Thursday, July 31, 2014

D Day

The night the lights go out in Lincoln Center...
Here in Dubuque, Iowa, I am a long ways from New York City.  Surprisingly enough, the closest I've ever been was an unintended fly-through at JFK.  But, as I've written several times, most recently here, events in the Big Apple, have ramifications that resound across the spectrum of issues artistic, economic, political and much, much more.

July 31 marks the end of the current contracts (across the board) between the Metropolitan Opera and its myriad employees, from musicians, to costumers, set designers, make-up, and so many more.  In the Adaptistration blog, Drew McManus' headline is "Today is the Last Day of the Met as You Know It."  There are serious consequences for an employer initiated lockout beyond the short term:

"The New York Times published an article on 7/29/2014 by Michael Cooper that takes a step back to add some perspective to the rhetoric and recounts how difficult it was for the Met’s ticket sales to bounce back from their last work stoppage in 1980. When taking into consideration the Met’s current earned income shortfalls, a work stoppage without at least some effort to play and talk carries greater potential to exacerbate what the Met has defined as a crucial problem."

Simply remembering the impact that work stoppages in major sports (I'm thinking baseball and hockey in particular) had on future ticket sales--it took years for fans to start returning to the ballparks--does not bode well for the Met, which is already in a precarious position, because, as Greg Sandow notes (in his third installment of the "Peter Gelb Furor"):

"Peter Gelb has one further problem. His productions haven’t been good. So at a time when costs are rising, and opera ticket sales are falling all over the US, they’re falling even more at the Met, because some not negligibly small number of people don’t want to see what Peter’s putting on the stage,

So no wonder Peter urgently feels he has to do something. Of course that means more than confronting the unions. The Met has to become hot again, as it briefly was when Peter first came there. It has to be buzzing with excitement that even people who don’t normally go to the opera pick up on.

But even then — and even if the productions were terrific — the confrontation would have to happen, as it’s happened elsewhere, because the cost structure isn’t sustainable. It would just be easier — much easier — if the productions were good.

To reuse some words from my last post: Wouldn’t Peter’s negotiating position be much stronger if his new productions had been triumphs, and a whole new audience — as was his original plan — came flocking to see them?"


So the Met is locked into a position with rising labor costs due to new productions, and simply cost-of-living increases.  And the public is rejecting the new productions.  Even the highly touted HD broadcasts are not generating the intended income, although I think that this was a tremendous idea to bring the Met stage to those of us far from NYC who cannot afford the trip and the high costs of tickets.  The added bonus is, of course, that I can sit in an extremely comfortable seat with a tub of popcorn, one of my favorite pastimes.  

Federal mediators have been called in, but time is beyond short.  Management hasn't proposed a "talk and play" position, something which has worked well in a variety of other cultural organizations.  Even the Philadelphia Orchestra didn't stop playing as it traversed its journey through Chapter 11.

Will a lockout at the Met directly impact those of us in the Heartland?  Eventually, yes, as we won't be able to tune into radio broadcasts in the fall (of course, those can be supplanted by other companies).  It is unfortunate that this vaunted institution thinks of itself as too big to fail.  One can only hope for a miracle.








Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Score one for US!

2013 NYO-USA at the Proms in London

The National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America debuted in summer 2013.  Consisting of young (ages 16-19) the ensemble is organized by Carnegie Hall's Weill Institute and spends a two-week residency at Purchase College, New York.  Following that the orchestra embarks on a national or international tour.

The first incarnation of the orchestra was led by the ubiquitous Valery Gergiev, him of hundreds of performances every year.  Surely this was just another feather in a cap that resembles the plumage of a peacock.  Not surprising, the inaugural program included Tchaikovsky (Violin Concerto) and the Tenth Symphony of Dmitri Shostakovich.  The tour brought the ensemble to concerts in Russia, the UK and Washington, D.C.

David Robertson
THIS YEAR, the orchestra engaged an AMERICAN(!) as conductor:  David Robertson of the St. Louis Symphony.  Ever since I first saw him conduct in Chicago, I thought that he was on a trajectory for greater things.  Possibly he has been swept aside for the current youth movement in New York (Alan Gilbert, 47), Boston (Andris Nelsons, 35), and Philadelphia (Yannick Nézet-Séguin, 39).  Robertson himself is a ripe old 56!  Still, it is beyond wonderful that Robertson represents the USA in an orchestra made up of young citizens of the USA.  The last thing I want to sound is provincial, but there are so many fine American conductors that we shouldn't have to look elsewhere.

Robertson's repertoire better reflects our nation's heritage as well.  It includes a modern classic, the Symphonic Dances from Bernstein's West Side Story, and a new work, Samuel Carl Adams Radical Play, a special commission from Carnegie Hall, the orchestra's principal sponsor.  The remaining repertoire of the tour--which will visit seven U.S. cities and include performances at both Carnegie and L.A.'s Disney Hall--consists of Britten's Violin Concerto (with Gil Shaham) and Mussorgsky's Pictures.

Andrew Patner of the Chicago Sun-Times wrote of the orchestra's July 28 performance at Grant Park:

NYO-USA in Grant Park, Chicago
What the NYO has, in addition to geographic diversity and rather cool bright red pants with complementing red-striped white sneakers, is exposure, marquee leadership, memorable tutors and a big travel budget. And these are important to all lovers of classical music as a living art form. There were many peers of the players in the audience at the Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park. And many newcomers to any orchestral program. These young artists will never forget these experiences. (This year’s roster includes 24 musicians from last season.) They got to Carnegie Hall. They’ll be ambassadors for playing, listening to and supporting great music all of their lives.

We must take pride in these fantastic musicians as they boldly represent that which is best about America and American music.

That's the upside.  Next year's conductor?  Charles Dutoit.  Yep, he's Swiss....

Thursday, July 24, 2014

A Lockout Looms


Today's New York Times reports that the administration of the Metropolitan Opera is poised for a lockout of its employees beginning August 1.  Gelb and company have decided to definitely take the lowest road in this ongoing labor battle.

Vänskä: needing to rebuild.
Events of the past couple of years have demonstrated that lockouts of musicians and other employees simply does not work.  It didn't work in Atlanta; it definitely didn't work in Minneapolis, where CEO Michael Henson is out the door and Music Director Osmo Vänskä is back in.  Of course, the long-term implications of these actions are still in play.  Exactly how long will it take to bring the orchestra (s) back to form.

The DSO at Carnegie Hall
While the post-strike Detroit Symphony received accolades for its Spring 2013 appearance at Carnegie Hall, the jury must still be out considering that the players have had to endure an average 22% cut in salary.  Nevertheless, in discussing the final weekend of that year's Spring for Music festival, reviewer James Oestreich opined,

As expected, the high point came on Friday evening with Detroit’s audacious presentation of an “Ives Immersion”: all four of Charles Ives’s numbered symphonies in chronological order. Obvious in retrospect (though not likely to be repeated often, given its strenuous demands on performers and listeners alike), the program made for an extraordinary journey, from the relatively conventional sensibility of a prodigious student composer in the First Symphony to the unfettered one of an indomitable master in the Fourth.

One has to wonder if this is the only choice for the Met.  Could management and unions agree on a temporary extension of current agreements while negotiations (if one can call them that) continue?  It would avoid (temporarily, at least) the disastrous contract talks of 1969 and 1980.  The former resulted in the need for years of recovery of the Met's subscriber base.  As the house is already suffering from lowered subscribers and single ticket sales, one has to wonder how much of a financial hit the Met can endure.

One thing is certain. Allan Gordon, the executive director of the American Guild of Musical Artists, which represents the chorus and others at the opera house, has determined that there is exactly zero chance of resolving current conflicts before the July 31 deadline. And THAT will probably leave Mr. Gelb in the same boat as Minnesota's Hensen, who continued to receive his salary, heading an organization which gave not a single performance.

“He has no intention of actually reaching an agreement by Aug. 1 unless it’s his agreement,” Mr. Gordon said of Mr. Gelb. He also said: “Once he locks out employees, his relationship with the performers at the Met is over. They will never respect him again. He’ll be the captain of a ship where the crew is just waiting for a chance to mutiny.”

As I have written before, the Met has a number of systemic problems that are not going to be solved overnight.  Its 3800-seat auditorium will probably not sell out night after night even in the best of economical times.  The organization is simply collapsing under its only weight.  And speaking of weight, I do believe that the fat lady is warming up.


Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Seven words that irk me like few others...


"But we've never done it that way."  Or variations on the theme:  "It's worked ok for ___ (insert number of years); why change it now?"  I am trying to imagine how the scions of industry would have reacted to these kinds of questions.
  • Lee Iacocca, credited with engineering Ford's Mustang and (more infamously) the Pinto, was released from his position and snapped up by Chrysler.  He turned that company around, through introducing new models, assuring federal loan guarantees to help through a 1979 fiscal crisis, and so much more.  He definitely changed the way things had been done.
  • Steve Jobs, founder of Apple and the leader in the personal computer revolution.  Sacked by the company in 1985, he soon acquired Pixar, which had spun off from Lucasfilms.  The rest is history; he returned to Apple in 1998 and led the development of iMac, iTunes, iPod, iPhone, and iPad, and on the services side, the company's Apple Retail Stores, iTunes Store and the App Store. There may be no corporate turnaround as dramatic as that engineered by Jobs, who definitely thought "out of the box."
  • In the political spectrum, one recalls Presidents who were great thinkers:  Thomas Jefferson must head the list.  Abraham Lincoln, trying to preserve the stability of our nation, instead was forced to lead us through a ferocious civil war.  Others who ably served in times of trial must include Woodrow Wilson and, of course, FDR.  In the latter's case, the New Deal policies enacted were actually variations on tropes put in place by Republicans (the great mayors of Detroit come to mind) several decades before.  If only we still enjoyed leaders who managed to put partisan rhetoric aside and worked for the good of all.


Michael Reardon writes how this thinking effects the non-profit sector.  Kathleen Fitzpatrick comments on its affect on the Scholarly Journal.

There are, of course, many others who chose to buck prevailing trends in their businesses, political arenas, or even the arts and cultural sectors.  Whenever there is a major change in the leadership of a cultural organization, the result is either amazingly positive (the LA Philharmonic) or potentially disastrous (the impending strike/lockout at the MET--eight days and counting).  

This even occurs on a much smaller level.  I cannot count the number of times I've heard, "We never did it that way before," from my earliest years of teaching to the present.  Of course, one often learns the hard way, and I've taught myself to take my time, analyze the situation/organization and then propose what I see as incremental steps toward leading an organization/ensemble towed its greater mission.  Sounds easy....if only....

One of my current ensembles was faced with a crisis of monumental proportions in the Winter of 2008.  We suddenly found ourselves without a rehearsal space, necessary equipment, and a music library.  A rejuvenated Board of Directors worked hard to rectify all of those problems in a very short time.  But, since that time, the organization has been coasting and it's time to pick things up a notch and, in particular, expand our outreach.  I think they're ready.

Two other ensembles have similar problems in terms of rehearsal and performance venues, both of which are woefully inadequate and, in many ways, detrimental to fine music making.  One has been slowly improving (often in baby steps, but still moving forward).  The other wants very strongly to be better than it is.  It's a matter of substantive change for one and a change of mindset for another.  What will it take?  I'm not sure, but again, changes in leadership can lead organizations out of the doldrums or simply an organizational rut.  Like businesses, cultural entities must always be moving in a positive direction.  We need to constantly improve music making and marketing of that product.  There's really no time for resting on laurels, real or imagined.  

So, when I hear those seven little words, I'm tempted to respond in ways that I probably shouldn't.  Fortunately, I've basically learned from the errors of my youth and have tried to surround myself with like thinkers.  There are more than one might imagine.


Sunday, July 20, 2014

The cream always rises to the top

The Tri-State Wind Symphony, June 26, 2014
In every year since our second season (I believe), the players of the Tri-State Wind Symphony have selected the season's final concert program, the Player's Favorites.  Of course, they are selecting from those works that the conductor has already programmed for the individual concerts, so there is an initial kind of "expectation" of the repertoire that they have from which to choose.  BUT, over the years, I have continually been pleasantly surprised when the "cream rises to the top," i.e. the members always seem to select the best works among their favorites.  For example, this year the top five votes went to:

  • Karl L. King:  Thumbs Up USA
  • Karl L. King:  Emblem of Freedom
  • Steven Reineke:  Sedona
  • Meredith Willson:  The Unsinkable Molly Brown
  • Gaetano Donizetti/Alford:  Lucy's Sextette (A Ragtime Travesty)

Karl King--Number 1 & 2!
It's surprising that two marches by the same composer rose to the top, although I'll admit that I've programmed more King this summer than ever before.  I suppose its due to my experience with Barnum and Bailey's Favorite, prepared by the QCWE for our first concert and used as an encore on two subsequent performances.  We worked out the nuance of this incredible piece so that I thought we put a stamp on this march that said, "This is high art."  Another interesting note is that none of these pieces has been in our repertoire prior to this year.  I know that if I'd planned on a Holst Suite, that would have been number one (it always is) and it's probably time to pull out the F-Suite (No. 2) as we've not played it in a few.

The same holds true with the Bettendorf Park Band, which I assumed directorship this spring.  The final concert that we will present includes the following:
  • George Gershwin/Moss:  Strike Up the Band
  • James Swearingen:  Flight of Valor
  • John WilliamsLavender:  Hymn to the Fallen
  • Gustav Holst:  Suite in E-flat (the clear favorite!)
  • Johann Strauss/Carey:  Thunder and Lightning Polka
  • John Barry/Bocook:  Dances With Wolves
  • arr. Barker:  Magic of Andrew Lloyd Webber
  • John Philip Sousa:  Washington Post
Gustav Holst, the cream always rises!
A few surprises as we spent a good part of our most recent rehearsal "righting the wrongs" in Flight of Valor, a particularly evocative piece from a composer I've never been particularly enamored with, but this one is special.  Hymn to the Fallen was a challenge for the band and I was glad to see it selected.  And the Lloyd Webber medley?  We whipped that one up in one rehearsal and the ensemble did a wonderful job!

But poor Karl King.  We played Thumbs Up with the BPB as well, along with Alhambra Grotto and Invictus (another circus masterpiece).  I just think that the band has tired of a lot of King over the years and I probably need to retire him for a season or two.  There's still plenty of good stuff out there!

Now the real challenge will be in conducting one ensemble on July 31 and the next on August 1.  As long as I'm in the right city, I guess I'll be ok.

Oops!  Wrong band!  Leading the DCamp "Family Band" from a saxophone part!

Here's the right band:  the BPB on July 4...


Friday, July 18, 2014

Spurious correlations....

For once this week I'm not going to mention Peter Gelb and the travails of the MET--Oops, I did it again.  Ok, let's get it out of the way:  read here for a discussion of the problem and why things are probably going to get MUCH worse.  Read here for a completely different take on the art, a whole new concept, completely opposite of the behemoth in Lincoln Center.  And, for one of the few times in recorded history, I find myself in disagreement with Greg Sandow.  Here is why.

BUT--ENOUGH ALREADY!!!  What about these spurious correlations?  Being one day past the 25th anniversary of Karajan's death, I'm naturally thinking about the great stick beaters of the past.  This ruminating led me to wonder,

WHAT IF:

Furtwangler in Chicago?
Gustav Heinrich Ernst Martin Wilhelm Furtwängler (yep, that was his given name; a bit of overkill if you ask me) had been able to accept the offer as Music Director of the Chicago Symphony in 1949?  The offer was eventually rescinded due to protestations from the likes of Arturo Toscanini, George Szell, Vladimir Horowitz, Arthur Rubinstein, and Isaac Stern, all of whom threatened to boycott an ensemble that would hire a Nazi sympathizer (he wasn't).  In fact, Yehudi Menuhin stated in a lengthy letter to the tribunal that Furtwängler faced following the War:

Unless you have secret incriminating evidence against Furtwängler supporting your accusation that he was a tool of Nazi Party, I beg to take violent issue with your decision to ban him. The man never was a Party member. Upon numerous occasions, he risked his own safety and reputation to protect friends and colleagues. Do not believe that the fact of remaining in one's own country is alone sufficient to condemn a man. On the contrary, as a military man, you would know that remaining at one's post often requires greater courage than running away. He saved, and for that we are deeply his debtors, the best part of his own German culture.

So, instead of Furtwängler, the orchestra endured the unremarkable tenures of Désiré Defauw and Artur Rodziński.  But then KUBELIK ARRIVED!

WHAT IF:

What if Kubelik had stayed?
Stupid critics!
Dumb Boards!
Kubelik had lasted more than three years in Chicago?  The semi-official line is that he was "hounded out of the city" (according to Time) after repeated attacks by critic Claudia Cassidy.  Chicago Sun-Times music critic Robert C. Marsh argued in 1972 that it was the Chicago Symphony trustees who were behind the departure. Their foremost complaint, and that of Cassidy as well, was that Kubelík introduced too many contemporary works (about 70) to the orchestra; there were also objections to his demanding exhaustive rehearsals and engaging several black artists.  Oh my!  Integrating the lily white halls of classical music!  I heard a 1951 Pictures under Kubelik, recorded in the very early careers of Herseth, Farkas and Jacobs, among others.  Astonishing....

So let's see Furtwängler, possibly followed (a bit later) by Kubelik.  Too good to be true.  No to the irascible Fritz Reiner?  How many other things might have been different?

WHAT IF:

The Philadelphia Orchestra, after the retirement (after 44 years) of Eugene Ormandy in 1980, had hired anyone other than Riccardo Muti?  Remember, too, that Ormandy's 44 years came right after Stokowski's nearly 30.  At that time there still existed orchestras with their own distinctive sounds; the Philly had been cultivated by Stokowski and Ormandy to play with a lush string tone achieved in the former's sense through cross bowings.  These were also Music Directors who signed with an orchestra and basically stayed with the orchestra for the entire season, as opposed to the jet-setting maestri of today who give oftentimes as little as 8-10 weeks to their "real" gig.  That's discussion for another time.

A younger Sawallisch instead?
Muti, then a young lad of 39, turned the Philadelphia Orchestra into just another generic band; apparently, recording engineers loved it. For me, every Philadelphia /Muti recording I own is dull in sound, scope, and sheen (or the lack thereof). And who followed him? Wolfgang Sawallisch (1993-2003), Christoph Eschenbach (2003-07, or thereabouts), and Charles Dutoit (2008-2012). This was truly a difficult period in the history of this great orchestra. Eschenbach, never a fan or player favorite (and one who has continued to receive negative press for his opera performances), he was scorned in the local press. Peter Dobrin wrote in the Philadelphia Inquirer, "In three seasons, Eschenbach and the orchestra have produced a handful of brilliant concerts.  More often, though, his rehearsals and performances have elicited a long list of complaints from musicians: getting lost in the score at concerts; leading disorganized rehearsals and then asking for overtime; and insisting on a peculiar rushing and slowing of tempos."

How much of these obvious wrong moves contributed to the orchestra's infamous 2011 bankruptcy?  Probably little, but one does have to consider public perception of the end product.

OR, (and this was the impetus for this diatribe) WHAT IF

Kertesz instead of Maazel
Upon the death of long-time Music Director George Szell in 1972, the Cleveland Orchestra had not hired Lorin Maazel?  The players themselves voted 96-2 to urge the Musical Arts Society to hire Istvan Kertesz.  I am trying to imagine the refined and precise "European" orchestra that Szell created in the hands of that young firebrand.  The results could have been electrifying.  Maazel himself, who would eventually experience success around the world, admitted in 2002 that “the relationship (in Cleveland) remained more or less rocky to the end.”

BUT, the most spurious correlation is this:  Kertesz did not conduct in Cleveland and the following April he drowned off the coast of Israel.  If only, he'd been leading a concert in Severance Hall instead.... 




Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Conflicted....

Lorin Maazel (1930-2014)
As conflicted as I am about the happenings at the Metropolitan Opera (I really don't think that stage hands should earn $400K/year) or the state of our art in general, a big recent happening has me more so.  No sooner had I read Norman Lebrecht's column regarding the improvement in the health of conductor Lorin Maazel and his continuing work at his summer festival at Castleton, VA, was his death announced throughout worldwide media.  The maestro had been absent from concert stages for many months, having been recovering from surgery.  The cause of death has been listed as "complications from pneumonia."  Regardless of the cause, Mr. Maazel, who died at 84, had lived a long and highly productive life.

He was a performing and conducting wunderkind, having led a broadcast concert when he was eight years old (that's right-8!).  He was the first American (and Jewish no less) to lead a performance at the Festspielhaus in Bayreuth.  He would go on to lead three major American orchestras: Cleveland (replacing George Szell, 1972-82), Pittsburgh (1986-96), and New York (2002-09).  He also served a short stint as Music Director of the Vienna State Opera, and also with the Bavarian Radio Symphony and Munich Philharmonic.

Maazel was renowned for his amazing memory, capable of leading Lulu without a score and, particularly his remarkable efficiency in rehearsal.  But his performances never seemed to add up to a body of work to place him in the pantheon of first-rate conductors.  Mr. Lebrecht wrote in today's Slipped Disc blog:

Lorin belonged everywhere and nowhere. He was never embraced as an American marvel, as Bernstein and Previn were, nor was he ever allowed to feel wholly at home in Berlin, Vienna or Munich, his three European bases. In Vienna, he faced an onslaught of xenophobia that was part anti-American, part anti-semitic. Lorin never acknowledged these currents (to me), but his isolation was, in 1984 Vienna, absolute.  Munich may have been a little warmer, Berlin a little worse.  After being voted down by the players as Karajan’s successor, he swore he would never conduct the (Berlin) Philharmonic again. He relented, once. It went badly and he vanished again.

My own personal experience with Maazel came but once, as the mighty Clevelanders visited East Lansing, Michigan (and that horrible 3600-seat monstrosity) while on tour in early May, 1976.  A student friend had called me and said she could get discounted student tickets but wanted to know if the orchestra was any good....I had to laugh.  We managed tenth row, center.  Fabulous seats even in that behemoth.

The Philadelphia Orchestra at Hill Auditorium
University of Michigan, May 1974
For many years I'd forgotten the program and one day it suddenly came back to me.  Only two works were performed, Prokofiev's Classical Symphony and the Seventh of Dvorak (I'm quite sure).  Of course, the orchestra played well; the many years under Szell had turned it into an almost unparalleled virtuoso machine.  And that's what it seemed to be to me--a machine.  I left the concert feeling more than a bit cold and under the impression that I'd witnessed a concert that was just going through the motions.  Of course my memory has to be tempered by the fact that I heard the Philly Orchestra in the same hall at the end of that month, a concert that closed with Mahler's First, my introduction to that composer.  A fair comparison?  Probably not, but those are the facts.

Through his tenure in New York, Maazel was viewed as a conductor capable of brilliance and outright mediocrity.  Perhaps his great mind just sometimes got in the way.  Needless to say, I have to (unfortunately) admit that I'd caught him on a bad day.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Tripping Through the Beethoven Quartets, Op. 59, nos. 1-3

Count Razumovsky in his earlier years

Nobleman Andrey Kirillovich Razumovsky's fifteen minutes of fame is, of course, related to the quartets that he commissioned from Beethoven.  That said, he was a much more important historical figure than is readily known.  His father, Cyril Razumovsky, had built a late Baroque palace which is a minor landmark on St. Petersburg's Nevsky Prospekt (the "main drag" of the city). In 1792 Andres Kyrillovitch was appointed the Tsar's diplomatic representative to the Habsburg court in Vienna, one of the crucial diplomatic posts during the Napoleonic era. He was a chief negotiator during the Congress of Vienna that resettled Europe in 1814, and asserted Russian rights in Poland. An accomplished amateur violinist himself, he established a house string quartet in 1808. But, of course, his commissioning three string quartets from Beethoven in 1806 was the act that has made his name familiar. He asked Beethoven to include a "Russian" theme in each quartet: Beethoven included Ukrainian themes in the first two (quite interesting given the current political situation in that part of the world). Razumovsky was the brother-in-law of another of Beethoven's patrons, Prince Joseph Lobkowitz. His first wife, Countess Elisabeth von Thun was a sister in law of Count Carl von Lichnowsky.

So, after five years (the Op. 18 quartets were published in 1801), Beethoven returned to the medium.  Published in 1808, these quartets are considered to make up a portion of Beethoven's "middle period," which, is defined by his increasing use of Romantic musical gestures and ideas. The use of these new ideas and his changing attitude towards composition led to Beethoven changing his composition style and his intended audience. His works, originally composed for what would be a supportive public, were now intended for (less lucrative) musical connoisseurs. By 1808, the 'Eroica' Symphony (premiering in 1805) was behind him and the famed fifth and sixth symphonies would appear that year in a mammoth concert at the Theater an der Wien on December 22.   The program of that now (in)famous event looked like this:
  1. The Sixth Symphony, which was actually written before the fifth
  2. Aria: "Ah, perfido", Op. 65
  3. The Gloria movement of the Mass in C major
  4. The Fourth Piano Concerto (played by Beethoven himself)
  5. (Intermission)
  6. The Fifth Symphony
  7. The Sanctus and Benedictus movements of the C major Mass
  8. A solo piano improvisation played by Beethoven
  9. The Choral Fantasy
Ah, those were the days:  a concert of several hours in length, presented with only one rehearsal, in an unheated concert hall in Vienna in the winter.  What's the big deal about trying to recreate the historical practices of the past?  But, I digress....




June 14:  Op. 59, No. 1 in F major

"Beethoven produced his second set of string quartets, Op. 59, in 1806, just about six years after Op. 18. Without intending any injustice to Op. 18, moving to Op. 59 is like Dorothy, erstwhile inhabitant of a black-and-white Kansas, crashing down into the colorful Land of Oz. With Op. 59, we alight into the land of middle-period Beethoven and meet the crème-de-la-crème: The Op. 59 quartets stand next to the august tradition of Viennese chamber music quartets by Haydn, Mozart and earlier Beethoven like the Rocky Mountains rise above the central plains. They are longer, more technically challenging, dramatically and psychologically far more intense and they mark in more ways than one the elevation of quartet performance culture to its first plateau of daunting professionalism. The massive triptych of quartets comprising Op. 59 is the precise chamber music analog of the revolutionary Symphony No. 3 within the category of orchestral music. Written only a few years earlier, Beethoven’s Eroica symphony crash-landed into the Viennese symphonic tradition like a meteor from outer space, an awesome and imponderable monolith of grandeur and shock. This was Beethoven fully emerging, the most unrelenting musical pioneer of all time. The piano sonatas and mixed chamber music of this period all exhibit this “heroic” transformation so that, in a word, music is suddenly happening on a whole different scale of intensity, virtuosity and profundity."
~Kai Christiansen (I think; it's from Earsense Chamberbase)

"Beethoven's preoccupation with Fidelio from late 1804 until the spring of 1806 had dammed up work on other projects. A month after the last performance of the second version ofFidelio, Beethoven turned to the composition of three string quartets, later known as the Razumovsky Quartets, op. 59. He completed them toward the end of 1806.

There is one sense in which the Razumovsky Quartets represent a continuation of the heroic impulse: an application of the principles of composition elaborated in the Eroica Symphony to another genre, an expansion of the quartet from beyond its eighteenth-century traditional boundaries to a point where one may legitimately speak of these quartets as "symphonic quartets." But there is another sense in which these works represent a withdrawal from the heroic impulse, with its insistence upon strength and virtue, its "public" style and affirmative outlook. If the heroic symphonies are in Bekker's phrase "speeches to the nation," then the quartets are interior monologues addressed to a private self whose emotional states comprise a variegated tapestry of probing moods and feelings. Sullivan glimpsed this when he wrote that in the middle-period orchestral work 'the hero marches forth . . . performing his feats before the whole of an applauding world. What is he like in his loneliness? We find the answer in the Razumovsky Quartets.'

It was on a leaf of sketches for these works that Beethoven wrote a phrase which we have already cited in another context; 'let your deafness no longer be a secret-even in art.'

Here, in these quartets, he will reveal his deepest feelings, his sense of loss, his pains and his strivings."
~Maynard Solomon


Movement I (Allegro)

In a cursory examination of the first page of the score, one is struck by two "departures" from the earlier quartets.  Gone is any sense of an opening gesture to set the key or grab the listener's attention (the premier coup d'archet of Haydn and Mozart's time).  Instead the cello begins with a wistful tune, apparently in C, but is it?  The first violin follows suit, starting its version of the melody a step higher before actually inverting a portion of the original.  The harmony is hardly unstable:  ten measures of C-7 (the dominant?) accompany this tune in a long crescendo before finally cadencing on F, nineteen measures into the movement!  Yes Toto, we're not in Kansas (nor Op. 18) anymore.  After a hiatus of six years, Beethoven is now a Romanticist.  This piece has what one might expect: long-breathed melodies, moments of high drama, and significantly more complex development of the thematic materials.

The transition to the expected "second theme" is longer than the norm as well; Beethoven strongly hints a move into G-major instead of C.  This music is suave; I can think of no better description.  Right when it appears as though we are about to transition back to the beginning, there is no repeat; instead the cello takes the tune in a completely different direction.  The odd progressions of piano half notes reappears before the first violin takes turn again with an almost stagnant whole note accompaniment (often tied across six bars).  We've wended our way to D-flat major, one of Beethoven's (soon-to-be) favorite kind of altered mediant relations.

Another deviation from the "norm" happens when B throws a curveball in the form of a false recapitulation.  Just as the listener (at least this one) believes that he's rescored the recap in harmony with the inner voices, it just doesn't happen!  Not for 35 bars in which the opening materials are almost inverted before the cello takes over as in the opening with the two violins slapping away with the eighth-note accompaniment.

It is not until the conclusion that we encounter the expected, and even that is not so: just as it seems as though we're going to finish as we began--in a gentle sound world fading away--three great chords concluded.

But a final word on the form.  I like to watch the "clock" in an examination of the "traditional" sonata.  Even without an expositional repeat, the recapitulation comes in almost exactly two thirds of the way through the piece.  So, even though Beethoven has apparently departed from the norm, that structure is still in his head and it just comes out so naturally.

This music is so far advanced from Op. 18 that I am reminded of Brahms or even Dvorak.  All this shares with Op. 18 no. 1 is its key of F-major.  But one is left to ask:  Is that a coincidence?  

Movement II (Allegretto vivace e sempre scherzando)

It's the scherzo in the place where the slow movement is supposed to be, something he's done before but we won't see in the symphonies until the Ninth.  Hmmm.

This movement seems to be about the pervasive rhythm (16th-16th-8th-8th) that imbues the movement, but Beethoven is always throwing back and forth between the rhythmic interplay and the dolce theme (that almost never seems to last long enough).  Back and forth, back and forth.  There is even more than a bit of the kind of off-beat hemiola that no one did better than Brahms.  Of course, we know his model.

The whole thing seems through-composed as there are no repeats at all; no real trio.  It's a hybrid at best, but among the most original I've heard to this point.  The old guy even hints at a different ending (or not) with descending pitches of G-flat (first violin), E-natural (second violin), and F (viola) before the final tonic.

Movement III (Adagio molto e mesto - attacca:)

Admittance of my ignorance:  had to look up "mesto"--not something I encounter a lot.  Means mournful or melancholy, which obviously explains B's choice of F-minor.  This is the longest movement in the quartet and, since it continues into the fourth without break, is MUCH longer than anything I've encountered.  I keep wondering:  shades of the fifth symphony?  Maybe in the attacca,  but not in the way it's set up.  In this instance, this movement acts almost as a slow introduction for the finale.

I am astounding at these sounds unlike any I've heard and such a statement in what has been a bright and airy quartet.  Beginning sotto voce, the poignant (not a strong enough term) melody is whispered by the first violin.  The cello answers expressive in a consequent phrase:  it's tearful, it's such an exclamation of grief and, to think, Beethoven may not actually have heard that much of this astounding creation.  And this even at times approaches the Beethoven of his later years, exploring almost an abandonment of traditional tonality.  I used to tell my students (probably still do) that Beethoven really isn't a great tunesmith (like Mozart, for example).  In music like this, quite frankly, he doesn't have to be.  I know of no other composer who can emit such melancholic expression from an arpeggio.

And the instrumentation!  Exploiting the expressive qualities of the cello like none before him.  Once the opening tune finally reappears (theorists--call it a rounded binary if you must), the sound world is vastly different from its inception, with a pizzicati bass line and tremulants in the inner voices.  Just when you figured it couldn't get more emotionally-fraught....the cello brings the exposed theme in the upper register.  And then he turns a canonic duet into an octave melody between the violins.  The textures continue to amaze me.  I don't want it to end, but unfortunately it must and B simply vaults into F-major and away we go with....

Movement IV (Theme russe, Allegro)

A digression upon discovering a note online.  Beethoven wrote to his publisher around this time, "I am thinking of devoting myself almost entirely to this type of composition."  Of course, he would write quartets throughout his compositional life.

My opinion (not that it's worth much)?  The opening of the finale is a let down, but then again, where could we possibly go after the preceding movement?  I guess we have to just go and dance, but of course, this Viennese "hoe-down" (my ignorant terminology) achieves high art.  It must be the Slavic nature of the tune that makes it sound almost Dvorakian in its minor key excursions.  It must be said that this frenetic music is nearly exhausting in its energetic thrust.  AND, there is certainly the use of some of the scherzo's rhythms for unification; yes, he's thinking that far ahead.

But what's this?  A sudden adagio?  Not for long.  Wham.  Bam.  And we whap our way to the conclusion...

June 26:  Op. 59, No. 2 in E-minor

Whilst whistling the day away, supping tea and devouring crumpets, one might have the inclination to analyze the sonata form of none other than L. V. Beethoven’s String Quartet in E minor, Op. 59, No. 2, Allegro Movement. In theory, tea and sonatas are a glorious match, but in personal experience, coffee tends to be a better suit. Without any further ado — the analysis.

This particular string delight is a bit indefinite in the divisions between sections aside from the Exposition (arguably mm. 2 - 70), the Development (mm. 72 – 143), and the Recapitulation (mm 144-211). A large coda closes the piece out, starting in mm. 212 and going through to the finish.

The Exposition seems to only have one tonal center rooted in the key of E minor, however there are blatant texture changes/themes found in mm. 24, mm. 34, and mm. 58. Beethoven also has the tonality flit from minor to major, and back again.

The Development elucidates upon the previously seen material from the very beginning of the Exposition, as well as the section around mm. 58. A transition can be found from mm. 133-143, bringing the listener right to the Recapitulation.

The Recapitulation does exactly what it should in that it ties everything together in a way to close the piece. Snippets from the themes in the Exposition are found (namely the beginning motif, and subsidiaries), along side material from the development that essentially is taken from the Exposition.

The start of the coda takes the listener back to the opening bars of the piece, and finally draws everything to a close as it wanes into nothing.

 Overall, Beethoven’s piece does not follow the sonata form of the Classical-era to a "tea," in that the ambiguity of the sections did not lend itself to analysis. Until we meet again, just remember that coffee and sonatas are highly recommended for all who seek thrill and excitement. Adieu.

Daniel White

Theorists....ho-hum.  And to think I used to write program notes in somewhat this kind of fashion, explaining the form but really saying little about what was behind the notes (as Mahler might say) or discuss the emotional impact this music might have on the listener.  While such things can be highly subjective, that's what blogging is for and the reader should take such things at face value.



Movement I (Allegro)

Grand gesture and rhythmic interplay.  That's what the movement is all about.  Beethoven is becoming more advanced in his technique, particularly in the uses of textures and this quartet often uses the entire ensemble in virtuosic unison rhythms following B's contrapuntal forays.

The crashing opening chords reappear many times, but seem to have even more power when expressed in softer dynamic ranges.  B also uses this I-V progression to launch into new keys, often far afield from where we're expecting.

The coda is a long one, developing the ideas even more before leading to what seems to be a big finish (as would seem so from the "big" opening).  Instead he chooses to end in nearly complete silence...

Movement II (Molto Adagio: Si tratta questo pezzo con molto di sentimento), loosely translated as "lots of feeling"

As he has done do many times before, B delays the tonic chord until the 8th bar, offering an initial feeling of unrest.  Will this pervade the movement?  A seemingly silly little staccato figure appears in the first violin but the tune appears in the lushness of each of the lower voices, if ever so briefly.  And how this guy makes a triplet major scale sound like high art!  But the darkness intrudes with a kind of drumbeat in the viola and cello--but it refuses to remain in the shadows.

The triplets are merely a precursor for the texture which will lead us to angst and forboding.   And with no warning whatsoever, the recap returns, this time (of course) with the rhythms of accumulated accompaniments.  The sneak....the beauty....the rapture.  The second violin is singing above the rest?  That accompanying figure sounds faintly like hunting horns, but this is a pastoral of the most serene, as we are all suspended in mid air...

I am beginning to find B's codas particularly moving and poignant, not a tailpiece but a vital part of the whole, seeming to explore new territory before--this time--leading to those scales (offered by all).  Again, as in the first quartet of the set, this is the weightiest and longest movement of the work, lasting nearly three minutes longer than the first.    

Movement III (Allegretto)

A minuet?  Hmm.  With all the rhythmic displacement, it's hard to get a handle.  We're in 3/4 but B makes it sound as if it were 6/8.  This is no simple minuet, nor even a scherzo....are we heading towards the waltz?

The fun definitely begins in the "maggiore" section, flitting about in triplets, with the occurrence of the "commissioned" theme russe.  But then the whole thing--minor and major repeats--followed once again by the original minor.  These are the kinds of formulaic changes we'll experience in the (much) later symphonies.  But again, within the quartets lie Beethoven's compositional workshop.

Movement IV (Finale - Presto)

What kind of dance is this?  The horses are certainly galloping along at a frenetic pace.  It's almost a Turkish rondo, but not.  But is it a rondo?  Not like one I've heard...A sonata rondo, then.  By this time--well past the "Pathetique" Sonata, it can be expected.  But the sound world...I'll never get over the profundity of these when compared with what now seem the juvenile Op. 18 quartets.  And just when it seems like a major key conclusion, we're violently tossed back to the minor.  Amazing.

July 14:  Op. 59, No. 3 in C-major

I've gotten dreadfully behind in my Beethoven excursion thanks(?) to a lengthy set of Independence Day rehearsal and concert commitments.

Movement I (Andante con moto - Allegro vivace)

The String Quartet in C Major, Op. 59, No. 3 has acquired the nickname Eroica because of its glorious, triumphant finale. Initially, it was the most well received of the three quartets and probably remains the most frequently performed. It is one of the most radiant works Beethoven ever composed. Its beginning is as noteworthy as its ending, no doubt one of several places in which the Razumovsky quartets confounded its first listeners. Like Mozart’s Dissonance quartet (also in C major), a work that Beethoven greatly admired, it begins in obscurity: a brooding series of diminished chords whose destination grows ever more obscure as the outer voices, treble and bass, progressively diverge in a wedge shape. Any sense of motion fairly disintegrates.   Kai Christiansen, Earsense Chamberbase

As Mr. Christiansen states, the introduction to this quartet is truly baffling.  Opening on a diminished seventh chord, its very difficult to note where B is headed.  The cello, for its own part descends in a scalelike manner for the first 29 bars, ascending only when the downward motion extends beyond the C-string (and then leaping up to B-natural).  From a theoretical standpoint, the best of us would be confounded to attempt to analyze this music, as the only "cadence point" of any kind is the hurried eighth-note C-major chord at the opening of the Allegro vivace itself.  But then again we're led from G to A (or is it d-minor?), to C7 (!) to G7 (a dominant?) and FINALLY to C-major in the 43rd bar of the piece.  Talk about delayed expectations!

But, as expected, the darkness of the opening gives way to bright sunshine as the tonic burst forth with heady ensemble rhythms over a thumping eighth-note cello.  B is again exploring his contrapuntal side throughout, with some straightforward stretti as well as counterpoint in duet forms. A few of the transitions, interestingly enough (like the final cadences into measure 43), seem more than a bit awkward given Beethoven's harmonic gifts.  Still his use of sforzandi (on weak beats) in the close of the exposition further propel us forward.

The harmonic structure of the middle portion was established at the onset and we visit keys far and wide.  As usual, just as B seems to have settled somewhere (like E-flat major), we're off again to A-minor--or are we?  The harmonic rhythm as well as the overall propulsion slow to a snails pace in a lengthy diminuendo, in which there is yet another slightly awkward (to my ears anyway) transition to the expected recapitulation.  Actually, because of what has come before us, there is little surprise left in store as B has used up so many of his tonal resources.  We are left with a rather hurried coda, not at all as interesting as some of the rest, but satisfying in that there is (at long last) a fortissimo V-I cadence.


Movement II (Andante con moto quasi Allegretto)

Odd.  The tempo rather belies that of a "slow" movement.  The key is A-minor.  The cello spends the bulk of the movement playing pizzicato.  The form seems to almost be through composed until a well-hidden recap.

Despite the tempo, there is continuous movement in an undulating 6/8 time.  The first two phrase units are repeated, again a departure from the "norm" and following a clear cadence, we're off into a netherworld of harmony and clashing dissonance, suggesting those quartets far in the future.  But a brief, sweet little tune in C emerges, clearing our ears of all this noise; of course, though, not for long.  My mind is confused, my theoretical brain even more so...

There are mysteries within this music that demand closer attention and more hearings...someday.

Movement III (Menuetto. Grazioso.)

Hmm.  A minuet and not a scherzo?  Again, it's an oddity.

This movement almost seems to harken back to a more innocent time as it is basically a straightforward minuet and trio--with a twist (of course):  an immediate attacca into the final movement.

Movement IV (Allegro molto)

Starting with a lengthy fugue subject:  viola, violin 2, cello, violin, this movement flies at such a brisk pace that it is nearly impossible to keep up with the score.  I find that I can nary turn pages quickly enough.

The motion never ceases until a (long last) fermata sets the players and listener up for a kind of double fugue, although the themes (the brisk opening with a rather slower moving chromatic) merely hand the materials off to another voice rather than continuing in counterpoint.  Beethoven continues his developmental ideas through to the end, sending us far afield from C-major, but it's the chromatic theme that seems to propel the music forward.

Eroica?  Not like anything I know in the third symphony.  This whole quartet bears repeated listenings if only to be able to capture at least a few more of the master's ideas.

All three of the Razumovsky quartets are conceived on larger scale that even the most noteworthy of their predecessors from any composer. Beethoven’s genius enabled him to do this while, at the same time, strengthening a sense of unity across the greater expanse. Op. 59, No. 1 is famous as the first quartet to omit the repeat of exposition: a false start immediately diverts into an enormous development section with the paradoxical effect of tightening the entire movement into a single gesture. Two of the quartets fuse their last movements together without a break in the music, a further technique of joining separate parts into a larger, unified whole. There are symmetries separated by vast distances such as the beginning and end of the third quartet. It can be argued that there are even specific harmonic relationships between the end of one quartet and the beginning of the next. Many have suggested that Beethoven conceived of the three separate Razumovsky quartets as a unified whole. The vast first movement of Op. 59, No. 1 is not fully balanced until one reaches its magnificent counterpart in the finale of Op. 59, No. 3. Perhaps the three quartets function like a gigantic three movement work with a broad and complex first movement in F major, a tense contrasting movement in e minor, and a bright, exultant finale in C major. A performance of the complete set in a single concert gives this very impression. With the proper preparation for its context within this larger setting, the third quartet acquires a further triumphal radiance. The distinguished scholar Leonard Ratner suggests that all of Beethoven’s quartets may even form a kind of mega-work, a single great narrative that stands apart from all other music in history.  Kai Christiansen, Earsense Chamberbase

These guys were something in their day....they still are...

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Gelb's lies and my experience with opera

Must read for Peter Gelb....
How long will the lights stay on at Lincoln Center?

Of late, I have been sending slings and arrows at the Metropolitan Opera in general and specifically its manager, Peter Gelb, who is--in my estimation--about to cause (through strike or lockout) the greatest artistic crisis in this country.  Today, Norman Lebrecht points out Gelb's penchant for falsehood in a TV interview with Paula Zahn.  In fact, Gelb never gets to the point of answering Ms. Zahn's opening question, which she asked at least three times.  Lebrecht specifically mentions the following comment:

"The box-office sales are down because box-office sales in every city in this country are down for classical music and opera. This is an endemic problem that America faces and that is faced in Europe as well."

As demonstrated through previous posts and voluminous amounts of financial information, this is simply not true.  While organizations such as the New York City Opera have shuttered (due to horrendous management decision) and others, like San Diego, have been on the precipice of failure, companies like Chicago's Lyric and Santa Fe continue to thrive.  The Vienna State Opera continues to sell out, and numbers are up all over Europe.  It is not exactly fair to compare the apple to orange models of artistic support in Europe and the USA, but still, Gelb's lies do nothing to support any of his claims relative to the Metropolitan Opera or its financial debacles.  This much is known: the budget of the organization has ballooned 50% (to over $300 million) during Gelb's tenure and ticket sales are down.  The correlation is all too obvious:  they're overspending for productions the public has little desire to see or hear.

A full house at the MSU Auditorium
Hardly an opera house!
I love this art form and have since my first exposure as a 17-year-old high school student.  The Lansing (MI) Opera held a special matinee performance of Carmen intended specifically for a younger audience.  The roles were all sung by the company's understudies and apprentice singers.  A commentator introduced the action of each act beforehand and the entire work was performed in ENGLISH.  Oh yes, and the cost?  $1.00!  Yep, a whole buck to see Bizet's masterpiece in the grandest style.  Granted, the production took place in the voluminous 3600 seat "Old" Auditorium at Michigan State University, but we had prime seats in what might be considered the "orchestra" anyplace else.  The result?  My friends and I returned the next evening to hear the "real" cast offer the work in the original French, although this time $10 got us "nosebleed" seats.  It really didn't seem to matter; we were hooked.

Another lifetime later (I was about 35) I experienced my first Wagner (Das Rheingold) at the National Opera in Budapest.  Our group had to "bribe" a ticket-seller to get seats at $3.00 USD (normally a whopping $1.50).  This was the way opera is supposed to be heard, in a gloriously appointed house with some 1800 seats.  Our "nosebleeds" here in the upper balcony were still close to the action, and the fact that a single voice could be heard over the endless blare of the massive orchestra was something to behold.

La Boheme I've probably seen more than any other, but no production compared to one at the Statni Oper in Prague, in which the production included a dancer to kind of mimic the role of Mimi.  By the end of the final act (and I still don't know how they did it) the dancer ended up in the deathbed and the singer was at the edge of the stage, singing her farewell in a kind of "out-of-body" experience.  Nothing I'd ever seen nor heard to that point matched this emotional highpoint.  

Upper right hand corner--no place for the Don!
My first Don Giovanni was actually at the cavernous Chicago Lyric, but I also experienced it at thesite of the opera's premiere, the Stavovske Divadlo in Prague.  Maybe it was the surroundings, and the fact that Wolfie himself had once graced this theater, but that was really special.

Elektra at the Mariinsky, Die Entfuhrung aus dem Serail in Bucharest, Madama Butterfly in Ames (IA), Die Zauberflote in Rock Island, Le Nozze di Figaro, Tosca in Dubuque--I've availed almost as many opportunities as I can to see opera.  In fact, I once appeared as the central character--the corpse of Buoso Donati in an Olivet College production of Puccini's Gianni Schicchi.  So, I suppose I'm trying to make a point that I know a little (but not enough) of what I'm talking about.

St. Petersburg's Mariinsky:  1625 opulent seats.
My best experiences were those in which I
  1. Could understand, through a thorough and well-intentioned translation, or in judicious subtitles.  Interestingly enough, I experienced Mozart's Abduction in Bucharest.  Although they had presented Falstaff in Italian, the former was offered in a Romanian translation.
  2. Had a comfortable environment.  How does one enjoy an opera as intimate as Don Giovanni at the Lyric?  It's too damn big.  Nuff said.
  3. And yes, there have to be good singers.  I still have a sour taste for Verdi after hearing the tenor bellow through the first act of a Statni Oper Trovatore.  I left at intermission.
I have a bucket list of house I must experience:  the Vienna State Opera, La Scala in Milan, and La Fenice in Venice.  Covent Garden and the Palace Garnais might make the list just because of their historical (and architectural) significance.  And, of course, I must experience the Festspielhaus in Bayreuth.  As for the Met, it would have to be a perfect production with perfect singers and a generous ticket discount.  Given the current state of affairs, the latter won't happen and the company may be a shadow of its former self before I ever get there.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Is the fat lady singing everywhere? How is opera faring worldwide?

The Met is too damn big....and expensive
The travails of New York's Metropolitan Opera have been brought to light here and elsewhere.  Budgets are up (WAY UP) and ticket sales are down.  Impresario Peter Gelb has come up with a laundry list of reasons for the Met's woes:

  • (The age of opera-goers, relative to the innovative HD broadcasts), "What we've basically done is to extend the lifespan of the opera-goer. In the US, 75% of the cinema audience are 65 or over. And 30% are over 75. Those are people who are so old that they can't go the Met, to the theatre, any more."   AND, "there aren't enough new audience members replacing the older ones who are dying off. It's no secret that the frequency of operagoing in the US is decreasing."
  • (Rising costs, which have increased 50% during Gelb's tenure):  "This battle (with labor unions) is an existential one that has to be won. If we're not able to create a more sustainable business model now, we know we will face a bankruptcy situation in the next two or three years."
  • (Continually blaming salaries for financial problems):  "Even if I was the worst manager in the world," Gelb said in a Guardian interview, "clearly, we have to make savings there."
Semper Oper, Dresden
Still, one is left to wonder how the art-form is performing on other stages throughout the world.  Today, Norman Lebrecht reported that the Semper Oper in Dresden sold nearly 92% of its seats during the last season.  The Vienna State Opera continues to sell at a nearly astronomical rate, very close to 100%.  Alex Beard, CEO of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, notes that productions are selling out, with shows in the cinema season often selling fastest. He says the composition of ticket buyers at Covent Garden is visibly changing, and he is convinced that the live cinema screenings, for which student standby tickets will be introduced at many venues next season, are helping to build a new audience, along with initiatives such as student ambassadors in universities, and its "young friends" scheme, which has gone from "zero to a thousand members in months".

But the Met remains the "gold standard" against which all other houses in the U.S. are compared.  But why is opera flourishing seemingly everywhere but America?

Reason #1 (and this is a biggie):  the size of the opera house itself.  This is a most important consideration, especially when one recalls the Met's capacity of nearly 4000.
  • Hungarian State Opera, Budapest:  1261 seats
    Hungarian State Opera, Budapest
  • Brussels' La Monnaie: 1700
  • Paris Opera Garnier:  2200
  • Venice La Fenice:  1000
  • Milan La Scala:  2800
The list could go on to include significantly smaller houses (Bucharest comes to mind, as does the Estates Theater in Prague). 

In this country I have attended opera and/or musical theater performances at the Chicago Lyric Opera (capacity over 3500), the Auditorium Theater, Chicago (over 3900), and the Des Moines Civic Center (over 2700), among others.  I must prefer the 1200-seat Estates Theater to the Lyric for a very intimate (as intended) production of Don Giovanni.  Dubuque's own Grand Opera House originally had a capacity of 1100, more than enough for its opening night Carmen (in 1890).  

Estates Theater, Prague:  Don Giovanni premiered here.
Reason #2:  Ticket costs:  I've discussed this before.  The Met has priced itself out of business, especially for tourists.  Visiting Europe, I've never paid over $20 for any seat and in Romania, I was given prime tickets as a guest of the Director of the National Opera.

Reason #3:  "Star power":  European houses largely maintain ensemble casts, developing native talent from within the ranks.  Refusing to pay a single artist the sum total of everyone else on stage is only financially prudent.  I've often wondered if smaller, regional orchestras in our country could sell as well employing local soloists rather than major "stars".  Certainly, Yo-Yo Ma is a big ticket draw, HOWEVER, so is his fee.

I remain convinced that opera itself is not the problem, although we need to educate our young people that it's much more than fat sopranos bellowing while wearing horns and breastplates.  Great stories, amazing music, and glorious voices should be enough to assure the art form's future, but again, we've got lots of educating to do...

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

MENSCHLICHKEIT, a revision from "Rantings," March 1, 2011.

 Alle Menschen werden Bruder....

I cannot remember who it was, nor the circumstance, but many years ago someone called me a mensch.  Being the neophyte that I was at that time, and of course growing up in a small community with a non-existent Jewish population, that was not a word that was part of my own lexicon.  So, I really didn't know how to take it:  did this person just compliment me or insult me?  So, I just plain asked, and then I learned.  A recent web site that I stumbled upon describes it this way:  "A mensch literally means "a person" in Yiddish, but figuratively it means something much deeper.  A mensch is a person with whom you would be happy to befriend and associate with, because you feel genuine in a mensch's presence. A mensch is a highly evolved human being. Menschlichkeit (the art of the mensch) has nothing to do with looks, with wealth, with success or with intellect. A mensch exudes a certain magnetism that attracts us, whether or not words or glances are exchanged. A person is a mensch because he simply makes others feel good."

In my own experience, I would equate a mensch to a mentor, those spiritual, professional or personal guides who come into our lives and--probably unknown to themselves--make a lasting impression upon us.  At one of my concerts, I made a point to express my extreme gratitude to at least a small number of my musical mentors--one of whom was in the audience.  And as things usually occur, this spurred within me all the people who have played a part in making me the musician I am today.  I have been debating whether or not to change their names, because I will probably be forced to say an unkind word or two.  BUT, in case any of my own "menschen" should happen to read this, I want them to know how thankful I am that they have played an important part in my own musical growth.  I'm sure that this post will probably be followed up by a number of notes written to express how I feel toward these people.  We really need to truly communicate how we feel toward the vital people in our lives before they have passed away from us.  In a couple of cases, I've lost that opportunity and for that, I am deeply ashamed.  As for the rest, this is my tribute to you.

 My first musical mentor, for a short while, was my mother, Thala.  The most important thing that I learned from my mom was not to try to teach my own child.  I was a brat and would not practice so she gave up after only a few months (can't blame her).  But as there was always music in the house (her many talented students), I eventually started messing around on the piano and our small organ.  So, until about six months worth in college, I was a self-taught pianist; interestingly enough I could sight read like a banshee but my technique--to this day--is still horrendous.

I had actually taken a good portion of the day away from blog writing, but still thought about who would be included here and I realized I almost forgot my guitar teacher, Kerry Haynor.  I was a mediocre player at best--always got stuck playing rhythm in our garage/basement bands because I couldn't do anything else.  BUT, the important thing was that Kerry taught from a "theoretical" standpoint and I learned how chords were structured at the age of 10.  This invaluable information would come to serve me well in high school, college and beyond.

Eileen Houston was my first band director and she surely had the patience of Job.  Because of tax issues, we started a year late; the school we were supposed to attend--a brand new middle school only a short walk through the woods from where I lived--sat there empty for an entire year.  Eileen taught all of these beginning students everyday in one large group.  There were no lessons as we have out here in the Heartland.  She instilled in us an unbelievable esprit des corps and a level of dedication toward music that I may not have witnessed since.  And she expected nothing but excellence.  I wished I'd paid much more attention to her pedagogy, but hey, I was in seventh grade.

(Special note:  Mrs. Houston only recently retired I believe.  I probably haven't seen her since basically leaving home in the early 1980s.  A while back, I received an on-line message from a high school classmate who ran into her at the store and who did she inquire about?  Needless to say, I was surprised that she would even remember me.  More recently we exchanged greetings on the occasion of her birthday.  I couldn't believe all the details of our specific class that she recalled!)

Band in high school was a shambles.  For my first three years there, dealing with split schedules and an all-volunteer marching band (led by one of the other middle school directors because the high school teaching was just plain lazy) we went nowhere.  The once-fine program had lost all of its luster due to this unnamed individual who we (the students) actually managed to run out of the school....but that's another story for another day.  Everything turned around with the arrival of Harvey Benstein, a tiny little man who, quite frankly, scared the crap out of us.  He was from the old school--a real screamer and baton thrower--but he got results.  I truly wished I had learned a lesson or two from him on how NOT to deal with students; it would have made my own first few years of teaching much better.  (On a similarly interesting note, I've reconnected with Harvey through the Midwest Clinic.  It's really been a joy!)

At the same time, I began studying organ with Steven Lange, the cantor at a large, nearby Episcopal Church.  He was a quiet man, but an excellent pedagogue.  For awhile I sang in his choir:  performing masterworks by Haydn, Vaughan Williams and others.  His wife, Nancy, was our high school choir director.  I sometimes regret that one of my actions soured our previously good relationship, but still I learned the importance of fine repertoire at that early age.  She only programmed the finest repertoire; in fact, sometimes I am still amazed at the things we sang, from Palestrina to Daniel Pinkham and beyond.

Of course, all through this time I was thinking of college and in all actuality, a career in music couldn't have been further from my mind.  I could do a lot of things:  first chair in high school band (with a lot of work--I only played the trumpet because that's what we had at home--another lesson learned), sang in the choir and select group, played rhythm guitar and keyboards in some garage bands, etc.  But I never really thought I excelled at anything, so off I went to Michigan State University with the intention of becoming a Political Science/Pre-Law major:  I had the gift for gab, had been a debater in hs, etc.  That probably lasted two weeks....I was never far from music--took some theory classes, etc., but was bored to tears because quite frankly, I already knew it all (not to sound cocky, but I'd had that guitar training and a year of theory and history in hs) but they wouldn't (or couldn't clep me out of it.)  So I would sit in Dr. Ted Johnson's theory class (there were so many of us it was held in the auditorium), and read the paper.  Every now and then, he would pose a question and then say, "Mr. Hughes?"  I'd pop up from whatever I was reading, give the answer, and go back to my reading.  I had to upset him something terribly.

The "Alpha E" House--great times here...
But I wasn't cut out for the factory that MSU was--I've lived in several smaller cities--and I took time off from school to get my bearings and figure out what I was going to do.  I realized how important that music was in my life and decided to bite the bullet and head in that direction:  for one good reason (an inspiring choral conductor Andy Zerban) and probably two wrong ones:  a couple of ex-girlfriends from high school.  While I had some fine teachers at Olivet, I have to remember in particular a theater teacher, John Hooker (every now and then I try to track him down, but with such a common name...).  He was a visionary director and cast me in what would be my last appearance on the theater stage:  in the ensemble cast of Jacques Brel is Alive and Well....my best work ever and all because of his insight and dedication to excellence.

Of course, one has to eventually leave the nest (it took me longer than most--but that is for another day).  I was a December grad with a BME and a Speech Com/Theater minor.  Michigan's economy was slowly heading into the toilet, so I hung around Olivet for the spring, picking up odd jobs in the department as a keyboardist (actually had some rave reviews in a Battle Creek paper for my harpsichord renderings in a Haydn opera.)  It was fun doing music without a grade attached to it.  But I eventually had to find work.

Through an extremely curious set of circumstances I ended up in Gilbertville, Iowa--(in a Catholic school of all things!) a long way from home.  It was a good move at the time because there were things I needed to forget (another blog post), but of course one cannot run away from one's problems--yet another posting.  I was fortunate enough to befriend Leland Triplitt, the junior high band director from a neighboring school, who mentored the young teacher and supported me in so very many ways.  I am eternally grateful to him and am honored to still call him my friend.
James Crowder and the Bettendorf Band

Four years later, I relocated to the Quad-Cities and a position at Alleman High School (yet another Catholic school!)  We were the dinky school on the Illinois side of the river and it always seemed as though we were looked down upon by the "big guns."  But somehow I managed to befriend another now long-time mentor James Crowder, who had been a local school band director and was then leading a community group in Bettendorf.  I joined the ensemble in the euphonium section and two years later became associate conductor of the group.  Jim--a former member of the West Point Band--has without a doubt forgotten more about the band repertoire than I will ever know.  He has truly been my mensch and I know that he cares for my welfare as much as anyone I know.  (On yet another interesting aside, I am now leading "Jim's" band.)

I made the decision to leave teaching for a bit and go back to school at the University of Northern Iowa.  I'm a life-long learner and my own preparation was inadequate for the direction my career was headed.  I was fortunate to work with some wonderful people at UNI:
  • to Ronald Ross, Director of the School, who entrusted me with leadership responsibilities in the program and showed me through actions how to face adversity.
  • to Jeffrey Funderburk, my private euphonium instructor, who taught me probably more about pedagogy than performance.
  • to the entire theory faculty, for having the faith in me to tutor students, cover classes, and take part in the jury process.
  • to Robert Dean, a curmudgeon of the old school--still teaching in what must have been his 70s, for showing me what dedication to the profession truly was.
  • to Jon Vallentine, who was then the "second band director" (now heads the school) who offered me more opportunities to conduct than my own principal teacher (probably another blog post, but that would turn into a rant).
  • to Sharon Hansen, the "second choral director," just for being a friend and for treating me as a colleague.  (I even sat her house while she and her husband visited Europe one summer--that woman got more catalogs in the mail than anyone I've ever met!)
Thanks to a number of the people I have already mentioned, I landed in Dubuque, Iowa and a teaching position at Loras College.  Unfortunately I had no one at the college who truly influenced me as a musician, but rather, did gain a handful of trusted colleagues and friends.  The whole Loras experience could consume volumes in itself.

But my "Dubuque experience" includes a number of people outside the college who have forever changed my life:
  • from the Dubuque Symphony:  Nick Palmer (conductor) who entrusted a non-string player with the leadership of the youth symphony and later named me Assistant Conductor of the parent organization, thus launching my career in yet another direction.  I also must include some of the wonderful and supportive players in the symphony who are too numerous to mention (because I know I would forget someone), but I must make special mention of Ann Duchow, aka "Duki Suzuki" with whom I would later have the pleasure of teaching at a later position.  I must especially mention Lori Meyer, nee Hamburg, who was my cello teacher when I decided (again as a lifelong learner) that I would be a much better orchestral conductor if I at least knew an up bow from a down.  These people and many more are responsible for whatever success I had in my early years as an orchestral conductor.
  • to Micki Marolf and Sally Stulken, two amazing teachers who in 1995 somehow talked me into founding the Tri-State Wind Symphony.  As we complete our 20th season, we're stronger than ever.
Because of my work in the orchestral world, I decided to enter several conducting symposia to refine my craft.  I was fortunate enough to spend a few days with Gustav Meier in Ann Arbor before branching out to have a go at Europe.  Jonathan Sternberg, one of the founding members of the Conductors' Guild and Professor Emeritus at Temple University led a conducting class in Marianske Lazne (Marienbad), Czech Republic in the late winter of 2000.  (This was after I had attended a similar event in Hradec Kralove, CZ the year before and won a return engagement.)  For some reason, Jonathan took a liking to me (maybe it was just my work ethic and the fact that I was approaching the symposium like a sponge.)  But, again, I learned so much from this septuagenarian about the craft of what I do; more about the great conductors of the past.  I didn't really realize that he was such an important figure in music until several years later, when hearing what was touted on public radio as the first recorded performance of the Rossini Stabat Mater, conducted by Jonathan no less.

The Rudolfinum, home of the Czech Philharmonic
These early experiences with European orchestras led to other engagements:  in the beautiful city of Karlovy Vary (Carlsbad) CZ, in Bucharest, in Walbrzych, Poland, and Pskov, Russia.  It seems though, that I'm always drawn back to Prague.

But I really have to admit that my decision to embark on a doctoral conducting program was a monumental choice.  I had applied for admission to the program at UW-Madison after being invited to a concert there by a former student of mine who was then there for her master's program.  I was so impressed with the conductor that I knew this was where I was meant to be.  But I received a nice "thanks, but we're full" letter and figured I wasn't meant to study any further.  The University of Iowa had the only other doctoral program nearby, and I had no desire to go there, even though a symposium there had allowed me to meet Marvin Rabin, another giant in string and youth orchestra pedagogy (who happened to reside in Madison of all places!).

It was probably two years later that I suddenly received a phone call at my Loras office; it was David Becker, Director of Orchestral Studies at UW, telling me that he thought he might have an opening for the following fall (understand that it was May).  Well, I had to at least feign interest and said, "Sure."  His response?  "Can you come up for an interview and audition the day after tomorrow?"  Dropping everything, I went up for the most grueling "interview" I've ever had:  an hour of talk, an hour "audition" testing technical issues, ear training, keyboard facility, transpositions and even score study (of a totally unfamiliar work.)  Oh yes, and then another hour of talk about the expectations of the program.  I already knew that I was one of two candidates for the one spot.  By the time I left his office, I had been offered the position.  There were no TAs left in May so I'd have to go it on my own, but that I did.
David Becker, THE conductor

I cannot pay high enough praise to David.  He had the highest expectations of any teacher I've ever encountered.  He had a highly developed "curriculum" that not only made me a better conductor, but a better teacher of conducting as well.  He gave me everything he had and much more, entrusting me with the reins of the orchestras on nearly every program.  I had the opportunity to lead the "big work" (Schumann's Third Symphony) on what would prove to be his final concert at UW, for he decided to take a leave of absence to possibly pursue other opportunities.  Lawrence University in Appleton, WI is so fortunate to have him, but it was definitely UW-Madison's loss.

(My most favorite Becker story came as part of a weekly conducting lesson, which were scheduled for an hour, but never went less than 90 minutes.  One week we had to reschedule for some reason, so I assume that it must have been a Friday afternoon--a non-rehearsal day.  We were so engrossed in whatever we were working on--god only knows what it was now--that both of us lost track of the time and when we finally looked at the clock, three hours had passed!  David, ever the gentleman, was so apologetic as he knew that I had to drive back to Dubuque.  My reaction?  I'm paying the bill here; if you're going to give me an extra 90 minutes of instruction, I'll take it.)

There are, of course, many fine faculty members at Madison who affected my life in many positive ways, but I must single out David Crook, one of my history teachers (early music), who showed me that a musicologist can still really love the art of making music and not just talking about it.  And I must be eternally grateful to Director of Bands Michael Leckrone, who entrusted me with the leadership of one of the University Bands for three years (in fact, in year three, he asked me if I could conduct TWO of the ensembles, but my responsibilities did not allow it).  In that time I learned that one could make music with any kind of ensemble; those kids probably would have jumped off a cliff for me, AND they taught me the meaning of the term "the shit" (as I became to be known throughout the School of Music.)

Leaving out a few people from my "return" to the Quad Cities (and leadership of the Quad City Wind Ensemble), that basically brings us full circle to the present.  There are, without doubt, people I've forgotten, but it's easy to see that it takes a village to raise a child or to make a conductor.  I have had the opportunity to have these mentors and many friends who have been with me through the journey thus far.  And so, all of these and many other have been responsible for my accepting this challenge:  “I have a responsibility to pass on to the next generation what I learned from my teachers, ... It keeps me young and reminds me where I came from. Teaching young artists is like giving water to a flower.”  Isaac Stern