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“Moral Fire”

I have a new book, just published: Moral Fire: Musical Portraits from America’s Fin-de-Siecle. Here’s a sampling: “If the Met’s screaming Wagnerites standing on chairs in the 1890s are in fact unthinkable today, it is partly because we mistrust high feeling. Our children avidly specialize in vicarious forms of electronic interpersonal diversion. Our laptops and televisions ensnare us in a surrogate world that shuns all but facile passions; only Jon Stewart and Bill Maher share moments of moral outrage disguised as comedy.” My portraits … [Read more...]

San Francisco’s American Mavericks

I review the San Francisco Symphony's remarkable "American Mavericks" festival in the current Times Literary Supplement (UK) as follows: There is a type of American creative genius whose originality and integrity correlate with refusing to finish their education in Europe. Herman Melville and Walt Whitman are writers of this type. In American music, Charles Ives is the paramount embodiment. The unfinished in Ives is crucial to his affect. Emerson, whom Ives revered, put it this way in his poem “Music”:”’Tis not in the high stars alone . . . … [Read more...]

Schubert Uncorked

For a variety of reasons, raw spontaneity is less common at symphonic performances nowadays than in the nineteenth century and before. In the days when they were also composers, performers were of course more prone to improvise. In the days before recordings and airplanes, there was no centripetal norm for interpretation. PostClassical Ensemble’s “Schubert Uncorked” in DC last weekend was the least predictable concert I have ever produced. At the close of the dress rehearsal the same afternoon, we had little real idea how the evening concert … [Read more...]

Orchestral Summitry

The recent “Orchestral Summit” at the University of Michigan was a labor of love on the part of Mark Clague of the university’s Musicology faculty. Mark is a tireless advocate of conciliation and consensual change in a field wracked by frustration and dissent. The conference had its ups and downs. I was especially impressed by the gravitas and honesty sustained by a panel of conservatory-level educators, alert to the need for fresh thought in preparing young musicians for a rapidly changing cultural landscape. Peter Witte, who heads the … [Read more...]

How Orchestras Can “Plug a Hole in the Curriculum”

“Music Unwound,” the $300,000 NEH initiative funding a consortium of adventurous orchestras, has two basic components. The first is contextualized thematic programming -- it supports concerts that explore music from a variety of vantage points, including visual art and literature. The second is linkage -- it supports connecting such programming with art museums, schools (grades 3 to 12), colleges, and universities. The latest “Music Unwound” project was “Dvorak and America,” presented by the Pacific Symphony Youth Orchestra -- a gifted … [Read more...]

Horowitz on Horowitz on Horowitz (continued)

Readers of this blog will be aware of an ongoing state of war with my son, Bernie, whose adoration of Vladimir Horowitz I do not share. But Bernie is relentless, and in order to get him off my back I occasionally concede that his icon is a more remarkable pianist than his recordings disclose. Bernie has now contributed a detailed interview on the topic of Horowitz’s concert performances and their superiority to manicured studio jobs and edited concert recordings. I confess that it is worth reading. For one thing, it reiterates a point that … [Read more...]

North Carolina’s State-Wide Symphony

Having just spent a week taking part in a “Dvorak and America” festival presented by the North Carolina Symphony Orchestra, I think I’ve learned a thing or two about how an orchestra can serve an entire state. The NCSO travels the length and breadth of North Carolina – more than 12,000 miles annually, offering more than 150 concerts. And it’s done that for a long time. In all four cities that hosted festival concerts, audiences strikingly evinced pride in the orchestra and an intimate sense of ownership. No one in Chicago would speak of “our … [Read more...]

Porgy and Bess Writ Small

The current Times Literary Supplement (UK) publishes my review of Broadway's new Porgy and Bess -- informed by a book I'm writing (for W. W. Norton) about Rouben Mamoulian and Porgy and Bess. This is what it says: By far the most controversial show on Broadway this season is a refurbished Porgy and Bess that originated last August at the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Even before the premiere, Stephen Sondheim denounced its creators – Diane Paulus, who directs, Suzan-Lori Parks, who adapted the book, and Diedre L. … [Read more...]

Restoring the drama to El Amor Brujo

The two best-known scores by Manuel de Falla - El Amor Brujo and The Three-Cornered Hat - began as stage works. Today, however, we know them as symphonic suites. In the case of Amor Brujo, the loss is formidable: an austere drama turned into a picturesque entertainment. The original 1915 El Amor Brujo, a gitaneria with dialogue, song, and dance, is unwieldy. The subsequent orchestral suite is fluent, but squanders the work's gypsy soul. PostClassical Ensemble's new staging of El Amor Brujo last weekend in DC was an attempt to restore the … [Read more...]

Siegfried at the Met

The current Times Literary Supplement (UK) includes my review of Fabio Luisi conducting SIegfried and Don Giovanni at the Met, as follows: Notwithstanding its importance as a showplace for rich boxholders -- Mrs. Caroline Astor, who regularly came late and left early, was called a "walking chandelier" -- the early Metropolitan Opera was a conductor's house. During its "German seasons" (1884-1891), the dominant composer was Wagner and the dominant performer was Wagner's protégé Anton Seidl, presiding in the pit. Not so long after, Mahler and … [Read more...]

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