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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...]

Ives the Sophisticate

Leonard Bernstein did Charles Ives an incomparable service when in the 1950s he premiered and recorded Ives’s Second Symphony. But Bernstein did Ives a disservice when in a program note for that work – a compromised encomium not unlike the back-handed compliments Bernstein would dole out to George Gershwin – he called Ives an inspired “primitive” and compared him to the painter Grandma Moses. A recent Ives festival at the University of Washington – a week packed with concerts, lectures, panels, classes, a lecture/recital, a master class, all … [Read more...]

The Greatest Film Score You’ve Never Heard

Silvestre Revueltas’s Redes is one of the greatest of all film scores. That it remains virtually unknown is a function of Revueltas’s own neglect and the neglect of the 1935 film itself, an iconic product of the Mexican Revolution. Unlike such renowned film scores of Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevsky and Virgil Thomson’s The Plow that Broke the Plains, the music of Redes is so organic to the film that it does not register as a concert suite. You have to see the movie. And the movie is a mixed bag. Its cinematography, by Paul Strand, is … [Read more...]

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...]

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