October 2009 - Posts
Happy Halloween ! Opera is full of the spooky, the sinister , and the supernatural . Sometimes the spooky parts are more comical that scary . In Engelbert Humperdinck's "Hansel & Gretel , the witch , called Rosina Dainty mouth in the opera , gets tricked into the oven by the two kids . (This is the original Humperdinnck, not the modern day pop singer who borrowed his name ).
The devil , sometimes called Mephistopheles, is a prominent character in some operas . In Faust , by the 19th century French composer Charles Gounod , loosely based on the monumental play by Goethe , Mephistopheles is more foppish than sinister . When he first encounters Faust in order to tempt him into selling his soul, he describes himself as "Un vrai gentilhomme" (A real gentleman !).
By contrast , the Mephistopheles in the Italian opera "Mefistofele" by Arrigo Boito , who also wrote the librettos for Verdi's final two operas Otello and Falstaff , is a much more elemental and rough-hewn character , who mocks God in the opening scene , which takes placew in heaven , and takes Faust to a witches Sabbath . He's a much nastier fellow than in the French opera .
Mephistopheles is a bass in these operas, and Fauist is a tenor ; he's a very Romantic character . But in the fascinating and enigmatic opera "Doktor Faust" by the great Italian pianist and composer Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924 ) , Faust is a b aritone and the evil one is a tenor who constantly disguises himself as other characters throughout the opera . This devil is truly sinister , as well as mocking and sarcastic .
There is a chilling scene in the beginning in which Faust , who is not only a philosopher , scientist and theologian but involved with necromancy, conjures up Mephistopheles after rejecting other demons after having been given a book of magic by three mysterious demons disguised as university students from Cracow . This is a strange , mystical and mystifyuing opera .
In the rarely performed but delightful comic opera "The Devil and Kate" by Dvorak , Marbuel is an assistant devil to Lucifer who has been sent to earth on a mission to find out whether a wicked princess deserves to be sent to hell . He goes to an in late at night where people are dancing , and meets the overweight and garrulous Kate , from whom he tries to pry information about the wicked princess, who has been forcing the people into virtual slave labor . No one wants to dance with the generously built young woman, so Marbuel does this and entices her to what he calls his beautiful castle, which is really hell ! This is not to send her here permanenrtly, though. But Kate is furious and gives Marbuel an extremely difficult time until he is able to get rid of her ! This devil is wimp ! Hell is depicted as a fun place, and the devils are just a bunch of good ol' boys who like to sit around drinking beer, polaying poker and singing ! But everything ends happily .
In the third act , Marbuel is sent to bring the princess to hell, but Kate confronts him and he runs off in terror ! The princess repents and frees the people, is saved from hell, and the people rejoice . This is a fun opera, and deserves to be better-known .
In Verdi's early opera Macbeth , or Macbetto in Italian , based on the Shakespeare play , the witches sound more Italian than Scottish , but they're sinister enough ! In "The Damnation of Faust" by Hector Berlioz , not really an opera but meant for concert performance , the next to last scene, where Mephistopheles delivers Faust into hell on horseback pursued by a horde of demons , and all hell welcomes him , you will have the bejeezes scared out of you. This quirky oratorio is sometimes perfomred onstage at opera houses, most recently at the Metropolitan Opera .
In the late 17th century opera "Dido and Aenaeas " by the great English composer Henry Purcell , one of the earliest operas still performed , witches place a curse on Queen Dido which causes her beloved Aenaes to abandon her at Carthage in order to settle Italy, and she kills herself in despair. This is loosely based on Vergil's Aenead .
Der Freischtz" (The Freeshoter), a famous early 19th century opera by German composer Carl Maria von Weber, deals with a marksman who sells his soul to the devil for seven magic bullets which cannot miss the mark - except for the last one, which is controlled by the evil one ! There's a hair-raising scene in a spooky forest where the magic bullets are forged . But everything ends happily.
But the weirdest and most disturbing of them all is Prokofiev's nightmarish "The Fiery Angel, which I profiled some time ago, which deals with sorcery, demonology and demonic possession in 16th century Germany . It's pure terror ! Yes, opera and halloween go together very well !
There is a vast and wonderful repertoire of short classical songs , usually based on poems, sometimes ones by famous poets , for voice and piano , and sometimes for voice and orchestra by a wide variety of composers past and present . These are sometimes known in English as Art Songs .
The German term is lieder (pronounced leader ), which simply means songs . The singular is lied . The French type are sometimes called Chansons or Melodies ( French pronunciation ). There are also songs by English , American, Italian , and Russian composers , usually using poems in their languages .
German composers have often set poems by such great German writers and poets as Goethe , Heine, Eichendorff etc, as well as some less distinguished poets , while French composers in the 19th and 20th century have often used French poems by such symbolist poets as Stephane Mallarme , and Russian composers have used Russian poetry etc.
Although Mozart and Beethoven wrote a number of German lieder , the composer who is most identified with them is Franz Schubert , (1797 -1828), who wrote approximately 500 of them during hios tragically brief but amazingly productive life ! He also wrote two song cycles , which are a series of poems on one subject , which are performed consecutively at a song recital .
These are "Die Schoene Mullerin " (The beautiful miller's daughter ", ) and "Die Winterreise ", (The winter journey ), by the minor German poet Wilhelm Muller . The first is a series of poems about a young man who works at a mill, and falls in love with the beautiful young daughter of the head miller , even though the love is unrequited and she falls for some one else . In the last song, the young man decides to drwon himself in despair in the stream .
The Winter journey concerns a young man who falls in love with a beautiful girl ; this time the love is requited , but her parents marry her off to a rich man, and the young man tries to forget the incident by traveling away , but becomes ever more sunk in despair . Sounds depressing ? Not really . Schubert's music is so beautiful you won't care .
One of the most famous Schubert songs is the King of the Elves, based on a poem by Goethe. It's the tale of a father who is galloping on horseback with his small son , who is suffering from a fever and is halucinating about the king of the elves, who entices him to his home . But by the end of the song, the boy is dead !
Other important German and Austrian composers who wrote notable songs are Robert Schumann , Johannes Brahms , Richard Strauss and the Austrian Hugo Wolf , (1860- 1903), whose output consists mainly of songs . Gustav Mahler wrote his songs for voice and orchestra , such as the "Songs of a Wayfarer", "Songs on the Death of Children, "and the cycle of songs based on German folk poetry "The Youth's Magic Horn" These are song cycles.
These German songs are inspired by 19th century German romanticism, and deal with love, rejection , magic, folklore, musings on the beauty of nature etc. There are also many beautiful French songs by composers such as Gabriel Faure, Maurice Ravel, Claude Debussy , Hector Berlioz and other leading French composers, Russian songs by Modest Mussorgsky , Tchaikovsky and other Russian composers and even American composers such as Ned Rorem and Jake Heggie , who are very much alive , and Samuel Barber (1910 - 1981).
Many great opera singers have regularly given recitals of art songs in our time . Perhaps the most famous is the great German baritone Dietrich Fischer- Dieskau (1925-) , now retired , who has also recorded an enormous number of songs by Schubert , Schumann, Brahms, Wolf and many other composers, not only German , and the also retired German Mezzo soprano Christa Ludwig, the late German baritone herman Prey , the French baritone Gerard Souzay, who performed both French and German songs , and currently singers such as baritones Matthis Goerne, Thomas Quasthoff, and many others .
There is a wealth of art song repertoire on CD with many, many different singers , and most come with the text in the original language plus an English translation , so you don't have to worry about foreign languages . Art songs may seem like an "arty" or esoteric subject at first, but once you get accustomed to them, they can porvide a lifetime of musical enjoyment.
Giuseppe Verdi's Otello , based on Shakespeare's Othello , is considered by many to be the greatest of all Italian operas . Certainly , it's difficult to think of a greater one . It was premiered in 1887 at the world-famous La Scala opera house in Milan , and was the composer's next-to-last opera , followed several years later by his final masterpiece , the sparkling comic opera Falstaff , based on Shakespeare's The Merry Wives of Windsor .
The Italian writer and composer Arrigo Boito wrote the libretto to both operas , and these are by common agreement the best librettos among Verdi's 26 operas, many of which had inferior librettos by Italian hack writers . Boito skillfully adapted Shakespeare's Othello for the operatic stage ,eliminating the opening act of the play and starting the opera with a hair-raising storm scene where Othello (or Otello ) arrives in triumph at the port in Cyprus , where the play is set, after a victory at sea by the Venetian fleet over the Turks .
The opera is in four acts , and follows the original play fairly closely . In the story , Otello, the Moorish commander of the Venetian -controlled island of Cyprus , has recently married the beautiful young Desdemona ( pronounced des-DEH-mo-na in Italian not des-de-MO-na) , daughter of a prominent Venetian nobleman , and his evil underling Iago resents not being promoted to a higher position . Otello's other officers Roderigo and Cassio are both smitten with Desdemona, and Iago misleads Otello into thinking that Desdemona has been unfaithful to him , eventually provoking the jealous Moor into stragling Desdemona in her bed , after which it is revealed that she was innocent .
Overcome with remorse , Otello stabs himself to death . This Shalespeare play inspired Verdi to write perhaps his most powerful opera, which has an inexorable dramatic sweep . Boito added a monologue or sililoquy in the form of an operatic aria for the evil and manipulative Iago in which he cynically muses on how villanous and ruthless he is , and the futility of life , called the Credo (I believe) which has no counterpart in Shakespeare's play .
The music vividly delineates the characters of the three main people in the opera ; the heroic, passionate but gullible and insanely jealous Otello , the gentle, loving and innocent Desdemona , and the ruthlessly manipulative and cunning villain Iago . Some of the most memorable scenes in the opera are thrillingly stormy opening where the Cypriot people fear for the safety of Otello's ship in the raging storm , the celebration of the victory and Iago's drinking song in where he cynically causes a drunken uproar, and the passionate love duet between Otello and Desdemona which ends the first act , Iago's credo in the second act and the thrilling duet between Otello and Iago where he swears to extract vengance for Desdemona's supposed infidelity , the end of the third act where Otello is so caught up in rage that he faints and Iago sneers at him, Desdemona's pitiful prayer in the last act , where she fearfully awaits Otello's murderous wrath , and the final scene where Otello kills himself in remorse .
Otello is one of the greatest and most demanding roles for a tenor , and is not for lighter-voiced lyric tenors , just as one would not expect a light-weight boxer to fight a heavywight . The great Placido Domingo is the reigning Otello of our time, and has recorded the role no fewer than three times , under James Levine, Lorin Maazel, and the Korean conductor Myung Whun Chung . The recording with Maazel was used as the soundtrack to the film version by Franc Zeffirelli , which is available on DVD.
Other notable Otellos have been the great Canadian tenor Jon Vickers , the Italian Mario Del Monaco and the Chilean Ramon Vargas . The late ,great Luciano Pavarotti attempted to sing Otello once in concert with the late, great Hungarian conductor Sir Georg Solti and the Chicago symphony in the early 90s, but many critics felt that he was completely out of his depth and even described the performance as disastrous .
I have been listening to the recording , on Decca records , which is a composite of the concert performances in Chicago and Carnegie hall, and while he may not have sheer vocal power of other great Otellos, his singing is heartfelt and highly expressive .
There are a number of recordings of this operatic masterpiece on CD conducted by such great maestros as Arturo Toscanini, who had been a member of the cello section of the La Scala orchestra at the La Scala premiere , and whose performance from the 1940s with the NBC symphony was recorded by RCA records , the previously mentioned ones with Maazel ,Levine and Chung , Herbert von Karajan , Sir John Barbirolli, and Tullio Serafin , plus several DVDs. However you experience it , Otello is an operatic masterpiece that is not to be missed ..
Like the death of Mark Twain , reports of the death of classical music are greatly exaggerated , particularly in America , where it is besieged with numerrous problems ; such as the lack of government support , the current economic crisis and other difficulties . Never the less , well over 30,000 performances of operas , orchestral concerts , recitals and chamber music etc take place every year in America . Not too shabby !
There are about 350 professional orchestras in America , and many other smaller , part time ones , plus many youth orchestras , conservatory and University orchestras , and other groups . Few , if any countries have this many . There are now opera companies in all 50 US states . The number of opera companies in America has grown enormously in recent years . Until recently , the only major opera companies here were the Metropolitan in New York, the New York City Opera, plus the Chicago and San Francisco operas .
Now there are important ones in Washington, Dallas, Houston , Seattle, Pittsburgh , Los Angeles , Minneapolis , Boston, Philadelphia , Detroit , and elsewhere . The audience for opera is not only larger than ever before , but steadily growing .
There is a bumper crop of talented aspiring young classical musicians at music schools around the country ; Juilliard , the Curtis Institute in Phiadelphia, the New England School of Music in Boston , the Eastman Rochester school in Rochester New York , the Indiana University school of music in Bloomington, and other major US cities , and our orchestras can pick and choose from their many recent graduates . There are also many talented aspiring young opera singers .
It used to be that these operatic hopefuls had to go study in Europe in order to make successful careers and start out in smaller European opera companies; but now this is no longer nbecessary ,although some do seek opportunities in Europe .
The competition for jobs in our orchestras , as well as chances to sing opera, is fierce ; but this means that the quality of our orchestras is higher than ever . The New York Philharmonic , Boston Symphony, Cleveland orchestra , Chicago symphony and Philadelphia orchestra have traditionally been known as the "Big Five " orchestras , supposedly America's best , but there are so many other superb orchestras in the country now that this term is obsolete .
There are more composers in America than ever before , and absolutely no lack of aspiring young ones studying composition at music schools and Universities around the country , and many are women . It's not easy to get perfomred by orchestras and other groups , but composers such as Philip Glass, Elliott Carter, John Corigliano, John Adams , Christopher Rouse , William Bolcom , Jennifer Higdon , and quite a few others can't complain that their music is being neglected .
So despite the serious proble,s , classical music is alive and kicking , and will remain alive along as western civilaization exists .
Many classical music critics and commentators are wringing their hands over the problem of the supposed "greaying " of classical music audiences . There are storiies about the average age of audiences for concerts , and the lack of younger people there . Possibly this is true . But are are orchestras to blame for this predicament ? I don't think so . As far as I am concerned , any one who claims that they have failed to make concertgoing worthwhile , and that there's no reason to attend concerts is dead wrong . On the contrary , it's never been more worthwhile.
Orchestras today play great music by many different composers written over a period of about 250 years , and they offer a quality product . With opera, things are different , and many people , not just young ones , have been discovering the joys of this art form , perhaps because of its heady mixture of music and drama .
But unfortunately , the myth persists that classical music in general is stuffy , boring and "elitist ". Many people have that ridiculous image in theior heads of rich , bored people attenmding concerts and opera for purely social reasons , to see and be seen and to show off theoir finery . This stereotypical image has absolutely no similarity to what really goes on at concerts and opera , or chamber music, solo recitals etc .
If you think audiences are bored at concerts , just watch their reaction after a thrilling performance of a great symphony , concerto , tone poem or oratorio by a great orchestra and conductor , plus soloists, if there are any . The atmopsphere is electric . The audience breaks out into cheers and bravos . They're as excited as sports fans when their team wins . But at these musical events, no one is the loser ; everybody wins . The audience , the performers and the composer .
Another possible reason for the lack of new audiences at concerts may be the general abandonment by public schools of classes in music appreciation . But having these is no guarantee of increasing aiudiences . I remember these classes from school many years ago , and many of the kids were either apathetic or hostile to them . And these courses have to be taught very well , in a manner that will not turn youngsters off to classical music . If the teacher doesn't make classical music seem exciiting , it can turn youngsters off classical music for life .
But something must be done about the image problem of classical music . I hope that my blog will have some beneficial effect , and possibly inspire some people to make classal music a part of their lives .
For those who can read music , listening to an orchestral work or opera with the full score can be a highly enjoyable experience , and can give you more insight into the music . But even if you can't read music , you may find this description of how an orchestral score is organized interesting . Possibly it will encourage you to learn how . It's not really all that difficult , and reading and following scores will take some time . But it's worth it .
When we read words in a book , newspaper or magazine etc, or anything on the internet , we read one line at a time . But when a conductor reads and studies an orchestral score, he or she has to follow as many as 20 or 30 different lines of music at a time ! How can you do this ? It's difficult, but not impossible by any means .
And not only that , when you read a score , you have to be able to follow music written in different clefs such as treble and bass , but other ones too . And brass instruments such as trumpet and horn are transposing instruments, that is , their parts often written so that pitch of notes is different from that of the strings and piano . So a written C on a B flat trumpet will sound as a B flat on the piano . There are also countles different markings on each line for dynamics (loudnes and softenss) and other things .
A typical orchestral score will have woodwinds (flutes, oboes, clarinets and bassoonns at the top . Flutes are first, then oboes , clarinets and bassoons . Depending on the music , there may also be parts for piccolo with the flutes, English horn with the oboes, bass clarinet with the clarinets, and contrabassoon with the bassoons . Or possibly even saxophones , which are called for in some orchestral works , although not a large number of them .
Then come the horns . These parts are usually written as 1st and 3rd horn , and 2nd and 4th underneath . Some 20rth century and late 19th century works cxall for 6 to 8 horns , or the Wagner tubas . Trumpets are beneath the horns . They may be either for two , three , four or rarely more of this instrument . If there are only two trumpets, they are on one line .
The usual number or trombomes in a score is three, and they are beolow the trumpets, usually on two lines, 1st and 2nd, plus the 3rsd with a separate line . Not many scores call for four or more trombones , but such works do exist . Beethoven's 6th symphony , the so-called "Pastoral" calls for only two trombones , but the fifth and ninth use three . The first trombone is often called alto trombone, the second tenor, and the thiird is the bass trombone . A bass trombone has extra tubing for the lowest notes .
The tuba is below the trombones, a;lthough not all orchestral works call for this instrument , which was not invented until the 1830s. Only a few orchestral works , such as Stravinsky's Rite of Spring , use two tubas . There are several works , such as Holst's orchestral suite "The Planets" , which use the Euphonium , or baritone horn , which is actually a smaller, higher pitched relative of the tuba . This is most commonly found in works for concert band .
Below the brass are the percussion instruments , such as the tympany or kettle drums . These are definite pitch percussion instruments , which means that they sound actual notes such as C,D,E etc., so they are written with the usual five line staff . But other percussion instruments , such as cymba;ls, snare drums , gong, tam-tam , and triangle etc , do not sound definite pitches, so they are written differently . There are many, many different percussion instruments in existence , and their use is much more common in 20th century and early 21st century music .
Now come the first violins with the second violins on the line below them . Then the violas on a separate line , the cellos on their own, and then the double basses . In 18th century music , the cellos and the basses are often written on the same line, and basically play the same notes an octave apart, the basses on the lower octave . Occaisionally , there are works wiwhich feature organ along with the stringd , such as the so-called "Organ symphony (no 3) of French composer Camille Saint -Saens .
Sometimes composers will write divided parts for the strings when they they want to write more complex intertwining contrapuntal parts . In this case , you will see more than the usual five lines for the strings . This is usually in 20th century music .
When you follow a score , the parts do not always appear simultaneously on the page . Sometimes the composer will write only the string parts if there are no other woodwind , brass, or percussion instruments playing . Whjen starting to follow scores, it would be a good idea to start with simpler scores by composers such as Haydn and Mozart, which use much smaller orchestras than say, Bruckner, mahler or Richard Strauss , who lived at a later time when orchestras became much larger . Then you can work your way up to more complex works .
Many scores are available in both full and miniature size . The miniature ones are convenient for attending concerts , and are less expensive . A wide variety of full size but reasonably-priced orchestral scores , including many operas, are available from Dover books . Scores from other publishers, such as Boosy and Hawkes, are much more expensive . Some public libraries also have collections of orchestral scores which you can borrow . But 9f you take the time and effort , reading orchestral scores , either in your head or following live or recorded performances , can greatly add to your enjoyment of the music .
There's so much talk today among critics and commentators about what's "wrong" with classical music today , and what supposedly needs to be done to make it "relevant " . But does the vast and incredibly diverse worlld of classical music today need fiundamental changes in order to survive and be "relevant "? I don't think so . As the old saying goes , "If it ain't broke , don't fix it ."
But composer , critic, blogger and gadfly Greg Sandow , at artsjournal.com , like some others, seems to think thaT classical music IS in desperate need of change . He's writing a book on the subject which will no doubt be very interesting , and has been putting up excerpts from it on his blog there . What are the problems which need to be addressed according to him ?
Concerts are much to stuffy and form,alized . Orchestras dress too formally . The audience is too passive . Audiences don't applaud between movements, something which they almost always did in the past . We play too much music from the past today ; there isn't enough new music . Because of these things, young people are turned off by classical music . Performers today are too literal in interpretation ; musicians of the played with much greater freedom and imagination , among other things .
With all due respect to Mr. Sandow , these are all questionable assumptions . Thoise who do go to concerts today in general don't seem to be bothered by what musicians wear to concerts ; they go for the music . When or where appaluse occurs doesn't seem to matter to most concertgoers, and some musicians say that appaluse between movements is unnerving and upsets their concentration . There is absolutely no lack of new music today ; it co-exists with music from the past, as it should . We simply have a much greater accumulation of repertoire today ; that's why music from the past is still popular . And of musicians today are so literal in interpretation, why are there so many reviews where critics lambaste them for all the liberties they take with the music .
No , the concert hall and the opera house are still perfectly valid today , and there is absolutely no reason for any one not to attend concerts and opera performermances . Yes, there are genuine and serious problems in classical music today , such as the difficulty in attracting new auidiences and getting young people interested in classical music . AS well as the grave financial problems faced by so many orchestras and opera companies in America . But they are not to blame for this ; the notion that they have failed to make concertgoing or going to the opera worthwhile is ludicrous .
On the contrary , it's never been worthwhile . What we need to do is to debunk the myth that classical music in general is stuffy , boring and elitist .
I've been listening to a superlative four- CD set on Philips records of the seven symphonies of the great Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev (1891 -1953 ), conducted by the ubiquitous Ossetian conductor Valerry Gergiev , one of the foremost conductors the composer's music , with the London Symphony orchestra , of which he is currently chief conductor .
Prokofiev's symphonies are a highly diverse , inventive and consistently exciting group , written from his brash youth when he was a rising compositional talent to his troubled later years when he was seriously disabled by physical disabilities , such as a brain concussion , heart attacks and strokes , and composing was a trial for him . In addition to his symphonies , he produced a substantial catalogue colorful and energetic music in all genres ; solo piano works, concertos for piano, violin and cello , chamber music , songs , operas, ballet scores, film scores , miscellaneous orchestral works , cantatas and other choral works etc .
Few composers have created music of greater extpressive variety ; Prokofiev's music can be savagely dissonant or full of tender lyricism , sophisticated or folksy . There is also a great deal of wit and humor in it , playful, whimsical , ironic , or sarcastic . He is also capable of moments of tragedy and foreboding . But Prokofief's music is basically basically life-affirming and optimistic , in contrast to the dark and disturbing music of his younger contemporary Shostakovich .
The most frequently-performed of the Prokofiev symphonies are the first and fifth , and they have unfortunately overshadowed the other five in popularity , but they are holding their own in the orchestral repertoire . The first , written around the time of the Russian Revolution in 1917 , is a brief and cheerful symphony, less than 15 minutes long but in four movements known as the "Classical Symphony ". It is meant as a tribute to the sparkling, witty and elegant symphonies of Haydn and Mozart , but contains piquant harmonies you would not have expected in the 18th century . The third movement is a gavotte rather than the usual minuet .
The rarely-performed second is vastly different . It was written in the 20s, when Prokofiev was living in Paris, and in contact with other trendy avant-garde composer of the day . It contains onlyt two movement, the first in sonata from and the second a theme and variations .This work is ear-splittingly dissonant and violent ; its harmonies are so extreme it makes Stravinsky's Rite of Spring sound like Mozart ! You will probably be startled and astonished when you first hear it, as I was many years ago, but I grew to love it with repeated hearings . Prokofiev described it as a " symphony of :Iron and Steel""
The third symphony is also extremely dissonant and violent , but is based on music from Prokofiev's creepy and nightmarish opera "The Fiery Angel ", which I discussed some time ago, but was not performed until shortly after the composers death in 1953 . Unable to find an opera company willing to produce the opera , Prokofiev adapted some of the music into a four movement symphony . It captures the dark, sinister and menacing atmosphere of the weird and terrifying opera . It helps to have heard or seen the opera .
The fourth , which is unfortunately also rarely heard , and adapts music from the composer's ballet score "The Prodigal Son," based on the familiar Biblical story , which was choreographed by the famous dancer Leonid Massine . This is a more sober and gentle work , and exists in two versions, the original , and a revied one written some years larter , and which is somewhat longer . The original version is more bitingly ironic, and the later one much more lyrical and expansive . It's wonderfully melodious , and the gentle slow movement contains one of the most beautiful melodies I ever heard from any composer .
Prokofiev concentrated on other musical genres for some years until shortly before the end of the Second World War in 1945 , when he was inspired to write his powerful and heroic fifth symphony , perhaps the most popular of the seven . When the unimaginably horrific , bloody and destructive war was nearing its end, the composer was filled with optimism and declared that his new symphony was "Tribute to the greatness of mankind and the Human Spirit ".. There is mixture of brooding menace and manic energy in this four movement work . When the composer conducted the premiere in Moscow in 1945 , cannons announcing the end of the war were audible to the audience ! The end of the symphony is so hyper it will make your hair stand up on end !
The three-movement sixth is a rather dark and introverted work which was intended by the composer as a lament for the unimaginable suffering and misery caused by WW2 . It is filled with grief, but not despair , and is fiulled with angular rhthms and acrid harmonies . The finale is again rather hyper, and attempts to be more cheerful , but townards the end, there is a passage of foreboding quoting music from the earlier movements. It's almost like the musical equivalent of a panic attack . Then, the music resumes its previous lively pace and ends in what could be either humor or terror . It's difficult to tell.
The last Prokofiev symphony is predominantly gentle and even wistful . Prokofiev was seriously disabled by strokes, heart trouble and othjers ailments caused when he had a sudden heart attack in the 40s , fell down the stairs and sustained a cerebral concussion . His health was never the same , and his doctors wanted him to refrain from composing because they feared that it woiuld adversely affect his health .
Also in four movements , the seventh has some beautiful lyrical themes , and Prokofiev wrote two endings to the finale , one whoich ends quietly and the other boisterously . Some prefer the quiet ending , but the choice is up to the conductor .
There is an enormous range of recordings of these wonderful symphonies by many different eminent as less well-known , and a number of collections of all seven by one conductor and orchestra , including the recently issued Gergiev/Philips set . Among the conductors who have recorded all seven are the compser's close friend and colaborator Mstislav Rostropovich , Seiji Ozawa, Gennady Rozhdestvensky , Walter Weller, Jean Martinon , and Neeme Jarvi .
There are also individual recordings by Eugene Ormandy , Leonard Bernstein , Herbert Von Karajan, Leonard Slatkin , Serge Koussevitzky , Leopold Stokowski, and other renowned maestros . Check arkivmusic.com .
I've just read an absorbing and thought-provoking book on the so-called "Golden Age " of 19th and early 20th century pianists by the Scottish pianist , writer and scholar Kenneth Ham,ilton called "After the Golden Age - Romantic Pianism and Modern Performance ". It discusses the playing of such legendary pianists as Franz Liszt , Anton Rubinstein , Vladimir De Pachmann , Hans Von Bulow , Ignacy Jan Paderewski , Ferruccio Busoni , and others ,
Hamilton teaches at the University of Birmingham in England , studied at Oxford where he wrote his doctoral dissertaion on the music of Franz Liszt and has performewd widely as a pianist and lectures on music for the BBC .
His book discusses how styles of playing have changed over the years , the repertoire played , the develpment of the piano recital , audience behavior , the evolution of the piano and how construction of the instrument has changed , old recordings , the editing of published piano music , and many other interesting matters .
As well as how the invention of recording may havbe effected the live performance of music . For example, Hamilton discusses how recordings , which are carefully edited and put together to eliminate mistakes and wrong notes , may have made pianists afraid to miss notes and produce clunkers in live performances , because listeners are accustomed to perfect recordings , thus inhibiting pianists when they perform live in front of an audienc . (A debatable point.) He shows how in the 19th century , before the invention of recordings , other musicians and audiences cared little about note-perfect accuracy , and would overlook finger slips and missed notes .
We also learn that applause between movements of a piano sonata or concerto was the norm, unlike today , where it is usually reserved for the very end of a work in multiple movements . Newcomers to concerts and recitals today are sometimes shushed by others in the audience when they applaud before the end , which often embarasses them . There is however , growing tolerance for applause between movements now, and some critics and commentators have called for the return of this tradition . However , some musicians today say that applause between movements disturbs their concentration and is unnerving .
Before beginning a work , it was customary in the 19th century , and even with some pianists earlier in the 20th to engage in what is called "preludizing ", that is, improvising an introduction to a piece by another composer . Also , pianists , who were usually composers themselves , would improvise based on a melody sugested byt the audience . (There is a growing movement to train young classical musicians in improvisation today.)
Hamilton claims that pianists , and classical musicians today in general, , have become pedantically literal in interpretation , and are supposedly trained to follow the printed music to the letter , and to avoid taking liberties with temp and dynamics etc , and to avoid playing around with the text and engaiging in temp modification or rubatpo , which was customary in the past . This is also debatable , because I have read countless reviews of performances by pianists , conductors and other musicians who were mercilessly lambasted for all the liberties they took with the music by critics .
Like so many writers on classical music , Hamilton uses old recordings by famous pianists of the past and documentary evidence from pianists before the age of recordings as a stick with which to bash today's pianiosts . Nevertheless , this is a book which any one who loves classical music should read . I may have found it irritating;ly unfair and tendentious in its assertions at times , but I couldn't put it down once I started reading it.
Now that I've seen the highly touted and ulktra-glamorous opening night concert of the Los Angeles Philharmonic under its new music director Gustavo Dudamel on PBS , I can say that it was a truly memorable occaision , and despite all the hype , an evening of genuine musical substance . With all the fanfare and festivities , it was almost like the inauguration of a US President . But Dudamel is not nearly as controversial as Barack Obama . Some music critics have had some misgivings about possible premature hype for the phenomenally gifted young Venuzuelan maestro , and even had some reservations about his interpretations , but Dudamel's years in Los Angeles should prove to be far less controversial than the Obama administration . Whatever happens , I doubt that things will be dull musically in Los Angeles .
Numerous celelbrities were present at Disney Hall ; it was almost like the academy awards . In an age when classical music has supposedly been marginalized and lacking in public exposure , it was wonmderful to see so much attention given to it for once . And it was also welcome to have the concert open with the world premiere of a major new work by one of America's most important living composers , John Adams .
City Noir , a three movement orchestral work , was written for the Los Angeles Philharmonic for the occaision . It is an elaborate and highly colorful work which is meant to evoke the world of those famous Noir films set in the City Of Angels , and is scored for a very large orchestra , including a wide variety of percussion instruments and saxophones . The composer , who was interviewed for the occaision , said he hoped to evoke the shady L.A. world of the 40s and 50s , with crooks , cops , booze , politicians , sex and corruption , and the work succeeds brilliantly in this .
When he first came to prominence in the 1980s , Adams was often described as a minimalist composer , but he is no longer that ; he has had his own voice for some years now and cannot be easily pidgeonholed as a follower of any "isms". That is the mark of any great composer . City Noir features highly complex , intertwining rhythms and the orchestral colors are truly kaleidascopic . There are extensive saxophone solos and opportunities for all the sections of the orchestra to shine . The work sounds extremely challenging for an orchestra and the conductor as well , but the supoerb musicians of the Los Angeles Philharmonic played it with great assurance and panache , and Dudamel seemed to be unfazed by its technical difficulties . The composer was present and was greeted warmly by the audience , and composer and conductor gave each other bearhugs , so one can assume that Adams was highly pleased by the performance , which is not always the case when a new work is premiered .
City Noir deserves to be widely performed and recorded ; one hopes that Deutsche Grammophon will issue a recording with Dudamel and his new orchestra .
After the intermission , the young maestro had a chance to show his command of a far more familiar woirk , Mahler's first symphony , the work of a young composer of around Dudamel's age , and this was anything but a humdrum , routine rendering of this evergreen late 19th century piece . He was not afraid to apply generous fllexibility of tempo , which is somethiong that the composer would have expected from any conductor , but fortunately did not go overboard and exaggerate the rubato . He drew an exceptionally warm and refined sound from the orchestra , which produced an authentic Austro- Germanic sound , something which you doi not always find in American orchestras . The brass , always a crucial element in Mahler , sounded both mellow and brilliant , a combination you do not always hear . There was no forcing or coarseness of sound . The audience gave the performance a standing ovation, something which has become commonpl;ace today , and some critics and listeners have complained that this happens even in mediocre performances . But this standing ovation was thoroughly deserved .
Conductor and orchestra are off to an auspicious begin ning , and let's hope that this will be a happy marriage . If you missed the telecast , it will probably be repeated sopmetime this weekend , so check you newspaper for the time
Two weeks ago , the brilliantly gifted young Venuzuelan conductor Gustavo Dudamel conducted his initial concert as new music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic at Disney Hall in that great city , and tonight at 8 P.M. (check your lo0cal TV station for any different time ,) you can see and hear that concert on PBS . Will this young lion of the podium live up to all the hype ? Check for yourself .
The program consists of two works ; Gustav Mahler's familiar first symphony on the second hal;f , and on the first, the world premiere of a new work by John Adams , one of today's foremost composers , written especially for the orchestra entitled City Noir . This was inspired by the classic Noir films which have been shot in the city of Angels .
In just a few years , Dudamel has emerged as the hottest young conducting talent in many years , and such eminent maestros as Sir Simon Rattle and Claudio Abbado have become his mentors and proclaimed him the most talented young conductor to emerge in a long time . He is the most famous product of the remarkable El Sistema in Venuzuela , which has provided thousands of poor youngsters in that country a chance to learn instruments and play in numerous youth orchestras around the country .
Inistially a violinist , young Dudamel turned to conducting when only in his teens , and has been the conductor of the flagship orchestra of El Sistema , the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra, which is the equal of many world-class professional orchestras , and made wildly successful international tours with it . He and the orchestra have been making acclaimed recordings for the prestigious Deutsche Grammophon record label , including the best -selling Fiesta CD , with works by a variety of Latim American composers .
Dudamel is also music director of the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra in Sweden , one of Scandinavia's finest orchestras , and has been guest conducting many of the world's top orchestras , and also conducting opera . Some critics have been wondering whether he is merely the cynical product of slick publicity and hype , but the musicians of the world's top orchestras cannot be fooled for a minute , and they would never accept an incompetent or mediocrity as their leader . All reports indicate that they genuinely like and respect him .
The title for my previous post accidentally left out the complete name of the great Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich . Please excuse this .
I've been listening to a superb five CD set on Deutsche Grammophon of all 15 string quartets by the great Russian composer Dimitri Shostakovich (1906 -1975) , played by the outstanding Emerson Quartet , one of today's finest chamber groups , which consists of violinists Eugene Drucker , Philip Setzer , violist Larence Dutton and cellist David Finckel . These intense and disturbing quartets are intimate expressions of the composer's emotional and spiritual life under the iron rule of the Soviet government .
According to the notes to the set , Shostakovich "lived from the early years of the Russian Revolution through civil war , famine , Stalin's terror , the Second World War , more brutal repression , the thaw , and into the stagnation of the Brezhnev era ", and "his music is thoroughly caught up in the maelstrom of Soviet history ". Shostakovich had risen to prominence before he was out of his teens with his precocious and brilliant first symphony , and went on to become the most important composer of the Soviet Union . He received every honor a Soviet citizen could , but went in and out of favor with the government , having at times incurred the wrath of that ruthless and paranoid mass murderer Stalin for writing music which displeased him and failed to live up to the ideal of "Socialist Realism ".
He died in 1975, apparetly a broken and bitter man . But he left the world a legacy of powerful and compelling music , as well as some hack work which he was forced to write under Soviet domination . Shostakovich produced a monumental serioes of 15 symphonies , concertos for violin, cellos and piano , two operas , assorted choral works , ballet and film scores and chamber music , including his 15 string quartets , which have been described as his private side, as opposed to the public declarations of his symphonies .
The quartets were written between 1938 and 1974 , when the composer's physical ailments made it extremely difficult to put notes on paper . They are decideldly more conservative than the quartets and other music of the avant-garde composers who were his contemporaries , being in definite keys such as C major and F sharp minor etc, and having recognizable themes . But they also contain much harsh dissonance . They combine brooding introversion and gloom with outbursts of rage , as well as biting sarcasm and irony , like much oif his music . It isn't feel goood music , but it can be positively cathartic . There are lighter and more lyrical moments , but they are a minority .
Some contain the use of his signature motif ; the notes D, E flat , C and B, which spell out the name Dmitri Shostakovich in a kind of musical cipher . Other composers have done this also . This motto can also be found in the great 10th symphony .
The grim final quartet consists of five slow movements , all marked adagio , or slow . This is the composer's numbing farewell to life . In addition to the recordings by the Emerson quartet and other Western quartets , there are recordings by such Russian groups as the Borodin quartet , whose musicians knew the composer well and worked with him often . It might be a good idea to get to know the basic works of the string quartet repertoire by such greats as Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and others before you try the Shostakovich quartets , but you should not miss these haunting and disturbing works .
The New York City Opera is the Job of opera companies , having suffered a series of misfortunes and setbacks of Biblical proportions in the past few years . But despite all these seemingly insurmountable problems , New York's plucky second opera company will finally re-open on November 5th with a gala performance , not of one opera , but a concert of opera excerpts , with such stalwarts of the company as Anthony Dean Griffey , Lauren Flanagan and Samuel ramey singing , conducted by the veteran maestro Julius Rudel , who led the company for many years previously .
Impresario and conductor George Steel is now the general manager and artistic director , and faces many daunting challenges , both financial and artistic . Last season , the newly renamed David H. Koch theater in Lincoln Center, formerly the New York State Theater , underwent badly needed acoustical renovations, and the company could not perform there, and was unable to find a temporary venue to give performances ,
Millions of dollars from the company's endowment fund were lost in the economic criuch , and the controversial Belgian impresario and arts manager Gerard Mortier resigned as general manager before taking over because of his inability to obtain sufficient funding for his ambitious plans for the company .
There were also recent rumors of the possibility of a strike shortening or cancelling the season . But despite all this , the NYC Opera is apparently ready to open shortly , with a somewhat curtailed season of only five operas : The Biblical opera Esther, by the Czech-born American opera compoiser Hugo Weisgal , (1912 -1997), Mozart's Don Giovanni , Partenope by George Frideric Handel , Puccini's Madama Butterly , and L'Etoile (The star) by 19th century French composer Emmanuel Chabrier .
The repertoire may be limited , but it's certainly interestng , with three rarities and only two standard repertoire operas , by Mozart and Puccini . Weisgal's opera had its world premiere at the City Opera in 1993 to considerable audience and critical acclaim , and this is its first revival since .
As to the acoustics of the renovated auditorium , every one's fingers are crossed . They had been extremely problematical previously , ever since the theater opened in 1966 . The acoustics of the neighboring Metropolitan Opera , which opened the same year after decades at the venerable but later demolished old Met, are vastly superior .
Despite an uncertain future , the NYC opera is determined to survive and to offer high-qulaity performances of a wide-ranging operatic repertoire at affoprdable prices . Let's all wish it the best !
A very old conductor was giving his final (at last!) concert . Some one in the front row beckoned to the concertmaster and asked " What's the old man conducting tonight ?" The concertmaster replied , "I don't know what he's conducting , but we are playing Beethoven's Fifth ."
What's brown and sits on a piano stool ? Beethoven's last movement .
Definition of music written by a kid on a music test : Music: A complex organization of sounds that is set down by the composer , incorrectly interpreted by the conductor, who is ignored by the musicians, the result of which is ignored by the audience .
Gone Chopin . Be Bach in a minuet .
Arnold Schwarzenegger recently turned down the chance to play Beethoven in a movie about the composer . He replied "I'll be Bach ."
On a music test : Handel was half German , half Italian, and half English .
Beethoven expired in 1827 and later died from this .
Most composers do not live until they die . Why couldn't Mozart find his piano teacher ? He was Haydn .
More puns: Oscar Meyerbeer Bologna . New door Handel . Honey-nut Berlioz .
Tchaicoughsky drops . Chef Boyardee Raveli . Beverly Sills 90102 .
How Stella Got Her Grrove Bach . Debbie Does Tallis . Indiana University School Of Music Jones . Revenge of the Wagnerds . Rimsky Business .
Bach To The Future . Requiem Faure Heavyweight . Bass-ic Instinct .
Mozartichoke . Close Encounters Of The Minor Third Kind .
Debussyfood . Kill Bill Bolcom . Follow The Lieder . Kodaly of Honor .
Messianchovies . The Hindenburg Concertos . Staff Infection . The Scarlatti Letter .
Bach Choi . Fiddle Attraction . Haydn Seek .
I've been listening to a CD of music by the prominent American composer Christopher Rouse (1949 -) , who currently teaches at the Juilliard school and is one of America's most widely performed living composers, and quite deservedly .
Rouse has written a wide variety of works , symphonies , concertos for flute, clarinet , violin ,oboe, cello and even trombone , miscellaneous orchestral works , chamber music etc. His music is not forbiddingly austere and avant-garde , but neither does it pander to audiences with "easy listening ". It mixes harsh dissonance with warm, neo-romantic lyricism .
The CD in question combines Rouse's violin concerto with his outrageous fantasy on Wagner themes for orchestra and percussion soloist called "Der Gerettete Alberich " (Alberich saved.) In Wagner's great tetralogy the Ring of the Nibelungen , Alberich , the greedy , power-hungry dwarf who curses the Ring which grants its owner supreme power over the world , seems to be the only main character still alive at the cataclysmic conclusion of the Ring , where his arch-enemy Wotan and the other Gods are destroyed by the curse .
Rouse wondered what happens to the evil dwarf after the terrible end of the Ring when he wrote the piece . The work opens with a direct quote from the very end of the tetralogy , and then begins to play with a variety of themes from the Ring ; the baleful motif of the curse , and other memorable melodies .
The soloist plays a wide variety of percussion instruments, including gourds , a Jamaican steel drum , and has a ball ! The orchestra plays with the motifs and transmogrifies them sometimes by switching into atonality . To quote from Saturday Night Live , it's a wild and crazy composition ! In the final section , the Wagnerian motifs coalesce into a halftime style march from a football game !
Der Gerettete Alberich was written for the brilliant but hearing-impaired Scottish percussion virtuoso Evelyn Glennie , who has been profiled on CBS for 60 minutes . She recorded the work for Ondine records with Leif Segerstam and the Helsinki Philharmonic , and this is the CD I've been listening to . This work has been performed with considerable success by leading orchestras all over America and Europe , and is music for people who think they hate modern music . I think you'll have great fun listening to it.
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