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Pearl Harbor music: Weill and Schoenberg

Of the distinguished refugee composers chased to the US by Hitler, two - Kurt Weill and Arnold Schoenberg - so memorably responded to Pearl Harbor that one is tempted to surmise that no American-born composer could have reacted with such exigent fervor to the Japanese attack. The two works in question are Weill's Walt Whitman Songs and Schoenberg's Ode to Napoleon. I have now had three occasions to present them in tandem (most recently at Pacific Symphony's American Composers Festival earlier this month). That neither piece is well known or … [Read more...]

Liszt and Improvisation

The featured pianists in Post-Classical Ensemble's two-day "Interpreting Liszt" festival, in collaboration with Georgetown University, were Mykola Suk and Kumaran Arul. Suk's performances are all about risk - interpretively, emotionally, his art is one of inspired brinkmanship. He embodies a spirit of improvisation. Arul actually improvises. In my experience, Suk's readings of the B minor Sonata and Dante Sonata surpass in impact the Liszt performance of any other living pianist. His performance of Totentanz, at the DC festival, transcended … [Read more...]

Bernard Herrmann and Musical Topography

With the waning of modernism, and of the high value once placed on conspicuous complexity and originality, the topography of twentieth century music is rapidly changing. One of the chief American beneficiaries is certain to be Bernard Herrmann. Everyone appreciates Herrmann for his singular achievements as a film composer. Without him, there would be no Psycho, North by Northwest, or Vertigo, and Citizen Kane would be a lesser film. But Herrmann also produced a substantial catalogue of concert works in the same style. Though he clung to … [Read more...]

Visuals in the Concert Hall

Worries that classical music isn't "visual" enough have produced concerts embellished with film, photographs, and video. Obviously, this form of enhancement risks shrinking the musical experience rather than expanding it. A symphony linked to a visualized story or motif is likely to mean less, not more. To date, I have produced two "visual presentations" with the video artist Peter Bogdanoff: one for the Largo and Scherzo of Dvorak's New World Symphony (for the Brooklyn Philharmonic in 1994 and subsequently seen in California and Berlin), and … [Read more...]

Choreographing Carmen: Wheeldon vs. Mamoulian

In a recent New York Times dance column (Jan. 15), Alastair Macaulay takes Christopher Wheeldon to task for the obtuse choreography he has inflicted on the Met's new Carmen. As Macauley truly observes, Wheeldon's decision to cast the act three entr'acte -- a fragrant flute and harp piece, one of Bizet's most beloved miniatures -- as an erotic pas de deux defies understanding. Bizet, of course, intended this music to be played with the curtain down. Wheeldon is far from the first person to attempt performing it with the curtain up. In fact, a … [Read more...]

Horowitz on Horowitz on Horowitz on Horowitz: A Recantation

About a year ago, my son Bernie (now 22 years old) produced a self-described "Oedipal Tirade" titled "Horowitz on Horowitz on Horowitz," the three Horowitzes being Bernie, myself, and Vladimir. Far away at college, liberated from parental guidance, Bernie had acquired a consuming passion for the recordings of Vladimir Horowitz. At Bernie's age, I, too, succumbed to the thundering octaves and all-purpose intensity. Decades later, looking back, I produced a diatribe of my own: "The Transformations of Vladimir Horowitz," for The Musical Quarterly … [Read more...]

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