January 2009 - Posts
January 31 is the birthday of one of the most beloved composers of all time - Franz Schubert, the shy, modest , nerdy son of a Viennese school teacher who lived from 1797 - 1828. In his tragically short life of only 31 years, he wrote about 1,000 works, most of which were not published until years after his untimely death .
Unfortunately, Schubert never had much luck in life ; he survived with the help of family and friends , spent most of his time churning out an enormous amount of music but never found a permanent position anywhere or much recognition. He was one of many children of a humble Viennese schoolteacher, most of whom died in infancy, and was taught the rudiments of music by his father and learned to play the piano and violin, and sang in a boy's choir and was active in his family's musical soirees .
He studied with none other than Mozart's supposed enemy Antonio Salieri, who lived in Vienna, and was a highly respected figure in Viennese musical life,. and from his teenage years wrote an incessant stream of works, piano pieces, songs,for which he eventually became famous, chamber music, choral works, symphonies and even operas, but no concertos for some reason. Unlike Mozart and Beethoven, he was not a virtuoso pianist.
Schubert lived a sort of Bohemian life in Vienna among his cronies, and they would hold soirees where his music was heard called Schubertiaden. The hours were irregular and existence was chancy, but the modest young composer managed to survive.
He was a short, stocky young man with a round face and glasses, barely five feet tall, and his friends called him "Schwammerl" or little mushroom affectionately. Painfully shy around women, he never married, but is believed to have gotten syphilis from a prostitute, which led to his untimely demise.
Schubert tried to obtain recognition by writing a number of operas, none of which met with any success. Despite the beautiful music, the stories and librettos were not very good, although a few have been revived and recorded in our time. Some of his 600 or so songs became popular in his lifetime, but Schubert never made money. He died at the age of only 31, leaving his great potential unfulfilled, but he bequeathed the world some wonderful music.
Some of Schubert's most famous works are the symphony no 8 in B minor"Unfinished", which has only two out of the usual four movements, the so called "Trout" quintet for piano and strings, the quintet in C major for two violins,viola and two cellos, the massive 9th symphony, and songs with piano such as the"Erlkoenig", or king of the elves, and cycles of songs telling a story such as "The Beautiful Miller's Daughter", and "The Winter Journey", or DieWinterreise. Schubert is famous for his beautiful melodies, but he was much more than a mere tunesmith ; he knew how to spin out those melodies inventively into lengthy works. Not all his works are immortal masterpieces, particularly the early works written before he matured, but he left so much to enjoy.
His seven completed symphonies plus the unfinished have been recorded by such great conductors as Toscanini, Furtwangler, Karajan, Boehm, Haitink, Solti, Barenboim, Harnoncourt, Mehta, Mackerras, Marriner and many others, and such great singers as Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Bryn Terfel, Hermann Prey, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, and many others have recorded his many songs. There is so much to explore.
I thought this would be a good time to keep track of how classical music is doing in America ; there's good news and bad news, but we shouldn't get too gloomy. Tough economic conditions are causing serious problems for many of our orchestras and opera companies, but there's still a wealth of performances happening every day.
First, Carnegie hall has announced that it will have to cut down on the number of performances it will offer in the 2009-2001 season, but it will still feature many of the world's greatest classical musicians and orchestras performing a wide range of repertoire, new music,old music, familiar and unfamiliar.
The future of the New York City opera at Lincoln Center is uncertain; the recent resignation of controversial Belgian impresario Gerard Mortier before taking over as general manager left the company in the lurch, and Mortier's ambitious plans for it have been stymied. How the company will face its economic problems and repertoire choices are uncertain. But fortunately, the company has found an outstanding and imaginative new general manager in the form of George Steel, and all is not hopeless.
The Baltimore opera has gone bankrupt, and the Washington National opera in our capitol was forced to cancel its production of Wagner's complete Ring which it had been introducing gradually next season, and the Metropolitan opera has lost about $100 of its endowment fund in the Wall Street mess, and has been forced to cancel revivals of some operas and possibly to cancel upcoming new productions.
The Cincinnati Symphony, Columbus Ohio Symphony, and the Honolulu and Shreveport Louisiana orchestras are only some of the orchestras facing an uncertain future economically. Few US orchestras now make commercial studio recordings , the exceptions being the Cincinnati, Atlanta and Minnesota orchestras , but the prestigious Cleveland orchestra will be releasing some live performances on Deutsche Grammophon records.
But the Chicago Symphony orchestra has been issuing some of its live performances on its own record label to considerable acclaim. The Metropolitan opera's High Definition broadcasts of live performances in movie theaters around the country have been a resounding success, and more US and European opera companies are starting to offer such performances.
There is great hope and excitement on Los Angeles for the dynamiuc young Venuzuelan conductor Gustavo Dudamel, who will be succeeding the Finnish conductor and composer Esa-Pekka Salonen as music director of the L.A. Philharmonic. American conductor Alan Gilbert will become music director of the New York Philharmonic, and critics and commentators are excited about his innovative programming.
So don't listen to the chicken littles predicting the imminent demise of classical music in America.
The Metropolitan opera will broadcast four operas on Saturday afternoons next month starting on February 7, with Donizetti's tragic "Lucia di Lammermoor", a tale of love, intrigue,betrayal and madness in Scotland among rival clans. set to Donizetti's wonderfully melodious music. Check your local newspaper for the times, and this performance will also be part of the Met's High Definition broadcasts in movie theaters around the US.
Lucia is in love with Edgardo, from an enemy clan; she meets him secretly and they pledge eternal love. But her brother Enrico wants her to marry some one else, for the good of the clan, and for his own political gain. Enrico forges a letter from Edgardo making him appear unfaithful to her, and she is devastated, and reluctantly agrees to marry the stranger.
But by the time of the wedding, Lucia has lost her sanity and stabs the bridegroom to death on the wedding night. She appears before the horrified wedding guests in a bloodstained gown, and fantasizes that she is being wedded to Edgardo. She soon dies, and Edgardo upon hearing of her tragic demise, stabs himself to death. Pretty grim stuff, but the music is beautiful, and many of the greatest sopranos in operatic history have made a specialty of the role of Lucia.
The next week on February 14, the featured opera is Tchaikovsky's "Eugene Onegin, based on the story by Alexander Pushkin. This will be sung in the original Russian, but don't let that discourage you from hearing Tchaikovsky's gorgeous music. This is his most popular opera.
It's the story of a cynical ,bored young Russian dandy who meets Tatiana, a beautiful but naive young woman on her family's country estate. She falls head over heels in love with the handsone Eugene, but he tells her that he is not cut out for any relationship with her,let alone marriage. Years later, Tatiana has married an older man, and she loves him, but still has feelings for Eugene. He curses his fate for having turned her down earlier; she remains faithful to her husband.
There's not much action in this opera, but the music is gorgeous moving. The action moves between rural Russian countryside and the glamorous balls of old St. Petersburg.
The next week is a comparitive rarity ; Adriana Lecouvreur by the late 19th early 20th century Italian composer Francesco Cilea (Chill-ay-ah) , which is his only well-known opera. This takes place among the 18th century Parisian aristocracy and the actors and actresses of the Parisian stage, and is based on the life of a famous 18th century French actress, Adrienne Lecouvreur. Adriana is in love with a dashing young Polish/German nobleman, Maurizio, who is loved by a jealous French noblewoman. Through her intrigue, Adriana dies from poisoned flowers which she receives. Not a great opera by any means, but very entertaining with the right cast, and famous sopranos such as Renata Tebaldi and others have loved to sing the role of Adriana. The charismatic Ukrainian born soprano Maria Guleghina will sing the title role.
On the last Saturday in February you can hear Verdi's classic blood and thunder opera "Il Trovatore" (The Troubador) in a new production. This opera has become the butt of jokes for its allegedly corny, confusing and melodrammatic story, and the classic Marx brothers film"A Night At The Opera", pokes hilarious fun at it. But the music is not only wonderfully melodious, but often viscerally exciting. The famous "Anvil Chorus" comes from this opera. You should recognize the tune.
The story is set in medieval Spain during a time of civil war, and deals with the Gypsy troubador Manrico, and his love for Leonora, a Spanish noblewoman who is loved by the evil Count Di Luna. Di Luna and Manrico are bitter rivals, and the plot is complicated by Manrico's Gypsy mother, sorceress Azucena (Adzu-chay-nah.), who is obsessed with revenge for the death of her child long ago. It turns out that Manrico is not really a Gypsy or the son of Azucena, but the long lost brother of the Count. Yes, the story is awfully confusing and convoluted, but your announcer Mararet Juntwait will unravel the whole thing for you.
The casts for the broadcasts will feature some of today's top opera singers, including the drop dead gorgeous Russian soprano Anna Netrebko as Lucia, (her voice is gorgeous too), the elegant and suave American baritone Thomas Hamson as Eugene Onegin, and many other notable singers.
Check out the Met's website metopera.org for more information, and Sirius.com , which also offers Met broadcasts online.
Many critics, musicologists and classical music fans wonder about what classical music of our time will "survive", that is, stand the test of time and become part of the "Canon" of Western Classical Music. But such speculation is absolutely futile. No one can predict which of the countless new orchestral works, operas and other works premiered in the past 50 or so years will be popular a hundred or so years from now, assuming that the world is not destroyed by cataclysmic events of some kind in the future.
Over the centuries, countless symphonies, concertos, tone poems, suites, sonatas, string quartets, art songs, oratorios and cantatas etc have been written, and the vast majority have been deservedly forgotten, simply because they are not interesting . It's been estimated that in the field of opera alone, approximately 40,000 have been written since the dawn of this art form about 400 years ago ! Of course, most have been forgotten, but you can never predict when any given long-neglected opera might be revived somewhere, and even recorded.
It's the same with the music of or time. The history of classical music is full of once popular composers who are forgotten today, names familiar only too musicologists and die hard classical fan who are well-read in music history. Ever heard of Louis Spohr, Felix Draeseke, Ludwig Thuille, Francois Fetis, Saverio Mercadante, Antonio Bazzini, Walter Braunfels, Cipriani Potter, John Field, Sir Hubert Parry, Charles Villier Stanford, etc? All were well-known and respected composers in their day. But none is heard with any regularity at concerts today, although you can easily get recordings of their music and countless other obscure composers.
Philip Glass, famous for his highly repetitious"minimalist" music , is one of today's most widely performed composers. His off-beat operas have been performed by leading opera companies everywhere and recorded, as well as his symphonies and other works at concerts. But will his music be popular a hundred or so years from now.? That's impossible to say. There's a tendency, and this is nothing new, for critics and audiences to predict that this or that composer's music will not survive if they happen to dislike it. But this can result in "Famous Last Words" situations.
I recently discussed Verdi's opera Rigoletto, which has been popular at opera houses everywhere for over 150 years. The world premiere was in Italy in 1851. But when the opera had its French premiere in Paris shortly after, one French critic was not at all impressed with it. He predicted that Rigoletto would be instantly forgotten !
The same is true with the music of Gustav Mahler (1860- 1911). He was universally admired as a conductor, both of opera and symphony, but his music did not become immediately popular, and many critics were utterly dismissive of it. When he died, many acknowledged that while he was undeniably one of the greatest conductors, his music would die with him.
Yet other great conductors, such as his disciples Bruno Walter, Otto Klemperer, and the great Dutch conductor Willem Mengelberg , championed his music. But the mahler symphonies etc did not really become staples of the repertoire until the 1960s, when Leonard Bernstein began to champion his music and record the first integral cycle of all nine of his symphonies.
Half a century or so ago, there were only a handful of recordings of the Mahler symphonies, and a couple had yet to receive recordings at all. But now, there are countless recordings of them, including complete sets of the symphonies, by Bernstein, Solti, Bernard Haitink, Giuseppe Sinopoli, Claudio Abbado, Simon Rattle, Riccardo Chailly, Michael Gielen, Eliahu Inbal, Rafael Kubelik ,Klaus Tennstedt, and other eminent conductors,living and dead. It seems as though virtually every conductor today is doing a Mahler cycle on CD and it's almost impossible to keep track of them. There are also a growing number of live performances coming out on DVD.
The classical music repertoire is in no way "ossified", as some myopic critics and commentators have declared. On the contrary; it is in constant flux. There is a certain core of lastingly popular works which we call the standard repertoire, and these will be performed and recorded as long as our musical culture exists. But new works are always being premiered, and long-neglected works from the past constantly being revived, and some of these have become fairly popular.
There are those who say that if a work isn't popular, and has been long-neglected, it can't possibly be any good. They are dead wrong. Even though an enormous amount of music has been deservedly forgotten, there is also much wonderful music that does NOT deserve its neglect.
We are fortunate to live at a time where there is greater diversity of music being performed live and also recorded than ever before in the history of classical music. Instead of complaining that Beethoven, brahms and Tchaikovsky are still popular, let's count our blessings.
In classical music, there seem to be two kinds of musicians, whether conductors, instrumentalists or singers. Those who have large, wide-ranging repertoires and who are always adding to and diversifying what they perform, and those who have a small repertoire of a handful of favorite works which they repeat over and over, constantly restudying and fefining that small number of works.
Here are some examples, in constrasting pairs. The versatile Estonian conductor Neeme Jarvi (1937-). He has held music directorships with, currently the New Jersey symphony orchestra, and previously the Detroit Symphony , the Gothenburg Symphony in Sweden, and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, and appears all over the world conducting the world's top orchestras and opera companies.
Jarvi , whose sons Paavo and Krystian have also made successful conducting careers, has an enormous and eclectic repertoire, and is particularly famous for Scandinavian and Russian music, and has championed the music of composers of his native Estonia. Before Jarvi, it was almost unheard of for music from Estonia to be heard at concerts. He has made numerous recordings for prestigious record labels such as Deutsche Grammophon and Sweden's BIS.
Jarvi has put concertgoers and CD collectors everywhere in his debt by performing and recording enormous amounts of obscure but interesting music by composers such as Estonia's Arvo Part and Eduard Tubin, Scandinavians such as Wilhelm Stenhammar , Carl Nielsen, and Hugo Alfven, Russians Nikolai Myaskovsky, Sergei Taneyev, and Maximilian Steinberg, and when he took over the Detroit Symphony, he championed music by lesser-known American composers as George Whitefield Chadwick and others. He is always on the lookout for interesting rarities, and almost always includes at least one at his concerts. Jarvi also conducts music by a wide variety of living composers.
Contrast this with the late Carlos Kleiber (1930-2004), son of the famous Austrian conductor Erich Kleiber (1890-1956). The younger Kleiber was something of a recluse in the later years of his life, and conducted only rarely, concentrating on a handful of famous works by Beethoven, Schubert, Johann Strauss, Wagner, Verdi and Richard Strauss. He was a perfectionist, and rarely satisfied with himself. His father Erich, who conducted the world premiere of Berg's Wozzeck in 1925 at the Berlin State opera, had a much wider repertoire also.
In contrast with Neeme Jarvi, Kleiber made only a handful of officially sanctioned commercial studio recordings for Deutsche grammophon, which have become classics. There are a fair number of unofficial live recordings which he never sanctioned. Kleiber never accepted a music directorship at any orchestra or opera company, although he was in such demand that he could easily have done so. In fact, Herbert von Karajan wanted him to succeed him at the Berlin Philharmonic, but that was not Kleiber's style. He appeared most often with the Bavarian State opera in Munich, and also conducted at the Bayreuth festival, and led the Vienna Philharmonic and other leading orchestras sporadically, and made his US debut with the Chicago Symphony in 1978, and also conducted Der Rosenkavalier,La Boheme, Otello and La Traviata at the Metropolitan opera.
Unlike Neeme Jarvi, Kleiber never conducted new or recent music by leading contemprary composers. Musicians with small repertoires tend not to do new music.
Among pianists, the famous Texas-born Van Cliburn , (1934-), who has not appeared in public for many years, had a small repertoire, concentrating on Rachmaninov, Tchaikovsky, Chopin, and other staples of the piano repertoire. Cliburn, who studied at Juilliard, was catapaulted to world fame when he won the prestigious Tchaikovsky competition for pianists in 1958 in Moscow at the height of the cold war. He became a celebrity overnight, and was awarded a recording contract with RCA records, and appeared with leading conductors and orchestra all over Europe and America. His recordings became best sellers, but eventually, his career fizzled out. He founded the Van CVliburn competition for pianists, held in Fort Worth Texas, which attempted to launch the careers of gifted young pianists, but with only limited success so far.
When Cliburn returned to America in triumph after winning the Moscow competition, he was given a ticker tape parade in New York ! Can you imagine anything like this today for a classical musician? If only things were like that today !
Other great pianists such as Polish-born Artur Rubinstein (1887-1982) , had much wider repertoires, and the brilliant Canadian pianist Marc-Andre Hemlin is sort of a Jarvi of the keyboard, and has revived many obscure concertos and other works for the piano.
The late, great Luciano Pavarotti (1935-2007), and Placido Domingo( 1941-), still very much alive and kicking, make a contrasting pair. The two tenors are very different. Pavarotti confined himself to Italian opera, and his repertoire was nowhere near as large as the Spanish-born Domingo.
Domingo has sung an enormous range of tenor roles, ranging from Mozart to world premieres, and has sung in Italian, Spanish, German, French, English and even Russian. In addition, he has conducted a fair number of operas at the Met and elsewhere, and runs the opera companies of Los Angeles and Washington.
Personally, if I were a world-famous musician, I would prefer to have a large repertoire, and constantly add to it.
February marks the bicentennials of not only Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin, but composer Felix Mendelssohn, by curious coincidence. Mendelssohn (1809-1847 ) was born in Hamburg into a prosperous and distinguished German Jewish family which had converted to Lutheranism.
His grandfather Moses Mendelssohn was a famous Jewish philosopher, and Felix,meaning happy in Latin, grew up in prosperity, showing prodigious early talent both as composer and pianist. Unlike Mozart, he was not exhibited like a caged animal as a child prodigy. His life was about as normal and happy as any child could hope for.
As an adult, he continued to achieve fame and success, writing a number of works which have become staples of the repertoire and he became a distinguished conductor, taking over direction of the Famed Gewandhaus orchestra of Leipzig. He traveled widely, befriended queen Victoria in England and became her favorite composer. Unfortunately, he died before reaching his 40th birthday. His Jewish origins did not cause him any difficulties, but the Nazis banned his music when Hitler achieved power.
His music is elegant, flawlessly crafted and though part of the Romantic period of music, is rarely over emotional or over the top. He produced five symphonies, a violin concerto, several concert overtures, two piano concertos, a variety of piano pieces, chamber music and much more. In the dichotomy between Apollonian and Dionysian, Mendelssoh's music is decidedly Apollonian, being cool and elegant, without emotional excess. He found the music of his flamboyant French contemporary Hector Berlioz repellant. The Symphonie Fantastique was a monstrisity to Mendelssohn.
His two most famous symphonies are the 3rd, or"Scottish" , inspired by his visit to Scotland, and the 4rth or "Italian", ispired by an Italian sojourn. Both are brilliant and effective works, and the Italian symphony ends with an exuberant Saltarello finale. The concert overture "The Hebrides", or Fingal's Cave ,is a description of a famous attraction in the Hebrides Islands of Scotland, and is very atmospheric.
The Overture to "A Midsummer Night's Dream", based on the Shakespeare play, written when Mendelssohn was only 17, is a brilliant concert overture, to which the composer added fiurther music years later. The brilliant violin concerto has been played by virtually all of the great violinists since the composer's day.
The Oratorio Elijah is based on the life of the great Biblical prophet, and there is a more rarely performed one on the life of St. Paul.
Mendelssohn's music may not plumb the depths as with some other composers, but on its own terms , it always pleases. There are an enormous number of recordings of his music available on CD, eminent conductors such as Kurt Masur, Wolfgang Sawallisch, Claudio Abbado and herbert von Karajan have recorded all five symphonies and other orchestral works, and great violinists such as Jascha Heifetz, Itzhak Perlman and others have recorded the violin concertos, and so on. Check arkivmusic.com.
Next Saturday's Met radio broadcast on January 31 is a classic of Italian opera, Giuseppe Verdi's grim but melodious Rigoletto, based on a play by Victor Hugo. The story is really juicy - lust, betrayal, intrigue, revenge, complete with a surprise twist ending worthy of Alfred Hitchcock. That's why I call it an opera noir. However, unlike some 20th century operas, you will definitely leave whistling the melodies.
Rigoletto was first performed in Venice in 1851, and quickly went on to become one of the most popular operas, and is still a staple of the repertoire. The opera takes place in 16th century Mantua, in northern Italy, and includes some unforgettable characters. They unclude the charming young Duke of Mantua, who is a serial womanizer and seducer, his bitter, cynical court Jester Rigoletto, who is a hunchback, the jester's beautiful and innocent young daughter Gilda (pronounced Jill-da), and a shady renaissance hit man, Sparafucile (spara-foo-chee-leh), and other unsavory characters at the court of Mantua.
After a brief and ominous orchestral prelude, the opera opens on a party at the glittering but decadent court of Mantua, where the charming but sleazy young Duke is holding sway. The Duke is always seducing the wives of other courtiers, and is always on the lookout for any new conquest; he flirts shamelessly, and Rigoletto mocks every one bitterly.
The count Monterone storms in angrily and rails at the Duke for seducing his daughter, and Rigoletto sneers at him. The Duke orders his arrest and the count curses Rigoletto for mocking him. The jester is frightened. In the next scene, Rigoletto is coming home and reflects bitterly on his joyless life. He is cursed by his deformity and hates being so bitter and cynical.
Then while going to his home in the suburbs, he comes across Sparafucile, a hired assasin, who offers his services if he should need them. Later Rigoletto reflects that he and the hit man have something in common; one uses a sword, the other uses his tongue. His daughter Gilda greets him joyfully. At home, the loving widower is changed by his love for his daughter. The Duke and his court don't realize that she's his daughter, but amusedly assume that she's his girlfriend ! The Duke is interested, but Rigoletto is terrified of Gilda being his victim. He is very protective.
The Duke meets the innocent young Gilda, whose mother had died when she was very little, having married her father despite his deformity. He lies to her and tells her that he's a student, and tells her his name is Gualtier Malde, and professes his love for very convincingly. The girl falls for him. But the courtiers trick Rigoletto and abduct Gilda into the Duke's clutches.
In the next act, Rigoletto is distraught over Gilda's disappearance at court, and it's finally revealed that she's his daughter. The Duke has seduced her, and Gilda is terribly upset to learn she's been had. But she still loves the Duke ! Rigoletto furiously demands that she be restored to him, and denounces the heartless courtiers as a "vile,damned race". When they show no mercy, he begs them to return his daughter, and the two sing a duet where Rigoletto swears vengance againbst the duke, even though Gilda begs him to relent. Count Monterone appears again, having been sentenced to death by the Duke. He tells him that the curse was ineffective, but Rigoletto swears that the count will be avenged. And behind the scenes he hires the hit man.
The last act takes place in a shady inn outside of town, where the Duke is currently staying under disguise. He sings the famous aria "La Donna e Mobile", which you've probably heard ; it's one of the catchiest tunes ever. The words mean "women are fickle". Rigoletto and his daughter are there; she is to leave town in disguise. The inn is run by Sparafucile; his sister Maddelena, a loose woman, helps him in his trade there, and runs the inn.
Here, Sparafucile is to kill the Duke. The Duke flirts shamelessly with Maddelena, and Gilda is heartbroken. But Rigoletto tells her how heartless the bastard really is. There is a famous quartet ; Maddelena flirts with the Duke while Rigoletto and Gilda observe him from a slight distance.
But something unexpected happens. A violent storm comes up, and when the Duke knocks , the hit man is to nail him. But Maddelena falls for the Duke and begs Sparafucile not to kill him. The hit man decides to double cross Rigoletto and kill the first person to knock and put the body in a sack ; Rigoletto had asked for the Duke's body to be put in one. Gilda overhears this and decides to knock herself ! She gets stabbed.
After the storm, Rigoletto receives the sack. He gloats on the prospect of finally getting revenge on the sleazy Duke. But he hears the Duke in the distance singing"La Donna E Mobile", and there is poor Gilda, dying ! She dies in his arms, saying that she and her mother will pray for him in heaven.
Rigoletto wails that the curse has been fulfilled ! The curtain falls.
Some story, isn't it ? But you'll love the music. There are many CDs of Rigoletto available, with some of the greatest opera singers of the 20th century, such as Pavarotti, a famous Duke, Joan Sutherland, Maria Callas, Tito Gobbi, Leonard Warren and others. You might try the famous recording with Joan Sutherland as Gilda and Pavarotti on Decca.
There are also a number of DVD performances, including a strange production sung in English by the English National Opera of London. Here, the action is transferred to 1950s New York among the Mafia ! Rigoletto is the bartender to the Duke, here a Mafia Don !
I've just read a fascinating biography of the great Canadian tenor Jon Vickers (1926- ) , now living in retirement in his native Canada. He was not only a great opera singer, but one of the strangest and most baffling people ever to sing opera, as this absorbing biography reveals.
Jon Vickers - A Hero's Life, by Jeannie Williams , Northeastern University Press, was born in Saskatchewan , studied at the Toronto conservatory, and went on to sing many of the great tenor roles of Wagner, Verdi, and many other composers at the great opera houses of the world, at the Metropolitan and the Royal opera in London to great acclaim until his retirement in the 1980s. He sang with most of the greatest singers of ur time, legendary names such as Maria Callas, Birgit Nilsson etc., and made numerous recordings, many still available. He also sang recitals and concerts, and workd with such great conductors as Sir Thomas Beecham, Karajan and others.
Okay, this sounds like the careers of many other operas singers- but Vickers was no ordinary opera singer. He was often stubborn and tempermental, which has been true of many singers. But was so out of principle, not vanity. An old joke goes that a tenor has resonance wherr his brain should be. They are the dumb blondes of the opera world. But Vickers is a brainy and intellectual man, and researched the operas and characters he sang to gain insight into their vharacters.
He was the thinking man's opera singer. He was also great as an actor onstage, somethng not all opera singers have been. He had a beautiful and ringingly powerful tenor voice, but was never interested in just beautiful and powerful singing to wow audiences with empty vocal disply. He really made the characters come to life psychologically.
He was famous for such roles as the tormented Otello in Verdi's Shakespearean opera, and the disturbed English fisherman Peter Grimes in Benjamin Britten's famous 20th century opera of the same name, among other roles. Unfortunately, I never saw him live on stage, but I have been familiar with his great artistry on recordings for many years. But until reading the biography, I never realized what a strange man and artist he was.
Vickers often battled with famous conductors over interpretation, and had little tact. He never took any garbage from any one, and never suffered fools gladly. He even criticized the playing of orchestras at rehearsals, and once at a performance at the Dallas Opera, he became so exasperated by audience coughing, he went out of character and ordered the stunned audience to shut up !
Vickers had a love -hate relationship with some of the characters he sang. He sometimes refused to sing certain tenor roles because he disliked the character ! As well as his many CDs, you can also see some of Vicker's performances on DVD. I don't know if this biography is still available, but it's worth looking for, and contains a discography.
Most orchestral musicians would probably say that modest conductor is an oxymoron ! It's hard to say whether the job makes you egostistical or conductors are just born egotists. And there are some great jokes about this, and true stories.
Other conductors have been just plain bullies, such as the legendary Arturo Toscanini (1867-1957), who was the terror of orchestras in Europe and America for decades, feared but always respected . The great Austrian conductor Herbert von Karajan (1908-1989), was once known as the general music director of Europe, serving as conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, Vienna State Opera and appearing with other great orchestras and opera companies throughout his long career.
He never ranted or raved at rehearsals, but was extremely demanding and almost always got what he wanted. A cartoon once showed him on a psychiatrist's couch ; asked to tell about his life he says,"Well, in the beginning I created heaven and earth." When conducting at the world famous Wagner festival at Bayreuth, Germany in the 1950s, he demanded that one of the restroom facilities backstage during rehearsals be reserved for his own use, even though other eminent conductors and singers did not have their own facilities. In fact, those who knew him well always found him an amiable fellow most of the time.
A joke about Karajan has him entering a cab in a European city ; when asked where he wants to go, Karajan says, "You can take me anywhere; I've got positions conducting all over".
Leonard Bernstein ( 1918-1990), often thought of as a rival to Karajan, although this was never the case, also had an ego of Biblical proportions. The fact that he only appeared once in his career with Karajan's great Berlin Philharmonic has fueled speculation that Karajan deliberately excluded him has been discredited; the two actually respected each other. That concert was in 1979 of Mahler's massive 9th symphony, and this was released on Deutsche Grammophon, but may be hard to find.
Supposedly, Karajan craved power and influence in the classical music world; he certainly had these in spades; and supposedly Bernstein craved the adulation of audiences. Possibly, but who knows? Both were utterly dedicated to music and great composers.
Jokes: A retired violinist in the New York Philharmonic dies and enters heaven. Saint Peter asks him what he was and he mentions his profession. Saint Peter says:"It just so happens that there's an opening for violin in the Heavenly Philharmonic. It's a great orchestra, and filled with the greatest musicians of all time!". "Wow! I'm in luck," says the violinist. The next day, he goes to rehearsal, and suddenly , a giant hand appears with a baton, and a booming voice says"Silence! Let's start the Beethoven symphony no 5!".
But the rehearsal gets tedious. The conductor isn't very good and is always stopping the orchestra for constant corrections, and criticicizing the musician's playing. Finally, the exasperated violinist asks his stand partner on violin, "Who is that conducting?. He's the worst conductor I've ever played under!". The other violinist says glumly "Oh, that's God- he thinks he's Leonard Bernstein!".
Bernstein, Karajan and the Hungarian maestro Sir Georg Solti are all talking and arguing over which of them is the greatest. Karajan says, " I rule the mighty Berlin Philharmonic, greatest orchestra in the world. As well as the the great Vienna State Opera, the Vienna Philharmonic, and other great orchestras and opera companies. I wield greater influence and power than any conductor in musical Audiences everywhere idolize me. I have made more recordings than any other conductor!"
The fiery Hungarian conductor says" I built the mighty Chicago Symphony into the world's greatest orchestra. I made the Royal Opera in London into the world's greatest opera house. I have won more Grammy awards than any other classical musician ( this is true!) Audiences everywhere idolize me. "
Bernstein says, I am not only a great conductor but a great composer ! I have written symphonies, concertos, operas, and musicals too. My West Side Story is perfomed all over the world and audiences love it " The great New York Philharmonic made me its Laureate conductor for life after I stepped down as its music director. Audiences everywhere revere me !".
The three go on arguing angrily for some time. Then Karajan imperiously decrees "I am the greatest - God himself has said so !" Furiously, Bernstein answers "No I did not !!!".
As I've mentioned before, many people who attend concerts and operas and collect classical Cds are rather set in their ways and are not only reluctant to hear new classical works but even to hear unfamiliar ones from the past which are revived. I also mentioned the lady in my classical music program at a nursing home in New Rochelle who hates almost anything written in the 20th century and loves to hear Rachmaninov and Tchaikovsky all the time.
But I'm exactly the opposite. Of course I love the familiar masterworks by the most famous composers, which have been known and loved for so long by audiences, but I wouldn't want to confine myself to them and listen to the same old handful of pieces day in and day out. That would get awfully boring after a while.
I suppose you could compare this to our preferences in food. It's great to eat a juicy, sizzling steak, but if I had to eat nothing but steak every day for dinner, I would get awfully tired of it . In addition, it wouldn't be that great for my health. In addition, there is so much music out there for us to hear, live or recorded. More in fact, than lovers of classical music have ever been able to hear.
We have the entire history of classical music available to us on CD ; ancient works by Palestrina, Lassus, Monteverdi, Josquin, Dufay, Purcell, Byrd, Gesualdo, Gabrieli, and other masters of centuries ago , and recent works by Carter, Boulez, Adams, Glass, Henze, Rorem, Birtwistle, Saariaho, Tan Dun and many,many other living composers. There is so much to explore.
The lady who hates 20th century music has asked me,"Why would you buy a CD of something unfamiliar ? What if you don't like the music ? I told her that I'm really curious to hear music I haven't heard before and that I've discovered a lot of wonderful music that ought to be better -known.
There are also an awful lot of restaurants I haven't tried either, including ones with exotic cuisines I've never tried. I wouldn't avoid trying them just because I might not like the food. My family took me to a Moroccan restaurant recently for my birthday. I hadn't had this kind of food before, but I enjoyed it and would be glad to go back.
My own CD collection is extremely varied. It contains everything from music written 500 or more years ago to fairly recent works by a contemporary composers, and not just "Dead White European Males". I have works by such familiar names as Mozart, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Wagner, Schubert, Ravel and others, as well as composers you've probably never heard of, such as Charles Koechlin, Nikolai Medtner, Zdenek Fibich, Anton Rubinstein, John Alden Carpenter, Othmar Schoeck, and other obscure but interesting composers.
There are many gaps of repertoire in it, including some of the most popular classical works. This isn't because I don't love them, but simply due to the fact that there is so much lesser-known stuff available. But I have already heard these pieces countless times. There are many CD collectors who have a dozen or more recordings of the individual symphonies and concertos by Beethoven, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov, Mahler and other famous composers. I don't. I prefer to keep exploring.
If I had the money to buy them, the time to listen, and the space to keep them, I would have a Pentagon-sized collection of CDs, without a single really famous work. That's how much is out there on CD.
On Saturday, January 24, the Metropolitan Opera will offer the classic opera Orfeo & Euridice by Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714-1887). This will be both a part of the Saturday afternoon radio broadcasts and the Met's High Definition live transmissions to movie theaters around the US.
This is the most famous opera by the German -born composer , and is one of the oldest operas to be regularly performed today. Gluck came from a humble background, but rose to become one of the most important opera composers of the 18th century, and became an operatic reformer who introduced a new simplicity and expressivity into opera after it had become mere vehicle for empty vocal display and spectacular special effects on stage.
Based on Greek mythology, Orfeo is the story of the Thracian musician orpheus , whose wife Euridice dies. In the solemn opening scene, Orfeo mourns his beautiful young wife, and along with shepherds and shepherdesses , who place tributes on the tomb. The legendary singer and poet curses the gods for having robbed him of his beloved spouse, and he decides that he will descend to Hades in search of Euridice and defy the Furies.
Amor, God of love enters ,and tells Orfeo that the gods have taken pity on him and will permit him to go to Hades and reclaim his beloved. But there is one condition : he must not look upon Euridice until they have left Hades, or else she will be lost forever. Orfeo resolves to take up the task and brings his famous lyre.
In Hades, Orfeo encounters the implacable Furies, who ask why a mere mortal has the presumption to enter Hades and attempt to frighten Orfeo away. But his melodious pleadings finally persude the fearsome creatures to allow him to pass. Later Orfeo encounters Euridice in the blissful Elysian fields, and there is a dance of the blessed spirits.
The couple flee, but Orfeo cannot bear to avoid gazing on his beloved, and Euridice is distressed that she cannot bejhold him. Orfeo cannot control himself and tries to embrace her, and Euridice dies. Orfeo sings the most famous aria from the opera "What shall I do without Euridice ?" He is in despair and attempts to take his life. But the gods have taken pity on him, and Amor announces this. The couple are joyfully reunited, and the chorus praises the power of love.
You should find Gluck's simple but elegant and beautiful music very appealing. (The name rhymed with book.) There are only three characters plus a chorus, and the opera is not very long. In this production, the famous choreographer Mark Morris is both director and choreographer.
The opera exists in both the original Vienna version where it wwas premiered in 1762, and the revised version in French for Paris. The role of Orfeo is usually sung by women, but sometimes by countertenors,n a falsetto style, and long ago by the legendary castrated male singers, or Castrati.
There are a wide variety of CD recordings of the opera both on modern and period instruments, and many great sopranos and mezzo-sopranos have sung and recorded the opera. There are also a number of DVD performances; check arkivmusic.com .
A recent discussion at the forum classicalmusicguide.com on the New York Philharmonic's next season illustrates one of the key problems in classical music today ; how do our orchestras manage to please audiences with their programming and yet keep from stagnating ?
Incoming music director Allan Gilbert has been praised by many critics and commentators for his bold adventurous programming, and his staunch championship of new music. They are looking forward to his musicdirectorship, and hope that this will"rejuvenate" the orchestra and bring more young people to concerts there, even though the orchestra has already been playing much more new music than many other orchestras everywhere.
Some of those who posted comments there are concerned that Gilbert will alienate conservative concertgoers who want to hear their Beethoven, Brahms, Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov favorites. According to them, there's too much new music coming up. But as I pointed out, our orchestras can't afford to just go on playing nothing but the same old warhorses, or the symphony orchestra as a whole will stagnate.
Yes, it's unfortunate that so many concertgoers are set in their ways, and are reluctant to hear new music, or even rarities from the past that are revived. It's not unknown for some people to leave when a new piece is being played, and stay for the established masterpiece on the program by a famous composer of the past. How unfortunate ! Don't these people have any intllectual curiosity ?
It's not uncommon for some subscribers to go to a concert, hear a new work ,hate it, and write an angry letter to the orchestra saying that they will cancel their subscriptions if it continues playing such godawful modern music. Yet these same people want to see the latest movies, the latest books, try out new television programs, go to restaurants they've never visited before etc. Why should it be any different with music at orchestra concerts ?
When people see a new movie and think it's terrible, they don't write angry letters to MGM etc and threaten to boycott their films. Just because you hear a peice and don't like it is no reason to cancel your season tickets to the New York Philharmonic or any other orchestra. They will still play Beethoven, brahms, Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov.
But our orchestras have got to give new music a chance to be heard. If they had not done this in the past, we would not have many of the beloved masterpieces of the repertoire today.
There's a saying I love : A mind is like a parachute - It only functions when it's open.
Now that Barack Obama is about to take on the most awesomely difficult job in human history , I thought it would be interesting to compare the presidency to running a major opera house such as the Met. This job may not be quite as important when it comes to America and the world compared to the presidency, but it's an extremely difficult and demanding one .
As I mentioned previously, the Metropolitan opera is the world's largest performing arts organization. The general manager has to deal with so many people, and conflicts are inevitable. Not only are there the many opera singers to deal with, but the orchestra, chorus, stage hands, mechanics, technicians, the make up and costume staff, the musical staff consisting of rehearsal pianists, vocal coaches, assistant conductors, resident and guest conductors etc.
Then there are the unions representing the various employees. There is always the possibility of a strike, and this can paralyze the whole comapny and force cancellation of performances for a period. This has happened in the past at the Met, but things are fortunately stable here at the moment.
The current general manager of the Met, Peter Gelb, son of Arthur Gelb of the Mew York Times, must deal with these things every day. Therre are tempermental star opera singers to deal with who may cancel performances if they are displeased with something. And always the worry of some great opera having to cancel because of illness or whatever. Fortunately, the Met has a highly efficient system of "Covers", or understudy singers, who are ready to take over any given role at a moment's notice. Many of these are not unknowns, but other singers who happen to be singing other roles at the Met at the moment, and are available.
There is long term planning of repertoire for the company , and choices of casts, conductors, directors and stage designers. This is far from an easy task. The manager and his staff must find out which singer is available for which role, and coordinate this with the schedules of those singers, who are also singing all over Europe and America, etc. Singers are engaged long in advance.
The same is true of conductors, who are busy conducting at opera houses and orchestras all over the globe. The task of choosing which operas to do is also far from easy. Every year, there are several new productions, but most of the repertoire per season consists of productions already done at the house. Possibly Diva X wants to sing opera Y. Should the company take a risk on doing the world premiere of a new opera by some prominent living composer ? What if audiences don't want to come and see this new opera ? The Met will lose money because of empty seats.
In your typical European opera house such as in Germany, there are generous government subsidies. If a new opera is a flop at the box office, no problem. But American opera houses don't have this luxury. They have to drum up support wherever they can. Unfortunately, many operagoers in America are very conservative in their tastes. They want their beloved staples of the repertoire, La Boheme, Carmen, La Traviata, Tosca, Rigoletto, Madama Butterfly etc. Some are appalled even by such established 20th century operatic masterpieces as Wozzeck. I attended a performance of this great opera many years ago at the Met, and by the last act, a fair number of people had left. Their loss.
The general manager must always be on the look out for talented young opera singers who are staring to make successful careers, and the Met has programs for discovering and supporting talented young singers.
Peter Gelb and the general managers of other major opera houses have a tough and challenging job. But it must be a very rewarding one too.
The Metropolitan Opera is the 800 pound gorilla of the arts world, the largest organization of its kind in the world. Its grand and venerable history goes back to 1883 when it opened in Manhattan. Its operating budget is larger than all the other US opera companies combined !
Unlike the other US opera companies, it has a year long schedule of performances from September to May, seven performances a week, uncluding matinee and evening performances on Saturdays. Many of the smaller regional opera companies in America perform only sporadically, offering maybe four of five operas a year. But the Met performs about 25 operas per season, and has a much wider repertoire. Opera is an expensive art form.
So it's not surprising that this great institution is having economic difficulties in these rocky economic times. Unfortunately, the Met has lost a staggering $ 100 million from its endowment fund in the Wall Street mess, and is now forced to tighten its belt buckle and cut corners. Fortunately, general manager Peter Gelb has decided not to increase ticket prices, which already range from about $25 to $350. (Ouch!).
But some much anticipated revivals of acclaimed but expensive productions have been cancelled and replaced with less costly ones. There will be no revival of "The Ghosts of Versailles" by John Corigliano, which was an unexpected smash hit at the Met at its world premiere in 1991. It will be replaced by Verdi's "La Traviata", an esptablished masterpiece but one that all opera fans have seen countless times and is performed everywhere.
The elaborate production of "Die Frau Ohne Schatten" (The Woman Without A Shadow) by Richard Strauss, a somewhat mystifying if musically gorgeous fairy tale opera is being replaced by another much more small-scaled opera by the same composer, "Ariadne Auf Naxos". And the revival of "Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District", by Shostakovich has also been cancelled , which is a pity, because this grim, violent and sordid Russian opera is a real masterpiece. The brilliant and quirky "Benvenuto Cellini" by Berlioz, based on the life of the great Renaissance Italian goldsmith has also been ditched.
And unfortunately, some productions of rarely heard but interesting operas have been put on hold for future sesaons. Many on the Met staff will have to take pay cuts, and there will have to be negotioations with the unions for the Met's stage hands and mechanics etc. But rest assured ; the mighty Metropolitan Opera will prevail.
The New York City opera's search for a new general manager is over. The choice is George Steel, a conductor, impresario and arts administrator who is an advocate of contemporary music but has no experience as head of an opera company. But unfortunately, another important American opera company, the Dallas Opera, has been left in the lurch, as Steel had been recently appointed general manager there. The choice was not a minute too soon.
This seems to be developing into a trend in the opera world. The controversial Belgian impresario Gerard Mortier recently put the New York City Opera in an extremely awkward position when he resigned before taking over , citing frustration with his inability to raise funds for his ambitious plans for the company, and bewailing the woeful lack of government support of opera companies in America. He stated that the small regional opera companies in France receive much more in financial support from the French government than the NYC opera, one of the most important in the US. And who can blame him ?
According to reports, the Dallas Opera's administration has accepted Steel's decision without resentment, noting the importance of the appointment. Steel had previously denied that he was interested in the New York job, but finally jumped at this great opportunity. Like Barack Obama, he will have a very difficult job.
One of Steel's most important jobs had been director of the Miller theater at Columbia University, an important center for contemporary classical music. But he recently resigned to accept the Dallas appointment. Let's wish him the best of luck. You can read more about the appointment at the New York Times online.
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