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January 2013 - Posts

An Open Letter To Bill Gates Regarding Classical Music In America

  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 .


Posted: Jan 31 2013, 11:23 PM by the horn | with no comments
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The Met's New Rigoletto - Is It Ok To Tamper With An Opera ?

   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 . 

Posted: Jan 30 2013, 11:38 PM by the horn | with no comments
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So You Think Classical Music Hasn't Changed Much In Ages ?

   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 !



Posted: Jan 29 2013, 11:33 PM by the horn | with no comments
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What's The Right Tempo ? Nobody Seems To Agree .

  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 . 


Posted: Jan 28 2013, 11:20 PM by the horn | with no comments
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