October 2010 - Posts
Conductors aren't like other people. At ages when other people are happy to retire, they tend to hit their stride. Some have been active through their 80s ,and the legendary Leopold Stokowski (1882-1977)conducted his last concert at the age of 90 ! On top of that, he continued to make a number of recordings until he died at the age of 95.
What accounts for such amazing longevity on the podium? It appears to be the aerobic exercize of beating time, as well as the mental alertness required and the enormous amount of mental exertion involved as well.
The world-famous Estonian conductor Neeme Jarvi (nay-meh yair-vee) ,73, is typical. He has just been appointed to his umpteenth position as a conductor, Switzerland's Orchestre De La Suisse Romande in Geneva. The Suisse Romande is the name for the French-speaking part of Switzerland.
The Suisse Romande orchestra was founded in 1918 by the eminent Swiss conductor Ernest Ansermet (1883-1969) ,who made many acclaimed recordings with it for Decca records. Later music directors have included such distinguished conductors as Paul Kletzki, Wolfgang Sawallisch, Armin Jordan and Marek Janowski, who is in his last season with the orchestra.
Jarvi has been music director of such outstanding orchestras as the Detroit Symphony,now unfortunately beset with financial and labor woes, Sweden's Gothenburg Symphony , the Royal ScottishNational Orchestra, the New Jersey Symphony, and currently the Estonian National orchestra and the Netherland's Hague Philharmonic. In addition,he has appeared with virtually every important orchestra on the planet and some lesser-known ones as well, and has conducted opera at the Metropolitan and other leading opera houses.
Jarvi has also made a large number of recordings of an amazingly eclectic variety of orchestral and operatic repertoire for record labels such as Deutsche Grammophon, Chandos and Bis of Sweden. He has never restricted himself to the same old familiar staples of classical music and has boundless curiosity in searching for works to conduct. As an Estonian from the Baltic region,with its close cultural and ethnic ties to Scandinavia, he is one of the leading exponents of the music of Sibelius, Nielsen,Grieg and other lesser-known but interesting composers from this region, as well as the music of his native Estonia, which has a much richer musical tradition than most people realize,as well as Russian compoisers such as Prokofiev,Shostakovich ,Stravinsky and others.
He has been an indefatigable champion of neglected but intriguing music by so many composers who are rarely heard at concerts and opera. Names such as Eduard Tubin from his native Estonia, Wilhelm Steinberg, Nikolai Myaskovsky, Mily Balakirev, George Whitefield Chadwick, William Grant Still, Zdenek Fibich, Johan Svendsen, Sergei Taneyev, Franz Schmidt, and many others.
Jarvi will conduct virtually anything if he thinks it's an interesting work that deserves a hearing. He has put concert audiences and classical CD collectors everywhere in his debt for his efforts to exand the orchestral repertoire, and to think outside the box when it comes to programming .
Jarvi also has two sons who have made international reputations as conductors ,Pavvo and Krystian. Paavo is currently music director of the Frankfurt Radio orhcestra and Orchestre De Paris ,and is in his last season with the Cincinnati Symphony orchestra. Like the energizer bunny, Neeme Jarvi is always going,and shows no signs of slowing down.
Twenty years ago this month , the legendary American conductor,pianist,teacher and all-around musical genius Leonard Bernstein passed away at the age of 72,not very old for a conductor when you consider that many great ones have been active through their 80s. He was the first American conductor to achieve world renown and the first to become music director of a major US orchestra,the New York Philharmonic, with which he had a lifetime association. His success paved the way for many other prominent American conductors ever since.
He was also the composer of such beloved boradway shows as West Side Story and On the Town,as well as of serious works for the concert hall ,the mentor of such important conductors as Michael Tilson Thomas and Marin Alsop and others, and one of the most important movers and shakers in 20th century classical music. He initiated the famous Young People's Concerts of the New York Philharmonic,which introduced so many youngsters to classical music and inspired many important American classical musicians in their youth to make classical music their life goal,as well as countless other people who fell under his spell at concerts.
Bernstein was a regular conductor of such great orchestras as the Vienna Philharmonic, London Symphony , Bavarian Radio Orchestra,the Israel Philharmonic and the French National orchestra to name only a few, and also conducted at the Metropolitan opera,Vienna State opera and La Scala Milan, but unfortunately did not devote as much time to conducting opera as he should have, and made an enormous number of recordings with numerous different orchestras of repertoire ranging from Mozart Haydn and Beethoven to 20th great century composers such as his close friend Aaron Copland, Stravinsky,Charles Ives, and his own music.
Despite his many triumphs, Bernstein's life was filled with controversy , rumors of scandals and sensationalistic publicity. He was torn with doubt about his staure as a composer and hoped that he would be remembered for his serious works as well as his most popular show music.
Some music critics attacked him for his allegedly self-indulgent interpretations of such composers as Brahms,Mahler,whose music he championed throughout his life,even before it became an established part of the repertoire, Beethoven and other composers ,and also sneered at his serious works,calling them shallow and pretentious. But audiences all over the world adored "Lenny" ,as well as the musicians of the many orchestras with which he worked. Leonard Bernstein will be remembered as long as classical music exists .
If you think that the US is the only country where classical music is threatened ,you're wrong. The Netherlands, a nation which conservatives in America love to hate for its alleged permissiveness and ultra-liberal government ,is planning to slash government support for the arts by about 25 percent.
Apparently, a more conservative group of politicians has gained power there,even though what Europeans calll conservative is still pretty liberal by US standards ,and the controversial Dutch politician Geert Wilders,who has come under fire from Muslims around the world for his opposition to Islamic fundamentalism in the Netherlands ,wants to slash funding for the arts.
The result? The Netherlands Music Broadcasting Center, which supports a world-class radio orchestra,one of dozens throughout Europe, an admired choir and several other smaller groups could go under. Already, musicians throughout the Netherlands are voicing their opposition, and according to a report in a British newspaper, there was a special concert organized to protest the cuts several days ago.
Lovers of classical music everywhere are hoping that this ominous story will not become a trend in Europe. Actually, some performing groups have already suffered funding cuts in Europe in recent years, but purely because of economic difficulties ,not the kind of crass philistinism which is unfortunately so common among American politicians.
Let's hope that if these unfortunate cuts go through, private philanthropies will offer help. But there's no guarantee of this. Remember, classical music and the arts are not merely a frivolous entertainment for the bored rich. They improve the quality of life for millions of people around the world and provide gainful employment for so many talented,dedicated and hard-working musicians, artists, dancers and actors.
And it should be remembered that the arts are highly beneficial for a nation's economy,too. If only more US politicians and political pundits realized this fact.
Opera fans the world over are mourning the passing of one of the greatest voices in the history of the art form. Australian-born soprano Dame Joan Sutherland was 83 and had been suffering from an undisclosed ailment for some time.
Dame Joan was known to opera fans as "La Stupenda" for her extraordinary soprano voice,which combined the power of a dramatic soprano with the agility and finesse of a coloratura ,or soprano who can sing the highly decorated vocal lines of the so-called "Bel Canto" (beautiful singing) operas of early 19th century Italian opera, a rare combination.
Sutherland was originally destined to become a Wagnerian soprano, but her husband ,Australian conductor,pianist and scholar Sir Richard Bonynge 80, who survivies her,and a leading authority on Bel Canto music, steered her toward the music of composers such as Rossini,Donizetti and Bellini, as well as to French opera ,back in the 1950s.
With her remarkable vocal talent,Dame Joan rose to prominence in the operatic world beginning in the late 1950s ,singing at London's Royal Opera and other leading European opera houses, finally making her Metropolitan debut in the early 60s ,and making numerous best-selling recordings of operas by Verdi,Bellini,Donizetti, Gounod, Rossini,Offenbach, Massenet and other composers, many with her frequent partner,the late great tenor Luciano Pavarotti, with her husband conducting.
Before Dame Joan and the vastly different Maria Callas (1923-1977 ) came to prominence , many of these Bel Canto operas had been neglected for a century or more because of a lack of singers able to do them justice. Sutherland was sometimes criticized for concentrating on beauty of sound and spectaculartechnique at the expense of clear diction and dramatic intensity, but she worked hard to improve her diction and her acting skills .But her many fans idolized her despite any faults she may have had; she radiated star quality.
Among her most famous roles were the hapless Scottish girl Lucy in Donizetti's Lucia Di Lammermoor ,the vengeful Druid priestess Norma in Bellini's opera of the same name, the charming Tomboy Marie in Donizetti's Daughter of the Regiment,Lakme the daughter of a Brahmin priest in India in the opera of that name by French composer Leo Delibes, the Parisian courtesan Violetta in Verdi's La Traviata, and Gilda, hapless daughter of the hunchback court jester Rigoletto. Her recordings of these and many other roles have been best-sellers for decades and are still very much available,as well as some performances on DVD.
Despite her glamorous career, Dame Joan was an unpretentious , amiable and down-to-earth lady who enjoyed being a homebody,knitting and gardening . She wil go down in operatic history as one of the greatest .
In a word, busy. As I pointed out in my last post, being a major league conductor in charge of a world class orchestra or opera company is an incredibly tough,demanding and complex job . As well as the expected reharsals and concerts, there are countless decisions to be made, endless meetings with the administrative staff, the members of the board of directors, people who wealthy and influential people who might become sources of financial support, auditions to judge, as well as going out of town to guest conduct elsewhere,since no music director can possibly conduct every performance of a season which lasts from September to June,as well as Summer festivals.
If you're the music director of an opera company, there are also the numerous singers to deal with,as well as stage directors and designers. A conductor must constantly be planning his orchestra's future and dealing with administration and financial benefactors . There are decisions to be made about programming. What will you conduct during the season? How do you co ordinate it all? Which guest conductors and instrumental soloists will be invited to perform with the orchestra,as well as singers if needed ?
Will the orchestra's board of directors and administrative staff approve of what you want to conduct? Not necessarily. There may be disputes. How do you balance the programming, satisfying the audience with the beloved masterpieces they want to hear and balancing it with new music, which is absolutely essential or the repertoire will stagnate. Or what if you want to play an interesting long-neglected work from the past? You may get flack.
You have to judge auditions for openings in the orchestra. You must confer with the audition committee. You may want an applicant the committeee does not favor. How do you avoid ruffling feathers ? It's not easy. You also have to deal with the musicians of the orchestra at every rehearsal and performance. That's also far from easy. You have to earn their respect,which isn't easy to do.
Sometimes there are conflicts between a conductor and individual musicians,or disputes among the musicians. And you constantly have to study scores, often learning ones you haven't conducted before,which is far from easy. Look at an orchestral score.It may consist of 20 to 30 or more different lines of music for each instrument on one page.The individual musicians have to master their own parts, but the conductor must master the whole score before appearing before the musicians.
You have to keep up with the latest musicological reasearch , and have to mark the score with all manner of different indications, bowing for strings, inner lines in the music which can easily be obscured, and much,much more. You have to have the techinique to master the numerous rhythmical difficulties in the score, and must be able to correct out of tune playing and make sure that everything can be heard clearly. For example,if you are not careful, the brass can easily drown out the rest of the orchestra at times.
The conductor must manage both the countless details and oversee the big picture. This job requires an almost superhuman amount of talent, skill, knowledge and imagination . Many are called, but few are chosen.
As the old saying goes,when it rains,it pours. After the prolonged health problems of James Levine forced him to miss nearly a year of performances with the Metropolitan Opera and Boston Symphony, Italian maestro Riccardo Muti, who was all set to conduct his inaugural concerts as new music director of the Chicago Symphony , has been forced to withdraw because of reports of severe gastric distress.
Lately, it seems that something is always going wrong in the world of classical music. Eminent conductors such as Claudio Abbado, James Levine, Riccardo Muti and thers have been struck by a variety of illnesses and accidents. Levine ,in addition to severe back trouble, has had to deal with a broken rotator cuff after falling on stage after a concert in Boston and a cyst which required the removal of one of his kidneys.
Former Boston Symphony music director Seiji Ozawa is recovering from a bout with cancer of the esophagus , and Leonard Slatkin,now with the financially troubled Detroit symphony had a heart attack after a concert, and the venerable Claudio Abbado,77 ,has been in frail health after stomach cancer for some time. Are our orchestras jinxed ?
Fortunately, the eminent French composer/conductor Pierre Boulez ,who has had a long and fruitful realtion with the Chicagoans,and other well-known conductors , are ready to fill in for maestro Muti,who is expected to be able to conduct by Winter. Levine has a schedule which would be taxing even for a conductor in optimum health ahead of him , and every one is hoping that he will have the stamna to continue. Let's wish the best for all these eminent conductors.
Any one who thinks that conducting is an easy job could not be more mistaken. It requires the stamina of a great athlete, the leadership ability of a general, the intellect of a great mind, encyclopedic knowledge of music theory and history, the skill of a psychologist in dealing with musicians and other people, the tact of a diplomat, the ability to multitask to an almost superhuman degree, the ability to make countless tough decisions and the imagination and fantasy of a poet.
Here's some encouraging news for a change . As I've mentioned before here,I'm a member of several classical music fourms. And recently, a number of people have joined who are new to classical music ,filled with enthusiasm ,and eager to explore the vast classical repertoire, naturally by getting to know the basic masterpieces first.
Interestingly,some are even Rock fans who have somehow discovered that classical music is stuffy,highbrow and irrelevant to modern life but a miraculous,life-affirming and profoundly enjoyable and satisfying phenomenon .
They introduce themselves on the forums saying that they've recently discovered classical music and wonder where it's been all their lives. They're eager to learn and ask us classical mavens for advoice and recommendations of works to hear.
Naturally, we classical freaks are eager to help them with information,advice and recommendations. If only more and more people would do this ! If you would like to join any of these forums, the ones I'm on are classicalmusicguide.com, the forum as Good Music Guide , talkclassical.com, and the forum at gramophone.co.uk, which is on the website of gramophone,the British record review magazine .
These forums are friendly and welcoming places, and you can learn a lot about classical music.