September 2009 - Posts
Los Angeles is in the grip of Dudamel fever . The young conductor , only 28 years old , is set to conduct his first concerts as music director of one of America's top orchestras , the Los Angeles Philharmonic at its home , Disney hall , on October 8th . Since winning the prestigious competition for young conductors four years ago sponsored by Germany's Bamberg Symphony , he has enjoyed a meteoric rise to fame , conducting the world's greatest orchestras all over Europe and America .
But some are wondering whether this is the result of genuine talent or mere hype . I'm convinced that despite all the publicity , Dudamel is a genuine and major podium talent . Recently , Time Magazine put him on its list of the 100 most important and influential people in the world . An exaggeration ? Only time will tell . But no top orchestra would ever accept a mediocrity or incompetent as its music director ; orchestral musicians are notoriously critical of conductors , and it's impossible to foist an incompetent on them .
Dudamel is a product of Venuzuela's extraordinary El Sistema , a project designed to help poor youngsters by giving them the chance to learn musical instruments and play in an extensive system of youth orchestras . Originally a violinist , he has been conducting in his native country since he was a teenager , and became conductor of the flagship orchestra of El Sistema , the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra , which sounds and plays like a world-class professional group .
Dudamel and the orchestra have toured all over the world to enormous acclaim , and Germany's prestigious Deutsche Grammaphon records has signed them on to make recordings , several of which have already been released , and are classical best-sellers . He has been featured on television on the CBS program 60 Minutes , and this has been giving classical music some well-needed international exposure .
Dudamel's enthusiasm about the music he conducts is infectious ; and tough , hard to please orchestra musicians seem to be genuinely enthusiastic about him . The opening night concert of the season in Los Angeles will consist of two works ; Mahler's familiar first symphony , written by a talented young composer and conductor even younger than Dudamel in the 1880s , and the first half of the concert will be the world premiere of a major new work by the distinguished American composer John Adams , called Noir City , which is said to be a portrait of Los Angeles .
So let's wish this enormously talented and enthusiastic young man success in his difficult new job as head of one of the world's top orchestras ..
Mozart's Magic Flute and the Marriage of Figaro are currently being performed by the Metropolitan Opera , and have been staples of the operatic repertoire since the late 18th century . Le Nozze Di Figaro , or the Marriage of Figaro has a libretto in italian by the Italian writer and all around character Lorenzo Da Ponte , who also wrote the librettos for Mozart's Don Giovanni and Cosi Fan Tutte .
The story of the opera is based on a play by the French playwright Beaumarchais , as is Rossini's The Barber of Seville , which deals with what happened before Figaro's marriage , even though the Rossini opera was written in the early 19th century . Le Nozze takes place in the palace of the Count Almaviva and his wife the countess . Earlier, Figaro, the barber of Seville , had befriended the young count and helped hoim to win young Rosina and make her the countess , and now he is the count's valet .
Figaro is about to be married to the pretty young Susanna , who is the personal maid of the countess . But unfortuntaely , the count has a roving eye and wants to revive the traditional aristocratic right of noblemen in Europe to have to sleep with their servan'ts brides first ! There is a lot of gossip around the castle by the monor characters in the opera , and Fogaro and Susanna are appalled . But the count is also insanely jealous of the countess and is paranoid about her, even though she is completely faithful .
The plot is complicated by several factors ; the randy young page Cherubino , a role for a female singer , has the hots for the countess and is spying around the castle. In the first of the opera's four acts, the count tries to banish him from the castle by giving him a military comission, but this comes to nothing, and he stays . The countess is terribly upset by her unfaithful husband .
And in addition, Marcellina, an older lady of the court , wants to marry Figaro because he owes her money and according to the contract , he must marry her if he is unable to pay her ! Doctor Bartolo , an elderly and pompous lawyer who had been the ward of the orphaned countess when she was a girl and wanted to marry her for her fortune, lost her to the count because of Figaro's machinations, and wants revenge . He has conspired with Marcellina to foil Figaro's marriage to Susanna . Marcellina had been Bartolo's housekeeper .
So Figaro , Susanna and the countess cook up a clever plot to humiliate the count and expose his philandering . Susanna agrees to an assignation with the count in the castle gardens late at night , and the plotting continues . When Marcellina confronts Figaro about his contract to marry her , it's revealed that he is actually her long lost son by Doctor Bartolo , and the contract is nullified , as Marcellina and Bartolo recognize him as their long lost son !
In the last act , which takes place in the palace gardens , there are mistaken identities during the supposed secret assignation with the count and Susanna . The count is mislead into thinking that Figaro is having a secret meeting with Susanna disguised as the countess , and furiously accuses Figaro of fooling around with his wife ! But the whole thing is revealed as farce , and the count is revealed for what he is . He begs the countess for forgiveness in front of every one , she accepts the apology graciously , and the opera ends with a joyous final ensemble .
You'll love Mozart's witty and elegant music , with its numerous arias , duets and larger ensemble numbers for the cast . Some of the most famous are Cherubino's "Non so piu ", in which the young page reveals how his hormones are kicking in and how in love with every woman he sees he is , Figaro's "Non Piu Andrai " , where he kids Cherubino about his banishement by the count to a regiment , "Porgi Amor " , the poignant aria of the countess in which she longs for the early days of her marriage before the count lost interest in her , and Figaro's aria in the last act where he has been momentarily mislead into thinking that Susanna is really being faithless and warns men in general about fickle women .
There are many reocrdings of the opera on CD , led by such eminent conductors as ERich Kleiber, Carlo Maria Giulini , Sir Georg Solti , Karl Bohm , Fritz Busch , James Levine , Riccardo Muti , Sir Coilin Davis and others , and many of the greatest opera stars of the 20th century have participated in these . There are also a number of live performance available on DVD . Check arkivmusic.com .
Die Zauberflote - The Magic Flute , was one of Mozart's last completed works before his untimely death in 1791 , when he was at the height of his powers as a composer . It's a whimsical allegorical opera , or to be more exact , a Singspiel in German (zing-shpeel ) , or an opera in German with spoken dialogue between the musical numbers .
It's well-known that Mozart and some of his friends were Freemasons , and the opera is a sort of Masonic allegory which takes place in an imaginary ancient Egypt where Sarastro , the wise and benevolent head of the Temple of Wisdom , represents the Masons , and the evil Queen of the Night represents Austrian empress Maria Theresa , who hated the Masons , is the villaness . Sarastro has abducted her innocent young daughter Pamina to save her from her mother's evil influence , and the queen misleads the handsome young prince Tamino , who has fallen in love with Pamina's portrait , into thinking that Sarastro is an evil man who has abdicted her daughter maliciously , and pomises him that he shall have Pamina's hand in marriage if he rescues her .
Tamino meets the goofy birdcatcher Papgeno , who becomes his buddy in the search for Pamina . Tamino represents the ideal of nobility and virtue , while Papgeno represents the common man , who just wants to have fun and find a pretty girl . Eventually Papgeno meets his own beloved , Papagena, in the second and concluding act . When the queen meets Tamino early in the opera , accompanied by her three women attendants , who follow Tamino and Papagena , the three give Tamino a magic flute which will help them along the journey .
But when Tamino meets Sarastro and the members of the Temple of Wisdom , he learns that he has been led astray , and that it is the queen and her attendants who are the bad guys . Sarastro and his followers set up tests of Tamino's courage and character to determine if he is worthy of her hand in marriage . But Papageno is woefully lacking in courage , and just wants to find a pretty girl to marry and have some good food and wine .
Monostatos , an evil Moor , supposedly works for Sarastro but is secretly in the employ of the queen of the night , and he too falls in love with Pamina . He attempts to hinder Tamino and Papageno but is unsiccessful because the magic flute prevents him and his Moors from winning . Tamino is told that when he next meets Pamina , he must not speak to her in order to test his ability to follow orders . Pamina is devastated , and sings a mournful aria in which she thinks she is abandoned . Papageno must also face tests of his courage , but fails them miserably . He just wants some wine and a pretty girl .
Eventually he meets cuite little Papagena , and the two sing a charming duet about their joy in being together to raise little Papagenos and Papagenas . The queen sings a furious aria of vengance, and orders Pamina to kill Sarastro with a knife , but all is in vain . But after Tamino and Pamina pass all their tests of courage with flying colors , they are finally united . The queen, her three attendants and Monostatos make a final desperate attempt to attack the Temple of Wisdom , but they fail and are banished into eternal darkness . The opera ends with a triumphant final chorus celelbrating the victory of wisdon and courage over the forces of evil .
The German libretto was written by the Viennese impresario and actor Emmanuel Schickneder , who was a fellow mason and friend of Mozart . Mozart's delightful music contrasts the solemnity and grandeur of Sarastro and the Temple with the radiant lyriciam of the love between Tamino and Papagena with the charming folk-like music of Papageno and Papagena , the sublime and the silly . There is a childlike quality to the opera which makes it ideal for children , but adults can savor its sophistication , too.
There are numerous recordings on CD of the Magic Flurte led by such eminent conductors as Karl Bohm , Sir Georg Solti , Sir Georg Solti , Sir Colin Davis , Otto Klemperer , James Levine , and others , with such great singers as Fritz Wunderlich , Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau , Gottlob Frick , Hermann Prey , and others , and a variety of live performances on DVD . A good place to check is arkivmusic .com .
In yesterday's post discussing among other things , how so many classical music critics and experts have a knee-jerk tendency to praise famous musicians of the past uncritically and belittle and dismiss today's performers , especially young ones , I mentioned the double standard in judging the performances of past Vs contemporary musicians . Today's are often damend if they do and damned if they don't .
A cellist friend of mine and I have been having discussions about this lately . He's a great fan of ancient recordings from the early 20th century , which preserve performances by legendary musicians born in the 19th century , and he's brought some fascinating ones for me to hear lately . Like many other experts , he tends to dismiss today' musicians as being to pedantically literal in performance , and loves the way these legendary musicians play , praising them for their "freedom " of approach and an "individuality" which supposedly dosen't exist any more , except for the few living musicians he does like .
Now these ancient recordings are extremely valuable and fascinating . They give us a glimpse into the way music was performed in the past , and in some cases by legendary musicians who knew great composers of the 19th century , such as Brahms . Or in some cases , great composers who left recordings of their own music , such as Rachmaninov , a truly great pianist who left an extensive legacy of recordings , both of his own and other composers . Rachmaninov lived from 1873 to 1943 , and you can still obtain his recordings from RCA records .
One legendary musician I got to hear recently thanks to my cellist friend is the great Hungarian-born violinist Joseph Joachim (1831 -1907 ), who left a tiny handful of primitively recorded examples of his playing near the end of his life . Joachim was a close friend of Johannes Brahms , who was only two years younger and died in 1897 , ten years before Joachim . The violinist gave the first performance of the famous violin concerto by Brahms , and gave him advice on writing for the instrument during its composition . As a child , Joachim had known Mendelssohn, so it's fascinating to hear these recordings .
Because of the primitive recording and the fact that Joachim's technical ability had declined in his old age , these recordings are no doubt a pale reflection of what he must have sounded like live . He uses little vibrato , unlike today;s string players, and is generous in his use of rubato , or flexibility of tempo . But does this automatically make him a greater artist than great living violinists as Itzhak perlman , Pichas Zukerman , Gidon Kremer , Joshua Bell, and Anne -Sophie Mutter ? Not necessarily , as far as I'm concerned . And because he knew Brahms so well and was such a trusted performer of his music , does that invalidate the recordings of the Brahms concerto all these and many other living violinists have made in our time . Again , not necessarily .
We'll never know what Brahms would have thought of their performances of it , but that doesn't necessarily mean he would have disliked them . My friend and other experts assume that because Joachim was a contermporary and friend of Brahms and other 19th century compoisers , he must have known the "authentic " way of playing their music . As if there were only one right way to play it, which there isn't .
But these ancient recordings , and even ones from the 1920s to the 50s are always used as evidence to support the questionable idea that older is automatically better when it comes to recordings , or even live performances today . This has always bothered me .
Today , the controversial young Chinese pianist Lang Lang is frequently chided for his stage mannerisms , such as the strange faces he is said to make while playing, and also for the alleged arbitrary liberties he takes with the music . But his quirks pale in comparison to the weird behavior of the legendary Vladimir De Pachmann , who lived from the 1840s to the 1930s , and left recordings which are cherished by many devotees of historical recordings . He frequently talked to the audience while playing , and did all manerr of weird things, and took great liberties with the music , in particular Chopin, for which he was famous . His antics earned him the nickname "Chopinzee ".
Today , fans of ancient recordings talk about how quaint and amusing his behavior onstage was ,and praise his old-fashioned playing . But these same fans contemptuously dismiss both Lang :Lang's quirks and his playing . There's the old double standard for you .
The controversy of the Met's new Tosca proves that in the world of classical music , whether you're a conductor, violinist, pianist or cellist, or opera singer, director , set designer, or general manager of a top opera comany , you're damed if you do, and damned if you don't . I often get the impression that the critics who review opera performances , orchestral concerts or whatever today are like vampire bats , waiting to attack all these performers and administrators whenever a performance happens , or possibly like vultures surrounding carrion .
No matter what kind of production the Met does , critics will usually pan it , but not always . They sneer at the lavishly realistic Zeffirelli producions of La Boheme, the old Tosca , and Turandot etc as being tasteless, over-the-top and hopelessly passe in this era of trendy Eurotrash productions which many others consider the equivalent of painting mustaches on the Mona Lisa . But when the Met does updated productions of its own, those same critics trash them mercilessly . The Met is damned i f it does , and damned if it doesn't .
No doubt , if the new Tosca had been designed in a more traditional manner, and the staging had none of the gratuitously tastless elements it allegedly contained , the same critics would have panned it . The Met seems to be damned if it does , and damned if it doesn't . But we'll have to see what happens when the Met premiere of Janacek's searing "From the House of the Dead " comes . When this production , which has already been seen in Europe and is now on DVD came out , it was critically acclaimed .
Veteran Met music director has also received flack for keeping all or most of the plums of the operatic repertoire for himself to conduct, and suppoedly keeping other eminent conductors from appearing at the Met to conduct them . Nothing could be farther from the truth . The Met is desperate to get the world's greatest conductors to appear there, but the problem is that many are either too busy conducting elsewhere , or just unwilling to work there . Supposedly , undistinguished hack conductors spend too much time conducting the bread-and-butter Italian repertoire at the Met .
But this season, Esa-Pekka Salonen, who has just concluded his acclaimed music directorship of the Los Angeles Philharmonic ,makes his Met debut with the Janacek masterpiece, and the great Italian conductor Riccardo Muti will finally make his Met debut with Verdi's Attila, also new to the Met .
But consider these illustrious figures of the podium who have coinducted at the Met in recent years : Valery Gergiev , Daniel Barenboim , Sir Charles Mackerras , James Conlon , Christoph Eschenbach , Vladimir Jurowski , Jiri Belohlavek , Lorin Maazel , Seiji Ozawa , David Robertson , Alan Gilbert , Mark Elder , Leonard Slatkin , Semyon Bychkov, Christian Thielemann , to name only some . Not too shabby ! And remember , Levine can't possibly conduct seven performances a week , which is what the Met offers .
At the New York Philharmonic , no matter how many new or recent works it plays by today's leading composers , including one's who are anything but easy listening , and how many interesting rarities from the past it revives , both under music directors and guest conductors , critics keep accusing it of "timidly conservative " programming , and being a "stodgy, hidebound " orchestra , despite the fact that most orchestras would not dare to offer so much unhackneyed repertoire because of audience conservatism . Critics ought to praise the orchestra for what it offers, not chide it . All the acclaim for appointing the adventurous conductor Alan Gilbert ignores the fact that the orchestra has already been offering adventurous fare . Gilbert is only continuing this welcome trend when so many orchestras are forced to stick with the tried-and -true .
And when it comes to the interpretation of the masterpieces of the repertoire , critics are always complaining that there is too little individuality among conductors ,instrumentalists and singers today . Supposedly , they offer cookie cutter interpretations , and individualists who have their own ideas and are their own people are rare . We are told Ad Nauseam , that musicians are too pedantically literal , and these critics yearn for the "golden age" when musicians took risks, took liberties with the music , and offered the kind of great performances supposedly lacking today . If you're a talented young musician starting to make a big career , you're automatically suspect of being one of those "cookie cutter " musicians .
Yet those same critics are forever lambasting modern musicians for being willful and capricious interpreters , and complaining about all the arbitrary liberties they take with the music ! Isn't this paradoxical ? The critics insist on having it both ways . There's a double standard in reviewing recordings of legendary musicians from the past such as Vladimir Horowitz , Artur Runbinstein , Artur Schnabel , (pianists ), Jascha Heifetz, Mischa Elman , (violinists )., conductors Leopold Stokowski and Willem Mengelberrg for example , and today's leading musicians .
They will automatically fawn over any old recording , whether it is any good or not , and automatically make a cynical dismissal of any live performance or recording of today's great musicians . And in opera , critics and fans are always longing for the "golden age" of opera, and forever lamenting the supposed "decline " of singing standards . But this has been going on for centuries !
Despite all the longing for the supposed "freedom " of interpretation of the past , I wish I had a dollar for every review I've read in which today's musicians were mercilessly lambasted for all the liberties they took with the music ! But how can you take such music critics seriously ? They want to have their cake and eat it , too .
A C Douglas is at it again at his always interesting website Soundsandfury.com . As a passionate admirer of the operas of Wagner and Mozart , he has a low opinion of most Italian operas , but the controversy over the Met's new Tosca has made him curious to see the production in spite of this . He dismisses the opera as a"maudlin, tawdry little melodrama ".
And he's not alone in this . There's a classic book on opera criticism by the distinguished musicologist Joseph Kerman , who taught for many years at UC Berkely, called "Opera As Drama ", first published over 50 years ago and still available from amazon.com etc . It's a very interesting discussion of the relationship between music and drama in opera . But Kerman too has a low opinion of Tosca, and Puccini's operas in general . He coined the catchy phrase " A Shabby Little Shocker " to describe Tosca , and this catchy but extremely inapt phrase has unfortunately stuck with this deservedly popular opera , which has been a staple of the operatic repertoire for over a century . And an opera which has been sung and recorded by such great opera singers as Maria Callas , Leontyne Price , Placido Domingo , Franco Corelli , Tito Gobbi , Sherill Milnes , Luciano Pavarotti and other operatic greats .
Not to mention such great conductors as Victor De Sabata , Herbert Von Karajan , Zubin Mehta, James Levine , Sir Georg Solti , Lorin Maazel , Giuseppe Sinopoli , Riccardo Muti and Sir Colin Davis , all of whom have made recordings of it . Kerman calls the opera cheap, vulgar , manipulative of audiences , and compares it unfavorably with other more intellectually respectable operas such as Verdi's Otello etc.
But Tosca is neither shabby , little nor a shocker . It's the compelling story of the conflict between a tempestuous opera diva and her lover , a painter who supports Napoleon in Rome during the Napoleonic wars against the established monarchy , and the ruthless and lustful chief of police in Rome , who is not only out to destroy the dissidents but to conquer the diva for himself . And the music has enormous sweep and power , as well as moments of ravishing lyricism .
It's the work of a consummate master of both music and drama , and deserves to be taken seriously as a work of art . If it were merely a "shabby little shocker , singers and conductors of the stature of those just mentioned would not have lavished so much time and effort performing and recording it, and it would not have held the stage for so long .
The new Met season has gotten off to a rather rocky start with its controversial new production of Puccini's ever popular Blood - And - Thunder opera Tosca , which replaces the also controversial but audience friendly production from the 80s by designer/director and all around Auteur Franco Zefirelli . I haven't seen it yet , but the new production staged by Swiss drama and opera director Luc Bondy in his Met debut and designed by Frenchman Richard Peduzzi , is said to be vastly different from the opulent and highly realistic Zefirrelli version .
The new sets are in constrast highly austere and stylized , even minimalistic in contrast to the old production which recreates a famous Roman church and the equally famous Castel Sant'Angelo of Rome, where the opera is set, with amost photographic realism . Bondy's direction and the sets caused some booing on opening night by audience members who don't like trendy "Eurotrash " opera productions .
Critic martin Bernheimer, famous(or infamous) for his often snooty and picky reviews , hates both the Zefirelli and the Bondy productions , and trashed both the production and the cast and conductor in his review for the Financial Times . Anthony Tommasini of the New York Times had reservations about the sets and production but was more favorably disposed to the cast and conductor , which included the glamorous and charismatic Finnish soprano Karita Mattila (KA-ri-ta MAT-ti-la) as the tempestuous and ill-fated Tosca, Argentinian tenor Marcelo Alvarez as her lover Mario the painter, and Georgian baritone George Gagnidze as the villanous and lustful chief of police in 1800 Rome , and veteran conductor James Levine who was conducting his 2,397th performance at the Met ! Now that's loyalty !
Oh well, you can't please everybody . But it seems that the Met is often damned if it does and damed if it doesn't when it comes to sets ,costumes and direction of operas . The lavishly realistic Zefirelli productions of Verdi ,Puccini and other operas are beloved by many in the Met audience ; they are gorgeous to look at even if critics complain that they sometimes overwhelm the drama and are full of fussy details and extravagent numbers of supernumaries on stage . Other critics, who prefer Eurotrash productions, sneer at Zefirelli for being hopelessy out of date as a designer and director of opera . You can't set an opera today in the actual time and place it was originally set in, say some trendy critics and opera directors .
If the opera is set in Medieval Italy , you've got to update it to present day Los Angeles ! Or Chechnya . Or the moon ! And you've also got to add people doing drugs, prostitutes , vomiting on stage , simulated sex , people being diemboweled , and tortured to death , or else your production can't possibly be any good ! I'm not kidding or exaggerating ! European productions of opera routinely feature such arbitrary and ridiculous gimmicks .
It's the trendy thing to do in opera today . Even if you don't travel around Europe and America sampling different opera productions, you can see both the Zefirelli and Eurotrash productions of many,many different operas on DVD . All you have to do is go to arkivmusic.com , and go to the opera section . But be warned about some of these Eurotrash productions . They're not for the sqeamish or prudish .
If you've ever watched orchestral concerts on PBS such as Live From Lincoln Center etc , you may have noticed that sometimes there is an extra horn player in the section when there are four or more horns playing . This player is often just sitting there while the rest of the section is playing . Why is this ?
This player is known as the assistant principal horn , whose job is to help the first horn through long and difficult works which would otherwise be a tremendous strain on this player's endurance . It's often a thankless job , rather like always being the bridesmaid and never the bride , but some one has to do it . Studies ranking a wide variety of different jobs in many different fields based on their stress levels have shown that believe it or not , being first horn in a top symphony orchestra is one of the most stressful jobs in existence !
That's right . Depending on what is being played , it's enormously stressful , both on the lips , which tend to get very tired and sore from the constant pressure of the mouthpiece on them , and the nerves ; because you never know whether you're going to nail that next high note with accuracy . There's always the risk of having egg on your face . The horn is the most treacherous and unpredictable musical instrument in the orchestra . Like a lion tamer , you never know whether the instrument , or that potentially ferocious lion will turn on you .
So when you're playing one of those gargantuan , more than an hour long Bruckner or Mahler symphonies , or other demanding works , the assistant is your lifeline . The assistant can take over for a while while you save your lips for the big solos , or double you in louder passages to reinforce the sound of the horns . Sometimes , composers write heavy , loud passages for the whole orchestra shortly before a big solo ; this can be extremely tiring , and your accuracy on the solo could be compromised by this .
Usually , the first horn decides which passages he or she will give to the assistant during rehearsals , but the assistant must always be alert , because the principal may decide that he or she needs help during a concert and nod to the assistant to play certain passages not marked .
You never know what might happen . I've heard a story about an outdoor concert in the parks played by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra , where an insect suddenly went into the mouth of the first horn , and the assistant had to play the solo ! One time when I was assistang a first horn at a concert during a performance of a Brahms symphony , the player was still emptying the water from his valves between movements , but the conductor lifted his baton to start the next movement, and I had to start playing .
Incidentally , when brass players empty their valves , they're not removing saliva ; in fact, it's water which condenses inside the instrument . If a short , not very demanding piece is being played , the assistant is not used . But on those long , tiring works , having an assistant is a ogsend .
Here's a portait of a 19th century masterpiece I've been listening to lately . It's 'A Faust Symphony " by the great piano virtuoso and composer Franz Liszt (1811 -1886 ) , who was as famous and controversial in his day as the late Michael Jackson . Liszt was a child prodigy pianist , born in a part of Hungary which now belongs to Austria who astonished audiences with his dazzling virtuosity on the piano and was equally dazzling to the ladies , who fell for him like the way woman fall for Rock stars today, but who abandoned the life of a traveling virtuoso to concentrate on composing , conducting and teaching , and even became a Catholic priest (basically in name only) despite his very worldy past .
His lengthy affair with a French countess produced his daughter Cosima , who later married his close friend RichardWagner , as well as two other children . Liszt produced an enormous catalogue of works ; piano works of enormous difficulty , flashy and non-flashy , orchestral music , choral works , songs etc . He single -handedly invented the symphonic poem, a one movement orchestral work which tells a story or describes things in nature or even philosophical ideas , and was a bold innovator in harmony and musical forms whose influence extended into the 20th centtury . The most famous of his twelve symphonic poems is "Les Preludes ", and his Faust symphony is not really a traditional symphony of the kind written by Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven , but an extended three movement symphonic poem based on the legend of the 16th century German philosopher and scientist Johannes Faust , who supposedly sold his soul to the devil (Mephistopheles ) for youth , sex and power , only to be condemned to serve the devil for eternity in hell .
This legend inspired many composers such as Hector Berlioz , Charles Gounod , and Liszt, among others , and the great German poet , playwright and novelist Goethe wrote an epic play on the subject which also inspired these composers . In the play , Faust is an aged scholar and philosopher , trained in science, medicine, philosophy and theology , who has searched in vain for many years for the meaning of life .
He has grown weary of life and the futile pursuit of knowledge , and hopes to die . But before he commits suicide , Mephistopheles tempts him with a bargain ; if Faust will sell him his soul , the evil one will make him young and handsome again , and offer him the delights of the flesh and infinite power . But there's a catch - Faust must serve the demon for eternity in the nether world . Faust agrees , and among other things, he seduces a beautiful but innocent and naive young woman , Gretchen , who bears him a child and later is forgiven by God and is received into heaven . Eventually , Faust is himself redeemed and enters heaven in triumph himself . In the Berlioz oratorio , the Damnation of Faust , Gretchen is redeemed but Faust goes to hell in a most terrifying manner .
A Faust symphony is in three lengthy parts ; Faust , Gretchen and Mephistopheles . The work ends with a "Chorus Mysticus " for men's choir and tenor soloist which brings the lengthy work to a triumphant conclusion . The words, translated from Goethe's German are : Everything transitory is only an approximation . What could not be achieved here comes to fruition ; the indescribable is here accomplished ; the eternal feminine leads us onward !
Throughout the work , the various melodic ideas are subject to constant thematic transformation , or metamorphosis . Mephistopheles , "the spirit that eternally denies " in Goethe's description , has no theme of his own ; but Liszt's music for him is a sardonic distortion of the Faust themes. The work opens with an enigmatic melodic idea which uses all the tones of the chromatic scale and is in no discernable key ; later , Arnold Schoenberg would carry this further into outright atonality .
The main body of the movement after this slow introduction uses several themes to describe Faust's yearning and struggles . The central movement is gentle and dreamy , and describes the beautiful girl's innocent love for Faust . The final part , Mephistopheles , distorts the previous melodic ideas into a grotesque , mocking caricature . The devil is a really nasty but witty fellow ! The music becomes wilder and wilder until there is a reminder of the Gretchen's angelic theme , and there is a dreamy transition to the final triumphant Chorus Mysticus , bringing the work to grand if still rather enigmatic conclusion .
A number of eminent conductors have recorded this fascinating masterpiece, among them Sir Georg Solti , Sir Thomas Beecham , Kurt Masur , Jascha Horenstein, Leonard Bernstein and Riccardo Muti , with such great orchestras as the Chicago Symphony , Phildelphia Orchestra , the Gewandhaus orchestra of Leipzig and the Boston Symphony . A good place to find recordings of it as well as countless other works is arkivmusic.com .
Do you remember the episode on the Simpsons where the Springfield was able to get the great architect Frank Gehry , whose voice appeared on the show , to design a new concert hall for the culturally starved town ? On opening night , the Springfield Philharmonic starts playing Beethoven's fifth - Da da da daaah - and all of a sudden , the audience starts walking out . Some say they have that for the ring tones and aren't interested in hearing anything beyonf this . Then Marge Simpson urges every one to stay to hear a work by Philip Glass which comes after the Beethoven symphony , and the audience starts stampeding out of the hall as if fire had broken out ! Later , because of seriously declining ticket sales , Mr. Burns buys the concert hall and turns it into a for profit prison !
Well , it's not exactly like that in real life , but let's face it , it can be awfully difficult to get audiences at orchestral concerts in America to try ,let alone accept , new music or unusual repertoiy of any kind . A while ago , I read an article by John Fleming , music critic of the St.Petersburg times in Florida , who reviews , among other things , concerts by the Florida orchestra , whose current music director is Stefan Sanderling , son of the eminent and now retired German conductor Kurt Sanderling , who is not far from his 100th birthdaty .
Fleming wrote about how difficult it is to get audiences there in Florida to try anything out of the ordinary , let alone challenging works by contemporary composers such as Carter , Boulez, Henze , and Dutilleaux etc . They want to hear their beloved fmiliar masterpieces by Beethoven, Brahms , Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov etc . Forget about Schoenberg , Berg or Webern , composers who have been dead for more than 50 years .
But this is extremely frustrating for maestro Sanderling , who is an enterprising conductor who wants to give audiences a chance to hear new music and lesser-known works from the past . But he's stymied by his audience . I checked the orchestra's website to see what it's playing this season , and sure enough , the fare is almost entirely standard repertoire . The Dvorak "New World Symphony ", the Brahms 2nd , Tchaikovsky's piano concerto no 1, not the more rarely heard but appealing second one, etc.
There is the Mahler symphony no 2, "Resurrection " , and other standard works . The only concession to contemprary music is a piece by the Estonian minimalist composer Arvo Part , whose music is interesting but not particularly challenging , and Bartok's "Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta" is also being played . This is a genuine masterpiece, and rather challlenging for newcomers , but it was written over 70 years ago !
Contrast this with the New York Philharmonic , even before the arrival of Alan Gilbert , hailed for his advocacy of contemporary composers . In the past thirty years ,as well as the standard masterpieces , it has played new or recent works by the likes of Carter , Boulez, Henze , Tan Dun, John Adams , John Corigliano , Sir Michael Tippett, Peter Maxwell Davies , Christopher Rouse , Kaaia Saariaho , Ellen Taafe Zwillich , Rodion Shchedrin , Aaron Jay Kernis , Sofia Gubaidullina , Thomas Ades , Peter Lieberson , Witold Lutoslawski , Wolfgang Rihm , Krzystof Penderecki , Luciano Berio , Magnus Lindberg , Tristan Murail , and many other living or recently deceased composers .
And all this despite the fact that some subscribers hate this "awful modern music " . But the New York Philharmonic is one of America's top orchestras , and has a very large budget and fairly secure financial base , so it can afford to buck trends , unlike the Florida orchestra , which does not have these luxuries ,although according to its website, it is doing reasonably well financially , which is reassuring in these uncertain times for our orchestras .
But what a pity that so many concertgoers are so reluctant to try something out of the ordinary , even music by composers who are not rigorous and forbidding modernists . These same people want to see the latest movies and television programs , read new books , fiction and non fiction etc . Why aren't they willing to give new music a chance ? But at least our concert halls aren't being converted into prisons !
There's a marvelous article in the travel section of the Sunday New York Times about the hard-core Wagner fans who travel all over Europe and America to attend performances of Wagner's epic operatic tetralogy The Ring of the Nibelungen by writer Henry Alford called "If it's Tuesday , this must be Siegfried ."
They're classical music's equivalent of the Trekkies and are obsessed with Wagner's mighty and ever fascinating tale of gods, superheroes, evil dwarves, Valkyries , giants , a mighty sword and an accursed ring which gives its owner absolute power , but at a terrible price . They travel everywhere the Ring is performed complete over four days at the world's leading opera houses , and the ultimate goal is to attend a Ring at the Wagnerian mecca at Bayreuth , Germany during the annual Summer Wagner festival there, founded by the composer, and which has taken place almost every year since its historic opening in 1876 .
But getting tickets to this legendary music festival is anything but easy . There's a ten year waiting list ! It's easier to get an audience with the Pope . One Ring fan says "Bayreuth is our goal ", and the fans hope to go to "Bayreuth before we die ". These Ring nuts are fond of Wagner trivia and collect the number of Rings they've attended as badges of honor . The more Rings the better . They come from all walks of life and some are retired . Their numbers even include members of top Rock bands !
According to the article , one Ring fan has Ring -themed coffee cups, trays , clothing and a computer mouse , plus the famous Ride of the Valkyries as her cell phone's "Ring" tone ! The Ring is monstrously long ; approximately 16 hours of music in four continuous operas, or as Wagner preferred to call them 'Music Dramas " It's one continuous story in four parts ; Das Rheingold " (The Rhinegold ), Die Walkure (The Valkyie ), Siegfried , and Gotterdammerung (Twilight of the Gods.) But if you have the patience, it can be an enthralling and thrilling experience , with overwhelmingly powerful and sweeping music .
In order to get to know this timeless masterwork , no doubt one of the greatest works of art in world history , it's a good idea to listen to CD recordings , some of which are taken from performances at the Bayreuth (Buy-Royt) festival , and to see and hear it on DVD .
Some of the great conductors and Wagner specialists who have conducted the Ring on recordings are Sir Georg Solti , Herbert von Karajan ,Karl Bohm, Pierre Boulez , Daniel Barenboim , Wilhelm Furtwangler , Clemens Krauss ,Hans Knappertsbusch , James Levine . Great Wagner singers such as Kirsten Flagstad, Birgit Nilsson , Wolfgang Windgassen , Hildegard Behrens , Christa Ludwig , James King , Jess Thomas Jon Vickers < Hans Hotter , James Morris , Gottlob Frick , Martti Talvela , Matti Salminen , Siegfried Jerusalem , George London , and many others can be heard on these recordings .
There are a variety of Rings on DVD from Bayreuth , the Metropolitan Opera and elsewhere . Your best bet is probably the one from the Met conducted by James Levine , which is free of the anachronistic gimmicks in staging and set design which make other versions problematic . But don't miss the Ring - there's nothing else like it !
This Monday September 21st marks the gala opening of the Metropolitan Opera's 2009-2110 season , and this season will open with a brand new production of Puccini's ever popular blood and thunder masterpiece Tosca , starring the glamorous Finnish soprano Karita Mattila as the tempestuous and ill-fated title character , with tenor Marcelo Alvarez as her lover Mario Cavaradossi and George Gagnidze as the villanous and lecherous baron Scarpia .
The veteran Metropolitan music director James Levine conducts , and this was the very opera with which he made his Met debut nearly 40 years ago here , when he was a rising young podium talent . The production is by the Swiss director Luc Bondy , who is making his Met debut , and the whole production is said to be vastly different from previous Met production from the 80s by Franco Zeffirelli , which was a lavishly realistic spectacle typical of the Italian designer and director .
The opening night performance will be broadcast on huge screens in Times Square and Lincoln Center Plaza , and you can also see it at Sirius Channel 78 , XM Channel 79 or see it streamed live at metopera.org .
The other new productions this year are of Rossini's Armida , Verdi's Atilla , Bizet's Carmen , Offenbach's Les Contes D'Hoffmann , Janacek's From the House of the Dead , Hamlet by Ambroise Thomas , and The Nose by Shostakovich . Other returning productions are Verdi's Aida, Ariadne Auf Naxos by Richard Strauss , Il Barbiere di Siviglia by Rossini , Puccini's La Boheme , La Damnation de Faust by Berlioz , La Fille Du Regiment by Donizetti , Der Fliegende Hollander by Wagner , Berg's Lulu , Le Nozze di Figaro by Mozart , Der Rosenkavalier by Richard Strauss , Simon Boccanegra and Stiffelio vy Verdi , Puccini's Trittico and Turandot ,and Die Zauberflote by Mozart .
This is a wonderfully varied and interesting collection of operas ,familiar and unfamiliar , and many of the world's greatest singers and conductors will be participating in the performances ; established opera stars and promising young talents who may be the superstars of opera some time in the future . The Saturday afternoon live broadcasts on WQXR will begin in December .
In October , the High Definition broadcasts of Met performances into movie theaters all over America will begin on the 10th , with Tosca . Aida will be on the 24th , Turandot on November 7, Les Contes D'Hoffmann (The tales of Hoffmann) on December 19 , Der Rosenkavalier January 9 , Carmen January 16 , Simon Boccanegra February 6 , Hamlet March 27 , and Armida May 1 . You don't have to live in or near New York to enjoy Met performances ! Check metopera.org for further information .
Bashing the New York Philharmonic has been the fashionable thing for many years among classical music critics , ever since the 1940s, when the late composer and critic Virgil Thomson was active as a reviewer of musical events in New York for a now defunct paper , in particular for its programming , which critics love to hate .
In the early 40s , Thomson gave a scathing review of a concert by the orchestra in which the popular second symphony of Sibelius was played . Now Thomson was a confirmed Francophile and preferred the elegant a fluffy to music of weight and profundity , and he could not stand the music of Sibelius , who became his Bete Noire . He dismissed the symphony and "Vulgar, provincial and self-indulgent " , and made a classic dig at the orchestra , saying that this concert was proof that the orchestra "Was not part of New York's intellectual life "
Now that's hitting below the belt . Just because the orchestra played a work he hated did not prove this claim . And this was arrogant and presumptuous . In effect, Thomson was saying that the orchestra could only be part of New York's intellectual life if it programmed music he happened to like . If a critic is going to be a regular reviewer of a major orchestra, it's inevitable that he or she won't like everything the orchestra plays .
But unfortunately , this nasty remark stuck with the orchestra , and many other critics and intellectuals kept on accusing the orchestra of "not being part of New York's intellectual life ", whatever that is . It defamed the orchestra for decades . And sure enough , in recent years , many critics have accused the orchestra of being a stodgy , hidebound institution which just keeps on playing the same old predictable warhorses . Another common descrip[tion used has been "staid", as well as "timid " when it comes to programming .
So when the appointment of Alan Gilbert as music director was announced a while ago, there was general rejoicing among critics, including the powerful Anthony Tommasini of the New York Times , who incidentally was a close froiend of Thomson and even wrote biography of him . At last , Gilbert would bring youth and excitement to the orchestra and bring it into the present day musically . Yes, it's true , Gilbert is a champion of contemporary music , which is wonderful .
But this ignores the fact that the orchestra has already been performing a lot more new music than many other orchestras in the US and Europe , as well as reviving many interesting rarities from the past , whether under music directors or guest conductors . THe orchestra has regularly performed new or recent works by just about every important composer of our time , as well as giving some promising young ones a chance to be heard .
And ironically , many other orchestras are much more conservative in their programming . They're terrified of playing anything by composers such as Schoenberg , Berg and Webern , important 20th century composers who have been dead for many years , because many people can't stand their music , and they fear alienating audiences and the definite possibility that they will vote with their feet . And many concertgoers would rather be waterboarded than listen to the thorny and mind-bogglingly complex music of Pierre Boulez, Elliott Carter, Milton Babbitt , Brian Ferneyhough , and other leading avant-garde composers .
And yes, some New York Philharmonic subscribers hate most modern music . But the orchestra keeps on playing music which is anything but easy listening , which is more than you can say for many other orchestras . They tend to stick to what Thomson sneeringly called "The Fifty Pieces ", that ever popular small core of popular works by composers such as Beethoven, Brahms , Tchaikovsky , Rachmaninov , Schubert Mendelssohn , Dvorak , Rimsky-Korsakov , Cesar Franck , Mozart , Mendelssohn etc. Of coursr, the standard repertoire consists of more than fifty pieces , but Thomson was just using hyperbole .
Yes, the Podunk Philharmonic may be extremely cautious in its programming , but you can't say that anbout the New York Philharmonic . (And if there really is a Podunk Philharmonic, no offense meant .)
So far , I haven't had the opportunity to actually review any performances on my blog . but here are my thoughts on the opening night gala concert of the New York Philharmonic , having seen and heard it on the PBS telecast . All in all , it was a memorable evening , and bodes well for the Gilbert era at the Philharmonic .
I haven't heard much of his conducting so far , but Maestro Gilbert made it clear that he is a conductor a considerable gifts . The program was admirably varied and opened with the world premiere of a colorful work called EXPO by the Finnish composer Magnus Lindberg and the gorgeous song cycle for soprano and orchestra called "Poemes Pour Mi" by the late French composer Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992) sung by the renowned soprano Renee Fleming , and the familiar but always exciting Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique was the offering after intermission .
It was certainly a meaty program and a demanding one both for the oprchestra and the conductor , and the Philharmonic played superbly and sounded splendid . This was my first chance to hear music by Lindberg , so it's impossible to know if EXPO is typical of his music , but it seemed like a quite approachable piece , not at all of the knotty and impenetrable kind which puzzles and upsets many concertgoers . Expo impressed me as a kind of mini concerto for orchestra , designed to give every section of the orchestra a chance to shine , and full of the brightest colors imaginable . As Lindberg is now composer in residence here, several more of his works will be played and I would like to hear them . The Philharmonic seemed to play it with relish .
Poemes Pour Mi is a cycle of songs for soprano and orchestra written by the young Messiean for his first wife , the violinist Claire Delbos , and is a celebration of conjugal love . As Messiaen was a devout Catholic , he chose poems with Catholic religious imagery , and the music is both beautiful and strange , as is typical of this singular composer . Mi was Messiaen's nickname for Delbos , and though this is an early work written before he was 30 , the music has the unmistakable Messiaen stamp ; strange irregualr rhythms and harmonies which seem neither tonal nor atonal . Renee Fleming sang exquisitely , capturing the music's quirky ecstasy perfectly .
After intermission , Gilbert had the chance to show his skills in familiar but far from easy repertoire when he conducted the Symphonie Fantastique , a work which was shocking and revolutionary when it was new in 1830 when it was premiered in Paris, only three years after the death of Beethoven . The young Berlioz (1803 -1869) had written a work unlike anything that had ever been heard ; a five-movement symphony telling the semi-autobiographical story concocted by the composer about a lovesick young man who attempts to commit suicide by taking an overdose of opium because of unrequited love , but merely has horrible nightmares .
Never had such a large and varied orchestra been used ; two harps , two sets of tympani , two tubas (or the predecessor of that instrument called the ophecleide in the composer's day . )Four trumpets , piccolo , the shrill E flat clarinet and much more as well as the usual instruments . For the first time , a composer was using an orchestra to paint pictures and create the most vivid colors in a symphony .
Gilbert conducted the work with a sure hand and let its vivid colors shine forth freshly . It was a straightforward and urgent reading , complete with the repeats in the first and fourth movements which most conductors omit , and this made structural sense . The entire perfornance , even in the dreamy slow introduction and the gently pastoral third movement with Englsih horn solo beautifully played by Thomas Stacy , had an inexorable momentum leading to the monstrous finale with its witches sabbath and use of the sinister Dies Irae , and not surprisingly , the audience roared its approval . Only time will tell how the combination of Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic works out , and how the realtively young conductor fares in the established masterpieces of the repertoire as well as contemporary music , but there's no question that the two have started of impressively . Let's hope for the best .
Interestingly , the renowned actor Alec Baldwin was the host , as he is an avid classical music fan . It's wonderful to see that there are celebrities of this kind who love this kind of music !
Tonight at 8 PM eastern time , Alan Gilbert officially takes over as the new music director of America's oldest symphony orchestra , the New York Philharmonic , following in the footsteps of such great and legendary names of the podium as Gustav Mahler , Arturo Toscanini , Leonard Bernstein and others . It's a great honor and an even greater responsibilty , and his job will be anything but easy .
And don't miss the PBS telecast of this gala opening night concert , which will feature the great soprano Renee Fleming as the vocal soloist in a song cycle by the mystical French composer Olivier Messiaen called "Poemes Pour Mi ". The opening work will be a recent piece called Expo , by the ditinguished Finnish composer Magnus Lindberg , who is now the orchestra's composer in residence . After the intermission , Gilbert and the orchestra will play the phantasmagorical "Symphonie Fantastique " by Hector Berlioz , which should bring the concert to an incandesant end .
Gilbert is an internationally acclaimed American conductor who has conducted virtually all of the world's great orchestras and led opera performances at the Metropolitan and other leading opera houses , and recently completed his tenure as music director of the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic in Sweden . The first native New Yorker to become music director of the New York Philharmonic , he is the son of two violinists in the orchestra ; his Japanese-born mother is still playing there ! His father retired recently .
Alan Gilbert is a committed advocate of contemporary music and plans to program it regularly with the orchestra , as well as interesting long-neglected works from the past . But of course , he will also conduct the familiar masterpieces of the orchestral repertoire . In addition , such distinguished conductors as Riccardo Muti , Christoph von Dohnanyi , Christoph Eschenbach , Valery Gergiev , Antonio Pappano , David Robertson and Sir Andrew Davis will appear with the orchestra .
As usual with the orchestra , programming will be admirably varied , mixing old and new music , familiar masterpieces and interesting rarities . Among these far from hackneyed works will be Schoenberg's ripely romanitc early tone poem Pelleas & Melisande , the Lyric Symphony by the composer's brother -in-law Alexander von Zemlinsky , a work for orchestra and two vocal soloists using a German translations of peoms by the great Bengali poet Tagore , "Im Sommerwind" (in the Summer wind), by Schoenberg's pupil Anton Webern , but an early and highly Romantic work, not at all atonal , and a later more thorny work , the brief symphony .
Other notable works include the Symphony in E Falt by the more conservative Paul Hindemith , the Symphony no 2 by French composer Arthur Honegger , the In The South overture by Sir Edward Elgar , the piano concerto no 4 by Czech composer Bohuslav Martinu , and Haydn's rarely performed symphony no 49 . Lindberg , George Benjamin and John Adams are among the living composers whose music will be heard .
The New York Philharmonic gave its first concert in 1842 , long before many of Europe's great orchestras were founded , and the same year as the Vienna Philhamonic was founded as a means for members of the Vienna Court opera orchestra to give sporadic orchestral concerts . The Berlin Philharmonic was not founded until 1882 .
At first , the orchestra gave only a handful of concerts a year , and the musicians were free lancers who came together for sporadic concerts . But as classical music life grew and diversified in New York, the orchestra became a full-time institution with regular members , a chief conductor called the music director , along with guest conductors , but not until well into the 20th century . The orchestra's first concert in 1842 included Beethoven's now thrice-familiar 5th symphony , but that iconic work had only been performed once before in America , and Beethoven had been dead for only 15 years ! Plus a wide variety of other works . Curiously , at that time, it was customary for all the musicians but the cellos to play standing up !
But in the 20th century and the early 21st, the orchestra made numerous recordings under Leonard Bernstein . Arturo Toscanini , Pierre Boulez , Zubin Mehta , Bruno Walter , Dimitri Mitropoulos and other great conductors , toured every continent but Antarctica , played the world premieres of many works , and its concerts could be heard and seen on the radio ,television and now the internet . Long may this great institution flourish !
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