July 2009 - Posts
Recently, I had a conversation with a lady who attends my classical music program at United Hebrew Geriatric center in New Rochelle, NY about classical repertoire . She's the very conservative member of my audience who loves her traditional favorites by Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov and hates anything more modern . Fortunately, the other people here are much more willing to try something unusual.
She has her favorites and is extremely reluctant to hear unfamiliar works and especially worried if I tell her that I am going to play "modern " music . She's even walked out on me a number of times, which no one else in my group does . (Well they do sometimes, but that's because they have other reaons having nothing to do with the music I'm playing .)
I mentioned that at my next session I was going to play "The Planets" by the English composer Gustav Holst (1874 -1934) . She asked if this were one of those modern works she hates so much . I told her that the Planets is a work which concertgoers everywhere have enjoyed for nearly a century, and that it's a colorful and melodious piece.
But she said that she would still walk out if she didn't like it. It's true that many concertgoers hate music by composers such as Schoenberg, Berg, Webern, and more recent ones such as Elliott Carter or Hans Werner Henze and others, but the Planets, which was premiered in London not long after the first world war, is a piece which no one anywhere seems to have a problem with at concerts, and there are many,many recordings of it.
Unfortunately, many concertgoers today have similar attitudes to my reluctant friend . It's not uncommon for people to attend a concert by an orchestra and listen to a familiar work and leave after the intermission when something by a contemporary composer is being played after it.
But if every concertgoer were as close-minded as this lady, our symphony orchestras might as well go out of business. What a pity.
I discussed Holst's Planets on an earlier post; if you're new to classical music and haven't tried it, don't miss getting a recording. It's a marvelous piece.
Some people wrongly assume that lovers of classical music are a bunch of elitist snobs , bet let's face it ; reverse snobbism exists too among those who love other kinds of music , or even among non-classical performers .
I recently discussed the website musoc.org , which hopes to defend classical music against alleged Philistinism , and described how it strikes some people as blatantly elitist . But some years ago , I saw a debate on PBS between some opera singers and a prominent Jazz critic . The discussion was on whether the US government should support opera and classical music in general .
Of course , the opera singers were for this . But the Jazz critic disagreed . He arrogantly and ignorantly claimed that "opera is not really American music", or words to that effect , and that furthermore, it was nothing but a frivolous entertainment for wealthy people , who attend it merely to "see and be seen ".
Sure , there's the stereotypical image of wealthy , snobbish people attending the opera for purely social reasons but who sit through the opera in a state of boredom while fat singers in ridiculous Viking costumes scream at each other in a incomprehesible language . But this arrogant clown obviously knew nothing about opera , I wonder if had had ever even attended a performance .
Of course, this is in no way to attack or criticize Jazz per se as an art form . It's a perfectly legitimate kind of music which has many devotees and has produced many great musicians . But as the old saying goes, don't knock something if you haven't tried it .
But this Jazz critic was obviously ignorant of the fact that opera was quite popular in America long before Jazz came into existence, and that many distinguished American composers have written American operas based on American subjects which have been successfully performed all over America and even in Europe .
How about George Gerswhin, Aaron Copland , Samuel Barber , Virgil Thomson , Ned Rorem , John Corigliano, Philip Glass , John Adams , William Bolcom , just to name a handful ? All the cream of American classical music .
And don't believe that opera is just for rich snobs . Opera fans are as passionate about opera as baseball , football, basketball and soccer fans are about sports . When they go to the opera they are intensely caught up in the action of the opera , and they are rooting for the singers the way sports fans root for the home team .
Also , I wonder what this Jazz critic thought about other kinds of classical music , such as orchestral or chamber music etc . I don't want to think about it.
It's said that there may be some kind of connection between genius and eccentricity . Certainly, many of the great composers, and some lesser-known ones , have had their funnyosities .
Mozart was something of an oddball, and is known to have had a potty mouth and something of an obsession with bodily functions . His letters have often been cenored in print, and they are not for the prudish ! When the not very historically accurate but highly entertaining movie Amadeus came out in the 80s, the actor Tim Hulce, who played Mozart, cultivated a weird , high -pitced kind of laughter, and apparently, people all over Europe starting imitating this for laughs !
Wagner, that megalomaniac, anti-semite, womanizer and dead beat, loved to be surrounded by luxury, and reportedly could not compose unless he was wearing silk underwear and enveloped by perfume ! His Austrian contemporary , the great organist and symphonist Anton Bruckner , who idolized him, was not only a devout Catholic but something of a religioud freak, though not an intolerant fanatic . He was obsessed by counting numbers and their religious significance, kept religious icons over his bed to kiss, and was an all around dweeb .
Alexander Scriabin (1872 -1915), was a Russian pianist, composer and a kind of New Age religious nut long before the New Age became fashionable . He was involved with Theosophy, and put elements of weird mysticism into his music . One of his orchestral works is called the "Poem of Ecstacy" and it's a wild, orgiastic joy ride, sort a of an LSD trip before LSD existed .
One of his piano sonatas is called "Black Mass", and he dreamed of writing a massive orchestral and choral work combining colors, odors etc which would usher ina new age. He had synaesthesia, and could literally hear music as color in the visual sense ! His extravagant work"Prometheus,Poem of Fire", for piano, chorus and orchestra , calls for a color machine to go along with the performance .
The eccentric French composer Eril Satie, (1866 -1925), famous for his odd piano pieces with titles such as "Dessicated Embryos", "Truly Flabby Preludes for a Dog", "Bureaucratic sonatina" , and other weird titles, lived alone in a remote section of Paris, and would not bathe, but only rubbed his skin with pumice, ate only white things, and had many other weird characteristics.
The great American composer Charles Ives, whom I profiled some time ago, had studied music at Yale, but decided to go into the Insurance business because he realized that his wildly original music would make earing a living in that field impossible, kept his distance from the musical establishment of conductors, orchestras, managers etc, and avoided the limelight, having become independently wealthy . He hated this musical establishment and called its membership"sissies".
The California loner Harry Partch (1901 -1974), was even more contemptuous , rejected the whole tradition of Western Classical Music, and concerned himself with microtonal music, and invented strange-looking musical instruments which could play sclaes of 43 instead of 12 tones ! His music can only be played on the instruments he invented. He lived for a time as a Hobo !
The great Czech composer Leos Janacek (1854 -1928), whom I've also discussed earlier, was fascinated by the intonation and melodic patterns of his native Czech language, and this influenced his operas, such as Jenufa, The Cunning Little Vixen and Katya Kabanova etc. He always kept notebooks to write down the melodic contours of people he met in public, and many of these have been preserved . He even did this with animals in Zoos !
Of course, many other famous composers were, or are perfectly normal people .
Opera has been in existence for about four centuries now, and is performed all over the world . Audiences can attend performances of operas by Italian, French, German, Austrian ,Russian, Czech , English and American composers , even Asians , today in a variety of languages .
But the birth of opera was almost accidental , beginning in Florence, Italy at the end of the 16th century , when a group of prominent Italian composers, poets, scholars and intellectuals called the Camerata was formed . This group , inspired by the ideals of the Renaissance, sought to revive ancient Greek drama, which they believed may have been partially sung .
So opera, that potent combination of drama and music, was born . The poets and composers created a kind of sung drama accompanied by musical instruments . Naturally, the new form of drama featured subjects based on greek mythology, such as Orpheus and Euridice, Apollo and Daphne, and other ancient Greek myths.
The first known opera was Dafne, with music by a once famous composer named Jacopo Peri , but this work has been lost . The first surviving opera is by the great Italian composer Claudio Monteverdi (1567 -1643) , La Favola D'Orfeo, or the myth of Orpheus and Euridice, later made into a famous opera by the 18th century composer Gluck.
Opera spread throughout Italy and was no longer an art form for the aristocracy; public opera houses opened in Florence, Venice, Naples and elsewhere, and French and German composers began to write operas in their own languages. In France, opera, mixed with ballet became a pastime of the French kings, and lavish court entertainments became the rage, and the Italian born Giovanni Battista Lully, whose name was Gallicized to Jean -Baptiste Lully, became the favorite composer of the French kings in the 17th century . His elaborate operas have been revived occaisionally in our time.
There were different kinds of opera ; the elaborate Opera Seria, or opera based on serious mythological or historical subjects , and the comic kind of opera, or Opera Buffa.
In the 18th century, the German born Christoph Willibald Gluck reformed opera , concentrating on pure drama and expressivity, rather than elaborate staging and vocal display. Mozart's operas, such as Don Giovanni and the Marriage of Figaro achieved great success and are still popular .
In the early 19th century, Italian composers such as Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini wrote operas of the so-called Bel Canto school, Bel Canto meaning beautiful singing, offering famous singers a chance to show of both their beauty of sound, expressivity and spectacular dispays of agility, leading to the operas of Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901) , which are still popular today, and the romantic operas of Puccini , including La Boheme.
In the late 19th century, the Italian Verismo, or realistic school of opera came about, avoiding mythology and the aristocracy for plots, and dealing with the gritty lives of common people.
German opera began to flourish in the 19th century, with Carl Maria von Weber and his opera Der Freischutz(the freeshooter) , and plots based on German history and folklore begame popular , including elements of German fairy tales . The giant of German opera was Wagner, whose harmonically complex and lengthy operas dominated the age, and had great influence even into the 20th century.
Elsewhere, great Russian composers such as Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov created a Russian operatic tradition using Russian history and folklore , and the same was true in Bohemia, now the Czech republic, with Smetana and Dvorak .
In the 20th century, opera became even more diverse, with the first atonal operas by Alban Berg and his teacher Arnold Schoenberg, the creation of American opera with masterpieces such as Gershwin's Porgy and Bess .
And Opera is now more diverse than ever , with 400 years of repertoire avaiable to us. This great art form has never been more alive.
When you attend a concert by a symphony orchestra, you will often, but not always hear an orchestral work , usually in several movements, called a symphony . But just what is a symphony, and how did this kind of composition come into being ? The story is most interesting, and here is a brief overview .
The term Symphony comes from the Greek Syn - phone - a coming together of sounds , or a sounding together . The earliest use of the term for a composition comes from late 16th century Italy, when the Venetian composer Giovanni Gabrieli, who was in charge of music for the cathedral of San Marco, which still exists there, wrote a work combining voices and various musical instruments called the Sacrae Symphoniae . Gabrieli is famous for his antiphonal brass music exploiting the resonant acoustics of that great Cathedral.
By the 18th century, what we now call the overture to an opera, or an oratorio, was called the Sinfonia. In the scores to the operas and oratorios of Handel and his contemporaries, you can see this description of the introduction .
A typical sinfonia to an opera or oratorio would usually consist of thre parts ; a lively section followed by a slower one, leading to another lively part, often in the form of a minuet . Some of the sinfonias came to be performed separately at concerts , and soon, composers began to write sinfonias as an independent form for those concerts , with no connection to any opera .
Many once prominent 18th century composers wrote sinfonias to be performed at concerts, such as the Italian Giovanni Battista Sammartini, the German Johann Stamitz and C.P.E. Bach , one of the sons of the great Johann Sebastian , and many others, now forgotten .
The first composer whose symphonies are still performed today with any regularity is Joseph Haydn, (1732 -1809), who wrote no fewer than 104 of them during his long and distinguished career . Most Haydn symphonies consist of four movements - a first, sometimes with a majestic slow introduction in sonata form, with exposition , development and recapitulation, a slow movement followed by a minuet , ending with a lively finale .
Three movement symphonies without a minuet were also written. Haydn's younger contemporary and friend Mozart left 41 numbered symphonies, and several without numbers .
But the great innovator of the symphony was Beethoven, who lived from 1770 to 1827. His nine symphonies revolutionized the form. The first two, written at the beginning of the 19th century, show the influence of Haydn and Mozart, but the third, subtitled "Eroica" and inspired by Napoleon's conquests, is aboput twice the length of the usual symphony, and much more complex in harmony and structure.
The world-famous fifth begins with the da-da da- daaaah motif which every one knows. But the last movement is unusual in using trombones for the first time in a symphony, plus piccolo and contrabassoon . The sixth , or "Pastoral" symphony has a specific story behind it, and depicts a day in the country, complete with a slow movement depicting a dreamy scene by the brook, a merry gathering of the country folk with dancing, and a thunderstorm. It is also unusual in consisting of five movements, and the last three are continuous, without a break .
The mighty ninth was the longest and most complex symphony that had ever been written, and uses a chorus and soprano,alto, tenor and bass soloists in a setting of the "Ode to Joy" by the German poet Friedrich Schiller, Beethoven's contemporary . Later composers such as Gustav Mahler and others used a chorus and vocal solists in some of their symphonies . At the time of the first performance of Beethoven's ninth in Vienna, the composer was deaf .
Beethoven's younger contemporary Franz Schubert , who also lived in Vienna but was a native unlike the German-born giant, wrote seven completed symphonies, and the famous unfinished , and several symphonic fragments which he never got around to completing .
Other great composers of the 19th century who wrote notable symphonies include Felix Mendelssohn, Robert Schumann, Johannes Brahms , Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Cesar Franck, Camille Saint-Saens, Anton Bruckner, Antonin Dvorak, Hector Berlioz , to name only a handful .
The 20th century also produced an enormous number of symphonies by such great names as Gustav Mahler, Jean Sibelius, Edward Elgar, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Carl Nielsen, Sergei Prokofiev, Dimitri Shostakovich, Sergei Rachmaninov, and others, and important American composers as Charles Ives, Aaron Copland, William Schuman, Howard Hanson and others wrote symphonies with a distinctively American character .
A symphony can last under fifteen minurtes or well over an hour . 18th century symphonies use a small orchestra consisting of strings, two oboes, bassoons or sometimes flutes , and only occaisionally clarinets, with two horns, sometimes two trumpets and tympani. But some 20th century and late 19th century symphonies call for enormous orchestras with many woodwind instruments including piccolo, English horn, bas clarinet and contra basson, as many as eight horns, four or five trumpets, four trombones, tuba, extensive percussion and even an organ ! Plus a very large string section .
There is so much to explore in the rich repertoire of this great musical genre , and so much variety of approach to form . And it's all avaialable to you on CD , DVD and through the miracle of the internet .
The answer is no . Good looks and slick publicity may help somewhat , but without genuine and considerable talent and technique, as well as rigorous training ,no aspiring opera singer , violinist ,pianist or cellist etc , is going to get anywhere . Remember the old joke "How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice !"
Of course, image is all in entertainment today, in movies, television and pop music, image is everthing. But if a young pianist doesn't have the chops to get through a concerto by Tchaikovsky or Rachmaninov , he or she is not going to go anywhere .
There are quite a few young and glamorous opera singers and violinists, cellists and pianists etc who are decidedly good-looking , and this may help them with publicity, but I can assure that they would not be making successful careers today without genuine talent and hard work.
Sopranos Anna Netrebko, Renee Fleming , Daniele De Niese, tenor Joonas Kaufmann, baritones Dimitri Hvorostovsky, Nathan Gunn ,Erwin Schrott, Thomas Hampson, violinists Anne-Sophe Mutter, and others are more than pretty faces .
But some cynical classical music critics today, who are often unfairly dismissive of young talents in the field, tend to belittle and dismiss certain talented young performers as merely the product of slick publicity . But they're dead wrong .
These critics show a tendency to idealize the past of classical music, when everything was supposedly so much better, when the true giants of the field were activew, such as Jascha Heifetz, Vladimir Horowitz, Pablo Casals, and other great names were active , and to bewail the supposed lack of great musicians today . I've been reading these knee-jerk laments by music critics for decades . And you can be sure that decades from now, when all of today's great classical musicians are either dead or long retired, critics will be doing the same thing !
Some things never change !
Yes and no . There are definite problems , and the current economic situation both in the US and abroad does threaten some of our orchestras and opera companies . But I'd like to take stock of this situation with a list of pluses and minuses .
Among the US orchestras and opera companies having serious financial difficulties and other difficulties are : The New York City Opera, the Metropolitan Opera, the Chicago Lyric Opera, and the Los Angeles and San Francisco operas . Because of the loss of a season due to renovation of the David H Koch theater in Lincoln Center and other problems, the existence of New York's plucky second opera company is in jeopardy . The Met lost a staggering $ 100 million from its endowment fund and was forced to cancel revivals of a number of productions .
Opera Pacific in California, the Baltimore and Connecticut opera companies have folded . The LA and San francisco opera had to lay off administrative staff .
World-famous US orchestras such as the Boston Symphony, the Philadelphia and Cleveland orchestras etc, are having difficulties . The BSO was forced to cancel a European tour recently. In Arizona, the Phoenix symphony is not unlikey to fold soon, and in New York, the Brooklyn Philharmonic had to cancel concerts. Other orchestras in difficulty include the Honolulu symphony, the Virginia symphony, the Shreveport Louisiana symphony, and the Minnesota orchestra in Minneapolis .
Virtually none of our leading orchestras now has a recording contract with any of the major record labels such as Decca, EMI, Deutsche Grammophon, Philips, RCA or Sony Classical . Some have made isolated recordings here and there, usually live, but studio recordings by major orchestras seem to be a thing of the past.
Supposedly, the audiences at orchestral concerts is aging, and younger people rarely attend concerts for various reasons , none really valid . There are not too many classical radio stations left in the US, and WQXR has been sold by the New York Times.
But on the plus side : Opera is more popular than ever before in America, and there are more opera companies than ever before here. Every year, audiences are growing, and more and more younger people are catching the opera bug.
The Metropolitan opera has recently started broadcasting some of its performances live into movie theaters all over America in High Definition, and this has been a smashing success. And now European opera companies are beginning to do this .
Every year, there are well over 30,000 performances of classical music in America, orchestral concerts, operas, chamber music, solo recitals etc. Our music schools are full of highly talented young aspiring musicians , even if the competion for jobs and careers is extremely stiff .
It's never been easier to hear classical music ,live or recorded than the present day. Although there are not too many classical record stores left, the internet makes an infinitely wider selection of classical music available than any record store ever could . You can hear and see concerts and opera from all over the world on the internet.
To quote Chrales Dickens, it's both the best and worst of times for classical music today.
Recently, Los Angeles county supervisor Mike Antonovich criticized the Los Angeles Opera over the way its spectacular, multimillion dollar production of Wagner's mighty Ring cycle is being presented. This is the first time the LA opera has done the Ring, and there has been a great deal of publicity and controversy surrounding it.
Antonovich stated that it was wrong for the LA opera to concentrate on the work of a rabidly antisemitic composer who was idolized by Hitler, rather than offering public forums,lectures and performances of operas by Jewish composers who were suppressed by the Nazis to counterbalance Wagner's supposedly antisemitic works.
But in fact, the LA opera's distinguished music director, American conductor James Conlon, has been a champion of such music, and recently led a production of the opera"The Birds", by the once well-known German composer Walter Braunfels, whose music was suppressed by the Nazis because he was half Jewish, among other composers. Some of these composers were Jews who died in concentration camps, such as Erwin Schulhoff, Pavel Haas and Victor Ullmann . Their music has been revived in recent years and also recorded .
In fact, I have a CD of that opera which was recrded some years ago as part of Decca records project to record music by those composers , and I like the opera very much. This is the "Degenerate Music" series, which is what the Nazis called the music of Jewish composers and others who were too avant-garde for them.
But people should be aware that Wagner's Ring has absolutely nothing to do with Jews or Judaism . It is a timelss epic based on Germanic and Scandinavian mythology and does not glorify Nazi principles in any way . In it, Wotan, the chief of the gods, and the other gods and goddesses are destroyed by his lust for power and world domination and a magic but accursed ring which grants supreme power to its possessor .
In addition , Wagner's antisemitism , reprehensible as it was , never came remotely close to that of Hitler and the Nazis and their insane genocidal policies . And as the old cliche goes, some of his best friends were Jews . He worked closely with many important Jewish musicians and intellectuals .
Hitler never knew Wagner , who died in 1883 , six years before he was born. Unfortunately , he read all manner of things into the great composer which simply aren't there in his works . Perhaps Antonovich should stick to trying to help run the great city of Los Angeles . He has far more pressing matters . Also, I've been getting sloppy lately with typing . I shopuldn't be misspelling words like "English" . Pardon me.
Just a couple of weeks ago , Sir Edward Downes , a well-known English conductor and his wife committed suicide with his wife in Switzerland , where assisted suicide is legal , unlike England .
Downes , 85, had been suffering from both failing eyesight and hearing , and his wife had terminal cancer . The veteran maestro had conducted regularly at London's presitigious Royal Opera house and had been music director of the BBC Philharmonic in Manchester as well as the Australian Opera in Sydney, and had made a number of recordings for England's Chandos records .
There is nothing worse for a musician than to lose one's hearing . Beethoven's deafness is well-known, but he lost it gradually starting in his early 30s , and the great Czech composer Bedrich Smetana (1824 -1884 ) also went deaf in his later years , and spent the last years of his life institutionalized because of the effects of syphillis.
The great French composer Gabriel Faure (1845 -1924) also went deaf late in life . Both Bach and Handel went blind late in life , and Beethoven wrote an agonized open letter to the public discussing his hearing loss . This is known as the Heiligenstadt testament , after the town near Vienna where it was written .
Robert Schumann (1810 -1856 ) , also suffered from syphillis and had to be placed in an institution because of severe mental illness . He once attempted sucide by jumping into the Rhine . As they say, there but for the grace of God go I !
Stories about the famous conductors are legion ; sarcastc comments by them during rehearsals, conflicts between them and famous opera singers, pianists, violinists and orchestral musicians at rehearsals, their mistakes foibles, malapropisms and so much more . These have survived through tales by orchestral musicians and others.
The debonair and exccentric English conductor Sir Thomas Beecham had a wit comparable to Oscar Wilde's; musicians loved his rehearsals because he would always crack them up, unlike the harsh methods of such martinets as Fritz Reiner, Arturo Toscanini, and George Szell .
At a rehearsal of Verdi's famous opera Aida, which takes place in ancient Egypt and has a spectacular scene where all manner of live animals were used during a scene of public spectacle, a horse left a sizable deposit on stage. Beecham replied -"God, what a critic !".
He also claimed that a musicologist is some one who can "read music but can't hear it", and that" No opera star has yet died soon enough for me". Also, "The English public may not like music, but they absolutely love the sound it makes".
"There are two golden rules for an orchestra. Start together and finish together. The public doesn't give a damn about what happens inbetween".
The famous German-born conductor Otto Klemperer, about whom I wrote earlier, was annyoying the musicians of the New York Philharmonic during rehearsals with his endless talk about the philosophical and spiritual significance of the profound masterpieces by Beethoven and Brahms he was rehearsing. He was droning on and on and the musicians were getting exasperated. Why didn't he just tell them how he wanted the music to be pkayed and get on with it?
Finally, the Italian-born principal oboist of the orchestra, who was a man of few words, and spoke with a thick Italian accent, and was famous for shortening people's names, came up to Klemperer at intermission . The oboist was very short., and Klemperer was about six foot six. He stated simply,"Klemps, you talka too much ." The maestro got the point.
The Hungarian born podium tyrant Fritz Reiner, who was an exact contemporary of Bela Lugosi, and bore an uncanny resemblance to him, might be called the Dracula of conductors. He terrified musicians with his stern manner at rehearsals and totally unforgiving attitude toward mistakes by musicians . He could detect the slightest flaws in playing and was notorious for firing musicians he considered incompetent.
In those days, conductors had absolute power over musicians, and could fire them summarily. But they abused this prerogative so badly that in the 1960s, the American musicians union took measures to curb their arbitrary firings and took measures to protect the musician's jobs, and this is true now. Today,ductor who is in charge of a US orchestra has the option of granting a new musician tenure after a probationary year or not, but cannot dimiss a player after that without hearings to prove a musician is incompetent.
So the joke among musicians in American orchestras such as the Chicago Symphony, which he led from 1953 to his death ten years later, was the prediction that when he died, he would fire his own pall bearers at the funeral !
He was also famous (or notorious) for beating time with the tiniest gestures , unlike the more semaphore-like manner of other conductors. He did this deliberately to keep the musicians on their toes and make them follow him closely. One day, a musician came to a rehearsal with binoculars. Reiner was puzzled and asked him what he was doing, and the player said, "I trying to find the beat." Reiner was not amused and fired him .
During the 1960s, the legendary Austrian conductor Herbert von Karajan held a variety of prestigious posts in Europe, such as the Berlin Philharmonic, music director of the Vienna State opera and other positions. Some complained that he was spreading himself thin. An apocryphal story goes thusly : Karajan gets into a Taxi after arriving in a large European city. The driver asks him where he is going. Karajan replies "You can take me anywhere. My services are in demand all over ".
The famous Hungarian-born conductor Eugene Ormandy, who led the great Philadelphia Orchestra for no fewer than forty years or so until his retirement in 1980, was famous for mangling the English language with the virtuosity of former president Bush or Yogi Berra .
Here are some pearls from his rehearsals: To a musician: "Why do you always insist on playing when I'm trying to conduct?" "I never say what I mean but I always manage to say something similar". To the orchestra: "Let me say what I do here. I don't want to confuse you more than absolutely necessary". Musician: " Is that a G or a G sharp?" Ormandy: "Yes".
And these stories are just the tip of the iceberg !
There is no one way to do this, but starting out is far from easy, no matter how talented you may be . And no one is going to make a successful career as one without considerable talent ! Orchestra musicians will see through you instantly if you lack the enormous amount of technical skill and knowledge required . They aren't impressed easily .
In the 18th century, when the orchestra as we know it came into being, there was no one in front waving a stick . Usually, the concertmaster, or leader of the violins, would lead, sometimes with the help of a harpsichordist adding chords and melodic embellishments . This was enough to keep the orchestra together .
But in the 19th century, when orchestras became larger, and the music became more rhythmically complex, some one, often the composer, would beat time . Eventually, conducting, and with a baton(although not all conductors use one) became a distinct profession .
Still, many of the greatest conductors have also been composers, such as Leonard Bernstein, Wilhelm Furtwangler, Otto Klemperer, Pierre Boulez, Gustav Mahler, Richard Strauss and others, up to the present day, but not all . Many famous conductors have started out in opera houses, where they functioned as rehearsal pianists and coaches to opera singers, later becoming assistant conductors, and conducting the offstage bands which are so common in opera .
It's important for a conductor to have mastered at least one instrument, and many have started out as accomplished pianists, violinists, cellists, or even flutists, oboists, clarinettists or horn players, or organists, such as the legendary Leopold Stokowski (1882 -1977 ). Arturo Toscanini and Englishman Sir John Barbirolli were cellists, and Solti, Karajan, Bernstein, and others were pianists. Ability on the piano helps one in studying and mastering complex orchestral scores, and ability to play a string instrument is helpful with such important matters as bowing of string parts .
Many famous musicians have started out as piano or violin virtuosos, etc , and went on to conducting, such as today's Vladimir Ashkenazy( piano), Mstislav Rostropovich (cello), and Itzhak Perlman(violin), to name only a few .
Budding conductors would often work under the tutelage of eminent conductors in those opera houses, and eventually be entrusted with conducting some perfomances in the house . They would then start conducting in other opera houses as their reputations grew, and often become music directors in other opera houses . Then they would graduate to conducting symphony orchestras , and many great conductors have started out this way, such as Guistav Mahler, Richard Strauss, Otto Klemperer, Sir Georg Solti, and others .
Other renowned maestros never conducted opera, or did so rarely, and started out with symphony orchestras, such as Leopold Stokowski, the Dutchman Willem Mengelberg, Frenchman Charles Munch, Hungarian Eugene Ormandy, and others .
There were other examples of making a career in an unorthodox manner, such as the eccentric and colorful Englishman, Sir Thomas Beecham, (1879 -1961), who came from one of England's wealthiest families, and was the scion of England's biggest pharmaceutical company . With his enormous family wealth, he started various orchestras and opera companies in England, and became world famous. He had also studied music at Oxford, but was basically an amateur ! There was a joke about the London Philharmonic, which he founded in the 1930s, being the"London Pillharmonic "!
The great Russian conductor Serge Koussevitzky (1874 -1951) started out as one of the few virtuosos of the huge and unweildy double bass, but who married a wealthy Russian heiress and was able to start a career of his own as conductor, later moving to Paris, where he also became involved in the publishing of the latest works of the composers of his day ,and conducting all over Europe . In 1924, he became conductor of the Boston Symphony orchestra, and achieved international renown, championing the music of leading American composers such as Aaron Copland and others, until his retirement in 1949.
He founded the world famous Tanglewood music festival in rural Massachusetts, making it the Summer home of the Boston Symphony, and a center for the training of young musical talent, which it still is . The young Leonard Bernstein was his most famous protege .
Bernstein himself studied conducting at Phildelphia's Curtis institute, one of the leading US music schools , with the great and highly demanding Hungarian -born conductor Fritz Reiner, and was appointed assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic under the famous Polish born conductor Artur Rodzinski . Then, in 1943, he had to substitute at a concert at the last minute for the eminent German born conductor Bruno Walter, who was ill .
The concert was a sensation, and the enormously gifted young American conductor, composer and pianist became an overnight sensation, and as they say, the rest is history .
Today, many aspiring young conductors study conducting on the graduate level at leading music schools, often under eminent conductors . The conmetition is truly fierce to be admitted into conducting programs, and one has to pass rigororous tests of musical ability and sharpness of ear .
Leonard Bernstein himself had many conducting proteges, whom he taught at the Tanglewood festival, among them, Marin Alsop, (1956-), now music director of the Baltimore Symphony, and the first woman to lead a top US orchestra . The brilliant young Venuzuelan conductor Gustavo Dudamel, (1981-), who will take over the Los Angeles Philharmonic this September, started out as a product of the now world famous "El Sistema " training program for young musicians in that country . The great American conductor James Levine, of the Metropolitan Opera and Boston Symphony, was a protege of the great Hungarian born conductor george Szell at the world famous Cleveland Orchestra .
But some important conductors still make careers the old fashioned way by starting out in opera houses, particularly in Europe. But without the requisite talent, you'll never make it .
In his tragically short but amazingly productive life, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 -1791) wrote about 600 works in virtually every music genre ; symphonies, concertos, chamber music, operas, choral works, music for solo piano etc. His numerous concertos include no fewer than 27 for piano, his own instrument, 5 for violin, and wind concertos for flute, oboe, clarinet and bassoon.
He also wrote four for the horn, which is my instrument, and they are studied by every horn student and part of the basic repertoire of the horn, which also includes concertos by important composers such as Richard Strauss, Paul Hindemith, Carl Maria von Weber and others.
All four are delightfully melodious and jolly, and many leading horn players have performed and recorded them, including such great horn virtuosos as Dennis Brain , Barry Tuckwell and Hermann Baumann .
In Mozart's day, the horn was a much simpler instrument than the one in use today; it had no valves and could not play all the notes of the scale . All the notes were produced by variations in lip pressure and every time a player played in a different key, he (few women played the horn before recent years) had to change onto a different length of tubing to play in whatever key a given piece was in . If you were playing a piece in C major, you had to use a C crook ; if in D, a D crook, and so forth, and remove the crook for he had been using previously.
The instrument was basically just a simple hoop of brass. In the early 19th century, valves with different lengths of tubing for different keys were added, so that the player could play scales and play in any key without having to take crooks in and out. Now composers were free to write horn parts using all the notes of the scale , and horn parts became much more complex.
But in the 18th century, composers could write some notes outside the ability of the valveless(also called natural) horn, because of the technique of manouvering the player's right hand in the bell to produce extra notes. However, these "stopped" notes have a muffled, muted sound. Later, when valves were the norn, composers sometimes asked the player to produce these stopped notes just for coloristic effect.
Mozart wrote his horn concertos for a well-known Austrian horn player named Joseph Leutgeb, who was also one of his friends. Mozart liked him, but apparently thought he was something of what we might call a dork, and wrote playful notes in his manuscripts poking fun at Leutgeb, calling him a fool and an ox among other less than flattering names !
The concerto marked no 1 is in only two movements, lacking the usual slower middle movement, and was left incomplete at Mozart's tragically premature death, but the other three are complete. The concertos require considerable skill at the technique of hand-stopping, and are quite difficult to play without valves. The horn parts on most orchestral works of the time were much simpler, and mostly confined to the natural notes of the valveless horn, making them much less interesting to play for horn players today than the horn parts of the 19th and 20th centuries.
In recent years, with the revival of the instruments of the past and the attempt to recreate the performance styles of bygone days, replicas of valveless horns (and trumpets,which also lacked valves) have been made, and a number of horn players have mastered the lost art of playing natural horns. There are also several recordings of the Mozart horn concertos on replicas of the old instruments.
Mozart also left several fragments of horn concertos at his death, and also wrote a delightful quintet for oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn and piano, and an equally delightful quintet for the unusual combination of one violin, two violas, and cello plus horn . There are numerous recordings of the Mozart horn concertos, and those by the great British horn player Dennis Brain (1921-1957) are considered classics, and still available. All of Mozart's works for horn will delight you, and a good place to look for recordings is arkivmusic.com, which probably has the best selection of classical CDs and DVDs on the internet .
The latest issue of Opera News magazine is devoted to the question of style in opera - in singing , staging and costume design etc. It's chock full of thought-provoking and stimulating articles and commentary.
In Opera and classical music, style is a vexed question. What is the "right" way, the correct style to sing or conduct an opera , or to play a piano sonata, or to conduct a symphony ? The debate is endless among music lovers, performers critics and musicologists. No one can agree exactly on what style is or what the "style" of any composer is when it comes to performing the music.
Fashion historian Colleen Hill has written an article on the elegant 19th century Parisian costumes used by many great divas for the role of the doomed Parisian courtean Violetta in Verdi's classic opera "La Traviata", and you can see the costumes of such great exponents of the role as Renee Fleming, Anna Moffo, Anna Netrebko, Angela Gheorghiu, as well as once-famous divas of the past, now known only to serious opera fans.
Philip Kennicott, culture critic for the Washington Post and formerly one of its music critics, discusses the evolution of style in performing opera today from the past, and discusses trends in American opera companies today. He asks the intriguing question ,"Does the opera world represent the last stand in the steady erosion of style in our culture?"
The New York architect and opera fan August Ventura discusses his trips to the legendary opera house of Parma, Italy, notorious for its highly knowledgable and demanding audience . According to Ventura, the Parma Opera has preserved old-fashioned traditions of singing Giuseppe Verdi's operas which may be revelatory to singers and opera fans today, as Verdi had close ties to the company and was a native of this region in norther Italy.
The New York-based novelist and opera fan Scott Rose has an interesting article on a variety of recordings of a key aria from the famous late 19th century Italian opera "Cavalleria Rusticana"(Rustic Chivalry) old and more recent, by a variety of famous sopranos, comparing and contrasting the different stylistic approaches.
The actress and opera fan Kathleen Leigh Scott discusses the bizarre story of a disturbed young woman named named Nell Theobald and her obsession with the late,great Swedish Wagnerian soprano Birgit Nilsson and her attewmpts to stalk the great lady. Unfortunately, Theobald committed suicide in 1977.
You can also check out the magazine's website, operanews.com.
Yes, change is coming to the flagship of American classical radio stations . Every one in American classical music, whether fans, critics, arts administrators or performers is deeply concerned. How will WQXR fare without the support of the New York Times in these uncertain and troubled times ? What will happen to its programming? Will the Metropolitan Opera broadcasts and taped concerts of the New York Philharmonic and other great orchestras continue? How will the station be supported financially ?
This is all part of the fate of classical radio in America as a whole Today. There are fewer and fewer of them now, and those which still exist tend to offer rather dumbed-down programming limited to endless repetitions of classical warhorses. Forget about hearing lengthy and complex symphonies by Mahler and Bruckner, or music by lesser-known but interesting composers such as Havergal Brian, Charles Koechlin, Karol Szymanowski, George Whitefield Chadwick , Hans Pfitzner, and Franz Schmidt and others.
Forget about hearing music by such important contemporary composers as Philip Glass, John Adams, Thomas Ades, William Bolcom, Tan Dun and others. Such are economic conditions today. But on the bright side, there is so much you can hear on the internet at websites such as pandora.com, Sirius.com and elsewhere.
Starting shortly, WQXR will be having pledge drives to drum up financial support instead of commercials . It will be closely affiliated with New York's WNYC, which has largely abandoned playing classical music in favor of News and serious talk programs.
New York Times critics and commentators will no longer appear at WQXR , which is something the station regularly featured. There will be more longer works played, and more live performances from the New York area. The station's announcers will no longer be guaranteed their jobs, and will have to reapply.
This is not only grossly unfair but ridiculous ; these announcers are the best in the business. They are highly knowledgable in classical music and totally dedicated to their work. Their pronunciation of the names of composers and performers in languages other than English is better than most people's. In order to be hired, they had to past rigorous tests of pronunication in foreign languages.
Compare this to the embarassingly awful pronunciation I have heard by amateur students at University classical music shows ; it used to make me cringe.
Only time will tell what happens to this great station ; disaster is possible, but there's also the potential for exciting innovation .
The other day, I came across an interesting new website of a recently founded organization called MUSOC.ORG , which is devoted to promoting the cause of classical music, or as its members prefer to call it "Art Music". This organization has already stirred up controversy . There are those who consider it an elitist group of classical music snobs who sneer at and look down upon Pop and other kinds of music, and who have denounced it for its alleged elitism , including the classical music critic of the English newspaper The Guardian, Tom Service , in his blog for the paper, which you can read at guardian.co.uk.
I've perused the MUSOC website to try to see what this group stands for , and I personally have mixed feelings about it. Its stated goals are to promote classical (or art) music, and to obtain greater government support for symphony orchestras, opera companies, composers, etc, and to promote education in classical music in schools and for the general public. Fine so far.
But unfortunately, its rhetoric could be counterproductive for the noble cause of promoting classical music. It's very easy for people who know little or nothing about classical music who might visit the MUSOC website to get the impression that its attitude toward non-classical music is snobbish, elitist, and snooty.
It speaks of the "superiority" of classical music to Pop and Rock etc. But this is wrong. While classical music is a magnificent art form with an incredibly rich and diverse history and traditions dating back centuries, other kinds of music are equally valid, and those who love them will tend to be resentful of the assumption that classical music is"superior".
MUSOC says that all people are entitled to enjoy whatever kind of music they happen to prefer, but its talk of superiority merely enforces the false notion that classical music is intrinsically"elitist", and could prejudice many people to the possibility of enjoying classical before they have even tried it. This is not good. As they used to say in ancient Rome, "De gustibus non est disputandum "- There's no use arguing over taste.
We must be careful not to mistake our personal preferences in music for superiority. A Jazz buff could also think that Jazz is "superior" to classical music. Possibly some do . But different kinds of music don't invalidate each other. Yes, a symphony by Mahler or a Wagner opera is much more complex in harmony and melodic structure than any Beatles or Rolling Stones song. And much longer. But so what ? What use is looking down on Rock music ? Rock fans love Rock music, and their absolutely entitled to love it. Why can't we just let Rock be Rock and classical be classical ?
But saying as MUSOC does on its website that it is trying to "repudiate cultural relativism in music", and "provide a cultural oasis in the arid sands of global Pop," among other things , will mislead many people into thinking that they should not attend orchestra concerts etc, or listen to classical CDs or watch classical DVDs etc. This merely fosters reverse snobbism against classical music. MUSOC could set the cause of classical music back.
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