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The Gershwin Moment — Part Five: Klemperer, Tibbett, Gerstein

              As I’ve had occasion to observe in my various George Gershwin blogs, Gershwin and J. S. Bach are the two composers most malleable in performance. There is no Gershwin style. And if there is, there’s full license to ignore it. The most recent “PostClassical” broadcast on WWFM includes two little-known but essential Gershwin performances that break the mold. One is Otto Klemperer conducting his transcription of the Second Prelude as a dirge.  The other, from the same … [Read more...]

El Paso, Kurt Weill, and Tornillo’s Tent City

Readers of this blog may remember my last filing from El Paso – a “Kurt Weill’s America” festival, part of the NEH-supported “Music Unwound” consortium I direct, that ignited a week of discussion and debate about immigration past and present. My most memorable experience that week was visiting Eastlake High School, in a semi-rural colonia, and telling 3,000 students about Weill, Walt Whitman, and Pearl Harbor. Weill’s immigrant’s response to FDR’s declaration of war on Japan, setting three Whitman Civil War poems, transfixed these remarkable … [Read more...]

VISCONTI’S FOUR-HOUR “LUDWIG” — A Momentous Wagnerian Film

Today's "Wall Street Journal" includes my mini-review of a remarkable film. It's appended, along with a chunk of my book-in-progress about Wagner the man.      The Film Society of Lincoln Center’s current Luchino Visconti retrospective climaxes with more than a week of screenings (June 16 and 22-28) featuring the restored, four-hour version of Ludwig (1973)—a rare opportunity to properly encounter a magnificent Wagnerian film.      The story is familiar as a cartoon. Insane King Ludwig II of Bavaria built expensive fairy-tale … [Read more...]

Shostakovich and the Cold War

“It is difficult to detect any significant difference between one piece and another. Nor is there any relief from the dominant tone of ‘uplift.’ The musical products of different parts of the Socialist Fatherland all sound as though they had been turned out by Ford or General Motors.” This October 1953 assessment of contemporary Soviet music, by Nicolas Nabokov in the premiere issue of Encounter Magazine, is fascinating for three reasons. The first is that Encounter, which became a prestigious organ of the Anglo-American left, was covertly … [Read more...]

“The Great Composer You’ve Never Heard Of” — and how he was suppressed by Carlos Chavez

“The Great Composer You’ve Never Heard Of” – the most recent “PostClassical” broadcast via the WWFM Classical Network – spends two hours exploring the astounding achievements of Silvestre Revueltas (1899-1940). The show also reveals how Revueltas’s colleague Carlos Chavez – a lesser composer, but with more institutional clout – suppressed Revueltas’s music. It’s all here. As readers of this blog know, Revueltas is the composer most championed by my PostClassical Ensemble in DC. He’s also the main topic of “Copland and Mexico,” the NEH-funded … [Read more...]

Leonard Bernstein at 100: An American Archetype

My 5,000-word piece on the Leonard Bernstein Centenary, in The Weekly Standard this week, begins with a story you’ve never heard before: “In 1980, at the age of 62, Leonard Bernstein undertook the composition of a formidable full-scale opera, commissioned jointly by La Scala, the Kennedy Center, and Houston Grand Opera. He called it A Quiet Place. It’s the story of an unquiet family, the same one that Bernstein had depicted in Trouble in Tahiti in 1952, when he was just 34. Trouble in Tahiti is a romp, deftly dispatched. But Bernstein had … [Read more...]

THE FUTURE OF ORCHESTRAS — Part Five: Kurt Weill, El Paso, and the National Mood

“Wherever I found decency and humanity in the world, it reminded me of America.” Kurt Weill wrote those words after returning from a visit to Germany in 1947. I read them aloud at least a dozen times during the Kurt Weill festival in El Paso last week. Every time I invited my listeners to consider whether or not they still apply. Because Weill was an exemplary immigrant, he furnishes a singularly timely topic for the NEH-funded Music Unwound consortium I am fortunate to direct. “Kurt Weill’s America” has so far been produced at DePauw … [Read more...]

“The Art and Alchemy of Conducting” — and Mahler’s Fourth

As all Mahlerites know, the opening of the Fourth Symphony is both magical and mutable. A preamble of chiming sleigh bells and flutes dissipates to a cheerful violin ditty that coyly retards as it ascends to the tonic G. Mahler writes “etwas zuruckhaltend” (“somewhat held back”). But really anything goes. The champion retarder is Willem Mengelberg, in a famous 1939 recording with his Concertgebouw Orchestra. It sounds like this. Since this passage is inherently playful, conductors can get away with that and we gratefully smile. Since … [Read more...]

Can Orchestras Be Re-Invented?

David Skinner, in his article in the current Humanities Magazine about the NEH-funded Music Unwound consortium that I direct, describes Delta David Gier, the exemplary music director of the South Dakota Symphony, addressing a room of university students and faculty: “He starts by asking everyone to reimagine an orchestra as a humanities institution – one that brings together symphonic music and the immersive intellectual context you get from a museum. That, he says, is what is going on here, in this room, and tomorrow on stage in the program … [Read more...]

Shostakovich and Film — Take Two

I spent the last two days repeatedly viewing – and (as the orchestra’s pianist) participating in – screenings of the 1929 Soviet silent film The New Babylon, with Dmitri Shostakovich’s score performed by PostClassical Ensemble led by Angel Gil-Ordóñez. Every aspect of this astonishing movie has surged in my comprehension and estimation – to the point, for instance, that I have no doubt that Shostakovich’s score, however little known (there is no suite by the composer), is one of the most formidable ever composed for film. Anton Fedyashin, … [Read more...]

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