pause. It was a lovely effect.

I agree with Mr. Clements’ conclusion that on both the recording and this performance “The return of the motto theme in the closing pages of the First Symphony didn’t quite sweep everything before it as it can in some performances.”

Still, the playing is phenomenal. A great way to begin a Saturday morning.

Postscript [16 August 2017]:


Yesterday, I checked out SymphonyCast for the first time in a long time and I saw that their 31 July 2017 program featured this performance of Elgar’s First Symphony by the Staatskapelle Berlin. I thought I would listen one last time before this performance went away.

I didn’t like it as well as I remembered. Balances were strange. There was a monotonous quality to the performance. There was a moment at the end of the first movement where it sounded like the musicians got out of sync with each other for a moment. As I listened, I wondered if this was the same performance? Were my initial, positive impressions about this performance unwarranted?

I don’t think so.

My hypothesis: The producers of SymphonyCast have applied a generous amount of compression to this performance so that the highs and lows are effectively gone.

As I was listening, I noticed I never thought about changing the volume. Quiet moments weren’t so quiet that I needed to bump up the volume, loud moments weren’t so loud that I wondered if I should turn it down. The whole thing was one level, which basically wrecks the performance because it eliminates dynamics. You get this strange effect of a full orchestra playing fff sounding as loud as a few musicians playing as quietly as possible.

At the end of the adagio, there is supposed to be a quiet stillness as the strings and a few woodwinds play and muted horns offer a quiet, “off in the distance” fanfare. In a concert hall, you are carefully listening, not wanting to miss anything. On this recording you couldn’t miss anything. In fact, the coughs from the audience were generously amplified well beyond what I remembered with the BBC recording.

The original performance I heard through the BBC Proms website, which may have had some compression, but I believe had a wider dynamic range than this performance. That out of sync moment at the end of the first movement I heard last night I probably missed when I listened through the BBC player because it was so quiet. If it was out of sync, perhaps the players in that moment couldn’t quite hear each other because they were playing so quietly.

I assume SymphonyCast is trying to make this performance ideal for listening in places where even volumes are helpful—in a car, through headphones on a subway, at work. But if you are at home with reasonably good headphones, you don’t need this kind of amplification and attenuation of the playing levels.

If my assumptions are correct, I am struck by how different I felt about this performance based on how the NPR engineers have changed it. If I am wrong about the manipulation of the sound, then I don’t know what to think.

NPR did a nice piece some years back, “The Loudness Wars,” on the two forms of compression that get applied to recordings. It can be seen and heard here.

Epic Mahlerthon

by Glenn on July 17, 2017

A long July 4 holiday weekend provided an opportunity for an epic first—an attempt to listen to all the symphonies of Gustav Mahler in a short period of time. A Mahlerthon.

And to celebrate the freedom of our country, I thought I would consult one-off performances that were free from the traditional presentations of the work.

In some cases of these one-offs, you inevitably ask Why? The easy answer is perhaps the devil’s doctrine (“Because we can, we must.”) is at work. But while each of these arrangements is a compromise of Mahler’s artistic achievement, each have virtues of their own. Read the rest of this entry »

Symphony Study No. 61 | Mahler: Symphony No. 2 in c minor, “Resurrection”

by Glenn on June 3, 2017

Gustav Mahler (1860–1911)
Symphony No. 2 in c minor, “Resurrection”
Allegro maestoso
Andante moderato
In quietly flowing motion
Urlicht (Primal Light): Very Solemn, but simple
In the tempo of the scherzo—Allegro energico—slow, misterioso

first complete performance:
4 March 1895 | Berlin Philharmonic | conducted by the composer

I intended to save the Mahler symphonies for the end of this study, but when the Oregon Symphony presented Mahler’s Third last year and his Second last week, these seemed like appropriate opportunities to reflect on this glorious music. Read the rest of this entry »