January 2011 - Posts
American composer Milton Babbitt passed away the other day at the venerable age of 94 . He was nowhere near as well-known to the general public as his fellow American composers Aaron Copland,George Gershwin, Leonard Bernstein and Samuel Barber , but he never wrote for the masses. That simply wasn't his style.
His specialty was mind-bogglingly complex and abstruse avant-garde music which took Arnold Schoenberg's 12-tone atonal techniques and added even greater complexity to them ,as well as music using electronic instruments and mixing them with acoustical instruments and the human voice. But he also loved popular music and Broadway musicals paradoxically, and even dabbled in these as a young man.
Babbitt taught composition for many years at Princeton University ,and was still living in the town at the time of his death. He taught many disitinguished composers there,including Stephen Sondheim of all people, who was very much interested in learning avant-garde compositional techniques.
Babbitt's music is not really for classical music newbies, but once they become more familiar with 20th century music, it might be worth a try. But forget about hummable melody and Romantic lushness if you are willing to give it a chance. At first, it will be about as comprehensible as a treatise on nuclear physics or Einstein's Theory of Relativity. But with repeated hearings, it may begin to make more sense to you if you make the effort to listen carefully.
His music is also extremely difficult for musicians,even the most technically adept, to perform. Even a group as virtuosic as the world-famous Philadelphia orchestra was unable to master a work of his once, and the performance was scratched !
Babbitt won the Pulitzer prize for his music and was internationally recognized as one of the most important composers of out time, even if most listeners found his music completely baffling . He became famous,or possibly notorious,for an article he wrote in the late 1950s for the now defunct magazine High Fideltity, which was one of the leading reviews of classical recordings, called "Who Cares If You Listen"? This was not actually his choice for a title, but the magazine's editor chose it to the composer's dismay.
The article was a justification for his extremely abstruse music ,and he asserted that his music,and that of other avant-garde composers of the day ,was meant to advance classical music as a whole, and to pioneer new techniques in composition,even though audiences rejected it. Babbitt claimed that he did indeed care very much if people listened to his music.
But the memory of the title haunted his reputation for many years. No, Babbitt will probably never be performed as often as Copland, Bernstein, and Barber etc. But that does not diminish his stature and importance as a composer in any way. Check arkivmusic.com for recordings of his music- if you dare !
The life of that singular Austrian musical genius has become the stuff of legend over the years. A child prodigy who showed astonishing musical gifts as a toddler and little boy who was exhibited as a child almost like a freak show before the crowned heads of Europe by his ambitious and manipulative father,himself a respected musician ,teacher and composer. Mozart died at the tragically early age of only 35. He produced his earliest works,with the help of his father, when he was only about six or seven,which is astonishing.
In his short life he produced a catalogue of nearly 600 works ,many of which are among the greatest masterpieces of music history in every form; symphonies,concertos, operas, piano works, chamber music etc. Not all are great ,particularly his early works, but he left an astonishing legacy of great music .
Mozart was born in the picturesque Austrian town of Salzburg in 1756, but did not like the place, becuase it was too provincial and limited for him .He spent years as court composer to the Archbishop of Salzburg after his early travelling years as a child prodigy, and had nothing but contempt for the pompous and officious cleric, who did not allow him the freedom and opportunities he craved . But he moved to Vienna , the capital of the European music world in 1781, and spent the rest of his life there as a freelance composer and pianist,putting on his own concerts of his music and hiring the musicians.
It was not as secure a life as in Salzburg,with its regular salary , but he could breathe free for once. Contrary to popular belief,Mozart was not at all poor or unsuccessful,or unappreciated. He earned good money as a musician and composer, but liked to live well and ran up considerable debts from gambling . He was on the verge of achieving who-knows-what when he died in December of 1791 of an illness which has not been definitively diagnosed.
He had been given a commission to write a Requiem mass from a mysterious nobleman, but died before completing it,and the work was completed by his pupil Franz Xaver Sussmayr from his sketches. We will never know what masterpieces he might have produced if he had lived longer.
No musical season would be imaginable without performances of his great operas Le Nozze Di Figaro, (The Marriage of Figaro),Don Giovanni, The Magic Flute and Cosi Fan Tutte(So Do They All), or his many piano concertos, his symphonies, of which are not played often, and other beloved works he wrote. The world's greatest conductors, pianists,violinists, and opera singers have made his music a major part of their repertoire from the beginning.
There are countless recordings of his music by countless different muscicians ,including huge boxed sets of his complete works on CD. Great conductors such as Herbert von Karajan,Karl Boehm, Bruno Walter, James Levine, Leonard Bernstein , Daniel Barenboim, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Otto Klemperer, and others have recorded his symphonies and operas, and so many great opera singers have recorded his operas, such as the late Joan Sutherland, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf,Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Fritz Wunderlich, Cesare Siepi, Hermann Prey, to name only a handful, and so many of the world's greatest violinists and pianists have recorded his many concertos. His four horn concertos are studied by every aspiring horn player and have been recorded by such great horn players as Barry Tuckwell,Dennis Brain, Dale Clevenger,Hermann Baumann and others.
What kind of man was Mozart? The film Amadeus,entertaining as it is, does not really give you an accurate picture of the man or his life. The story about his supposed fatal poisoning by the supposedly mad with envy Italian composer Antonio Salieri(who was not a bad composer at all) is an urban legend with no more truth than the moon being made of green cheese.
Mozart was apparently an amiable and fun-loving fellow with a great sense of humor who aparently behaved in a rather childlike and eccentric manner according to reports. There has even been speculation that he may have had Tourette's syndrome, a strange neurological condition which makes its victims shout out obscenities and behave in a weird and uncontrollable manner. We know that he had a rather ribald and scatological sense of humor.
So happy birthday Wolfgang,wherever you are. You've brightened the lives of countless people for over 200 years .
Here's a recent fantasy of mine . What if classical music were as popular as sports in America? What if our symphony orchestras and opera companies were as well-known to the public as the top sports teams ? Imagine an America where conductors,members of symphony orchestras , solo pianists,violinists ,cellists and opera stars were as famous as Michael Jordan , Le Bron James, A-Rod ,etc?
What if the members of our great symphony orchestras,such as the New York Philharmonic ,Chicago symphony, Philadelphia,Celevand orchestras,the Boston symphony and Los Angeles Philharmonic were paid salaries comparable to top athletes,and conductors were just as famous and even more highly paid? There's something roughly comparable to the way US orchestras are classified as major or regional, sort of like the way there are major and minor league baseball teams.
The major orchestras,such as those of New York,Boston,Philadelphia,Cleveland and Chicago ,known as "The big five", as well as those of L.A.,San Francisco, etc, have the longest seasons, the highest budgets, and pay the highest salaries ,and the others don't play as many concerts,have much lower budgets and don't pay nearly as much ,such as in the smaller US cities.
But none of the musicians in the orchestras are paid millions, although the music directors,or chief conductors of the top US orchestras can earn over a million a year. What if people were as interested in the careers and lives of the orchestral musicians as they are in the top athletes, and when a musician was appointed to a principal position such as concertmaster,or principal horn,it was top news, and discussed on television, and kids traded symphony orchestra cards with the pictures of top players in our orchestras? The concertmaster of a top orchestra such as the New York Philharmonic a measly $250,000 a year or so, and rank-and-file members about $100,000. Members of the smaller regional orchestras are paid far less .
Or it were big news when a horn player had an off night and missed a lot of notes at a concert? Or when a musician retired from an orchestra, and there was speculation as to who might get a key position in an orchestra? What if opera stars were as famous as Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt, and other top film actors ?
What if auditions for positions in top orchestras were national news,and millions of Americans waited with baited breath over who got the job ,and there were "classical music announcers" covering concerts,opera and auditions? Or betting over who might win an audition ?
Or if famous conductors, members of top orchestras and other musicians got paid fabulously for endorsing products for companies ? Or if newspapers and TV networks were abuzz with stories of when a member of an orchestra became ill or had an accident, and the current health problems of a top conductor such as James Levine were national news ? Dream on.....
70 years ago today, a baby was born in Madrid ,the son of two of Spain's leading stars of the Zarzuela,or traditional Spanish operetta , and as they say,the rest is history. Placido Domingo grew up in Mexico ,studied at the Mexico City conservatory and went on to become on of the greatest opera singers of all time, not to mention a conductor and administrator of opera companies in Los Angeles and Washington .
At an age when most opera singers have retired , Domingo is still singing a wide variety of roles at the world's top opera houses ,and his beautiful, silvery and ringing voice has preserved its luster to an amazing degree. He has even branched out into performing baritone roles such as Simon Boccanegra and Rigoletto ,as he originally began training as a baritone.
Domingo has sung and recorded an amazing variety of roles in operas ranging from Handel and Mozart to contemporary composers ,in Italian,French,German,Russian,English and Spanish, as well as giving numerous song recitals and appearing with top symphony orchestras in oratorios and other works.
He has recorded almost all of the most famous tenor roles in who knows how many complete recordings of operas by Verdi,Puccini, Donizetti, Rossini, Wagner,Bizet, Gounod,Offenbach, Richard Strauss, Tchaikovsky, Saint-Saens, and many other composers ,and performed under the baton of just about every great conductor of our time,including Levine,Muti, Abbado, Karajan,Solti, Maazel, Barenboim, Bernstein, Kleiber, Pappano, Gergiev, and others.
He has been a regular at the Metropolitan opera, La Scala in Milan, the Royal opera in London,the Vienna State opera , and everywhere ,and has conducted a wide variety of operas there in addition. There seems to be nothing he can't do, and opera fans all over the world have been his fervent admirers for decades . Check out the website domingo70.com for more information .Happy birthday indeed !
Classical music commentators Greg Sandow and Joseph Horowitz have attacked our symphony orchestras and classical music again in recent blog posts at artsjournal.com, and they are using their usual specious arguments and obfuscation.
Composer,critic and commentator Greg Sandow discusses the recent and controversial Washington exhibit of gay art which upset many conservative pundits who would like to see the National Endowment For The Arts abolished because of such things. But he is not a conservative, and used this exhibit as an excuse to attack classical music in general in America.
According to Sandow, such trendy and edgy art exhibits prove that classical music is stodgy, irrelevant and out of touch with modern reality, and that's why it needs to "innovate" in order to become "relevant". But he is again guilty of judging classical music by the standards of other art forms.
There are and have been many important composers who happened to have been gay, including Tchaikovsky, Aaron Copland, Samuel Barber,Benjamin Britten, Ned Rorem, Francis Poulenc, Hans Werner Henze, Gian Carlo Menotti, Charles Wuorinen and others,and some who may have been ,such as Schubert and Handel.
But is this really relevant? We can only judge their works on their own merits. Their private behavior may give us valuable information about their lives and motivations, but what ultimately matters is their music. The fact that there was a recent exhibit of gay art in Washington proves absolutely nothing negative about the classical music world today.
Commentator Joseph Horowitz,who has written interesting if rather tendentious books about the great conductor Arturo Toscanini, a history of classical music in America, and others, also compares the classical music world unfavorably with the current art museum scene.
Here is a typical statement of his from his blog : "Though orchestras are sometimed debunked for being like museums, any number of museums are in fact more forward-thinking than any number of American orchestras.Museums program thematically. " American orchestras can seem stranded,insular, anachronistic".
Whoa. These are loaded words if there ever were any . In fact, thematic programming is not at all uncommon with orchestras in America today. Programs based on works united by common ideas can be found at many US orchestras. But who says that programming has to be thematic? Thematic programming is a recent trend in US orchestras. It can be interesting, but it's not essential for them to make concerrtgoing worthwhile.
Here's an interesting example of concerts in March by the National Symphony of Washington under its new music director Christoph Eschenbach. The maestro has chosen an intriguing program with an Indian theme: the world premiere of a work for symphony orchestra and Indian instruments by the distinguished Tabla player Zakir Hussain, and excerpts from the great but rarely performed opera Padmavati by the great French composer Albert Roussel (1869-1937) ,which is the story of the Moghul conquest of India many centuries ago.
Some US orchestras,particualrly the smaller regional ones, have very conservative audiences and thus are forced to restrict their programming pretty much to the familiar masterpieces of Mozart,Schubert,Beethoven, Brahms,Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov etc, but many of the top orchestras regularly perform the latest works by today's leading composers,such as those of New York,Boston,Chicago, Philadelphia,Cleveland,Los Angeles,San Francisco, Saint Louis, etc.
And unfortunately, Horowitz quotes a claim written 70 years ago by the American composer and critic Virgil Thomson ,that the New York Philharmonic "was not part of New York's intellectual life". This grossly unfair and slanderous statement dogged America's oldest orchestra for decades and has been blindly accepted by too many critics as true.
Here's the story: In 1940, American composer and critic Thomson was the music critic of a prominent New York newspaper which has long been defunct . He reviewed a concert by the New York Philharmonic led by the great Englsih conductor Sir John Barbirolli (1899-1970),who was then its music director.
The main work on the program was the symphony no, 2 of the great Finnish composer Jean Sibelius ,a work which has long been an repertoire staple,and for good reasons,since it's a true measterpiece. But Thomson loathed the music of Sibelius, and never gave any work of his a good review. He dismiised the symphony as "vulgar,provincial and self-indulgent" , a ridiculous charge.
He wasn't really describing the work,just bad-mouthing it. That was his right. But his nasty review contained a gratuitous dig at the New York Philharmonic.He made the preposterous claim that this concert proved that the orchestra was "Not part of New York's intellectual life". Really? How does one concert a critic happens to hate prove that the orchestra was not part of New York's intellectual life?
In effect,he was saying that the orchestra could only be this if played music he happened to like,which was arrogant and presumptuous. But the charge stuck to the orchestra for decades,despite the fact that ever since that time, under such great conductors as Dimitri Mitropoulos,Leonard Bernstein,Pierre Boulex,Zubin Mehta, Kurt Masur, Lorin Maazel and now Alan Gilbert, the orchestra has been in the forefront of performing new music by the worl's leading composers ,including many,many world premieres ,and under many eminent guest conductors,too.
The New York Philharmonic has performed new or recent works by who knows how many contemporary composers in the past 70 years or so, and ones of widely varying compositional styles and nationalities,including plenty of American music.
No, both Sandow and Horowitz are dead wrong. Classical music is very much alive ,and the way they make it sound as if it were no longer worth attending orchesra concerts for the most part is way off target.On the contrary, concertgoing has NEVER been more worthwhile. Don't believe the so-called "experts."
New York Times chief music critic Anthony Tommasini has an interesting article in the arts and leisure section of the January 9 Sunday Times on making lists of the ten greatest composers . Ten greatest composers ? How can any one make such an arbitrary list ? Does this mean that all the other composers are inferior to this exalted if arbitrarily chosen group ?
Tommasini discusses the music of such giants as Bach,Handel, Beethoven, Schubert ,Brahms,Chopin, etc ,and shows how futile and pointless the whole exercise is. The problem is that people tend to equate the greatest with the most famous, even though this is not necessarily the case . There's no question that Bach,Mozart,Handel, Beethoven, Schubert,Brahms, Stravinsky and Wagner etc are AMONG the greatest composers .
But how can any one say that such giants as Bruckner,Mahler,Richard Strauss, Sibelius, Prokofiev,Shostakovich , Berlioz, Charles Ives, Dvorak, Janacek, Carl Nielsen and others are not as great in their own way ?
Classical music is an almost unimaginably vast field with so many great composers . And there are also many composers who may not be quite as great as the greatest but who still wrote much highly enjoyable music . For example , Max Bruch ,Ottorino Respighi ,Camille Saint-Saens, Aram Khatchaturian , Emmanuel Chabrier , to name only a handful .
The fact that they aren't the equal of Bach and Beethoven is no disgrace to them . It's the same when it comes to ranking great conductors, violinists,pianists,cellists and singers . Here too, people tend to equate the most famous with the greatest .
There have been certain superstar performers in the history of classical music whose famed eclipsed that of other performing musicians ; violinists such as the legendary Nicolo Paganini of the late 18th and early 19th century , and more recently, Jascha Heifetz, Isaac Stern, Yehudi Menuhin , and in the present day , Itzhak Perlman. Pianists such as Vladimir Horowitz, Artur Rubinstein , Van Cliburn, cellists such as Mstislav Rostropovich ,Pablo Casals , etc.
But while they may not be quite as well -known to the general public as these names, here is a partial list of other instrumentalists who are or were very great : pianists Claudio Arrau, Rudolf Serkin, Artur Schnabel, Alfred Brendel, Emmanuel Ax, Clifford Curzon, violinists Joseph Szigeti , Gidon Kremer, Bronislaw Huberman, cellists Pierre Fournier , Lynn Harrell . You may not have heard of these names if you are new to classical music and not yet very knowledgable about it, but I assure you, all are towering musicians.
Among conductors , Leonard Bernstein, Arturo Toscanini , Leopold Stokowski , Serge Koussevitzky , Fritz Reiner, Sir Thomas Beecham , Herbert Von Karajan , Sir Georg Solti , Wilhelm Furtwangler , Carlo Maria Giulini , Willem Mengelberg , Carlos Kleiber, Artur Nickisch , George Szell, Eugene Ormandy etc are among the most illustrious among those no longer living , and Pierre Boulez, Claudio Abbado, Daniel Barenboim , Bernard Haitink , James Levine, Sir Colin Davis, Riccardo Muti , Seiji Ozawa, Lorin Maazel , Andre Previn , are among the most eminent living ones .
But there have been other giants in the field, such as Eugen Jochum ,Hans Knappertsbusch , Pierre Monteux, Charles Munch , Erich Kleiber (father of Carlos), Victor De Sabata, Vaclav Talich , Rafael Kubelik , Rudolf Kempe, William Steinberg , Ernest Ansermet , Yevgeny Mravinsky , etc, who are not quite as well-known to the general public but revered by CD collectors and cognoscenti.
Great opera and concert singers have included Caruso , Feodor Chaliapin , Maria Callas, Rosa Ponselle, Kirsten Flagstad , Lauritz Melchior , Luciano Pavarotti , Joan Sutherland, Birgit Nilsson , Marilyn Horne,Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Hans Hotter , Jussi Bjorling , Ezio Pinza , and so many others ,as well as among those currently active such as Renee Fleming, Anna Neterebko, Deborah Voigt, Ben Heppner,Placido Domingo , Natalie Dessay , Thomas Hampson, Bryn Terfel ,Rene Pape, and others .
All these names I've cited barely scratch the surface. With so many great names ,how can any one make ridiculous lists of the "Ten Greatest " ?
The first Metropolitan Opera telecast of 2011 this year is a witty and scintillating comic opera by Gaetano Donizetti (1797-1848) : Don Pasquale. This was recently broadcast live in HD in movie theaters around the US and now you can see it on television on PBS this Wednesaday January 5. Check your TV listings for the time .You can also see it on the internet ;check the Met's website metopera.org for deatails.
Don Pasquale is the story of wealthy old bachelor,Don Pasquale, who wants to disinherit his nephew and heir Ernesto because he wants to marry a young widow,Norina , despite the fact that he does not approve of her . He decides to find a pretty young lady to marry instead .
Pasquale's trusted physician and close friend Dr. Malatesta ,Ernesto and Norina hatch a clever plot to teach the fatuous old codger a lesson . Malatesta tells him that he knows the perfect match for him-his supposed sister Sofronia, a lovely girl fresh out of the convent.
But in fact, she's really Norina in disguise ! They arrange a fake marriage ,and right after the ceremony, the shy and timid "Sofronia" becomes a hellcat and the worst Bridezilla in history, bossing poor Pasquale around and spending his money extravagantly ! This drives the poor old fool to distraction . Eventually, Pasquale learns that it was all just an elaborate practical joke designed to bring him to his senses, laughs heartily, changes his mind about the wedding of Ernesto and Norina, and all ends happily !
Donizetti's music is full of sly humor and deliciously melodious. The cast features bass John Del Carlo as Pasquale, the lovely Russian soprano Anna Netrebko as Norina, Matthew Polenzani as Ernesto and Polish baritone Mariusz Kwecien as Malatesta. James Levine,back after a lengthy bout with serious back trouble,is on the podium . You'll have enormous fun .