June 2010 - Posts
Recent online comments by Terry Teachout on America's orchestras and by Greg Sandow on the supposed need for classical music to "change " in order to be more "relevant" are typical of the way that classical music is under attack today . Not the music itself , but our orchestras and opera companies , and the classical music "establishment" in general .
But don't believe all the false rumors about the classical music world today . Despite the serious problems , this magnificent ,centuries old art form is very much alive and absolutely relelvant . From all the negative commentary , you would think that it's no longer worth attending concerts and opera etc . The critics give the misleading impression that classical music is worn out and moribund .
Not true ! In fact, it's never been more worthwhile to attend performances by our orchestras and opera companies , or by chamber ensembles etc . There's so much that's worth hearing . It's understandable that music critics who know the standard repertoire backwards and forwards might be reluctant to attend their umpteenth performance of Beethoven's fifth or Dvorak's New World symphony , or of Puccini's La Boheme or Verdi's Rigoletto .
But there are still millions of people in America who don't know these familiar masterpieces , and those who are new to classical music and just discovering these great works won't find them anything but enthralling . And if you are an experienced listener , there are always new worrks being premiered and revivals of interesting rarities from the past .
Classical music is always re-inventing itself and changing . Rumors about how hidebound and slow to change it is are absolutely false .
Terry Teachout writes criticism, period . He writes reviews and commentary on Jazz, classical music , art ,dance ,drama and film for the Wall Street Journal , Commentary magazine and other publications , both in print and on the internet . He's always interesting to read and thought-provoking even if you disagree with him .
He has written several books, most recently a biography of Louis Armstrong , and one on the great critic and curmudgeon H.L. Mencken . Teachout claims to love classical music , but his latest piece for the Wall Street Journal is most distressing to read for any one who loves orchestral music and is concerned about the survival of America's orchestra .
Teachout claims that America's many regional orchestras , which lack the prestige and big budgets of the major league ones in New York, Chicago , Los Angeles , Boston , Philadelphia , Cleveland , San Francisco etc , are no longer relevant , and tend to offer nothing but the same old staples of the orchestral repertoire by Beethoven, Brahms Tchaikovsky ,Rachmaninov etc , plus pops concerts ,plus "souffle-light " pops concerts , and that if they were to go under , it would not be a major loss to American culture .
Why ? Because now any one who loves classical music has instant access to recordings and downloads of the whole vast range of Western Classical Music through CDs, downloads, the internet and i-pods etc. Why bother , he claims, going to hear the "Podunk Symphony " play a warhose such as one of the thrice-familiar Beethoven symphonies , when one can hear great recordings of them and countles other classical works performed by giants such as Toscanini, Bernstein and Stokowski leading the world's greatest orchestras ?
But Teachout's arguments are based on false premises , and his logic faulty . America's orchestras , regional or major league ,play an enormous amount and variety of music , ranging from the 18th to the 21st century by composers living and dead, of many nationalities including America and styles . Yes, some are unfortunately forced to restrict themselves largely to familiar works because of concertgoers who are reluctant to hear new or unfamiliar music , but many do play music by a wide variety of contemporary composers .
It's vital to give new works a chance to be heard, or the repertoire will become stagnant. And going to a live concert can be a wonderful experience ; many people insist that there is simply no substitute for hearing classical music live . Furthermore , there are still millions of people ,not only youngsters , who know little ro nothing about classical music and have never attended concerts . If they would keep an open mind and start to attend them as well as listening to recordings , the great works of Beethoven , Brahms and other composers could be a thrilling discovery for them .
Also , America's many orchestras provide gainful employment to many thousands of talented ,dedicated and hard-working musicians ,as well as those who work on administration . In a worst case scenario where they became exctinct , an enormous number of people would be out of work . However, Teachout says that he does not advocate disbanding any of the regional orchestras whose relevance he questions .
Teachout says that he no longer attends live performances of classical music , as he prefers to hear the great masterpieces on great recordings ,and he is also very busy writing reviews and commentary on the arts in general . But let's face it, he is out of touch with the realities of classical music today and he is completely off target in his arguments about America's orchestra . They are a national treasure and we cannot afford to lose them .
The July Issue of Opera News is devoted to the subject of opera and the movies , which are two things one might not think have much to do with each other . But as the interesting articles this month show , they are most definitely connected .
Freelance writer Ray Sawhill discusses bio pics about famous composers ,such as Amadeus , James Lepine's (not to be confused with Levine) Impromptu ,about Chopin and Liszt , Copying Beethoven , The Music Lovers by Ken Russell, about the life of Tchaikovsky ,and others .
Stephanie Zacharek , chief movie critic at Movieline , discusses the lushly realistic films of operas by controversial director Franco Zeffirelli , and Eric Myers discusses the film The Great Caruso ,which starred the ill-fated tenor Mario Lanza . Barry Singer discusses the impact of the Met's HD broadcasts of live performances into movie theaters on the field .
Journalist Polly Frost discusses how the Los Angeles Opera and the Los Angeles Philharmonic have been using Hollywood style publicity to promote their artistic endeavors and to increase their public profiles . William V. Madison , who is writing a biography of the late comic actress Madeline Kahn , shows how she had studied opera singing before going into films and even contemplated becoming an opera singer .
Reviews of live opera performances include the Met's recent production of Rossini's Armida starring Renee Fleming , Handel's Partenope by the New York City opera , the Los Angeles opera's production of Franz Schreker's lush and decadent pre WW2 opera Die Gezeichneten (The Stigmatized Ones) , which had been popular in Europe until the *** banned it and other operas because their composers were Jewish .
CD reviews include the new Chandos recording of Verdi's Don Carlo sung in English ,part of that label's Opera in English series , the new Orfeo & Euridice from Decca records starring the charismatic Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Florez and a new recording from CPO records of the little-known Viennese opereta Pique Dame by 19th century composer Franz Von Suppe, who is best known for the overtures to his many once popular operettas .
Reviews of opera DVDs include Tristan &Isolde from the Bayreuth festival , rarely performed Rimsky-Korsakov operas May Night and Sadko from Moscow , and Rossini's Barber of Seville from the Royal Opera house in London , and a documentary about the brilliant but hectic career of the great Ossetian conductor Valery Gergiev .
Book reviews include a new biography of the great Russian conductor Kiril Kondrashin (1914-1981), who was also active as an opera conductor at Moscow's world-famous Bolshoi opera as well orchestral concerts all over the world .
There are obituaries of the renowned Italian Mezzo Giulietta Simionato , who recently passed away just before her 100th birthday, and music critic Alan Rich . Even if you're not really an opera fan , this magazine is always worth reading . If you are one, you can't afford to miss it .
The Philadelphia Orchestra's long search for a new music director is over - the gifted young French-Canadian conductor Yannick-Nezet-Seguin has been chosen for this prestigious position , following in the steps of such great conductors as Leopold Stokowski , Eugene Ormandy , Riccardo Muti and Wolfgang Sawallisch .
He will take over in 2112 , and has recently succeeded Valery Gergiev as music director of the Rotterdam Philharmonic in the Netherlands . Nezet-Seguin ,35, is still very young as conductors go , but the legendary Leopold Stokowski was only 30 when he took over the Philadelphians and transformed them into a world-class orchestra nearly a century ago .
The veteran Swiss conductor Charles Dutoit has been serving as principal conductor since the abrupt resignation of German conductor and pianist Christoph Eschenbach in 2006 ,apparently because the relationship between him and the orchestra was a less than felicitous one . Eschenbach is set to become music director of the Washington National Symphony in the nation's capitol this September , and Dutoit had previously been music director of the Montreal Symphony in Nezet-Seguin's home town and built it into a world-class orchestra .
In the past few years ,Nezet-Seguin has been achieving international success with the world's leading orchestras and opera companies , and made his Metropolitan Opera debut conducting a new production of Bizet's Carmen this past December to considerable acclaim . He is also principal guest conductor of the London Philharmonic , and has just made his first recording for the prestigious English record label EMI with the Rotterdam Philharmonic .
Nezet-Seguin had been music director of the Orchestre Metropolitain of Montreal , the second orchestra of that comsmoplitan Candian metropolis after the Montreal Symphony since 2000, and has made several recordings with it, including several Bruckner symphonies . Surprisingly for a French -oriented conductor , he seems to have a strong affinity with this great Austrian symphonist . But he claims to have very eclectic tasted in repertoire , appears to be at home in much more than French music ,of which one would expect him to have a mastery .
Nezet-Seguin appears to be a major podium talent and orchestral musicians reportedly like working with him, which is not true of all conductors . You cannot make a major career as a conductor and be appointed to lead top orchestras and opera companies through slick and cynical publicity alone . If you lack the requisite talent , experience and training ,no amount of slick publicity will enable you to become famous as a conductor . Orchestra musicians can recognize an incompetent or mediocrity instantly .
Let's wish Yannick Nezet-Seguin all the best in this prestigious but extremely demanding new job and hope that there will be real chemistry between him and the great Philadelphia Orchestra , whcih has recently been plagued with financial problems and decreasing ticket sales .
The last opera by the great and highly original Czech composer Leos Janacek (Lay-osh Yan-a-chek) (1854-1928 ) is From The House Of the Dead , based on Dostoyevsky's novel about the grim lives of the inmates in a Siberian prison camp .
I recently got a chance to see the DVD of the acclaimed production of this harrowing and unforgettable opera conducted by Pierre Boulez and directed by Patrice Chereau, filmed live at the Aix-En- Provence festival in southern France a few years ago . This production was recently seen at the Metropolitan Opera , but conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen in his Met debut .
This opera is the total opposite of Nielsen's merry and effervescent comic opera Maskarade which I discussed last week - grim and unflinchingly brutal in its portrayal of life in a Siberian prison in Russia . But it's also profoundly moving and even cathartic . Janacek's music is harsh and jagged as broken glass , but also with moments of soaring lyricism .
There is no plot as such ; you simply see the daily life of the unfortunate prisoners in all its sordid misery with their petty squabbles and rivalries , the brutality of the guards and the prison commandant . Several of the prisoners have extended monologues in which they describe the murders which landed them in Siberia ; they were the result of jealousy and other motives . These are for the most part not hardened criminals .
Alexander Petrovich Goryanchikov is a political prisoner and the brutal commandant has him flogged at the beginning of the opera merely for claiming to be this . He comes well-dressed as he is not a poor downtrodden peasant like the other prisoners . Goryanchikov befriends Aleya, a young non-russian boy from Dagestan (near Chechnya) in the Caucasus and teaches him how to read and write .
At the end of the opera , Goryanchikov is freed by official clemency ,and the drunken commandant apologizes to him for his brutality . Aleya bids a fond farewell and says that God will repay Goryanchikov for his kindness and friendship .
But life continues is grim course in the prison as the curtain falls . This opera is almost unbearably harsh and grim , but you will never forget it . The DVD is available from Deutsche grammophon records and easily available at websites such as amazon.com or arkivmusic.com .
Two centuries ago today , the great Robert Schumann was born in Zwickau , Saxony , in what used to be called East Germany . He was one of the most important composers of the 19th century ,and left masterpieces in virtually every musical genre . He died in 1856 .
As the son of a respected publisher and bookseller , he was imbued from his earlist years with a love of great literature which had a profound influence on his music and his choice of texts for his many vocal and other works . Schumann's music is deeply personal ,emotional and imaginative , and filled with great warmth and expressivity , as would be expected from one of the founding fathers of 19th century Romantic music .
Although he was strongly influenced by the great German composers who prreceeded him, such as Bach and Beethoven , whose music he studied intensely , he developed his own highly personal and original style , filled with quirky rhythms and daring chromatic harmonies .
Masterpieces such as his piano concerto , written for his wife, the great pianist Clara Schumann, nee Wieck , his four symphonies , the cello concerto and the quintet for strings and piano , have been staples of classical music for over 150 years .
There are numerous works for solo piano , such as Papillons (Butterlies ) , Kreisleriana , Davidsbundlertanze (Dances of the league of David) , the Fantasia in C , Carnaval, Kinderszenen(Scenes From Childhood) , and other large scale collections of pieces, and many other shorter pieces , most with extra-musical connections as was common with 19th century composers , numerous songs for voice and piano based on German poetry ,including such famous song ccycles as Dichterliebe (Poet's Love), Frauenliebe Und Leben (Woman's Love and Life ) etc.
His four symphonies ,filled with ardor and nobility , are staples of the orchestral repertoire . The first is known as the "Spring" symphony , and opens with a fanfare based on a German song about the coming of that season , and the 3rd, known as the "Rhenish" symphony was inspired by his period of time living in the Rhineland .
Schumann's one opera is Genoveva ,based on a medieval legend of the wife of a nobleman who is wrongly accused of adultery during her husband's absence while fighting during a war , was not a success in his lifetime and has not been revived often since , but contains much beautiful and stirring music .
The composer's later years were clouded by severe depression and mental illness ,apparently caused by syphillis , and he had to be confined to mental institutions for prolonged periods. He died a broken man and a shadow of himself,aged only 46 . But he left a legacy of warmly lyrical and stirring music which has stood the test of time .
Schumann's music has been recorded by many great musicians , such as conductors Leonard Bernstein ,Herbert Von Karajan , Wilhelm Furtwangler , Rafael Kubelik , pianists Vladimir Horowitz, Wilhelm Kempff, Claudio Arrau , Alfred Cortot , and singers Dietrich Fischer -Dieskau , Hermann Prey , to name only a handful .
I've been enjoying several excellent live performances of operas on DVD recently , and one of them is a wonderful comic opera from of all places Denmark , which is hardly the place most people would think of when opera comes to mind . It's called "Maskarade " by that nation's greatest composer Carl Nielsen (1865-1931), and is considered the Danish national opera .
It was first performed in Copenhagen a little over a century ago with the composer conducting , and has had occaisional performances in other countries including the Sarasota opera in Florida several years ago . The current performance on DVD from the Danish record label Da Capo is from the spectacular and recently opened opera house in Copenhagen with the chorus and orchestra of the Royal Danish opera conducted by the distinguished Danish maestro Michael Schonwandt with an almost all Danish cast . There are subtitles in English ,so you don't have to worry about the fact that the opera is sung in Danish .
The opera is based on a play by the great 18th century Danish/Norwegian writer Ludvig Holberg , and deals with shenanigans at a masked ball in Copenhagen . Leander , a fun-loving young man who loves to attend Coopenhagen's maked balls with his wise-cracking servant Henrik over the objections of his stuffy ,pompous killjoy father's objections , has been betrothed to a young lady he has never met by his parents .
But he meets and falls in love with a charming young lady at one of the masquerade balls . After much intrigue ,shenanigans and tomfoolery , he finds out in the end that she's the same girl he has been betrothed to all along ! It's great fun , and Nielsen's music overflows with high spirits and wit . It's one of the merriest and zaniest comic operas of all time .
The production is by the young Danish director Caspar Bech Holten , who has updated the action of the opera from the 18th century to the present day with absolutely no damage to the opera , unlike many other updated opera productions in recent years which have been travesties of the composer's original intent .
The members of the cast and chorus are dressed at the masquerade as among other things, Hippies , Hare Krishnas , Marilyn Monroe , Elvis and other things ,and it works brilliantly ! There are also dances and performances by acrobats .
There are no international superstar singers in the cast ,so you most likely won't have heard of the singers ,who are all Danish ,with one or two from Sweden , but they are all excellent , and show brilliant comedic talents and timing . Everybody in the cast has a ball -literally ! So will you ! And the audience loves it too, of course . Don't miss this . It's easily available from amazon.com .
June 2nd is the birthday of one of England's greatest composers ,Sir Edward Elgar (1857-1934) , who was the first truly important composer to emerge from this nation since the late 17th century . Why England had produced no great composers since the time of Henry Purcell (1659-1695) is a puzzling question .
As well as Purcell , there had been such great English composers of the distant past as William Byrd , John Dunstable , and others , but apparently ,the overwhleming influence of the German-born George Frideric Handel , who dominated the English classical music scene in the 18th century may have an adverse effect on English musical creativity .
After Elgar , other important British composers emerged , such as Ralph Vaughan Williams , Gustav Holst , William Walton, Benjamin Britten and Michael Tippett in the 20th century .
Elgar came from a modest rural background ; he was the son of a music shop owner and was almost entirely self taught . He studied the music of the great German composers , studied the violin and piano , became involved in conducting and working with choruses and moved from his provincial rural home to London and married a woman from a well-to-do family which disowned her for marrying a struggling musician and a Catholic to boot . Alice Elgar was also somewhat older than her husband ,who eventually achieved great prominence in English musical life and was knighted for his accomplishents .
His great musical breakthrough was the world-famous "Enigma Variations" for orchestra , in which each of the variations on the theme is a portrait of his friends and Lady Elgar ,which was premiered in 1899 . This is his most famous work , and every one knows the dignified melody from the "Pomp and Circumstances " military marches for orchestra which is heard at graduations everywhere in America .
But you can't appreciate Elgar's true greatness without hearing such masterpieces as his two monumental symphonies , the Cockgaine overture , which is a vivid portrait of jolly late 19th century London ,the two concertos, for violin and cello respectively , the great Oratorio "The Dream of Gerontius ", based on the eopic poem by Cardinal Newman of England , and other works of his .
They are filled with grandeur ,nobility and emotional power ,and magnificently orchestrated . They evoke the majesty of the the late Victorian and Edwardian English empire vividly . Some have accused Elgar's music of empty pomposity , jingoistic patriotism and even sentimentality , but they are far off the mark . Yes, Elgar did write some patriotic potboilers and pleasant but insignifcant briefer pieces , but his best music has real substance and stature .
Perhaps the public image of Elgar as a dignified , "stiff upper lip" gentleman and country squire has contributed to his negative image in some people's minds . But he was in fact a very sensitive ,emotional and yet witty and sociable man who loved to attend horse races and and liked to tinker with chemistry as a hobby among other things .
Elgar was also active as a conductor ,and late in life made some of the first recordings by any composer of his orchestral works ,some of which have been transferred to CD . Other notable conductors who have championed his music include his devoted admirers and friends Sirs John Barbirolli and Adrian Boult ,and more recently , non -English conductors such as Sir Georg Solti, Giuseppe Sinopoli, Andre Previn ,and others ,as well as distinguished contemporary English maestros as Sir Colin Davis,Sir Andrew Davis(no relation), and others .
Great violinists and cellists such as Fritz Kreisler ,who recorded the violin concerto with the composer, and the teenaged Yehudi Menuhim, who also recorded it under his direction , and great cellists such as Pablo Casals and Yo Yo Ma have left outstanding recordings of the two concertos . Check arkivmusic.com for recordings of Elgar's music; there's no better place to look for classical CDs and DVDs.