Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Why haven't I heard these? (a rhetorical question)

For months now I have been harping on the dearth of American composers represented on our nation's orchestral programs.  It is plainly obvious that the concern about putting "butts in the seats" trumps all other considerations when conductors and artistic administrators plan their seasons.  Nearly every major orchestra elects to go with the "tried and true" repertoire, i.e. dead European males.  Even that is extremely limited:  the most represented composer (annually) turns out to be Beethoven, despite the fairly limited number of truly substantial pieces that the great composer wrote (compared especially with his contemporaries.

Blogger Simon Bielman wrote in a recent post, "Should we stop playing Beethoven?"  He continues:

Learning, practicing, and playing Beethoven frustrates me to no end and often makes me depart from the piano in disgust. This happened to me today, not even ten minutes ago, but why? Is it because I simply don’t like Beethoven? I’ll admit he’s not my favorite, but I’m certainly not arrogant enough to consider him a bad composer. In fact, I’m listening to the Pathetique Sonata right now and quite happy about it.
Perhaps I’m frustrated with the quality of my own performance. Maybe it’s because I can never voice those runs of thirds in the right hand exactly how I want them. That’s certainly irritating, but I have similar frustrations with other pieces and I’m always eager to put the hours in to iron out sloppy passages and work on subtle details.

Well, usually, anyways. Sometimes I’d rather just eat a sandwich....

What makes me leave the room is because playing Beethoven is absolutely and completely pointless.
Now, I know what you’re thinking: “But Simon, music is necessary for the soul, and Beethoven wrote some of the greatest music ever written! What right do you have to make a statement like that?” Well, I’m still listening to Beethoven piano sonatas, so I certainly can’t disagree. In fact, I was overjoyed when I had the opportunity to claim the complete Richter recordings as my own.
But this is exactly where my frustration begins....

My frustrations really don’t lie with Beethoven or have anything to do with the music he wrote. They are with the current state of the classical music world, its establishment, and the mindset regarding new music. There will always be a place for great orchestras to play great art from the past, and pianists should certainly keep learning to play Beethoven for their own enjoyment and fulfillment. However, if any of us want to have a career, we’ll need to find some new music that inspires us in the same way that our favorite composers have, or start composing ourselves. There are reasons why young students dedicate their entire lives to learning Chopin. Maybe we should write some more.
I’m going to go eat a sandwich.

For Mr. Bielman's complete comments, visit his blog here.

I do have some of the same frustrations that Simon does although my own stem from almost completely ignoring some of the great music of both past and present that does not appear on concert programs.  I am continually amazed at hearing radio performances of works I've never heard.  For example, Bill McLaughlin (of St. Paul Sunday and Exploring Music) is examining what he calls "American Masters" this week in the latter program.  

Monday (2/27) program included works of Franz Waxman, Don Gillis, Wayne Barlow, Paul Bowles, and Alec Wilder.  Last evening's (2/28) program, I did catch in its entirety and, although I am more than a bit familiar with the two composers he played--Bernard Herrmann and Leroy Anderson--I did not know the works presented from Mr. Herrmann, which did not include any of the film music for which he is so well known.  Instead, listeners were offered movements from his first symphony and a piece written during the Second World War, For the Fallen A Berceuse.  The symphony is as good as any other American symphony and the Berceuse as poignant an elegy as one could desire.  While I am glad I have added new works to my own "internal repertoire," I am saddened that I am encountering these works for the first time at middle age.

Do I (we) need another performance of a Beethoven (or Schubert, Brahms, Dvorak--you name it) symphony, or has the time come to try to escape the bonds of this museum repertoire and attempt to reach today's audience.  Greg Sandow notes that young people are coming to new music in Great Britain.  The following quotes come from an article in The Guardian:

We’re currently seeing a melding of genres and a breaking of boundaries across the music world. This recent trend – listeners moving to the avant garde after they start demanding more from the mainstream– has long been acknowledged within pop. In recent years, mainstream pop artists have even started adopting aspects of the avant garde in their search for fresh output: it’s a dialogue that has benefited artists, labels and listeners alike.

In a world where listeners no longer define themselves along firm genre lines, music is increasingly just that – music. As a result, we are now witnessing a musician-led movement gleefully adopted by listeners, in which classical is being rebranded from the ground up. Even the term “classical” itself seems obsolete in the face of what’s being produced and consumed.

[The increased audience for [edgy contemporary] works is the result of a campaign to reach people interested in the cutting edge of other contemporary art forms, rather than those who prefer to hear Beethoven.
It’s the weirdest pieces which get the strongest reaction….People are looking for something to get their teeth into.
[]M]any people arrive at the avant garde of contemporary music via the wilder shores of pop. 

Certainly our artistic institutions can reach out to a contemporary audience with contemporary music.  This is music being written by composers we have probably yet to meet.  In the meantime, I'll continue to learn from Mr. McLaughlin.

Tonight (2/29):  An entire evening of Lou Harrison (I've actually conducted one of his works!)
Thursday (3/1):  Howard Shapero and George Rochberg.
Friday (3/2):  An entire evening of Morton Gould (and mostly pieces of which I am unfamiliar.)

Thank you Simon.  Thank you Bill.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Springtime in NY: Mavericks and more

No, I am not talking about the NBA teams of Dallas and New York assaulting each other at Madison Square Garden (even though it will probably happen).  Springtime in New York always signifies the visits of a number of the world's orchestras to Carnegie Hall.  The Berlin Philharmonic just appeared and the within the next few months a number of others will bring extremely interesting programming to our nation's cultural capital.

Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony have proven that an orchestra can program contemporary music, perform it well, and keep the patrons coming back for more.  One has to wonder if this is a phenomenon limited to the Bay Area, or if the model would work elsewhere....that is probably a discussion for another time.  Still, Thomas and his band bring a four-concert residency to Carnegie and the programming could be no further away from the conservative nature found in most of America's halls.  Here's the line-up:

Tuesday, March 27:
  • JOHN CAGE Selections from Song Books
  • HENRY COWELL Synchrony
  • JOHN ADAMS Absolute Jest for String Quartet and Orchestra (NY Premiere, co-commissioned by Carnegie Hall and the San Francisco Symphony)
  • EDGARD VARÈSE Amériques
Wednesday, March 28:
  • CARL RUGGLES Sun-Treader
  • MORTON FELDMAN Piano and Orchestra
  • CHARLES IVES A Concord Symphony (orch. Henry Brant)
Thursday, March 29:
  • HARRY PARTCH Daphne of the Dunes
  • MASON BATES Mass Transmission (NY Premiere)
  • LOU HARRISON Concerto for Organ with Percussion Orchestra
Friday, March 30 (Zankel Hall):
  • STEVE REICH Music for Pieces of Wood
  • MEREDITH MONK Realm Variations (NY Premiere)
  • LUKAS FOSS Echoi
  • MORTON SUBOTNICK Jacob’s Room: Monodrama (NY Premiere)

May 7-12 brings the "Spring for Music" Festival to Carnegie (although I long to spend those times in Prague).  Unfortunately I am ale to do neither.  Still the array of ensembles is quite interesting and their programs even more so, with a large number of NY premieres scattered among the concerts.

May 7:  Houston Symphony, presenting an all-Shostakovich program.

May 8:  Edmonton Symphony, with works by Canadians Robert Rival, John Estacio, Allan Gilliland, and the first symphony of Bohuslav Martinu.

May 9:  New Jersey Symphony:  works by Varese, Weill and Busoni.

May 10:  Alabama Symphony:  works by Avner Dorman, Paul Lansky and some guy named Beethoven.

May 11:  Milwaukee Symphony (led by Madison, WI resident Edo de Waart!):  works by Messiaen, Debussy, and Qigang Chen.

May 12:  Nashville Symphony:  Charles Ives, Terry Riley, and Percy Grainger(!!!!!)

What a fantastic time to be in New York City!  And it gets even better:  tickets to EVERY concert are $25 each.  For more information, look here.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Contemplating the plight of the mezzo soprano

In just a week, I will be conducting my next concert with the Quad City Wind Ensemble.  Among the works on our program is the "Habanera," from Bizet's Carmen.  This opera has always held a special place for me as it was the first opera that I ever saw in its entirety; in fact some of my friends joined me the following night for a subsequent performance.  Who couldn't be enthralled with the costumes, the sets, the cast of irresistible characters and, of course, the wonderful music.  Even this then-high school student thought, "This is really cool."

So, over the years I've developed a rather intimate relationship with Bizet's gypsy (or her story anyway).  I penned a study of the work as a master's student at the University of Northern Iowa; have conducted excerpts with a number of wind groups, and even presented two arias with a fabulous mezzo-soprano (Alicja Wegorzewska) in Poland.  And now the habanera (actually a dance of Cuban origin) reappears.

Oddly enough, Carmen's return to my repertoire has gotten me once again contemplating, but this time on the "plight" of the mezzo soprano.  We all know the great tenors of each generation as well as the multitude of sopranos--lyrical, dramatic, coloratura, etc.  But the poor mezzos are in nearly the same boat as baritones (who seem to always get a good tune and little else) and the bassos, who are usually cast as buffoons (unless appearing as a "stone guest" in Don Giovanni).  It has long been said that mezzo soprano roles are limited to "witches, bitches, and britches," the latter referring to "trouser roles" in which the female singer takes on a male persona.

It never ceases to amaze that Carmen was, in its first production, a monumental flop.  Bizet was caught up by both sides of the Wagnerian debate: scorned for not sufficiently embracing Wagner's style while being scathed for the intentional stress on the orchestra (and its resplendent colors) as a vital part of the opera.  Of course, the opera also premiered at the Opera-Comique, which was known to offer PG-13 productions at the most.  The audiences of the time were simply not quite ready for what would become verismo, or realism in opera.  The first run was 48 performances; Bizet succumbed to a heart attack after the thirtieth.  Once the opera moved away from Paris to a Viennese production that Bizet signed off one day before his death, the opera became the "hit" that it has remained ever since.  Carmen remains the third most performed opera (worldwide) during the 2011-12 season.

Carmen is truly the great role for this voice.  She is a "bad girl," but gets some of the most memorable tunes in the operatic repertoire.  Her voice must be incredibly elastic for in the fourth act she sings a downward phrase that traverses two octaves.  And the color of the mezzo soprano voice truly is a dynamic combination with a lyric tenor, so close are the extremities of their ranges.

Selecting the great tenors of the age was a fairly easy task (as I was limiting myself to a single aria), but the greatest Carmen of them all?  A much more difficult task indeed.  The role was created by the famous mezzo Celestine Galli-Marie; in fact it comes to us as her most well known role.  But what of the great Carmen's of our time?

Emmy Destinn
Our Carmen discography actually begins with a German-speaking recording featuring the Czech mezzo Emmy Destinn and Bruno Seidler-Winkler conducting an unknown orchestra.  Here it is with a rather odd intro and a rather brisk tempo (possibly the result of limited time to a "side" of a 78 r.p.m. recording?)  An interesting side note:  Destinn's artistry was so respected that her likeness appeared on the 2000-Czech koruna note in 1996.

We must feature Risë Stevens (an American!) as the Met's most popular mezzo during the 40's and 50's.  One must not forget that she was also a star of the big screen, appearing opposite both Nelson Eddy and Bing Crosby, among others.  It seems only appropriate that Carmen would be her swan song, offered at the Met in 1961.

De Los Angeles--WOW!
Next, I offer the amazing Victoria De Los Angeles.  Of course she was fortunate enough to reach the height of her career at the dawn of the stereo age and the recording here, with Thomas Beecham and the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France.  It only better shows off her wonderful instrument, but I wonder, was she just a bit flat at the conclusion?

Diva of all divas?
Here is an odd recording (the conductor simply flies through the orchestral interludes) but it's difficult to argue with the performance of Maria Callas (still in pretty darn good voice).  While she became a caricature of herself in her later career, Opera News wrote of her in 2006, "Nearly thirty years after her death, she's still the definition of the diva as artist—and still one of classical music's best-selling vocalists."  (Of course, lest we forget, Callas was a true soprano.)

Marilyn Horne
Here's Marilyn Horne singing outdoors!  One certainly cannot argue with her sound either.  For me, the role is best offered with the darkness of the mezzo voice.  This is a singer capable of executing everything from bel canto (often with Joan Sutherland) to Wozzeck.  Diagnosed with localized pancreatic cancer in 2005, Ms. Horne is (thankfully) still with us.

Tatiana Troyanos appeared in Georg Solti's highly acclaimed recording with Placido Domingo and the London Philharmonic.  (She must also be remembered for her selection to sing on Bernstein's "definitive" (i.e. "operatic") recording of West Side Story.

Jessye Norman doesn't make my cut; maybe it is due to Seiji Ozawa's languishingly slow choice of tempo; for me it loses its sensuality.  On the other hand, Teresa Berganza must make my list of great Carmen's with this live performance.  And Julia Migenes-Johnson makes quite a splash in this 1984 film version, in which her counterpart, Placido Domingo looks so young (which he is!)  While most of Migenes-Johnson's career has been spent in musical theater, she pulls this off extremely well.

There is one voice missing from this list of great Carmen's and possibly my attachment is due to familiarity: this is the first recording I owned.  Of course, Herbert von Karajan assembled a "dream team" of sorts with Franco Corelli, Mirella Freni, Robert Merrill and Leontyne Price in the leading role.  With hats off to all the rest, she will remain "my" Carmen.  Although considered a "spinto" soprano, one cannot argue with her ability to pull off the demands (particularly in the lower range) of the role.

Perhaps tomorrow I should contemplate Carmen Jones?

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Contemplating greatness and tradition

The greatest?
I am now conducting the Black Hawk College/Community Band and one of our members who maintains the group's Facebook page frequently sends out information regarding the music we are performing.  He includes historical data as well as links to significant performances.  One of the works we are preparing is a lovely transcription of Puccini's "Nessun Dorma," from his final opera, Turandot.  Until a few weeks ago I always considered Luciano Pavarotti's performance of that aria the sine qua non of all time.  But with a little digging, my mind has surely changed.

Performances range from the ridiculous: (Aretha Franklin at the 1998 Grammies)

To a number of them, sublime in their own way: (Franco Corelli); (Mario del Monaco); (another Mario, this one the then-27-year-old Lanza).

But it took a visit to a web site touting a review of some 130 performances to find what is truly the best, in terms of sound, control and just plain overall chills and thrills.  When compared to this singer, Pavarotti himself said, "I am only mortal,"  (the amazing Jussi Bjorling, clocking in at nearly a minute longer than anyone else and yet his voice just simply shines.)

* * * * * * * * * *

This past week I somehow entered into a cyberspace discussion with musicologist and Iowa Public Radio host Barney Sherman about the amazing influx of great Hungarian conductors around the mid point of the 20th century (the thread actually began with kudos to another radio announcer's correct pronunciation of conductor Antal Dorati's last name:  the emphasis is on the first syllable; otherwise it sounds Italian.)  But consider this list:  Eugene Ormandy, George Szell, Sir George Solti, the aforementioned Mr. Dorati, Christoph von Dohnányi, István Kertész, Adam and Ivan Fischer, Rafael Kubelík, Fritz Reiner, Hans Swarowsky.  And this does not include Artur Nikisch and others of an earlier era.

Barney and I were just astounded at the number of great conductors from this seemingly small country.  What was the impetus?  What was the connection? The Liszt Academy?  Thanks to a Hungarian friend, Laszlo Marosi, now of the University of Central Florida, I was able to uncover the mystery.

A couple of the conductors get a pass:  while born in Budapest, Szell (originally György Széll) grew up in Vienna and von Dohnányi (interestingly enough, Szell's successor in Cleveland) was German-born and bred.

But here's the scoop on the rest:

Ormandy was born Jenő Blau in Budapest and trained as a violinist at the Royal National Hungarian Academy of Music (now the Lizst Academy).  He came to America in 1921 and, through a fellow countryman, Erno Rupee, became a violist and eventual concertmaster of the orchestra of New York's Capital Theater, performing accompaniments for silent movies.  He caught the attention of Arthur Judson, one of the most powerful men in the music business for much of the 20th century, and the rest is history.  He held exactly two conducting positions for the rest of his life:  The Minneapolis Symphony (now the Minnesota Orchestra) and his unprecedented 44-year tenure with the Philadelphia Orchestra.

Did he ever smile?
Reiner also studied at the Liszt Academy and moved to the U.S. in 1922, assuming leadership of the Cincinnati Symphony.  Teaching at the Curtis Institute and conducting the Pittsburgh Symphony also brought him to the Metropolitan Opera (and an appearance in the film, Carnegie Hall).  Of course, Reiner is best known for his tenure (of only ten years) with the Chicago Symphony.

He could smile (thankfully)
Solti, born György Stern, well-known as a pianist at the Liszt Academy, knew that he was to become a conductor at the age of 14 after hearing Erich Kleiber conduct Beethoven's Fifth.  While he would make his operatic debut in a 1938 Budapest Opera production of The Marriage of Figaro, that would be his last performance there as the next day Hitler annexed Austria and the next year Solti fled to Switzerland, where he would spend the entire war years.  He led the Bavarian State Orchestra and the Frankfurt Opera after the war, and moving to the U.S. in 1960, signing a three-year contract with the Los Angeles Philharmonic.  Because of a conflict with management, his stay was but a year, however, Solti was never out of work:  his subsequent appointments included Covent Garden (until 1971) and, of course, the Chicago Symphony, from 1969 to 1991.  While his achievements are many and great, of most significance was the first-ever complete stereo recording of Wagner's Ring, recorded with the Vienna Philharmonic from 1958-1965(!) and including an all-star cast of the greatest singers of the era.

Kertész, born later than many of the others (1929) did not begin his musical studies at the Liszt Academy until after the war.  Early influences included Bruno Walter and Otto Klemperer, then Director of the Budapest Opera, which Kertész himself would lead from 1955-1957.  The quashed Hungarian Revolution of 1957 sent him and his young family into exile in Germany, where he held many positions as a symphonic and operatic conductor.  The players of the Cleveland Orchestra voted 96-2 to install Kertész as the successor to Szell but were overruled by that organization's Board of Directors.  He drowned off the coast of Israel in 1973.  Still, his discography is, to say the least, daunting.

A very young Kubelik
Kubelik was actually born in the modern-day Czech Republic although his mother was a Hungarian countess.  He studied at the Prague Conservatory and was the Principal Conductor of the Czech Philharmonic during the war and founded the Prague Spring Festival in 1946.  He defected after the Communist takeover in 1948 vowing not to return until the country was liberated.  He conducted in Chicago for three rather tumultuous years in the 50s; he is best known for his tenure with the Bavarian Radio Symphony (1961-1979).  While he had retired from full-time conducting by 1985, an invitation to return to his now-free homeland to lead the festival he had founded could not be turned down.  His live recording of Smetana's Ma Vlast is incredible.

Even younger Adam and Ivan
Adam Fischer studied at the Bartok Conservatory and continued studies with Swarowsky in Vienna.  After many appearances throughout Europe and the USA (Chicago, Boston, the Mostly Mozart Festival of New York), he founded the Austrian-Hungarian Haydn Orchestra (which has recorded the complete symphonies of the master).  His recent resignation as Conductor of the Hungarian State Opera because of Victor Orban's repressive government, has brought worldwide attention to the political strife in this nation which has had so little stability in its history.

Ivan Fischer, Adam's younger brother, began his studies in Budapest but later moved on to Vienna where he also entered the sphere of Swarowsky as well as Nikolaus Harnoncourt.  While he has conducted worldwide, he is best known for his work founding the Budapest Festival Orchestra, which began as a part-time venture in 1983 (the ensemble became a permanent fixture in 1992).

But what is the underlying factor in the rise of so many significant conductors from what might appear at first glance to be an insignificant country?  Certainly the U.S. cannot boast a list of musical luminaries to equal this?  (Of course, much of this is due to our country's refusal to hire its own, but that has been the subject of previous posts.)  No, many of these great Hungarian conductors fled their homeland because of their religion:  the majority of them were/are Jewish and, of course, could not practice their art and craft during Hitler's annexation of their homeland.  The only choice was to flee and they joined the many important physicists to run from the madman's clutches.  The Fuhrer's decisions brought the makers of the atomic bomb to our shores, but also gave us a lasting cultural legacy.  Tiny Hungary is truly a land of inspiring conductors.