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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...]

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...]

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