October 2011 - Posts
Many people would not associate opera with the spooky and supernatural , but in fact , there are quite a few operas in which the devil gets his due , as well as ones with other decidedly macabre elements in them .
The good old devil himself appears in a number of popular and less familiar operas , including Gounod's rather tame Faust , where he's more elegant and playful than sinister, Mefistofele by the Italian composer Arrigo Boito , both based on the epic play by Goethe about an aged philosopher who is tempted by the devil
to experience the delights of the flesh and lust for power .riches and the answer to the ultimate meaning of
life, but who must follow his master to hell for eternity .
The Boito opera is more earthy and elemental , and Hector Berlioz wrote his highly original oratorio
The Damnation of Faust ,which is sometimes stages as if it were an opera,most recently at the Metropolitan .
It concludes with a terrifying ride straight into hell for Faust , where he is greeted by the demons of the
netherworld with a grotesque mocking chorus in a made up hellish language . This will make the hair on your head stand straight up !
The great Italian pianist and composer Ferruccio Busoni (1866- 1924 ) wrote his own enigmatic take on
the Faust legend called Doktor Faust , whose final scene had to be completed by a pupil after his death .
Here , the roles of Faust and Mephisto , which are sung repsectively by tenor and bass in the other operas , are reversed , and Faust is a solemn bass baritone , and the devil is a sarcastic and mocking tenor who
appears in different disguises throughout the opera , set to Busoni's spiky and sulfuric music .
Antonin Dvorak turned the devil and hell into a screwball comedy with his droll comic opera
The Devil and Kate , where hell is a fun place and the devils are just a bunch of good old boys who
like to sit around hell drinking , singing lusty songs and playing cards ! Marbuel , an assistant devil to
Lucifer , is not a sinister figure but a total wimp who allows the title character Kate, a bossy and talkative young woman who is rather overweight to boss him around !
Other strange and sinister operas include The Turn Of The Screw by the great English composer Benjamin Britten (1913 - 1976 ) , which is based on the eerie and enigmatic short story by Henry James of the same name . Here , two orphan children on their family estate are tormented by the ghosts of
former employees on the estate . Britten's chillingly understated music is scored for a small ensemble of about a dozen instruments rather than a full orchestra .
Perhaps the most bizarre and disturbing of them all is the bone chilling The Fiery Angel
by Sergei Prokofiev (1891 - 1953 ). This opera ,set in 16th century Germany during the Inquisition ,
is a nightmarish tale of Renata , a crazed young woman who is tormented by demons and demonic visions throughout the opera , and gets involved with the blacked of black magic and demonology
with her friend the wandering knight Ruprecht , who is desperately in love with her but whose love is
In the final scene she has entered a nunnery to try to escape her demons , but they begin to infest the whole nunnery , the other nuns become possessed , and an exorcism is performed on her which goes horribly wrong , leading to total chaos in the nunnery . For this, she is sentenced to be tortured and burnt at the stake ! Prokofiev's music throughout the opera is almost unbearably intense, violent
and churning . He later used music from the opera in his third symphony .
Have a spooky and fun-filled Halloween , but be careful about the Prokofiev opera - it may cause nightmares. I'm not kidding !
Of course, many concertgoers are stubbornly conservative folk who want to hear pleasingly euphonious sounds at concerts , as well as equally conservative opera fans . Their ideal is the richly melodious music of Tchaikovsky, Brahms, Rachmaninov , and other Romantic composers . If a conductor has the audacity to program something by Arnold Schoenberg or other atonal and 12-tone composers , or even tonal but harmonically spicy music by the likes of Prokofiev ,Shostakovich ,Bartok, and other 20thcentury composers ,
it's the aural equivalent of a root canal for them .
opera fans want their beloved staples of the operatic repertoire such as Carmen, Aida, Faust, Lucia Di
Lammermoor, Rigoletto, La Traviata and La Boheme. But many would not be caught dead at a performance of Berg's great atonal 20th century operas Wozzeck and Lulu , or even worse, Schoenberg's thorny Biblical masterpiece Moses & Aron .
Yet, paradoxically , many of them hear harshly dissonant music all the time whenever they go to the movies
or watch television , or watch movies on DVD. And it doesn't bother them the least bit. Why? Because they're hearing the music which accompanies the film , and it adds to their enjoyment of that film . When you watch horror or adventure movies where the zombies are attacking, hostile aliens have landed on earth , a guy is turning into a werewolf , or when Indiana Jones is going through his adventures , the dissonant music doesn't bother you at all, unlike sitting through it in the concert hall.
Some of this music is written by film composers , and some is taken from music not originally meant for film . Here's an example. In Stanley Kubrick's unforgettably spooky "The Shining ",based on the Stephen King novel , the music of the great Hungarian composer Bela Bartok was used in several scenes.
In particular, this was his masterpiece "Music For String, Percussion and Celesta ," a work which is not atonal but often very spiky harmonically . The third of its four movements was used in the film , the
eerie slow movement, which is full of the most creepy nocturnal sounds you could ever imagine . The music was perfect for the film .
But unfortunately , many concertgoers will find this great work to be a very unpleasant experience in the concert hall , which is a pity . Do try this work by Bartok on CD , especially with the recordings of such great Hungarian conductor as Sir Georg Solti and Fritz Reiner, who knew Bartok personally .
The November issue of Opera News magazine has just arrived , and the matinee idol face of charismatic German tenor Jonas Kaufmann ,star of the Met's upcoming production of Gounod's Faust is on the cover . He will be singing the role of the aged German philosopher who sells his soul to Mephistopheles for youth , riches , power and the delights of the flesh .
The versatile tenor , who is equally at home in Italian,German and French opera , is interviewed by ON managing editor Oussama Zahr . Writer David J. Baker has an interesting article on Faustian bargains in not only opera , but such acclaimed films as Wall Street and Bedazzled ,as well as TV shows such as The Sopranos etc, even mentioning the episode on the Simpsons where Homer sells his soul to the devil - for a doughnut !
Playwright Michael Slade discusses the upcoming world premiere of an opera by composer Kevin Puts at the Minnesota opera in Minneapolis called Silent Night , based on a tale of trench warfare in WW 1 . David Patrick Stearns, music critic of the Philadelphia Enquirer , interviews American tenor Gary Lehmann , who was scheduled to sing the fiendishly difficult and exhausting role of Siegfried in the Met's new production of Wagner's Ring this season but has been forced to withdraw since , and Matthew Gurwwwitsch ,who regularly contributes articles on opera and
classical music to the Wall Street Journal, New York Times and ON, has an interesting article on the much-maligned character of Siegfried , who is too often dismissed as a boorish simpleton but is really a much more complex figure , as well as his relationship to his grandfather Wotan , ruler of the Germanic gods .
The magazine's roving opera critics review among other things, this Summer's opera productions at New Mexico's renowned Santa Fe Festival , including the revival of GianCarlo Menotti's once controversial opera "The Last Savage", which was unfavorably received by most critics at its Met premiere in 1964 and has not been revived since.
The revival appears to have been a decided success with the audience at Santa Fe, however . The Bard College festival at Annandale-On-The-Hudson of Richard Strauss's rarely performed penultimate opera "The Love Of Danae",based on Greek mythology is reviewed , as well as the bizarre new production of Wagner's Tannhauser at the Bayreuth festival which I recently discussed , and new Salzburg festival productions of Verdi's Macbeth and Die Frau Ohne Schatten (The Woman Without A Shadow) .
Reviews of new CDs include the acclaimed new live recording of Beethoven's Fidelio from the Lucerne
festival in Switzerland conducted by Claudio Abbado with Swedish soprano Nina Stemme in the title role, a live recording of Berjamin Britten's spooky chamber opera The Turn Of The Screw based on the famous short story by Henry James ,from England's Glyndebourne festival , Donizetti's Lucia Di Lammermoor from the unlikely location of the Mariinsky opera in St. Petersburg (the reviewer ,who did not particularly like the recording dismisses it as Lucia di Leningrad !) , and Summer And Smoke by the late Lee Hoiby based on the lurid play by Tennessee Williams performed by the students of the Manhattan School of Music . The composer passed away earlier this year.
DVD reviews of recent live opera performances include Aida and Turandot from the Met, Les Troyens by Berlioz from Valencia ,Spain , a co production by the Mariinsky and Warsaw operas conducted by Valery Gergiev, and Verdi's Macbeth from the Paris opera. There are also reviews of interesting new books on
eroticism in Wagner's music , and Arnold Schoenberg's life in Hollywood after he emigrated to America to escape Hitler and the *** , as well as a new book by music critic Tim Page on the history of Carnegie hall.
Even if you're not a genuine opera fan, Opera News magazine is always an absorbing read . You can learn a lot about the endlessly fascinating world of opera, and it might even make you actually want to become an opera fan !
Today is the 2ooth anniversary of the birth of one of the greatest names in the history of classical music - the legendary piano virtuoso, composer ,conductor , teacher and writer who became one of the most controversial,
charismatic and influential musicians of his day and whose lasting influence on the world of music can scarcely
be exaggerated .
Franz Liszt was born in the Hungarian village of Raiding ,now part of Austria in 1811 , and showed phenomenal
talent as a child , went to Vienna to study composition with none other than Antonio Salieri ,and developed astonishing virtuosity on the piano which dazzled audiences all over Europe, including royalty . He became the most
acclaimed and lionized pianist of the day and women gravitated toward him as groupies do to
Rock stars today .
In his long life, which ended in 1886 , he composed a vast amount of music , by no means all of it for piano ,much of which is little known today but which is of great interest to those willing to search it out. In addition to his two piano concertos , there are hundreds of works for solo piano ,including a monumental one movement sonata in B minor,
miscellaneous short works,often with poetic descriptive titles such as "Dream of Love:", "Dance of the Gnomes",
"Fountains " "Transcendental etudes" etc, many of which can only be played by the most technically accomplished pianists, and which have been played and recorded by such titans of the keyboard as Horowitz,Rubinstein,Arrau ,
Busoni, Rachmaninov , and others since the 19th century .
In his 30s Liszt abandoned the hectic and unsatisfying life of a traveling virtuoso to concentrate on composing ,teaching, writing on music and even conducting , and spent many years in the small but highly cultured city of Weimar,Germany as conductor of the local orchestra . He taught numerous piano students who
went on to achieve great renown , and wrote all manner of works ; ones for piano , orchestral works, oratorios
and other choral works, songs , and all manner of miscellaneous pieces ,large and small .
Much of his music is flavored by so-called Hungarian folk music, more accurately Gypsy-style music,
such as the famous Hungarian Rhapsodies . Although he spoke only a smattering of Hungarian , he always considered himself to be a Hungarian patriot .
Liszt's private life could easily have been made into steamy novels and soap operas ; he never married ,
but had three children by a French countess with whom he had a long and turbulent affair ,one of whom, Cosima, became the second wife of the mighty Richard Wagner , who was a close friend of his . Despite his
glamorous and worldly life , Liszt was a devout Catholic and even took minor religious orders and dressed as a
French Abbe . If he were alive today , his private life would constantly be on glitzy celebrity magazines and
Paparazzi would constantly be on his trail .
Many music critics and composers would not give him credit for being a serious composer ; his music was
often dismissed as glittering, vulgar trash . Perhaps some of it is ; but any one who could write works such as the monumental "Faust Symphony ", the "Sonata in B Minor" for piano , and other quite substantial compositions cannot be dismissed lightly .
If you would like to get to know his music better , seek out CDs of his music by such great pianists as Horowitz, Rubinstein, Arrau , Ashkenazy and others , and recordings of such vividly descriptive orchestral works as the symphonic poems Les Preludes, Mazeppa, Tasso, The Battle Of The Huns, Hungaria,
Prometheus, Hamlet and others , the Faust Symphony, the two piano concertos, the Transcendental Etudes,
Annees De Perelinage (Years as a pilgrim) , and other piano works .
I guarantee you won't be bored !
At the pro-classical music website musoc.org, which I've previously discussed here, My comments there have been the cause of a curious controversy ,and a dispute with the artistic director of London's New Queen's Hall orchestra, the only period instrument orchestra devoted to allegedly "authentic" performances of late 19th and early 20th century music .
It all started a while ago when I sent a letter to the website pointing out what I consider to be the arrogance and presumption of said artistic director, John Boyden , in his claims on the orchestra's website and elsewhere about how vastly preferable his orchestra's performances supposedly are to those of today's mainstream orchestras in the music of such great composers as Brahms, Wagner, Elgar, Vaughan Williams and others are to today's allegedly "inauthentic modern orchestras . This is nothing but carrying the arrogance of the Historically Informed Performance (HIP movement to ridiculous lengths.
Musoc.org has a category on its website, the "Hall of shame" section, devoted to its condemnation of classical musicians who make fatuous statements and who bring shame to the world of classical music. So in a letter, I suggested that they put Mr. Boyden's comments, which seemed about as fatuous as one can get to me,
in its Hall of Shame.
Mr. Boyden fired back a response , accusing me of "bigotry" and "intolerance" toward his orchestra, which he defended as a supposed desperately needed correction to the "excessively loud brass sections" of modern orchestras and the supposed "sameness of sound" of these modern orchestras, claims which I consider to be absolutely false.
Boyden is not alone in thinking that all or most of today's orchestras sound the same, and he longs for the "good old days" when orchestras in different countries and different cities within the same nation supposedly had unique and easily identifiable sounds. But I have never bought this notion. This is a myth, and is probably due to a psychological illusion based on idealization of the past of classical music.
You see, it's absolutely impossible for orchestras to sound alike, as they consist of different musicians playing different makes of instruments in concert halls with different acoustics . German, French, American,Russian ,English and Czech orchestras do not sound alike at all.
There have been changes in the way individual orchestras sound over the years as their personnel change with turnover, but absolutely NO international homogenization of sound . Yes, English orchestras used to use small bore brass instruments w2hich lack the fullness and power of sound of present day brass instruments, but his stories of how the modern brass always drown out the strings and woodwind are bogus. American brass players jokingly refer to the old-fashioned narrow bore English bras instruments as "Pea shooters".
In my response to Musoc.org, I explained that I was in no way "bigoted" against or "intolerant " of the New Queen's hall orchestra. In fact, I said, I would be very curious to attend any of the orchestra's concerts if I could. My beef was not with the orchestra itself, but the ridiculous comments of Boyden.
I pointed this fact out : how do we know that composers such as Brahms, Beethoven,Berlioz,Elgar, Wagner, and others would not have been delighted by the way our modern mainstream orchestras play their music ? We don't and we can't ! But HIP minded musicians and others always assume that their supposedly "authentic" performances must be exactly what the composers wanted, and that modern orchestras are a travesty of the music, which is an arrogant and presumptuous claim.
The composers of the 19th century, such as Beethoven and Berlioz, often complained about how inadequate the performances of their orchestral music, and how badly it was played . Nowadays,
YOUTH ORCHESTRAS play it much better ! The whole HIP movement has been carried to ridiculous lengths .While it was interesting to hear how the music of Bach,Handel,Mozart,Haydn, and Beethoven MAY have sounded in the past, do we really need period instrument performances for composers who lived well into the 20th century,such as Ralph Vaughan Williams, who was born in 1872 and died as recently as 1958 ?
Diva is the Italian word for Goddess , and although the term is now used to describe female Pop stars such as Lady Gaga and Madonna, it was originally used to describe glamorous and charismatic female opera singers ,and still is . The October issue of Opera News magazine is devoted to operatic divas past and present , as well as up-and-coming
young women who may achieve diva status sometime in the future . The legendary Maria Callas (1923- 1977) is perhaps the ultimate opera diva .
American soprano Lauren Flanagan , one of the leading lights of the New York City Opera ,is on the cover , and she is interviewed by writer Scott Barnes . Veteran music critic Richard Dyer, formerly music critic of the Boston Globe , interviews French-Canadian soprano Karina Gauvin , a specialist in operas by Handel, Lully , and other composers of the Baroque era .
Opera News writer Fred Cohn remembers the stellar career of the legendary French coloratura soprano Lily Pons , a once world-famous opera star many current opera fans are too young to have heard live . Writer Eric Myers ,in an article called "Women on the Verge", discusses the favorite "Diva Moments" of certain opera experts , unforgettable performances by such great names as Natalie Derssay , Eva Marton, Carol Vaness and Sandra Radvanovsky .
Renowned opera coach and teacher Ira Siff discusses the recordings and career of the great Italian soprano Claudia Muzio (1889-1936 ), now remembered only for her recordings .
The magazine's roving critics review recent performances from the Glimmerglass festival in Cooperstown,New York , the recent concert performance of Rossini's William Tell from the Caramoor festival not far from Cooperstown, the Des Moines Metro Opera (yes, this city has an opera company !), the Glyndebourne festival in England, London's Royal Opera, the Teatro Real in Madrid , and the Aix-En-Provence festival in the south of France .
CD reviews include the live recording from the Houston opera of Andre Previn's second opera "Brief Encounter" from Deutsche Grammophon , the first recording of "The Brothers " a long forgotten opera by the once notorious modernist American composer George Antheil (19001959) , and a live 1962 performance of Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro from the Metropolitan opera issued by Sony Classical records as a part of its ongoing series of live performances recorded there .
DVD reviews of live opera performances include Benjamin Britten's Billy Budd, based on the famous novel by Herman Melville ,from the Glyndebourne festival , Donizetti's Don Pasquale from a recent Met performance with Anna Netrebko and a recent La Traviata from the Royal opera in London .
For more , you can go to the magazine's website operanews.com . Opera News magazine is indispensable for any one who enjoys opera ,whether veteran expert or newbie .
series of live recordings from the Met
The other day, I found out about a website called change.org , where you can start a petition for any cause and use social networking to gain signatures for that petition . I instantly thought that this might be a great way to try to drum up government support for America's many struggling orchestras and opera companies, even though I am painfully aware that there is an appalling amount of blind opposition to government support of the arts ion this country.
So far, I've only gotten two signatures, including a friend of mine who is a distinguished cellist . But I'm hoping that something good might come out of this possibly quixotic idea of mine. You can go directly to change.org and see my petition, and I urge you to please sign it !
Classical music is in trouble in America . Tough economic times threaten the existence of so many of our wonderful orchestras and opera companies , and there is no telling when any of those which are not currently threatened might start to experience the same difficulties. A number of our classical performing arts organizations have already gone under. The great Philadelphia is now facing a genuine existential threat . The world-famous Philadelphia orchestra, one of America's and the world's most prestigious and admired ensembles !
Please do your part and help me, and classical music in America. As I've pointed out before , this is not a trivial or frivolous matter . The livelihoods of so many talented, dedicated and hard-working musicians are threatened, as well as the many who work on their administrative staffs. And people who love classical music all over America could lose the chance to attend concerts and opera where they live .