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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...]

Kurt Weill and Darwinian Adaptation

My topic has ever been cultural transplantation – the fate of classical music when exported from Europe to America. Of the composers America has imported, Kurt Weill is a special case. In Berlin, Weill’s defining success was The Threepenny Opera, to a scathing anti-capitalist libretto by Bertolt Brecht. In America, he became a Broadway composer whose big hits were Lady in the Dark (1941, with Ira Gershwin and Moss Hart) and One Touch of Venus (1943, with Ogden Nash and S. J. Perelman). The late David Drew, the first major Weill scholar in … [Read more...]

Recapturing Moral Vision (cont’d)

As readers of this blog know, I was recently amazed to find myself talking on the radio for 20 minutes about my new book "Moral Fire" in what turned out to be a completely unhurried exchange with ample time for thought. That was on Boston’s WGBH, thanks to Brian Bell. Now, thanks to Chris Johnson, Houston public radio has broadcast an even longer, even more expansive interview – 50 minutes of me waxing nostalgic about public discourse and institutional achievement during the late Gilded Age. I frankly confess that I adore this interview, … [Read more...]

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