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August 2011 - Posts

What Is HIP, And Why Is It So Controversial ?
   If you're new to classical music ,  HIP stands for "Historically informed performance" , in other words,  the use
of  the instruments of the past  when performing composers such as Bach ,Handel, Haydn,Mozart and Beethoven etc,
which were quite different from the ones used by modern orchestras and other musicians, such as pianists .
Or carefully reproduced replicas of them.

   Not only using the old instruments, but following the research on performing styles of the past which musicologists have dug up after much effort . Over the centuries, instruments such as violins,cellos, flutes, oboes, bassoons,french horns, trumpets and tympani have changed considerably in design and methods of playing.  Instead of steel , the bows of string instruments were wired with material made from the intestines of animals such as sheep. This is called using "gut strings". The bows in general were shaped differently , and there were many other  subtle differences in design which you can't see from a distance .

   Flutes were made out of wood, not steel ,and  were much simpler in design .   French horns and trumpets ,up until the early 19th century , had no valves , and every time a player would play something in a different key , he had to  use a different length of tubing called a crook .  These early brass instruments could  not play all the notes of the scale over the series of octaves , and composers could not just write any melodic line for them . 

    Pianos were much different , and lacked the big sound of something like a modern Steinway, and sounded very different .  But within the past 40 years or so , some  classical musicians were curious to try to recreate the sounds which composer such as Bach, Mozart , and Haydn and others actually heard in their lifetimes , or at least tried to come as close as possible to this, as we don't have a time machine yet .

   So these musicians, some of whom are quite famous today ,  created ensembles dedicated to  "historical authenticity" in performance , and  some of these ensembles and orchestras have become world famous , such as Concentus Musicus of Vienna,  The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment ,  the Academy of Ancient Music
in England ,  and  others in  the Netherlands and Belgium .   And ever since this, more and more period instrument  orchestras and ensembles  sprang up all over Europe and America ,and even Japan, where western classical music has long been popular .

   "Period Instruments" is the term many give to these old instruments,or reproductions.  Many critics and listeners  have  been delighted by live performances and recordings by these groups, but others have  found them  downright unpleasant to hear .  One critic stated some years ago that "we need a return to the string instruments of centuries ago about as much as we need a return to the dentistry of centuries ago",or words to that effect .

    There are now countless recordings of  these period instrument groups available , of music by  composers  by Bach,Handel, Vivaldi,  Haydn,Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert , and  even of later composers such as Brahms,
Tchaikovsky,Dvorak and even Mahler, who died only a century ago.  Some have questioned the need for this extension, as the later you go, the less difference there is.

   Modern instrument orchestras still play the music of Mozart, Haydn,Beethoven and Schubert on modern instruments,  but some conductors have attempted to bring elements of the period instrument style of playing, such as the avoidance of string vibrato, or reducing it.  Some dogmatic HIP musicians such as the British conductor Sir Roger Norrington, are convinced that string vibrato is a recent phenomenon ,dating back only about  80 years or so, but other scholars and musicians dispute this. 

   Unfortunately, some prominent HIP musicians have been rather smug and arrogant about their alleged "authenticity", and have made statements  belittling and dismissing modern instrument performances which do not use  period instruments and conform to what is known as "performance practice", or the  use of the latest research into how the music MAY have been played in the past.

    It's true. We don't know exactly what the music sounded like in the past, or  what long dead composers would or would not have approved of when it comes to the way their music was performed .  And we never will, unless  some one actually invents a time machine that works. 

   Among the prominent conductors who have led period instrument orchestras (as well as  mainstream ones are   Nikolaus Harnoncourt of Austria, Norrington, Sir John Eliot Gardiner, and Christopher Hogwood of England,
 America's William Christie,  Frans Bruggen of the Netherlands, and Philippe Herreweghe of  Belgium .

    Some violinists and pianists have also made careers  playing almost exclusively  on period instruments ,such as  violinist Andrew Manze of England and Dutch cellist Anner Bylsma , and  pianists such as  Malcolm Bilson
and  Hong Kong -born Melvyn Tan  on old fashioned pianos. 

   Some prominent musicians,such as the renowned  violinists Itzhak Perlman and Pinchas Zukerman , have heaped scorn on the whole movement ,dismissing it as a worthless fad.  HIP is rather like a religion in some ways. It has its true believers, the musicians who claim that this is the way to do the music of the past,  and  who claim to have a monopoly on the truth,  the atheists,  Perlman and Zukerman, and the agnostics, such as yours truly, who has found the HIP performances interesting to hear, but is somewhat skeptical about how "authentic" they actually are.
    But like it or not,  the period instrument movement is here to stay.  It has certainly made our musical life more interesting.   
Posted: Aug 24 2011, 07:52 PM by the horn | with no comments
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The Great Philadelphia Orchestra Remains Mired In Difficulties
   The woes of the  world-famous  Philadelphia orchestra  continue after its recent declaration of bankruptcy , which has shocked the classical music world and is unprecedented in the history of America's top symphony orchestras .
   The members of the orchestra have just rejected general manager Alison Vulgamore's plan to get the orchestra out of its financial mess , and a number of key musicians in the orchestra have accepted positions in other U.S. orchestras, which is an ominous sign .

   Why ominous ?  Gaining a position in one of the top American orchestra's is a rare accomplishment for any classical musician.  These orchestras offer excellent pay and benefits and  great job security ,and many members of these orchestra teach at the prestigious conservatories in  the respective cities,such as Juilliard in New York, the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, and  the New England conservatory of music in Boston .  Minimum starting salary in these top tier U.S. orchestras is usually at least $100,000  per year, and first chair
members are payed considerably more .

   The competition for these jobs is unbelievably stiff and  each orchestra usually has only several openings per year .
Often 200 or more musicians will apply for a single job .  But the Philadelphia's economic woes have caused a number of its musicians to leave for greener pastures . Principal clarinet Ricardo Morales will soon be heading to the New York Philharmonic , after having been offered the chance to succeed  the legendary Stanley Drucker , who recently retired
at the age of 80 after nearly 60 years with the orchestra !  No one was chosen from the auditions , and a number of leading clarinetists from other top U.S. orchestras were invited to appear as guests with the orchestra  in concerts before  Morales was finally offered this plum job .

    The Philadelphia's associate principal cellist , who sits next to the principal  cellist in the orchestra, has
recently been chosen as principal cellist of the Seattle symphony , which conductor Gerard Schwarz had built into one of the nation's finest .  Several other musicians are also leaving .  There are worries that these departures may have an adverse effect on the orchestra's famous sumptuous sound , but there is a very large pool of
highly talented  players who have recently graduated from the nation's top music schools, and many other musicians in other orchestras who would  kill for a position in the orchestra .

   There are great hopes for the orchestra's music director designate , the rising young French-Canadian maestro Yannick Nezet-Seguin , and the whole classical music world is keeping its fingers crossed  for the success of this highly gifted  young conductor , who  has had a meteoric rise to success in recent years .  He is set to take over as music director next year  after a period  of a few years when  the distinguished and veteran  Swiss conductor Charles Dutoit had served  in the position of chief conductor  , which is not really the same as music director after the sudden departure of German conductor Christoph Eschenbach , whose brief period  the orchestra was considered less than  a triumph  by more than a few critics .

   It would be an artistic tragedy of monumental proportions if this great and storied orchestra were to go under .Let's all  hope for the best .
Posted: Aug 23 2011, 05:46 PM by the horn | with no comments
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September Opera News Magazine - Featuring The Annual Season Preview
   The September issue of Opera News is always exciting because of the annual season preview , which lists the
operas which will be performed by most of the world's opera companies, including the performance dates .
The seasons of the world's great opera companies , the Metropolitan, Royal Opera in London, the Vienna State opera,
Berlin State opera, La Scala,Milan, Chicago Lyric ,San Francisco , Paris, Munich, Dresden, Hamburg, Frankfurt,
etc, and even the opera companies  of Australia, Japan, Israel and elsewhere ,to name only a handful.

   The sheer diversity of operatic repertoire is amazing .  Audiences can experiences operas ranging from the 17th century to the present day, including world premieres , not only in the most common languages of the art form, Italian,French and German, but Russian,Czech, Polish, English and the Scandinavian languages .  The perennial favorites by Verdi,Puccini, Mozart, Bizet , Gounod, Mascagni,Leoncavallo, Wagner, Richard Strauss Massenet and others are well represented everywhere , as well as less familiar operas by composers such as Hans Pfitzner,
Othmar Schoeck, Alexander von Zemlinsky,Riccardo Zandonai, Georg Philipp Telemann, Antonio Vivaldi,
Bohuslav Martinu, Karol Szymanowski , and others . 

   There are also world premieres by contemporary composers such as Christopher Theofanidis, Nico Muhly,
Peter Maxwell Davies and others .  Despite all the financial problems faced by opera companies , not only in America, but in Europe and elsewhere, opera appears to be very much alive and kicking ! 

   Other articles include one on the new opera "Heart Of A Soldier" ,which deals with September 11 , by American composer Christopher Theofanidis , and which will have its world premiere on September 10 at the
San Francisco opera on September 10, one day before the tenth anniversary of that fateful an dunforgettable day ,  a portait of the rising young Polish soprano Alexandra Kurzak , and an interview with the Polish baritone
Marius Kwecien , who is set to sing Don Giovanni in the Met's new production of the opera,
and an interview with the British theater director Michael Grandage, who will be directing it.

   The British historian Adrian Tinniswood has written an interesting article on how Donizetti's opera Anna Bolena, based on the life of Anne Boelyn ,  diverges from the historical facts , and there are reviews of the San Francisco opera's recent complete Ring cycle ,the acclaimed  performances of Janacek's "The Cunning Little Vixen" with the New York Philharmonic conducted by Alan Gilbert, The Death of Klinghoffer by John Adams at the St.Louis opera, the celebration of the centennial of the birth of Gian Carlo Menottti at the Spoleto festival in South Carolina, as well as the world premiere of the opera  "Two Boys" by the young American composer Nico Muhly at the English National Opera in London, which will be seen at the Met in an upcoming season,
and performances from Paris ,Lyon and Zurich .

   There are reviews of new opera CDs ,such as Handel's "Ariodante " with Joyce Di Donato, a live performance of the rarely performed autobiographical opera "Intermezzo" from the Glyndebourne festival
in 1974,  the obscure 17th century French baroque opera "Bellerophon" by Jean-Baptiste Lully,
"Der Sturm" (The Tempest) by 20th century  Swiss composer Frank Martin , and  songs of Richard Strauss sung by German soprano Diana Damrau, among other things.

   Reviews of DVD performances of operas include Handel's "Belshazzar" from the Aix-En-Provence festival in
France, Monteverdi's "L'Orfeo" , from the early 17th century, the earliest opera still performed , from La Scala, Milan, Don Giovanni from the Glyndebourne festival and a real curiosity ,  the long-forgotten 19th century
Italian opera  "Ero E Leandro" by  Giovanni Bottesini ,who was best known as a virtuoso of the double bass.

   There are also two documentaries on the life and career of the late, great conductor Carlos Kleiber,
(1930 -2004 ) , with commentary by some of the great opera singers who worked with him and others. 
    As usual, Opera News magazine is packed with  absorbing articles and thoughtful commentary .
   Even of you're new to opera, you can't afford to miss it.  You can also check out their website ,
Posted: Aug 22 2011, 05:30 PM by the horn | with no comments
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Hope Springs Eternal With A New Classical Music Season About To Start
  In just a  few weeks, America's hundreds of symphony orchestras, opera companies and other classical
performing groups will be starting the new season .  Despite the many difficulties they face , and the unfortunate
groups which have gone under recently , the vast majority of these ensembles are alive and kicking ,and  the many lovers of classical music in America are eager to get back to attending their performances .

  Many were also fortunate enough to attend  the many Summer music festivals which are so well-established in America .  So despite the difficult economic times which threaten the existence of classical music in America
and all the hand-wringing ,let's be grateful for  the many world-class opera companies and orchestras we still have , and the countless  talented, dedicated and hard-working classical musicians who make the world a better place in which to live .

   Classical music is one of mankind's greatest inventions and  has given untold amounts of joy and inspiration to countless people all over the world for centuries. .  It is not a frivolous entertainment for the wealthy , but  and important part of world culture and  something which makes life more than just a daily grind to earn a living .
All of us who love this great art form must never give up hope for it. 
Posted: Aug 11 2011, 06:36 PM by the horn | with no comments
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The Metropolitan Opera's 2011-12 Season Begins September 26 .
  New York's mighty Metropolitan opera ,the world's largest performing arts organization ,will open its 2011-12
season of Monday,September 26 with a new production of Gaetano Donizetti's melodious and powerful opera Anna Bolena , loosely based on the intrigue at the court of Henry V111  which led to the beheading of his queen
Anne Boelyn .  There will be a starry cast with the charismatic and beautiful Russian soprano Anna Netrebko as queen Anne, Latvian mezzo Elina Garanca (ga-ran-cha) as Jane Seymour, and Russian(actually Tatar ) bass
Ildar Abdrazakov as the imperious king Henry. 

  Donizetti's 1830 bel canto masterpiece has never been performed at the Met before, but was a part of the New York City Opera's repertoire back in the 1960s and 70s when the late great Beverly Sills sang the role of Anna to great acclaim .  The opera takes considerable liberties with the  historical facts , but  when great singers animate the roles, no one cares in the least bit about this !

   There will be six other new productions , including the completion of  the Met's controversial high tech  production of Wagner's mighty Ring of the Nibelung , which  will  continue with  Siegfreid  in October
and conclude with Gotterdammerung (The Twilight of the Gods)  toward the end of the season in 2112.
   Health permitting ,  maestro James levine will be on the podium , with many of today's leading  Wagner singers.  The director is the Canadian Robert Lepage , of Cirque du Soleil fame .

  Other new productions will include Mozart's classic opera Don Giovanni , about the amorous exploits of
  Spain's Don Juan and his grievous sins which cause him to be thrown literally into hell  at the end ,
also with maestro Levine conducting, health permitting .Polish baritone Mariusz Kwecien and Canadian baritone Gerard Finley will alternate as the dashing but shamelessly licentious Don.

   "Faust", by the 19th century French composer Charles Gounod, based on the monumental play of the same name by Goethe  and once on of the most popular of all operas , will feature the handsome and
golden-voiced German tenor Jonas Kaufman as the aged philosopher  who is tempted by Mephistopheles with youth ,riches and power if he will sell his soul  to the evil one , and Russian soprano Marina Poplavskaya will be Marguerite, the innocent young girl who is seduced and abandoned by Faust, and the rising young French-Canadian conductor Yannick Nezet-Seguin will conduct .

   "The Enchanted Isle " is a real curiosity , a sort of artificial opera made out of music by various Baroque composers such as  Vivaldi, Handel and Jean-Philippe Rameau .  It's sort of an operatic Frankenstein's monster, put together from bits and pieces of different operas with a story based on Shakespeare's The Tempest " , and an English language text  by Jeremy Sams .  Such operatic  pastiches are nothing new , and were even performed in  the time of  the composers whose music is being cannibalized.

   The cast will include  Baroque opera specialist  singers such as Daniele De Niese , as well as Placido
Domingo , Joyce Di Donato and Lisette Oropesa ,and the renowned American conductor and specialist in Baroque opera William Christie will conduct . 

   Manon, by the French composer Jules Massenet  (1842-1912) , is an elegant and melodious opera
about the amorous exploits of a young French country girl who  becomes a  kept woman in decadent Paris , yet is in love with a dashing but less than wealthy young nobleman ,and is torn between her elderly sugar daddy and  her true love, only to die while being sent into exile for moral turpitude .
  You might call this the operatic equivalent of a chick flick !  Anna Netrebko will be the beautiful but ill-fated Manon , and Polish tenor Piotr Beczala  her  love interest, with  the Met's principal guest conductor Fabio Luisi on the podium .

   Other operas in the repertoire will include such old favorites as Verdi's La Traviata ,  Puccini's La Boheme and Tosca , Rossini's rollicking comic opera The Barber of Seville , Donizetti's  charming
pastoral comedy L'Elisir D'Amore (The Elixir of Love ). and Hansel &Gretel by the REAL Engelbert Humperdinck ,not the singer who appropriated the name.
   Some less well-known but truly interesting operas will include Benjamin Britten's Billy Budd, based on the famous novel about seafaring by Herman Melville,  "Satyagraha by minimalist composer Philip Glass,
based on the life of Mahatma Gandhi, and sung,believe it or not in Sanskrit ! , 
Khovanshchina by Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky, better known for Boris Godunov, which deals with the ruthless struggle for power in Moscow not long before Peter the Great came to power in Russia ,
and Verdi's Nabucco , based on the Babylonian captivity of the Jews under king Nebachudnezzar ,
and Ernani , about the life of a Spanish nobleman who is outlawed and becomes a bandit ,
and the truly strange "Makropoulos Case" by the great Czech composer Leos Janacek (Ya-na-check),
about a woman who is hundfeds of years old because of  a bizarre experiment in prolonged life by her father, who had been a mad scientist , and is now a world -famous opera singer .

   The singers will be a veritable Who's Who of today's leading opera stars ,including Renee Fleming ,
Patricia Racette, Marcello Giordani , Violeta Urmana , Maria Guleghina, Rene Pape, Olga Borodina,
Vladimir Galuzin, and others.   Conductors will include such distinguished names as Sir Andrew Davis, Jiri Belohlavek , Fabio Luisi, Louis Langree, David Robertson , and  two rising young  conductors making their Met debuts,  Robin Ticciati of England and  Mikko Franck of Finland .

   The Met's acclaimed  live movie broadcasts all over the U.S. will include  Satuday matinee
performances of  Anna Bolena on October 15, Siegfried on November 5, Satyagraha on November 19,
Handel's Rodelinda  on December 3, Faust on December 10, The Enchanted Isle on January 21,
Gotterdammerung on February 12, Ernani on  February 25, Manon on April 7, and la Traviata on
April 14. 

   You can also experience Met perfrmaces on the internet at Met Player and Sirius .  For more information, check the Met's website .  You don't have to live in New York or be wealthy to
enjoy the Met's world-class performances ! 

Posted: Aug 10 2011, 05:58 PM by the horn | with no comments
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The New York Philharmonic's 2012 -12 Season Will Be Fresh And Stimulating
   Music critics often accuse our symphony orchestras of being stodgy ,hidebound institutions  which are hopelessly stuck in the past.
 But no one can accuse America's oldest orchestra of this .  The New York Philharmonic, under its music director Alan Gilbert, will offer a fresh and stimulating season , filled with old music, new music ,
familiar and unfamiliar works of  many different composers , not limiting itself to music by "Dead White European Males " by any means .

   Maestro Gilbert will begin his third season with the orchestra on September 21 , with a gala opening night concert which will be telecast by PBS .  The program will include works by Wagner, Richard Strauss and Samuel Barber , with  the renowned  soprano Deborah Voigt as guest soloist .  The first week of subscription
concerts will  feature Mahler's monumental  symphony no 2 , the so-called "Resurrection " symphony, to celebrate the centennial of the death of  this great composer ,who also served as the orchestra's music director a century ago , and the rest of the season will feature more of his symphonies, including the unfinished 10th symphony in the completion by  the late English musicologist  Deryck Cooke, conducted the rising young English conductor Daniel Harding . Mahler died in 1911 ,with only one movement of the symphony completed, and this is sometimes performed alone , but left extended sketches for the rest of the work.

   Maestro Gilbert will also conduct symphonies by Brahms, Dvorak , Prokofiev ,Tchaikovsky and Carl Nielsen.
   The distinguished Finnish conductor Magnus Linberg will continue as composer-in-residence , and there will be
 new works by composers such as Marc Neikrug , John Corigliano , Lindberg , and others .
     Guest conductors will include  the orchestra's previous music directors , Lorin Maazel , Kurt Masur, and Zubin Mehta, , and David Zinman will lead a cycle of the Beethoven symphonies which will attempt to come as close to  reproducing the composer's original intentions and the playing style of  the early 19th century , also using carefully edited and corrected  editions of the symphonies , coupling them with
contemporary works .

   The renowned German violinist Frank Peter Zimmermann will be artist-in-residence, and play a variety of  violin concertos with the orchestra .  The rneowned Russian pianist Yefim Bronfman will play the world premiere of the piano concerto no 2 by Magnus Lindberg , and mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe will sing the world premiere of a song cycle by the distinguished American composer John Corigliano , who father ,of the same name, had served as the orchestra's concertmaster  many years ago .

   The Philharmonic will play a special concert at the New York city armory ,featuring works by Mozart and Charles Ives , as well as the extravagant  avant-garde masterpiece "Gruppen "  by the late German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen , who was an eccentric genius .

   Even if you don't live in or near New York, you can hear the orchestra's concerts on the internet ;check
the orchestra's website  for more information . 

Posted: Aug 08 2011, 04:17 PM by the horn | with no comments
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Verdi's Gloriously Over-The-Top Opera Il Trovatore
  I've been listening to a recording of  Giuseppe  Verdi's melodious blood-and-thunder operatic masterpiece Il  Trovatore (The Troubador )  lately which I borrowed from my local library , so I thought I might tell you something about this deservedly popular opera I you are unfamiliar with it ,and I hope it will inspire you to try it out on CD or DVD.

  Il Trovatore was premiered in Italy in the early 1850s , and with its unforgettable melodies, including the world-famous "anvil chorus", which you've no doubt heard even if you don't know the opera, sweeping drama and
opportunities for singers to chew the scenery , it became an instant success all over Europe , and soon America,and has never been out of the repertoire of the world's opera houses since. Many of the world's greatest opera singers ,among them Enrico Caruso ,Placido  Domingo, Leontyne Price ,Joan Sutherland,
Maria Callas, Mario Del Monaco , Leonard Warren, Renata Tebaldi , Giuseppe Di Stefano, to name only a handful , have been internationally acclaimed for their portrayals of the leading characters .

  But with its somewhat confusing plot and melodramatic situations, the opera has also been affectionately
spoofed at times.  The classic Marx brothers movie  "A Night At The Opera" uses a performance of Il Trovatore as a backdrop for its zany story.

   Il Trovatore takes place in medieval Spain in a time of civil war between rival Spanish factions .  The characters include  the tenor hero Manrico , a knight and troubador who has been raised by Gypsies , his beloved  Leonora , a noblewoman who is lady in waiting to the queen of Aragon, a soprano,  the Gypsy
woman Azucena (Ad-zu-chay-na) ,supposedly Manrico's mother, the villain of the piece, the Count Di Luna ,baritone, and his captain Ferrando ,a bass. 

   The Count is in love with Leonora, and hopes to marry her, but she is in love with a mysterious knight
and troubador  whom she had crowned the victor in a tournament.  Di Luna is consumed with jealousy
at the love between the two, and hopes to  have him killed.

   Many years before the curtain opens,  the Count's late father ,the elder Count Di Luna,  had just celebrated  the birth of his second son, brother of the present Count.  But a hideous old Gypsy woman had been seen near the infant's cradle , and  the baby boy became ill .  The old woman was believed to have put an evil spell on the baby , and was promptly burned at the stake.

   But her daughter Azucena,  horrified by her mother's execution ,  had  secretly abducted the baby,
intending to throw it onto the pyre in revenge . But in her mad rage and confusion , she accidentally threw her own baby son onto the flames !  However, she took the count's infant son and  brought him up as her won son , whom she named Manrico .  He does not know of this fact until well into the opera when Azucena tells him the whole horrible story .

   In addition , at the time the opera opens, the Count and Manrico are on opposite sides of the rival
factions  in the Aragonese civil war.  Manrico and the Count fight a duel offstage , but even though the count is vanquished, Manrico spares his life .   Leonora, believe her beloved to have been killed, decides to spend the rest of her life in a convent , but the Count  tries to abduct her as she is about to do this.

   However, Manrico and his soldiers  appear at the last minute and  and carry Leonora off so that the two can finally be married .  Soon after ,  the Count's men  find Azucena,who has been prowling around their camp for some reason , and she is recognized as the woman who abducted the Count's younger brother .

   As Leonora and Manrico are about to be married , news comes in that  Azucena has been captured and the Count intends to have her executed .  Manrico rushes off to save  his supposed mother ,singing the
thrilling aria  "Di Quella  Pira",  a real show-stopper .

   But in the last act ,  Manrico and leonore have been captured in the attempt , and the Count orders
Azucena and Manrico to be executed.  Leonora is  devastated , and determined to save Manrico at any cost .  The monks sing a gloomy  funeral  chant  for the condemned , as Leonora  grieves for her beloved.

   At the last minute , Leonore pleads with the Count to spare his life, and offers to give herself  to him
to have his way with her if he will do this.  But she  secretly  takes poison from  her ring , determined 
that the Count will never have her .  She goes to Manrico ,telling him that she  has offered herself to the
Count to spare his life, but he  curses her . As she dies,  the Count orders  Manrico and Azucena to be brought out to be beheaded .  Just after the axe falls, she reveals to the Count that he has just killed his
own brother  !   The Count has been foiled , and he  realizes that he has lost everything !

   Whew ! What an over-the -top  melodramatic story !  But with  singers who are convincing actors ,
you won't find anything remotely silly about the opera, and Verdi's gutsy , sweeping and  gloriously 
melodious music , you'll be caught up in the story .

  There ar e a number of DVDs of live performances from the Metropolitan opera and La Scala in Milan, etc, and quite a few excellent recordings with  such great tenors as Placido Domingo, Luciano Pavarotti,
Mario Del Monaco ,  Richard Tucker Giuseppe Di Stefano and others as Manrico ,  Leontyne Price, Maria Callas,
Renata Tebaldi , as Leonora,  Sherill Milnes,  Thomas Hampson,  Leonard Warren, and others as the Count , to name only a handful .  

Posted: Aug 05 2011, 05:55 PM by the horn | with no comments
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Judging How Well Orchestras Play Is A Highly Subjective Matter
   Classical music gadfly Greg Sandow has been discussing the touchy subject of how well orchestras play recently,both on his blog at and on Facebook.  Why is this such a controversial subject ?
No two classical music experts , critics, fans and musicologists can agree about what constitutes good,great,mediocre, or lousy playing. 

  The recent list of the supposedly 20  greatest orchestras   by a British classical music magazine shows this. Some great orchestras were not even on the list ,including the world-famous Philadelphia orchestra, which is downright puzzling, given how prestigious a group it has been for so long. 

   What are the criteria for judging an orchestra ?  1. The playing must be precise ,  in tune and  well balanced . All the musicians must have superior technical ability and be able to get through the most tricky passages with aplomb.
  The playing is not ragged , or out of sync at any time . There must be nothing noticeably out of tune.
   You should be able to hear the many different lines of instruments playing ,  it should not sound muddy, and the brass, the loudest instruments in the orchestra, should never drown out the rest of the orchestra, which can easily happen if the conductor is not careful .

2. The orchestra should sound rich and  euphonious .  The brass should be powerful but not  blare stridently.
    The strings should be smooth and silky , and the woodwinds should blend well.  These things are true of many orchestras around the world ,  but not every one agrees on which orchestra sounds better than another.  Some music critics find fault with the playing of some orchestras ,either on recordings or at live performances, sometimes different sections of the orchestra, whether strings, woodwinds,brass or percussion.  One may not like the sound of this or that principal player in the woodwind or brass, or not like the overall sound of the strings .  But another may admire the same players greatly.

   Some orchestras are famous for certain sections ; the Philadelphia orchestra has long been admired for the sumptuous sound of its strings, and the Chicago symphony has long been famous  for its powerful yet smooth brass section, although some critics have accused these brass players of playing in too
loudly and  aggressively at times.   Two different critics can review the same concert and one may say the orchestra played terribly and the other may say that the musicians played like the gods ! 

   Having read countless reviews of orchestral concerts and recordings over the years, I've noticed that certain critics have certain orchestras they particularly admire ,and others which seem to be their Betes Noires.  Veteran concertgoers in different cities root for their hometown orchestras the way sports fans
root for their local teams. 

   Sometimes a critic will excoriate the horn section for cracking a lot of notes during a concert, and 
missed notes are an industrial  hazard in this field , as the horn is such a treacherous instrument to play. But critics should not make a federal case out of missed notes, especially isolated ones in an otherwise beautifully  played concert . If these critics would take the time and effort to take a couple of lessons on the instrument,
they might not write such captious reviews.

   But it's the spirit of the performance that counts ;  who cares if  there are a few glitches during a concert if  the performances  are  inspired ?  Any orchestra can have an off night ;  musicians are only human .



Posted: Aug 04 2011, 06:06 PM by the horn | with no comments
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Conducting Technique - It's Not As Easy As It Looks !
   If you've ever been to an orchestral concert and wondered what the man on the podium in front of the orchestra
is doing by waving his hands around , here is a brief explanation .  Basically , conducting is a kind of rhythmical sign language which guides the orchestra through any given work, or in the case of opera, the orchestra , the singers and chorus . 

  Music is written out in bars, or measures on the page , and at the end of every bar, there is a line called the bar line.  Each measure is divided into what we call beats, usually four or two,or three per measure, sometimes six or more.  The  conducting gestures indicate the number of beats per measure , and there are basic patterns to indicate that number .  This helps to keep the orchestra together ,and to start a piece together, as well as to end it.

   The basic beat patterns are very easy to learn , but putting them into action in any given work is often anything but easy !   For four beats per measure, the basic pattern is  the hand coming down for the first beat,
moving to the left for the second, then moving to the right for the third, and then coming up for the fourth .
   The first beat in starting a piece is called the down beat.  The last beat in every measure is called the up beat.

   In  three four time, which is what waltzes use,  the hand comes down for the first, then moves right for the second, and up for the third.  In two beats per measure, it's simply down / up .  In six beats per measure, it's a bit more complicated ;  down, two beats to the left, then two beats to the right, and up .  Sometimes there are irregular beats of five or even seven or more beats per measure, but rarely in music written before the 20th century . 

   In this case, it's a mixture of either two  plus three, or three plus four .  Down/up plus down,right up,or
  down,right,up plus down/up . 

    In order to start a work,  the conductor brings the musicians to attention by raising his  right hand ; 
    the he gives the preparatory up beat , and the musicians begin . This is necessary for the musicians to
    start together .  The musicians have to watch the conductor carefully ,unless they happen not to be playing at the very beginning, which sometimes happens.  A work does not always start with the entire orchestra playing .

   There are many variables in conducting  other than beat patterns .  When the tempo is very slow, it's
often helpful for the conductor to subdivide the beat,  actually beating eight  per measure , with a slight extra beat  for every  beat.  When the tempo is very fast,  such as the second movement of Beethoven's ninth symphony , which is in a very fast three beats per measure,  the conductor has to beat  one beat per measure, because it's physically impossible to beat  three at such as fast tempo .

   In some measure, if you look at the score,  a symbol which looks like a bird's eye appears.  This is a Fermata, which in Italian means to hold  the measure beyond one beat, possibly for a few seconds.
   When it's time to go on,  the conductor makes a cut off gesture  and continues beating . The very end 
of a piece or a movement of a symphony usually has this sign.

   Some conductors  mirror the beat pattern  with the left hand  ,but this is not really necessary .
   The left hand needs to be free to make other gestures, such as giving musicians what is called a cue, or the exact time to enter in the middle of a piece.  Usually the musicians do not need this, because they are counting measures of rest, when they don't play, but sometimes coming in at the exact time is tricky, so the conductor  needs to  make a gesture to help the player come in on a solo passage exactly in time.
   In opera, the singers often need this gesture to come in at the right time, since they don't have the music in front of them .

   One reason why the musicians need a conductor is  that this helps them speed up and slow down 
when  the music indicates, with terms such as  Ritrardando in Italian, or slowing down graduall  , or accelerando,
which means increase speed gradually .  Sometimes  the  composer indicates an immediately slower or faster tempo, and it's very difficult for the musicians to do any of these things on their own.
    It's also very difficult,if not impossible, to play certain 20th century works with constant changes of 
 the number of beats per measure, such as Stravinsky's famous ballet score The Rite of Spring , which
is fiendishly difficult rhythmically . 

   A conductor is much more than a traffic cop ;  the basic gestures are only part of this very difficult and complex job .  It's more like being the director of  a movie or a play .

Posted: Aug 03 2011, 05:38 PM by the horn | with no comments
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August Issue Of Opera News - Educating A New Generation Of Aspiring Young Opera Singers
   The August issue of Opera News magazine focuses on the training of aspiring young opera singers in America.  Yes, right now , there are many talented young people in America's many conservatories and
universities who may be the next international opera stars before too long , there is an article where the renowned American soprano Catherine Malfitano ,who currently teaches at the Manhattan school of music , discusses her teaching philosophy and the challenges of imparting her knowledge of vocal technique ,musical
interpretation and stagecraft to aspiring young opera singers .

   Freelance writer Mark Thomas Ketterson discusses the possible advantages of vocal students attending
Liberal Arts schools with opera and vocal training instead of conservatories .  He rightly points out that
"a more balanced education is not going to hurt anybody ".There is also a delightful story by playwright
Michaell Slade about a two year old boy who has actually become the world's youngest opera fan under his parent's influence !

The renowned  South-African born music critic ,scholar and librettist Andrew Porter ,one of the world's foremost
experts on opera ,is interviewed by writer and pianist William R. Braun , and his discussion about his experiences as music critic ,scholar and librettist make most interesting reading . Porter was the music critic of the New Yorker magazine for may years and also  the Financial Times . He laments the modern tendency of American and English opera companies to do operas in the original language, with English-speaking singers who do not know Italian, French and German etc.,claiming that this has been the "death of schools of singing".

   However, most of these singers do study these languages in music school and at least understand what they are singing about,a fact which he does not mention. In addition, supertitles on stage with English translations help audiences to understand what is going on on stage.

  Donald Rosenberg, music critic of  the Cleveland Plain Dealer , discusses the difficult situation of Cleveland's opera company ,which has unfortunately never prospered or achieved the international
acclaim of the great Cleveland orchestra ,whose concerts he regularly reviewed until a recent kerfuffle over his negative reviews of its music director Franz Welser-Most's concerts, which caused him to be removed from his capacity as reviewer there.

   Music critic,composer and classical music commentator Greg Sandow discusses his admiration for
Puccini's operas , which like more than a few critics, he used to disdain for their supposed cheapness and  superficial audience appeal .

   As usual, the magazine's roving  music critics review  opera performances from  Europe, America and elsewhere ,including  Berlin, London , Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Washington,D.C. , and Seattle .
    There are reviews of new CDs ,including a new recording of Rossini's rarely performed Ermione ,
 Gilbert and Sullivan's "Patience" , and an album of tenor arias by Italian composers such as Boito,
Giordano,Ponchieli, Leoncavallo and others sung by  German tenor Joans Kaufmann , one of today's hottest  opera stars . There are also reviews of recently issued  live performances of Wagner operas from
the Met in the 1960s ,with such great Wagner singers as Birgit Nilsson , Christa Ludwig, Jon Vickers, Thomas Stewart and Karl Ridderbusch .

   Reviews of opera on DVD include Verdi's La Forza Del Destino from La Scala ,Milan in the 70s and a recent production of Saint-Saens Samson &Dalilah from Antwerp, Belgium .  Even if you don't know a lot about opera ,  Opera News is always an absorbing read, and you can learn a great deal about this great and fascinating art form .


Posted: Aug 02 2011, 05:28 PM by the horn | with no comments
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"So Much That Could Be Played , And So Little Which Is "
  This is a quote from the excellent history of the New York Philharmonic by  conductor  John Canarina , which I
discussed not too long ago .  It's by the late music critic Harold C. Schonberg , who was chief music critic of the New York Times  in the 1960s and 70s .  
  He was discussing  the programming of the New York Philharmonic back in the 60s , when the late great Leonard Bernstein was music director there. Schonberg was lamenting the fact that  orchestras tend to concentrate on the same old  familiar masterpieces , which is still true today , with some notable exceptions .
    Countless  orchestral works have been written by who knows how many composers since the  birth of the symphony orchestra  nearly 300 years ago in Europe , but most have been deservedly forgotten ,simply because they are not very good .

   But there are so many works by so many composers which are undeservedly neglected ,simply because most
conductors  are too busy repeating the same old works, and so many concertgoers want to hear the same old
familiar pieces ,and are reluctant to try anything out of the ordinary . 

   Basically , the "standard repertoire " consists of  a fixed canon of works , symphonies ,concertos , miscellaneous orchestral works and  oratorios  by these famous composers :  From the  baroque and classical periods :  Bach ,Handel , Vivaldi ,  Haydn , Mozart, and Beethoven . 
From the Romantic period of the 19th century : Schubert , Mendelssohn, Schumann , Brahms , Dvorak, Berlioz , Wagner,
Tchaikovsky , Rimsky-Korsakov , Grieg , Mussorgsky , Max Bruch ,  Camille Saint-Saens ,  Bizet,
Cesar Franck , Bedrich Smetana, Chopin ,  Liszt , etc. And from the late 19th century and the 20th ,
Mahler, Elgar, Sibelius, Debussy,Ravel, Richard Strauss ,  Rachmaninov , Prokofiev, Bruckner, Aaron Copland , Gershwin , Stravinsky , Bartok , Hindemith ,  Samuel Barber , Shostakovich ,  and  several others .

  Not only that ,  but there are quite a few works by these popular composers which are rarely performed but deserve to be heard more often .  However , in recent years , there has been a welcome trend to 
revive  many of these lesser-known works , as well  as exploring  more obscure corners of the repertoire
by composers such as Carl Nielsen , Alexander von  Zemlinsky ,  Franz Schmidt ,  Albert Roussel ,
Hans Pfitzner ,  Rued Langgard ,  Wilhelm Stenhammar ,  Charles Koechlin ,  Mily Balakirev , Vincent D'Indy,
Sergei Taneyev , Karol Szymanowski ,  George Whitefield Chadwick ,  Havergal Brian ,  Silvestre Revueltas , Frank Martin , Erich Wolfgang Korngold ,  Arnold Bax ,  Carlos Chavez ,  Alberic Magnard ,
Eduard Tubin , Arthur Bliss ,  and other neglected but deserving composers of many different nationalities and  compositional styles .  This list includes composers from Denmark , Sweden ,America , Poland ,
and Mexico .

  Leading conductors such as Estonia's Neeme Jarvi , Americans Leonard Slatkin, Gerard Schwarz,
  David Zinman, James Conlon , Alan Gilbert , Leon Botstein  and others have shown admirable courage in  thinking outside the box  whne it comes to programming .  Before  Jarvi  became internationally known in the past 30 years or so , no one would ever have expected to hear  music by composers from Estonia  , a small country on the Baltic which used to be one of the republics of the former Soviet Union .
  Yet this nation has a  considerable musical tradition and has produced a surprising number of  fine composers , and Jarvi has  been a staunch champion of their music ,also recording it .

   That's right .  there is a staggeringly wide variety of obscure music by so many composers from 
 many centuries  currently available .  There is  so much interesting music out there , and it's so easy to
get ,simply by clicking a mouse at a variety of different websites where CDs are available . 
   Composers hardly any has ever heard of , even  experts .  Not just music by "dead white European males ".  There are composers from America ,  Mexico , Brazil , Argentina ,  many women composers ,
African -American composers ,  and other places you might not expect .  Music from the 16th and 17th centuries  up to the present day . 

   In some ways ,  lovers of classical music have never had it so good !   If you're tired of your local orchestra playing nothing but the same old same old , there's a veritable   gold mine of  wonderful music  you can get on  CD. 
Posted: Aug 01 2011, 04:00 PM by the horn | with no comments
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