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Why “Porgy and Bess” Is More than a “Period Piece”

However popular it may be, Porgy and Bess remains an object of rampant controversy and confusion. An odd item in the New York Times the other day reported that the white cast of the Hungarian State Opera’s Porgy and Bess (above) had been instructed to declare themselves “African-Americans.” “The singers were asked to sign a declaration stating that ‘African-American origins and spirit form an inseparable part’ of their identity.” Commenting on the Gershwin Estate’s insistence that Porgy and Bess be cast with black singers, Szilveszter … [Read more...]

Music from Paradise

Claude Debussy wrote: “But my poor friend! Do you remember the Javanese music, able to express every shade of meaning, even unmentionable shades which make our tonic and dominant seem like ghosts? . . . Their school consists of the eternal rhythm of the sea, the wind in the leaves, and a thousand other tiny noises . . . that force one to admit that our own music is not much more than a barbarous kind of noise more fit for a traveling circus.” Debussy heard a Javanese gamelan at the Paris Exposition of 1889 – an epiphany. Another such … [Read more...]

Mark Twain, Charles Ives, and Race

In the current issue the quarterly review Raritan, I write that Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Charles Ives’s Symphony No. 2 “are twin American cultural landmarks, comparable in method and achievement.”  They both transform a hallowed Old World genre – the novel, the symphony -- through recourse to New World vernacular speech. To read the whole piece, click here. It bears mentioning that Ives and Mark Twain knew one another via the Reverend Joseph Twitchell. Twitchell was for forty years Samuel Clemens’s closest … [Read more...]

Did Wagner Exploit King Ludwig?

Did Wagner exploit King Ludwig? In Luchino Visconti’s magnificent four-hour film Ludwig, the king is ingeniously cast as an embodiment of the Wagnerian pariah; Visconti has transformed Ludwig’s story into a veritable homage to Richard Wagner. Is Visconti’s Ludwig a credible re-enactment of history? Doubtless it could be considered a whitewash job. But not be me. Wagner remains an object of excessive condemnation and mistrust -- witness Simon Callow’s recent cheap shot, Being Wagner. In writing about Visconti’s mega bio-pic for the current … [Read more...]

Dvorak, Harry Burleigh, and Cultural Appropriation — a “PostClassical” Podcast

Could Harry Burleigh -- Antonin Dvorak’s African-American assistant -- be considered an Uncle Tom? These days, the question comes up whenever Burleigh comes up: it’s a symptom of the times, and of our crazy obsession with “cultural appropriation.” And it is addressed head-on over the course of the most recent PostClassical Ensemble WWFM podcast, featuring a supreme exponent of the spiritual in concert: the African-American bass baritone Kevin Deas. (To see what he and others have to say, hang on for a dozen paragraphs -- or simply access … [Read more...]

Lou Harrison and The Great American Piano Concerto — Reprised

Eight years ago, on the occasion of PostClassical Ensemble’s first performance of Lou Harrison’s Piano Concerto with Benjamin Pasternack as soloist, I wrote in this space: “The music of Lou Harrison represents a rare opportunity for advocacy. To begin with, he is unquestionably a major late 20th-century composer, and yet little-known. Also, he is both highly accessible and stupendously original. And he is the composer of a Piano Concerto as formidable as any ever composed by an American.” Two weeks ago, PostClassical Ensemble reprised the … [Read more...]

Falla and Flamenco — “The Birth of Spanish Music” According to my friend the remarkably loquacious Spanish pianist Pedro Carboné, the “birth of Spanish music” occurs during the third of Manuel de Falla’s Nights in the Gardens of Spain. Pedro made this argument at length on our most recent “PostClassical” broadcast: “Falla and Flamenco.” And he clinched it by citing his distinctive live performance of this piece with PostClassical Ensemble. You can hear what Pedro’s talking about by gong to 1:03:00 here. Bill McGlaughlin, who hosts “PostClassical,” … [Read more...]

High Culture Without Apologies — What Orchestras Can Do

The current Weekly Standard has a long piece by me about the future of American orchestras. I write that orchestras can help us to heal our shredded national fabric and regain a lost “sense of place” – a shared American identity via our history and culture. And yes, I mean high culture. I continue in part: “Our colleges don’t teach much history any longer. Many cultural institutions seem increasingly adrift. And yet I have stumbled upon an unlikely alliance that works: orchestras in partnership with universities. . . . “If orchestras … [Read more...]

How South Dakota Shows What Orchestras Are For

Beginning in the 1860s, the conductor Theodore Thomas – a symphonic Johnny Appleseed – began touring the entire United States with his Thomas Orchestra. His credo was: “A symphony orchestra shows the culture of the community.” And in cities large and small, it did. Today, the American orchestra is no longer the civic bulwark it once was. There are exceptions. I would say that the Chicago Symphony is one. That’s partly because Thomas himself was the founding music director, in 1891; and because he was succeeded by his assistant, Frederick … [Read more...]

Jonas Kaufmann vs. the Orchestra of St. Luke’s

  My father, who grew up on the Lower East Side, probably never heard opera until – like other Jews of his generation facing American quotas -- he went to medical school in Vienna in the 1930s. His only prior exposure to full-throated singing, I imagine, came in the synagogue: cantorial tenors. When I was very young and precociously amassing LPs of Beethoven, Brahms, and Wagner, my father collected recordings of the operetta tenors from his medical school years, singers whose high temper and juicy high notes connected with Jan Peerce … [Read more...]

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