Category Archives: Music

10 FACTS ABOUT THE COMPOSER IGOR STRAVINSKY YOU NEED TO KNOW ·

(Anna Galayda’s  article appeared in Russia Beyond the Headlines, 9/4; Photo: classicstogo.nl)

The legendary musician lived for 88 years (1882-1971). He witnessed some of the most dramatic events of the 20th century, which found a vivid expression in his works.

One of the most radical composers of the 20th century was the son of an opera singer, who in many ways embodied the musical tradition of the 19th century. Bass Fyodor Ignatievich Stravinsky was awarded the rare title of an Honored Artist of the Imperial Theaters, in which he had served for a quarter of a century. He had 59 operas in his repertoire. Some of his signature roles included Varlaam in Boris Godunov by Modest Mussorgsky, Farlaf in Ruslan and Lyudmila by Mikhail Glinka, Miller in Rusalka by Alexander Dargomyzhsky, Orlik in Mazepa by Pyotr Tchaikovsky.

Stravinsky Sr. was a prominent figure on the St. Petersburg cultural scene. Ilya Repin used him as a model for one of the Cossacks in his famous painting Zaporozhian Cossacks Write a Letter to the Turkish Sultan; and Fyodor Dostoevsky was a guest in the singer’s house.

2. He became a composer thanks to Rimsky-Korsakov

The composer often described Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov as his second father. Having entered – at the insistence of his family – the law faculty of St. Petersburg University, Stravinsky never had any formal music education. Rimsky-Korsakov discerned his original gift, dissuaded him from entering the Conservatory, and for two years gave him private lessons himself, thus playing a decisive role in Stravinsky’s professional development.

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HAMILTON REVIEW – BROADWAY HIT IS NOW A BREATHTAKING SCREEN SENSATION ·

(Arifa Akbar’s article appeared in the Guardian, 6/30; photo: The Guardian.)

Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical is smart, witty, funky and leaves us reflecting on America’s past and future

Hamilton was hailed as revolutionary theatre in 2015, with its rapping 18th-century statesmen, its funky, feelgood hip-hop and a cast predominantly comprising actors of colour. It went on to conquer Broadway and West End audiences. How does that original Broadway staging fare on the flat screen, streamed by Disney+ in the midst of lockdown?

It spoke to the moment then, and it speaks to us now, say director Thomas Kail and Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator and star, in their short, socially distanced preamble to this highly anticipated film of the show. “We are all thinking about what it means to be American,” they add. Even if these words are not in direct reference to the America of the past few weeks, with its upsurge of anti-racist protest, their story of the Caribbean-born immigrant hero and founding father of the US, Alexander Hamilton, speaks to us obliquely of all that remains neglected in America’s history while shifting the parameters at the same time.

Its rousing opening scenes remind us of that great American ideal of equality and speaks of slavery and civil rights in the 18th century. “I never thought I’d live past 20. Where I come from, some get half as many,” sings Hamilton at the start, and his words echo the dangerous fate that awaits so many of America’s black or immigrant underclass now, as debate around Black Lives Matter protests has highlighted.

Even more remarkably, it keeps all the power of a live performance while simultaneously adding a filmic pizzazz including some breathtaking aerial shots. There is extraordinary direction – again under Kail – so that the cameras capture the mise en scène of theatre without losing any of the closeup intimacy of film.

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IGOR LEVIT IS LIKE NO OTHER PIANIST ·

(Alex Ross’s article appeared in The New Yorker, 5/11.)

He’s a political activist. His repertory is vast. And, during Germany’s shutdown, he streamed more than fifty performances from home. It’s made him question what a concert can be.

On March 10th, the German pianist Igor Levit played Beethoven’s Third and Fifth Piano Concertos at the Elbphilharmonie, the hulking concert complex in Hamburg. It was his thirty-third birthday and, it turned out, his last public concert for many weeks. The next day, Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, delivered a dire warning about the scope of the looming coronavirus pandemic, and performance spaces began closing across the country. At the time, Levit had a full schedule before him. He had recently issued a boxed-set recording of Beethoven’s thirty-two piano sonatas, and was playing Beethoven cycles in several European cities. He was also preparing to tackle an arcane colossus of the piano literature—the seventy-minute Piano Concerto by the early-twentieth-century composer-virtuoso Ferruccio Busoni, a hero of his.

“That next day, the eleventh, was kind of a shock day,” Levit told me recently, in a video call from his apartment, in Berlin. “On the twelfth, I was shopping in a grocery store, and I had this thought: What if I live-streamed a gig?” He peered into his phone with a grin. He is a trim young man with sharp features, a high Mahlerian hairline, and a thin growth of beard. He was wearing a T-shirt that read “Love Music Hate Racism.” He speaks rapidly and incisively, his English nearly as good as his German. Sometimes he seems more mature than his years, poised and oracular; at others, he comes across as an antic, restless member of his digital-native generation.

Levit went on, “When I got home, I did what I usually do, which is to throw a thought into the public arena without thinking about any consequences. I went on Twitter and said, ‘O.K., I’m going to play for you guys tonight at my place.’ After having tweeted that, I realized, Hang on—I’ve never streamed anything, I know shit about streaming, I don’t even know if Twitter allows thirty minutes of streaming, I have no camera stand. I had a total panic. I was sending messages to friends: ‘Do you know how streaming works?’ And this tweet was already out there. It was a catastrophe. I ran to the last electronics store that was still open, and got some stuff for twenty-four euros.”

I saw Levit’s tweet and tuned in. The setting was familiar, because I had met with him there the previous summer. He lives in a spacious, airy, sparely decorated apartment in the Mitte neighborhood of Berlin, with plate-glass windows overlooking a park. His instrument is a 1923 Steinway B that once belonged to the great Swiss pianist Edwin Fischer. At 7 p.m., Levit pressed the Record button on his smartphone and trotted in front of his newly acquired home-Webcasting equipment, dressed casually in a black-and-gray pullover shirt and black pants. He gave a brief introduction, in German and English: “It’s a sad time, it’s a weird time, but acting is better than doing nothing. Let’s bring the house concert into the twenty-first century.” He then tore into Beethoven’s “Waldstein” Sonata, in a fashion typical of him—precipitate, purposeful, intricately nuanced. It was an imposing structure aglow with feeling.

Other pianists of Levit’s generation may have achieved wider mass-market fame—Lang Lang and Yuja Wang come first to mind—but none have comparable stature as a cultural or even a political figure. In German-speaking countries, Levit is a familiar face not only to classical-music fans but also to a broader population that shares his leftist, internationalist world view. He has appeared on mainstream German TV shows; participated in political panel discussions; and attended the annual gathering of the Green Party, playing Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” the anthem of the European Union. It was no surprise that Levit’s inaugural live stream attracted attention, though I was taken aback when the number of viewers climbed into the tens of thousands.

In the following weeks, as Levit kept Webcasting each night, a convivial online community formed around him on Twitter and its Periscope app—a self-described “Igor Familie.” Periscope includes a chat-room sidebar, with hearts floating up the screen like bubbles. Most comments were in German, but there were salutations from Nairobi, Tokyo, and Montevideo. Some viewers made musicological points—“New harmonic structures become transparent,” one person wrote when Levit tackled Brahms’s arrangement of the Bach Chaconne in D Minor—while others discussed the pianist’s facial hair, T-shirts, and footwear. “Hard rock fan from Düsseldorf is thrilled,” one commenter said. Levit delivered short talks, usually focussed on the music at hand. He never spoke at the end, though emotion sometimes surfaced. Once, halfway through Schubert’s sublime Sonata in B-flat, he buried his head in his hands, hiding tears; he did the same after Morton Feldman’s solitary, unearthly “Palais de Mari.”

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HOW DE NIRO GAVE US SINATRA’S ‘NEW YORK, NEW YORK,’ OUR 7 P.M. ANTHEM ·

(Michael Wilson’s article appeared in The New York Times, 5/1.)

Frank Sinatra can thank Robert De Niro and two annoyed songwriters for the song that revived his career and now is the theme music of the city’s nightly tribute.

The old friend shows up every night, big and brawny as ever. He’s on a Brooklyn family’s seventh-floor balcony in Windsor Terrace, and above the Portofino Ristorante in Forest Hills, and bellowing out of a truck rolling slowly up and down the empty canyons of Manhattan’s avenues, right on time to — with the crash of a cymbal — start spreadin’ the news.

It is 7 p.m., and the city is already clapping, a nightly outpouring of support for health care workers that has taken place for weeks. And many have added a soundtrack to their applause, as familiar as the skyline. It’s as brassy and over the top as ever — and yet, playing out across a cooped-up city of crowded apartments and masks and gloves, its bottomless optimism can visibly bring smiles, a short pause to The Pause.

I want to be a part of it — New York, New York.

“A lot of people stop doing what they’re doing and start cheering,” said George Leon, a manager at Portofino with a front-row seat to the nightly performance, when an upstairs neighbor plays it on loudspeakers from his apartment window. “It’s awesome.”

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You decide best version: 

 

OPERA AT THE EDGE ·

Bo Skovhus as Lear and Annette Dasch as Cordelia in Aribert Reimann’s Lear at the Paris Opera

(Matthew Aucoin’s article appeared in the New York Review of Books, 5/14.)

 Lear

an opera by Aribert Reimann, at the Paris Opera, November 21–December 7, 2019

Orest

an opera by Manfred Trojahn, at the Vienna State Opera, November 14–20, 2019

Heart Chamber

an opera by Chaya Czernowin, at the Deutsche Oper Berlin, November 15–December 6, 2019

 

Bo Skovhus as Lear and Annette Dasch as Cordelia in Aribert Reimann’s Lear at the Paris Opera

Last November, having just put the final touches on Eurydice, the opera I’d been working on for several years, I paid a visit to Europe to hear operas by three fellow composers, none of whose stage works are performed in America with any regularity. In spite of the uncanny ease with which music can be distributed online, and in spite of the popular notion of music as a “universal language,” contemporary opera in America can feel like an insular endeavor: the flip side of many American opera companies’ laudable support for homegrown composers is a cautiousness that verges on xenophobia. When it comes to new works, the thinking goes, why import a challenging piece in a foreign language when a local composer could write one in English? In past centuries, American companies almost exclusively imported European works; these days, new European operas are sometimes assumed to be excessively strong meat for the teeth of American audiences.

The chaos of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic has made the following essay, written before it began, feel suddenly like an artifact from a distant time. This crisis will wreak havoc in all sectors; for the world of the arts, it is already a devastation. Classical music has long been an art form centered on live performance, ever more so since the collapse of the classical recording industry, and it’s hard to imagine when music lovers will again be willing to form the human petri dish that is a concert audience.

Out of generosity, out of necessity, artists and institutions worldwide are broadcasting their work online, in many cases for free. An astonishingly rich world of music is more in evidence and more readily available than ever. It’s hard to imagine any positive side effects to our current state of emergency, but perhaps, in our newfound state of isolation, we can learn new ways to listen across borders, with open ears.

Composers who adapt Shakespeare must inevitably perform surgery on the Bard’s lengthy, poetically exuberant plays: Verdi cut an entire act to turn Othello into Otello; Thomas Adès and Meredith Oakes condensed the winding rhythms of Shakespeare’s pentameter into clipped doggerel for their adaptation of The Tempest. The German composer Aribert Reimann, who composed his Lear in the late 1970s at the request of the baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, performs his surgery with a sledgehammer. He and his librettist, Claus H. Henneberg, burn away nearly all traces of compassion and complexity from the play’s more sympathetic characters, including Lear, and abandon the play’s essential trajectory, of a tenuous political order unraveling into chaos, instead depicting a world that is darkly chaotic from the outset. The leveling winds of the heath blow all night through Reimann’s score.

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HEAR BOB DYLAN’S ABSOLUTELY MIND-BLOWING NEW SONG ‘MURDER MOST FOUL’ ·

(Brian Hiatt’s article appeared in Rolling Stone, 3/27; Photo: Rolling Stone.)

Bob Dylan, who hasn’t released an original song since 2012’s Tempest, unexpectedly dropped a previously unheard, nearly 17-minute-long new track, “Murder Most Foul,” late Thursday night.

Dylan didn’t say exactly when the song was recorded, but his delicate vocal delivery resembles the way he’s been singing in his live shows in the past couple of years. “Greetings to my fans and followers with gratitude for all your support and loyalty over the years,” Dylan said in a statement. “This is an unreleased song we recorded a while back that you might find interesting. Stay safe, stay observant, and may God be with you.”

This dizzying, utterly extraordinary song — as allusive as it is elusive — starts off seeming like it might be a straightforward recounting of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, but expands into an impressionistic, elegiac, increasingly apocalyptic journey through what feels like the entire Sixties (complete with references to the Who’s Tommy, Woodstock, and Altamont) and then perhaps all of 20th-century America, especially its music.

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BACK ON CATFISH ROW ·

Eric Owens as Porgy and Angel Blue as Bess in Porgy and Bess at the Metropolitan Opera

(Geoffrey O’Brien’s article appeared in the New York Review of Books, 11/21.)  

Porgy and Bess

an opera by George Gershwin, DuBose and Dorothy Heyward, and Ira Gershwin, at the Metropolitan Opera, New York City, September 23, 2019–February 1, 2020

Summertime: George Gershwin’s Life in Music

by Richard Crawford

Norton, 594 pp., $39.95

Porgy and Bess opened on Broadway in 1935, to mixed reviews and insufficient box office receipts, but I am unable to disassociate it from the musical culture I grew up with in the 1950s, a decade when George Gershwin’s opera seemed to be everywhere. In 1951, at the dawn of the LP era, the first ostensibly complete recording was released by Columbia Masterworks.1 Earlier recordings had consisted only of hit songs from the show—“Summertime,” “My Man’s Gone Now,” “It Ain’t Necessarily So.” Columbia’s lavish three-record set offered more music than the original Broadway version, which had been shortened by at least thirty minutes before the New York opening. More crucially, it presented Porgy and Bess as an opera of densely interwoven parts, unlike productions that in the decade following Gershwin’s death in 1937 had made drastic cuts and replaced recitatives with spoken dialogue, turning it into something more like a musical.2

For my oldest brother, Robert, a precocious student of musical theater and orchestral arrangement, the Columbia recording became a constant object of study. At mid-decade, when he was fourteen and I was seven, I had the benefit of hearing many passages played repeatedly, along with a running commentary on fine points of harmony and instrumentation often beyond my comprehension. Robert’s ultimate concern being formal, he impressed on me the sense of an invisible architecture beyond words, delineated by the baton he sometimes waved in accompaniment.

No technical explanation was needed to grasp the tidal power of Gershwin’s music in the choral surges and Porgy’s final departure, especially at the volume my brother preferred. At the same time, an intimacy of feeling throughout suggested a community, almost a household, of voices running through all the possible levels of speaking, singing, crying out. To listen closely was to be pulled into an encompassing sonic environment within which lives were being lived under constant stress, in the imaginary but very real space around the record player.

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Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

WHY DID THE SOVIETS NOT WANT US TO KNOW ABOUT THE PIANIST MARIA GRINBERG? ·

(Damian Thompson’s article appeared in the Spectator, 9/7.)

She was one of only four women to record the complete Beethoven piano sonatas but the state kept her in obscurity

Only four women pianists have recorded complete cycles of the Beethoven piano sonatas: Maria Grinberg, Annie Fischer, H. J. Lim and Mari Kodama. I’ve written before about the chain-smoking ‘Ashtray Annie’ Fischer: she was a true poet of the piano and her Beethoven sonatas are remarkably penetrating — as, alas, is the sound of her beaten-up Bösendorfer. Lim produced her cycle in a hurry when she was just 24; it’s engaging but breathless. Kodama’s set, just completed, is a bit polite.

Which leaves Maria Grinberg (1908–78), whose recordings remain just where the Soviet authorities wanted them. In obscurity. That is shameful — and not because she was the first woman and the first Russian to record all the sonatas. (In those days Jews from Odessa in Ukraine counted as Russians.) This is an unforgettable cycle. Unforgettable, that is, in the unlikely event that you’ve heard it.

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‘THE PIRATES OF PENZANCE’ FROM GILBERT & SULLIVAN PLAYERS (REVIEW FROM NEW YORK) ·

By Bob Shuman

Culturally, winter holidays and families may be more important to Arts curriculum than what is taught in schools.  During the recess, children can be exposed to The Nutcracker or Hamilton, see a movie, receive a book, or listen to show tunes—and something in them may open up.  Hopefully, they will feel surprise at what they discover, and suddenly, have a memory to savor for a lifetime.  The occasion can give a student special definition or identification, which has nothing to do with grades or societal programming, expectations or approval.  Some may even believe that such a turning point has the potential to turn the young into future ticket buyers, but that is too crass an estimation.   Building this secret place might begin with Rodgers and Hammerstein, The Lion King, or learning about the settling of New Amsterdam  or Winston Churchill.  The subject might be old-fashioned or quirky, like first reading Alice in Wonderland, going to the circus, or listening to a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta. What is important is that, in a nation where most people do about the same things during a day, the mundane is broken and  individualism can emerge.

Cleverly directed, as well as conducted, by Albert Bergeret and choreographed by Bill Fabris, with ballet, comic marches, and even a nod to A Chorus Line, The Pirates of Penzance, from New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players (which ran at the Kaye Playhouse at Hunter College from December 27-30) strikes this reviewer as a production with ingredients to inspire—coming from the kind of theatre company you always hoped was out there and getting supported. The cast, on the evening of December 28, included David Macaluso, Mathew Wages, James Mills, Carter Lynch, David Auxier, Katie Dixon, Hannah Holmes, Abigail Benke, Merrill Grant, and Angela Christine Smith, among other well-trained singers in an ensemble of pirates, police, and wards, working with good humor and high spirits. The set, an old-fashioned painted backdrop with rainbow lighting—including a Celtic ruin and the dangerous clifftops of Cornwall, England–was by Lou Anne Gilleland (scenic design) and Benjamin Weill (lights)—the period costumes come from Gail J. Wofford & Quinto Ott W.S. Gilbert’s libretto is nonsensical, using Queen Victoria as a deus ex machina, but there are moments in Shaw and Shakespeare that seem about as contrived, as well.

What is noticeable, however, is how well the tuneful music continues to captivate and flow–and here its orchestration is superior to the rather tinny, electronic hurdy-gurdy sounds used for the Joseph Papp production of 1980, starring Kevin Kline and Linda Ronstadt.  Maybe this is all a way of saying that this reviewer had something of an epiphany himself regarding Gilbert and Sullivan, after assuming that such a piece would be rather moldy.  But the presentation, played at a human scale, glistens like the bright, sparkling earrings worn by Dixon’s Mabel. Tell someone about the integrity of this company and perhaps recommend it to a young person looking for purpose—maybe he or she will ask the artists what they did over their holidays as kids.

Visit New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players 

© by Bob Shuman.  All rights reserved.   

Production photos: Carol Rosegg