December 2013 - Posts
The year 2013 in classical music was a bewildering and dizzying mix of artistic excellence and fiscal and administrative woes for performing arts institutions all over the globe . Sometimes it seemed as though the entire world of classical music was bout to implode , yet there have been glimmers of hope amid all the bad news .
First , the bad news . Orchestras and opera companies all over Europe , America and elsewhere are struggling to stay alive and some have gone under . The plucky New York City opera , a fixture in that great city for nearly 70 years , declared bankruptcy and has ceased giving performances , and has been unable to return to Lincoln Center , where it had stood next to the mighty and far more glamorous Metropolitan oper since the 1960s . Billionaire business tycoon David Koch , who had contributed greatly to the company in funding the recent extensive renovation of the former New York State theater, now named after him, is no longer willing to provide the help to save the company , and there are other complex causes for this disaster .
The Minnesota orchestra of Minneapolis has been locked out for over year due a power struggle between the musicians and its management , and Osmo Vanska , its Finnish-born music director has resigned due to the impasse after a decade of critical and audience acclaim as its head , and a series of recordings with Sweden's BIS label has been cancelled . In Italy , the Rome opera is on the verge of going under , as well as the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino opera company in Florence . The whole opera infrstructure in Italy , ironically the birthplace of opera 400 years ago , seems about to implode , apparently due to poor management .
Elsewhere in Europe , two of Germany's most prestigious radio orchestras , those of Stuttgart and the nearby one in thew resort town of Baden-Baden are being merged for financial reasons , and some of the musicians may have to be downsized . At least two of the orchestras of Greece have folded , and in Asia , the Maylasian Philharmonic of Kuala Lumpur is plagued with management problems .
The Brrooklyn Philharmonic in New York, acclaimed for its adventurous programming , has gone bankrupt , as well as the Napa Valley Phiharmonic in California , the San Antonio, Texas, opera , and Opera Boston . The Milwaukee symphony has recently announced financial troubles which could threaten its existence . And there are quite a few others everywhere that are struggling .
But on the plus side , most of the world's who knows how many opera companies are still alive and kicking , and they are performing a very wide variety of repertoire ranging from centuries ago to new or recent works . James Levine , the internationally acclaimed music director of the Metropolitan opera , has returned to the orchestra pit there after nearly two years of severe back trouble and other ailments , and though confined to a motorized wheelchair , he health has improved considerably . He recently conducted the first new production of Verdi's final opera "Falstaff " in nearly 50 years at the Met to considerable acclaim nd his renewed presence on the Met's roster of conductors could not be more welcome .
The young Canadian conductor Yannick Nezet-Seguin appears to be doing great work reviving the fortunes of the troubled Philadelphia orchestra , one of the world's greatest , after several years without a music director , and he has begun to record with the orchestra for the presitigious Deutsche Grammophon label . After a long search due to James Levine's departure from the Boston symphony due to his severe health problems , the orchestra has found a promising choice to succeed him , the gifted young Latvian conductor Andris Nelsons .
In the ridiculous category , the new production of Wagner's Ring cycle at the legendary festival theater in Bayreuth ,Germany in honor of the bicentennial of his birth turned out to be a total travesty of the monumental work . The composer intended the tetralogy of operas to be set in a mythical pagan Germany with the Germanic gods, goddesses, superheroes, giants, dwarves, water nixies , etc, yet the director and designer set the production in contemporary America out west , and also in the oil rich city of Baku, Azerbaijan on the Caspian sea . The Ring is all about greed and lust for power , and the fierce struggle between the gods , dwarves, and giants etc , but the production turned the work into something Wagner could never even have conceived of let alone have approved of . Such preposterous productions of operas have been the norm in European opera companies since the 1970s, and there seems to be no end in sight .
But whatever happens in the near future , don't believe the doomsayers who are convinced that classical music is on life support . You can't keep a great art form down !
December 16 th is Beethoven's birthday , and he was born in 1770 in the provincial German town of Bonn in the Rhineland , which served as the capitol of west Germany before the reunification of east and west , leaving his hometown at the age of 21 to move to Vienna , the greatest musical center of the day in order to seek the chance ot achieve greatness , where he died in 1827 .
We all know that Beethoven was one of the greatest composers of all time , and that he suffered from deafness which progressed slowly beginning in his early 30s even though the exact cause remains a matter of medical speculation . Everyone knows the famous melody of the "Ode To Joy " , the "Da Da Da Daaaah " which opens the fifth symphony , and the catchy melody of his brief piano piece "Fur Elise ", which is just a potboiler and far from being one of his greates or most important works . And the , the correct title is actually "Fur Therese ", as the messy manuscript was apparently misread by the publisher .
But how many people REALLY know Beethoven's music , its emotional power, grandeur , originality , and intensity , as well as its passages of tender lyricism , bloisterous humor , contempltiveness , and other expressive qualities ? Not nearly enough . You really have to take the time to get to know the music by carefull listening , and it helps to know something about the man, his extraordinary life , the context of the times he lived in etc . Fortunately, there is wealth of writing about this , in biographies, books, articles , etc , all esily accessible over the internet .
Beethoven wrote quite a few works which are simple, straightforward , and tuneful , mainly for money . But his nine symphonies, five piano concertos , violin conerto , 32 piano sonatas , his sole opera Fidelio , 16 string quartets , his Miss Sollemnis , a setting of the Roman Catholic mass , and many other works are NOT easy listening if you're new to classical music . In fact , you can listen to them for many,many years without ever leaning everything about them and you will always gain new insights into them from repeated hearings .
And what kind of man was Ludwig Van Beethoven , son of a court singer in Bonn of Flemish origin ? He showed early musical talent as a boy in his hometown , studied with a repsected music techer who taught him the basics of compositon and began to compose his juvenile works, which are very little known today . His father thought he might be able to exploit the boy as a child prodigy like Mozart , and forced him to practice at the keyboard for many hours a day , even treating him roughly .
The young Ludwig never became another Mozart ,but he developed into a formidable piano virtuoso and in his early 20s, realized that he should move from provincial Bonn in Germany to sophisticated Vienna , capitol of the mighty Austro-Hungarian empire as well as being the musical capitol of Europe . That was where the opportunity was . He hoped to study with Mozart , but met him only once shortly before his trgically early death . He did manage to study with another great composer and friend of Mozart , Joseph Haydn . But he claimed to have learned little from the great master and was beginning to show his own originality as a composer . He also acheived great acclaim as a piano virtuoso , and the wealthy ,influential music-loving nobility of Vienna recognized his brilliance and began to support him financially and with comissions for a variety of works .
But Beethoven was a stubborn ,headstring , a not particularly deferential,tactful and suave personality who was never willing to suck up to the rich and powerful Viennese aristocracy and powerful politicians , potentates and prelates . He ws gruff , irascible and did not suffer fools gladly . H e never married , but always hoped to find a woman who migh marry him . But he was rather uncouth at times , moved frequently round Vienna serching for an apartment who pleased him and was sloppy, unkempt nd often shabbily dressed . The Viennese tolertaed his foibles, though, because of his genius . His dwellings were a mess . You might call him the Oscar Madison of music, although he had no Viennese Felix Unger neat freak as a roommate - fortunately !
The exact cause remains unclear , but Beethoven began to suffer distressing difficulties with his hearing from his early 30s , and gradually became almost completely deaf . Doctors were unable to help him much , but a crude sound magnifying device , an ear horn, helped him somewhat . He was a stubborn , crotchety , irascible fellow , and while he had many friends among the leading musicians of the day , his frequent ill temper caused rifts between them frequently . He had frequent quarrels with his two brothers , the only surving immediate family members he had ; his parents had had several other children who died in infancy , and his nephew , son of one of them , came to live with him after his parent's a crimonious divorce . Beethoven disapproved of the boy's mother , and thought her to be loose woman . Uncle and nephew had a difficult relationship to say the least .
Deafness forced Beethoven to abandon his brilliant career as a pianist , but fortunately it dd not stop him from producing some of the greatest music ever written ; nine great symphonies , 32 piano sonatas , ten for violin and piano , five for cello and pianoi, five piano concertos , one for violin , sixteen string quartets , one opera called Fidelio , numerous miscellaneous piano works , two masses , other chamber works such as trios for violin, cello and piano , and much, much more .
It was anything but an easy , uneventful life . In addition to his deafness , difficult personality , lack of luck with women , family woes , difficulty in finding musicians and orchestras which could do justice to his denanding works , etc, he was often plagued by various ailments such as stomach trouble and other maladies . When he departed the world in 1827 , his funeral was a public event , and the great Austrian poet Franz Grillparzer delivered a funeral oration .
And as they say , the rest is history . Beethoven's works became an integral part of the standard repertoire for orchestras , pianists, conductors, violinists , and other musicians . But how many of his works do YOU know,a ssuming you are not a lover of classical music , a professional musician or musicologist ? There's so much more to Beethoven than a few famous tunes . The melodies , more properly called themes, in Beethoven are only the basic building blocks of his works . What mkes them great is what he does with those basic, often simple melodies , constntly trnsforming them with such ingenuity , and forming them into works of great complexity and depth .
Have you experienced that grandeur , intensity and emotional power of Beethoven's music, as well as its tender lyricism , boisterous humor and moments of deep contemplation , its many-sidedness which I just mentioned ? If not , please start listening carefully to his music , and go far beyond those popular tunes which everyone knows . You'll never regret it !
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozrt is an iconic figure in western culture ; we hear his music constantly , or fragments of it, constantly in popular culture, on television etc , and countless people have seen the entertaining if not very historically accurate film Amadeus . But how well do we really know his music , which consists of approximtely 600 works of all kinds written during his tragically brief life of 35 years ?
Only a small part of which which is performed everywhere by orchestras ,opera companies and other groups . LIke so many famous composers , Mozart is known to the general public by only a small number of his numerous works . These include 41 (numbered) symphonies , 22 operas, several which are in fragmentary form, 27 piano concertos , numerous string quartets and chamber works for a variety of instruments , religious works for chorus and orchestra , concertos for flute, oboe, violin , clarinet, bassoon, French horn , many pio sonatas and miscellaneous works for that instrument , oratorios and other works for chorus and orchestra ,etc .
So lately , I've been taking a advantage of chance to hear many works of his I had not heard before or knew only slightly on CD because one of the public libraries I frequent has a collection of ALL of Mozarts works in many volumes on the Philips label performed by a wide variety of distinguished conductors , top orchestras , violinists ,pianists , opera singers , choruses and chamber ensembles . All of these recordings have been availble singly , and you may still be able to find some of them on the internet at Amazon.com and Arkivmusic.com .
Unfortunately , the Philips label , which was based in the Netherlands , is no longer producing classical recordings , although much of its large and excellent back catalogue of recordings is being reissued on the Decca Label, with which it was affiliated , so it's probably very difficult to find this huge set .
For example, Mozart's best known operas include such familiar masterpieces as Don Giovanni , The Marriage of Figaro and the Magic Flute . These are the products of Mozart's last years . But he began writing operas as a boy , including such obscure ones as Bastien & Bastienne, Mitridate , King of Pontus, Il Re Pastore (The shepard king) , La Finta Giardinera ( the pretended woman gardener ), Lucio Silla , and others . None of these has held the stage because they are hardly immortal masterpieces of the opera repertoire , although the Salzburg festival , which is in his native city presented a cycle of all 22 Mozart operas back in 2006 , the 250th anniversary of his birth .
But it's amazing that such a young boy could write them at all . They're pleasant to hear , if not nearly as memorable as his mature works for the operatic stage . No, not every work Mozart wrote is a sublime masterpiece . It took quite a few years for this great genius to reach maturity , and who knows how many masterpieces he might have produced if he had lived beyond the short lifespan fate assigned to him .
Like so many composers of the day , Mozart wrote works on commission to make money . He didn't just wait there until "inspiration" struck him . He worked very hard , and many of his works are mere potboilers , which is nothing to be ashamed of . For a long time, Mozart worked as official court composer to the archbishop of his native Salzburg , and did not like living there as pretty much a hack for the archbishop, whom he disliked . For the last ten years of his tragically short life, he was able to move to Vienna , the center of music in Europe and worked as a free lance composer and pianist . It was not as secure a living as in provincial Salzburg , but he relished the freedom and was able to write his greatest symphonies ,operas , concertos and chamber works there , the ones by which he is best known .
But I'm still glad to have gotten the chance to hear the forgotten corners of the output of one of the greatest geniuses in the history of music . There's a saying that goes "No one can be a genius 24 hours a day ". But Mozart's best hours have provided us with so many great works .