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Yannick’s Hollow Parsifal

The highwater mark for Wagner at the Metropolitan Opera in recent decades was the 2013 Parsifal, handsomely directed and strongly cast. The crucial ingredient, however, was Daniele Gatti’s leadership in the pit. The Francois Girard’s production has now returned, led by Yannick Nezet-Seguin. As he is the company’s new music director, comparisons to Gatti are inescapable. The Nezet-Seguin Parsifal, alas, is slack and shapeless during the opera’s long outer acts. All the virtues of Gatti’s reading – the tensile line, the depth of tone, the … [Read more...]

Rethinking “Classical Radio” — Part Two

Sudip Bose, the superb music critic for The American Scholar (he is also Managing Editor), writes about PostClassical Ensemble’s radio showcase “PostClassical”: “When I find time to listen to the radio these days, I rarely encounter a program that gives me the same sense of excitement and discovery that I felt as a child. But a few weeks ago I did, while listening to . . . PostClassical . . . Not in my wildest imaginings could I have envisioned such a revelatory and shocking interpretations.” As mentioned previously in this space, in … [Read more...]

Another Cheap Shot at Wagner

Was Richard Wagner a "monster"? No so far as I can tell. Here's my book review of Simon Callow's opportunistic "Being Wagner" in this weekend's "Wall Street Journal": In 1866, a Munich newspaper reported that Minna Wagner, the recently deceased wife of the composer Richard Wagner, had lived in “direst penury.” She was reduced to accepting poor relief notwithstanding “momentary” support “on the part of her [estranged] husband.” Never mind that a letter signed by Minna herself had stated that the voluntary annual allowance she received from … [Read more...]

Exalting Bruckner at Carnegie Hall

Bruckner’s symphonies are communal rites of spiritual passage. For maximum impact, they require a proper hall and appropriate congregants. In New York City, Lincoln Center’s Geffen Hall – formerly Fisher Hall, and Philharmonic Hall before that -- is too dry and plain for Bruckner, and the New York Philharmonic audience that habituates that troubled space is restless and irreverent. I’ve heard Lincoln Center Bruckner conducted by Leonard Bernstein, Christoph Eschenbach, Kurt Masur, Riccardo Muti, and Klaus Tennstedt. None of these experiences … [Read more...]

America’s Most Exceptional Orchestra

Setting aside PostClassical Ensemble, the guerilla DC chamber orchestra I co-founded fourteen years ago, the most exceptional American orchestra I know is the South Dakota Symphony. South Dakota’s “Copland and Mexico” festival, which concluded last Sunday afternoon, had many highlights. The performance of Silvestre Revueltas’s Sensemaya was lots better than the versions you can see on youtube conducted by Gustavo Dudamel. The crucial difference was a slightly slower tempo, maximizing the weight and momentum of this amazing Mexican … [Read more...]

The Case of James Levine: Taking Stock

When a pianist plays the piano, when a violinist plays the violin, when a conductor conducts an orchestra, the performer channels music through a network of personal traits. This should be self-evident. It has always seemed to me, for instance, that Artur Rubinstein was an exceptionally wholesome artist. Listen to Rubinstein’s recordings of Chopin waltzes and you will discover (however subliminally) a broad emotional vocabulary at play – and a conscious application of specific emotional states to specific waltzes. The entire exercise is one … [Read more...]

Schubert Uncorked

Every once in a while a master composer creates music so radically new that it seemingly falls wholly outside its time and place. Franz Schubert’s 1828 song cycle Winterreise (“Winter’s Journey”), charting an uncanny descent into madness, is such a work. Schubert’s contemporaries didn’t know what to make of it. Its chilly existential numbness is routinely likened in affect to Dostoyevsky. But Winterreise is sui generis. The timelessness of Winterreise, its limitless expressive parameters, tantalize singers to do something more. It has … [Read more...]

Aida at the Met

When I was a teenager, my mentor in all things operatic was Conrad L. Osborne. I read him religiously in High Fidelity Magazine. I thrilled to his encyclopedic erudition, to his impassioned advocacy, and (not least) to the ruthless thoroughness with which he documented and assessed a devastating decline-and-fall in standards of performance. I never met him, never glimpsed him. I envisioned an eminence gris. Low and behold, C. L. O., age 83, now has his own blog.  The omniscient graybeard I had envisioned was at the time a young adult in his … [Read more...]

Music and WW II: Eisler, Schoenberg, Shostakovich, Stravinsky

PostClassical Ensemble inaugurated its new residency at Washington National Cathedral with a World War II program – “Music in Wartime” – juxtaposing works by Hanns Eisler, Arnold Schoenberg, and Dmitri Shostakovich. The results were startling. Eisler’s strange odyssey is ripe for exploration. In Weimar Germany his workers’ songs linked to a Workers-Singers Union with 400,000 members. Partnering Bertolt Brecht, he became a reckonable political force in support of the Communist Party. Then Hitler chased Eisler and Brecht abroad. Both, … [Read more...]

Arnold Schoenberg’s Musical Response to FDR

  What kind of American was Arnold Schoenberg? In Los Angeles, a Jewish refugee from Hitler’s Germany, he adopted English as his primary language. He watched The Lone Ranger on TV. For his children, he prepared peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches cut into animal shapes. Then Pearl Harbor was bombed. Schoenberg’s Ode to Napoleon, in reaction to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s declaration of war on Japan, is one of the most stirring musical responses to a world event ever conceived. It’s the closing work on PostClassical Ensemble’s … [Read more...]

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