June 2013 - Posts
Today is the 80th birthday of one of the foremost living conductors , Milanese-born Claudio Abbado , who has a resume which few classical musicians can equal . He has served as principal conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic , where he was chosen to fill the shoes of the legendary Austrian conductor Herbert von Karajan after his death in 1989 , music director of Milan's prestigious La Scala opera , the Vienna State opera and the London symphony orchestra , as well as as a regular with the Vienna Phhilharmonic , and such great American orchestras as the Boston symphony, Philadelphia and Cleveland orchestras .
Since stepping down in Berlin about a decade ago , when England's Sir Simon Rattle took over , he has continued to conduct the world's leading orchestras as well as founding the Lucerne Festival orchestra in Switzerland , an all star festival orchestra chosen from the cream of the greatest orchestras in Europe , as well as other festival ensembles of his design . A bout with stomach cancer several years ago forced him to cut down on his activities , but he ppears to be in reasonable health now .
Maestro Abbado has a wide-ranging repertoire ranging from Mozart ,Haydn and Bach to contemporary music and he is equally at home in the opera house and the concert hall . He has made numerous recordings , mostly for Deutsche Grammophon records but also for Sony Classical and Decca ,many of which have been internationally acclained by leading music critics . You can hear his recordings of the complete symphonies of Beethoven, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Schubert ,Mendelssohn and Mahler , plus others by Schumann, Bruckner , Prokofiev .,Berlioz and others , and works by Rachmaninov, Stravinsky , Debiussy, Ravel, Schoenberg, Alban Berg, , and many other composers .
He has collaborated on concertos with such great instrumentalists as Isaac Stern, Alfred Brendel . Itzhak Perlman , Martha Argerich , to name only a handful .
In opera , he has made acclaimed recordings of such great operas as Don Giovanni, Carmen , Pelleas&Melisande, Verdi's Aida, Don Carlo, Macbeth , Simon Boccanegra , Rossini's The Barber of Seville, La Cenerentola (Cinderella ) , Wagner's Lohengrin , Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov , and others , with some of the greatest opera singers of the 20th century, including Placido Domingo, Teresa Berganza, Sherill Milnes, Nicolai Ghiaurov,Mirellla Freni and others .
Some years ago , I attended a concert by Abbado and the Vienna Philharmonic in Carnegie hall playing Mozart's symphony no 39 and the Bruckner 7th symphony , and it was one of the greatest musical experiences of my life . In the Bruckner symphony , the orchestra produced a sound of unerathly richness, beauty and power and tonal purity as to seem like an orchestra from heaven,not earth . The audience cheered so loudly at the end I had to cover my ears !
So happy birthday ,maestro Abbado ! You have enriched the lives of opera and concertgoers all over the world for a half a century .
Wagner's mighty four opera epic "Der Ring Des Nibelungen " The Ring oif the Nibeling " has come in for lot of satire over the years since its first complete performances at the historic Wagner festival in Bayreuth Germany in 1876 . It has inspired the beloved television crtoons with Bugs Bunny (I'll kill da wabbit sung the the theme of the Ride of the Valkyries ) and the antic spoofs of the late musical comedienne Anna Russell (1911 - 2006 ) ,to name only tow of the best known examples .
Also , there are stereotypical images of fat opera singers dressed in absurd pseudo Viking costumes which have been used in so many television commercials . You can see Anna Russell's Ring satires on youtube in whiich she whoops it up imitating fat Wagner sopranos and jokes about the supposed absurdities of the Ring's plot .
But is the Ring of the Nibelung really silly , and proof of how ridiculous opera plots supposedly are ? Not at all if you actually attend performances of it either in its 16 hour four day complete form or one opera at a time , listen to complete recordings or CD or live perfomrances on DVD .
The Ring is no sillier than such beloved films as Star Wars, The Lord Of The Ring , or Hartry Potter . You see, it's a fantasy adventure based on German and Scandinavian mythology with a story Wagner fashioned out of those ancient Teutonic legends . The Ring is actually the granddaddy of Star Wars , Lord of the Rings and other fantasy movies . To complain that the Ring plot is silly is to miss the point altogether . The Ring is a vast allegorical tale of greed, lust for power and riches , treachery , betrayal , love , hate , ruthless ambition and how that lust for power and riches destroys everything . It is set in a mythical Germany among Gods and Goddesses , giants, dwarves who live deep oin the earth , water nixies , humans , superheroes and the Valkyries, who are the warrior daughters of the supreme God Wotan who fly on magic horses . There is a fateful magical Ring forged from the stolen gold of the Rhine which confers magical powers on whoever possesses it but which also has a fatal curse on it . Whoever possesses the Ring has power over the entire world . The various characters fight over the fateful ring throughout the cycle with catastrophic end results , the "Twilight of the Gods ". The destruction of the gods in their castle Valhalla by fire and where the Rhine overfloows it banks , destroying everything . But this cataclysmic ending comes with the hope that a better world will come in its wake .
Sounds like a cool story, doesn't it ? It is ! With today's opera singers, who are for the most part normal looking people who can act well, the Ring will not seem silly at all if you give it a chance . Instead , you will experience real people, even if they are Gods ,dwarves and superheroes , who are complex and fascnating characters struggling against the consequences of their greed , hate , ruthlessness , and blind foolishness , as well as others who show great courage , selflessness , and love . Combine this with Wagner's sweeping , passionate , colorful and turbulent music , and you have one of the greatest works of music ever written . No womder the Ring has captured the imagination of people all over the world for well over a century .
If you examine the CD collections of many people who enjoy classical music , you'll tend to find plenty of music by Bach,Handel, Vivaldi ,Haydn,Mozart , Beethoven, Schubert,Mendelssohn , Schumann , Tchaikovsky.,Brahms, Berlioz, Rimsky-Korsakov, Grieg, Mahler, Sibelius, Debussy,Ravel, Gershwin , Elgar, Stravinsky,Prokofiev, Rachmaninov and other famous composers . Possibly some other composers .
These are the composers who sell classical CDs . But the sheer diversity of classical music avalable on CD today is absolutely mind-boggling . You can get the complete works of virtually every composer who ever lived , ranging from works written more than five hundred years ago to recent works by living or recently deceased composers . Composers from every corner of Europe , ones from America ,Latin America , Canada , Asia and elsewhere . Symphonies, concertos , operas , chamber music, choral works, music for solo piano , art songs - you name it . Composers hardly anyone, even the most experienced and knowledgeable listeners has ever heard of ! There's a surprisingly wide variety of music by numerous women composers .
So if you already have a dozen or more sets of all nine Beethoven symphonies , dozens of versions of Vivaldi's Four Seasons, Tchaikovsky's 1812 overture , the Nutcracker Suite , Puccini's La Boheme, Bizet's Carmen and other thrice familiar classical warhorses and are getting tired of the same old same old , there's an unbelievably wide variety of obscure but interesting music which you can easily get at amazon.com and other similar websites .
Have you ever heard of these composers ? Chances are , no . But their music is very much available on CD , and so easy to get . In roughly alphabetical order : Kurt Atterberg, Franco Alfano , Havergal Brian, Granville Bantock . Arthur Bliss , Woldemar Bargiel, Amy Beach, Irwin Bazelon , Paul Ben Haim , Mily Balakirev, Boris Blacher , Tadeusz Baird , Grazyna Bacewicz , Jean Cras, Christian Canabich , Paul Creston, George Whitefield Chadwick , Alfredo Casella , Carlos Chavez, Cesar Cui , Ernst von Dohnanyi , Felix Draeseke , Hanns Eisler, Ferenc Erkel. John Foulds ,Zdenek Fibich, Arthur Foote , Karl Goldmark , Alexander Gretchaninov , Antonio Carlos Gomes , Henry Hadley, Herbert Howells , Siegmund von Hausegger, Akira Ifukube, Ludwig Irgens-Jensen ,John Ireland, Joseph Jongen , Armas Jarnefelt , Vassily Kallinikov , Unno Klami Joseph Martin Kraus , Rued Langgaard , Jon Leifs , Alberic Magnard , Nikolai Medtner, Nikolai Myaskovsky , Saverio Mercadante, Vitezslav Novak , Maurice Ohana , Joan Baptista Pla, Hans Pfitzner , Gabriel Pierne , Giovanni Paisielllo , Anton Rubinstein , Carl Reinecke , Knudaage Riisager ,Othmar Schoeck , Franz Schreker, Johan Svendsen , Sergei Taneyev,Ernst Toch, Eduard Tubin, Wilhelm Stenhammar , Sulkhan Tsintsadze , Rudolf Wagner-Regeny , Jan Dismas Zelenka etc. This is just the tip of the iceberg !
These composers hail from such diverse nations as Germany, Austria , France , Italy, Spain, Sweden,Norway, Denmark, Hungary, the Czech republic , Russia , Mexico , Brazil , Isarel, Iceland, Belgium , Finland ,Estonia, the republic of Georgia , etc.
There is even music by eminent conductors of the past who also composed , such as Wilhelm Furtwangler, Bruno Walter, George Szell, Victor De Sabata , Felix Weingartner , Antal Dorati , and others , sometimes in recordings led by the conductors who composed these works .
And this is just the tip of the iceberg ! Myself, I've collected so many obscure works that caught my interest when I heard about them and saw them at Tower records when it was still in existence . In fact, my collection lacks many famous works, not because I don't love them , but because the off-beat works were simply available . Besides, I've heard those famous works countless times , and have spent who knows how many hours rehearsing and performing them with so many different orchestras over the years . You could never accuse me of havng an uninteresting classical CD collection !
The only problem is how do you find the money , the time to listen , and the space to store the CDs ?. There's so much I really want to hear, and so little time . If I had the money , the time and the space to store it all, I'd have a Pentagon sized collection !
Composers , critics and others are always complaining about the supposed lack of new music being performed today in our concert halls and opera houses . And this is nothing new . Even in the earlier years of the 20th century , when so many great composers were writing so many new works in all forms and genres and in such a bewildering variety of styles , many expressed resentment at orchestras ,opera companies , arts administratorsme old same o and concert managers who supposedly just kept on playing and programming the same old same old .
And who gets blamed for supposedly causing this whole mess ? Good ole Ludwig van Beethoven , and other greats of classical music such as Mozart, Tchaikovsky, Brahms, Bach et al . But it isn't their fault that their music (actually only a limited number of works among their vast output ) has achieved a lasting place in the repertoire . That's just how the classical music lottery turned out . The vast majority of all the countless symphonies, concertos, operas, oratorios , string quartets , art songs , etc which have been written over the centuries have been forgotten and are gathering dust in libraries across Europe , rightly or wrongly .
But the repertoire of classical music is not at all "ossified" as many critics and musicologists would have us believe . In fact, it is in constant flux . There is a "Canon" of established masterpieces which audiences love to hear and musicians live to perform , and which have been recorded countless times by countless perfomers . But new works are always being premiered , and long neglected works constantly being revived . Only time will tell which of the works premiered in recent years will make it into that "canon ". Most will not, but that is true of countless works from the past . But you can never predict when any of these might resurface . Many so-called "experts" do not realize that there is greater diversity of repertoire being perforned today than ever before in the centuries old history of classical music .
Some works enjoy a brief period of popularity and then fall into neglect . Some were not widely performed at first but gradually made it into the canon . But the nusic of Beethoven, to ciite only one great composer , will alway sbe with us , and will be performed as long as classical music is performed . His music will never become dated , because it has spoken to countless people for about 200 years , and has stirred , moved and fascinated them from the very beginning .
No, we can't just stop playing Beethoven at concerts just to make room for new music , or stop studying and recording it for posterity any more than we can stop performing the plays of Shakespeare , Shaw, Ibsen, and other great playwrights , stop reading the novels of Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Victor Hugo and jane Austen , stop reading the poetry of Keats, Byron , and other great poets or stop viewing the paintings and sculpture of Van Gogh , Michelangelo and other great artists . They are an part of the humanity , and we cannot and must not forget them .
Remember - any time an orchestra plays an old warhorse such as Beethoven's 5th symphony, Schubert's Unfinished symphony , the familiar piano and violin concertos of Mozart, Chopin, Tchaikovsky, Brahms, Schumann, etc, there is always the chance that there will be some people in the audience, not necessarily youngsters , who have never heard these works before . These thrice familiar works may come as a revelation to these newcomers and trigger a lifelong love of it and the motivation to explore classical music in all its infinite diversity .
Also, it's impossible to achieve understanding of the music of the present day and recent past without adequate familiarity with the music of the past . If the first performace of classical music you attend features only challenging music by th elikes of the late Elliott Carter and other composers of our time , it will be a baffling experience . You will have no context, no frame of reference to guiide you .
So, you grumpy and bitter composers and critics, keep these fact in mind the next time you complain the the orchestras whose concerts you attend are still performing the works of Beethoven et al . Composers - people cannot understand your music if they know nothing of the great music of the past .