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May 2013 - Posts

100 Years Of Stravinsky's Seminal Masterpiece "The Rite Of Spring "

   A century ago today ,  Igor Stravinsky's revolutionary  ballet score  Le Sacre Du Printemps (the Rite of Spring ) was given its world  premiere by  Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russe de Monte Carlo ,  and as they say, the rest is history .  This seminal work  ushered in the modern age of music,  and  classical music would never be the same . 

    Although it is now usually  performed as  as a purely orchestral work ,  Le Sacre du Printemps was originally conceived as a ballet ,albeit one unlike any  ballet which had  come before it , and the legendary dancer/choreographer  Vaslav Nijinsky was responsible for its then wildy  unconventional choreography .  Igor Stravinsky (1882 - 1971 ) was a young , up and coming  expatriate  Russian composer  who had written two successful  ballet scores , The Firebird , based on  Russian fairy tales , and Petrushka , a whimsical tale of  puppets which come to life at a country fair in Russia .  The renowned  Russian impresario Sergei Diaghilev had  given the gifted young composer a  chance and taken him under his tiutelage .

    Collaborating with the Russian  folklorist  and historian Nicholas Roerich ,  Stravinsky conceived of a  ballet  which would  depict the  strange pagan  rites of the  Russians in ancient times  in which a  young virgin  would be sacrificed  to propitiate  spring   by dancing herself  until she died of exhaustion .   In place of the elegant choreography  of  traditional 19th century  ballet  there was  an attempt to recreate the  wild pagan dances of the primitive Slavic trubes  who were the ancestors of today;s Russians .

     This attempt , plus Stravinsky's  jagged and wildly cacophonous music  caused  a near riot  at  the premiere exactly 100 years ago .  Le Sacre was unlike anything fashionable Parisian ballet audiences in Paris or elsewhere  had ever  experienced before , and many in the audience  began to make  a  commotion which actually  drowned out  the  already  extremely loud music  at times  !   The conductor was the  great French maestro Pierre Monteux (1875-1964 )  , a close friend and trusted collaborator with the composer , and  the unprecedented complexisty , wild rhythmic irregularity and jaggedness of the music required  an enormous amount of rehearsal time for both the orchestra and the dancers . 

     According to all reports , Monteux remained calm throughout  the chaos  and  kept the orchestra   going while the audienced whistled and jeered the weird  primitive choreography  of Nijiinsky .  Later performances  by the company at the theater  went without  a hitch though .

     The Rite began to be  performed more often  in concert halls by  symphony orchestras all over Europe and America by many of  the world's leading conductors ,including   Monteux ,and the composer himself ,  and although audiences initially found the music  shockingly  discordant  and  weird ,  Le Sacre has become one of the most frequently performed  orchestral works of the 20th century and is still  popular .  

     There have been  who knows how many recordings ,  by the composer,  Monteux,  Leonard Bernstein , Pierre Boulez ,  Zubin Mehta, Lorin Maazel, Igor Markevitch , Ernest Ansermet (another close friend and collaborator of Stravinsky ) ,  Herbert von Karajan , Erich Leinsdorf , Charles Dutoit  and  so many other renowned  maestros .  Stravinsky, Boulez , Bernstein  and some others have made  more than one recording of it  over the years .

     The Rite calls for an enormous orchestra  ,  including  unusually large  woodwind, brass and percusiion sections ,  and includes such unusual instruments as  an alto flute , a special  low-pitcned  flute ,  not one but two contra bassoons , eight horns ,  piccolo trumpet  ,two tubas ,  and a  wide variety of percussion instruments . 

     The ballet is divided into two parts of equal length , the  "Adoration of the Earth ", and "The Sacrifice ".  In the first part , the pagan Slavic tribes  have gathered to celebrate the beginning of Spring ,  and  wise tribal elders supervise the  rites .  There are ritual abductions of girls , round dances ,  and solemn  processions .  The second part opens with an eerie  evocation of the night , and  a  young girl is chosen as a ritual sacrifice to the Slavic gods  when day breaks .  She  begins a  wild, orgiastic dance , and  dances until she literally drops dead !  (There is no  historical evidence that  such a ritual sacrifice actually happened among the ancestors of the Russian, though ).

    Stravinsky's music  is not actually atonal in the  Schoenbergian sense , but   breaks completely  traditional harmony , and features juxtaposiitions of  different  chords  which  do not conform to what  audiences had come to expect  in the  19th century .  There are eovocations of   old Russian folk music  , and several actual quotes . 

     But  Stravinsky's use of rhythm  is wildly innovative ; instead of the  simple ,square and  symmetrical  phrasing  to which audiences were accustomed , the composer  invented wildy irregular assymetrical  rhythmic patterns , with the time signature sometimes changing  with every measure .  Instead of bars constructed with the usual 2,3 or 4  beats oer measure ,  there are measures with 5,7, and even 11 beats , constantly  shifting  .  This was extremely difficult for the orchestral musicians  when the work was new , but  they have since  become accustomed to  it and many later  composers  have  created works of at least as much rhthmical complexity, if not more .

     After The Rite , Stravinsky  explored many different styles of  composition ,  and  became on of the leading exponents of what is caled "Neo-classicism" , or  20th century music which  makes use of  the techniques and style of 18th century music while  remaining  modern , and in his later years  he  began  use 12-tone Schoenbergian techniques while always remaining himself  . Stravinsky was something of a chameleon as a composer ,  constantly changing  his  music while  preserving his own distinctive voice . But he never seems to have written anything as  earth-shaking as  "Le Sacre Du Printemps ". 

     I 1924 , a wag in Boston wrote an  anonymous piece of doggerel  about the  wild and  clangorously prmitive  ballet score after a perforance by the Boston symphony orchestra :  

    "Who wrote this fiendish Rite of Spring , what right had he to write this thing ,  with its crash, crash , cling clang  bing, bang bing ?

      And then to call it Rite of Spring ,  the season when  on joyous wing  ,the birds melodious carols sing and harmony's in everything !

     He who could write the Rite of Spring,  if I be right, by  rights should swing ! "








Posted: May 29 2013, 01:28 PM by the horn | with no comments
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Eminent French Composer Henri Dutilleux 1916 - 2013 .

   The death  on May 22  of  the eminent French composer  Henri Dutilleux at the age of 97  leaves the world of classical  music  bereft of  yet another of the world's foremost composers  , only months after the passing  of  the even  more aged Elliott Carter . Among the older statesmen  of  the compositional world ,  only  Pierre Boulez, 88 remains . 

    Dutilleux's music , while basically atonal ,  eschewed the  rigid  and  intimidatingly  arcane   techniques  of  post-schoenbergian  serialism typified by  the worls of Pierre Boulez ,now 88, who  rejected  the music of his older contemporary as insufficiently  complex and  dogmatically avant-garde .  Dutilleux  was a careful and deliberatel craftsman  and  anything but prolific in his output  ,leaving  a  limited number of  orchestral works , chamber music and vocal works  characterized by  a sensuous beauty of sound and  vivid  colors . 

    His music has been championed by  such eminent conductors and instrumentalists as Charles Munch , George Szell ,  Esa-Pekka Salonen ,  Serge Baudo, Daniel Barenboim ,  cellist ocnductor Mstislav Rostropovich  ,violinist Isaac Stern and others , and he  was one of the most widely performed  of contemporary composers . Dutilleux won numerous presitigious awards for his works  and was  a distinguished teacher of composition at the Paris conservatoire , the Tanglewood festival in America and elsewhere . 

    Among his best known works are two symphonies , violin and cello concertos  and several miscellaneous  orchestral works . Perhaps the best knows is Metaboles , which was  premiered by the great  conductor George Szell  and his Cleveland orchestra in 1965 .The cello concerto ("Tout un Monde Lointain", a whole  distant world ) , was written for the great Russian cellist and conductor Mstislav Rostropovich . 

     Dutilleaux's music is  not  the kind of  dry as dust  complex avant-garde music which  so many concertgoers  dread ; it is characterized by a luminous beuaty of sound  and shimmering  shifting colors .  The catalogue of recordings of his works is not  enormous but  still ample, including recordings of the concertos by  their champions Rostropovich and   Isaac Stern . 

     For an excellent set of his complete orchestral works on CD , try  the four CD set by the  noted French conductor Yan Pascal Tortelier with the B.B.C. Philharmonic .  You won't regret this evne if you are leary about  trying contemporary classical music .


Posted: May 23 2013, 10:39 PM by the horn | with no comments
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Why Wagner's Music Still Matters Today

   On the eve   of the 200th anniversary of the birth of  Richard Wagner , the most hotly debated composer in the history of music ,  it's important to realize  that he is not merely  a composer who happened to be an anti-semite  and the favorite composer of Hitler ,the butt of jokes about  obese opera isngers  in  ridiculous  costumes with horned helmets ,  but  the creator  of  some of the most inspired , powerful  and compelling  music  ever written , a  great dramatist  , and  a visionary genius whose  startlingly original operas  have  enthralled countless people all over the world  for over a century and a  half .

    His influence over  composers who followed him was enormous , and he even  caused some later composers to rebel against  that overpowering  influence  and  strike off in radically   different directions .  Such great composers as Bruckner,Mahler, Richard Strauss , Arnold Schoenberg , Camille Saint-Saens, Puccini ,  Debussy ,  and others  would  not have become what they were without Wagner . 

    No composer has ever divided  other composers , critics, musicologists and  audiences  to  the same degree .  Wagner's music  has been  both idolized and  despised  by so many different  people  for a variety of reasons ,but it has rarely left anyone  indifferent .  How could it ? There is something about his music which arouses  either love or  hate in  different people .  It has a kind of primal  power to  effect  people's emotions  .  Some find it  exhilherating  and intoxicating , while  others are somehow repelled by it  to a degree  that  one cannot find with other composers .

    The Great Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) , was one of  the most voiciferous of Wagner's detractors , and sneered at his music  as  pretentious, bombastic  and turgid  , calling himself " Wagner's anti-christ ".  He  thought of himself  as  the Apollonian opposite to Wagner's Dionisian intoxication .   His French contemporary Darius Milhaud (1892 -1974 ) , who  specialized in music of Gallic elegance and coolness ,  was such a rabid anti-iwagnerian that he once  wrote a review  of an all Wagner concert in Paris with  these words alone  "Down with Wagner!"

    A number of earlier French  composers of the 19th and early 20th century  became  passionate Wagnerians , such as Emmanuel Chabrier ,Ernest Chausson,  and others .  Claude Debussy ,  the founder of musical  impressionism even though he did not like to think of  his music as impressionist , was deeply ambivalent  about Wagner and had a kind of love/hate relationship with it  .

     But the worm in the Wagnerian apple remains Adolf Hitler and the *** .  It's a  grave mistake, however ,to assume that  Wagner  turned Hitler into the  sick monster he was .  Yes, Wagner was an anti-semite and wrote an appallingly nasty  extended essay called "Judaism in Music", in which he  accused Jews of being  incapable of creating great art among other things .  However, his anti-semitism  never came remotely close to  the insane extremism of Hitler, and he never  advocated genocide against Jews or anyone else . 

    The problem is that Hitler read his own insane ideas INTO WAGNER , ideas which  cannot be found in the philosophy and aesthetics of the composer .  You cannot blame Wagner for what  Hot;ler caused ,any more thna you can blame Jesus for the Spanish Inquisition .   The composer has been dogged by  guilt by association  since  the second world war .  Even to this day, there is an unofficial ban on performing Wagner's music, either  on teh operatic stage or in concert   in Isarel ,although  eminent  conductors  and  advocates of his music  active in  Israeli musical life such as Daniel Barenboim  and Zubin Mehta ,have attempted  ,without much success, to  defy this  .

    Another stumbling block for many people is the fact that Wagner, while  a towering genius , was  hardly the nicest  human being imaginable . In addition to being an ant-semite , he was a notorious womanizer and serial adulterer who carried on affairs with the wives of some of his closest friends and associates ,  a  megalomaniacal  self-centered  and unscrupulous man who  ran up  enormous expenses in his private life to live a luxurious lifestyle  while  regularly  evading his creditors , and often made  obnoxious statements  about  composers  whose music he disliked , which included most of his contemporaries . 

    But many great composers  have been  guilty of  reprehensible behavior  , and Wagner was by no means the only composer with  anti-semitic views  .  You have to separate the man from his music .   Wagner's stage works  are towering masterpieces , and  the protagonists ,including  such fascinating  characters as Tristan and Isolde , Wotan, ruler of the Gods in the mighty  tetraology the Ring of the Nibelung,  his daughter the Valkyrie Brunnhilde , the evil  dwarf  Alberich who is Wotan's  arch enemy ,  the  cobbler poet Hans Sachs in Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg  ,  to name only several ,  are among the most  complex  and  many sided  characters in all opera .  John Philip Sousa called Wagner "The Shakespeare of music ".     This is why  Wagner's  immense and   complex  works  have  remained  relevant to the present day  . and will remain so far into the future .





Posted: May 21 2013, 10:15 PM by the horn | with no comments
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Young Latvian Conductor Andris Nelsons To Be the Next Music Director of The Boston Symphony

   After a long and  difficult search , the world-famous Boston symphony orchestra has chosen a new music director ,  34 year old Latvian  Andris Nelsons, who  is currently music director of the City Of Birmingham  symphony orchestra in  England .  Nelsons  will  fill the shoes of   the eminent  but ailing  American conductor James Levine ,who was forced to resign  because of severe back trouble  and various injuries caused by accidents . 

    Although not a household name , Nelsons  has  conducted many  of the world's  greatest orchestras  with  considerable success  for  several years as well  as  at the Metropolitan opera and other leading opera companies .   From all reports  , he  has earned the respect and admiration of  the demanding musicians  of the world's great orchestras ,  something which is  not easy to  win  , as they do not impress easily . Nelsons was rumored to be one of  the most likely candidates to  win this prestigious appointment . 

    He follows in the footsteps of  such legendary  Boston symphony music directors as  Serge Koussevitzky , Pierre Monteux, Charles Munch,  Erich Leinsdorf  ,and more recently ,Seiji Ozawa and James levine , and will  assume his post  beginning with the 2014-15 season .   Ndelsons has appeared with  such storied orchestras as the Berlin Philharmonic , the Royal Concertgebouw orchestra of Amsterdam ,  the Vienna Philharmonic  , the New York Philharmonic  etc  and  has  had considerable success at the Wagner festival in Bayreuth Germany .

    Despite his youth , Nelsons  has a wide repertoire  and  is  committed to programming contemorary music , which is vital for the health  of orchestras everywhere  in order to ensure that  they do not stagnate .   Only time will tell how  Nelsons and the Boston symphony will fare  in the course of classical music in America , but  for the time being ,  things are looking up for  this storied orchestra .

Posted: May 16 2013, 10:51 PM by the horn | with no comments
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The Wagner Production That Went Too Far

  A recent production of Wagner's  opera Tannhauser (Tann - hoy-zer ) at the Dusseldorf opera in Germany has opened up a hornet's nest of controversy  in the opera world .  Outrageous productions of  operas  are the norm in German opera houses  ,and have been for many years ,as well in other European countries , but this one  took the cake for sheer perversity . 

   The director  of the production , one Burkhard C. Kosminski , has set the production in  Nazi Germany , despite the fact that  it is set in  that country in medieval times .  Huh ?   The minstrel knight Heinrich  Tannhauser is  the protagonist ,  and he is a member of the  Minnesanger,  or the German equivalent of the Troubadors  of southern France .  He is a member of the medieval German nobility  who sings of  the medieval ideal of chaste love from afar .  He is  ostracied by the supposedly chaste and puritanical  community of  Minnesanger (Minne being an archaic German word for love )    because he has dallied with the  goddess Venus, who lures men to her  grotto in a  cave  with her  voluptuois nymphs for  a life of orgiastic self-indulgence . 

   So they send him off on a pilgrimage of penitence to  Rome in order to beg forgiveness from the Pope .  Although the Pope tells him that  his dalliance with the goddess of love  has doomed him to eternal damnation ,  he dies in the end  ,miraculously  redeemed .  What the heck does this have to do with Nazi Germany ?   Absolutely nothing .  Kosminski  portrays Jews being  executed by the ***  for sheer shock effect   in this production  set in the 1940s . 

    There was so much outrage in the press  and  the public that  the production was cancelled by the administration of the Dusseldorf opera after only one performance and  the  following performances are beinbg done in concert form, that is without  sets and costumes as is sometimes done  when symphony orchestras perform operas  in the concert hall rather than the opera house . 

    Kosminski  explained that he had no intention of offending  anyone in the audience who might be Jewish , but this did not hold water .  He complained of censorship .  A  production of the same opera  back in the late 80s  by the  Chicago Lyric opera took a similar  revisionist approach but  without being anywhere near as arbitrary and perverse .  At least  the production had  some similarities to the original story .This time, the opera was set  America, and Tannhauser is  a  televangelist  and  country wetsern style singer  who  must repent for having  spent time in a  legal brothel in  Nevada, and flies off to Rome !  , also hoping for a Papal  pardon, even though he is not  a Cathoilic .

    The Met's recent production of Verdi's Rigoletto, which is set among the  decadent  Italian aristocracy in 16th century Mantua Italy ,  has been updated  to Las Vegas  in the 1960s .  Here too ,  the production  is set in an environment  which is not at all off the mark .  In the original, Rigoletto is the hunchback court jester to the  libertine duke of Mantua , and  is terrified of the Duke seducing his innocent  motherless young daughter , whom he keeps  isolated for her own protection .  But everything goes horribly wrong .

    In the Met production , the duke is a handsome  and charismatic Vegas singer who is also a  serial womanizer , and Rigoletto is a Don Rickles like commedian in his act  .  This taped   production will be shown on  PBS  this Friday  evening, and you can check  tis out on the Met's website .  You can also see it streamed  over the internet . 

     How far can directors and designers go in  making travesties of beloved staples of the operatic repertoire ?   Just when  you  think they could not possibly  be more outrageous  , they never fail to outdo themselves, particularly in Germany .  Will this madness never end ?  The operatic world is  eagerly awaiting  th ebicentennial production at the Bayreuth festival this Summer of Wagner's  mighty Ring of the Nibelungen, the epic  portrayal of Germanic and Scandinavian mythology  .  There have already been numerous  productions of it  which  take ridiculous liberties with  story , and who knows what  will ensue  at  the Wagner shrine this Summer .  Chances are it won't be pretty .

    If you want to see an excellent  traditional  realistic production of Tannhauser  on DVD , get the one from the Metropolitan opera conducted by James Levine , which should  be easy to find at  . 


Posted: May 15 2013, 09:36 PM by the horn | with no comments
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The Classical Blame Game

  I hate to harp on Greg Sandow and his  constant  complaints about how there is supposedly something very wrong about the world of classical  music and that unless our orchestras and other  classical institution change radically , they are doomed to  irrelevance and  lack of an audience, particularly one with lots of young people attending .  I like the guy and  of course he means well . However, he's barking up the wrong tree .

     I've come up with a name for this onslaught on  orchestras etc ;  it's "The classical blame game ".  If only  classical musicians would  play in a freer ,  more spontaneous way , more people would attend concerts .Supposedly . If only concerts weren't such stuffy  affairs, more people would come .If only musicians would stop wearing  tuxedos or  black ties at concerts, more people would come .  If only orchestras played more new music, audiences would increase .  If only classical musicians weren't so obsessed with accuracy of  performance rather than  spontaneous communication with audiences , more people would come .  Yadda yadda yadda . 

    Somehow, it's always the musician's fault , or  the fault of  orchestra managements  if they're having such a rough time  increasing  their audiences and  attracting more younger people to concerts .  But has Sandow ever  considere the fact  that  one of the main reasons  it's so difficult to  increase the audience for classical music  are other factors ?  For example, the myth that classical music is "stuffy,boring and elitist,"  which  too many people accept blindly ?  Or the fact that  so many people just aren't aware of how enjoyable classical music  could be if they just GAVE IT A CHANCE ? 

    Or that  too many people in America of whatever age  just haven't had any exposure to classical music ?   The problem is certainly not a lack of  excellence  in performances ; on the contrary , standards of performance  are  higher than ever .  There are so many outstanding conductors,  solo violinists, cellists  ,concert pianists etc , and  there are more  world class orchestras in America than ever before .  There is no lack of new music at concerts . 

    But how can  you expect to attract more people with  new music alone when they have never even heard the  great symphonies ,concertos and other works of Mozart,Beethoven, Schubert,Brahms,Tchaikovsky and other  great composers of the past ?  If your first exposure to classicla music at a concert is  a program of Elliott Carter,  Milton Babbitt  ,Charles Wuorinen or other  composers of  esoteric and complex modern music, you are going to be completely baffled by it . 

     New audiences need  a context, a frame of reference, before they  are ready to hear contemporary music, and that context is the great works of the past .   And newcomers ot concerts should not really be concerned with  what themusicians wear on stage ; these concerts are not  displays of fashion .  They should just concentrate on THE MUSIC . 

    Another problem Sandow has often mentioned is that newsomers  often tend to applaud between movements of a symphony or ocncertos, and are often hushed by  experienced concertgoers , and this sometimes intimidates them and  causes them to  decide they don't want to attend any more ocncerts, which is unfortunate .  I suppose it  wouldn't be a bad idea  if  applause before th eend of a work became more ocmmon , but many  performers  seem to get unnerved by  mid performance  applause  and it  upsets their concentration .  Why not just explain this to newcomers to concerts ? 

    So let's stop blaming the victims, namely the performers ,for their plight and  explore  other ways to  expand the audience for classicla music in America .  It won't be easy ,  but  we need to stop barking up the wrong tree .

Posted: May 06 2013, 10:39 PM by the horn | with no comments
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