August 2010 - Posts
Lately,I've been listening to a superb recording of the opera Prince Igor by the Russian composer Alexander Borodin (1833-1887), who was actually an amateur composer better known during his lifetime as a distinguished scientist and professor of Chemistry , and who wrote melodious and colorful music in his spare time, with some help by other Russian composers such as Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. It's a three CD Philips recording with Valery Gergiev and the forces of the Maryinsky opera in St.Petersburg ,and I recommend it highly.
Prince Igor deals with an episode of 12th century Russian history which was recounted in a epic poem called the story of Igor's Host. Prince Igor is the opera's hero, Ruler of the Russian city of Putivl, and who leads his valiant army against marauding Turkic tribesmen known to the Russians as the Polovetzians. You may have heard the famous Poloivetzian Dances, which is an excerpt from the opera sometimes performed in concert,with or without chorus.
And you may also find some of the melodies familiar,as they were taken from the opera in the 20th century for use in the musical Kismet. When Borodin died suddenly in 1887 at the age of only 53, he left the opera in an incoherent mass of sketches, and his friend Rinsky-Korsakov,famous for his own operas on Russian subjects and the oriental suite Scheherezade for orchestra, was able to complete it and orchestrate it with the help of his pupil Alexander Glazunov,who later became a well-known composer in his own wright, and it was premiered with considerable success in St.Petersburg in 1890.
Prince Igor has been popular in Russia ever since, but has had only a limited number of productions in Europe and America, often in translation . It consists of a prelude and four acts, and when it opens, the people of Putivl are threatened by the invading Polovetzians,led by the fierce but gallant Khan Konchak. Igor and his army are are temporarily defeated by the invaders, and Igor and his son are taken captive.
But the Khan is so impressed by Igor's courage that he treats him more as an honored guest than a prisoner, and offers to relase him and his son if he promises to give up the battle against the Polovetzian horde. To complicate matters, Igor's son and the Khan's daughter fall in love and plan to elope!
The famous Polovetzian dances occur when the Khan has his people entertain Igor and his army leaders with tribal songs and dances. But Igor and his son are able to escape with the help of a Polvetzian who has secretly converted to Russian orthodoxy, and they return to Putivl to the joyous reception of the populace and Igor's wife Yaroslavna, who is his son's stepmother.In the meantime, Yaroslavna's libertine brother prince Galaitzky had been in charg eof things temporarily, and living a merry life of debauchery. The opera ends triumphantly, but the outcome of the struggle with the marauding Turkish hordes remains uncertain at the end .
The action of the opera is somewhat statioc and episodic, but the music is irresistably colorful,melodious and sweeping. As well as the Gergiev recording, there a several DVDs of the opera available at arkivmusic.com , the best internet website for classical CDs and DVDs. And the Metropolitan opera is planning to do a production of Prince Igor in 2113 to be conducted by Valery Gergiev, which is wonderful news indeed.
These are terribly difficult times for America's symphony orchestras. Economic conditions have forced many of them to struggle to remain alive . They are also struggling to find a larger audience and to remain competitive in a world with so many other distractions .
But the good news is that the symphony orchestra as a whole is far from dead , and there will still be thousand of concerts taking place all over America this season ,which is about to begin . There is still a loyal audience for them in all 50 states, and they consist of thousands of talented,dedicated and hard-working musicians led by outstanding conductors.
There are hopeful signs. The eminent Italian conductor Riccardo Muti is set to take over as the new music director of the great Chicago Symphony orchestra in September, and the orchestra and the many classical music fans in the city,and the orchestra's countless admirers everywhere are excited at the prospect of what is to come. Muti is filled with ambitious plans for the storied orchestra ,and hopes a riding high.
The brilliant and charismatic young Venuzuelan conductor Gustavo Dudamel is about to start his second season as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic , and his charisma and enthusiasm have brought much needed world publicity for classical music in America . Alan Gilbert begins his second season as music director of the New York Philharmonic , and every one is looking forward to his always interesting programming , which includes not only the beloved warhorses of the repertoire,but a healthy amount of contemporary music and interesting rarities from the past .
After a long and difficult search for a new music director to succeed the controversial Christoph Eschenbach, the world-famous Philadelphia has found a brilliantly gifted new maestro , the rising young French-Canadian conductor Yannick Nezet-Seguin to succeed him , and Eschenbach is set to take over as music director of the National Symphony orchestra in Washington,D.C.
None of the top US orchestras currently has a recording contract with such prestigious classical record labels as Decca,EMI, R.C.A., Sony Classical, Deutsche Grammophon or Philips , but Naxos records is starting to record such major US orchestras as the Detroit and Baltimore Symphonies and will probably add more to its roster soon .
The symphony orchestra is one of the greatest achievments of mankind ,and despite serious problems, it remains very much alive in America .
Gloom and doom talk is as American as apple pie. We're surrounded by it everywhere in print and on the internet. Every one is always longing for the "good old days",when everything was hunky dory. But those hunky dory days never existed .
As it turns out , in many ways things are better than ever for the world. In fact, people today are in general better fed and live longer than ever before in human history. Today we have all manner of conveniences which we take for granted that the wealthiest people of the past could never have imagined . Gloom and doom talk about classical music is also constantly with us.
Audiences are aging and shrinking; orchestras and opera companies in America are threated with extinction . Audiences everywhere reject new music and just want to hear the beloved warhorses of the repertoire. Classical recordings do not sell well and are only a tiny fraction of CD sales overall.
But look at the bright side . If you love classical music , in many ways things have never been so good . Classical music of every kind has never been so easy to access ,live or recorded .There are more orchestras ,opera companies and other classical performing groups than ever before in the history of this magnificent,centuries old art form .
Standards of performance are higher than ever before ,and there are more world-class orchestras than ever before ,all over Europe, America and elsewhere . And consider what classical music was like in the time of such greats as Mozart,Beethoven and Haydn in the late 18th and early 19th centuries .
There were only a tiny fraction of all the orchestras and opera companies which exist today . There was no such thing as a full time orchestra resident in one concert hall in any city,playing a different program every week under either its music director or guest conductors,as is common today .Concerts were ad hoc affairs . Classical music was pretty much the plaything of the aristocracy or the wealthy .
Only those who lived in major European cities and musical centers such as Vienna,London and Paris could attend concerts and opera . If you were just Joe Schmo in some remote Austrian village, your chances of hearing the music of Mozart,Haydn, Beethoven etc were non-existent . The orchestra as we know it was a relatively new thing , and the enormous accumulation of repertoire which exists today had not yet had the time to develope.
European classical music was barely in its infancy in America , and unknown in Asia and the rest of the world . The first orchestra in America ,the New York Philharmonic ,was not founded until 1842. Music-loving people in America were by no means unaware of what we now call classical music ,and there were some performances here and there ,and European opera did not establish itself here until the early 19th century .
Now there are hundreds of professional orchestras in America, major and regional , and many other part time ones and University and conservatory orchestras all over the country, as well as youth orchestras . Opera has grown exponentially in popularity .Until recently, the only opera companies were in New York, Chicago and San Francisco ,and the Metropolitan opera was founded in 1883 , and still going strong .
But in recent years, important opera companies in Seattle,Dallas,Houston, Philadelphia,Pittsburgh, Detroit ,Washington, Los Angeles , and other major US cities have come into existence and have spread the popularity of opera all over America .
Classical recordings have been with us for over a century , and have preserved the work of so many legendary musicians of the past such as Toscanini, Horowitz, Heifetz, Stokowski,Casals, and others . But the invention of the compact disk has made an unprecedented amount and variety of classical reperotire available to us from nearly millenium of music ,ranging from ancient works to recent ones by living composers .
Lovers of classical music have never had so much to choose from . We can hear the beloved staples of the repertoire by Mozart, Beethoven,Brahms,Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov , Debussy,Ravel, Schubert,Mendelssohn and Schumann etc , as well as an astounding amount of works by less well-known but interesting composers such as Franz Berwald , Alkexander von Zemlinsky, George Whitefield Chadwick , Wilhelm Stenhammar and Arnold Bax,to name only a few . Record stores are now scarce ,but internet websites such as arkivmusic.com have infinitely more things to choose from than any record store could ever hold.
There is also so much to choose from on classical DVDs,particularly live opera performances from opera houses around the globe ,and more and more orchestra concerts and recitals . The internet enables us to hear and see an ever-increasing amount of classical music .
Think about it . If you were a music-loving aristocrat in the 18th century and fabulously wealthy by the styandards of the day , you listening choices were extremely limited compared to what we can hear today . Let's count our blessings .
In 2006, the Metropolitan Opera began its acclaimed High Definition broadcasts of some of its live performances in movie theaters around America , and soon opera companies in Europe began doing so in Europe. There were skeptical voices at first predicting that this would never take off , but they were soon proved wrong.
Now, the world-famous Philadelphia orchestra is planning to offer some of its live concerts to the public in movie theaters . Will this be as successful as it has been in opera? Will more US orchestra take up this trend ? Only time will tell, but this could potentially be a shot in the arm for America's great but troubled symphony orchestras .
Of course, the visual element is far less important in orchestral concerts compared to opera . But it's always interesting to observe conductors and individual musicians in closeups during concerts . And we must all hope that these broadcasts will encourage more people to attend live concerts whenever possible .
And we must all hope that these broadcast concerts will bring much-needed financial benefit to our orchestras , which are struggling for sources of financial help,unlike those of Europe ,which take generous government subsidies for granted.
The great Berlin Philharmonic will also begin similar broadcasts in Europe with its opening night concert under its British music director Sir Simon Rattle . The BPO has its own virtual concert hall on the internet ,and you can find out about this at its website,which is also available in English.
September Opera News is here,with its annual preview of operas to be performed all over the US,Europe and elsewhere . Despite the tough economic times, opera appears to be very much alive and kicking,not only in America but everywhere, and there is dazzling diversity of operatic repertoire about to be performed . 400 years of operas,ranging from ones by Claudio Monteverdi, George Frideric Handel,Jean-Philippe Rameau Christoph Willibald Gluck and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart to contemporary composers such as Philip Glass, John Adams, Hans Werner Henze, Daniel Catan and others.
The long established favorites of the repertoire by Mozart,Rossini,Donizetti,Verdi,Bizet etc are a major part of what is to be performed, but there are many interesting rarities too by composers such as Walter Braunfels, Dvorak,Smetana, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Luigi Cherubini, Bernd Alois Zimmermann, Hindemith, Leevi Madetoja, Jean-Baptiste Lully, Vivaldi, Eugene D'Albert, Alberto Franchetti, Ottorino Respighi, and other composers whose opera have been long neglected.
Other interesting articles include an interview with the great German bass Rene Pape(Pa-peh) ,who will be singing the title role in the Met's much-anticipated new production of Mussorgsky's mighty Russian epic Boris Godunov and who is on the front page,a portrait of the fast-rising young Italian tenor Vittorio Grigolo,who may be the next great Italian tenor, a discussion of Wagner's awesome operatic epic The Ring Of The Nibeliung and its significance today by Philip Kennicott,culture critic of the Washington Post, and a discussion of how five mid-sized regional opera companies in the US are dealing with the current economic crisis yet managing to survive.
They are the opera companies of San Diego,Coincinnati, Memphis,St.Louis and Tulsa,Oklahoma. There is an interview withthe German opera director Peter Stein,who was to have staged the Met's new Boris, but recently decided to withdraw for complex reasons and a discussion of some of the hottest operatic tickets in the upcoming US season.
There are reviews of recent opera productions from St.Louis,Fort Worth Texas, the Spoleto Festival in Charleston,South Carolina, and San Francisco and New York,plus reviews of European productions in London,Cardiff,Wales, Paris,Berlin and Valencia,Spain, which has become an important opera center in recent years.
CD reviews include a Naxos records recording of Rossini's Otello,which was quite popular before the more familiar Verdi masterpiece,solo recital albums by such renowned singers as Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky, Anne-Sophie Von Otter, and Daniela Dessi.
There are reviews of operas on DVD including Verdi's Otello from the Salzburg festival, Mozart's Marriage of Figaro and the Magic Flute by the Vienna State opera in the 60s, and the world premiere production of an opera by the Danish composer Bo Holten called "The Visit of the Royal Physician" by the Royal Danish opera which sounds interesting,as well as a new film about the romance between Igor Stravinsky and the legendary clothes designer Coco Chanel, a true story.
There are book reviews of the memoirs of Iranian-born Lotfi Mansouri, for many years manager of the San Francisco opera and an intriguing book called "Wagner and Cinema", which discusses how film composers were influenced by the music of Wagner in the 20th century.
nO one who loves opera should ever miss Opera News magazine,and if your new to it and want to get to know it,you can learn a great deal from this magazine. You can also check out its website,operanews.com.
The other day, the ever excitable Glenn Beck was at it again, trashing government support for the arts, specifically in Baltimore . He claimed that the state of Maryland was giving support to the historic ,century old Baltimore opera house while cutting funds for police enforcement and allegedly laying off police.
But in fact, his claims have been revealed to be false by a number of bloggers,including Baltimore Sun music critic Tim Smith. There were no police layoffs. This is typical of conservatives today. They always make it sound as though it were wrong for the government to support the arts,and make it sound as though it were wasting good money on a frivolous thing while neglecting desperately needed things such as police etc. People like Beck don't give a you-know-what about fairness and accuracy. They just stir up the gullible masses with their inflammatory rhetoric.
Beck made snarky comments about the Baltimore opera house as a plaything of wealthy people,despite the fact that the opera house is used for a wide variety of musical performances. He also neglected to mention that the Baltimore opera company recently went under because of lack of funds,something which does not happen in European countries where generous government support for classical music is taken for granted.
Conservatives like Beck just don't get it. They don't realize that if our orchestras and opera companies do well it's very good for the economy,too. This is a fact. These performing arts organization provide gainful employment to an enormous number of talented,dedicated and hardworking people- musicians,singers, conductors, reharsal pianists, costume makers, and arts administrators,to name only a handful.
The arts are good for business all over the country, and restaurants,parking places, and many other businesses. They contribute to a flourishing economy. That's why America cannot afford to see them decline.
There's been a lot of controversy lately about Donald Rosenberg, music critic of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, who was removed from his position reviewing concerts of the renowned Cleveland Orchestra recently because of complaints about his negative reviews of the orchestra's music director,Austrian conductor Franz Welser-Most .
The orchestra's management was upset about the critic's tendency to find fault with the interpretations of the conductor,even though he did at times praise him. Consequently,although Rosenberg was not actually fired, the Plain Dealer's management chose a younger and less well-known critic to cover the orchestra's concerts and restricted Rosenberg to reviewing other classical music events in Cleveland and even non-classical performances.
Rosenberg,58,is a highly respected critic who has reviewed the orchestra's concerts for many years and written an acclaimed history of the world-famous orchestra. The reviewer filed a lawsuit to regain his position reviewing the orchestra , also complaining of alleged age discrimination, but lost his attempt to do so in court last week.
Many critics and commentators have expressed dismay at Rosenberg's removal from his position, and yours truly agrees. It's a critic's job to state his or her opinions of a performance or a work of art or literature. Rosenberg was merely doing his job, and from all accounts,he had done so with distinction for many years for the Plain Dealer.
From all accounts,there is no evidence that Rosenberg was waging a personal vendetta aginst Welser-Most,and the conductor himself said that he was entitled to his opinions. But the conductor's contract with the orchestra has been renewed for about six years recently, and this would not have happened if the orchestra had been unhappy with his leadership.
Not every one likes his conducting, but this is true of just about any conductor. Back in the 1960s,when Leonard Bernstein was music director of the New York Philharmonic, the late music critic Harold C. Schonberg,then chief music critic of the New York Times, often carped at the way the legendary conductor and composer interpreted this or that work, finding his interpretations willful ,mannered and distorted, though not on every occaision. Schonberg never denied that Bernstein was extraordinarily gifted, but the flamboyant maestro's conceptions of many works often seemed to irritate him.
Yet no one called for Schonberg's dismissal, and the New York Times kept him on a chief music critic until he retired in 1980. But the Cleveland Orchestra's management was worried that Rosenberg's negative reviews might have negative impact on the orchestra's ticket sales.
Witnesses at the lawsuit testified that Rosenberg had always been an even-handed and fair-minded critic, but apparently this did not help him win his case. This is also a loss for freedom of speech.
I've heard a vast amount of classical music over the years since I was a teenager and became a classical music freak. Who knows how many symphonies, concertos for all the various instruments, symphonic poems and other works for orchestra , string quartets and other chamber music for different combinations of instruments ,piano sonatas and other works for piano, countless different operas and operettas, oratorios,cantatas and other choral works, art songs ,Masses and Requiems etc,you name it.
But there's still so much I haven't heard . That's right. The more you know about a subject,the more you realize how much you don't know about it. Even if I live a hundred years,I'll never come even remotely close to hearing everything I could in classical music. There's a staggering amount of it available for any one to hear ,live, on CDs, on DVDs, radio and the internet .
Classical music lovers who lived in past centuries never had more than a tiny fraction of the music available to them now. Is this a blessing or a curse?I feel frustrated at not having the time to listen, the money and the space to hold everything. Of course,now I pads can store an incredible amount of music. And of course, there's more to life than listening to classical music,such as films,books, magazines, food, politics, work, and other activites.
Today we can hear everything from ancient works by composers such as Monteverdi,Dufay, Josquin, Palestrina,Lassus, Gesualdo, Machaut, and others who lived in the distant past from the middle ages to the Renaissance, to living composers such as Glass,Adams, Carter,Boulez, Henze, Dutilleaux, Penderecki, Maxwell Davies, and many other contemporary composers .
The old standbys such as Bach, Beethoven,Mozart, Tchaikovsky, Brahms, Schubert, Debussy, Schumann, Mendelssohn, and Rachmaninov are still very much with us, but we can hear music by such obscure but very interesting composers as Franz Berwald, Wilhelm Stenhammar,Rued Langaard,Jon Leifs, Alexander Von Zemlinsky, Franz Schreker,Franz Schmidt,Nikolai Medtner, Albert Roussel, Charles Koechlin, Paul Creston, Zdenek Fibich, Mily Balakirev, Arthir Bliss, Arnold Bax, Nikolai Myaskovsky, Hans Pfitzner, Ferrucio Busoni, Karol Szymanowski, Charles Valentin Alkan, Erwin Schulhoff, Jan Dismas Zelenka, and so many others.
It's an embarassment of riches. Classical music is a movable feast with a bewildering variety of delicious food. A banquet and a buffet filled with unbelievable variety.
Harvey Sachs is a music historian and writer on music who has written biographies of such great classical musicians as conductor Arturo Toscanini and pianist Artur Rubinstein and other books,and who writes a blog on classical music for artsjournal.com .
His latest book is concerned with a single work- Beethoven's immortal ninth symphony, with its world famous One To Joy choral finale, using the words of a poem by Friedrich Schiller. Since its world premiere in Vienna in 1824 three years before the great composer's death,it has become a staple of the orchestral repertoire and a cultural icon. Even people who know little about classical music and have never heard the entire symphony are familiar with the famous melody used in that finale set to the words "All men shall become brothers".
In his new book, Sachs gives us the fascinating story of the work's genesis and its history over the years and places the work in its cultural and historical context . Beethoven lived in a time of repression and an Austrian empire ruled by an aristocracy in Vienna and a Europe in which such powerful ruling dynasties as the Hapsburgs, Bourbons and the Romanovs in Russia kept a tight control of their power. The text of the finale was revolutionary and subversive ,with its call for universal brotherhood.
In addition , at the time of its premiere, the ninth symphony was the longest and most complex symphony that had ever been written , and the first one to feature a chorus and four vocal soloists , and so difficult to play and sing that it presented a tremendous challenge to all those who performed it for the first time ,even though orchestras today could almost play it in their sleep .
The story of the first performance has become the stuff of legend; the deaf composer could not even hear the work yet tried to conduct it ,even though other musicians had to help him do it. Sachs describes this premiere in detail and gives us much interesting information about the circumstances of behind it.
There were no full time professional orchestras at the time; the orchestras of opera companiees sometimes gave concerts and other concerts were ad hoc affairs put together by composers who would hire the musicians on a per performance basis . Extra musicians had to be hired for the unusually large forces needed to perform the ninth.
This great symphony inspired later great composers such as Berlioz and liszt and has gone on to become one of the most important works in the history of classical music. The first movement is stormy and agitated , and the second ,instead of being the slow movement as common in symphonies is the scherzo ;fast and furious,with a calmer middle section followed by a repeat of the first part ,as is usual in scherzos and minuets of symphonies.
The slow movement is next, and is filled with serene lyricism, followed by the famous choral finale which ends in triumph . There are who knows how many recordings of the ninth available on CD and a number of live performances on DVD ,including the one conducted by Leonard Bernstein in 1989 in Berlin to celebrate the fall of the Berlin wall with musicians from several of Europe's greatest orchestras.
For this per4formance ,Bernstein had the chorus and solists replace the German word "Freude " ,meaning joy,with the German word for freedom,which is "Freiheit" ! Other great conductors who have recorded the ninth include Arturo Toscanini,Wilhelm Furtwangler, Otto Klemperer,Herbert von Karajan, Eugen Jochum, Bruno Walter, Sir Georg Solti, Fritz Reiner,Pierre Monteux, Claudio Abbado, Daniel Barenboim, Sir Colin Davis, Bernard Haitink, Riccardo Muti, Lorin Maazel, Sir Charles Mackerras, George Szell and Felix Weingartner ,to name only a handful.
And of course, no classical CD collection should be without at least one recording of this great work ;if you would like to get one and are new to classical music, check arkivmusic.com. And don't miss the book by Harvey Sachs;it will give you much insight into it.