Monday, April 29, 2013

Tiger's lost opportunity

Earlier this month, the golfing sensation, Eldrick "Tiger" Woods was given a big chance to bring back millions of fans forever lost to him, and he threw it away.

On the second day of the Master's Championship -- the first of golf's four major tournaments, and for many fans, the most compelling golf on television all year -- Woods hit into the pond fronting the 15th green. Instead of playing his next shot from a drop spot (a much harder shot), he elected to go back to the place where he originally hit the shot. Where he broke the rule was in the placement: he (incorrectly, as it turned out) thought he could drop his ball a couple of feet behind the original location, and did so. After he finished his round, he signed a scorecard that was incorrect, because it did not account for the 2-stroke penalty he incurred with his improper drop. Since he signed an incorrect scorecard, he should have been disqualified. But because of some new rule established in 2011, a rule which is still unclear to me, he was able to take the 2-stroke penalty and continue playing through the weekend.

Whether or not he should have been disqualified is not the point. Tiger ought to have removed himself from the tournament.

Imagine what would have transpired if Tiger had won the tournament by one stroke, or even two strokes -- the win would have probably been dubbed his Masterisk victory, because of the controversial ruling. Why does Roberto de Vicenzo lose out, but not Tiger? In 1968, De Vicenzo was tied for first place with Bob Goalby after 72 holes, but was denied victory because he signed an incorrect scorecard. (His playing partner, Tommy Aaron, gave him a '4' on the par-4 17th, which De Vicenzo had birdied.) I understand that these two instances are not the same thing, and the rulings (new and old) are different for each instance. Still, they both involve an incorrect scorecard.

This is the nature of Woods's arrogance. We applaud it on the course -- his singleminded, win-at-all-cost nature is what propels him, and it is what compels us to watch him. Golf is more thrilling to watch when Woods is in the mix.

But if he had even taken just a moment to realize the situation, to realize that he was not going to blow away the field as he had done in his first Masters victory in 1997, when he beat his closest pursuer, Tom Kite, by 12 strokes, the picture would have come more clearly into view. Who, after all, wants a victory that is tainted? How do we feel about Barry Bonds now, who has the all-time home run record? If you're like me, you're still rooting for Hank Aaron.

If Tiger had disqualified himself, many people who had given up on him after his transgressions of several years ago might have come back. (There is a segment of the female population that will never forgive him.) America is the land of second chances -- look at Eagles quarterback Michael Vick (dogfighting scandal), or former governor John Rowland (corruption scandal), both back at work in the public eye. We want to see people like them pick themselves up and make a fresh start.

If Tiger had addressed the press on Saturday and told them, "I signed an incorrect scorecard; if I had checked with an official before I signed my card, I would have recorded the 2-stroke penalty and continued playing. But I did not know of my error until it was too late, so I must, by the rules of golf, bow out of the Masters."

Nike, his $100 million sponsor, would have gone through the roof. People's jaws would have hit the floor. Here was Tiger, like every other golfer before him, playing by the time-honored rules of golf, in which most players call penalties on themselves, even when they are not visible to the millions who watch on television. (The penalty on Tiger only came about because of a phone call from a viewer, who pointed out the error to Master's officials.) Tiger, that cad off the course, was showing a side we had never seen before. He was fair. He was professional. And in April 2014, everyone would be looking forward to his return, talking about how he had taken a few steps up the ethical ladder, preparing himself for another stab at the green jacket.

But no, he played on to a forgettable top-ten finish. Heck, few of us will even remember that Adam Scott (whose caddie, Steve Williams, formerly worked on Tiger's bag) won the tournament.

Regrettably, it was a lost opportunity for Tiger.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Colin Davis 1927-2013

I last saw Colin Davis a couple of years ago, when he conducted two works of Sibelius: the Violin Concerto, with Nikolaj Znaider, and the Second Symphony. He and the London Symphony were in New York, where they would also perform Beethoven's Missa Solemnis.

Anthony Tommasini reported in the New York Times how he looked frail conducting the Berlioz Requiem in London last summer. If he wasn't frail when I saw him, he was certainly not at the top of his game. But what he did that night was better than most of what I have ever seen on the podium. From the LSO players, you could feel a love in every note they played. Znaider said a few words before his encore that evening, and they were all about Davis; his remarks suggested that this would be the last time we would ever see him conduct again.

I met him years ago, taking an orchestra tour off-day to observe him in rehearsal with the LSO and chorus in Berlioz's Beatrice and Benedict. Over and over again, he would turn around to ask the choral conductor (seated in the audience) how things sounded, if the balances were okay, etc. He was dressed impeccably, blazer and tie, but very informal in his manner. The Pittsburgh Symphony's Executive Director, Gideon Toeplitz (who also recently passed away), introduced me to Maestro Davis, who could not stop talking about his family. For a man notable for his temper, he seemed to be very much at peace with himself the day I met him.

”Conductors,” Davis once said in an interview with The New York Times, ”are paid to think, and that’s what the job should be about: sitting at home thinking, what is this piece? How can I set it up to sound its best and live on, because there’s nothing to replace it with just yet? This is what absorbs the mind. Especially in old age.”

Beethoven's Eroica, part two

The finale of Beethoven's Symphony no. 3, Eroica, does not get the attention it deserves. We often read about the length of the symphony, the funeral march, the hilarity of the scherzo, the horn coming in 'too early' before the reprise of the first movement, among other things. But what about the finale? How great would this symphony be, really, if it were not for the brilliant manner in which Beethoven closes this epic work?

The last movement utilizes a theme from his ballet, The Creatures of Prometheus; the theme also appears as no. 7 in his Contredances, but Beethoven is not on record anywhere having said or written anything about the appearance of this theme in the finale.

In all of his symphonic music, the finale is the closest he comes to sheer theatricality. The opening is all ablaze, fast and furious, before it comes to a halt on a dominant chord. (If you don't know what the dominant is, no worries -- just think of it as a chord that desperately wants to drop the other shoe.) The tension resolves in the most curious way: a skeletal, bare bones theme (if you can call it that). Beethoven aficionados know this to be a specialty, starting with something so banal that it can only go up from there. What ensues is a series of variations on the skeleton, before he unveils the Prometheus theme.

In the finale of Symphony no. 2, Beethoven uses a hybrid form first used by Haydn in the finale of his Symphony no. 85, La Reine, combining the rondo with sonata form. In the Eroica, Beethoven goes one better, conflating sonata form with theme and variations. It is a structural tour de force. Early in the development, one of the variations is a fugato, with lots of call-and-answer, similar in style to the first variation. Later, the basses play the skeletal theme in a Hungarian style, with heavy boots, bringing the development to an apparent close (but not really). When the second violins get another chance at the bare bones theme, they play it . . . upside down! What's going on here? And why are we getting yet another fugato -- wasn't one enough?

The reason may be in the structure; it feels like a return, and the harmonic homecoming would suggest it. But again, not really. Only when Beethoven arrives at another big cadence, again on the dominant, tension filling the room, does he truly announce the real return. But this statement is in a completely new tempo, slower, more stately, and unimaginably beautiful. For me, it is the most beautiful passage in all of Beethoven's nine symphonic masterworks. This is the Beethoven who loved Mozart, who often employed operatic turns in his instrumental music.

It is Beethoven at his most theatrical, his most courageous, his most vulnerable. No wonder this was his favorite.

I think it's my favorite, too.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Beethoven's Eroica Symphony

What is it about this piece that separates it from the other eight masterworks by Beethoven in this genre?

I am not speaking of those qualities we learned in music history -- it being so much longer than any other symphony up to that point in time, by Haydn, Mozart, or even Beethoven himself. Nor am I speaking of the other things that distinguish it -- the funeral march, the outrageous laughter in the scherzo, or the theme and variations, more common in chamber music finales than ever before in symphonies. (Besides, the theme and variations idea reappears in the finale of the Ninth.)

Actually, I'm thinking more about what it is about this symphony that may have made it Beethoven's favorite. Someone once asked him this, after he had written all nine symphonies, and his response was immediate. "So, LvB, if you had to choose, which one would it be?"

No. 3.
Next question.

Let's look at the way it begins -- it has an introduction of sorts, not like the previous two symphonies, or the one to follow, which have slow introductions, as does the Seventh. Even the way the Fifth, Sixth and Ninth begin suggests the feeling of an introduction, if not structurally so. Only the Eighth symphony jumps out of the starting gate with boundless joy.

But the Third has an introduction unlike any other: two short tonic chords. (My teacher likened them to Beethoven telling his audience: "SHUT -- UP!") This is Beethoven in a hurry, with much to say, and seemingly little time to say it. Look at how many different thematic statements there are before we finally arrive at the second subject, only to discover later that there is still another new theme introduced in the development. Then, when you get to the coda (latin for 'tail'), the damn thing is so long that it's wagging the dog.

Then there is his penchant for sudden dynamics. (The conductor, Daniel Barenboim, links this quality to Beethoven's courage: As a conductor, I always feel like a nag when I rehearse this symphony, because playing a subito dynamic is difficult to do. You're going along fine, and then, right at the cadence, when you expect a musical passage to end accordingly, Beethoven pulls his punch. Sometimes, he even asks for a sudden soft after a crescendo (gradually getting stronger and stronger), which is even harder to do. And so, I stop orchestras frequently in rehearsal, asking them to honor Beethoven's dynamic shifts. These sudden changes can go the other way, too, from forte to fortissimo (strong -- very strong), without warning. These moments also require great concentration from the players who, as a group, are often quite content to not make such a big deal between the two if it isn't pointed out to them.

Then there are all those accents! So many of them, and mostly on an offbeat, creating tension through syncopation. Sometimes, Beethoven gets stuck on one of these rhythmic ideas, to the point where we lose all sense of the pulse. The first and third movements are riddled with a device known as hemiola (no, not a blood disease), which also upsets the metric apple cart.

In the marcia funebre, Beethoven emancipates the basses from the celli for the first time. Never before in a symphony had basses been treated in such a soloistic manner. Without them -- the anchor, limping along, in their own dreary world -- this music is unthinkable.

After the first two movements, the scherzo brings some release to all of the tension built up to that point, if only marginally so. In the finale, Beethoven, as he does in the finale of the Second, he let's it all go. He leaves the symphony hall, crosses the street into the theatre, into a world of dance and play. More on this, in my next segment on Beethoven's Eroica.