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Uncle Vanya Meets Porgy and Bess

What did the legendary Russian experimental theater director Yevgeny Vakhtangov (1883-1922) have in common with Porgy and Bess, Oklahoma!, and Carousel? The immigrant director of these landmark Broadway productions, Rouben Mamoulian, was to some degree a Vakhtangov disciple. Mamoulian took Broadway by storm in 1927 with his staging of Dubose Heyward’s novel Porgy. At the age of 30, he was an overnight star, an apostle of radically integrated musical theater imposed by a singular directorial vision. Mamoulian’s fame drove him to Hollywood, … [Read more...]

The Lou Harrison Centenary

  If you asked me who composed the best American violin concerto, and who composed the best American piano concerto, I would answer with the same name: Lou Harrison. And yet, except on the West Coast of the United States, Harrison is not a brand name. The present Harrison Centenary year can help to change that. We finally have a copious full-scale biography: Lou Harrison: American Musical Maverick by Bill Alves and Brett Campbell. Alex Ross, our most necessary observer of American classical music, has published a brief but telling … [Read more...]

Arts Leadership in the Age of Trump

In 1966 the New York Philharmonic undertook an 18-day Stravinsky festival as a kind of try-out for Lukas Foss, whom Leonard Bernstein favored to take over as music director. The conductors included Foss, Bernstein, Ernest Ansermet (who had conducted for Diaghilev), Kiril Kondrashin (a major Soviet artist), and Stravinsky himself. George Balanchine choreographed Ragtime for Suzanne Farrell and Arthur Mitchell. The Soldier’s Tale was given with John Cage as the Devil, Elliott Carter as the Soldier, and Aaron Copland narrating. Elisabeth … [Read more...]

AT THE BARRICADES: The Arts in the Age of Trump

You’re looking at a photo of me – the old guy with the beard – being thanked by students at East Lake High School, a semi-rural public high school on the outskirts of El Paso, Texas. Five hundred East Lake students had just spent 90 minutes watching and listening to a presentation sampling Redes (1935) – the iconic film of the Mexican Revolution, a tale of exploited fishermen who unite and revolt. As readers of this blog know, Redes is an obsession of mine. However little acknowledged, it’s one of the peak examples, in all cinema, of great … [Read more...]

Are Orchestras Better than Ever? Why Riccardo Muti is Wrong

Are orchestras better than ever?  Riccardo Muti thinks so. Recently, dedicating a bust of Fritz Reiner at Chicago’s Orchestra Hall, he said: “The level of the orchestras in the world – especially in the seventies and eighties -- has gone up everywhere.” What is Muti talking about? I suppose he’s applying the criterion of perfection. Perfect intonation, perfect ensemble. What kind of criterion is that? Thanks to the exceptional WWFM The Classical Network, I’ve been able to respond to this parochial claim at three hours length, in colloquy … [Read more...]

Music and the National Mood

PostClassical Ensemble – the DC chamber orchestra I co-founded a dozen years ago – produced a concert at the Washington National Cathedral last Saturday night that seemed to address the national mood. These are fractious times – times in which the arts can acquire a special pertinence. Times in which music can be a provocation or a balm. We titled our program “The Trumpet Shall Sound.” It intermingled spirituals with religious arias by Bach, Handel, and Mendelssohn. Our inspiration was the example of Harry Burleigh – who more than anyone … [Read more...]

Trifonov Plays Shostakovich

No other music so instantly evokes a sense of place as that of Dmitri Shostakovich. When Daniil Trifonov launched Shostakovich’s E minor Prelude at Carnegie Hall last week, the bleakness and exigency of Stalin’s Russia at once chilled the huge space. The Shostakovich affect can seem exotic or native, according to circumstance. I would say it today complements that part of the national mood concentrated in the Northeastern United States and 3,000 miles away on the West Coast. Trifonov offered a substantial Shostakovich set: five of the 24 … [Read more...]

Brendel and Schubert

This weekend's "Wall Street Journal" includes my review of Alfred Brendel's new essay collection, "Music, Sense, and Nonsense," as follows: It is axiomatic, to some, that music speaks for itself. But there are musicians who both perform and speak for music. In this country, Leonard Bernstein was surely the most influential exemplar. Bernstein’s landmark campaign for the symphonies of Gustav Mahler, which he greatly helped to canonize beginning in 1959, included popular sermons on television and in print. But Bernstein’s 1960 Young Peoples’ … [Read more...]

The Future of Orchestras Part IV: Attention-Span

A colleague in Music History at a major American university reports that it has become difficult to teach sonata form because sonata forms transpire over 15 minutes and more.  This topic – shrinking attention-span -- is obviously not irrelevant to the future of orchestras. My most memorable TV interview took place half a dozen years ago in a Southern city of moderate size. I was producing “Dvorak and America” for the local orchestra, assisted by Kevin Deas. We were roused from our hotel in the wee hours of the morning and conveyed to a … [Read more...]

Virgil Thomson: Guerilla Tactics and Slapdash Judgments

In today' s Wall Street Journal I review the new Library of America Virgil Thomson compendium. Here's what I had to say: The heyday of American classical music occurred around the turn of the 20th century, when most everyone ­involved assumed that American composers would create a native canon and that American orchestras in 2016 would play mainly American music. This vibrant fin de siècle moment also marked the apex of classical-music journalism in the United States. In New York, the most estimable critics were W.J. Henderson of the Times, … [Read more...]

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