December 2009 - Posts
PBS is offering its usual gala new year's eve and new year's day concerts by respectively , the New York Philharmonic and the Vienna Philharmonic . These two great orchestras were founded in the same year -1842 , and you shouldn't miss these festive concerts this evening and tomorrow afternoon .
The New York concert , not inappropriately , features music by two of America's greatest composers , George Gershwin and Aaron Copland , and the Vienna concert , from the gorgeous Musikverein concert hall , features waltes, polkas and marches by Vienna's beloved Johann Strauss Jr, the immortal waltz king .
The New York Philharmonic's new music director Alan Gilbert , will conduct the suite from Aaron Copland's ballet "Appalachian Spring " , and Gershwin's "An American in Paris ". The renowned American baritone Thomas Hampson will sing selections from famous broadway musicals and Copland's "Old American Songs", which are adaptions of folk songs for baritone and orchestra .
The distinguished French conductor Georges Pretre will lead the Johann Strauss concert from Vienna , and the host will be none other than Julie Andrews , who last year succeeded the late Walter Cronkite , who had been the host for many years . The ballet of the Vienna State Opera will be seen on some of the musical selections .
If these concerts don't put you in a good mood to face the new year , nothing will ! Check your newspaper for the correct times .
Last night I saw a commercial on television by the financial firm J. G. Wentworth which attempts to inform the public about this organization's servies with chubby people in Viking hats and silly costumes singing a catchy tune and acting like stereotypical opera singers . I was not amused .
Yes, opera spoofs can be great fun , and I enjoy them as much as any one . But unfortunately , commercials like this , which are not uncommon on television , give people who know little or nothing about opera the wrong idea . They do nothing but reinforce stereotypical images of opera in the public mind , and could even discourage some people from taking opera seriously and attending live performances or listening to recordings of it , or taking advantage of the many opportunities which exist on the internet for experiencing a great and fascinating art form which has been in existence for four centuries and which has enriched the lives of so many people all over the world for so long .
Is opera really this silly ? Well, there are comic operas which are a blast , but many operas deadly serious stories about the human condition . They deal with love , hate , jealousy, bitter rivalries , lust, revenge , treachery , betrayal , murder, conspiracies , courage , sacrifice , political ambition , religious conflict - you name it . But somehow the stereotypical image of ridiculous looking fat people in Viking hats persists .
And furthermore , opera singers wear many different kinds of hats and costumes depending on the story and locale of the opera , and today , it's not uncommon for operas which take place centuries in the past to be staged in modern dress , or with the time and locale of the story changed .
For example , Verdi's Aida takes place in ancient Egypt , Bizet's Carmen is set in Spain among Gypies , soldiers and bullfighters , La Boheme is the story of struggling artists in 19th century Paris , Cavalleri Rusticana is the story of village life among Sicilian peasants , Madama Butterfly is set in early 20th century Japan , Turandot takes place in Beijing , China back in the middle ages , Der Roenkavalier takes place in aristocratic 18th century Vienna , and Porgy and Bess takes place in a small town in South Carolina , USA .
Not a single story or locale where you'd expect to see people in Viking hats here . Even performances of the Wagner operas which led to such stereotypes today don't feature this kind of costumes and hats .
And just take a look at some today's top opera stars . Sopranos Renee Fleming , Anna Netrebko , Natalie Dessay , Daniele De Niese , Karita Mattila , Angela Gheorghiu , tenors Roberto Alagna , Juan Diego Florez , Rolando Villazon , Joonas Kauffmann, baritones Thomas Hampson , Simon Keenlyside , Nathan Gunn , Rodney Gilfrey , Bryn Terfel and basses Rene Pape and John Relyea are as good-looking , glamorous and charismatic as any of today's top movie stars . Angelina Jolie has nothing on Russian soprano Anna Netrebko when it comes to sheer sex appeal .
The television commercial I saw last night may be good for J.G. Wentworth , but is it good for opera ?
The commercial I saw last night may be good for J. G. Wentworth , but is it good for opera ?
If you take a look at the Arts and Leisure section of the Sunday New York Times of yesterday , you'll see my letter responding to the Times chief music critic Anthony Tommasini's column last week in which he discusses notable events in classical music so far this season .
Tommasini's article discusses among other things , the arrival of conductor Alan Gilbert as new music director of the New York Philharmonic in which he praises the conductor's supposedly innovative programming which will "energize" this "great but stodgy " orchestra . But I pointed out the fact that while Gilbert is certainly going to offer interesting programming and is a committed advocate of contemporary music , the orchestra's programming before him has actually been anything but "stodgy " .
In fact , if you compare its programming to many other orchestras , the New York Philharmonic is highly adventurous ! It has played new or recent music by just about every important living composer , as well as promising younger ones on a regular basis , something which many other orchestras are terrified of doing for fear of alienating audiences and causing a fatal drop in ticket sales .
Last year , it offered a number of performances of the music of Elliott Carter in honor of his centennial despite the fact that many concertgoers would rather have root canal surgery or a tax audit than listen to his esoteric and mind-bogglingly complex works . Other prominent composers it has performed include Tan Dun , Peter Lieberson , Hans Werner Henze , John Adams, Christopher Rouse , Thomas Ades , Pierre Boulez , Kaaia Saariaho , Marc-Andre Dalbavie , William Bolcom , Osvaldo Golijov , and Magnus Lindberg , a Finn who has recently become the orchestra's composer in residence , to name only some .
In addition , the Philharmonic also performs long-neglected works from the past on a regular basis . But for some reason , critics love to bash the orchestra for its supposedly "stodgy " and unadventurous programming . Yes, the orchestra does play the familiar masterpieces of Beethoven , Brahms , Tchaikovsky , Schubert , Schumann , Mendelssohn , Rachmaninov , etc . So what ? So do orchestras everywhere . But they never seem to give the orchestra the credit it deserves for thinking outside the box . I hope my letter to the Times will do something to counter this .
Every Christmastime , orchestras , choruses and ballet companies all over America and elsewhere are busy doing their umpteenth performance of Messiah and the Nutcracker . Don't they ever get tired of the constant repetition ? Audiences don't seem to .
But these are hardly the only music appropriate for the season . Many composers , famous and obscure , have written oratorios and other choral works marking the birth of Christ , among them J.S Bach , his son Carl Philipp Emmanuel , Hector Berlioz , and Camille Saint-Saens, to name only a few . These festive works are well -worth being performed more often and being heard on recordings , for those who have had their fill of Messiah and the Nutcracker .
The Christmas Oratorio by Bach is a set of six cantatas dealing with the birth of Christ and was not originally written to be performed as an evening length work . It is a truly joyous and festive work . The Passion According To St. Matthew however , is a full length work dealing rather like Mel Gibson's famous film The Passion of the Christ with the arrest , betrayal , trial and crucifiction of Christ .
Bach never wrote any operas , but this is probably the closest thing he ever wrote to an opera , and this great work has sometimes been performed theatrically with scenery and costumes in our time , although one wonders what Bach would have thought of this . It features orchestra , two choruses , a tenor who narrates the story , a baritone or bass soloist singing the role of Christ , and female singers who sing arias commenting on the action .
The St. Matthew Passion is a very noble and serious work , filled with arias of pity for the tormented Christ , drammatic choruses , including ones where the crowd calls for Jesus to be killed mercilessly , and is filled with the church chorales which were familiar to the parishioners at the St. Thomas church in Leipzig where Bach served as organist, choirmaster and official composer for so long .
"L;Enfance Du Christ" , or the Childhood of Christ , by Hector Berlioz , deals with the flight into Egypt of Jesus, Mary and Joseph to escape Herod's attempt to kill male children as described in the Bible . Unlike many other works of Berlioz , it is gentle and intimate , and features a much smaller orchestra than was this composer's norm .
King Herod is sung by a bass , and he decides to order the killing of all male infants because of a prophecy which threatens him . The holy family flees to Egypt where a family receives them with great hospitality . Berlioz was an atheist , but this did not prevent him from writing work of radiant spirituality .
Many prominent conductors have recorded these works , among them Sir Colin Davis for the Berlioz oratorio , Otto Klemperer , Nikolaus Harnoncourt , Sir John Eliot Gardiner , Sir Georg Solti for the Passion , to name only a few . To order CDs, there's no better place than arkivmusic.com , and classicstoday.com has expert recommendations for them .
There's an interesting article online at the Philadelphia Enquirer (philly.com) by its music critic Peter Dobrin about the difficulty the world- renowned Philadelphia Orchestra is having in choosing a new music director after the recent departure of the distinguished conductor in this prestigious position , formerly held by such legendary conductors as Leopold Stokowski and Eugene Ormandy .
Eschenbach had served for only a brief tenure after succeeding the eminent German conductor Wolfgang Sawallisch , now 86 and retired because of failing health . Another distinguished maestro , the Swiss conductor Charles Dutoit , formerly of the Montreal Symphony , has been serving as an interim caretaker in the position of chief conductor , but does not have the full power and responsivbilities of a music director , and does not have the power to hire musicians in auditions .
Former concert pianist turned conductor Eschenbach was a controversial choice as music director ; reportedly , the members of the Philadelphia orcjhestra were not particularly enthusiastic about him , even though he had previously had great chemistry with the musicians of the Houston Symphony orchestra , which had prospered under him and achieved world-class status .
The chemistry , or lack of it , between conductors and orchestras is a mysterious thing ; a conductor who has it in spades with one orchestra may not have it with another . You will hear highly enthusiastic comments about a conductor from the members of one orchestra , and scathing ones from another . The management of an orchestra has the ultimate decision about the choice of a music director , but it cannot afford to choose one without the approval of the musicians , who are always consulted . Choosing a conductor merely because he has a glamorous public image and a slick publicity machine behind him if the musicians dislike him can be disastrous for an orchestra .
However, Eschenbach has been chosen to succeed the highly regarded American conductor Leonard Saltkin , who has just taken over as music director of the Detroit Symphony , as music director of the National Symphony orchestra in Washington ,D.C. A number of conductors have been rumored to be under consideration for Philadelphia , including some very gifted young ones who have been achieving international acclaim recently , among them the young Russian Vladimir Jurowski ,37 , now heading the London Philharmonic and the Glyndebourne Summer opera festival in England , and the rising young Canadian Yannick Nezet-Seguin , now leading the Rotterdam Philharmonic in the Netherlands , succeeding Valery Gergiev .
American Michael Tilson Thomas , 65 , now happily ensconed as music director of the San Francisco Symphony since 1995 , has been rumored as a possibility . Beginning about 40 years ago , he was a hot young podium talent himself , and is now a seasoned veteran . If so, he would be the Phildelphia Orchestra's first Anmerican music director . Possibly a dark horse will emerge . Who knows ? But a orchestra needs a music director ; going rudderless for an extensive period is not good for its artistic develpment .
PBS has finally shown the controversial new Met production of Puccini's blood -and- thunder masterpiece Tosca ; not having seen the TV listings last Wednesday I wasn't aware that it was being shown and just happened to come catch it having missed the first act . But I was able to see the whole performance on Sunday afternoon when it was repeated .
In fact , there was nothing particularly objectionable about the staging by the Swiss director Luc Bondy , who made his Met debut with this production . Richard Peduzzi's sets were rather drab and nondescript compared to the lavish and ultra-realistic ones in the previous Met production by Franco Zeffirrelli , but the singers were so musically and drammaticaly compelling that it didn't really matter . It appears that some of the raunchier aspects of the staging on the first night were toned down , and there was no booing as apparently happened on opening night . In fact , the audience not only cheered lustily but gave the performance a standing ovation, possibly more for the singers than the production .
If you attend a Met performance live and sit in the farther regions of the enormous Met auditorium , you can't see the close interacions of the singers or their facial expressions , but on television , DVD or HD theater in the movies , you can see every expression on their faces , and the charismatic Finnish diva Karita Mattila , tenor Marcelo Alvarez as Tosca's beloved Mario , and debuting Georgian baritone Georgi Gagnidze as the loathsome Roman police chief Scarpia devoured the scenery with abandon .
Bondy had some unusual ideas , such as having Scapria cavort with three floozies at the beginning of the second act before he has Mario tortured for helping a prisoner of state escape and tormenting Tosca with this , but this was not really out of line with such a monstrous character . Gagnidze is a new name to me , and he could be the next baritone sensation in the opera world . He has a rich , melifluous voice and appears to be a terrific actor . He was so sublimely slimy as Scarpia I almost wanted to take a shower after the performance !
Mattila's singing was not perfect ; there were some moments where her singing was a bit effortful and less than perfect in intonation , but she WAS Tosca ; passionate , jealous , loving , and impulsive . And her basic sound is still very beautiful . Marcelo Alvarez as Mario sang with ringing power and lustrous tone and acted with real nobility as the courageous painter and freedom fighter . Met staff conductor Joseph Colaneri , filling in for James Levine, who was recovering from back surgery , conducted with unobtrusive excellence , and the Met orchestra was its usual wolrd-class self .
This performance should be coming out on DVD before too long , and you can find information on where to see it on the internet from the Met's website metopera.org .
This afternnon I'll be playing one of the great masterpieces of the keyboard repertoire - the so-called Goldberg variations of J.S. Bach , for my classical music class at United Hebrew geriatric center . The recording will be the classic one by Glenn Gould , the first of his two , which has been a best-seller since the 1950s .
Johann Nikolaus Forkel , who wrote one of the earliest biographies of Bach published at the beginning of the 19th century , provided this interesting story of the circumstances of composition of the variations . This story is now considered somewhat spurious by musicologists , but as the old Italian saying goes "Se non e vero , e ben trovato" (even if it's not true, it's a great story ").
According to Forkel , a certain count Kayserling , who was the Russian ambassador to the electoral court of Saxony , suffered from insomnia . He was a music lover , and an accomplished harpsichordist by the name of Goldberg was a resident in his home . Kayserling commissioned Bach to write harpsichord music "of a smooth and lively character " so that Goldberg could play soothing music for him during his sleepless nights .
Kayserling was so pleased with the set of an aria with 30 variations that he presented Bach with a golden goblet filled with a generous amount of cash , and never grew tired of having Goldberg play it for him . Whether the story is true or not , Bach wrote one of the greatest and most famous theme and variations of all time .
This is Bach' s description on the work which appears on the front page of the music :" A keyboard practice consisting of an aria with diverse variations for harpsichord with two manuals for connoiseurs for the refreshment of their spirits by the Kapellmeister (music director ) J. S. Bach of the Royal Court of Poland and Elector of the Royal Court of Saxony ."
The variations begins with a stately melody , and in 30 variations , Bach uses not the melody for variations , but its bass line and basic harmonic progression . Many of the variations use a contrapuntal device called a canon , in which the melody is imitated by another voice line at different intervals ranging from the second line of the scale G to G up to the octave .
The melody is sometimes inverted, that is with the melody played upside down , and there is much opportunity for finger crossing at the keyboard . One variations is a Fughetta (little fugue ) and another is a toccata , or a section to show off the performer's technical skill , and another is a gigue . Each variation shows Bach's enormous skill and inventiveness .
One of the last variations is a Quodlibet ,Latin for "whatever you please", in which Bach quotes popular German folksongs just for fun as a sort of in joke and mixes them into the music . The titles of the songs are rather droll : "I have been so long away from you; come closer " and "Cabbages and turnips have driven me away , if my mother had cooked meat , I'd have opted to stay ".
The variations closes with a reprise of the original aria . In the 20th century , the Goldberg variations has often been played on a modern piano , and many of the great pianists of the 20th century have recorded it , as well as harpsichordists . Among them are of course , Glenn Gould , Rosalyn Tureck , Peter Serkin , Andras Schiff , Alexis Weissenberg , Wilhelm Kempff , Murray Perhaia , Igor Kipnis , Wanda Landowska , Gustav Leonhardt , Ralph Kirkpatrick , Charles Rosen , to name only a handful .
Arkivmusic.com lists well over 100 different recordings on CD which you can easily order from this website , which features an incomparably wide selection of classical CDs and DVDs . There have even been transcri[tions of the Goldberg Variations for string orchestra , harp , guitar , and even digital synthesizer . But don't miss the Goldberg Variations however you might hear it .
This is a question which has caused a considerable amount of discussion and controversy among musicologists and music critics . Is the music of the 20th century progress over the music of the past , in the sense of say the advanced medicine of today being a progress over the primitive medical techniques and knowledge of past centuries ?
Certainly not . The 12-tone music of Arnold Schoenberg is not superior to the music of his great predecessors Bach , Mozart , Beethoven ,Wagner and Brahms , whose music Schoenberg studied diligently , revered and learned so much from , but neither is it a regression from the greatness of the past and a sign of decline . Classical music has evolved over the centuries ; it has neither progressed nor declined .
The traditional manner of classification of the periods of history in western classical music is Medieval music , from the establishment of musical notation and the emergance of Gregorian chant to the renaissance period of roughly A.D. 1400 to 1600 , the Baroque period from roughly 1600 to the mid 18th century , the classical period of approximately the mid 18th century to the early 19th , the Romantic period of the 19th and early 20th century , and 20th and early 21st century music .
What we call classical music (not to be confused with the music of the classical period when Haydn and Mozart flourished in the 18th century ,) has changed vastly over the centuries , and every period has seen the creation of many great works by a galaxy of great composers .
But while the music of the 20th century does not represent "progress " over the music of the past , neither does it show a "decline " from the great works of the past , as some critics and others would have us believe . Schoenberg has even been accused of "ruining " the music of the 20th century by breaking with tonality and influencing so many other composers of that era with his supposedly pernicious 12-tone system , even though many great 20th century composers never adopted his methods and abandoned tonality .
The late music American music critic and music historian Henry Pleasants (1910 - 1999 ) was one of those who bewailed the alleged "decline " of classical music in the 20th century and was extremely hostile to much "modern " music . He wrote an interesting if highly tendentious book called "The Agony Of Modern Music " in the 1950s which I believe is still available in which he flatly declared that most classical music of his time was worthless . Audiences hated it , and composers no longer strove to write music which would please audiences , unlike great composers of the past such as Bach , Haydn and Mozart .
To a certain extent he was right . Yes, many people in the 20th century have hated the music of Schoenberg and his school , as well as other avant-garde composers who emerged after him such as Pierre Boulez, Karlheinz Stockhausen , Milton Babbitt , Charles Wuorinen , Roger Sessions and others who have written thorny and intimidatingly complex music .
But does this show evidence of an overall "decline " from the music of the past ? I think not . Resistance to new music goes back centuries . Even the great Italian composer Claudio Monteverdi , the first important composer of operas , who also wrote other vocal masterpieces such as madrigals etc, and who lived from 1567 to 1643 , met with harsh criticism from other composers and theorists who objected to his innovations . Beethoven's radical innovations actually caused some critics and composers of the day to question his sanity ! Wagner , the great 19th century innovator of opera was considered the musical Antichrist by many . And so it goes . Composers who were once considered dangerous radicals in their time have achieved a lasting place in the musical canon .
And many composers who were prominent in their day and widely performed have become nothing but names familiar to those well-versed in music history . Composers such as Louis Spohr , Giacomo Meyerbeer , Reinhard Keiser , Baldassare Galuppi , William Boyce , Thomas Arne , Felix Draeseke , Cesar Cui and so many other names never achieved that lasting place in the canon despite the fleeting popularity of their music, now their works are occaisionally revived . We remember Antonio Salieri only because of his association with Mozart and certain legends about their relationship , even though Salieri's music is quite pleasant and not totally deserving of oblivion .
There has been great and hum drum music from every period ; most of the symphonies , operas , concertos , oratorios and other works of the past have been deservedly forgotten , although many estimable works have also been undeservedly neglected . It has been estimated that since the early 17th century , approximately 40,000 operas alone have been written ? How many are performed today ? We benefit today from the vast accumulation of all the classical music written over the centuries and we can now hear a wider variety of repertoire , live and recorded , than people have ever been able to hear in the past .
December 16 is the official birthday of good old Ludwig Van Beethoven , that towering genius from the provinicial German city of Bonn , who moved to Vienna , Europe's foremost musical center as a young man to seek fame and fortune , and who went on to become one of the titans of classical music . It's not certain whether he was actually born on December 16 because he was baptized that day ; sometimes the birthdays of famous people of the time came to be on their baptism day , not the actual day of birth .
Beethoven's music has become so familiar to concertgoers and CD collectors that it's easy to take his music for granted . But there are also millions of people in America who may have heard the famous opening notes of the fifth symphony and the melody of the equally famous Ode to Joy from the finale of the ninth , but who have never really heard these symphonies whole , let alone his many other works in the various musical genres .
But what kind of a man was Beethoven , and what is his place in the history of classical music ? And why do we still listen to his music 139 years after he was born ? Those aren't easy questions , but I'll try to do my best to explain .
As a man , Beethoven was tough , gruff and stubborn . He refused to kow-tow to the nobility and wasn't always the most pleasant person to get along with . His lack of social graces and awkwardness made him out of place in elegant and cosmospolitan Vienna . In addition , the deafness which gradually overtook him from his early 30s made him extremely moody and thus even harder to get along with .
He never married , but often longed for a faithful wife , and may have had affairs with a number of women prominent in elegant Viennese society . He was close to some of the most prominent Viennese nobility and accepted their patronage , but refused to write music merely to divert them , as composers had been expected to do . Some of his lesser works are more of this diverting type of music , though . But his greatest works baffled many listeners with their bold innovations .
Beethoven began as a formidable pianist and achieved great acclaim in Vienna for his performances and his improvisations , which were once commonplace among pianists and composers but have long since gone out of fashion . But his increasing deafness forced him to abandon performing live .
Before Beethoven , composers were usually either employed by the aristocracy to write pleasant music for them to enjoy , or by the church to provide music for worship . But Beethoven broke out of this trend and wrote music of unprecedented power , grandeur and intesity ; music which grabs the listener by the throat instead of merely providing a pleasant diversion . The term thinking outside the box was created for quirky geniuses like Beethoven .
But Beethoven's music can also be gentle at times , and filled with radiant lyricism , or filled with high spirits and fun , even raucous humor .
His most famous works include the nine great symphonies , the five concertos for piano , the one for violin , the 32 piano sonatas , 10 for violin and piano , his only opera Fidelio , the monumental mass called the "Missa Solemnis ", and the 16 string quartets .
Beethoven wrote symphonies unprecedented in length and complexity , and introduced instruments such as trombones , piccolo , contrabassoon and percussion into the hitherto rather small orchestra which had been the norm in the symphonies of Haydn , Mozart and their contemporaries . His ninth and last symphony is the first to use a chorus and four vocal soloists , and was the longest and most complex symphony that had ever been written . It is a setting of the once famous poem by Friedrich Schiller called "An die Freude " (To Joy ).
The 3rd symphony , called "Eroica " was inspired by the exploits of his great contemporary Napoleon . Originally , Beethoven wanted to dedicate the work to the Corsican -born general , but when Napoleon had himself crowned emperor he furiously crossed out the dedication , and declared that the symphony was "dedicated to the memory of a great man ". When the symphony was premiered in Vienna, it puzzled audiences with its complexity and its unusual length , being about twice as long as most symphonies , which rarely last more than 25 munutes .
Beethoven's only opera Fidelio was subject to numerous revisions before it reached its definitive form , and there are four different overtures for it . Today , the brief last one is commonly used , but the third or "Leonore " overture , named after the opera's heroine , is frequently played at concerts . Fidelio is the story of the wife of a political prisoner being haled by his nefarious enemy in a prison dungeon who disguises herself as a boy working as an assistant jailor and rescues her husband from being murdered in the nick of time .
Beethoven began writing in the style of the so called "classical period " of music dominated by Haydn and Mozart , but was the key transitional figure to the so-called Romanitc period exemplified by Schumann , Mendelssohn , Liszt , Wagner, and Brahms . His influence on the great composers of the 19th century was enormous ; some composers , such as Brahms , even felt intimidated by Beethoven , and was extremely self-critical . Brahms did not premiere his first symphony until 1876 , when he was in his forties .
Beethoven's music has rightly retained its popularity to the present day , and there are countless recordings of his music available on CD . His music will endure as long as western civilization survives .
Not necessarily , but unfortunately , many people who are not familiar with classical music seem to think so . On the whole , people who love classical music love it every bit as much as fans of other kinds of music , and for the same reasons . That's just the kind of music they love . What's wrong with that ?
Stereotypes still exist about rich , bored people attending the opera for purely social reasons , to "see and be seen ", and to show off their jewels and finery , while sitting there bored to tears in their boxes , and the fact that musicians in orchestras still dress formally for concerts reinforces the assumption that classical music is only for "snobs" and "elitists ".
But the fact remains that people who love classical music go to concerts , the opera and solo recitals and chamber music performances etc because they really enjoy this kind of music . If that were not the case , classical music would have gone out of existence long ago . But unfortunately , the onus is always on devotees of it , and there's an assumption that they must be snobs .
Personally , I don't think of myself as a snob or elitist just because I've devoted my life to classical music , both as a listener and performer . When I was a teenager , I discovered it through recordings in my local library , and got hooked on it for life . No one really introduced it to me , and I didn't come from a particularly musical family .
And as I've pointed out before , reverse snobbism against classical music exists also , among some fans of other kinds of music . Now there's nothing wrong if a person isn't a fan of classical music ; but as the old saying goes , don't knock it if you haven't tried it . But if more people would just keep an open mind , and give it a chance , they might really enjoy this kind of music .
It's about time that more people came to realize that classical music is a just as valid as Jazz, pop, Rock , country , folk , or any other kind of music , and not just something for wealthy snobs .
There's an interesting article in the New York Times Arts and Leisure section in the Sunday December 13th edition about the noted actor Alec Baldwin , who has taken on the job of official announcer for the New York Philharmonic radio broadcasts , which can be heard on various radio stations around the US , including WQXR , which is no longer the official radio station of the New York Times .
Alec Baldwin ? What could he possibly have to do with classical music ? The answer is simple ; he has been a devotee of it since his his school days , because a music appreciation class he took in school in Massapequa, Long Island , where he grew up inspired his lifelong love of it . Incidentally , I grew up in Levittown , just a short drive from there , and graduated from high school four years befopre Baldwin .
Baldwin also appeared on the opening night concert of the New York Philharmonic , telecast on PBS this September as host , when conductor Alan Gilbert took over as new music director of the New York Philharmonic .
Baldwin is by no means the only pop culture celebrity or actor who loves classical music ; I can't think of any offhand , but there are more than you might think . *** Cavett has served as announcer for the radio broadcasts of the Detroit Symphony for some time , which have also been featured on WQXR , and a member of the Dallas cowboys whose name I can't recall and who may or may not be still with the team has been an enthusiastic supporter of the Dallas Symphony orchestra .
According to the article by New York Times arts corespondant Daniel Wakin , who wrote the article , the management of the New York Philharmonic is not surprisingly delighted to have Baldwin as official radio announcer . Baldwin even compared the job to being bat boy for the New York Yankees !
This just goes to show you how important it is to have classes in public schools introducing youngsters to classical music , something which is unfortunately no longer offered at many of these schools . You never know what good things might result from this .
Greg Sandow's latest post at artsjournal.com addresses this question , and according to him, this appears to be the case . He cites a recent report by the National Endowment For The Arts . But the interesting thing is that this is also true of sports events and movie theaters around the country .
You can see the NEA's 2008 survey of public participation in the arts through a link this blog post . In an earlier post , which you can also see through a link , Sandow mentions earler decades , staring around 80 years ago up to the early 60s , when " classical music hadn't yet become a problem , still reigned unchallenged as a serious musical art , and still had a younger audience ".
My jaw dropped when I read this astonishingly loaded statement . Classical music is a "problem" today ? It's not a serious musical art any more ? And furthermore , this statement implies that it's the fault of the classical musical establishment that there's a lack of a young audience for this kind of music .
Of course , Sandow has regularly used the issues of the supposed "stuffiness " of classical concerts, with musicians dressed in tuxedos as a bogus explanation for this . But it's difficult to say exactly why more young people aren't going to classical concerts on a regular basis . Perhaps the disappearance of music education from public schools is part of the problem , but it's not as simple as that .
Possibly another problem is high ticket prices . Who knows ? But prices to Broadway shows and pop concerts are also quite high . On the bright side , more and more younger people have been discovering opera in recent years , and becoming opera fans . But one thing is certain ; classical music , whatever its problems, is not dying , and the audience for concerts will last as long as Western Civilization .
In My last post , I discussed how common the idealization of the past in opera is , and how every generation of opera mavens has done this . But this is true of classical music in general . Supposedly , todays conductors , pianists , violinists and other musicians are no match for the great ones of the past .
Of course there were many great musicians in the past , and we are fortunate to have many of their performances , live or studio , preserved on recordings . It's wonderful that the work of such giants as Toscanini , Furtwangler , Koussevitzky , Stokowski , Walter , Monteux , Mengelberg , Beecham , Klemperer , etc, among conductors , and violinists , pianists , cellists and other musicians such as Casals , Heifetz, Horowitz , Rubinstein , Rachmaninov , and others available to us on CD .
But unfortunately , uncritical worship of old recordings has blinded many critics and experts to the greatness of today's musicians , and especially to the promise of the many formidable young talents who have emerged in recent years . The eminent American pianist Earl Wild , who just turned 94 , has dismissed the young Chinese piano superstar Lang Lang as the "Jennifer Lopez of classical music " . How cynical can you get ?
One of the most common cliches which gets quoted ad nauseam today about the conducting profession is that the great conductors of the past such as George Szell , Eugene Ormandy and Serge Koussevitzky etc were so much more dedicated to the orchestras of which they were music directors , stayed put during the season and carefully built and groomed those orchestras , and that those of today are merely "jet setters " who spend little time with their orchestras and are constantly guest conducting other top orchestras around the world , and that consequently , orchestras today have lost their distinctive sounds , and have developed a kind of generic sameness sound .
But it's not as simple as that . Today , the top orchestras have much longer seasons , and many in America also have Summer residencies at music festivals , such as the Boston Symphony at Tanglewood . Many in America play up to 150 concerts a year . In the past , before the major orchestras were able to pay their musicians 52 weeks a year , seasons typically lasted only about 20 - 22 weeks , and the musicians were paid only for every week they worked .
So it's simply not feasable for a music director to conduct every week of concerts during the regular season , let alone Summer festivals . And it's not true that orchestras sound aliike today . They don't because this is impossible , as orchestras consist of different musicians playing different makes of instruments in concert halls with different acoustics .
It's also a cliche that today's pianists , violinists , cellists and other solo musicians have fantastic techniques , but also lack individuality of style and interpretive depth . Supposedly , those of the past had more individuality , imagination and "personality " and treated the music with much more freedom and flair . Those of today tend to be pedantically literal intrpreters , despite the fact that composers expected musicians to take liberties with the music according to their own discretion .
But that's a myth . I wish I had a dollar for every review I've read in recent years where this or that prominent pianist of our time was excoriated by critics for all the liberties he or she allegedly took with the music . Now wait a minute . Either today's pianists are too pedantically literal or they take too many liberties with the music and are guilty of willful distortion of the music . Both claims can't be true .
Critics insist on having it both ways . This shows the double standard they apply to musicians of the past and present . Those of the past are praised for their interpretive freedom , while those of the past are mercilessly lambasted for THEIR interpretive license .
But it's no use . If you're a classical musician today , you're damned if you do and damned if you don't .
I suppose it's human nature to long for the good old days , the supposed "Golden Age " , when everything was so much better , purer , conditions were ideal , etc. This is endemic among opera fans and mavens . They're always complaining about how much better the great opera singers of the past were , and how there's no one singing opera today who can match them , except for maybe one or two today they happen to like a lot .
In fact , you can find evidence of people longing for the good old days all the way back to ancient Rome . They had a term back then called " Laudator Temporis Actii " - one who praises bygone days . And composer , critic and passionate opera fan Greg Sandow is at it again in his latest blog post at artsjournal.com , praising the late Italian tenor Mario Del Monaco (1915 -1982 ) , who was very famous years ago , and whose recordings of such great Italian tenor roles as Otello , Radames in Aida , Cavaradossi in Tosca and others can still be heard on CD .
According to Sandow , no tenor today sings with such power and raw emotional intensity , and he cites recorded evidence of live performances by this once famous tenor as evidence . He says that audiences seem to go wild with enthusiasm on these recordings about Del Monaco , and claims that audiences at the Metropolitan opera today , never act like this . That's debatable. I've heard and seen audiences at the Met in recent years cheer some present day singers with real passion .
Sandow states that singers today may be far superior in musicianship , but that something has been lost - "a spark , some spontaneity and a sense of electric immediacy ". Sure . I was reading similar things in reviews over 40 years ago when I was just a teenager and in my first stages of being an opera fan . I 'm no stranger to Del Monaco's voice myself , having heard quite a few of his recordings , even though I never had a chance to see him live on stage .
It's a powerful , ringing tenor voice ; not sweetly lyrical , and a bit hard and steely . Del Monaco was the most famous Otello of his age , and so identified with that Verdi character that he was buried in his costume for the role ! You can get his famous recording of Otello with the late Renata Tebaldi as Desdemona and Herbert Von Karajan conducting the Vienna Philharmonic on Decca records .
But the great Placido Domingo is the most famous Otello of our time , and such a great singing actor that the late , great Lawrence Olivier , so famous for portraying Shakespeare's Othello was left almost speechless with admiration for the Spanish tenor's Otello when he saw him sing the role on stage . He said -"And the *** can sing ,too !"
I've heard all three of Domingo's recordings of the role with conductors James Levine , Lorin Maazel , and Myung Whun Chung . You can also see Domingo in the Franco Zeffirelli film of the opera on DVD , and live from the Met on DVD .
But our age is hardly lacking in great singers , and ones who don't just have great voices but who can really act also make audiences today go wild with enthusiasm . Any operatic era which has the lies of sopranos Karita Mattila, Deborah Voigt , Anna Netrebko , Natalie Dessay , mezzos Susan Graham , Olga Borodina , Stephanie Blythe , tenors Pavarotti, Domingo , Ben Heppner, Juan Diego Florez, Rolando Villazon , baritones Bryn Terfel , Thomas Hampson , and basses James Morris , Samuel Ramey , and Rene Pape , to name only a handful , has nothing to be ashamed of .
And you can be sure that 40 or 50 years from now , when most of us are gone , opera fans will be longing for today's golden age !
Das Lied Von Der Erde - The Song Of The Earth - is one of Mahler's last works , written before his untimely death in 1911 from a heart ailment shortly before his 51st birthday . It is a cycle of six songs for tenor , mezzo-soprano or baritone with orchestra based on freely adapted translations of ancient Chinese poetry by the German poet Hans Bethge .
These loose German translations were published by Bethge in a book called "The Chinese Flute ", and Mahler was instantly taken with them when he read it in 1907 , when he was at the height of his acclaim as a conductor in Europe , and stepped down as music director of the prestigious Vienna Court opera after ten stormy and controversial but highly eventful years , and soon to move to America to lead both the Metropolitan Opera and New York Philharmonic .
Despite his enormous success as a conductor , Mahler had also endured a number of setbacks and tragedies , such as his heart ailment , the cabals , infighting and downright anti-semitism which forced him to resign his post in Vienna and the crushing loss of his older daughter , only five years old , from scarlet fever .
Das Lied Von Der Erde is a powerful and intensely emotional work ; the poems set are melancholy yet never depressing meditations on the impermanence of life, the inevitability of death , and desperate yearnings to enjoy life while it lasts . The first , third and fifth songs are for tenor , and the second, fourth and sixth are for mezzo-soprano (alto) , but are sometimes sung by a baritone . There are elements of Chinese coloring in the music , such as the use of the pentatonic (five tone) scale .
The first song is called "The Drinking Song Of Earthly Misery ". The tenor sings bitterly of the inevitability of death , and how a golden goblet of wine , when misfortune and sorrow strike , is " worth more than all the riches of the earth " "Dark is life, and dark is death ". "The sky is eternally blue , and the earth will last for ages and always bloom in spring . But how long do you last , o man ? You are not even granted a hundred years to enjoy all the rotten trifles of this world !"
The second is called "The lonely One In Autumn ". This song is quietly melancholy . The alto sings that " her heart is weary , and that she weeps long in her lonliness". The autumn mists drift like blue streaks over the lake ; the sweet scent of flowers is gone and an icy wind blows . " I come to you , beloved resting place ; give me refreshment . Sun of love , will you never come again to dry my bitter tears ?"
The third song is a more cheerful interlude called "Of Youth ". " A jade bridge arches like a tiger's back over the pavilion . Inside the little house , friends are drinking and chatting ; some are writing verses down . They are handsomely dressed . The little pavilion is reflected in the water which surrounds it .
The fourth is called "Of Beauty ". Young girls are plucking lotuses by the riverbank . They gather the blossoms and call teasingly to each other . The golden sun shines over their forms and reflects them in the clear water . Suddenly , a group of handsome young men on horseback draws near . They flash like sunbeams in the distance and the horse neigh merrily . The fairest of the maidens casts looks longingly toward one of the young men , and her anxious heart is still throbbing .
The fifth is called "The Drunkard In Springtime ". If life is but a dream , why should we toil away in misery ? I drink to my heart's content all day , until I can drink no more, and then I stagger home and have a wonderful sleep !" And what do I hear when I awake ? A bird is singing in the tree . I ask him if spring is here yet, and he twitters "Yes, it came over night !".
I keep drinking and singing until the moon shines out in the dark sky . And when I can sing no more, I fall asleep again . What do I care about the spring ? Let me be drunk !
The final song , and the longest by far , is called "Der Abschied ", or the farewell or parting , and draws the cycle to an almost unbearably poignant end . The sun sinks behind the mountains . See how the moon floats above in the heavens like a silver ship on the blue sea . I stand here waiting for my friend to bid him the final farewell . Where are you ? You have left me alone for so long !
O beauty , o world , drunk forever with love and life ! My friend dismounted and gave me the parting cup . I asked him where he was going , and also why it must be . "O my friend , fortune was not kind to me in this world !
Whither shal I go ? I shall wander in the mountains to seek rest for my lonely heart . I shall wander to my native land , never to roam elsewhere . My heart is still , and I await my last hour . "
Everywhere , the dear earth blossoms again in spring and grows green anew . Everywhere , horizons are blue and bright ! For ever....
The music fades gradually into silence . So ends this unforgettable masterpiece by Gustav Mahler .
Das Lied was first performed in 1912 , a year after the composer's death , and the great German conductor Bruno Walter , (1876 - 1962 ) , who had been Mahler's close friend and disciple , conducted . He left three recordings of the work , the first two with the Vienna Philharmonic , which had been Mahler's own orchestra , and the last , recorded with the New York Philharmonic not long before his death, and may still be available ; check arkivmusic.com .
Another Mahler disciple , the equally great but very different Otto Klemperer (1885-1973) , also recorded it in the 1960s for EMI records in London . Other eminent conductors who have recorded Das Lied include Leonard Bernstein , Sir Georg Solti , Herbert Von Karajan , Klaus Tennstedt , Fritz Reiner , and more recently , Lorin Maazel , Sir Simon Rattle , and Pierre Boulez .
Many great singers have also recorded it with these conductors , including mezzo Christa Ludwig , tenor Fritz Wunderlich , baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau , and even Placido Domingo , whose recording with Esa-Pekka Salonen I have just heard after taking it out from my library , which prompted my writing this post .
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