in 1979, the San Francisco Opera staged a troubled production of Ponchielli's La Gioconda. It was troubled because the two leading singers -- Pavarotti and Renata Scotto -- didn't get along. Or, rather, Pavarotti pulled some of his familiar tricks (showing up late for rehearsals, not knowing his part), and Scotto didn't like that. She says as much in her autobiography (out of print, but available through Amazon); she doesn't mention Pavarotti's name, but everybody in the opera world knew who she meant. Everybody in the opera world, … [Read more...]

Bad news and good news

Very scary story linked from ArtsJournal today -- it says that in England, not enough kids are learning to play less popular orchestral instruments, like the trombone, bassoon, oboe, or french horn. Here's a quote: Gavin Henderson, principal of Trinity College of Music in London and chairman of Youth Music, the government advisory group behind [a plan to do something about the problem], said the future of traditional music was at stake. "Orchestras are facing difficulties due to the lack of young, high quality players," he said. While … [Read more...]

Classical and rock

Here's a big difference between classical music, and pop music of the rock era -- rhythm. Not that classical music doesn't have rhythm, but rhythm functions very differently in it. In classical music, rhythm is analyzed as a structural element of music. To repeat the same rhythms, over and over, is considered very crude. Rhythmic patterns are supposed to change and develop. To understand the rhythm of a piece, it's enough to study a score. You can see what the patterns are, and how they change and develop. The identity of the music -- and a lot … [Read more...]

Giving It away

I've gotten a self-produced CD from one of America's more prominent composers, Augusta Read Thomas, composer-in-residence with the Chicago Symphony, etc., etc., etc. The CD is very professionally packaged (though badly designed), and offers just two works, lasting together no more than 20 minutes, in performances conducted by no less than Pierre Boulez. The project was conceived as a CD single, not a full-length CD, and the idea behind it (or so I'm told by the publicist for the project) is in part to plant a seed for major record … [Read more...]

Taken by surprise

Despite everything I said in my last post… Today I was listening to the Sibelius Fifth Symphony. I'm writing marketing blurbs for the Philadelphia Orchestra, blurbs that (as I've mentioned here before; I've done them also for the St. Louis and Pittsburgh symphonies) try to evoke the way the music at each concert really feels. Philadelphia, next year, has programmed the Sibelius Fifth along with other haunting music; I was listening to some of it, looking for the proper words to write. And the symphony, taking me by surprise, just swept me … [Read more...]

Why, why, why?

Recently three CDs found their way into my wife's and my home, all featuring a certain mid-level European conductor, someone who once had made some noise, and now, apparently, has settled into a career not undistinguised, but also none too notable. His publicist would like him to be better known. The repertoire on these CDs: Ein Heldenleben, The Shostakovich Seventh Symphony, and Mahler's Third. Since we're critics, my wife and I are requested to be curious about all this, and to listen to the CDs. But -- speaking, let me be clear, only for … [Read more...]

Great idea!

Yesterday I was talking to Eric Booth, a dynamic guy who works as a consultant, facilitator, and provoacateur in the arts. He's been talking to some orchestras, and working very closely with one of the big ones, and he's full of good ideas. One of them just knocked me out -- why, asks Eric, shouldn't the Chambers of Commerce in cities of all sizes fund local orchestras to compete with each other? Eric calls this "The Battle of the Biggest Bands," and imagines a kind of orchestral world series, with orchestras all over the country competing for … [Read more...]

Where does classical music take us?

A followup to my last post, from Nick Hornby's Songbook, the most thoughtful and engaging book on music that I've read in a long time (and which I've quoted here before): You could, if you were perverse, argue that you'll never hear England by listening to English pop music. The Beatles and the Stones were, in their formative years, American cover bands who sang with American accents; the Sex Pistols were the Stooges with bad teeth and a canny manager, and Bowie was an art-school version of Jackson Browne until he saw the New York Dolls. But … [Read more...]

What year is it?

1931: Maurice Chevalier stars in a movie called The Smiling Lieutenant. His costars are Miriam Hopkins, who plays his wife, and Claudette Colbert, a much more worldly woman, with whom he has a fling. Colbert knows that her affair can't last, so she teaches Hopkins how to hold her man, with advice on clothing, hair, and music. Hopkins plays the piano, old-fashioned pieces like "The Maiden's Prayer." Colbert teaches her to play some jazz, demonstrating in a lively song, which she both plays on the piano and sings. Hopkins tries to sing along, … [Read more...]

Classical search woes, plus iTunes rant

A helpful reader -- after I'd complained (in an earlier post) about classical music search engines on the web -- recommended Amazon's advanced classical search. Certainly it offers more choices than the normal classical search, but…when I looked for Album/Work Title "Symphony" and composer "Beethoven," the first thing that came up was Sarah Brightman's greatest hits CD, with no symphonies or Beethoven anywhere on it. And two days ago I was browsing on the new (and legal) Napster, which turns out to have more or less -- or maybe exactly -- the … [Read more...]

Radio, radio

If you're curious to hear what I said on the radio yesterday -- my subject was the audience for new music -- go here. I start about halfway through the program ("Soundcheck," on WNYC, in New York) and I don't mind getting second billing to Michael Tilson Thomas. … [Read more...]


From the "Circuits" section (technology, computers) of today's New York Times, a letter to the editor: To the Editor: Re "It's Got a Good Beat, but Where's the Cover?'' (Nov. 6), on the decline of album art and the potential for digital offshoots online: I regret that the article discussed this issue only in terms of popular music. In fact, the writer's apparent certainty that online music distribution will replace the compact disc demonstrates a perspective that relegates recorded classical music to the fringes of the market. Classical … [Read more...]

New young audience?

From Harper's magazine, in a provocative article by Thomas de Zengotita, which suggests how a proposed new liberal TV talk show ought to work: Whatever his style, the Host must embody [a] fusion of high and popular culture. That is the key to our enterprise. Why? Because the base of a renewed progressivism in this country is made up of young people for whom that fusion is a way of life. People in this base have read Foucault and spent time in chat rooms discussing Buffy the Vampire Slayer. From interns to associates, these people drive the … [Read more...]

Defending Lang Lang

Sam Bergman writes (he's a violist in the Minnesota Orchestra, and news editor here at ArtsJournal): I didn't hear the recital, obviously, but that review drew some awfully broad conclusions about the soloist's personality and outlook on his newfound celebrity. Unless Tommasini interviewed him before the recital, I'm not buying a word of it. Lang Lang opened our season this year, and I thought he was fantastic. Is he showy? Over-the-top? Perhaps even a bit too into his own head? Sure. He's also, what, 21? I'd hate for my whole career to be … [Read more...]

On the radio

Wednesday, November 13, I'll be on the radio talking about new music, and why it's such a problem in the classical music world. This will be on John Schaefer's wonderful music and talk show, Soundcheck, on WNYC, New York's public radio station, sometime between 2 and 3 PM Eastern time (in the US). 93.9 FM, or live on the web. … [Read more...]