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The Best of the “Black Symphonies”

For this weekend's "Wall Street Journal" I have written an impassioned encomium for William Dawson's thrilling "Negro Folk Symphony" of 1934 -- still (alas) buried treasure: William Dawson In 1926 the African-American poet Langston Hughes wrote a seminal Harlem Renaissance essay, “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain.” The mountain “standing in the way of any true Negro art in America,” he declared, was an urge “toward whiteness,” a “desire to pour racial individuality into the mold of American standardization, and to be as little … [Read more...]

Allan Bloom, Identity Politics, and “Closed Minds”

Looking for another book not long ago, I stumbled upon Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind. In 1987, it was a national sensation, a trigger-point for debate over the legacy of the sixties and its “counter-culture.” Subtitled “How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students,” Bloom’s salvo attacked from the right. It was less a polemic than a closely reasoned argument fortified with lofty philosophic learning and grounded classroom experience.  My copy of The Closing of the … [Read more...]

JFK’s Cold War Cultural Dogma — and Where It Came From

During the cultural Cold War, President John F. Kennedy delivered eloquent speeches claiming that only “free societies” fostered great creative art. But no one scanning centuries of Western literature and music could possibly believe that. Among countless counter-examples was the Soviet Union at that very moment. Its film-makers included Tarkovsky, its poets Akhmatova, its novelists Solzhenitsyn, its composers Shostakovich -- all of whom were acclaimed in the West as of 1963, the year of Kennedy's most ambitious cultural pronouncements. A … [Read more...]

“Best of the Year” — The Gamelan Experience: From Debussy to Lou Harrison

PostClassical Ensemble’s “Cultural Fusion: The Gamelan Experience,” presented on January 23, 2019, at the Washington National Cathedral, was just named THE BEST CLASSICAL MUSIC EVENT of 2019 by Washington Classical Review. To hear extended excerpts from this one-of-a-kind event -- featuring Javanese and Balinese gamelans, and surveying more than a century of gamelan-inspired concert works – click here. To read a pertinent blog, click here. To read what Sudip Bose had to say in The American Scholar, read on: “I finally heard both a … [Read more...]

“Pique Dame” at the Met — and at the Bolshoi

The Bolshoi Theatre The formidable Norwegian soprano Lisa Davidsen, making her Metropolitan Opera debut in Tchaikovsky’s Queen of Spades, is right now New York’s most talked about opera singer. I caught the final performance in the run, on December 21 – and discovered myself mainly thinking about the Bolshoi Opera’s historic four-week New York season of 1975. The Bolshoi was a throwback to the days of ensemble opera – before airplanes. As of 1975 everything was still sung in Russian. Everyone more or less stayed put in Moscow, sharing … [Read more...]

America’s Forbidden Composer: Take Two — Listening to Arthur Farwell

“America’s forbidden composer” is Arthur Farwell (1872-1952), leader of the “Indianists” movement in music. As I’ve discussed in a recent blog: politically, Farwell seems hopelessly incorrect today. But impressions of Farwell, insofar as they endure, are typically misimpressions. His significance is not merely historical. He composed some of the most original and compelling American piano, choral, and chamber music of the early twentieth century. Two new PostClassical Ensemble webcasts make it possible to actually listen to top-notch Farwell … [Read more...]

Porgy — Take Four

Curtain call for “Porgy and Bess” with Rouben Mamoulian in glasses The latest installment of Conrad L. Osborne’s indispensable opera blog takes stock of Porgy and Bess and the Met’s acclaimed new production. It also graciously plugs my own recent series of Porgy blogs in this space, my American Scholar review of the Met Porgy, and my book (“On My Way” – the Untold Story of Rouben Mamoulian, George Gershwin, and “Porgy and Bess”) about this opera’s complex and illuminating genesis. To my ears, Porgy and Bess is the highest … [Read more...]

America’s Forbidden Composer

                                               -- I -- “Arthur Farwell is probably the most neglected composer in our history. . . . At the turn of the century no one wrote music with greater seriousness of purpose or fought harder for American music. . . . He was an intellectual and spiritual giant.” … [Read more...]

Solomon Volkov on Stalin and Shostakovich

Of Joseph Stalin the culture-czar, Solomon Volkov comments:   “People underestimate the level of control that Stalin maintained. I once tried to count the number of people in the arts that Stalin controlled personally – listened to their music and read their books. It was close to one thousand. This was Stalin’s habit. So Shostakovich knew very well he was under the constant surveillance of the most powerful person in the country. Stalin’s involvement in the world of culture was extraordinary. It was something unprecedented. There is … [Read more...]

Is Porgy a “Stereotype”? — Take Three

Kevin Deas Kevin Deas, the exceptional bass-baritone who is the anonymous “Porgy” of my previous blog, has written to me at greater length about singing the part – and the importance of the view “from below.” He says: “Being on my knees for my first staged Porgy was revelatory. Not only was it the first time that I’d sung the complete role, it was that perspective that was, in particular, very profound. “I’d sung the concert version (comfortably erect) 10s of times. I didn’t fully appreciate the character. Now when I sing extended … [Read more...]

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