Friday, June 14, 2013

Berlin outspends.....just about everyone.

Norman Lebrecht notes in today's Slipped Disc blog that the city of Berlin provides just under a billion Euros in arts subsidies, surprising (due to recent cuts) the entire British government.

One billion Euros...not chump change.  At today's rates, that $1.3 billion and change USD.  In comparison, it's important (or maybe just disheartening) to note the following:

U.S. government subsidy to the National Endowment for the Arts and Humanities:  $146 million.
   There are three major areas I have focused on for reduction in spending. These are in many cases reductions which become larger and larger over time. So first there are programs I would eliminate. Obamacare being one of them but also various subsidy programs -- the Amtrak subsidy, the PBS subsidy, the subsidy for the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities. Some of these things, like those endowment efforts and PBS I very much appreciate and like what they do in many cases, but I just think they have to strand on their own rather than receiving money borrowed from other countries, as our government does on their behalf.  
2012 Presidential candidate Mitt Romney

U.S. government spending on defense:  (2013):  $682 billion, which does not include emergency and supplemental spending to support U.S. war efforts overseas.  As of June 2011, the costs of U.S. incursions into Iraq and Afghanistan totaled approximately $3.7 trillion!

German defense spending: 45.8 billion USD.  For the record, the United States outspends the entire European Union, China and Russia combined for a total of $2141 per capita.  

One can only imagine a fraction of those totals being placed toward "peaceful" endeavors: education, arts, humanities, all with the goal of saving humanity.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Return of the Huey's! (Number three)

During the late spring/summer of 2011, I wrote:

The "Huey awards" are totally arbitrary, based upon my own criteria which include possible thematic content, inclusion of both contemporary and American composers and overall creativity and originality.  The latter would imply programs that step out of the Overture - Concerto - Symphony box.  Also of important note is the presentation of works outside the standard repertory; i.e. why offer yet another performance of Dvorak 7 (or 8 or 9) or Shostakovich 5--regardless of my own love for those works--when there are hundreds of neglected works that may be favored by audiences (and surely the players).  Do we need yet another performance of Beethoven 5 instead of say, the Bizet Symphonie?  Or what about the Franck--long a staple of the repertoire that now seems to be rarely played?  I could make a long list of neglected works and that's just the works of the "masters."

It is incumbent upon the modern day symphony to be a proponent of the music of our time BECAUSE that is the heritage of the medium.  It was not until the mid to late nineteenth century that works of the past started to form any kind of "repertory."  In the time of Mozart and Haydn, people were "discovering" the works of Bach and Handel as if they'd been composed in another millennium, rather than some one hundred years previous.  In Mozart's time (and Beethoven's and many other's) the music presented on a concert program had to be new.  There were no "interpreters" of the music of the past; most performers were led by the composers themselves.  But, somewhere along the way (the early twentieth century and the rise of serialism?) the audience became disconnected from the music of its time.  If we are to remain viable, we must espouse the changing milieu in which we live.

That very first year there was actually no winner.  Not a single eastern Iowa orchestra could rise to a fairly simple set of criteria.  Last year's winner was an easy selection:

The true winner of the 2012-13 "Huey" Award for creative orchestral program (again remember it's the sum total) must be the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Symphony. The orchestra established a new business model this spring, naming Music Director Jason Weinberger to a position as CEO. While this may seem a daring move (and a daunting one for the Music Director), Weinberger has already proven that he has the chops to take the reins of an orchestra that had experienced at least ten years of conducting crises and turn it into a fine instrument, performing in the finest concert hall in the state.

Starting with an all-Bach program in April, the WCFSO includes new or little-known works on nearly every program, including:

September: Gabriel Kahane: Crane Palimpsest (2012) with Gabriel Kahane, vocalist along with selections from Purcell's Fairy Queen.

October: works by Ingolf Dahl: Quodlibet on American Folk Tunes and Folk Dances and Zoltán Kodály: Variations on a Hungarian Folksong, ‘The Peacock’.

November, in collaboration with the Cedar Valley Chamber Music Festival: works by Walter Piston, John Harbison, Morton Gould, Peter Schickele (not in his nom de plume PDQ Bach), and Samuel Barber. 

February: more works by Barber and Harbison, including the latter's 2006 Concerto for Bass Viol.

March, along with the Northern Iowa Youth Orchestra, Iowa composer Jonathan Chenette's Rural Symphony (2000).

That is certainly a hard act to follow (n.b.: it should be stated that I write the program notes for the WCFSO but I have made every attempt to avoid bias in my selections).

I've knocked the Des Moines Symphony out of the running simply because of their dumb concert titles (The Moldau and Dvorak really makes one want to run to the Civic Center--by the way, it's Vltava, not the Moldau).

Starting with a kind of "non-award" for possibly the strangest set of works crammed into one concert is this "Dance and Romance" concert offered by the Dubuque Symphony.  (Why, in heaven's name, do February concerts have to be equated with love?  Why not Presidents?)

Mendelssohn: Wedding March
Cimarosa: Overture to the Secret Marriage
Elgar: Salut d'amour (Love's Greeting)
Gluck: Dance of the Blessed Spirits
Ravel: Pavane for a Dead Princess:  Dance?  Romance?  I see neither in this work so-titled because the composer simply liked the way the title sounded (in the original French). 
Vaughn (sic) Williams: Tuba Concerto:  An outstanding work, true--probably the greatest in the tuba repertoire (if that is really saying much.  But still, where's the romance?  In the second movement?  I'm trying to imagine "Tubby" dancing or singing a love song.)
Schubert: Symphony No. 9 "Unfinished" Huh?
Faure: Pavane Again, huh?
Mascagni: Intermezzo from Cavalleria rusticana:  Ok, this one ends with the tenor dying offstage.  Isn't it romantic?
Albeniz/Arnold: Tango in D

And, just in case no one noticed, all the composers are long dead.  In fact, the DSO is offering exactly one work by a living composer, Jennifer Higdon's seven minute Fanfare Ritmico, included on their "American in Paris" concert.  Yeah, I don't see the connection either.  The remainder of the DSO season is filled with excerpts from great works (Jesu, Joy..., How Lovely Is Thy Dwelling Place), and the usual smattering of the tried and true(?): Beethoven 6, Appalachian Spring (full orchestra I presume), Shostakovich Festive Overture, Pictures at an Exhibition, and more.  One living composer, a handful of dead (but extremely popular) Americans and the season adds up to a very safe potpourri of popular "hits."

The Quad City Symphony makes a dramatic improvement from it's "all dead men" season of 2012-
13, but there still seems a ways to go.  Three of the performances include living composers (surprise! one of whom is Jennifer Higdon) and two premieres, by Michael Torke and Minnesota native-Augustana College professor Jacob Bancks.  That being said (and lauded for that matter), much of the remainder of the programming is mundane, with "big works" including a Brahms piano concerto, Rachmaninoff 2nd symphony, Mendelssohn 4, and another Brahms, the second symphony.  Of special note will be the rarely heard (at least in these parts) Third Symphony of Gustav Mahler.

Orchestra Iowa is improved only somewhat from previous seasons.  This is the orchestra (formerly the Cedar Rapids Symphony) that proclaimed itself by the new moniker and wrestled Ballet Quad Cities away from that area's orchestra.  Their first concert includes a work by someone I know, Illinois College's Timothy Kramer.  But music by living composers stops right in its tracks and we're "treated" to programs with the likes of the Rachmaninoff Second (must be popular this year) and Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto.  What say we retire the latter in loving memory of one of its greatest interpreters, Van Cliburn?

But once again, CEO/Maestro Jason Weinberger and the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Symphony have demonstrated what has become to be an excepted out-of-the-box philosophy regarding orchestral programing with a combination of old (and not necessarily well-known) and new, and a very moderate dose of tried and true, in order to keep long-standing patrons coming back to hear new things as well.  While the orchestra's season begins with an all-Dvorak program, that one takes place in a new concert venue (the RiverLoop AmpiTheatre) on the banks of the Cedar River in Waterloo, bringing the orchestra closer to its long-time home at West High School's Kersenbrock Auditorium.

The orchestra's season-opening gala performance begins with an infamous work (containing hundreds more cannon bursts than Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture) Beethoven's often-maligned Wellington's Victory.  I suppose it's worth hearing once.  The contemporary American minimalist school is represented with works by John Adams (Century Rolls) and Steve Reich (New York Counterpoint, featuring Weinberger on the clarinet).  The inclusion of these works almost forgives the conductor's inclusion of the never-ending Bolero as a finale.

The November concert is particularly poignant as it focuses on Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass, the 1938 pogrom against Jewish populations in Nazi Germany and Austria.  Over 1000 synagogues were burned to the ground along with over 7000 Jewish-owned business in one of the most horrific events of the holocaust.  To memorialize this event, Weinberger has chosen contemporary works by Yehuda Yannay and Stephen Paulus, as well as Prokofiev's Overture on Hebrew Themes and the Chamber Symphony by Dmitri Shostakovich.

The orchestra takes Mozart "off-campus" to the Brown Derby Saloon in February, while a March concert pays tribute to the viola, with no fewer than three contemporary solo works presented by soloist Nadia Sirota.  April is a busy month, with a world premiere for oboe and orchestra teaming up with Mahler's First Symphony; a youth concert; and what the orchestra bills as an "Imaginary Symphony" (the 85th Anniversary preview), with movements from Tchaikovsky's Sixth, Shostakovich's Eleventh, the second movement of Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade and the close of Stravinsky's Firebird.

For variety, commitment to the music of our time, and simply much more interesting programing choices, the 2013 Huey Award is (once again) presented to the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Symphony.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

The greatest divas...

According to that infamous source, Wikipedia, a diva (/ˈdiːvə/; Italian: [ˈdiːva]) is a celebrated female singer; a woman of outstanding talent in the world of opera, and by extension in theatre, cinema and popular music. The meaning of diva is closely related to that of prima donna.

The Urban Dictionary really cuts to the chase:  (1) female version of a hustler; (2) a bitchy woman that must have her way exactly, or no way at all. often rude and belittles people, believes that everyone is beneath her and thinks that she is so much more loved than what she really is. Selfish, spoiled, and overly dramatic.

Pop music has appropriated the phrase, resulting in some of the negative traits above.  There exists a top ten list of pop divas, generated by the entertainment section of  These artists include:

1.  Mariah Carey
2.  Cher
3.  Celine Dion
4.  Aretha Franklin (she would probably rank no. 1 on my list)
5.  Whitney Houston
6.  Janet Jackson (really now?)
7.  Madonna
8.  Diana Ross (with no help from the Supremes?)
9.  Barbra Streisand (again, I'd rank her higher)
10.  Donna Summer

In the opera world, although there are definitely traits from the latter definition found in the former, for the sake of our discussion, we'll stick with the prima donnas (of whom I have to hope will leave a more lasting impression upon the history of music.

The Bilerico Project, with a guest post by Michael Knaapen, offers the Ten Greatest Opera Divas in reverse order, making for much more drama!

"Bubbles" with the muppets. Opera can be cool!
10.  Beverly Sills:  "Not only was her voice beautiful and refined, but she used an understated performance technique to get us rooting for her, to bring us along."

9.  Diana Damrau:  "Another high-flyer, this dynamic dame gives us hope for the future. Her voice knows no bounds - she can sing to the rafters, open the ceiling, launch into the stratosphere - and we love her for it."

8.  Anne Sofie von Otter:  "Surprised? Well, don't be. One of those rare operatic mezzos with the depth and breadth to do it all, Von Otter is also one of the most unique, majestic interpreters of art song (opera's little brother)"

7.  Mado Robin:  "What can I say? I love freaks, and this petite French ingenue was a bit of a freak. She could sing - not just whistle, but really sing, with spin and beauty and everything - higher than just about anybody."

6.  Cecelia Bartoli:  "She's an interpretive genius, conveys a love of singing while she's doing it, and
Cecelia: something about those Italian women...
sings high and low. Bartoli also spins through ludicrously dense and rapid fioratura like it ain't no thang, and we love a girl who tears through coloratura."

5.  Birgit Nilsson:  "Everything about this woman was big: big head, big personality, big voice. But her outsize voice made room for a universe of nuance in every performance."

4.  Joyce DiDonato:  "Another grande dame of today, DiDonato embodies everything we love about opera - its outsize character, its grandeur, its emotional depth, its elegance - with the matching set of brains, body, and voice."

3.  Leontyne Price:  "is the kind of old-school diva that we love to love. When her jaw swung open and she graced you with the most crystalline mellifluousness, you were utterly transported, not into a story, but into sheer musical bliss.ceis the kind of old-school diva that we love to love. When her jaw swung open and she graced you with the most crystalline mellifluousness, you were utterly transported, not into a story, but into sheer musical bliss."

Callas: to me, almost a caricature of herself...

2.  Maria Callas:  "Opera was her life, and her life was an opera - a true diva! And when La Divina was at her best, she could sing circles around anybody else."

1. Edita Gruberová:  "is a force of nature: strong as a hurricane, deft as a zephyr. Her coloratura is unmatched, her acting a joy, and her artistic genius without parallel."

There seem to be more than a few missing, although that is often the result of a self-imposed "top ten."  Still, is there not room for some "honorable mentions"? which must include:

Joan Sutherland (who, to me, defines the word "diva")
Fredericka von Stade
Renata Scotto
Renata Tebaldi
Montserrat Caballé
Elizabeth Schwarzkopf

AND Marilyn Horne, Renee Fleming (I'll admit it; I'm in love with her!), Kirsten Flagstad.....

Missing in Action: my "beloved" Renee each his/her own.

Coming soon....the long-awaited 2013 Huey's!!!!!

Monday, June 10, 2013

The greatest opera of them all?


Returning from a lengthy hiatus, I will be offering a number of "top" lists, culminating with the (drum roll please) the 3rd annual "Huey's"!

But back to business.  Anthony Craig, on the Grammophone blog, offers his top ten list of the greatest operas of them all.  (I cannot disagree with #1.)

1. Mozart: Le nozze di Figaro
2. Verdi: Falstaff
3. Verdi: Otello
4. Richard Strauss: Der Rosenkavalier
5. Puccini: Madama Butterfly
6. Britten: A Midsummer Night’s Dream
7. Wagner: Die Meistersinger
8. Delius: A Village Romeo and Juliet
9. Rameau: Hippolyte et Aricie
10. Verdi: Simon Boccanegra

Three Verdi's and not an American in sight.  We certainly have some work to do.

The Guardian came up with their own list, but it came in at 50-strong and only in chronological order (bloody chickens!)

Stephen McLeod's Listmania offering of Amazon's 10 Best Opera CDs has a Callas Lucia on top with (according to the author) "The greatest achievement in the history of recorded music" (the Solti Ring) coming in third.

Next up:  the divas--with a few surprises.....