Is classical music racist?

About a month ago I was sent an article entitled “It’s Time To Let Classical Music Die” on New MusicUSA. In essence, the article posits that classical music, due to its establishment in “white” and mostly “male” enclaves is inherently racist and should be allowed to wither on the vine. Here’s a sample:

[…] Western classical music is not about culture. It’s about whiteness. It’s a combination of European traditions which serve the specious belief that whiteness has a culture—one that is superior to all others. Its main purpose is to be a cultural anchor for the myth of white supremacy. In that regard, people of color can never truly be pioneers of Western classical music. The best we can be are exotic guests: entertainment for the white audiences and an example of how Western classical music is more elite than the cultures of people of color. […]

I left a comment on the site but the editors obviously did not like what I wrote so I am republishing it here, with minor changes.

As someone who has been a listener and fan of classical music for most of my life, and who has witnessed a flowering of real multi-cultural appreciation of classical music, I think it is a ridiculous and arrogant conceit to believe that classical music can be pigeon-holed into politically correct categories that are to be judged by some racial/color/gender formula known and promulgated only by a few. Classical music suffered enough in the twentieth century with dodecaphonism and academe’s highly political insistence that all music should be twelve-tone. Isn’t it enough that two generations of composers wrote utter crap to obey their masters in a hare-brained attempt to be in sync with the ideas that were prevalent? Ladies and gentlemen, this is nothing but post-modern bovine excrement, a ridiculous circular firing squad that aims, whether intended or not, to exclude and not to include.

Most of the folks who responded positively to this tripe are totally missing the point. The only color that matters is the ink on the staff paper. Music is outside of time, it’s outside of race. It is… music. That’s it.

Beethoven has been dead for 192 years. All that is left of him are notes on staff paper, played and interpreted by other musicians. The notes don’t yell, I’M WHITE! or I’M BLACK! or I’M LGBT! or I’M FROM [insert favorite marginalized group here]! Should we extend the writer’s logic to jazz and exclude all white performers and composers since Jazz was an art form invented by blacks? Or the Blues?

For heaven’s sake, it’s just music! It is either good music or bad. It is universal! Just listen to it and enjoy it without the pseudo-intellectual sturm und drang. Whether it’s Mozart, or Pärt, or Joplin, or Saumell, or Takemitsu, or Shankar. (See what I did there?)

I’ll continue listening and admiring the greatest art form man has ever created, thank you very much. I’ll pass on the angst.

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July 16, 1989

“Karajan ist tot.”

Thirty years ago today, one of the musicians largely responsible my love of classical music music — symphonic music and opera, in particular — died.

Herbert von Karajan is the greatest conductor of the twentieth century, unmatched in certain repertoire to this day. There are many others I greatly admire but few have had an impact like him. He was a giant, a larger than life conductor and musician that can fairly be said was the face of classical music. He created two generations of classical music lovers from the late 1950s until his death on July 16, 1989.

I have all of his recordings on Deutsche Grammophon, Decca, and EMI/HMV. His 1963 Beethoven cycle, his 1964 Brahms cycle, his two recordings of the Puccini masterpieces La Boheme and Madama Butterfly, and Richard Strauss’s Vier Letzte Lieder, remain for me reference standards against which all others are measured. I was privileged to see him conduct the Berlin Philharmonic at New York City’s Carnegie Hall in 1982 in what I have previously described as the greatest concert I’ve ever heard, an incandescent and luminous performance of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony that I still vividly and fondly remember almost 37 years later.

Thank you, Maestro.

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December 16, 1770

On this date in the year of our Lord 1770, the namesake of this blog was born: Ludwig van Beethoven, the “mighty thunderer.” Quite possibly the greatest musical genius that ever lived, Beethoven changed the course of Western music with his masterpiece, his Symphony No.3 “Eroica” in e-flat major, Op.55. On our masthead is a photo of the original score where Beethoven, in a fit of pique, violently scratched out his dedication to Napoleon (pre-Empire Napoleon, that is) and instead dedicated it to the “memory of a great man.”

Spend some time with the Master on his birthday…

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Mahler’s glimpse of the eternal

Thirty-six years ago, a mere lad of 25, I was already a veteran classical music and jazz fanatic. I bought LPs, attended classical concerts with the Miami Philharmonic, recitals by some pretty great pianists, operas, and heard great jazz at the many venues we had in South Florida back then. I never learned to read music, nor did I play an instrument, but my love of music was—and is—unbreakable.

That year, 1982, I lucked in to what was to be my most memorable life changing musical event. On a Sunday morning that summer I was reading the music and arts section of the Sunday New York Times and read an advertisement that Herbert von Karajan—my favorite conductor at the time, and still in my top three—would be conducting the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra in four concerts in New York at Carnegie Hall that October. Tickets were going on sale the next day. I resolved to plan a week long vacation in the Big Apple to attend the four concerts. Karajan and the Berlin would be performing works by Richard Strauss, Igor Stravinsky, Johannes Brahms, and Gustav Mahler. Unfortunately, my week-long vacation plan turned into a three day trip. I called the ticket office the next day and learned that the first two concerts on Tuesday and Wednesday had been sold out in minutes. As luck would have it I couldn’t snag tickets to hear my favorite Brahms symphony, the Fourth, but managed to snag tickets to the Friday (the Brahms Third and First) and Saturday (the Mahler Ninth) concerts. The New York Times described the upcoming concerts on October 17, 1982:

New York is a crossroads for the great orchestras of the world, but a visit here by the Berlin Philharmonic remains a rarity. Its last concerts in New York came six years ago. This week, as part of its 100th birthday celebrations, the Philharmonic returns to Carnegie Hall for four long-since sold-out concerts under its music director since 1955, Herbert von Karajan. At this late stage of his career (he is 74 years old), Mr. Karajan is still widely recognized as a master of late Romantic repertory from Wagner through Shostakovich, and the first and fourth of the concerts at Carnegie will give us a taste of that repertory. Tuesday night, following Stravinsky’s “Apollo,” there will be Richard Strauss’s gorgeously excessive “Alpine” Symphony, and Saturday offers Mahler’s Symphony No. 9. In between, Wednesday and Friday, Mr. Karajan and the orchestra will celebrate the 150th anniversary of Brahms’s birth with the complete Brahms symphonies. (The orchestra will offer only four other concerts on this American tour, all in Pasadena, Calif., at the end of the month.)

I flew in to New York City alone as was my custom for most concerts and recitals; I hadn’t met any attractive ladies in my age group willing to indulge a classical music fanatic and audio freak like me. I spent most of my first day full there, Friday, visiting the sites. I went to the late, lamented World Trade Center towers, ate at the Carnegie Deli, walked around and gawked at more buildings, and, of course, ate hot dogs. I visited some great record stores in Midtown and Downtown and bought a bunch of LPs that I still have in my collection. I was eager with anticipation for the night’s concert.

The Brahms Third and First were given excellent performances. Interpretively, Karajan’s standard-setting 1964 recorded cycle is still my favorite, but I was enthusiastic, as I knew this was a once in a lifetime event. The Third, my second favorite of Brahms symphonies, was brilliantly performed. (I love that final movement!) The First was given a fine performance as well. (The New York Times reviewed the two concerts.) After hearing this magnificent orchestra playing Brahms in the pre-renovation Carnegie Hall that first night, I can say that the hall deserved every bit of its reputation as one of the most acoustically perfect halls in the world. I heard every note and phrase clearly in that space, regardless of fortissimo or pianissimo. A marvel, absolutely superb. Gusman Hall in Downtown Miami, my sum total of concert hall experience until then, was but a shadow of what Carnegie was, despite its problems.

After another day of sightseeing and more LP buying on Saturday, I gave myself an additional treat that last evening. Before the concert I had dinner at the original Russian Tea Room, next door to Carnegie Hall. I drank cold vodka, had a superb lamb dish, and drank tea served in a traditional Russian tea glass.

After I finished my dinner I walked next door to Carnegie about an hour early for the concert and started chatting with other fans that were already there. We talked about Mahler, Bruckner, Beethoven, Brahms, Karajan, Furtwängler, the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonics, Leonard Bernstein (of course), our favorite recordings, and so on. It was wonderful to share my love of classical music and opera with folks (other than family and a couple of acquaintances) and not experience the deadened eye rolls of those whose favorite music comes in loud, monotonous, three-minute rhythmic chunks.

The only work on the Saturday program was Gustav Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, an hour-long symphony that was fated to be Mahler’s final completed symphony. I had not listened to all of his symphonies back then. I knew the First and the Second, the Fourth, Fifth and Sixth, Das Lied von der Erde, and, of course, the Ninth. I had heard two versions of the Ninth before the concert: Karajan’s Deutsche Grammophon studio recording from 1980, and one of my treasured recordings, Bruno Walter’s EMI recording with the Vienna Philharmonic from 1938—the famous Anschluss Ninth, performed and recorded live just two months before the Nazis took control of Austria forcing Walter to flee. As much as I liked the recordings I had listened to, nothing, absolutely nothing, could have prepared me for the experience of hearing this work performed live by Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic.

The frail Karajan, seventy-four years old and ailing from back surgeries, walked out slowly to thunderous acclaim for him and his orchestra on their last night in New York. After the applause it was deathly quiet; everybody in the hall was on pins and needles waiting for the two “heartbeats” to begin the first movement. Once they did, the symphony unfolded itself in such a way that it was impossible not to give rapt attention to everything going on in the score. The first movement Andante was played brilliantly, full of longing and pain; the Ländlers and Rondo-Burleske were amazing as well. But it was the final movement, that glorious Adagio, the most difficult of symphonic movements for a conductor and orchestra to sustain through its final pppp moments, that hit me like a thunderbolt. Mahler had glimpsed what the other side was and had written it down for all of us to hear. Those last twenty-five minutes unfolded as if from the heavens above until the strings of the magnificent Berlin orchestra faded out and Karajan put his baton down. I was, quite literally, in stunned silence at the end. So were many others. The ovations were many and long.

This was the greatest concert I have ever attended, bar none, and the passage of time has not diminished my vivid memories of it. Its effect on me has been mystical, spiritual, other-wordly. I don’t know quite how to explain it other than the music moved me and reached inside my soul and shook it up forever. A live performance by Karajan and the BPO at the Berlin Festival, recorded that year and released on Deutsche Grammophon a few years later, was the very first compact disc I ever purchased—and I hated compact discs with a passion. Not a month goes by since I purchased it that I don’t listen to it and remember that night. I have fourteen versions of this symphony in my collection (including the two by Karajan): two by Bruno Walter, three by Leonard Bernstein, Sir John Barbirolli, Giuseppe Sinopoli, Valery Gergiev, Carlo Maria Giulini, Jascha Horenstein, Bernard Haitink, and Riccardo Chailly. Some are excellent, and some are okay—I especially like the Concertgebouw and Berlin Bernsteins, the Horenstein, and the Berlin Barbirolli—but only the live Karajan comes close to what I heard that Saturday night.

This symphony has at times been apocryphally described as Mahler’s premonition of his doom (he died in 1911 at age 51); maybe it was Karajan’s premonition as well. After the series of concerts in which he conducted the Mahler Ninth, an interviewer asked Karajan why he never conducted it again. He replied that the music had shattered him in such a manner that he could not open the score again. He is quoted by his biographer Richard Osborne as saying that the music in the symphony is “coming from another world, it is coming from eternity.” I know what he meant and his interpretation bears it out. It is devastatingly beautiful music, full of sadness, longing, and resignation—and, yes, a little anger. Today, at almost 62 years of age, I believe I’m beginning to understand what Mahler was trying to tell us about love, about life and beauty, about spirit and transcendence, about impermanence, about farewells, and about death.

If you want to hear what it was like to be at Carnegie Hall that chilly October night, listen to the live Karajan recording of the symphony—but especially the Adagio—in a darkened room, as quiet around you as you can get it. This is as close as you’ll come to matching what I experienced thirty-six years ago tonight.

Have some tissues handy.

 

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Sound Advice has left the building…

Sound Advice, an audio and video retail fixture in South Florida, is dead — again.

The Boca Raton store of the current incarnation closed in early 2017; Pinecrest was shuttered around the middle of October 2017; the last remaining store in Fort Lauderdale closed in the summer of 2018. Their website is 404, their phone number is disconnected. I’m not shedding any tears.

One year ago today, on August 28, 2017, I purchased a PrimaLuna Prologue integrated amplifier, on sale, at their Pinecrest store on South Dixie Highway. The salesman told me that it would take anywhere from two to three weeks to receive it from the manufacturer. Hurricane Irma made landfall on September 10, 2017 and that brought with it almost a week without power and the usual post-hurricane cleanup. The week after Irma I called them to find out the status of my order and they informed me they had not heard from the manufacturer as to when the amplifier was going to be shipped but were going to make urgent calls to find out. On September 26, around the four-week mark, and obviously to soothe my distress (if not to shut me up), they gave me a loaner amp.

Over the next two weeks I asked them every couple of days where my amp was. Finally, on October 9, six weeks to the day I had purchased the amp, and having had quite enough, I called them and told them in no uncertain terms, that I was calling the manufacturer’s distributor, Upscale Audio, to find out just what the hell was going on.

Well, I found out.

Sound Advice, the once reputable audio store, a store that had represented some of the best brands in high-end audio and video, was not only no longer an authorized dealer for PrimaLuna, but had been cut off from any further purchases for non-payment. An executive at Upscale Audio confirmed to me by telephone that no order had ever been received by them for my amp. Six weeks they strung me along.

These were the most deceitful and dishonest audio salesmen I’ve dealt with in forty plus years of buying gear. They lied to my face with a big smile about having ordered my amp when they had never ordered itnor ever intended to! They should hang their heads in shame; they should never work in the industry again. Despicable. I came very close to contacting the State Attorney to file a claim for criminal fraud.

(Upscale Audio sold me the amp direct at the same sale price. A very classy move on their part that I’ll always appreciate.)

On October 11 I returned the loaner and got a partial refund of $500. The manager refused to give me a full refund of my purchase price at the store due to “company policy.” About eight days after I received my partial refund, the Pinecrest store was shuttered by the Miami-Dade County sheriff, apparently for nonpayment of rent. A nice final touch!

I had to wait another 12 days for the rest of my money, finally receiving the remaining portion of my refund on October 23, only after several less than friendly calls to the Fort Lauderdale main store.

The day I received the first portion of my refund I prophetically told the store manager, who shall remain nameless, “When this company goes belly up remember this transaction because you’ll be at fault for it as well.”

A sad and ignominious end…

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January 9, 2007

Ten years ago today, a product was introduced that would revolutionize the way people use technology as part of their daily lives. began. I bought mine as soon as I was contractually able to do so.

iphone-1

iPhone – First Generation

The iPhone has changed everything.

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Analog redux

In a a previous post, I mused about the new age of digital sound reproduction and how amazingly good — no, scratch that: great — DSD and Blu-ray Audio sounds. In this listener’s opinion, digital sound has finally come of age and gone to places none of us could have imagined back in the early 80s when Compact Discs were first introduced with the then empty promise of “perfect sound forever.” I also lamented on how LPs were no longer going to be a part of my listening. I haven’t changed my mind on the former; about the latter, read on.

prettything

Since that post was published in February 2014, I’ve made several changes to my system that have improved the sound. I’ve switched all my interconnects and speaker cables to Transparent Cable. I no longer have the slight edginess I had before with the Nordost Blue Heavens. I’m not knocking them at all; they were an improvement in my system when I added them. What I’m saying is that my particular mix of equipment sounds better with Transparent, real. They are a definite improvement in the bass, which is as solid as a rock now.

I don’t use the McIntosh MC30 tube amps every day for obvious reasons — after all, these are 62 year old amplifiers who have been refurbed once already. But when I do use them they’re heavenly. Best amplifiers I’ve ever heard in my system. My Bryston 3B-ST — what I called my “everyday” amp — was nearing the twenty-year old mark when it would no longer be under warranty. I had purchased it used with seven years left on the (amazing) Bryston warranty. I sold it and bought a used Harmon/Kardon Citation 12 amp. A musical amp, very satisfying to my ears. Alas, it lasted all of six months before it failed. I replaced it with a brand new Parasound 275v2. Nice, overall, but not as musical as the HK. The Parasound is my “everyday” amp now. It’s not the best, it’s a little bright, but it’ll do. I also sold my old Classé preamp and replaced it with a near mint condition McCormack Micro Line Drive preamp (also bought used) that can be used either in passive or active mode. This is as “straight wire with gain” as I can currently get.

The biggest equipment purchase I’ve made since 2014 was also the most ear-opening. It has irrevocably altered my view on how the ‘Redbook’ CD — and its PCM derivations — sound. I enjoy listening to CDs ‘straight-up’ through my Oppo BDP-105 with its excellent DAC. Listening to the same CDs through the PS Audio DirectStream digital-to-analog converter, however, has shifted the paradigm. The DS DAC takes the PCM (Pulse Code Modulation) encoded into every CD and converts it to DSD (Direct Stream Digital) before outputting it to the preamp. The results of this magic are nothing short of amazing. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve sat there listening to music and marveling at how good PCM really is. The difference between the Oppo’s internal DAC and the DirectStream is not subtle. And the Oppo is no slouch.

Later this year, PS Audio plans to release the DirectStream Memory Player, a new transport, based on the Oppo transport mechanism, that will play CDs, SACDs, and Blu-ray Audio discs, among others. This transport is unique in that the DSD layer in SACDs will now be sent as a bitstream via I2S to the DirectStream DAC for playback. All disc output, not just SACDs, will be now be heard in glorious DSD. I plan to move heaven and earth to get one of these babies.

prettything

Which brings me to my analog system. In late 2005 I purchased a 20-year old single-speed Linn Sondek LP12 turntable that came with an old Grace G707 tonearm, Mitch Cotter cabling, and no cartridge. I purchased a Sumiko Blackbird EVO-III cartridge and had it professionally installed. A couple of years later I added a Clearaudio Basic phono preamplifier to the system. Over the almost nine years I used this analog system I would have to rate it as “just okay” to “pretty good.”

The sound wasn’t what I had expected out of a Linn. The sound pulled out of my LPs was less than stellar. I did some minor tweaks, including repairs to the Linn’s unique suspension, by a local Linn dealer. But the results were still not as good as I had hoped for. I knew the only way to improve this table, and that was to throw a lot of money at it. I definitely needed to upgrade the tonearm, the interconnects, possibly revisit the Linn’s suspension mechanism again, and maybe upgrade my phono preamp. Expensive tweaks that would result in a large upgrade bill: at least $2,000 and probably more. And, to add insult to injury, I would still only have one speed and wouldn’t be able to play high-resolution 45rpm LPs. The law of diminishing returns kicked in with my dissatisfaction and I threw in the towel: in May 2014 I sold it. Separately, of course, to make up as much as I could of my total investment: turntable, tonearm, interconnects, cartridge.

Quo vadis, analog? Out the door, sadly. I went all-in with digital, using the Oppo as the main source for all my listening and, starting in 2015, with the DirectStream DAC as my digital processor. I’ve been extremely happy with the sound of my system.

Then a funny thing happened. Earlier this summer I purchased a “millennial” high-end audio rig for my then almost 21-year old son: a Pro-Ject Essential II turntable, and a PS Audio Sprout integrated amplifier, driving my almost twenty year old B&W DM302 loudspeakers — plus his iPhone, of course. After setting up the Pro-Ject, I taught him the basics of using a turntable and how to use LPs. We spun his first LP on his first real sound system: Combat Rock by The Clash. (Number two was Frampton Comes Alive.) Not only was I thoroughly impressed with the sound coming out of the Sprout for Bluetooth and digital, but the Pro-Ject sounded quite fine. The phono section of the Sprout was damn good and I thought that, maybe, an integrated solution was the best choice for me to reenter the world of vinyl. After all, I still have over a thousand LPs in storage that I haven’t sold.

I decided on the VPI Player, the second generation of VPI’s Nomad turntable. The Nomad was very well reviewed and the rumors in the spring was that the second generation version of that turntable was forthcoming in the summer. I decided to wait. It finally arrived October 1.

It was the easiest turntable setup I’ve ever had. Literally, it was unpack it, plug it in, plop an LP on it, drop the tonearm and play! I’ve had it for only two days but can confidently report that it is a winner. I finally have an analog rig that gets the juice out of my records, much better than my Linn ever did and, as a bonus, it cost a hell of a lot less than the Linn upgrades I was contemplating. First LP played? A 45rpm direct-to-disc Charlie Byrd jazz album that is one of my reference discs. I hadn’t heard in a very long time and can honestly say that I’d never heard it the way I heard it Saturday. Wonderful.

A full review will follow soon.

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