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Restoring the drama to El Amor Brujo

The two best-known scores by Manuel de Falla - El Amor Brujo and The Three-Cornered Hat - began as stage works. Today, however, we know them as symphonic suites. In the case of Amor Brujo, the loss is formidable: an austere drama turned into a picturesque entertainment. The original 1915 El Amor Brujo, a gitaneria with dialogue, song, and dance, is unwieldy. The subsequent orchestral suite is fluent, but squanders the work's gypsy soul. PostClassical Ensemble's new staging of El Amor Brujo last weekend in DC was an attempt to restore the … [Read more...]

Siegfried at the Met

The current Times Literary Supplement (UK) includes my review of Fabio Luisi conducting SIegfried and Don Giovanni at the Met, as follows: Notwithstanding its importance as a showplace for rich boxholders -- Mrs. Caroline Astor, who regularly came late and left early, was called a "walking chandelier" -- the early Metropolitan Opera was a conductor's house. During its "German seasons" (1884-1891), the dominant composer was Wagner and the dominant performer was Wagner's protégé Anton Seidl, presiding in the pit. Not so long after, Mahler and … [Read more...]

Presenting Mahler’s Marriage

The most vivid writings about composers' lives, I find, are the ones they produce themselves: letters, articles, books. A case in point is Gustav Mahler -- a copious and gifted correspondent. I have yet to find a Mahler biography that as vividly or poignantly limns the man as Gustav Mahler: Letters of his Wife, as edited by Henry-Louis de La Grange and Gunther Weiss in collaboration with Knud Martner. In fact, this decade-long series of exchanges between Gustav and Alma, cannily interspersed with Alma's diary entries, reads like a play. For … [Read more...]

Ives the Man

The central premise of Post-Classical Ensemble's three-day "Ives Project" at the Strathmore Music Center last week was that Charles Ives the composer was not a curmudgeonly modernist, but a wholesome and uplifting product of fin-de-siecle America. The central presentation, "Charles Ives: A Life in Music," applied letters and other writings to an array of Ives songs (peerlessly enacted by William Sharp) and chamber-orchestra works, plus "The Alcotts" from the Concord Piano Sonata (an exalted performance by Jeremy Denk). The central … [Read more...]

Gershwin Impurities

The American Repertory Theatre's new Porgy and Bess, with its claims that Gershwin's is a crippled opera that needs fixing, is controversially in the news. I read that "Gershwin purists" are expected to thunder their objections. While I cannot agree that Porgy and Bess is any more crippled than, say, Fidelio or Der Rosenkavalier (very uneven works, it seems to me), I would like to know what a Gershwin purist looks like or might have to say. With the possible exception of Johann Sebastian Bach, I cannot think of another composer so inherently … [Read more...]

The Ives Project

In 1942, Edith Ives, age 28, wrote her father a 1,700-word letter for his 68th birthday -- decades after Charles Ives had ceased composing. It read in part: "Dear Daddy, "You are so very modest and sweet Daddy, that I don't think you realize the full import of the words people use about you, 'A great man.' "Daddy, I have had a chance to see so many men lately -- fine fellows, and no doubt the cream of our generation. But I have never in all my life come across one who could measure up to the fine standard of life and living and you believe … [Read more...]

Rachmaninoff in Texas

In Twentieth Century Music, an admirable and much-used survey written in 1974, Eric Salzman devotes 13 pages to Stravinsky, 11 to Schoenberg, and 6 to Berg versus 2 for Ravel, 2 for Shostakovich, 1 for Sibelius, and 1 for Richard Strauss. To Sergei Rachmaninoff, he allots a single sentence, consigning him to the "older Romantic tradition" of Russian music. Today, 37 years later, Rachmaninoff is an expanding twenty-first century presence. Shunned by modernists for deficits in originality and influence, he is newly admired alongside other … [Read more...]

Mahler in Texas

For last Saturday's performance of Mahler's Ninth Symphony at the Round Top Music Festival, an orchestra of 88 gifted young musicians rehearsed for 22 hours over the course of six days; there were also more than four hours of sectional rehearsals. A splendid young Austrian conductor, Christoph Campestrini, used every minute of his allotted time, correcting and exhorting with precision and enthusiasm. The result was formidable: an impassioned and idiomatic account, honed to honor Mahler's kaleidoscopic textures. The previous week, Round Top … [Read more...]

Improvising Stravinsky

One of my standard rants - typically inflicted on young pianists - is called "The Piano in the 21st Century."I begin by asking if anyone can name an important pianist before 1900 who was not also a composer and/or conductor. It's supposed to be a trick question - all the names that come to mind (Liszt, Thalberg, Rubinstein, Pabst, von Bulow, Busoni, etc.) support my point that the "performance specialist" - the pianist who only plays the piano - is a 20th century anomaly. (I had given this talk dozens of times before someone said "Vladimir de … [Read more...]

Something New and Necessary for Orchestras

With the fate of American orchestras in the news, the National Endowment of the Humanities has recently awarded $300,000 for a symphonic project -- "Music Unwound" -- that dramatically explores new templates for concerts and new missions for institutions of performance. The NEH public programs division funds orchestras once every decade or two. That the Humanities Endowment is not accustomed to dealing with orchestras, and that orchestras are not prone to apply for NEH funding, identifies in a nutshell the challenges and opportunities the new … [Read more...]

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