September 2008 - Posts
Classical music has produced its share of colorful eccentrics, both composers and performing musicians. It's difficult to know why, but there seems to be something about musical talent which makes one prone to eccentricity.
Perhaps the weirdest was the French composer Erik Satie (1866 - 1925 ). He lived in Paris most of his life but lived a rather reclusive live in a rather seedy Parisian quarter which no one was ever alloed to visit for some reason. He was a friend and asscociate of many famous composers and intellectuals of the day such as Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky, Picasso, Jean Cocteau, and Tristan Tzara. He was a leading figure in Dadaism, and eked out a modest living as a cabaret pianist in Paris.
Much of his output is for piano, and perhaps his best known pieces are the dreamy "Gymnopedies". Many of his piano pieces have looney names such as "Bureaucratic Sonatina", "Dessicated Embryos", "Automatic Descriptions", "Truly Flabby Preludes For A Dog", "Old Sequins And Breastplates", "Sports And Divertisments", "Furniture Music", etc.
One work is called "Vexations". It is a piano piece which is supposed to be performed 840 times consecutively ! There have been a few marathon performances in which a series of pianists would take turns with all the repetitions. A joke goes that after the last repetition, somebody in the audience had the nerve to yell out "Encore!". This story may or may not be true.
Satie's simple Parisian flat was found to have 100 umbrellas which the composer collected as a hobby, and he had abpout a dozen identical velvet suits which he would keep wearing until each wore out , after his death. He is said to have eaten only white-colored foods, and never married. There are quite a few recordings of his music on CD, by pianists such as Aldo Ciccolini and Jean Yves Thibaudet.
The great but weird Canadian pianist Glenn Gould (1932 - 1982 ) has become something of a legend in our time. He left many recordings of a wide variety of piano music, currently available on Sony Classics. A child prodigy, he achieved international acclaim as a pianist during the 1950s and 60s, appearing with great conductors such as Bernstein and Karajan. But around 1964, he became disenchanted with the busy and hectic life of a travelling pianist and became something of a recluse in his native Toronto and gave up live performances for making recordings, writing on music, and producing radio programs on music until his untimely death at 50 from a stroke.
Gould was a notorious hypochondriac who was deathly afraid of cold and germs and refused to shake hands with any one. He was obsessed with the adjustment of his piano stool and constantly fretted over it. He had friends, including many famous musicians, but was something of a loner, and never married.
His piano technique was prodigious, but critics often found his interpretations eccentric and willful, with unorthodox temops, and he tended to hum along with the music. You can hear this on many of his recordings. He was famous for playing the keyboard music of Bach, and also championed rarely performed music for piano, and did music difficult modern composers such as Schoenberg, Hindemith and others rarely performed by conventional pianists. There is an excellent and absorbing biography of him called "Wondrous Strange", by Kevin Bazzana, which should be available at amazon.com etc.
The eccentric Romanian conductor Sergiu Celibidache ( Chel- i- bi- da- kay), (1912 - 1996 ) was just the opposite of Gould. He achieved fame as a conductor of orchestras in Berlin, Munich, Stuttgart and elsewhere , but refused to make recordings, except for a handful he made early in his career. There are , however, many pirated live recordings in less than first rate sound, and many recordings issued on major labels such as Deutsche Grammophon and EMI after his death. He felt that recordings were no substitute for live performances and offered many obscure philosophical explanations as to why recordings of classical music were just plain wrong.
He became notorious for demanding a great deal of extra rehearsal time before accepting any conducting engagements, even for standard works orchestras could practically play in their sleep. For this reason, he never conducted American orchestras, which are less generous in rehearsal time because of Union regulations. He did appear in America conducting the student orchestra of the prestigious Curtis Institute of Philadelphia, which is just about as good as any professional orchestra, and appeared in Carnegie hall, as well as with his Munich Philharmonic on tour.
Some critics found the performances in his later years to be impossibly slow, with obsessive concern over bringing out inner details of the music often obscured in other performances. He was famous as a conductor of Bruckner symphonies. I covered this composer in a recent post. His recordings are the slowest on record. You can easily obtain his Cds at arkivmusic.com. Check alpahbetically under conductors.
It would have been fascinating to have Gould and Celibidache co- laborate on piano concertos , if they could ever get together over their different ideas !
Carlos Kleiber ( 1930 - 2004 ), was a legendary conductor , son of an eminent conductor himself , Erich Kleiber (1890 - 1956 ). Born in Berlin, where his once famous father was conductor of the State Opera, he grew up in Argentina, where his father, who had escaped Nazi Germany, had become music director of the famous Teatro Colon opera in Buenos Aires.
The younger Kleiber worked his way up in German opera houses and started to achieve international acclaim in the 1970s with a recording of the Beethoven 5th that many consider the greatest, although that is debatable. (I have it, and it is definitely great, but there are other equally great ones).
He appeared regularly at the Bavarian State opera in Munich, the Bayreuth festival conducting Tristan and Isolde, La Scala Milan, and the Metropolitan opera, as well as conducting the Vienna Philharmonic , the Chicago Symphony etc. He was very selective in his appearances, even though all the world's top orchestras and opera companies were dying to have him . He would cancel performances often if not satisfied with the amount of rehearsal time he could get or for other reasons.
His repertoire was probably the smallest of any major conductor; a handful of standard symphonies by Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, and operas such as Puccini's La Boheme, Wagner's Tristan, Der Rosenkavalier by Richard Strauss etc. He seemed to be reluctant to conduct at all in his later years because of emotional problems and pickiness over performance conditions etc, and died in 2004. He left only a handful of official recordings, still available, and there are pirated live recordings, as well as DVDs. But aidiences and critics found his rare appearances to be musical events of the highest quality.
The answer to this question is absolutely not ! I find it impossible to say which composer is my favorite, or which work of a particular composer is my favorite among his works. I don't have a favorite symphony, concerto, opera, oratorio, string quartet etc.
I have heard so much music by so many composers from so many eras , styles and nationalities I find it impossible to choose a favorite of anything. Of course, I like some composers and different works more than others.
The same is true of performers, whether conductors, violinists, pianists, cellists, singers, orchestras etc. You might as well ask a mother with twelve children which is her favorite.
But then again, I don't have a favorite book, movie, food, TV show, etc. I just can't choose. And I could never understand how people can have a favorite color. All colors are equally pleasing to me.
The great composer Igor Stravinsky (1882 - 1971 ) once said that trying to determine which composer is the greatest makes about as much sense as wondering which breed of dog is "The Best". We tend to equate the most famous in any field with the best. Jascha Heifetz (1901 - 1987 ) was probably the most famous violinist of the 20th century, and Vladimir Horowitz (1903 - 1989 ) was probably the most famous pianist. But were they the "greatest"? Hard to say. Different music lovers have their favorites among performers. But violinists such as Yehudi Menuhin, Isaac Stern, Nathan Milstein, Fritz Kreisler and Joseph Szigeti were also very great violinists, and there are many great violinists today such as Itzhak Perlman, Gidon Kremer, Anne- Sophie Mutter and others. And there have been other great pianists past and present as Arthur Rubinstein, Rudolf Serkin, Claudio Arrau, Wilhelm Backhaus, Wilhelm Kempff, Sviatoslav Richter, Peter Serkin (son of Rudolf), Murray Perahia, Martha Argerich, Vladimir Ashkenazy (now a conductor too ), Andras Schiff and many others.
Not to mention great cellists as Pablo Casals, Mstislav Rostropovich , Yo Yo Ma, and others. And great flutists, clarinettists, horn players etc.
There is a galaxy of great conductors such as Toscanini, Bernstein, Stokowski, Solti, Monteux, Boulez, Brunow Walter, Carlos Kleiber and many, many others, and so many great singers. I have heard so many great usicians live and recorded, on television, radio, DVD, etc. It's comparing apples and oranges. As far as I am concerned, no one is the best or greatest.
Here are a few more classical music jokes I think you'll like.
A customer in a pet store is looking at parrots, and the owner tells him that he has three special ones with amazing musical abilities, but that they're very expensive. Intrigued, the custormer inquires. "This parrot costs $10,000 . It can sing every aria Mozart ever wrote, and much more.". "Amazing", says the customer. "And the second?" "This one can sing all of Wagner's operas, and much more". "Incredible!", says the customer. "And how much does it cost?" "$15,000". "And the third?" "It's $30,000. " And what can it do?" "We're not sure yet, but the other two call him maestro."
A famous pianist comes to a city to perform. He calls for the services of a piano tuner, and is told that Mr. Oppernockity is one of the best in the business. The tuner checks the piano , pronounces it fit, and leaves. A while later, the pianist tries the instrument and feels that it needs more work. He calls for the tuner, but he says,"Sorry, I can't do more work on it". The puzzled pianist asks why. "Haven't you heard about me?, says the tuner. Oppernockity tunes but once".
A distraught woman calls her psychiatrist. "Doc, you've got to help me and my husband. He's gone out of his mind. He think's he's a great opera singer and sings opera all day long and into the night, but he can't really sing, and hollers at the top of his lungs incessantly. All the time, it's Aida, La Boheme, Carmen, Rigoletto. He's driving me out of my mind. You've got to help me !" "Well, bring him to me, and I'll see what I can do." After several hours with the shrink, the husband goes home. Later, the woman calls the shrink in relief."Doc, I don't know how you cured him. He doesn't so much any more. I can get some rest at last. How did you do it?" "Oh, I wasn't actua;lly able to cure him. I just gave him some much smaller roles to sing."
Many critics and fans have been lamenting the alleged loss of the different sounds orchestras of the past had, and the supposed homogenization of the way orchestras sound today, and the supposedly "bland" and "generic" quality of most orchestra performances today.
But I have always been puzzled by this ; I have yet to hear any evidence that all or most orchestras today sound the same. My best guess for the existence of this canard is the widespread tendency of critics and fans to idealize the past of classical music and long for "The Good Old Days".
I have been reading reviews and commentary on classical music for many years since I was a teenager; that's about forty years ! I think the idea that orchestras sound alike is a psychological illusion based on looking on the past with rose-tinted glasses. But the tendency to idealize the past is hardly limited to classical music; it's been around for ages and people think everything is in decline in society, mores, films, television, Baseball, and just about everything.
But musicians, critics and fans fail to realize is that it is a physical and acoustical impossibility for orchestras to sound alike. They never have and never will. Orchestras consist of different musicians playing different makes of instruments playing in concert halls with different acoustics. For example, an orchestra playing in Lincoln Center's Avery Fisher hall, which has rather dry, unflattering acoustics, cannot sound as plush and resonant as in nearby Carnegie hall, which has more resonant and glamorous acoustics.
Other halls with acoustics that make an orchestra sound rich and resonant are Symphony hall in Boston, home of the Boston Symphony, the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, home of the renounded Concertgebouw orchestra, and the Musikverein in Vienna, where the Vienna Philhmonic regularly appears. Many other concert halls worldwide unfortunately have vastly inferior acoustics.
Different woodwind and brass instruments in orchestras have markedly different timbres ; American oboists favor a sweetly melifluous sound, while German oboiists have a more pungent, reedy sound. Many Americans prefer the American oboe sound and dislike the German, which sounds downright unpleasant to them. A German oboist would have just about zero chance of winning an audition for an American orchestra. Even within American orchestras, different woodwind and brass players have different sounds.
The prinipal horn of the New York Philharmonic, Philip Myers, has a totally different sound from Dale Clevenger of the Chicago Symphony.
However, as an orchestra's personnel changes over the years, its sound can change too. The new players may play different makes of instruments.
French bassoons have a very different sound from the German ones used in most other orchestras.
Different conductors may favor different sounds ; Eugene Ormandy (1899 - 1985 ) a native of Hungary, was famous for the super plush sound of the Philadelphia orchestra (especially the strings), which he led for over 40 years. The Italian Riccardo Muti (1941-) who succeeded him in 1981, favored a leaner, crisper sound. Some critics and fans were angered and upset that Muti had allegedly "ruined" the orchestra. But it still sounded fine to me. And shouldn't it be a music director's prerogative to change the sound of an orchestra ? Muti will become music director of the Chicago Symphony in 2010. He always seems to bring controversy with him.
But an orchestra should not have a one size fits all sound ; it should ideally be like a chameleon and chage its sound for music of different periods and nationalities. Beethoven should not sound like Debussy ; AStravinsky should not sound like Brahms etc. Skillful actors can do different accents based on the nationality of a role, or regional dialects. Meryl Streep is famous for her ability to do accents, whether American, British or even Polish. You don't want an actor playing the role of some German or Austrian aristocrat speaking with his native Brooklyn accent.
Years ago, there was an orchestra in Germany, I believe Frankfurt, which used French woodwind and brass instruments when it played French music to aim for authenticity.
Even today, such great orchestras as the Berlin, Vienna, London, New York and Los Angeles Philharmonics do not sound alike at all, nor the Dresden State orchestra, the Czech Philharmonic, Concertgebouw and others sound alike. They never have and never will.
The distinguished German conductor and painist Christoph Eschenbach has just been named music director of the National Symphony Orchestra of Washington, succeeding American conductor Leonard Slatkin , who is set to take over the Detroit Symphony.
All over the classical music world, conductors come and go, being appointed to music directorships here and there, causing speculation and controversy. The relationship between conductors and orchestras is a lot like marriage and dating. When an orchestra is looking for a music director, it will try out different guest conductors to see if there is real chemistry between the two. Sometimes the job goes to a conductor who has been a regular guest, and sometimes to a dark horse who makes a debut in that city and hits it off with the orchestra.
Eschenbach , 68, began as a piano virtuoso but gradually took up conducting and now no longer appears as a soo pianist, but still accompanies singers at song recitals. He recently stepped down from the prestigious Philadelphia orchestra after a somewhat rocky seven years there. There were rumors that the orchestra was unhappy with him, and some critics had reservations about his interpretations.
Previously, he had a very successful stint with the Houston Symphony, which flourished under him and made several recordings under him.
Sometimes, after a successful honeymoon with an orchestra, the relation between an orchestra sours, just as in marriages. In the past, orchestra administrations sometimes engaged conductors as music director without even trying him out , as happened in 1924, when the legendary Russian Serge Koussevitzky, mentor of Leonard bernstein, came to the Boston Symphony , chosen purely by his European reputation. Koussevitzky (1874 - 1951 ), started out in Russia as one of the few solo double bass virtuosos to make a solo career (there have been a few orthers). He studied with the legendary Hungarian conductor Artur Nickisch (1855 - 1922 ), one of the forst conductors to make primitive recordings.
Koussevitzky got help starting a conducting career with the help of his independently wealthy wife, a business heiress, and also a became an impresario supporting and publishing music by living composers such as Prokofiev. Unfortunately, his technical skills as a conductor were somewhat limited and he could be downright inept at times. The Boston Symphony musicians found his baton technique wanting and had a lot of difficulty following his beat. In addition he was imperitive and egostistical. But he was a colorful, glamorous personality, and audiences found his performances thrilling. In Boston, he championed music by important American composers such as Aaron Copland, and he founded the world famous Tanglewood festival , held in western Massachussetts every Summer from the 1940s on, attracting prominent composers to teach there.
Eventually, his conducting skills improved, and he achieved international renown, and some of his recordings with the Boston Symphony are considered classics and available on CD.
Some conductors may have glamorous public images and personas, but orchestras don't always like them.
Incidentally, the Philadelphia orchestra is still searching for a music director, and has recently engaged the distinguished Swiss conductor Charles Dutoit, a regular guest there and formerly of the Montreal Symphony, as a temporary caretaker into a successor to Eschenbach is found.
September 25 is the birthday of one of the most important and controversial composers of the 20th century - Dimitri Shostakovich (1906 - 1975 ). This great Russian composer's life was far from a happy one ; for most of it he lived under the yoke of the brutal Soviet government and was constantly in and out of favor with it.
He showed great promise as a child and studied at the conservatory of his native St. Peterburg (later Leningrad) under eminent teachers such as the composer Alexander Glazunov (1865 - 1936 ), winning prizes and becoming an accomplished pianist, though he never made a career as a performer because of shyness and nerves.
His breakthrough as a young composer was the first of his 15 symphonies , which he wrote as a graduation piece from the conservatory, and which quickly became popular and is still heard today. His music was brash, energetic, inventive and full of sarcastic humor. He recieved many honors and awards from the Soviet government and the megalomaniacal paranoid dictator Joseph Stalin , who enjoyed attending concerts and opera , became interested in his music.
But unfortunately, he could not always please the Soviet dictatorship, which wanted "socialist realism" in music as well as the arts in general. He was harshly reprimanded for writing "formalist" music, ie, excessively modernist stuff which the Soviet common man , who wanted simple, uplifting patriotic music , wanted.
In 1936, the Bolshoi opera in Moscow premiered his sordid, violent but powerful opera "Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District, based on a 19th century Russian play about a bored , frustrated wife of a provincial businessman takes a lover who works for her apathetic and ineffectual husband, murders her lecherous and controlling father-in-law and than her husband with her paramour's help, and is sent with him to exile in Siberia. The caddish boyfriend becomes involved with another female prisoner, and the anti-heroine throws herself and the other woman into a deep lake. Pretty grim stuff, but the sensatioanlly brilliant music won the opera great acclaim, and it was performed in America and Europe.
But unfortunately, Stalin attended a performance in Moscow and was scandalized. An anonymous review in Pravda called "Chaos Instead Of Music", authorized by Stalin condemmned the opera for its music and subject matter, and Shostakovich actually feared for his life. He went in and out of government favor over the years, and wrote hackwork such as patriotic potboilers for the government, and kept his profound and brooding works to himself, such as his 15 string quartets.
Shostakovich redeemed himself with the ever popular 5th symphony, which he humilatingly called "A Soviet Artist's Reply To Just Criticism:.
His output includes 15 powerful and epic symphonies, 15 string quartets, two operas, a number of ballet scores, film music, choral works and two concertos each for violin, cello and piano etc. These works are by turns grim, sarcastically and ironically humorous, brooding and savage. The monumental 7th symphony, for large orchestra and extra brass choir (The Leningrad), portrays the brutal Nazi invasion of Russia and the horrendous suffering of the Russian people. Shostakovich himself lived through the terrible siege of Leningrad. The 10th premiered shortly after Stalin's death in 1953, contains a short and brutal second movement that is said to be a portrait of the monster Stalin.
The brief and mockingly humorous 9th , written shortly after the end of WW2, disappointed and angred Stalin, who expected a huge and bombastic work celebrating the end of the war and Soviet triumph.
Number 13 is for chorus, baritone soloist and orchestra, and uses the poetry of Yevgeny Yevtushenko commemorating the terrible slaughter of Jews in the Ukraine by the Soviets. No 14 is for soprano, bass , strings and percussion and uses poems dealing with death and destruction. It's a horrowing piece.
There are many superb recordings of his symphonies and other works, including ones by his son Maxim, a distinguished conductor and specialist in his father's music, and other famous Russian conductors who knew and worked with him. These include Yevgeny Mravinsky, Kirill Kondrashin, Mstislav Rostropovich, Yevgeny Svetlanov, and others. Arkivmusic.com has many of these recordings and ones by important living conductors such as Valery Gergiev, bernard Haitink, Semyon Bychkov, Rudolf Barshai and others.
Don't miss the classic EMI recording of that troublesome Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk opera conducted by the late, great cellist and conductor Rostropovich, a close friend and lifelong championb of his music. There is a DVD from the Netherlands conducted by the distinguished Latvian conductor Mariss Jansons, another leading conductor of Shostakovich.
The music of Shostakovich is definitely not pretty and relaxing, although it has its lighter moments. But you will never forget it.
If you follow events in the world of classical music, you will often hear of famous musicians being forced to cancel performances due to various health problems, often not ordinary physical problems such as colds, etc, but because of occupational hazards. Yes, it's a stressful , risky life for many classical musicians.
James Levine has just recovered from the removal of a kidney with a cyst which forced him to cancel his Summer performances at the prestigious Tanglewood festival in western Massachussetts. But he also has other ailments such as sciatica, back trouble and arm temors. Conducting is a strenuous occupation, and baton wilders are often subject to tendonitis and other ailments. But conducting is also great aerobic excercize, and many famous maestros have lived into their 80s and even 90s without retiring until the end of their lives. But the late Italian conductor and composer Giuseppe Sinopoli (1946 - 2001 ) collapsed and died of a heart attack in Berlin while conducting a performance at the Berlin German opera house.
Opera singers must constantly worry about their vocal cords and might be forced to cancel any time because of colds and other bronchial ailments. Orchestral musicians are also subject to physical problems, tendonitis for string players, Carpal Tunnel syndrome and other ailments for string players, and brass playing is also very stressful physically and even mentally.
As a horn player, I was sometimes subject to cold sores, which are trouble enough for non brass players, but which used to put me out of condition for a week or so. The pressure of the mouthpiece on the lips was painful with cold sores; playing high notes, which require more lip pressure to play, was downright painful. And after I recovered, it took days to regain lip flexibility and endurance.
A study ranking different professions on their stress levels showed that being principal horn in a major orchestra is one of the highest stress jobs there is !
Some famous musicians and opera singers have become notorious for their tendency to cancel performances often for various reasons. An old joke quotes a press release announcing that madam so-and so "will only be available for a limited number of cancellations this season".
But being a classical performer is no joke. It's hard work indeed !
Donald Rosenberg has been classical music critic of the Cleveland Plain Dealer for 16 years and has covered concerts and opera there with distinction. I have read some of his reviews and commentary online. His most im[portant work has been reviewing concerts by the world-famous Cleveland orchestra, the crown jewel of Classical music in that city. He has written tough but fair reviews of the conductors who appear with the orchestra, whether music directors or guest conductors.
The Plain Dealer's management has just relieved him of writing reviews of the orchestra's concerts without actually firing him. He will review other concerts and cover some other matters. Why ? He has been generally unfavorable in his reviews of the Cleveland orchestra's current music director , Austrian Franz Welser- Most. (There are two dots above the o in Most, but it's hard to represent German diacritical marks on a computer). Welser-Most has been music director since 2002 , succeeding Christoph von Dohnanyi, who had had a greatly acclaimed period in Cleveland since 1984.
Welser-Most, 48, is also music director of the Zurich opera in Switzerland and is set to become music director of the Vienna State opera. His conducting has divided many critics and fans; some find him a lightweight and dismiss him altogether, while others are more favorable. His stint with the London Philharmonic in the 90s was problematic; some London music critics described him as "Frankly Worse Than Most", but he has had considerable success conducting opera.
Rosenberg has given him some harshly negative but never vicious reviews, but has been balanced and also given him credit for some good work at times, and was generous in his praise when the Cleveland orchestra spent time at the prestigious Salzburg festival in Austria, birthplace of Mozart this Summer and was in the pit for a performance of Anttonin Dvorak's beautiful opera "Rusalka".
But removing Rosenberg was wrong. He was only expressing his considered opinion, and is an knowledgable and expert critic. Many other well-known music critics have given conductors a hard time when they were music directors with any given orchestra. The late Harold C. Schonberg, who served as chief music critic of the New York Times from 1960- 80 , gained notoriety for his captious criticism of the late Leonard Bernstein when he was music director of the New York Philharmonic. He was always accusing Bernstein of egotistical distortion of the works he was conducting, and failing to let the music speak for itself. But that didn't prevent audiences from going to the orchestra's concerts, and the 1960s when Bernstein was music director, are now the stuff of legend.
Schonberg never denied Bernstein's great gifts ; he just had a lot of problems with his interpretive choices. Later, he became more favorable to Bernstein after he had stepped down from the Philharmonic, and acknowledged that Bernstein had matured greatly as a conductor.
But classical music critics are NOT always fair and balanced. In fact, they can be positively vicious at times. The late composer and critic Virgil Thomson wrote for a now defunct New York newspaper in the 40s and 50s. He reviewed a Carnegie hall concert by the New York Philharmonic conducted by the great English conductor Sir John Barbirolli (1899- 1970) , who was relatively young at the time and had not achieved the eminence he would later enjoy, especially in his native England. Barbirolli was a champion of the great Finnish composer Sibelius (1865 - 1957 ) and led a performance of his symphony no 2, now a staple of the repertoire. Thomson could not stand the music of Sibelius and dismissed the symphony as "vulgar and provincial" , a ludicrous description of this great symphony. And he claimed that because of the place of this destestable work on a program, that the Philharmonic was "Not part of the intellectual life of New York City". This was the height of arrogance, presumption and intellectual dishonesty on the part of Thomson. It was not only grossly unfair, but irresponsible, as it defamed the New York Philharmonic for many years. Some critics blindly accepted Thomson's outrageous statement and repeated the canard about the orchestra and intellectual life in New York.
Now THIS would have been a valid reason to fire Thomson. He showed a wanton disregard for critical fairness and defamed a great orchestra. Donald Rosenberg did nothing of this kind.
New York music critics have also been vicious to other conductors. Indian born Zubin Mehta (1936- ) was music director in New York from 1978- 1991. Mehta has also been controversial ; some dismiss him as a shallow glamor boy with no musical substance, and have accused him of having no interest in conducting contemporary music. Many critics were vicious to him in New York.
And yet, he is a serious, dedicated and highly skillful conductor with a wide repertoire and has conducted the world's leading orchestras and opera companies for nearly 50 years with great success . Before coming to New York, he built the once minor league Los Angeles Philharmonic into a world class orchestra that was in no way inferior to the any of the world's greatest. And contrary to rumors, he has always been a staunch champion of new music, and has given exemplary performances of many difficult new works by today's leading composers. Many, but not all of the reviews in New York were nothing short of slanderous.
But bad reviews are no excuse to fire music critics. What happened to free speech ?
There are quite a few classical music forums on the internet where classical fans can discuss anything related to this field. Among the things they discuss are their favorite composers and particular works by them, works they have recently heard for the first time and are enthusiastic about, recommended recordings of this or that classical work, opinions about different conductors, intrumentalists and singers, past and present, requests for information about different composers, famous and obscure, discussion of famous composers and musicians who have just passed away, inquiries as to the availability of certain recordings, the latest news in classical music, and much else.
If you are new to classical music, you should find these extremely interesting and filled with information. Don't hesitate to register for them. If you don't know a lot about classical music, feel free to ask any questions. There are plenty of knowledgable fans who will be glad to answer your questions and make recommendations for different classical works to try and recordings to obtain.
Here are some forums you may find interesting : I am currently registered on two : classicalmusicguide.com, and good-music- guide.com.
Some others are : classicalmusic.about.com , haydnesque.createforum.net, talkclassical.com, musicianspage.com, geocities.com/classicalmusicgalaxy, classicalplus.gmn.com/forums, and the amazon.com classical music forum.
Discussing classical music is great fun !
Recently, there has been a discussion at the wonderful website artsjournal.com over whether orchestras, conductors and soloists should dress formally, in tuxes etc. This is at the blog of composer/critic Greg Sandow, who often faults the way classical music is presented at concerts, among other things.
Sandow, like some others, thinks that tuxes make concerts seem stuffy and pretentious, and that if musicians would dress less formally, audiences might enjoy concerts more, and young people and others who are not concertgoers might be more favorably inclined to go to them.
But I'm not so sure about this. Musicians have been dressing formally for a long time, but this hasn't stopped people from attending concerts. And if orchestral musicians disliked dressing this way, why haven't there been more complaints by them over the years ? It has never bothered me, and I have not only attended concerts and seen them on television broadcasts, but played countless concerts myself. Of course, I have never played in major world class orchestras which use tuxedos ; I usually wore dark suits with a black bow tie, or sometimes just a regular tie.
Concert dress has never been that important to me, as long as the musicians are comfortable. Some conductors and soloists have been dressing differently , and have made their own fashion statements. That's fine with me. Some no longer wear ties, regular or bow.
Many years ago, during the heyday of such great Jazz musicians as Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway, tuxes were the norm for the musicians, and sometimes snazzy custom wear. No one ever objected and complained that Jazz concerts were "stuffy". Why should the onus be on classical music alone?
Ultimately, the only thing that really matters is the music, and that the audience enjoys the concert. The whole issue of concert dress is a red herring. Audiences should stop worrying about what the musicians are wearing and concentrate on the music.
As the concert seson starts, many music critics are and will be making their ritual complaints about conductors and orchestras in America and elsewhere being so timid and unadeventurous in their programming. They whine endlessly about how our orchestras concentrate on the same old familiar pieces by Beethoven, Brahms and Tchaikovsky, which audiences know and love.
Supposedly, those conservative concertgoers don't want to hear anything by living or recently deceased composers such as Elliott Carter, John Adams, Thomas Ades, Kaaia Saariaho, Charles Wuorinen and others. This may be true of some of them, but there is plenty of new or recent music on tap this season by a wide variety of contemporary composers.
Also, some conductors are champions of long neglected but interesting works from the past. There is an enormous amount of this, and you can find it on CD . But certain conductors have made our concert life more interesting by doing it live too, as well as recording it. Lovers of classical music are the richer because of the tireless efforts of these enterprising conductors.
Among them are : Neeme Jarvi (1937 ), currently music director of the Mew Jersey symphony, and formerly in Detroit, Gothenburg, Sweden, the Scottish National Orchestra, and many other orchestras. He is a native of the small Baltic republic of Estonia, formerly part of the Soviet Union. He has been a tireless champion of lesser-known composers such as Franz Berwald, Rued Langaard, Nikolai Myaskovsky, Eduard Tubin, and many, many others. . He has championed music by composers from his native Estonia, which has a rich but little-known musical tradition. Until his arrival on the international scene some years ago, you would never expect to hear music by composers from brave little Estonia on concert programs. He will conduct virtually anything by any composer, living or dead, if he thinks it deserves a hearing. His son Paavo, (1962-), has made a successful career for himself and is just as adventurous. He is currently music director of the Cincinaati Symphony.
American conductor James Conlon (1950- ), is currently music director of the Los Angeles opera, and has served similar posts with the Paris opera, and in Cologne, Germany, as well as conducting concerts and opera everywhere. His passion is gifted composers who perished tragically in the Holocaust, often in concentration camps, such as Pavel Haas and Erwin Schulhoff, Czech Jews who might be much more famous if they had survived., as well as Austrian Alexander von Zemlinsky ( 1871- 1942), who settled in America but died in obscurity. These composers wrote fascinating music which can also be heard on CD. Conlon has made their music available to us after long neglect. He also conducts standard repertoire and much else.
Leon Botstein is a brilliant man; long the president of Bard College in Westchester county, New York, north of New York City, he is currently music director of the American Symphony Orchestra in New York, which was originally founded by Leopold Stokowski in 1962 as a part time freelance orchestra. The orchestra gives sporadic concerts and Botstein has done much obscure but interesting music by composers such as Karol Szymanowski, Dame Ethyl Smyth, Ernest Chausson, Paul Dukas, orchestral works and operas. The American Symphony is in residence at Bard ollege in the Summer, and there are lectures on the composers as well as performances.
The controversial conductor Gerard Schwarz, who started out as formidable trumpet virtuoso and was formerly principal trumpet in the New York Philharmonic, has been music director of the Seattle symphony since the mid 80s. There have been reports of hostility to him by the orchestra, and mass discontent, but it has flourished under him, and he has been a champion of lesser-known music by American composers such as Howard Hanson, David Diamond, and others, and has recorded it . Schwarz has recently announced that he will step down from his Seattle post, but will continue to conduct elsewhere.
James Levine, in charge of music at the Metropolitan opera for nearly 40 years, has been music director of the Boston Symphony since 2004, succeeding the controversial Japanese Seiji Ozawa. He has programmed difficult contemporary music by such important but less than beloved (in many quarters ) as Elliott Carter, Charles Wuorinen, and others, as well as that old Bete Noire of many concertgoers, Arnold Schoenberg, who has been dead since 1951, but not forgotten.. He also gives audiences there doses of Beethoven, Brahms, Tchaikovsky and Mozart etc. But his programming choices have been courageous and risky.
Other enterprising conductors are Alan Gilbert, formerly of the Stockholm Philharmonic and set to takeover the New York Philharmonic next year, Michael Tilson Thomas of the San Fransico Symphony, Finnish composer and conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen , currently in his last year in L.A., Austrian Franz Welser-Most of the Cleveland Orchestra, Russian Vladimir Jurowski of the London Philharmonic, England's Sir Simon Rattle of the great Berlin Philharmonic, Japanese- American Kent Nagano of the Montreal Symphony and Bavarian State opera in Munich, and Marin Alsop of the Baltimore Symphony.
These and other dynamic and enterprising conductors ensure that classical music is anything but stagnant today.
Starting next month, the Metropolitan opera will begin its next season of High Definition broadcasts of live Saturday matinee performances to movie theaters around America and other countres. If you love opera, or are new to it, you should not miss these. Check your local movie theater for information.
Tickets are slightly higher than for regular movies but nowhere near the high prices for the Met, which can cost up to 250$ or so, because opera is by its very nature so expensive to produce. Of course, the Met has much less expensive tickets, too. As far as I know, these performances will later be telecast on PBS as they were last season. You can now obtain last season's HD performances on DVD from the Met.
The broadcasts will open on October 11 with a new production of Salome, by Richard Strauss, with the glamorous Finnish soprano Karita Mattila as the infamous daughter of Herodias. You'll be mesmerized by the steamy and gorgeous music of this one act opera.
On November 8 there is a recent and important contemporary opera, Doctor Atomic, by John Adams, one of America's most distinguished living composers. This is the New York premiere of this opera about J Robert Oppenheimer and the creation of the Atomic bomb after the world premiere a few years ago in San Francisco. The conductor is Alan Gilbert, who will succeed Lorin Maazel next year at the New York Philharmonic.
On November 22 there is a new production of what is not really an opera, but a work intended for the concert hall, where it is usually heard, although it has at times been staged in opera houses. This is The Damnation of Faust, by the great French composer Hector Berlioz. Based on Goethe's epic play Faust, but departing from the play in that Faust, who has sold his soul to the devil (Mephistofeles) for widon and power actually goes to hell in a hair-raising finale. In the play, Faust is redeemed and enters heaven. It's strange but fascinating.
Thais (pronounced Tie-eece) on December 20 is the story of a courtesan in Greek Alexandria, Egypt in the early Christian era who meets an austere monk from the desert who goes to the decadent city in the hope of converting the beautiful but sinful young woman to Christ. Of course, he is really in love with her, and things don't work out. The music is very pretty, and the glamorous American soprano Renee Fleming will no doubt sizzle in the role of the courtesan.
On January 10, there is a new production of La Rondine (The Swalow), by Puccini, which has somehow never been as popular as some of his other operas. It's the bittersweet story of a young man from Provence in the south of France who falls in love with a beautiful but somewhat cynical Parisian woman of the world. Again, it's a romance that doesn't work out. The music is gorgeous, though.
On January 24 it will be the classic opera Orfeo E Euridice (Orpheus and Euridice) by Christoph Willibald Gluck ( 1714- 1787). This is one of the oldest operas still performed today and is the ancient Greek myth of Orpheus , who travels to Hades to rescue his beautiful wife Euridice who has recently died. Despite travails, the ending is happy.
On February 7 the broadcast is Donizetti's tragic romance Lucia di Lammermoor, set in Scotland and based on Sir Walter Scott's novel.
Puccini's tragic tale of doomed love between a young Japanese girl and an American sailor Madama Butterfly is on March 7.
On March 21 there is a new production of La Sonnambula (The Sleepwalker) by Vincenzo Bellini, with charismatic French soprano Natalie Dessay. Here a young girl about to be married gets into difficulties because of her sleepwalking, but everything fortunately works out in the end.
The final one on May 9 is Rossini's sparkling comic opera La Cenerentola (Cinderella) It's the cinderella story, but the magical elements with the coach, fairy godmother and the slippers are gone. No matter; it's great fun.
For more information, see the Met's website, metopera.org.
There are some interesting parallels here. Politicians and conductors have all the power in politics and classical music. They both make enemies easily and have their supporters and detractors. Just read rviews of concerts and recordings, and see fans debate over the merits and weaknesses of their podium idols on forums devoted to classical music.
One person on forum idolizes conductor X, while another can't stand his conducting, and admires conductor Y. It's just like political debate on the internet today. Some think that Obama is the greatest thing since George Washington and will be the savior of this nation, while others call him the antichrist, or deride his alleged lack of experience.
There are differences too. Conductors are not elected to be music directors of orchestras; they are chosen by the orchestra's management and the members of the orchestra. It's very easy for an incompetent politician to be elected, but impossible for an incompetent conductor to become music director of an orchestra, or even make a successful career as conductor at all.
Orchestral musicians are very critical of conductors ; if one comes to guest conduct and impresses the orchestra as inept technically and musically, and shows that he or she does not know the score, has a lousy baton technique, and lacks a good ear, that person just won't be invited back. In US orchestras, when a conductor appears for the first time with an orchestra, the musicians fill out an evaluation sheet where they judge the new person based on musicianship, knowledge of instruments, conducting technique, ear, efficiency rehearsing ( musicians can't stand conductors who talk too much and waste rehearsal time ), etc. And also on personality and manners. The musicians want to be treated with respect, and not to be talked down to or badmouthed.
Some conductors have great chemistry with one orchestra, yet are detested by another. It's all very mysterious.
Then there's the question of experience ; the phenomenally giifted and dynamic young Venuzuelan conductor Gustavo Dudamel has taken the classical music world by storm recently, and will soon become music director of the prestigious Los Angeles Philharmonic , succeeding the distinguished Finnish conductor and composer Esa-Pekka Salonen, who will take over the Philharmonia orchestra in London. Dudamel is only 27, but has been conducting the famous Simon Bolicar youth orchestra of Venuzuela , which has achieved world renown. He is a product of the remarkable "El Sistema " of Venuzuela, which has produced so many talented young musicians from poor families by giving them a chance to learn instruments and play in youth orchestras. He is also music director of the excellent Gothenburg symphony in Sweden.
The kid has enormous talent and enthusiam, and he definitely seems ready to take on a world class orchestra such as L.A. Then there is the veteran Lorin Maazel, who has just started his seventh and last season with the New York Philharmonic. He is almost 80, and has vast experience , having been music director of the Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and the Bavarian radio orchestra, and the Vienna State and Berlin operas etc. The legendary Leopold Stokowski (1882- 1977 ), led his last public concert at 90 !
Many famous conductors have lived to ripe old ages and never really retired, or not until the very end of their lives. Perhaps Maazel is the John McCain of conducting. He's just several years older than McCain, and is still going strong. After New York, he will continue a busy podium career and compose, as he has for many years.
The great French conductor Pierre Monteux (1875 - 1964 ) became music director of the prestigious London symphony orchestra when he was about 80, and signed a contract to renew his position until around 100 !
Conductors, like politicians, are always surrounded by controversy and intrigue.
The other day, Wilburns1 asked where he might be able to hear clips of music by Anton Bruckner on the internet. Any one can do this and hear recordings by many other composers at websites such as arkivmusic.com, and the Naxos label at naxos.com is an excellent place to hear a wide variety of that label's CDs online. Naxos has the complete symphonies of Bruckner conducted by the late Austrian maesttro Georg Tintner , available as a boxed set or singly.
Also check the websites of other major classical labels such as Decca, EMI classics, Deutsche Grammophon, Chandos and others.
When most people think of a conductor, the image in their minds are of a dignified older man, possibly with long gray hair , dressed in a tuxedo standing in front of an orchestra ( consisting of men ) . Yes, for most of its history, the profession of conducting has been the almost exclusive domain of white males. But things have changed a great deal in recent years. Asian conductors such as India's Zubin Mehta, Seiji Ozawa of Japan and Myung Whun Chung of Korea , among others are internationally acclaimed , and African Americans such as James de Preist (nephew of the late great singer Marian Anderson), William Eddins, John McLaughlin Williams and others have achieved prominence.
What about women conductors ? There were a handful in the past, but only within the past 30 years or so have their numbers grown significantly. Sarah Caldwell, who passed away recently in her early 80s, was a pioneer. She founded the enterprising Opera Company of Boston, now defunct, and conducted and even directed US premieres of a number of important but rarely heard operas, such as Schoenberg's Moses and Aron, and Benvenuto Cellini by Berlioz. She was the first woman to conduct at the Metropolitan opera, where she she made her debut about 30 years ago with Verdi's La Traviata.
Eve Queler (1936 -), founded the Opera Orchestra of New York, which gives several concert performances of operas, often rarely heard ones, at Carnegie hall. She has been a tireless champion of neglected by worthwhile operas, and has made several recordings of them.
Joann Falletta (1954-), is currently music director of the Buffalo Philharmonic in upstate New York. She has conducted leading orchestras all over the US and Europe, and has been a champion of off-beat but interesting orchestral works, and is a staunch advocate of music by women composers. In my days as a freelance horn player, I performed under her a number of times.
Marin Alsop (1956-) is currently music director of the Baltimore symphony orchestra, and is the first to hold such a post with one of America's largest orchestras. She was a protege of Leonard Bernstein at the Tanglewood festival, and is a committed advocate of contemporary music. Her previous posts include the Colorado symphony in Denver, and the Bournemouth symphony in England. She has a recording contract with the prestigious Naxos record label, and has made recordings of music by Brahms, Dvorak, Bartok and other composers for it.
Australian born Simone Young (1960-) is currently music director of the Hamburg State opera in Germany, one of the world's top opera companies, and was formerly with the Sydney opera company in Australia. She was the second woman to conduct at the Met. The Met has not had any other women conductors yet, but that could change soon.
Chinese born Xian Zhang, in her early 30s, is associate conductor of the New York Philharmonic, and is an up and coming podium star. American Anne Manson, who recently made her New York City debut conducting Vanessa by American composer Samuel Barber, was the first woman to conduct the august Vienna Philharmonic , an organization that is notoriously conservative.
There are other women conductors too, and their numbers are growing steadily. It's about time.
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