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December 2013 - Posts

Classical Music In 2013 - The Good, The Bad And The Ridiculous

   The year 2013 in classical  music was a  bewildering and  dizzying  mix of artistic  excellence and   fiscal  and administrative woes for performing arts institutions all over the globe .  Sometimes it seemed as though the  entire world of classical music was bout to implode , yet there have been glimmers of hope amid all  the  bad news .

   First , the bad news .  Orchestras and opera companies  all over Europe , America and elsewhere  are struggling to stay alive and some have gone under .  The plucky New York City opera , a fixture in that  great city  for nearly 70 years , declared bankruptcy  and  has ceased  giving performances  , and has been unable to return  to  Lincoln Center , where it had  stood  next to the mighty and far more glamorous  Metropolitan  oper since the 1960s . Billionaire  business tycoon  David Koch , who had  contributed  greatly to  the company in funding  the recent extensive  renovation of  the former New York State theater, now named after him, is no longer willing to provide the help  to save the company , and there are other complex causes for this  disaster . 

    The Minnesota orchestra of Minneapolis  has been  locked out  for over  year due a power struggle between the musicians  and its management , and  Osmo Vanska , its Finnish-born music director has resigned  due to the impasse after a decade of  critical and audience acclaim  as its head , and  a series of  recordings with Sweden's  BIS label  has been cancelled .  In Italy , the Rome opera is on the verge of  going under , as well  as  the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino  opera company in Florence .  The whole  opera infrstructure in Italy , ironically the birthplace of opera 400 years ago , seems about to implode , apparently due to  poor management  .

    Elsewhere in Europe ,  two of Germany's most prestigious radio orchestras , those of Stuttgart and the nearby one in thew resort town of Baden-Baden are being merged  for financial reasons , and  some of the musicians may  have to be downsized .  At least two of  the orchestras of Greece have folded ,  and in Asia , the Maylasian Philharmonic of Kuala Lumpur is  plagued with management problems . 

    The Brrooklyn Philharmonic  in New York, acclaimed for its adventurous programming  , has  gone bankrupt , as well as the Napa Valley Phiharmonic in California , the San Antonio, Texas, opera , and Opera Boston . The Milwaukee symphony has recently announced   financial  troubles which could threaten its existence .  And there are quite a few others everywhere that  are struggling .

     But on the plus side , most of the world's who knows how many  opera  companies  are still alive and kicking , and  they are performing  a very wide variety of repertoire  ranging from centuries ago to  new or recent works .  James Levine , the internationally acclaimed  music director of the Metropolitan opera , has returned to the orchestra pit  there  after  nearly two years of severe back  trouble and other ailments , and though confined to a  motorized wheelchair , he  health has improved considerably .  He recently conducted  the first  new production of  Verdi's  final  opera  "Falstaff " in nearly 50 years  at the Met  to considerable  acclaim  nd his renewed presence  on  the Met's roster of conductors  could not be more welcome .

    The young  Canadian conductor Yannick Nezet-Seguin  appears to be doing great work reviving the fortunes of the  troubled Philadelphia orchestra , one of the world's greatest , after several years without a music director , and  he has begun to record with the orchestra for the presitigious  Deutsche Grammophon label .  After a long search due to  James Levine's departure from the Boston symphony due to his  severe health problems , the orchestra has found  a promising  choice to succeed him , the gifted   young Latvian conductor  Andris Nelsons .

     In the ridiculous category ,  the new production of  Wagner's Ring cycle at  the  legendary festival  theater in Bayreuth  ,Germany in honor of the  bicentennial  of his birth turned out to  be  a total  travesty of  the  monumental  work .   The composer intended the  tetralogy of  operas to be set in a mythical   pagan  Germany with the Germanic gods, goddesses,  superheroes, giants, dwarves,  water nixies ,  etc, yet the director and designer set the production in  contemporary  America  out west , and also in  the oil rich  city of Baku, Azerbaijan on the Caspian sea .   The Ring is all about  greed and lust for power , and  the fierce struggle between the gods , dwarves, and giants etc ,  but the production  turned the work into  something Wagner could never even have conceived of  let alone have approved of .  Such  preposterous productions of operas  have been the norm in European opera companies since the 1970s, and there seems to be no end in sight .

     But whatever happens in the near future , don't believe the doomsayers who are convinced that  classical  music is on life support . You can't keep a great art form down !


Posted: Dec 30 2013, 08:36 PM by the horn | with no comments
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It's Beethoven's Birthday - But Do You Really Know The Music And The Man ?

   December 16 th is Beethoven's birthday , and he was born in  1770 in the provincial German town of Bonn in the Rhineland , which served as the capitol of west Germany before the reunification  of east and west , leaving  his hometown  at the age of 21 to move to  Vienna , the greatest musical center of the day in order to seek  the chance ot achieve greatness , where he died in 1827 .

   We all know  that Beethoven was one of the greatest composers of all time , and that he suffered from  deafness which progressed slowly beginning in his early 30s even though the exact cause remains a matter of medical speculation  . Everyone knows the famous melody of the "Ode To Joy " , the  "Da Da Da Daaaah " which opens the fifth symphony , and the catchy melody of his brief piano piece "Fur Elise ", which is just a  potboiler and  far from being one of his greates or most important works . And the , the correct title is actually "Fur Therese ", as the messy manuscript was apparently misread  by the publisher .

    But how many people REALLY know  Beethoven's music , its  emotional power, grandeur , originality , and intensity , as well as its passages of tender lyricism  , bloisterous humor , contempltiveness , and  other expressive qualities ?  Not nearly enough .  You really have to take the time to get to know the music by carefull listening  , and it helps to know something about the man, his extraordinary life , the context of the times he lived in  etc .  Fortunately, there is  wealth of  writing about this , in biographies, books, articles , etc , all esily accessible over the internet . 

    Beethoven wrote quite a few  works  which are simple, straightforward , and tuneful , mainly for money .  But his nine symphonies, five piano concertos , violin conerto ,  32 piano sonatas , his sole opera Fidelio , 16 string quartets , his  Miss Sollemnis , a setting of the Roman Catholic mass , and many other works  are NOT easy listening if you're new to  classical music .  In fact , you can listen to them  for many,many years without ever  leaning everything about them and   you will always gain new insights into them from repeated hearings .

    And what kind of man was Ludwig Van Beethoven , son of a  court singer in  Bonn of  Flemish origin ?  He showed  early  musical talent as a boy in his hometown , studied with a repsected music techer who taught him  the basics of compositon and  began to compose  his juvenile works, which are very little known today .  His father thought he might be able to exploit the boy as a child prodigy like Mozart , and forced him to practice at the keyboard  for many hours  a day ,  even treating him roughly . 

    The young Ludwig never became another Mozart ,but he developed into a formidable piano virtuoso  and in his early 20s, realized that he should move from provincial Bonn in Germany to  sophisticated  Vienna ,  capitol of the mighty Austro-Hungarian empire  as well as being the musical  capitol of Europe . That was where the opportunity  was .  He hoped to study with Mozart , but met him only once  shortly before  his trgically early death . He did manage to study with  another great composer and friend of Mozart , Joseph Haydn .  But he claimed to have learned little  from the great master and was  beginning to  show his own  originality as a composer .  He also  acheived great  acclaim as a piano virtuoso ,  and the wealthy ,influential  music-loving nobility of Vienna  recognized his  brilliance  and began to support him  financially and with comissions for a variety of works .

      But Beethoven was a stubborn ,headstring , a  not particularly  deferential,tactful   and suave personality who was never willing to suck up to the rich and powerful Viennese aristocracy and  powerful politicians ,  potentates and prelates .  He ws gruff ,  irascible and did not suffer fools  gladly .  H e never married , but  always hoped to find a woman who migh marry him .  But he was rather uncouth at times ,  moved frequently round Vienna serching for an apartment who pleased him and was  sloppy, unkempt  nd often shabbily dressed .  The Viennese tolertaed his  foibles, though, because of his  genius .  His dwellings were a mess .  You might call him the Oscar Madison of music, although he had no Viennese Felix Unger neat freak  as a  roommate - fortunately !

     The exact  cause remains unclear , but Beethoven began to suffer  distressing difficulties with his hearing from his early 30s ,  and  gradually became  almost completely deaf . Doctors were unable to help him much , but a   crude  sound magnifying device , an ear horn, helped him somewhat .  He was a  stubborn , crotchety , irascible  fellow , and while he had many friends  among the leading musicians of the day ,  his frequent ill temper  caused rifts between  them frequently .  He  had frequent  quarrels with his two brothers , the only surving  immediate  family members  he had ;  his parents had had several other children who died in infancy , and  his nephew , son of one of them  , came to live with him after his parent's a crimonious  divorce .  Beethoven  disapproved of the boy's mother , and thought her to be  loose woman . Uncle and nephew had  a difficult relationship to say the least .

     Deafness  forced Beethoven to  abandon his brilliant career as a pianist , but fortunately it dd not stop him from  producing  some of the greatest music ever written ; nine  great symphonies , 32  piano sonatas , ten for violin and piano , five for cello and pianoi, five piano concertos , one for violin ,  sixteen string quartets ,  one opera called Fidelio ,  numerous miscellaneous piano works ,  two masses , other chamber works  such as  trios for violin, cello and piano , and much, much more . 

     It was anything but an easy , uneventful life .  In addition to his deafness , difficult personality , lack of luck with women ,  family woes , difficulty in finding musicians and orchestras which could do justice to his  denanding works ,  etc,  he was often plagued by  various ailments such as stomach trouble and other maladies .  When he departed the world in 1827 , his funeral was a public event  , and the great  Austrian poet Franz Grillparzer delivered a funeral oration . 

     And as they say , the rest is history . Beethoven's works became an integral part of the standard repertoire for  orchestras , pianists, conductors, violinists ,  and other musicians  .  But  how many of his works do YOU know,a ssuming you are not a lover of classical music , a professional  musician or musicologist ?   There's so much more to  Beethoven than a few  famous tunes .   The melodies , more properly called themes, in Beethoven are only the basic building blocks of his  works . What mkes them great is what  he does with those  basic, often simple melodies , constntly trnsforming them with such ingenuity  , and  forming them into works of great complexity and depth .

    Have you experienced that grandeur , intensity and emotional power of  Beethoven's music, as well as  its  tender lyricism ,  boisterous humor and   moments of  deep contemplation , its many-sidedness which I just mentioned  ?  If not  , please start listening carefully to his music , and go far beyond those popular tunes which everyone knows .  You'll never regret it !




Posted: Dec 16 2013, 10:09 PM by the horn | with no comments
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An Unusually Large Dose Of Mozart

   Wolfgang Amadeus Mozrt is an iconic figure in western culture ; we hear his music constantly , or fragments of it, constantly in popular culture, on television etc , and  countless people have seen the entertaining if  not very historically  accurate film Amadeus .  But how well do we really know his music , which consists of approximtely 600 works of all kinds written during his tragically brief  life of 35 years ?

   Only a  small part of which which is performed everywhere by orchestras ,opera companies and other groups .  LIke so many famous composers , Mozart is  known to the general  public by only a small number of his  numerous works . These include 41 (numbered) symphonies , 22 operas, several  which are in fragmentary form, 27 piano concertos ,  numerous string quartets  and chamber works for a variety of instruments , religious works  for chorus and orchestra ,  concertos for flute, oboe, violin , clarinet, bassoon, French horn ,  many pio sonatas and  miscellaneous works for that instrument , oratorios and other works for chorus and orchestra ,etc .

    So lately , I've been taking a   advantage of  chance to  hear  many works of his I had not heard  before or knew only slightly  on CD because  one of the public libraries  I frequent has  a  collection of  ALL of Mozarts works in many volumes  on the  Philips  label  performed by a wide variety of  distinguished  conductors ,  top orchestras , violinists ,pianists , opera singers ,  choruses and  chamber ensembles .  All of these recordings have been availble singly , and you may still be able to find some of them on the internet  at and .

    Unfortunately ,  the  Philips label , which was based in the Netherlands , is  no longer  producing  classical  recordings , although much of its  large and excellent  back catalogue of recordings is being reissued on the Decca  Label,  with which it was affiliated , so  it's probably very difficult to find this huge set . 

    For example,  Mozart's  best known operas  include such familiar  masterpieces as Don Giovanni , The Marriage of Figaro  and  the Magic Flute .  These are the products  of Mozart's  last years .  But he began writing operas  as a  boy ,  including such  obscure  ones as  Bastien & Bastienne,  Mitridate , King of Pontus, Il Re Pastore (The shepard king) , La Finta Giardinera (  the pretended  woman gardener ),  Lucio Silla , and others .  None of these  has held the stage because they are hardly immortal  masterpieces of the opera repertoire , although the Salzburg festival  , which is in his native city presented  a cycle of  all  22 Mozart operas back in 2006 , the 250th  anniversary of his birth .

    But it's amazing that  such a young boy could write them at all .  They're pleasant to hear , if  not nearly  as  memorable  as his mature works for the operatic stage .  No, not every work Mozart wrote is a sublime masterpiece .  It took  quite a few years  for this  great genius  to reach maturity , and who knows how many  masterpieces he might have produced if he had  lived beyond the short lifespan fate assigned to him . 

    Like so many composers  of  the day , Mozart wrote works on commission to make money .  He didn't just wait there until  "inspiration"  struck him .   He worked very hard , and  many of his works are mere potboilers , which is nothing to be ashamed of .  For a long time, Mozart  worked as official court composer  to the archbishop of his native Salzburg , and  did not like living there  as pretty much a hack  for the archbishop, whom he disliked .  For the last ten years of his tragically short life,  he was able to move to Vienna , the center of  music in Europe and  worked as a free lance composer and pianist .  It was not as secure a living  as in provincial  Salzburg ,  but he relished the freedom and was able to write  his greatest  symphonies ,operas , concertos  and  chamber works  there , the ones by which he is best known .

    But I'm still  glad  to have gotten the chance to  hear  the  forgotten corners  of the output of  one of the  greatest  geniuses in the history of music .   There's a saying  that goes "No one can be a genius 24 hours a day ".  But  Mozart's best hours  have  provided us with so many great works .

Posted: Dec 02 2013, 10:09 PM by the horn | with no comments
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