January 2013 - Posts
Dear Mr. Gates : You have achieved great fame for your extraordinary generosity with your enormous wealth toward charitable projects everywhere . I would like to bring your attention to a cause which is very close to my heart and that of many other Americans , namely, the plight of so many of America's outstanding symphony orchestras and opera companies in these difficult economic times for America .
I have heard that you have said that you have no desire to contribute money to opera companies in America . I do not know why this is so, but with all due respect , I feel that you are terribly misguided to think this way , and I presume you also feel this way about our symphony orchestras , and feel that they are not deserving of your help . I beg to try to convince you how wrong you are .
I do not know if you enjoy classical music and listen to it with any frequency or have any knowledge of it or interest in it . But please be aware that the livelihoods of so many talented, dedicated and hard-working classical musicians in America are threatened by the difficult economy and the woefully inadequate financial support they receive from both our government , philanthropies and corporations are threatened by this , and many members of orchestras and opera companies have already lost their jobs because of this, not to mention those who work on administration , as well as bitterly disappointed audiences all over America .
These are people with families to support . Classical music is not a frivolous entertainment for wealthy people, but something which should be available to anyone who wishes to attend concerts and opera , and there are so many of these in America . Contrary to popular belief , it is in no way "elitist " . It is something which brings joy , excitement and mental stimulation to countless peopel all over the world .
Our symphony orchestrras and opera companies provide gainful employemt to so many people in all 50 states . And they are world-class institutions ,many of which are famous throughout the world, such as the Metropolitan opera, the New York Philharmonic, the Chicago symphony, the Boston symphony, the Philadelphia orchestra, Boston symphony , to name only a handful .
Collectively, they rank with the greatest of America's national treasures . This nation cannot afford to lose them, because no nation should allow its national treasures to be lost or destroyed . Please, consider providing financial help for those which are struggling to maintain their existence, or which have been forced to gp under .
The arts are NOT a frivolous thing . They are a vital part of the life of any nation . And remember - if America's symphony orchestras and opera companies can flourish , not to mention its dance and drama companies , they help the U.S. economy to flourish, too . The arts are GOOD for America . Please do not forget this .
Thank you . Sincerely yours, Robert Berger , an advocate for the preservation and advancement of classical music in America .
The Metropolitan opera has premiered its eagerly awaited new production of Verdi's grim but beloved masterpiece Rigoletto , and the reviews are mixed, as usual . The controversy lies in the production , which has been much ballyhooed since it was first announced last year . The opera is set in 16th century Mantua,Italy in case you're not familiar with it (and you definitely should get to know it if not) , and is the sordid and tragic tale of a handsome but licentious Duke and his bitter and cynical court Jester Rigoletto , who is deathly afraid that the Duke will seduce his innocent young daughter , whom he keeps under close watch . He hates the Duke, and hires a 16th century hitman to assasinate him , but the whole thing goes horribly wrong , and the poor girl is not only seduced ,but the hitman betrays him ... well, I won't give the story away .
As is so common today , the director and designer of the new production have updated the action to around 1960 in - Las Vegas ! The Duke is now a popular Vegas singer, and Rigoletto is a comedian who is part of his act . In the original setting , the court at Mantua is just as corrupt, licentious and decadent as Las Vegas , and there's plenty of intrigue and lust . The court at Mantua becomes a gaudy Las Vegas casino .
Anthony Tommasini , chief music critic of the New York Times , had some reservations about the staging , but liked it on the whole . James Jorden of the New York Post , thought it was lame and unconvincing . I'll reserve judgment until I see it on a PBS telecast . But the production does not appear to be nearly as outrageous as many European stagings of operas since about the 1980s , which have been downright bizarre, even grossly perverse , with all kinds of gratuitous sexnudity , gratuitous violence and absurdly arbitrary gimmicks .
The acclaimed German coloratura soprano Diana Damrau, who sings Rigoletto's beautiful but naive daughter Gilda in the Met production ,recently starred n a Munich production of the opera where the characters were dressed as gorillas and chimpnzees ! Last year's Bayreuth production of Wagner's Lohengrin, which takes place in medieval Belgium , has the chorus dressed in costumes which deliberately make them look like rats ! What on earth does this have to do with the knights and soldiers of medieval Belgium ? The production of Parsifal, Wagner's last opera, which takes place in the north of medieval Spain in the realm of the knights who guard the Holy Grail , features a prop on stage which is the decaying body of a rabbit ! Much larger than a real rabbit, of course . But why ?
The famous American theater and opera director Peter Sellars has staged Mozart's "The Marriage of Figaro", which takes place in an 18th century Spanish palace of a nobleman , in New York's Trump tower , and the nobleman is a blllionaire tycoon ! Sellar's production of Mozart's "Don Giovanni" , which is set in 18th century Seville , is set in Spanish Harlem among pimps and drug dealers ! Sheesh !
Opera directors and designers have been vying with each other to create the most outlandish and perverse opera productions possiible . It's De Rigeur in Europe , and it seems that any production team which did a traditional production set in the actual time and place of the opera would get booed off the stage today there, especially in Germany .
What is the point of all of this nonsense ? It's known as "Regietheater" in German , or "director's theater " . It also goes by the name of "Eurotrash opera ". In recent years, there have also been similar updated productions of some of the Shakespeare plays ; not too long ago, I saw a London production of Hamlet on PBS which transferred the action of the opera to what looked like the near future . It didn't bother me too much , and the drama came through unscathed .
Fortunately, the Met has resisted the most outrageous staging and visual gimmicks , and although critics might justifiably have some reservations about the productions , they have not been ridiculous for the most part . The recent new production of Donoizetti's charming bucolic comic opera "L'Elisir D'Amore (the elixir of love ) , which was telecast on PBS just two weeks ago,is entirely traditional , and put the opera in the original early 19th century setting . Even the sets looked chamringly old-fashioned , rather like something from the 1920s or 30s .
But several years ago, the New York City opera, now unfortunately struggling to mainstain its existence , set the opera in 1960s America , and the characters were right out of "Laverne and Shirley " on television . The set evoked 60s pop culture America .
Ultimately, what matters is whether the production works or not , or is just a ridiculous collection of arbitrary gimmicks . You have to take each production today on an indivisual basis . Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't . You can get many of these productions on DVD . Decide for yourself .
Commentators on classical music are always telling us that classical music has to "change" , and change drastically , in order to "survive" and to be "relevant ". As I've pointed out here on a number of occaisions, composer/critic/ blogger and consultant Greg Sandow has been one of the most vocal advocates of this meme . And he's far from alone in saying this . But is classical music really so stodgy , hidebound and resistant to change , and are performances really the kind of dreary and boring affairs these Chicken Littles would have us believe ?
We are told, for example, that unless musicians in orchestras dress more casually instead of wearing tuxedos or black tie , and concerts become less "stuffy" and intimidating , the audience for classical music will inevitably shrink , and younger people will not be persuaded to attend and make classical music apart of their life .
The repertoire has to change, too . We need more new music at concerts . Orchestras can't just go on playing the same old warhorses by Beethoven, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov and a few other famous composers . Pop and Rock music are things that audiences can relate to . Why can't classical music catch up and get with the times ?
The problem is that you can't judge classical music by the standards of popular music ,Rock are what have you . Pop and Rock are what countless people are accustomed to . They're meant to be easy to listen to . They don't require homework to get to know . They also haven't been in existence anywhere near as long as Classical music . To complain that classical concentrates too much on musci of the past ignores the fact that the masterowrks of Bach, Mpozart, Beethoven, Brahms and so many other composers have been popular for a very long time and have stood the test of time, and that there is a vast reservoir of works from the past which are not at all familiar to the general public but which are very much worth hearing .
And is there realy a lack of new classical music today ? Not at all . There are many composers today who have been widely performed in our time and who are still writing new works all the time . John Adams, John Corigliano , William Bolcom, Tan Dun, Richard Danielpour, Jennifer Higdon, Peter Maxwell Davies, Harrison Birtwistle Wolfgang Rihm, Henri Dutilleaux, Unsuk Chin may not be household names , but they are promient and highly respected ocmposers , and might achieve a lasting place in the classical music repertoire in the future .
How is classical music different from what it was 50 or 60 years ago ? In many ways . The musi cof the great composers of long ago was popular then and is still popular, but the repertoire is still vastly different . Many,many composers have come to prominence since that time, and are now performed regularly . There are more women composers than ever before , and when an orchestra plays a work by one, it isn't even news any more .
Many composers form the past who had been long neglected have been brought back into the repertoire , such as Alexander von Zemlinsky, Franz Schmidt, Carl Nielsen , Karol Szymanowski , Havergal Brian , to name only a handful . German music no longer has anything near a monopoly on the repertoire , and you can hear composers from such previously unlikely places as Japan, South Korea, China, Latin America and even tiny Estonia on the Baltic sea .
Conducting used be a profession monopolized by white males, mostly European .But more and more women have begun to make international careers in both concerts and opera , and conductors from Asia and latin America are everywhere . There ar emore orchestras and opera ocmpanies than ever before , and they have been sprouting up in such unlikely places as Qatar , Malaysia , Singapore and elsewhere .
Classical music is enjoying a boom in China, where Mao Zedong had silenced it and stymied the art form in his zeal for total control of China . Asian classical musicians are now an integral part of classical scene . They are ubiquitous .
In America, the number of opera companies has multiplied exponentiallly from the past , when New York, San Francisco and Chicago were the only game in town . The HD broadcast of live performances from the Metropolitan opera into movie theaters around America and Europe has revolutionized the way people experience opera . The internet has enabled people to see and hear concerts an dopera performances from not only the present day, but the past .
For all its problems, classical music has never been more vibrantly alive . Remember these facts the next time somebody you meet and converse with sneers at it . And let him know about it ,please !
Recently, someone on a classical music forum I'm on put an old recording of one of the orchestral suites of J.S. Bach by the great German conductor Wilhlem Furtwangler (1886-1954) on a post citing it as a example of impossibly slow tempos and a hopelessly old-fashoned and long discredited way of performing baroque music . The recording was posted from youtube, and you can hear it yourself there .
Yes, the opening movement is very,very slow, flying in the face of everything which is currently believe dot be "correct performance practice " . This is no-no ; you're not supposed to do this . Such au courant "Hiistorically Informed " conductors as John Eliot Gardiner, Christopher Hogwood , Frans Bruggen, Roger Norrington and others would would have apoplectic fits hearing this old curiosity ; we have come to expect fleet, bouncy , even rushed performances from them of Bach, Handel, Vivaldi and other Baroque composers .
But Wilhelm Furtwangler lived long before the whole "authenticity " movement in classical music became an integral part of the scene ; he was a product of his time , having been born only three years after the death of Wagner and having known , collaborated and even studied with so many legendary 19th century musicians .
But he was also one of the greatest conductors of all time and a towering musical intellect . For me at least, he may have been "wrong" by the standards of the present day , but he made the tempo WORK on his own terms . He imbued the Bach suite with a grandeur and nobility which you don't find in the supposedly "authentic" performances of the present day using instruments of Bach's time or copies thereof , and dutifully making music by the book .
Cllassical music fans , critics and musicologists are always disputing the "right" tempo for the works of this or that composer in general or individual works . Ultimately, the only person who can say what THE right tempo is is the composer , since he wrote the music himself . But unfortunately , Bach, Handel, Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven and so many other great composers ave been dead for a very,very long itme .
We will never know with certanty what they would have thougt about the tempi of performances today, live or recorded . There are various tmepo indications, mostly in Italian , such as adagio, slow, alllegro , fairly lively , presto, very fast ,andante, a rather moderate tempo, neither fast nor slow , and others , and in the early 19th centry, the metronome wa sinvented in Europe, allowing composers to specify and exact tempo based on the number of beats per minute , to give the performer an exact guideline to the basic tempo .
But tempo is not set in stone . Composers themselves have been known to change their minds and performing the same work with different tempi on different occaisions . You can even hear this on recordings made by composers as either conductors or playing the piano . Therefore, SOME performances by other musicians may use the wrong tempo at times, but no performance can ever be considered to use the ONLY right tempi .
If a musician plays a work or movement of one marked "presto" (very fast ) at an adagio (slow) tempo , this is just being perverse . Or a slow, solemn work at a breakneck tempo . But otherwise, things are far from being black and white .
Two classical music fans may have different recordings of the same Beethoven symphony by different ocnductors and orchestras at different tempi . Both may be convinced that their recording has the "right" tempi, and the other's has tempi which are "wrong ". Who is right ? The composer, if he could hear them, might not like the tempi of either . But we will never know .
The late,great Elliott Carter , who departed the earth only a couple of months ago , had a coterie of distinguished musicians whose performances of his music he approved of, and some of their recording were actualy made under his supervision .So we know that these musicians did not use tempi which he disapproved of , or he would have made his displeasure known to them . But that does not mean that future performances of his music could not be different yet valid . But again, we'll never know . Arguments over performaces of his music will continue in the future . But that's the nature of the beast .