January 2010 - Posts
There's so much talk today about what's wrong with America ; the vulgar , lowest common denominator culture , the rampant ignorance of so many Americans (ever see the hilarious but embarassing exposes of ignorant Americans with Jay Leno ?) , the poor education received by so many youngsers in our public schools etc .
But the fact that this nation also has so many world -class symphony orchestras and opera companies and has produced so many great classical musicians is something that we Americans can and should be proud of . It shows that this nation is not entirely a country of crass materialism and apathy .
This is why the news that the world-famous Philadelphia Orchestra , a historic ensemble which has toured the world to great acclaim and made so many great recordings is not only facing serious financial problems but may actually declare bankruptcy soon is so disturbing . It's only one of many great classical music institutions in America which are threatened by the difficult economic times .
If so , it will be the first of America's so-called big fig orchestras (New York , Boston, Cleveland, Philadelphia and Chicago ) to do this . Not an encouraging sign . Other fine orchestras such as those of Columbus Ohio, Cincinnati, Honolulu, Phoenix, and elsewhere have succumbed to financial woes , and others are at risk .
In addition , the Baltimore Opera, Opera Pacific in California, the Connecticut and Orlando operas have gone under , and others are feeling the crunch . What a shame ! With all the cultural crassness surrounding us , these great institutions have to go begging . And the livlihoods of so many gifted , hard-working and dedicated musicians are at risk . All of these musical organizations are a national treasure . We have many other national treasures,too. If they were at risk of being lost , there would be great distress nationwide . But where is the national outcry over the sorry state of classical music in America , except among its devotees ?
Joseph Horowitz is a cultural historian of music , author , commentator , consultant to orchestras and former music critic for the New York Times . I've always found him a thought provoking commentator on classical music , even though he can be irritatingly tendentious in his arguments at times and specious in his assertions .
His new blog at the always interesting website artsjournal.com is called "The Unanswered Question ", named after a brief and puzzling orchestral piece by the great American composer Charles Ives . It discusses the current state of classical music in America , what he finds wrong with it , changes in the field , and historical perspective . As he usually does , Horowitz makes comparisons , often invidious , between what classical music was in the past in America and the present day .
Among his assertions are that classical music is too conservative and commercialized today , and that our orchestras and opera companies are much too conservative in their programming , and that there is more interest in virtuoso performers than contemporary composers . However , he merely tends to rehash many of the myths about classical music which I recently discussed here .
One of his bugaboos is what he calls "The Culture Of Performance ". In books such as "Classical Music In America " and "Understanding Toscanini , he deplores the way audiences in America have supposedly been more interested in such legendary musicians as conductor Arturo Toscanini , violinist Jascha Heifetz , and other classical superstars past and present , than in hearing important new works by contemporary composers , and how this has supposedly harmed musical culture in America ,made it too commericalized and hidebound .
To a certain extent , he's right . Many concertgoers ARE hidebound in their tastes and are extremely reluctant to hear difficult new music and even difficult works from the past by once avant-garde composers . And there is a great deal of hype and slick publicity surrounding famous classical musicians, past and present .
But what he neglects to mention is that this has in no way prevented new music from being heard in our time . In his book Understanding Toscanini , he shows how conservative the legendary Italian conductor's programming was in the late years of his remarkably long career , when he was conductor of the NBC Symphony in New York, which functioned from 1937 until his death in 1957 ,shortly before his 90th birthday .
It's true that Toscanini tended to concentrate on the familiar masterpieces by Beethoven, Schubert , Brahms , etc in his later years , and was totally out of symapthy with most contemporary composers at the time . But this did not prevent other leading conductors of the day, such as Leopold Stokowski , Dimitri Mitropoulos and others from regularly performing new music by a wide variety of then living composers , nor did it have a lastingly negative effect on classical music up to the present day , as he speciously maintains .
Today , we have many prominent American ,European and Asian conductors who champion the important composers of the present . Yes, the familiar masterpieces of the past are still popular, but they co-exist with new music , as they should . And audience enthusiasm and curiosity about superstar performers is nothing new . In 18th century opera in Europe, the Castrati , or male eunuch singers , were the Rock stars of the time, and operagoers went crazy over them . In the early 19th century , the legendary violin virtuoso Nicolo Paganini was a superstar who captured the imagination of concertgoers all over Europe ; there were many superstar muscians in the past .
Horowitz has his own website josephhorowitz.com, where you can read some of his articles and commentary , and find out about his books, which you should definitely read, but take with a grain of salt .
The colorful and melodious music of such 19th century Russian composers as Tchaikovsky , Rimsky-Korsakov , Mussorgsky and Borodin has been a fixture at orchestral concerts everywhere for well over a century , but there is another Russian composer whose music has somehow never managed to establish itslef in the repertoire . This is Mily Balakirev (1837-1910 ) , who died a century ago this year .
This is truly unfortunate , because any one who enjoys the music of the previously mentioned composers should find Balakirev's (accent the second syllable), very appealing . He was a close associate of Mussorgsky , Rimsky, and the other leading 19th century Russian composers , and a very important influence on the develpment of Russian music .
Let's hope that the centennial of his death will give the classical music world a chance to get to know his music better . Balakirev was born in the city of Nizhny Novgorod in 1837 and like his contemporary Russian composers , was largely self taught , as Russia did not have a tradition of music schools and established teachers of composition . Conservatories did not open in Moscow and St.Petersburgh until well into the 19th century .
Balakirev was an accomplished pianist and learned empirically by studying the music of western composers from the extensive music library of a wealthy Russian music lover by the name of Ulibishev as a young man , and was also influenced by the father of Russian music Mikhail Glinka (1804 -1857 ) , best known for his two operas A Life For The Tsar and Russlan And Ludmilla . He made an intensive study of Russian folk songs , and became interested in the exotic folk music of the Caucasus , which Russia had colonized .
Perhaps his best known work is the fiendishly difficult piano piece Islamey , which has been a showpiece for many of the greatest piano virtuosos for well over a century , and which was orchestrated by another Russian composer by the name of Sergei Liapunov , now pretty much forgotten , as well as the 20th century Italian composer Alfredo Casella . Islamey is based on the folk music of the Caucasus , the ancient and exotic land mass between the Black and Caspian seas , and which has currently been in the news because of the conflict between Russia and the recently independent Republic of Georgia .
Balakirev also wrote two symphonies , a variety of other short piano pieces and two piano sonatas , two piano concertos , choral works and several orchestral works etc. The first symphony is a work whose neglect is difficult for me to understand ; it is full of wonderful thematic ideas and melodic invention . It has however , been recorded by such eminent conductors as Herbert von Karajan , Sir Thomas Beecham , Neeme Jarvi and Yevgeny Svetlanov etc, and you should not miss it .
The symphonic poem Tamara is a highly atmospheric orchestral work about a treacherous medieval Georgian queen and actual historical figure who was reputed to have had all her paramours killed and thrown into the Aragvi river, which flows through the Georgian capital of Tbilisi .
Balakirev was a part of the so-called "Group of five" , which included Rimsky-Korsakov, Borodin , Mussorgsky and the now forgotten Cesar Cui , a minor composer best known as a rather acerbic critic music critic , who were responsible for establishing a Russian national school of composition . Tchaikovsky was not part of it , and was considered too cosmopolitan and infuenced by western European music , despite the fact that his music is just as Russian as the others .
Unfortunately , as far as I can tell , Balakirev's orchestral works are not being performed by today's leading conductors in his centennial year , but you should definitely go to arkivmusic.com to look for recordings by this sadly neglected composer ; you be glad you did .
There are a number of myths about classical music which keep circulating . Some of these are popular misconceptions about this magnificent , centuries old art form and others are canards which have been circulated by music critics and other supposed experts .
1 Myth : Classical music is stuffy , boring and "elitist ". Fact : Classical music is no "stuffier " than other kinds of music . True , audiences aren't as loud and rowdy as at Rock concerts , and orchestra musicians tend to wear formal dress ar concerts, but what on earth is wrong with that ? Orchestras in formal wear can look quite spiffy . Many years ago , in the heyday of such great Jazz musicians as Duke Ellington and Count Basie , Jazz musicians wore snazzy apparel and no one complained .
Yes, audiences at concerts tend to be quiet at concerts (but not when it's time to applaud ), but this is no different than when people go to the movies . No one likes loud, disruptive people at at the movies ; they're trying to concentrate on the film . Why should it be any different at concerts ? And when you're listening to classical music at concerts , it's not just casual entertainment ; you're trying to concentrate on music that's much more complex than what you hear at a concert by some Pop star .
And the term "elitist " implies that our orchestras and opera companies are trying to exclude people who aren't wealthy and who may be people of color etc . They don't want to exclude any one. On the contrary , they very much want to reach out to people , of whatever age and ethnicity who haven't previously come to concerts or opera performances . Their adminoistrations emply people whose job is to try to reach out to people and get them to come on a regular basis or at least sometimes . Every one involved in classical music , whether as performer, administrator or educator , wants to increase the audience for classical music .
Myth : There's something wrong with classical music today . There's too much music from the past being performed , and too little new music . In the past, all or most music was new . Today it's the opposite . Fact: There is absolutely no lack of new music today . New operas by many different contemporary composers have been premiered in recent years , among them , Philip Glass, John Adams , William Bolcom , Tan Dun , Harrison Birtwistle , Hans Werner Henze , Thomas Ades (Ah-des), Ned Rorem , Kaaia Saariaho , James MacMillan, Elliott Carter , Tobias Picker , Jake Heggie, Richard Danielpour , Helmut Lachenmann , and others . These composers include Germans, Americans , Englishmen, and ones from Scandinavia , Scotland and China , and there are also ones from other countries such as France , the Netherlands, South Korea , Russia , Poland , Italy , and elsewhere .
An enormous number of new orchestral works have been premiered in recent years by who knows how many composers from all over the world , and not only white males . There are more women composers than ever before , and some have written works which have been widely performed .
And it's misleading to say that in the past , most music was new . In the time of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven etc , the orchestra as we know itwas a relatively new thing ; they simply did not have the enormous accumulation of repertoire which exists today . Also , that are vastly more orchestras and opera companies today than in the past , and a vastly greater number of composers and performing musicians . The world of classical music is infinitely larger than in the past , and no longer confined to Europe and America .
Myth : Classical music is not "relevant " any more . It has nothing to offer most people . It's a distant thing from the past totally out of touch with the realities of today . Relevance is a loaded word, because what's relevant to one person isn't necessarily relevant to another . And every kind of music , whether classical ,Jazz , Rock,Pop, Folk , Country or whatever is relevant to those who loveat particular kind of music . Devotees of classical music could just as easily say that other kinds of music aren't relevant , and that classical is the only "relevant" music , but other people would condemn them for being snobs and elitists .
Myth: Classical music is in decline in regards to performance standards . Opera isn't what it used to be; the are few if any great singers , and in the past we had the golden age of opera , when great singers were abundant . Also , solo violinists, cellists and pianists of today are nowhere near the equal in interpretive flair and imagination as those of the past , when musicians had real individuality ,style and flair . Today , all or most musicians are pedantically literal performers and there are few if any musicians with any individuality or "personality ". The same is true of conductors today.
Fact : There is absolutely no lack of great opera singers , violinists ,pianists , cellists , conductors or whatever kind of performers . Reports of the pedantic literalism have been greatly exaggerated , as there have been countless reviews in recent years by criticshave mercilessly lambasted musicians for all the liberties they have allegedly taken with the music .
Orchestras today sound alike . There are few if any which have distinctive sound , unlike in the past , when you could tell national differences between orchestras , whether German , French , Russian etc.
Fact : It's impossible for orchestras to sound alike , as they consist of different musicians playing different makes of instruments in concert halls with different acoustics . There have been rumors of all or most orchestras sounding alike today for many years , but this appears to be a psychological illusion caused by the assumption that everything in classical music was so much better in the past . German, French , American , Russian, Czech and English orchestras etc, still sound very different .
So please don't believe these myths . They give people the mistaken idea that it's not worth attending orchestra concerts or the opera , or whatever kind of classical performance . On the contrary ; it's never been more worthwhile .
This January , Opera News magazine has the gorgeous Latvian mezzo soprano Elina Garanca (ga-RAN-cha) on the cover . She's anything but your stereotypical operatic "Fat Lady " . Garanca is the latest of no fewer than 70 sopranos and mezzos to sing the juicy role of the gypsy Femme Fatale Carmen in Bizet's ever popular opera at the Met .
Carmen can be sung either by sopranos or mezzos , and has been a specialty of such great singers as Leontyne Price , Marilyn Horne . Grace Bumbry , Teresa Berganza , Tatiana Troyanos , Regina Resnik , Rise Stevens , to name only a handful . There are interesting interviews with Garanca and the director of the new Carmen , Richard Eyre , a distinguished English director , who is making his Met duebut with this new production .
David J Baker also has an interesting article comparing the approaches to interpreting the opera by different singers and conductors on recordings , and you can see pictures of the sets for the new production . Features editor Brian Kellow interviews the conductor of this production, the rising young French Canadian Yannick-Netet-Seguin , who is also making his Met debut and has just become music director of the Rotterdam Philharmonic in the Netherlands .
As usual during the radio boradcast season , this month's broadcast operas are profiled , with synopsis , lists of cast, conductors etc , and recommendation for CDs and DVDs to get of each opera . The operas are Der Rosenkavalier, Carmen , Verdi's rarely performed Stiffelio , and Simon Boccanegra, in which tenor Placido Domingo is singing the baritone lead role in the opera for the first time , as he had originally started out as a baritone .
There are reviews of opera performances from Los Angeles , San Francisco , Dallas , Houston , Toronto , Paris , and London , and reviews of the latest opera and vocal recordings and DVDs , including a CD of a recent operatic version of Tolstoy's Anna Karenina by American composer David Carlson , as well as book reviews including a new biography of Tchaikovsky by musicologist Roland John Wiley . You can also check out the magazine's website ,operanews.com .
If you love opera ,or if you'd like to get involved with this fascinating and infinitely diverse art form , you can't afford to mis Opera News Magazine .
The Audition , an absorbing documentary by Susan Froemke , looks at the Metropolitan Opera's 2007 National Council Auditions , a national competition for aspiring young opera singers which gives the winners a chance to sing a concert of opera arias at the Met and possibly launch them onto a major career in opera . It was aired last last night on PBS , but you can easily purchase it on DVD .
These Met auditions have launched the careers of many of America's finest opera singers , including such illustrious names as Renee Fleming , Susan Graham and Thomas Hampson , who make a brief appearance on the documentary recalling how they were winners in this prestigious competition years ago . Thousands of aspiring young singers compete on the national level in local auditions , and the finalists come to New York and the Met for a period of instense coaching and evaluation by exacting judges from not only the Met but other leading US opera houses .
It's a daunting experience ; the talented young singers who have made it through the grueling previous rounds are under enormous pressure must control their nerves and sing before a group of the most demanding experts , including the Met's leading reharsal coaches and artistic administrators , who are looking for the cream of the crop . They are highly exacting, but very sympathetic and supportive . The young singers include sopranos , tenors and a baritone and range from 22 to 30 .
If you think American idol is tough , it's nothing compared to these competitive auditions The general level of talent is infinitely higher and if you don't have what it takes , forget about it . Becoming an opera singer takes years of rigorous training and the technical demands are infinitely greater than for singing popular music . The judges are looking for young singers who don't just sing well , but who can really communicate the essence of the music .
The young singers talk about their hopes , aspirations and goals , and the judges discuss the singer's strengths and weaknesses . There are many factors taken into consideration ; the competitor's appearance , levels of training and experience , their command of different operatic styles , and their potential for development and artistic growth .
The exciting climax of the documentary is the gala concert at the Met where the young singers get to work with the noted Italian conductor Marco Armiliato and the Met orchestra singing a variety of famous arias by composers such as Verdi , Puccini , Rossini and Wagner before the public . Even if you aren't an opera fan , don't miss this fascinating documentary . You can find more information about it at PBS.org .
Hungarian-born opera and vocal expert George Jellinek , 90 long a fixture of WQXR , has passed away at the venerable age of 90 . George was a beloved figure at the nation's top classical music station , and served as its music director for many years .
He was a walking encyclopedia of matters operatic , and an authority on singers and singing . His sindicated program "The Vocal Scene " on WQXR , which went off the air several years ago , was something opera lovers all over America listened to religiously , including your s truly .
The show covered all aspects of opera, operetta , art song and other vocal works , and featured many of the world's greatest opera singers , as well as some once famous ones now known only to experts from very old and precious recordings . Sometimes he would feature recordings by a particular singer ,past or present , and sometimes he would focus on a particular opera , popular or obscure , or the operas and other vocal music of composers such as Mozart , Rossini, Verdi , Puccini, Wagner or whomever .
Famous singers , active or retired , would sometimes appear on his show as guests to discuss their current activities or to wax nostalgic about the past of opera , and sometimes George would have different recordings of a particular opera aria by a variety of singers to compare fine points of interpretation . His show was always highly entertaining and informative . He also wrote a very interesting book called "History Through The Opera Glass" which showed the historical connections to many famous operas based on actual historical personages and events .
Jellinek also reviewed opera and vocal recordings for the now defunct Hi-Fi magazine Stereo Review , and whether one agreed with him or not on his verdicts on any given recording , you could never deny his great expertise . He was a true gentleman and a scholar . Every one who knew him or knew him only from his voice on WQXR or his writings will mis him greatly .
Every year , there are several hundred vacancies in American symphony orchestras , and the comptetition for these jobs is unbelievably stiff , particularly in such top orchestras as New York , Chicago , Boston, Philadelphia , Cleveland , and Los Angeles etc . As the old saying goes , many are called , but few are chosen .
More than 300 musicians may send in resumes to any given orchestra in the attempt to gain a position there . As a horn player , I've been through the arduous experience of auditioning more than a few times , and it's not a fun experience by any means . You can check an earlier post on my blog about auditioning called "How do you get a job in a symphony orchestra ? "
But few openings receive the kind of publicity as the difficult search to find a successor to the renowned clarinettist Stanley Drucker as principal in the New York Philharmonic after an astonishing 60 years with the orchestra . After auditioning about 200 clarinettists , the audition committee and new music director Alan Gilbert were unable to find a candidate considered worthy to succeed Drucker , despite the fact that the cream of the clarinet world vied for this key position .
Now , according to Daniel Wakin of the New York Times , the orchestra has invited a number of clarinettists from top US orchestras to appear as guests with the orchestra at actual concerts before the final decision is made . Usually at auditions , the process is divided into preliminaries , in which the vast majority of the candidates are eliminated , and final auditions , in which a handful of finalists are given more time to play than in the preliminaries in order for the audition committee and the music director to make a decision . The audition committee is a group of key musicians from the orchestra , whose membership changes based on the instrument being auditioned . If it's a violin opening , the audition committee consists of principals from the string sections , including the concertmaster , who is the first chair violinist . In the case of woodwind and brass, principals and others from those sections make up the audition committee .
The music director , who is the orchestra's chief conductor , joins the committee for the finals only , because they are generally too busy to hear all the candidates in the preliminaries . In order to eliminate any possibility of favoritism or bias based on race or gender , the preliminaries are behind a screen , and each applicant is given a number to ensure anonimity . Only the finals are in the open , although in auditions for the Metropolitan opera orchestra , even the finals are behind a screen . Some orchestras , such as the New York Philharmonic , have an extra round before finals called the semi-finals .
Associate principal New York Philharmonic clarinettist Mark Nuccio has been serving as acting principal until the winning candidate is chosen . But it won't be an easy job succeeding Stanley Drucker .
Last night , on CBS, I something you don't see very often on television ; the Metropolitan Opera actually had a commercial promoting itself . This led me to think. Why don't more of our opera companies and symphony orchestras do this ?
It might be just what they need to increase audiences . Of course , this is expensive . But classical music in America needs all the publicity it can get in order to survive and attract new audiences , young or not so young . Every one in this field is concerned about the graying of audiences . New blood is desperately needed at concerts and opera .
And television isn't the only place where advertising could be useful . Radio commericals and brochures in the mail might be helpful, too . Of course , I regularly get notices in the mail about classical music , but I'm in contact with the classical music world , and on mailing lists .
Even though many people would probbably just throw ads out from the Metropolitan , New York Philharmonic or other similar organizations out , possibly some people who have never attended classical performances and know little or nothing about this kind of music would notice , be intrigued , and try getting tickets for performances . Who knows ?
Possibly more people would come to realize that classical music isn't the "elitist" thing they believe it to be .
Melody is certainly an important part of music , classical or of whatever kind , but in classical music , it's far from being everything . Popular music without catchy melodies would seem to be an oxymoron . But take a symphony , for example , whether by Haydn , Mozart or Beethoven etc . A symphony isn't about melodies , per se , but what a composer does with the themes .
It isn't just a collection of nice tunes . Beethoven could take simple melodic ideas and transform them into a masterpiece by the way he manipulated and transformed those basic building blocks into a coherent whole . As we say in classical music , he developes those melodies . How ?
What we call sonata form , which is found in the first and sometimes last movements of a typical symphony , consists of thre parts ; a exposition , in which the basic themes are presented , the development section in which the themes are transformed and which tends to modulate to different keys from the opening , and the recapitulation , or where the main theme returns in more or less its original form back in the key of the opening . Of course , this is an oversimplification .
In the course of a symphony , the rhythms of the melodies are changed , and they wander into more distant keys ; if the melodies start out in the major , they change to the minor form of the key , and back , or vice versa .
Of course , some classical music is very tuneful , such as the works of Tchaikovsky , for example , or the operas of Verdi and Puccini , and this is very appealing to audiences , which is fine . But other composers , such as Arnold Schoenberg and his pupils in the 20th century often baffles people who are not familiar with it by its apparent lack of hummable melodies , and the fact that it's not in any key .
But if you examine it further , you'll see that there are some recognizable melodic ideas in Schoenberg's 12-tone music . But these melodic ideas are very jagged and not conventionally hummable . And if you take the time and effort to give these challenging works repeated hearings , you may find that they begin to make sense and sound coherent .
This isn't to say that classical music is "superior " to popular music . It's just very different . Much of it is not intended for casual listening ; the mind has to be actively engaged to enjoy it . But that's one of the things which make classical music so rewarding to listen to .
Everything worked out wonderfully yesterday when my cellist friend Richard Sher appeared at United Hebrew nursing home to perform for the residents and some other visitors . I introduced him to the audience and told them about his impressive credentials as a musician , and told them something about the cello suites .
There was an audience in the auditorium of about 30 to 40 people , certainly more than usually come for my Friday classical music program . But most of those were there ,too . Richard played beautifully and left no doubt that he is not only a formidable cellist but a first-rate musician .
After the performance , we had a spirited discussion about the music and what it's like to be a professional musician , and Richard spoke about his life experiences as an orchestral musician in Boston and St.Louis and as a free lancer in New York playing with a wide variety groups and performing abroad . We hope to have him come back as soon as possible to play , this time possibly with a pianist or other musicians .
Many in the audience were not very knowledgable about classical music , but this did not stop them from enjoying the performance . It's never too late to start listening to it !
I'm really looking forward to today . Noted cellist Richard Sher , for many years a leading free lance musician in New York and former member of the Boston Symphony , will be appearing at United Hebrew geriatric center where I have my classical music program for residents to play two of the wonderful suites for unaccompanied cello by Bach .
Richard and I became friends several months ago when he was visiting United Hebrew and we met by chance . We now meet once a week to discuss classical music , current events and to listen to interesting music on CD . He has an impressive resume , having studied at Juilliard with the great cellist and teacher Leonard Rose , and having performed for his idol , the legendary Spanish cellist Pablo Casals in master classes .
He became a member of no less an orchestra than the Boston Symphony before he was out of his teens and later became principal cellist of the St. Louis Symphony , then moving to New York to become a free lance musician and regular substitute in the New York Philharmonic , and playing in such leading New York musical institutions as the Orpheus Chamber orchestra, the Orchestra of St.Luke's , the American Composer's orchestra and other groups . He was also the cellist of the well-known Vermeer quartet , and has worked with many renowned conductors such as Lorin Maazel , Leonard Bernstein , Julius Rudel , Rafael Kubelik to name only a few .
A word about the Bach suites for cello . These are six suites for unaccompanied cello , each in six movements . The first movements are stately introductions , and the succeeding ones are courtly dances such as minuets , sarabandes , gavottes, allemandes , etc , ending in lively gigues . They appear to have been written in the 1720s , but languished in obscurity until the great cellist Pablo Casals (1876-1973 ) began to champion and record them in the 20th century .
Since then , they have been performed and recorded by leading cellists everywhere such as Mstislav Rostropovich and others , and transcribed for performance on many other instruments , including my instrument the horn . I performed excerpts from then on the horn a number of times in the past while I was still playing , and they work very well and are very enjoyable to play on this instrument . Casal's recordings of the original suites , made about 70 years ago , are considered classics of the recorded repertoire . They are still available on CD .
There's a very interesting article in the Arts and leisure section of the Sunday New York Times on the eminent but controversial composer and conductor Pierre Boulez , who turns 85 this March , and is set to conduct the Vienna Philharmonic in Carnegie Hall later this week by Michael Kimmelman , who has served as chief art critic of the Times but also covers classical music .
Boulez is one of today's most important composers , but is perhaps better known to the public as a conductor . He succeeded the glamorous and charismatic Leonard Bernstein as music director of the New York Philharmonic in 1971 and was previously music director of London's B.B.C. Symphony orchestra , and has been a regular guest conductor of such great orchestras as the Berlin Philharmonic , the Chicago Symphony , the Vienna Philharmonic and the Cleveland Orchestra , as well as conducting opera at the Wagner Festival in Bayreuth , London's Royal Opera , the Paris Opera and elsewhere , which has unfortunately given him less time to compose , although he is planning to cut down on his schedule to devote more time to this .
This brilliant and cerebral Frenchman achieved international prominence in the late 1940s after studying in Paris with the great composer and organist Olivier Messiaen at the Paris conservatoire and adopting Schoenberg's 12-tone compositional techniques and making them even more complex and mystifying . Among his works are three fiendishly difficult piano sonatas , and works for ensembles of assorted instruments such as "Pli Selon Pli" (fold along fold ) and "Le Marteau Sans Maitre" (the hammer without a master) , some of which use vocal texts based on French symbolist poets such as Stephane Mallarme .
These works can be extremely baffling to audiences who are accustomed to such familiar concert fare as Beethoven, Brahms , Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov , but are available on recordings and repay repeated hearings . Boulez has often come across as being opinionated to the point of arrogance . He scorns contemporary composers who are insufficiently avant-garde for him , and loathes the music of popular composers such as Tchaikovsky , whose music he refuses to conduct .
His repertoire has tended to concentrate on such important 20th century figures as Schoenberg and his pupils Alban Berg and Anton Webern , Stravinsky , Messiaen , Debussy , Debussy Ravel and Wagner , plus a handful of contemporary composers whose music he admires or at least approves of . But he turns up his nose at 20th century composers such as Shostakovich and others who never abandoned tonality .
But in recent years he has become interested in such composers as Anton Bruckner and Leos Janacek , whose music he had previously thought too old-fashioned , despite the fact that in the 19th century , Bruckner was just about as avant-garde a composer as there was . Boulez stated many years ago that any composer who did not use 12-tone serialism was "useless ", despite the fact that concertgoers tend to enjoy this kind of music as much as being tortured on the rack .
Yet he has recently admitted that he had been too extreme in the past and that it's unrealistic to expect concertgoers to accept a steady diet of mind-bogglingly complex serial music . American tonal composer composer Ned Rorem , who disapproves of much of this kind of music , has described Boulez and other uncompromising modernists as "serial killers " .
Yes , many concertgoers want to be comforted at concerts by their beloved familiar masterpieces , but in some ways Boulez is right . We cannot allow classical music to stagnate . Like it or not , new music has to be heard . Audiences should at least try to keep an open mind . And what use is it for contemporary composers to write nothing but a pale imitation of the music of the past ? Music has to move on . Stravinsky did not compose like Tchaikovsky . Scheonberg did not compose like Brahms (except for his early works ), and Beethoven did not compose like Haydn and Mozart .
So all honor to this fiercely uncompromising seminal figure in modern music . Only time will tell what his place in the history of western classical music will be .
The Honolulu Symphony has recently filed for bankruptcy . It's not surprising in these difficult economic times , but unfortunately typical of America in its reluctance to support classical music . The Baltimore Opera , Opera pacific in California , the Connecticut and Orlando , Florida opera companies have gone under , and many other American orchestras and opera companies are also in danger of going under , might have to reduce the number of performances they give pers season and many musicians have or will have to accept pay cuts .
Yet many Washington politicians and others are angry about the government allegedly supporting "obscene" art works and forcing taxpayers to pay for it . But how much does the government take out of your heard -earned money every year to support the arts in general ? Less than a dollar. And people are actually complaining about this ?
These same people don't compalin about the trillions which have been wasted in the futile and disastrous Iraq war, but are horrified that the government taxes them less than a pitiful dollar to support the arts . We all have to contribute our tax dollars to support this catastrophe.
And the National Endowment For The Arts doesn't only fund "obscene" art , but many other arts projects which no one could possibly find objectionable . And you should realize that the arts are highly beneficial to society . They provide gainful employment for many talented people ; musicians, actors, dancers etc . They are not just a frivolous entertainment for wealthy people .
Some say that the private secotr , not the government , should support out opera companies and symphonies orchestras . If only this were true ! They do provide some support, but not nearly enough . No one in Europe complains that the arts are generously supported by the government . It's the normal thing to do .
No one is forced to go to art museums to see photographs or other works which some find "obscene". But the REAL obscenity is when our orchestras and opera companies go under .
New York Times chief music critic Anthony Tommasini has an interesting article in this past Sunday's Arts and Lesure section on new developments in the classical music world in terms of audience outreach , a vital thing to ensure that classical music survives .
He discusses how some of America's major classical music organizations have been striving to reach out to young people and involve them in some way with classical music and to try to make them aware that there is more to music than Rock , Hip Hop . Britney Spears and Michael Jackson .
Among the things he cites are the 2007 visit of the great berlin Philharmonic under its music director Sir Simon Rattle to New York . The orchestra played not only its usual concerts in Carnegie Hall , but presented a performance of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring with youngsters from various New York public schools dancing at a theater in Washington Heights , and a more recent performance of Leonard Bernstein's "Mass" with Marin Alsop and the Baltimore Symphony at the same venue in which part of the large choral forces for this work were also youngsters from New York schools , and a recent performance of the "Ode To Joy " from Beethoven's 9th symphony with Gustavo Dudamel at the Hollywood Bowl with massed youngsters from Los Angeles .
Tommasini also cites the enormous success of the Metropolitan Opera's HD broadcasts of some of its live performances in movies theaters across America . His optimism is justified . These are indeed encouraging developments .
But we need more than efforts to introduce young people in our public schools to classical music . Enough damage to this cause has already been done by the deplorable abandonment by so many public schools around the country of music programs . There are still millions of adults who know little or nothing about classical music , and it's not their fault .
How can we reach more and more adults and make them aware of what a wonderful thing classical music is , and get more of them to attend orchestra concerts , the opera, and other ensembles on a regular basis ? Or to purchase and listen to classical CDs, DVDs , watch PBS classical broadcasts , download classical music on their computers etc ?
One thing that needs to be done is to debunk myths about classical music , such as the ridiculous notion that it's only for wealthy snobs who go to the symphony and opera for social reasons , and that it's "stuffy", "boring" and "elitist ". And TV commercials which sterotype opera by portraying it as a joke with fat people in ridiculous Viking costumes don't help , such as the one I discussed last week .
There are adult education courses at various colleges ,universities and public libraries around the country where people can learn about classical music , but I think we need more of them , and perhaps some kind of organization which through publicity would invite more of the public to learn about classical music . For public schools , we need some one who would be the equivalent of Bill Nye, the science guy , explaining classical music to kids the way Mr. Nye explains science to them .
There's a lot to be done. But it's worth it .
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