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Wagner at Coney Island

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In the 1890s, when Wagnerism was at its height, Wagner’s American disciple Anton Seidl (1850-1898) would lead concerts fourteen times a week at Coney Island. He mainly conducted Wagner. The concerts, at the seaside Brighton Beach Music Pavilion (capacity 3,000), included children’s programs and the Seidl Society children’s chorus. Seidl himself composed a work for the children, “Good Night,” the manuscript of which resides at the Seidl Archives at Columbia University. “Good Night” received its first performance since 1898 a few weeks ago as … [Read more...]

Shostakovich Decoded

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The Pacific Symphony, an orchestra that does things differently, mounted a “Shostakovich Decoded” festival over the past two weeks in collaboration with Chapman University. There were more than a dozen events, including a conference on Stalin and culture, an exhibit of Stalinist kitsch, master classes and lectures, and a potent variety of concerts. The central participants included Solomon Volkov, the author of Testimony: The Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich, and the actor David Prather, whose re-enactments of Shostakovich remembering were a tour … [Read more...]

My “Porgy and Bess” Playlist

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A few months ago Jim Svejda of LA’s KUSC, whose The Record Shelf has for years invaluably showcased necessary recordings from before the LP era, invited me to talk about my new book “On My Way”: The Untold Story of Rouben Mamoulian, George Gershwin, and “Porgy and Bess.” The spine of our one-hour chat was a Porgy play-list I invite you to sample (in sequence): 1.[Beginning of track 1:] From the Gershwin Memorial Concert at the Hollywood Bowl (Sept. 8, 1937), Otto Klemperer conducting his LA Phil in his own slow-motion transcription of … [Read more...]

Leonard Bernstein’s Letters

Reviewing the new book The Leonard Bernstein Letters in last Saturday’s Wall Street Journal, I write: In June 2011, the estate of Leonard Bernstein donated to the Library of Congress 1,800 letters that had been sealed at his death. As the library’s Bernstein Collection already included more than 15,000 letters, postcards and telegrams, the resulting amalgamation obviously called for a book—and here it is, 23 years after the composer-conductor’s death at the age of 72. As composers go, the champion letter writer was Ferruccio Busoni, whose … [Read more...]

“I’m a Didactic Writer”

Last Fall, I was interviewed for a full hour by Chris Johnson of Houston Public Radio and invited to comment not only on my book Moral Fire, but more broadly on the state of culture in today’s America. Chris suggested that my book, though situated in the late Gilded Age, was “chockfull of lessons – but that might not be the word you would use.” Oh yes it is, I replied -- I’m a didactic writer who writes books “partly out of disgruntlement with the 21st century.” So I wound up talking about Jon Stewart and Bill Maher, about the … [Read more...]

How Did “Porgy and Bess” Originate?

“Where did the big set pieces of Porgy and Bess originate? With Rouben Mamoulian, it seems,” writes Steven Suskin in his copious Playbill.com review of my new book “On My Way” – The Untold Story of Rouben Mamoulian, George Gershwin, and “Porgy and Bess.” Well, thank you, Mr. Suskin. As a book has no fixed meaning, it’s often informative (and sometimes not) to discover how others read what you yourself thought and wrote. My book is about many things. It’s a Mamoulian book (arguing for his rediscovery as a forgotten hero of Broadway and … [Read more...]

“Bring My Boat!” — Who Wrote the Ending of Porgy and Bess?

"Bring my goat!" Porgy exclaims in the final scene of Gershwin’s opera Porgy and Bess. Bess has left for New York City and he’s determined to find her. When his request is met with astonishment -- New York is a great distance from Catfish Row -- Porgy remains undaunted. He mounts his goat-cart and leads the community in an ecstatic finale, "Oh Lawd, I’m on my way." Stephen Sondheim has called "Bring my goat!" "one of the most moving moments in musical theater history." For years it was assumed that DuBose Heyward -- the author of the … [Read more...]

The Great American Symphony

Tom Huizenga, who presides over Classical Music for National Public Radio, recently initiated a discussion thread on “The Great American Symphony” – and invited me to contribute something about early lineage. Keying on a superb new Naxos recording of John Knowles Paine’s Symphony No. 1, on my idiosyncratic enthusiasm for Dvorak and Chadwick as quintessential “American” composers, on my passion for George Templeton Strong’s Sintram Symphony (with the most beautiful slow movement of any American symphony), and on my conviction that Charles Ives … [Read more...]

Humanizing Stravinsky

To my ears, the most sublime music Igor Stravinsky ever composed is “The Land of Eternal Dwelling” -- the Epilogue to The Fairy’s Kiss. The 1928 ballet itself, possibly Stravinsky’s most emotionally naked music, is a confessional love letter to the homeland he excoriated in his Norton lectures and elsewhere as “anarchic” and inimical to artistic fulfillment. That he protested too much is self-evident; as I argue in my book Artists in Exile, Stravinsky’s ostensible estrangement from Mother Russia manifested a “psychology of exile.” The … [Read more...]

A Status Report on City Opera

The current issue of the Times Literary Supplement (UK) includes my review of the City Opera season just past, as follows: Now is a tough time for American orchestras and opera companies. Many are cutting back. Some – including opera companies in Baltimore, Hartford, Orlando, and Orange County, California – have shut down. Others – including the Minnesota Orchestra, which is among the nation’s best – are in abeyance. In New York, New York City Opera is navigating a drastic and controversial downsizing. The company began in 1944 at the City … [Read more...]

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