March 2010 - Posts
The Metropolitan Opera , beset by financial difficulties in these hard economic times , has received a donation of no less than 30 million dollars from philanthropist Ann Ziff , who is also on its board of directors and will soon become its chairwoman .
The Met is the world's largest performing arts organization , and its operating budget is larger than than the combined budgets of all the other numerous opera companies in America . This is wonderful news for our premiere opera company , but there are many other worthy organizations presenting opera in America which are in even greater need of help .
And unfortunately , several US opera companies have gone under recently , such as the Baltimore Opera , Opera Pacific in California , the Orlando Opera in Florida , and the Connecticut Opera . Many others are having financial difficulties and the Los Angeles and San Francisco operas have been forced to lay off some of their adminstrative staffs.
The situation is perhaps even grimmer with many US orchestras . The great Philadelphia Orchestra, one of the world's most prestigious and honored , could become the first of the so-called "Big Five US orchestras to declare bankrupty , and the Honolulu , Columbus ,Ohio , Phoenix, Arizona and other orchestras are threatened by lack of funds to the point of bankruptcy .
Are there other wealthy philanthropists in America who might help America's classical music organizations and keep them from a worst case scenario ? So far, Warren Buffett and Bill Gates don't seem interested , and the National Endowment For The Arts receives a mere pittance from the government and takes less than a dollar each year from each taxpayer to support the arts in America in general .
Yet many politicians and private citizens are foolishly opposed to the NEA , ignorantly assuming that it takes an enormous amount of tax money out of the hands of poor, hard-working Americans to support nothing but "Indecent art".
But no one in Europe objects to the generous government support given to opera companies and symphony orchestras there . It's considered the normal thing for governments to do . Performing arts organizations are expensive propositions . But they are among the national treasures of a nation , and it's shameful for them to allow national treasures to be destroyed . The reluctance in America to help our orchestras and opera companies is a national disgrace .
The venerable maestro Lorin Maazel , who has just turned 80 , has just been appointed chief conductor of the Munich Philharmonic , one of Germany's leading orchestras . This at an age when most people have been retired for some years !
But many great conductors have lived to ripe old ages while continuing to pursue active careers on the podium . Leopold Stokowski conducted his last concert at the age of 90 but continued to make recordings until his death at 95 in 1977 . The eminent French maestro Pierre Monteux was appointed music director of the London Symphony orchestra at Maazel's age , and these are not isolated cases .
Interestingly , Maazel's appointment was decided not just by the administration of the Munich Philharmonic but by the Munich city council ! Can you imagine Mayor Bloomberg and his administrative staff deciding which conductor the New York Philharmonic would choose as music director ? But that goes to show you how important classical music is considered to be in Germany .
The American Maazel succeeds the German Christian Thielemann , who resigned over a dispute with the orchestra's management and who will soon take over as general music director of the Dresden State Orchestra and opera . Maazel is old enough to be Thielemann's father , and had previously served as music director of Munich's Bavarian Radio Symphony orchestra . Each of the government run radio companies in the major German cities supports a world-class symphony orchestra .
Maazel recently stepped down as music director of the New York Philharmonic , now led by the much younger Alan Gilbert . Let's wish the maestro the best in his new position .
Having finally gotten a chance to see the Met's controversial new production of Offenbach's The Tales Of Hoffmann on PBS ( this performance was origninally one of its HD broadcasts in movie theaters ), I can say that the director , Bartlett Sher , has come up with a strikingly original vision of this delightfully strange yet irresistably melodious opera .
I don't recall the name of the designer, but the spare sets with predominantly dark lighting and the fanciful costumes are very effective , and director Sher has created a kind of bizarre , nightmarish Felliniesque world in which the lovesick and besotted poet Hoffmann seems trapped in some kind of nightmare world .
He has also gotten the best out of the cast in terms of acting . The cast was first-rate ; the rising young Maltese-born tenor Joseph Calleja , singing the difficult role of Hoffmann for the first time , showed not only a beautiful voice with a distinctive mellow and plaintive sound ideal for the role , but the considerable acting ability and a highly expressive face (something you would not be able to notice at a great distance in the huge Met auditorium ) .
Is Calleja the next great lyric tenor ? He's certainly very promising . Another promising young singer in the cast and a new to me was mezzo soprano Kate Lindsey , singing the male role of Hoffmann's buddy Niklausse and doubling as the Muse who inspires Hoffmann to write his poetry . She sang suavely and looked convincingly Marlene-Dietrich-esque in this enigmatic role .
The tiny but vocally spectacular Kathleen Kim was utterly convincing as the life-sized mechanical doll Olympia , with whom Hoffmann falls hopelessly in love after being duped into thinking she is real , and who is later destroyed by one of the four villains who serve as his nemesis throughout the opera . She is virtually child-sized but oh can she sing !
A more familiar member of the cast was the gorgeous Russian soprano Anna Netrebko as the ill-fated Antonia , who is too ill from consumption to sing but is prodded into singing herself to death by the sinister Dr. Miracle , one of the four villains who dog Hoffmann throughout the opera , upsetting his love-life , and also sang beautifully . But she's just so gorgeous and charming it's hard to concentrate on her singing and to determine whether she's singing well or not !
Bass-baritone Alan Held sang with devilish glee as the four villains ,councilor Lindorf who angrily destroys Olympia the doll , Dr. Miracle who wheedles Antonia into singing , and Dappertuto , who foils Hoffmann's love with the beautiful Venetian courtesan Giulietta , sung by Russian soprano Ekaterina Gurbanova , here dressed to look something like the Russian empress Catherine the great and who revealed a voluptuous -sounding voice .
The Met chorus ,in its various roles as carousing ,drunken students , floozies , elegant guests at a party to hear Olympia sing etc displayed its dramatic as well as musical ability . Some critics found Sher's production , with its constant swirl of colorful costumes , extras doing various things and strange-looking props unconvincing , but his Fellini-esque approach worked for me,at least .
Finally, the Met's veteran music director James Levine , brought out all of the music's glittering colors, radiant lyricism , and lilting dance rhythms to great effect and supported the singers like the master conductor he is . Too bad he's been forced to cancel his upcoming performances with his Boston Symphony because of back trouble for the time being , but he's been plagued by intermittant helath problems for some time. Let's wish him a speedy recovery .
If you missed Wedensday night's telecast , it will be shown again this Sunday afternoon on PBS , and check the Met's website metopera.org for information on where to see this and other Met performances on the internet , or get this performance when it comes out on DVD.
An era has ended for the world-famous annual Wagner festival at Bayreuth Germany has ended with the death of Wolfgang Wagner , grandson of the immortal but endlessly controversial Richard Wagner at the age of 90 . Wolfgang was the son of composer and conductor Siegfried Wagner , only son of Richard (1869-1930 ) and the great grandson of the legendary pianist and composer Franz Liszt (1811-1886) .
Wagner had recently stepped down as director of the Wagner festival recently because of declining health and the management of the festival was taken over by his daughters Eva and Katharina , who are half sisters .
The Wagner festival in the otherwise sleepy northern Bavarian town of Bayreuth (By- royt) had opened in 1876 to perform the operas of Wagner during the Summer seven years before Wagner's death in 1883 ,and a special festival theater which still exists was built expressly for these festival performances , which have attracted audiences from all over the world since that time , and the management of the festival has been in the Wagner family ever since ,passing from Wagner's widow Cosima, Wolfgang's grandmother and son Siegfried to Wolfgang and his brother Wieland , an opera director and designer who died in 1966 .
The festival had been closed during WW2 and re-opened in 1951 under the direction of Wolfgang and Wieland , who pioneered a radically new way of staging and designing Wagner productions free from the traditional teuronic style with its unfortunate associations with Hitler's love for the composer .
Hitler regularly visited the Bayreuth festival and was a close friend of Wolfgang's English born mother Winifred , an orphan who had been adopted by the Wagner family and who married Siegfried a producing four children; Wieland ,Wolfgang and two daughters, all now deceased .
The Bayreuth festival has featured such great Wagner singers as Birgit Nilsson, Kirsten Flagstad, Lauritz Melchior , Hans Hotter , George London, Wolfgang Windgassen , Leonie Rysanek , Max Lorenz and many other stellar operatic names ,living and dead , as well as such great conductors as Wilhelm Furtwangler, Hans Knappertsbusch , Karl Boehm ,Pierre Boulez, Arturo Toscanini , James Levine , Daniel Barenboim, Christian Thielemann , Sir Georg Solti , Rudolf Kempe , Giuseppe Sinopoli , Carlos Kleiber and others .
The festival orchestra is made of up members of Germany's top orchestras , and there is a ten year waiting list for tickets to the festival . A trip to performances at Bayreuth has been the dream of Wagner lovers all over the world since the late 19th century .
The saga of the Wagner family at Bayreuth, with all its intrigue ,infighting and sexual scandals , makes such television series as Dallas and Dynasty seem tame . Wagner's great grandchildren , children of Wieland and Wolfgang have fought over domination of the festival , and only time will tell what happens under Eva and Katharina Wagner . Katharina ,born as recently as 1978 , recently staged an outrageously anachronistic production of her greatgrandfather's Die Meistersinger Von Nurnberg , set in that historic German city not far from Bayreuth in the 16th century with all manner of ridiculously arbitrary gimmicks in staging and set design .
The writer Fredric Spotts has written a fascinating book on the history of the festival , and Wolfgang Wagner's own autobiography is also well-worth reading , and you can find them at amazon.com. There are a number of DVDs of performances from Bayreuth available and many on CD ; check arkivmusic.com for these .
The rising young African-American tenor Larence Brownlee is on the cover of the April issue of Opera News magazine , and will star in the Met's new production of Rossini's rarely performed opera Armida along with the great soprano Renee Fleming . This is set during the crusades , and is the story of the love between Armida , a Saracen sorceress and Rinaldo , leader of the Christians , who is torn between duty and love .
Opera expert David J Baker has a very interesting article on the historical background of the opera , which is new to the Met , showing how the composer wrote the opera specifically for his wife Isabella Colbran , one of the most famous sopranos of the day .
Jennifer Melick also has an interesting article on the no fewer than six ! tenor roles in the opera and the various tenors singing these demanding roles . Richard Speer , who writes about art and architecture as well as music freelance , has an article on the great leading roles for soprano in the various Puccini operas , such as Mimi in La Boheme, Tosca , Madama Butterly , and Turandot , and how they inspired the composer to write his memorable music .
Critic Tim Page , former music critic of the Washington Post , New York Times and Newday , writes about the upcoming farewell recital of the beloved mezzo soprano Frederica Von Stade , and her illustrious career.
There is the usual coverage of the upcoming broadcast operas of the month with photos of the productions and lists of casts , conductors , designers and directors . Next month's operas are in order : The Magic Flute by Mozart , Verdi's La Traviata , Puccini's Tosca , Armida and Alban Berg's Lulu .
There are also the plots of the operas and background information , and recommended recrodings and DVDs of them . There are reviews of the Met's new production of Carmen and the revival of Verdi's Stiffelio , and various performances in Paris , Vienna , Oslo , Barcelona , Chicago and Houston .
CD reviews include the recent Ring from Bayreuth conducted by Christian Thielemann and the rarely heard Johan Strauss operetta "A Night in Venice" from Stockholm and a rarely performed 17th century opera by Cesti called "Le Disgrazie d'Amore ".
There are also reviews of DVDs of recent live performances of Verdi's Don Carlo from La Scala, Milan , Lucia Di Lammermoor from the Met with Anna Netrebko , The Tales of Hoffmann from Geneva and Wagner's Die Meistersinger from Vienna ,also conducted by Thielemann .
And don't miss the telecast this Wednesday on PBS of the Met's new production of Offenbach's "Les Contes d'Hoffmann " (The tales of Hoffmann ) taped earlier this season .
There's a great deal of hand-wringing over the current state of classical music , especially in America , where economic woes have created so much difficulty for our orchestras and opera companies . So I thought we could use a reality check .
Yes , many US orchestras and opera companies face severe financial difficulties ; several orchestras have declared bankruptcy or may do so sometime soon. Several opera companies ,such as the Baltimore and Connecticut operas have gone under . There is the problem of attracting new audiences and the fact that many of those who attend performances are older people .
But most orchestras and opera companies are still holding their own despite the discouraging economic times . There are well over 30,000 performances every year throughout America in all 50 states . There are more organizations performing classical music than ever before in America . A century ago , there were only a tiny fraction of these . Opera , in particular is more popular than ever before in America and the audience for it has grown exponentially from the past .
There are more talented young classical musicians studying at our conservatories and universities than ever before , and they guarantee that there is absolutely no lack of great young talents who will soon go on to enter our orchestras and to become opera singers , conductors and solo instrumentalists as well as composers and musicologists .
Standards of performance are higher than ever . There are more world-class orchestras in America , Europe and elsewhere than ever before . In the past , the orchestras of New York, Boston , Chicago , Philadelphia and Cleveland were called "The Big Five " ; now there are great orchestras in Los Angeles , San Francisco , Dallas, Houston , Pittsburgh , Minneapolis , Seattle , Washington , Baltimore , Detroit , Atlanta , Cincinnati and other US cities which are anything but minor league outfits .
There is greater diversity of repertoire being performed today than ever before in the history of classical music . There are ensembles which specialize in ancient music from the middle ages and the Renaissance , and ensembles which specialize in the latest works by living composers . And contrary to what many critics and commentators would have us believe, there is absolutely no lack of new classical music today worldwide , and there are many living composers who cannot complain that there music is being neglected , such as Philip Glass, John Adams , Thomas Ades , Hans Werner Henze , Kaaia Saariaho , William Bolcom , John Corigliano , Christopher Rouse , Magnus Lindberg , Arvo Part and others .
Unfortunately , few US orchestras are making commerical recordings on a regular basis because of the costs involved . The Chicago Symphony used to record regularly for such great record labels as Decca and Deutsche Grammophon under great conductors as Barenboim , Boulez , Solti , Abbado and Giulini , but those days have vanished . But now it has started its own record label and has been releasing live recordings of its own under Bernard Haitink .
And the Boston Symphony , which used to record for RCA , Deutsche Grammophon and Philips etc , has begun to issue live recordings under its current music director James Levine . The enterprising budget label Naxos has begun to record the Detroit Symphony under its new music director Leonard Slatkin .
The internet has enabled many orchestras and opera companies to stream their performances over it , and the Metropolitan Opera now makes it possible for people all over America and elsewhere to see and hear some of its performances broadcast in High Definition at movie theaters across the nation , and other opera companies are beginning to do this as well .
Despite the woes of the classical record industry , there are more classical record labels than ever before , and any one can hear nearly a thousand years of classical music on CD , including a vast number of obscure works which had never been recorded before by countless different composers . Classical CD collectors are not limited to the same old familiar masterpieces Bach , Beethoven , Tchaikovsky , Brahms and Mozart , but can also hear music by such little-known but interesting composers as Charles Koechlin , Sergei Taneyev ,Nikolai Myaskovsky , Arthur Bliss , Jon Leifs , Wilhelm Stenhammar , George Whitefield Chadwick , Mieczyslaw Karlowicz , Bernrd Gouvy , Alberic Magnard and so many others .
So there is plenty to be thnkful for in the vast and infinitely varied world of classical music .
The great Polish composer Frederic Chopin was born 200 years ago this month , so here are some deliciously corny Cho-puns for this momentous occaision.
I'm having Cho-pangs of guilt.
What's on your Chopin Liszt ?
Man up and stop being such a Chopin-sy.
Chopin your pencil !
Italian dishes in honor of the Chopin bicentennial: Chopin-icotti.
Chopin-zees - They're at the zoo and play the piano.
I'm having a Chopin-ic attack.
A film by Benicio Del Toro: Chopin's Labyrinth.
Chopin-zers: German tanks equipped with pianos.
Have a glass of Cho-pagne.
I had a Chopin-wich for lunch.
I hear Bob is having a Chopin-dectomy this week.
Happy birthday, Fred, wherever you are !
This March 25 th , the eminent French composer , conductor and theoretician of modern music Pierre Boulez turns 85 , and is still active composing and conducting , appearing with such great orchestras as the Berlin Philharmonic , Chicago Symphony , Cleveland Orchestra and the Vienna Philharmonic .
He has been one of the most important and influential figures in classical music for 60 years or so , and even if you find his highly complex and abstruse music incomprehensible , you can still enjoy his conducting of such composers as Debussy , Ravel , Berlioz , Wagner, Stravinsky , Bartok etc on CD , DVD or live if you are fortunate enough to be able to attend one of his concerts .
Boulez has been something of an iconoclast over the years , contemptuously dismissing any living composer who does not write complex atonal music as hopelessly out of date , and even dismissing the music of Arnold Schoenberg , founder of 12-tone music as insufficiently modern . As well as Stravinsky , who did not adopt the 12-tone idiom until late in life. But this has not kept him from giving masterly performances of these composer's music , as well as others who do not follow his compositional goals .
In the 1970s , he succeeded the glamorous and charismatic Leonard Bernstein as music director of the New York Philharmonic , and his championship of difficult contemporary music caused considerable controversy there , and more than a few critics and listeners found his interpretations of more traditional repertoire chilly and clinical despite the polish, clarity of texture and precision of the performances . He had also served as music director of London's B.B.C. Symphony Orchestra .
After his years with the New York Philharmonic , he moved back to Paris to head IRCAM, a government-funded institute for modern music combining acoustical instruments with electronics and computers , continued to compose and conduct all over Europe and America .
He has also conducted a limited number of operas by Wagner , Schoenberg , Alban Berg , Debussy etc at the Paris Opera , London's Royal Opera , the Wagner festival at Bayreuth and elsewhere , and has made numerous recordings for such leading record labels as CBS /Sony Classical and Deutsche Grammophon of his own works and composers such as Debussy , Ravel, Stravinsky, Bartok, Webern , Berg, Mahler , Olivier Messiaen (his teacher) and others . If you are looking for recordings by him of such popular Romantic composers as Brahms, Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov, forget it ; such music he considers beneath his dignity .
Boulez has written music of daunting complexity and austerity ; if you insist on catchy melodies , forget it . He has gone beyond Schoenberg's 12-tone system and composed music in which melody is beside the point . Some of his works involve electronic music and a qusai-improvisatory technique called aleatory music , in which the performers are given a chance to make up parts of the music on the spot in a random, or chance manner . This comes from the Latin word Alea, or dice .
Boulez has gone beyond Schoenberg's ordering of the 12 notes of the chromatic scale into a specific order and created something called "Total Serialism" in which not only pitch but loudness and softness and timbre are rigidly controlled .
Some of his works are settings of texts by French symbolist poets such as Rene Char . Among the best-known are "Le Marteau Sans Maitre "(the hammer without a master), "Pli Selon Pli" (fold along fold ) "Notations" for piano ,later orchestrated , the three sonatas for piano , "Domaines" for clarinet and ensemble , Sur Incises , Explosant-Fixe , and "Repons", or response .
Le Marteau and Pli Selon Pli are works for soprano soloist and an ensemble of instruments , including marimba, Xylophone, piano, woodwinds etc based on French sybolist poetry . Explosante-Fixe is kind of a concerto for flute with ensemble and electronic modification of the sound of the flute .
So try his music on recordings if you are willing to take gamble ; it may seem puzzling at first , but with repeated hearings it may come to make more sense to you . Like his music or not , you can't deny the importance of Pierre Boulez as a composer . Check arkivmusic.com for his recordings , whther of his own music or of other composers .
When you go to a concert by a symphony orchestra , it's a totally different experience from a Rock or pop music concert . If you're new to classical concerts , don't expect the audience to behave the same way as ar a Rock concert , with all its raucous noise and rowdiness .
It's actually more like going to the movies in some ways , because the audience is trying to concentrate on music which is much more complex than popular music or Rock . No one who goes to the movies likes others in the audience to make noise and behave in a distracting manner . It's the same at concerts .
But lately , some classical music critics and commentators have been criticizing the way classical concerts are organized , claiming that they're much too "stuffy" and wishing that audiences would applaud more often , instead of the usual way they reserve it for the end of a work . They cite the fact that in the past , it was the norm for audiences to applaud inbetween movements of a symphony or concerto , and that composers expected this .
They claim that concerts today are tooo staid , and even boring to the point of being funereal in atmosphere , which I personlly think is more than a slight exaggeration . There's an interesting recent article by Alex Ross , music critic of the New Yorker and author of the acclaimed book "The Rest Is Noise " in which he explains how differently they behaved at concerts in the past . You can read it online at the New Yorker website .
In Mozart's day , audiences were even known to applaud in the middle of a symphony if they really liked a passage in a new one , and there is a letter which Mozart wrote to his father Leopold mentioning the first performance of one of his symphonies where this happened , to the delight of the composer .
Composers in the 19th century were unhappy if there was no applause after the first movement of one of their new symphonies or concertos , because this meant that the audience reaction to the work was less than enthusiastic . This happened to Johannes Brahms at the first performance of his piano concerto no 1 and he felt very discouraged at the time . But this did not stop the work from becoming a cornerstone of the repertoire in the long run .
All this may have been true in the past , but it doesn't necessarily mean that there is something "wrong " with concerts today . There are indications, however , that this may be changing . Unfortunately , sometimes newcomers to concerts are very enthusiastic and start applauding between movements, and sometimes more experienced concertgoers shush them, which can be very embarassing to them . This has even caused some of these newcomers to give up going to live concerts .
However , some instrumentalists who play concertos with an orchestra or give recitals say that applause between movements is unnerving , because it distracts them and breaks their concentration .
Of course , with opera , things have always been different , and it's still customary for the audience to applaud after arias . The operas of Wagner are highly continuous in structure and there are no arias as such and the action is nonstop between acts .
So if you're new to attending orchestral concerts , or are bringing any friends or relatives to them , be aware that the norm is to applaud all you want at the end of a work . Don't worry about how the other people are behaving , or let the fact that the musicians may be wearing black tie , which is off-putting for some reason to some concertgoers and all that . You there to listen to the music , and try to concentrate on the music and nothing but the music . After a piece is over , feel free to applaud and yell "bravo " if you really enjoyed the music and the performance . It's the music that matters .
The New York City opera has just released details of its next season , and the Big Apple's second opera company appears to be recovering from the financial and other difficulties which have threatened its existence for so long . Like the current season , the next one will have to have only a limited number of productions and performances , but the repertoire will be as interesting as it is unconventional . General manager George Steel , who recently assumed leadership of the troubled company is optimistic and enthusiastic about the upcoming season , and every one is delighted with the newly improved acoustics of the Koch theater, formerly the New York State Theater .
The only opera from the standard repertoire will be L'Elisir D'Amore ,or the elixir of love by Gaetano Donizetti , a charming bucolic comedy about a lovesick young man , his beloved and a traveling quack doctor . But the production moves the action from early 19th century rural Italy to 1950s America . The production may be updated , but Donizetti's lilting and melodious music remains untouched .
A Quiet Place , the only full length opera by Leonard Bernstein , will have its New York premiere . This is the sequel to the composer's brief one act opera Trouble in Tahiti , which deals with the marital problems of a yuppie couple . A Quiet Place deals with the aftermath of the death of the woman , and the difficult relationship of the father with his now grown children . There is a Deutsche Grammophon recording of the opera led by the composer , which you might want to check out first .
There will be a triple bill of three short operas by three different composers , only one still living ,namely John Zorn , and one by the late Morton Feldman , plus Arnold Schoenberg's disturbing monodrama "Erwartung" (expecation ) about a woman who may have discovered the corpse of her lover in the woods .
Stephen Schwartz, best known for his broadway shows Wicked , Godspell and Pippin , has written a new opera which will have its premiere ; Seance on a Wet Afternoon . There will be a revival of the rarely performed autobiographical opera "Intermezzo" by Richard Strauss , which is based on an incident from the composer's life in which his wife mistakenly accused him of being unfaithful until the whole mess is explained . In the opera , the names of the composer , his wife and the other characters are changed .
In addition , there will be a concert performance of "Where the Wild Things Are" , based on Maurice Sendak's famous paintings , by the distinguished English composer and conductor Oliver Knussen , plus some gala concerts . Despite the crisises it has faced in recent years , the New York City opera appears to be alive and kicking , and that is cause for rejoicing .
In my last post I discussed a recording of the Beethoven 9th which follows all the latest research on how to perform Beethoven's music "authentically " . This post will discuss a CD of Beethoven's 5th and 6th symphonies from as far back as 1937 , long before the so-called HIP movement came into existence .
Willem Mengelberg (1871 -1951 ) , was an eminent Dutch conductor who led Amsterdam's great Concertgebouw orchestra for many years as well as the New York Philharmonic during the 1920s and left many recordings ,live and studio , some still considered classics , even though there are not too many people alive today who actually remember his live performances .
Purists today are scandalized by his free-wheeling old-fashioned approach to interpreting Beethoven and other composers such as Schubert and Bach . His ideas on interpretation fly in the face of everything they advocate , such as strict adherence to the written score and scrupulous use of printed editions of the music edited by musicologists who aim to know the "composers's intentions ".
But Mengelberg was actually closer than we are to Beethoven's era than we are ; he was born only 44 years after Beethoven died in 1827 and knew and studied with musicians who were steeped in the performing traditions of the past .
In the performance of the fifth , with its famous Da-da-da daaaah , for example , he is much freer with tempo than "politically correct" performances .He starts the first movement at a slower tempo than the main part of the movement - that's a no-no by today's purist notions of authenticity , and plays fast and loose with the tempi throughout the symphony .
He also retouches Beethoven's orchestration in an attempt to make it sound more impressive at times , another no-no . To Mengelberg , the score is not absolutely sacrosanct ; he felt ,like other musicians of his time, that he had not only the right but the duty to use his own discretion in interpreting the music . The conductors detractors sometimes called him "Mangleberg".
Was Mengelberg right , and are today's conductors and other musicians wrong , or was he merely being presumptuous and distorting the music because of his own ego ? Who knows? This is an endless debate, and unfortunately Beethoven has been dead since 1827 , so we'll never know with any certainty .
Check arkivmusic.com for recordings by this great but still controversial conductor .
I've been listening to a CD of Beethoven's immortal and world-famous 9th symphony , the so-called "Choral" symphony with the famous "ode to joy" last movement with chorus and vocal soloists . It's a work which has been performed and recorded countless times .
But this is one of those performances using the instruments of Beethoven's day , or replicas thereof , which were in many ways quite different from those of today . It also follows research on how to interpret the music in a manner which conforms to how musicologists believe the music may have been performed in the 1820s , when the work was premiered in Vienna .
Of course , we don't have a time machine , so we can never be absolutely sure of how close such performances are to the way the music actually sounded in the past , or whether the composer would have approved of the interpretation . But orchestras attempting to recreate the sounds of the past are now an established part of the classical music world , and they have made many recordings in recent years .
They are part of the so-called "HIP" movement in classical music , or historically informed practice , as the rather pompous-sounding term is known . This movement is a kind of musical religion ; it has its true believers ; conductors , instrumentalists ,musicologists and critics who have embraced the period instrument phenomeon whole-heartedly and who often sneer patronizingly at musicians who use modern instruments and ignore the latest research .
Then there are the atheists , musicians and critics who pour scorn on these politically correct performances and think the whole movement is either a total sham or questionable at best , and the agnostics , who don't dismiss the performances altogether but are somewhat skeptical as to how "authentic" these performances are . I count myself as one of the agnostics .
The recording I've been listening to is a fine one . The conductor is the eminent English scholar, harpsichordist and conductor Christopher Hogwood , and the orchestra is London's Academy of Ancient Music , one of the various period instrument groups in that musically rich and diverse city . The London Symphony chorus and soloists Arleen Auger , Catherine Robbin , Anthony Rolfe Johnson and Gregory Reinhart can be heard in the last movement .
Hogwoood tries ,among other things , to follow Beethoven's metronome markings as closely as possible . This is a highly controversial matter ; as is well-known , Beethoven was deaf at the time and it's not certain how accurate these metronome markings are. Typically, a metronome marking will indicate how many beats per minute a particular movement of a work, or even a section the composers wants .
But conductors often disregard them and use their own discretion . And furthermore , composers have been known to disregard those markings themselves when conducting there works years after writing them . There are so many different variables .
The liner notes , by the eminent Beethoven scholar Barry Cooper are full of insteresting information about circumstances of the first performance of this great symphony in Vienna in 1824 . The work was the longest and most complex symphony that had ever been written , and was extremely difficult for the musicians to play , and the vocal parts , both for the chorus and soloists , were equally difficult , and are still difficult for singers today .
Of course, orchestras today could almost play the music in their sleep . The orchestra was unusually large for the day ; four horns instead of the usual two, trrombones , piccolo and contra-bassoon in the finale in addition to the usuall woodwinds, and even cymbalas triangle and bass drum in the finale in addition to the usual tympany or kettle drums . More strings were used than normal for the first performance of the 9th .
The woodwinds were doubled in the first performance and so they are on the recording, and even the horns are doubled, making a total of eight of them ! The instruments of the 18th and early 19th century were quite different from those of today ; the violins, violas, cellos and double basses used strings made of sheep gut instead of the steel strings of the present day . The woodwinds were simpler and had fewer keys ; the horns and trumpets had no valves and used different lengths of tubing to play in different keys, although by the 1820s , valved horns and trumpets were starting to appear and before too long made the valveless instruments obsolete .
Are the period instrument performances "better" than those on modern instruments ? Not every one agrees . I would say that they are insterestingly different . But they in no way invalidate the supposedly "inauthentic" ones .
So many great conductors have recorded Beethoven's 9th , many as part of sets of all nine Beethoven symphonies , and there are many differences in approach . Some are broad and majestic , and others are swift , urgent and even agressive , and others fall somewhere inbetween .
Some conductors take considerable leeway in flexibility of tempo , and others are much more strict , even metronomic at times . There will never be one "definitive" recording or live performance of Beethoven's ninth .
Here is a more or less alphabetical list of some of the eminent conductors who have recorded Beethoven's ninth : Claudio Abbado , Leonard Bernstein , Karl Bohm , Daniel Barenboim , Herbert Blomstedt , Andre Cluytens, Sir Colin Davis, Christoph von Dohnanyi , Wilhelm Furtwangler , Sir John Eliot Gardiner , Nikolaus Harnoncourt , Bernard Haitink , Christopher Hogwood (the recording under discussion) , Eugen Jochum, Otto Klemperer, Herbert von Karajajn , Rafael Kubelik ,Josef Krips , Erich Leinsdorf, Lorin Maazel , Riccardo Muti, Zubin Mehta, Kurt Masur , Pierre Monteux , Sir Roger Norrington , Eugene Ormandy , Mikhail Pletnev, Andre previn , Sir Simon Rattle, Fritz Reiner, Sir Georg Solti , George Szell, Leopold Stokowski , Arturo Toscanini , Bruno Walter, Gunter Wand , Felix Weingartner and David Zinman . Some have made more than one recording of it ; Karajan made no fewer than five !
The orchestras include such august ensembles as the Vienna Philharmonic , Royal Concertgebouw of Amsterdam , Berlin Philhamonic , London Symphony , Philadelphia Orchestra, Cleveland Orchestra , Leipzig Gewandhaus orchestra, the Staatskapelle, Dresden , and many other world-famous orchestras , as well as ones on period instruments such as the Orchestre Revolutionaire et Romantique , the London Classical Players, etc. Check arkivmusic.com for recordings .
The handsome and charismatic English baritone Simon Keenlyside , who sings Hamlet in the Met's revival of the opera Hamlet by the once famous 19th century French composer Ambroise Thomas is on the cover of the March issue of Opera News magazine , and there's an interesting interview with him .
Writer Matthew Gurewitsch , who frequently contributes articles on opera and classical music to Opera News , the New York Times and elsewhere , also has an interesting article on this once popular but now seldom-heard opera , which takes considerable liberties with Shakespeare's original plot , including an optional alternate ending in which Hamlet survives and is proclaimed the king !
Musicologist Laurel E. Fay , who has written a biography of Dmitri Shostakovich , has written a highly informative article about the bizarre opera "The Nose " by this composer , which I discussed recently on this blog , and which premieres at the Met on March 5th, and there is also an article on the designer and director of the production, the South-African born artist William Kentridge .
You can also find the lists of the plots, casts , conductors , designers and directors of the four operas being broadcast by WQXR this month , Attila , The Nose , From The House Of The Dead and Hamlet , plus photos of the sets and pictures of costume sketches , as usual . Plus brief profiles of the singers and conductors . If you can't get WQXR on your radio , you can hear the broadcasts on the radio station's website , WQXR.org .
Opera News correspondants have reviews of performances from the Met , Chicago, Milan , Paris , Vienna , Zurich , and London , including the Met's new production of The Tales Of Hoffmann . Recordings of New opera CDs include the Naxos recording of John Adams' "Nixon in China" conducted by Marin Alsop , recorded in Denver , and the Deutsche Grammophon recording of Pietro Mascagni's pastoral romance "L'Amico Fritz " with Angela Gheorghiu and her husband (soon to be ex) Roberto Alagna . This is the first recording of this charming work in about 40 years .
DVD reviews include Debussy's "Pelleas & Melisande" from Vienna , "Lady Macbeth Of Mtsensk District ", the other opera by Shostakovich from Florence , a Wagner's Ring from Weimar , Germany , all live performances .
There are book reviews of a new biography of the obscure Italian composer Franco Alfano (1875 - 1954) , who completed Puccini's Turandot after the composer died in 1924 , but whose operas , especially Cyrano De Bergerac , have been revived recently and can now be heard on CD and seen on DVD , and a book by Derek Katz on the highly original music of Leos Janacek , whose From The House Of The Dead is currently in the Met's repertoire . No one who enjoys opera should ever miss Opera News magazine !
In yesterday's New York Times , chief music critic Anthony Tommasini chides the New York Philharmonic for supposedly not having enough music by American composers scheduled for next season . But how much should the orchestra do each season ? You can't please every one when it comes to the vexed question of orchestral programming .
Tommasini acknowledged that the Philharmonic does indeed have a number of new works by American composers scheduled for next season , but wished there were more . There is also a fair amount of music by living European composers such as the Philharmonic's recently appointed composer in residence Magnus Lindberg , one of Finland's leading composers , and others .
Of course , if the Philharmonic had an even larger amount of new American works on tap for next season , critics would complain that the orchestra was neglecting music by European composers . You can't win for losing .
The Philharmonic's new music director Alan Gilbert , an American who succeeded the veteran Lorin Maazel at the Philharmonic this past September , also an American , is known as a committed advocate of new music in general , and Tommasini and other critics have welcomed his arrival enthusiastically , saying that at last , the orchestra will be brought into the present , which is ridiculous , considering the fact that under previous music directors Maazel, Kurt Masur , Zubin Mehta and guest conductors , the Philharmonic has already given its audience a steady stream of new works by a wide variety of living or recently deceased composers , far more, in fact than many other orchestras in America , Europe and elsewhere .
Eminent composers such as John Adams , Elliott Carter , Hans Werner Henze , Pierre Boulez , Christopher Rouse , Magnus Lindberg , Kaaia Saariaho , Wolfganfg Rihm , William Bolcom , Osvaldo Golijov , Alfred Schnittke , Krzystof Penderecki , Thomas Ades , Tan Dun , Philip Glass , to name only some . A virtual Who's Who of contemporary composers . Not only the same old familiar masterpieces . And the programming has been multicultural ; not "eurocentric " but works by American ,Asian and Latin American composers .
But orchestras and conductors are damned if they do , and damned if they don't . No matter what a music director of an orchestra chooses to do , or guest conductors , some one , either a critic or an audience member , will complain . Critics are always complaining that orchestras don't play enough new or recent music , but many audiences are very conservative in their tastes and want orchestras to keep on playing their beloved familar masterpieces by Beethoven , Brahms , Tchaikovsky , Rachmaninov , and other popular composers of the past .
If a conductor prograns an extremely complex esoteric work by say , Elliott Carter or Pierre Boulez , many people in the audience will complain bitterly , saying "how can this conductor subject us poor listeners to such horrible stuff ? It's worse than being waterboarded !".
But if a conductor plays a more audience-friendly piece by a living composer who writes more accessible music , critics will blast him or her for pandering to audiences with "easy listening ". And the most conservative members of the audience are reluctant even to hear this kind of music , preferrring their beloved Beethoven .
If a conductor concentrates on staples of the repertoire , critics will complain about the neglect of new music . Those who program a substantial amount of new music are blasted for not doing the music audiences know and love . It's a no win situation .
But one thing is certain . Orchestras MUST play new music , or the repertoire will stagnate . Let history determine which new works achieve a lasting place in the repertoire . Only time will tell which works will last . But fortunately , there's absolutely no lack of new music today ; it co-exists with older music, as it should .
Richard Gray , science correspondant for The Telegraph in England (telegraph.co.uk) , has recently written an interesting article on why so many people find the complex atonal music of the 20th century so difficult to grasp and therefore reject and dislike it .
He cites recent research by a number of neuroscientists on people's reaction to this kind of classical music , which is so vastly different from the familiar masterpieces of Bach , Mozart and other great composers of the past which audiences know and love . The brain is a pattern-seeking organ ; the traditional music of the past follows realtively strict patterns which the brain processes in order to make sense of it .
Gray explains that the extremely negative reaction of so many listeners to atonal music does not necessarily mean that they are philistines or lacking in intelligence , but that such music is simply much more demanding on the brain to grasp . The music of Schoenberg , Webern and other 20th century composers is far less predictable in its patterns than than the works of Mozart and Bach et al .
He's right . When you listen to the music of Schoenberg and other atonal composers , the melodic lines (if you can call them melodic ) are extremely jagged and irregular in rhythm; the intervals between the notes are not smooth and predicatable . There are often wide leaps between the notes that would be difficult to sing if one were to try this; intervals such as the tritone, or leap of the augmented fourth (c- f sharp), the so-called Diabolus in Musica, (devil in music) are common . The music also does not follow the usual regular metric patterns rhthmically , such as march or waltz patterns , and sounds very fragmented .
But Gray doesn not mention another factor in learning to grasp atonal music , or music which is not in any key at all . This is giving the music repeated hearings on recordings and allowing it to become more coherent and make more sense . Of course , when attend a concert and hear challenging music for the first time , it can often seem puzzling .
This is true even of complex music which is not atonal , such as the expansive and monumental symphonies of Bruckner and Mahler, or even the late string quartets of Beethoven . But with recordings , the listener has the luxury of allowing the music to become graspable with repeated hearings. This has happened to me with so many works by so many different composers .
In classical music , it's not familiarity which breeds contempt , but unfamiliarity !