Friday, January 20, 2017

Friday Miscellanea

I have a general policy of avoiding political issues unless they are directly relevant to our real focus here: music. But since today is the Presidential Inauguration let's start with this item: the Piano Guys are going to perform at the inauguration and offer a statement:
To our friends who have felt disturbed by our involvement, we want you to know that this doesn’t lessen our gratitude for what you have done for us. Not one bit. We still feel indebted to you. We love you. You give our music wings! We sincerely hope and pray for your understanding. We don’t feel right limiting our positive message only to people that believe or act the same way we do. We haven’t changed our message. We haven’t changed who we are, what we stand for, or what our music means and why we write it. We’re still doing what we’ve always done – playing for anyone who will hear our musical message with the hope that it persuades its listeners to love others.
– The Piano Guys
You should read the whole thing, which is very well expressed--and the comments as well, which include some spectacularly mean-spirited ones.

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I ran across this clip from the movie I, Robot that is amusing in an interesting way:

Well, I've written only four symphonies so far...

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Stuart Isakoff has a nice piece in the Wall Street Journal celebrating Tchaikovsky on the occasion of a festival of his music to be presented in New York later this month:
Why Tchaikovsky? It may well be that this composer’s attempt to reconcile influences from East and West—fusing classical elegance, Italian lyricism and German counterpoint with Russian folk elements—produced a many-faceted art in which disparate audiences can all find reason to celebrate.
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Bob Dylan's grandson, Levi Dylan, isn't going into the family business:
Levi Dylan, 22-year-old grandson of Bob Dylan and the son of Jakob Dylan, has decided not to pursue the family trade. “I gave up on music,” he told the Cut at the Cinema Society’s post-screening party for Southside With You on Wednesday, standing in a courtyard outside Harold’s Meat + Three. “I still love to play, but it’s too hard to make a living. And I think that was a mature decision to make.”
Yep. Levi's father, Jakob Dylan, has had a modest career in music, but he is going in a different direction. It is indeed very hard to make a living in music, but that isn't why we do music, after all. We do it basically because we have to.

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Talk about mixed emotions. That's my reaction to this item: Canada Mosaic puts Canadian music on the map.
“Innovators. Renegades. Pioneers. Canadian musicians have long punched above their weight both at home and internationally.”
Or so claims a news release announcing Canada Mosaic, an ambitious cross-country celebration of Canadian music and musicians spearheaded by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and funded (to the tune of $7.5 million) by the government of Canada.
“What a wonderful way to celebrate our 150th,” enthuses Mélanie Joly, minister of Canadian Heritage.
And it surely is a welcome way to fund some major commissions to our composers in addition to 40 or so two-minute fanfares to be performed by the TSO and partner orchestras from British Columbia to Newfoundland.
As a Canadian myself, a few thoughts come to mind. First of all, let me put the question to my readers, apart from Glenn Gould, Leonard Cohen and Justin Bieber, can you name one Canadian composer who is not a popular musician? Take your time... Nothing? I'm not surprised because the one really obvious truth is that Canadian composers have virtually no international profile. While talked up in the Canadian media from time to time as a kind of community boosterism, Canadian music, again, talking about the classical or concert music, has been notable in its utter insignificance. Believe it or not, Canadian composers have even less importance than Swiss composers and I'll bet you would be very hard-pressed to name a single Swiss composer. So, we need to revise that opening paragraph to read "Canadian composers have long punched far below their weight both at home and internationally." The real question is why? Maybe part of the answer is found by reading on. The nation of Canada, in grateful homage to its native composers is commissioning forty of them to write two minute fanfares? Oh good grief, honestly, why bother? A two minute fanfare is not a "major commission". In fact, that is about as tiny and insignificant as a commission can be.

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Our envoi today is the Piano Concerto No. 1 in B flat minor of Tchaikovsky played by a very young Martha Argerich in 1975. The conductor is Charles Dutoit:

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Defying Genres and Blurring Borders

I know that my readers come here for incisive reflection on music, sometimes analysis, explorations of the repertoire, examination of aesthetic problems and the occasional foray into humor. And sometimes I even post things like that!!

Today's post is inspired by a record review in the Wall Street Journal of a new disc by Bohemian Trio titled Okónkolo. You will want to read the whole thing, I am sure, but here is a sample:
With “Okónkolo” (Innova), Bohemian Trio offers welcome liberation from the baggage of expectation. This ensemble’s instrumentation—saxophone, piano and cello—offers few, if any, reference points. Substituting saxophone for violin makes for a quite different ensemble than Ravel envisioned when composing the Passacaille from his Piano Trio in A minor, which arrives near this recording’s end. The trio’s chamber music adheres to no conventions.
The really cool thing about the 21st century, apart from our imminent apocalyptic destruction due to zombies or global warming or fake news, is that now when we read a review of a recording we can go right to YouTube and listen to what they are talking about. Here is the title track from the album, Okónkolo:

And here is the Ravel Passacaille in their arrangement:

Nothing terribly wrong with any of that. What I find interesting is the way the review frames and describes what they are doing. The main cues come from the headline and sub-head:

‘Okónkolo’ by Bohemian Trio Review: Chamber Music Without Borders

Classical, jazz and Afro-Cuban sounds meld together on an album that defies genre.

"Without borders", "defies genre" and from the body of the review: "adheres to no conventions," "these musicians honor heritages that blur more than reinforce borders."

Do you detect the same obsessions that I do? "Borders", "conventions", "genres" all these must be blurred, defied and ignored. This is a long-standing meme, of course, but it has grown steadily in recent decades. There is a political resonance, as well. The underlying ideology is that of globalization. There must be no more local and regional, everything must be global, international. Instead of the unique flavor of specific traditions and heritages there is a blending and blurring of them all together. This trio are not a jazz trio or a chamber music trio, though they play both jazz and chamber music. They are without borders while they defy genres.

I see a congeries of aesthetic problems here. The most salient is simply that when music and musicians ignore conventions, defy genres and blur boundaries they do so in order to create something genuinely new. But there are always odd contradictions and ironies. In tossing aside one set of boundaries and conventions, what often happens is that older ones are revived in new garb. The atonal serialism of Schoenberg and Webern revived a number of very old contrapuntal procedures that had largely fallen into disuse. Stravinsky made extensive use of Russian folksong in evoking the atmosphere of primeval Russia. Bartók made a quite different use of Eastern European rhythmic and melodic elements in creating his new musical language and so on.

What creative artists are always seeking is character, individuality, not a grey soup of blurred influences.

Another important issue involves understanding the function of borders, boundaries, conventions and genres: these all offer frames and contexts to aesthetic objects. They are extremely important in focusing both the flow of creative ideas of the artist and in giving a context to the listener. Artists don't so much ignore all conventions and genres as choose and shape them to their needs.

Just as the veil seems to be falling from the agenda of the global elite in erasing national boundaries, so too all this talk of music that defies genre and is without borders seems more and more to be meaningless blather. What could it possibly mean to "defy genre" anyway? To hell with you minuet!?

Yes, of course artists are always in search of something that is both new and individual, but frankly, when I read the kind of description given to this trio, I already have a sense that what they are doing will be anything but new and individual. Instead, odds are that it will be the same bland stew of jazzy harmonies and world music rhythms that I have heard a thousand times before. Is there anything new and individual in the musical approach? Not that I hear. Instead of a liberation from the baggage of expectation, we get a rehashing of old baggage heard many times before.

At least that's what I hear! Feel free to disagree in the comments.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Prokofiev: Piano Sonata No. 7 in B flat major, op. 83

A friend of mine was over the other day, a professional musician for decades. Only some of his repertoire is classical and he doesn't know Prokofiev very well so I played him this movement:

That's the last movement of the seventh piano sonata, the "Precipitato".  My friend listened very intently and when it ended he sat bolt-upright and said "What else have you got like that?" That's a very impressive movement! A couple of months ago I did a whole post comparing different performances of this movement and that was one of the things that got me interested in doing posts on all the Prokofiev piano sonatas.

All three of the "War" sonatas were sketched out in 1939; this one was completed in 1942 and premiered by Sviatoslav Richter in 1943. There are three movements:
  1. Allegro inquieto (in B-flat major)
  2. Andante caloroso (in E major)
  3. Precipitato (in B-flat major)
This is some of the most dissonant of Prokofiev's music and it is often hard, especially in the first movement, to locate a tonic. The middle movement is set a tritone away from the outer movements. Here is how the first movement begins:

Click to enlarge
This kind of rhythmic texture comes from the Baroque gigue and the tarantella of southern Italy. They are both rapid, swirling folk dances, but Prokofiev transforms them into an uneasy, nervous, driving, intense movement, one of his most focused. There is no sense of B flat in the opening, the movement evolves towards that key, as we see foreshadowed in the first phrase which begins in C, shifts to B flat minor, back to C, to D flat and then to B flat. The middle of the movement is an Andantino that is equally uncertain about its key:

Click to enlarge
We see suggestions of A flat, D flat, A major and minor and, yes, B flat. The end of the movement gives us an unambiguous cadence in B flat, though preceded with some of Prokofiev's characteristic misdirections (the C flat in particular):

The second movement is deeply meditative, at least at the beginning, with a haunting melody in the tenor range:

Click to enlarge
And then the last movement, a furiously driving movement in 7/8 (divided 2+3+2) that seems to avoid accenting the downbeat so that you always feel on the wrong foot! While it is solidly in B flat, he contradicts that tonic with a hugely accented C sharp, the augmented 2nd!

Click to enlarge
The harmonies at the end, one of Prokofiev's most interesting coda/cadences are these:

Click to enlarge
An anonymous pianist has added the note "coda" on the second to last line, but I see it as starting a bit earlier, in the middle of the middle measure in the first line of my example. Suddenly there is a large harmonic shift to a D7 sonority: A C D F sharp A D, which is a second inversion D 7 chord. There is a B natural lower neighbor. This harmony, which might be tonicizing G major, instead moves to an A flat minor harmony in first inversion, C flat in the bass. If you recall, we have seen Prokofiev doing this previously, setting up one harmonic destination and then going to one a semitone away. After two measures of that there is a chromatic passage that echoes the augmented second of the opening, but on C flat to D natural instead of B flat to C sharp--a semitone above, in other words. This is a Neapolitan or Phrygian relationship, something else we have seen Prokofiev use. The last line has a scale passage in B flat and a strong tonic harmony extended over three measures. We don't actually get a dominant, that A flat minor in first inversion, strongly suggesting a Phrygian cadence, stands in its place, which we have seen before.

However successful or unsuccessful our attempts to explain what is going on--Prokofiev works more by instinct than formula--I think that this is a very powerful and worthwhile sonata.

Let's listen to all of Grigory Sokolov's performance with the score:

Monday, January 16, 2017

A Report from the Music Department at Mosul University

An old friend of mine, the head of the Music Department at Mosul University, has agreed to send me the occasional report as his school has been in the news a bit recently.

My dear friend,

Yes, things have been a bit fraught lately, I must admit. Here is a photo I took the other day, from my office looking out on the quadrangle. Standing just outside is a member of the Iraqi Special Forces counterterrorism unit:

Click to enlarge
We hope that things will settle down pretty soon, after all, the Battle of Mosul, which began on Oct. 16, 2016, has already lasted longer than the whole invasion of Iraq in 2003. Let me tell you, it will be a relief to finally be able to get music supplies again! Our stocks of reeds, strings, rosin and valve lubricants have been running dangerously low, though the students, a resourceful bunch, have been coping amazingly well.

Of course the main problem all along has been that the Islamic State folks just don't get what we are doing. That's a bit of an understatement: their actual policy is NO MUSIC and, yes, Death to the West, but that is a side-issue. You people who live in the West have no idea how difficult it is to run a music school based on the Western Classical Tradition when you have to put up with a constant stream of death threats and the occasional suicide bomber. Honestly, sometimes I think that the only appropriate repertoire for our orchestra is the 1812 Overture by Tchaikovsky because at least it features explosions. Cannon fire, C4, what's the diff? We could pair it on the program with Beethoven's Wellington's Victory.

But it is our ear-training classes that have been suffering the most. For one thing, a lot of our students (and faculty) have significant hearing loss from the shelling and automatic weapons fire. Minor sixth, major sixth? Who can tell the difference? Our professor of counterpoint, on loan from Tel-Aviv University, hasn't been seen in several years. He is either hiding in his office or the victim of an assassination. I don't think it was because of his no plagiarism policy, but you never know.

My personal beef this week is that we haven't had decent bagels in the faculty lounge for breakfast in months. What happened to all the Jewish bakers? And why does all the meat in the Faculty Club have to be halal? Really!

Rest assured, though, we will soldier on (just a metaphor!) and await our final liberation, much like Paris did in August 1944. Though in their case, they merely had to put up with the occasional festival of German music played by the visiting Berlin Philharmonic, while we have to sneak around surreptitiously just to organize a rehearsal of a Haydn string quartet! Let me tell you, those imams have sharp ears--they can hear a V-I cadence even through a brick wall.

I have to close now as I am organizing a welcoming concert for the Peshmerga fighters. Do you happen to know of any good cantatas in Kurdish? And can you email me the score and parts right away?

Yours gratefully,

Ignatz Moskowitz
Dean of Music
University of Mosul

[Yes, this is a satire. I don't actually have a friend at Mosul University and they probably don't even have a Music Department. I was just reading about the capture of Mosul University from ISIS and this popped into my head.]

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Prokofiev: Piano Sonata No. 6 in A major, op. 82

Between 1918 and 1936 Prokofiev pursued his career internationally with some success. But he grew more and more homesick for Russia and during the 30s became something of an ambassador linking the Soviet and Western musical worlds. His tours in the Soviet Union were greeted with considerable success, so in 1936 he and his family settled permanently in Moscow where he lived until his death in 1953--on the same day that Stalin died!

Perhaps the most well-known of the Prokofiev piano sonatas are the three written during WWII and collectively known as the "War" sonatas. The sixth sonata was written in 1939/40 and premiered by the composer in April 1940 and by Sviatoslav Richter in November 1940. This was during the time of the non-aggression pact between Hitler and Stalin, so technically speaking it was not yet wartime, at least as far as the Soviet Union was concerned (though they did invade Poland in September 1939). Russian musicologists do not use the term "War" sonatas when talking about these pieces.

Like Schubert did with his last three piano sonatas, Prokofiev conceived and sketched all three of the "War" sonatas at the same time before setting to work on the sixth in earnest. The high levels of energy and tension undoubtedly reflect the unsettled times even before the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941.

After hearing Prokofiev's performance of the piece Sviatoslav Richter had this to say:
"The remarkable stylistic clarity and the structural perfection of the music amazed me. I had never heard anything like it. With wild audacity the composer broke with the ideals of Romanticism and introduced into his music the terrifying pulse of twentieth-century music. Classically well-balanced in spite of all its asperities, the Sixth Sonata is an utterly magnificent work." Quoted from Berman, op. cit.
It was also a favorite of Shostakovich. The sonata is in four movements:
  1. Allegro moderato
  2. Allegretto
  3. Tempo di valzer lentissimo
  4. Vivace
 The opening movement has a most distinctive motif, presented in a variety of syncopations:

Click to enlarge
Apart from the rhythmic tension, another powerful element is the offbeat tritone D sharp juxtaposed against the tonic harmony. The sixteenth-note motif also returns in various forms in the last movement.

The two middle movements, a fairly cheerful scherzo and a lyrical waltz, are a relaxation of the tension, which returns full-force in the last movement, a tour-de-force tarantella:

Click to enlarge
Sviatoslav Richter played the sonata in a concert at Carnegie Hall in 1960:

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Prokofiev: Piano Sonata No. 5 in C major, op. 38

Prokofiev's life divides into three parts and the four sonatas we have discussed so far were all written during his years in Russia. In 1918 he left and spent time first in the United States and later in France and Switzerland. The fifth piano sonata was written in Paris in 1923 and was the only one in this genre (excluding some sonatinas) until the "War" sonatas, written after he returned to what was then the Soviet Union.

Every composer seems to have particular moods or modes that recur in different pieces and one of the most characteristic of Prokofiev is his "Evil Music-box" mode. I haven't mentioned it as such, but we have heard some examples of it in the second and third sonatas especially. Berman relates this to the Russian obsession with fairy-tales, especially in their spooky grotesquerie. The Sonata No. 5 is replete with eerie music that sounds sometimes like a Classical era piano sonata heard in a dream or, at other times, like one heard in a nightmare! Just as he showed in his Classical Symphony, Prokofiev had a real gift for re-thinking the Classical style. The opening of the first movement is an excellent example. Let's listen to the whole sonata. The pianist is Anatoly Vedernikov:

The sonata alternates very consonant passages in neo-classical style with some very strong dissonances (especially in the last movement). I am always interested in just how Prokofiev adapts tonal harmony to his uses, especially in cadences, where tonality is most strongly defined. The cadence ending the last movement is a fascinating example:

The piece is in C major and the final chord is a simple tonic in root position (with a little grace note leading tone in the bass). Pretty simple for Prokofiev. But it is the chord before that is interesting. So far every final cadence we have looked at has had some kind of altered dominant in penultimate position. But not here. The dominant in C major is spelled GBD often with the seventh F. The only note from that collection here is a solitary D buried in the middle! This chord is A flat, D, F sharp, B, another F sharp and C! What the heck is that? What it most closely resembles is an augmented sixth chord (A flat to F sharp is an augmented sixth), especially the French augmented sixth which in C major is spelled A flat, C, D, F sharp. Pretty much exactly this chord, particularly if you see that B as an appoggiatura. But an augmented sixth chord's function is to be a strong preparation for the dominant. That A flat is supposed to go to G, as is the F sharp. Instead, Prokofiev just omits the dominant entirely and goes right to the tonic. And somehow it works. Rather nice, actually.

There are two versions of this sonata. The second, done in 1952, shortly before Prokofiev's death, has a lot of small changes, especially in the last movement. That cadence I quoted above is from the second version. Prokofiev thought the changes were significant enough that he gave the second version a new opus number: op. 135.

Let's hear another performance of the piece. The pianist is Boris Berman:

Friday, January 13, 2017

Friday Miscellanea

Last month was the 72nd anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge and yes, there is a musical connection. Usually military bands don't have to actually fight, but on this occasion they did. We learn from Strategypage that:
These American soldiers from the 28th Division Band and Quartermaster Company, stayed and fought Germans in Wiltz, Belgium, until their ammunition was exhausted. Shown at Bastogne, Belgium. 12/20/44.
During the Battle of the Bulge, the Band was placed on the line to defend the Division Headquarters at Wiltz, Luxembourg. In this action, for which the Band was awarded the Meritorious Unit Commendation, all but thirteen of sixty members were killed or captured. Of the thirteen, eleven were wounded. Sergeant Raab avoided capture and helped re-form a new band after the Ardennes campaign.
Here's the photo, before the battle:

But they got that unit commendation, so there's that...

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I honestly don't know what to think about this experiment in synesthesia. I wonder what Debussy would have thought:
On a Friday night in December, I sat in a small room with 33 other audience members, each of us accompanied by a dancer in black. The dancers pulled out blindfolds and covered our eyes, and for a brief moment, all was dark and quiet and freighted with anticipation. Then, as a chamber ensemble began to play Claude Debussy’s String Quartet in G minor, the dancers began to “play” the music on our bodies.
When the music soared, the dancers lifted our feet to mimic the sense of weightlessness. When the music was playful, they tickled our forearms. And when it pressed in intensely, the dancers squeezed our shoulders and rocked our heads.
At times, they held scents near our noses, and wafted a wind across us, and even pressed evocative morsels of food into our mouths—truffle cheese with pop rocks, fizzing as the music rose—as if our entire bodies could be recruited into feeling the mad sensuality of Debussy’s work. As if the idea was to bring us inside the music itself.
 Truffle cheese?

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The Guardian has pretty much the best classical music coverage in the mass media. They have an article on an interesting exhibit in Paris about the Beethoven myths: Beethoven in dreadlocks … the show that celebrates great myths about the composer:
The French are good at this sort of show, exploring the life and afterlife of a dead genius. Like the Pompidou Centre’s show devoted to Roland Barthes (which opened with by a pristine black 1957 Citroën 19 in all the semiotic pomp conferred on it in Barthes’ essay), this is a vast multi-media celebration. But while that was hagiographic, this is more critical: the Barthes show made critic into icon; le Mythe Beethoven deconstructs the myth and then puts it back together again. In the Salle Pierre Boulez upstairs, there has been a swaggering series of allied concerts, including a fabulous concert performance of Fidelio.
Read the whole thing.

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 You know how I love to snark at the New Yorker, but they have had some of the funniest cartoons ever. And this piece, the stream-of-consciousness of a reluctant symphony attendee, is really funny. But it's not really about the orchestra, it's really about him.
Don’t clap too soon, wait till they’re done, don’t clap too soon, wait till they’re done, don’t clap—

So this is the Symph-Tacular Winter Series.

Four concerts times two seats plus parking equals . . .

Jesus. I could’ve gotten something I wanted.

Like one of those three-wheeled motorcycles.
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If you have ever wondered what the New York Philharmonic does when it needs an accordionist, wonder no more, the Wall Street Journal has the answer:
Among its ranks, the New York Philharmonic counts 28 violinists, 11 cellists, four flutists, three trombonists and even one bass trombonist.
But when the call came for an accordionist this past week, the orchestra had to go outside its circle.
The ensemble turned to Bill Schimmel, a New York-based master of the instrument who has made something of a specialty performing with orchestras.
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If this article on the tv show Mozart in the Jungle is even halfway correct, I'm going to have to watch it:
If a show can be in love with its subject matter, Mozart in the Jungle has fallen for the strange, motley power of music. Consider this season’s eighth episode, which is structured as a fake documentary about, of all improbable comic devices, a jailhouse Messiaen gig. In order to shoot the segment, a real orchestra and its actor-filled double traveled to Rikers Island and performed for actual detainees, who were genuinely overwhelmed (and said so on camera). What they heard was not a concert of easily digestible pops, but a program of music by the 20th-century French composer Olivier Messiaen, who wrote one his best-known works, Quartet for the End of Time, in a World War II prison camp. Inmate to inmate, composer and audience connected across continents and decades. In the episode, Messiaen’s ecstatic percussion, the bell-like chords, and the eerie electronic cry of the ondes Martenot go gliding over the concertina perimeter toward the East River and the Manhattan skyline. I hope the next time an orchestra administrator claims that the surest way to win new audiences is by spoon-feeding them pabulum, someone will cue up the moist eyes of inmates listening to Turangalila-symphonie.
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Also in The Guardian is this article on Ligeti's single, but very odd, opera Le Grand Macabre:
Set in a absurdist land of despots, debauchery and drunkenness, Le Grand Macabre premiered in 1978. Its score is a riot of quotations and pastiche and a huge percussion section that includes “a duck-quacker”, a wind machine, a saucepan and a “large alarm clock”. Ligeti wasn’t sure his work could even be classed as an opera, and despising the then-trendy term anti-opera, Le Grand Macabre thus became the first – and possibly the last – anti-anti-opera.
What gives this essay its undeniable authenticity is that it was written by Elizabeth Watts who is singing the role of Amanda in the upcoming production.

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Canada beclowns itself: next year will be the 150th anniversary of Canada's birth as a nation in 1867. In honor of this occasion $500 million dollars have been budgeted for the celebrations. As part of this lavish series of events, there will be a competition for composers to write a new piece for the carillon on Parliament Hill in Ottawa. Commissions for Canadian composers, as suggested by the Canadian League of Composers, are already hilariously low: a five minute work for one or two performers is a mere $2125 CAN. But the miserly prize to the winner of this competition will be, wait for it, $800. For the winner in the Youth category it will be $400. One Canadian composer has already started a protest petition. This isn't a prize, it is an insult.

* * *

The Herald of Scotland has a fascinating piece on a revival of an opera by Philip Glass on Kafka's The Trial:
AMERICAN composer Philip Glass has the characteristic dry humour of the city of New York, from where he is speaking to me.
"If you live a long time, you can make a living out of opera," he says, having composed something over thirty works that might be described as such, or as music theatre. Glass's 80th birthday falls in the middle of the run of Scottish performances of a revival of his 2014 chamber opera The Trial, based on the seminal book by Franz Kafka, written 100 years earlier.
* * *

For our envoi today, here is an excerpt from Act I of Ligeti's Le Grand Macabre: