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Dvorak’s “Hiawatha” Symphony

Is Dvorak’s New World Symphony a programmatic Hiawatha symphony? With the Dvorak scholar Mike Beckerman, I’ve composed a 35-minute Hiawatha Melodrama for narrator and orchestra that combines Dvorak with verses from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s The Song of Hiawatha. A new Naxos CD, “Dvorak and America,” includes the world premiere recording, with PostClassical Ensemble conducted by Angel Gil-Ordonez. Here’s movement five, in which “The Hunting of Pau-Puk-Keewis” aligns with the finale of Dvorak’s symphony: Dvorak himself cited The Song of … [Read more...]

A Mexican Composer Whose Time Will Come

Gustav Mahler predicted, “My time will come” – and he was right. Anton Bruckner is another composer whose posthumous fame, decades after his death, far eclipsed scattered acclaim during his lifetime. The relative paucity of post-1930 canonized symphonic repertoire impels the question: who else is awaiting such discovery? The surest candidate I know is Silvestre Revueltas, whose dates are 1899 to 1940. Revueltas is sui generis, impossible to place, an unfathomably original talent. His birthplace – rural Mexico – is the surest point of … [Read more...]

What I Thought I Wrote about “Porgy and Bess”

Anyone who writes books learns sooner or later that a book has no fixed meaning. In my case, the discovery came in 1987, with Understanding Toscanini: How He Became an American Culture-God and Helped Create a New Audience for Old Music. The book was reviled and proscribed, extolled and prescribed. This was nothing less than I had expected, having assaulted a high icon. What I had not expected was that so many would read a book different from the one I thought I had written. I recall only one review – among many dozens – that felicitously … [Read more...]

Wagner at Coney Island

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

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

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 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...]

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