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Dvorak and Hiawatha

Two wicked questions to ask conductors of Dvorak’s New World Symphony are: “Why does the coda begin with a dirge?” and “Why is there a diminuendo on the final chord?” The musical content of the finale in no way dictates these developments. Obviously, a story of some kind – a “program” – is in play. The dirge is a pentatonic “Indian” theme with timpani taps. It is restated as an apotheosis. Then there is a robust arpeggiated tonic cadence and that final E major chord fading to silence. Any conductor who performs this music without a story in … [Read more...]

The Met’s New Parsifal

The current Times Literary Supplement UK), not available online, includes my review of the Met's exceptional new Parsifal, as follows: In the program book for the new Parsifal at the Metropolitan Opera, the French Canadian director Francois Girard comments that his goal “is to engage a modern audience and to let this piece say things that matter, without kidnapping it and throwing it into a new context, which I think is being done to Wagner too often.” This prescription, which could be anodyne, proves triumphant. But the triumph begins not … [Read more...]

Schubert Uncorked

Readers of this blog in the New York vicinity will (I hope) be interested to know that I’m producing a take-no-prisoners concert event – “Schubert Uncorked” – this Friday night at The Stone, John Zorn’s club on the Lower East Side. There’s a single, one-hour set at 8 pm. Tickets are $10 at the door. The performers are David Taylor and Bill Wolfram. Taylor is a subversive bass trombonist – Gunther Schuller once called him “one of the world’s three greatest instrumentalists” (he didn’t say who the other two were). Wolfram is one of our … [Read more...]

Interpreting Shostakovich

PostClassical Ensemble’s month-long “Interpreting Shostakovich” festival, in DC, began with a screening of Grigori Kozintsev’s 1970 film version of King Lear, with music by Shostakovich and Boris Pasternak’s Shakespeare translation. If ever there was a film that cannot be viewed at home in TV, this is it. On the wide screen of the National Gallery of Art’s film auditorium, and a superb sound system, Kozinstev’s Lear was the most powerful Shakespeare experience I can recall, on stage or screen. In the course of a long and interesting … [Read more...]

Moral Fire and Mitt Romney

As readers of this blog know, I am the author of a recently published book titled "Moral Fire: Musical Portraits from America’s Fin-de-Siecle." My topic is culture as an agent of moral empowerment. That is: my portraits are of four late nineteenth century Americans who believed that exposure to Beethoven and/or Wagner made people “better” – more humane, more compassionate. This is, I argue, a notion far out of fashion – and yet pertinent today. Last week I received an email from a colleague – an American historian – inquiring if reviewers of … [Read more...]

Kurt Weill and Darwinian Adaptation

My topic has ever been cultural transplantation – the fate of classical music when exported from Europe to America. Of the composers America has imported, Kurt Weill is a special case. In Berlin, Weill’s defining success was The Threepenny Opera, to a scathing anti-capitalist libretto by Bertolt Brecht. In America, he became a Broadway composer whose big hits were Lady in the Dark (1941, with Ira Gershwin and Moss Hart) and One Touch of Venus (1943, with Ogden Nash and S. J. Perelman). The late David Drew, the first major Weill scholar in … [Read more...]

Recapturing Moral Vision (cont’d)

As readers of this blog know, I was recently amazed to find myself talking on the radio for 20 minutes about my new book "Moral Fire" in what turned out to be a completely unhurried exchange with ample time for thought. That was on Boston’s WGBH, thanks to Brian Bell. Now, thanks to Chris Johnson, Houston public radio has broadcast an even longer, even more expansive interview – 50 minutes of me waxing nostalgic about public discourse and institutional achievement during the late Gilded Age. I frankly confess that I adore this interview, … [Read more...]

Jon Stewart and Moral Fire

As I have occasion to remark in my new book Moral Fire, moral passion is a phenomenon little glimpsed in public life nowadays, unless you happen to be a devotee of the Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Typically, moral passion as purveyed by politicians and the “media” is opportunistic and shallow, if not wholly counterfeit. My book celebrates practitioners of moral passion in late 19th century America, when it was more mattered than today. More specifically, I explore four individuals for whom the notion that culture – that is, music, … [Read more...]

In Praise of Moral Fire

My new book Moral Fire is praised in today’s Boston Globe by Jeremy Eichler for its "elegant and warmly sympathetic" portrait of Henry Higginson, who invented, owned, and operated the Boston Symphony. I’m fortunate to have my book reviewed by Jeremy – and Boston is fortunate to be the rare American city with a classical-music press of stature. I visit Boston in early October to give the Elson Lecture at Harvard on rethinking orchestras as purveyors of the humanities – that’s 5:15 pm Tuesday October 9. And the next day, also at Harvard, I … [Read more...]

Mixing Art and Music (cont’d): Mixing Food and Music

Now that the always enterprising Anne Midgette has posted my blog objecting to live Bach cello suites imposed on visitors to the Corcoran Gallery, I’ve realized that I failed to indicate that this was not a museum concert. Rather, the cellist was offered as an embellishment to dining in the atrium. Johann Sebastian was enlisted to cheerfully accompany both Frederick Church’s “Niagara” and the consumption of soup, sandwiches, and pasta. As it happens, the day after I attempted to ponder “Niagara” at the Corcoran I had lunch at DC’s … [Read more...]

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