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Milstein vs. Szigeti

My frustrations with a recent performance of Brahms’ Violin Concerto sent me to youtube in search of something different: an act of therapy. A foible to which violinists are prone (pianists are immune) is lingering upon or otherwise savoring a beautiful note. That’s OK in Bruch or Tchaikovsky but does no favors to Brahms or Beethoven. After half an hour of Menuhin, Heifetz, Milstein, of Furtwangler, Toscanini, and Klemperer, I discovered a Brahms concerto beyond any I’d ever encountered: Joseph Szigeti (the second of my photos) in live … [Read more...]

Kurt Weill in 2017

“Wherever I found decency and humanity in the world, it reminded me of America.” That this observation – recorded by Kurt Weill in 1947 – rings hollow in 2017 does not diminish the fascination and pertinence of Weill’s extraordinary creative saga, perhaps the most elusive charted by any major composer. In Berlin, Weill’s caustic signature was The Threepenny Opera, created with Bertolt Brecht in 1928. Seven years later he landed in the US, a Jewish refugee from Hitler’s Germany. During the fifteen years of his American career – he died of a … [Read more...]

New Musical Venues for a New National Moment

With classical music under siege, many are rethinking audiences and venues. Here in Manhattan, Geffen Hall – previously Fisher Hall, and before that Philharmonic Hall – has never been an inviting place in which to hear music. The acoustics are defective, the ambience is nothing special. One cannot blame the hall for the New York Philharmonic’s disengaged audience – but it’s a factor. At Carnegie Hall, ten blocks downtown, a community of listeners is joined on special occasions by distinguished ghosts seduced by echoes of a hallowed … [Read more...]

Rethinking “Classical Radio”

When commercial radio was new, the airwaves were saturated with classical music – not just recordings and live concerts, but highly produced pedagogical programs. You could tune into Abram Chasins for tips on playing Chopin’s E-flat major Nocturne. What today passes for classical music radio is a different species of broadcasting. You can spend an afternoon listening to the 50 greatest hits (scientifically culled) in their latest, most generic studio incarnations. Older recordings are shunned. Talking is avoided as a plague upon the … [Read more...]

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...]

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