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Is it possible to mourn James Levine?

Yes, but with an enormous asterisk. With an air of mystery that was typical around James Levine's private life, the Metropolitan Opera conductor's death in Palm Springs at age 77 was announced on Wednesday, roughly a week after his actual passing on March 9. No explanation, of course. With his history of hiding physical ailments (including Parkinson's disease) and dismissing sexual abuse accusations, Levine was such a creature of denial that it might've taken a full week to convince his restless spirit that he is indeed … [Read more...]

Camilla Wicks: Towering talent found, lost, and found again

Violinist Camilla Wicks was not being modest, but realistic. The clear, clipped voice at the other end of the phone was neither astonished nor impressed to learn that her 1952 recording of the Sibelius Violin Concerto was a collector's item that, in its original LP incarnation, sold for as much as $125. "It's not that good," she said, sounding mildly exasperated. Oh, but it is. And I wonder what would she say if she saw that a re-issued CD of the Sibelius on EMI is now selling on for $985? Wicks, who died Nov. 25 … [Read more...]

Why composers shouldn’t attack each other in public

In the end, everyone comes out looking bad. So it was when composer Matthew Aucoin, age 30, took on Pierre Boulez (1925-2016) in the Nov. 5 New York Review of Books. The young Boulez trashed his compositional contemporaries left and right; now Aucoin takes up that mantle in his review of Boulez's Music Lessons: The Collège de France Lectures. Both composers have an avenging angel sensibility — except that Boulez pulled back in middle age, and had a rare moment of regret. Original issue of Pierre Boulez's Le Marteau sans … [Read more...]

Lang Lang, the Goldberg Variations and roads that were (long) not taken

We've all had some tough nights with Lang Lang. In recent years, Carnegie Hall audiences were treated to a pounded-out Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 1 and a showmanship-overdrive version of Rhapsody in Blue that left no one surprised when he had to take off more time than expected due to a hand injury. But the Goldberg Variations, which he recorded in two different performances released simultaneously on Deutsche Grammophon, occupied a significant part of his life well before he showed that classical artists could achieve rock-star status in … [Read more...]

Parallel musical universes? More lost continents? The early-music movement in New York explores an endless past.

Before the COVID lockdown, concert life in New York was such a breathless series of discoveries that you barely had time to digest what you were hearing. Now, one stands back and marvels how horizons have kept expanding in the music before J.S. Bach, with modern premieres of 400-year-old works by names you've barely heard of — and leave you wanting more. This look-how-far-we've-come realization came with the recent arrival of two recording releases: Monteverdi's Vespro Della Beata Vergine of 1610 by the Green Mountain Project, which has … [Read more...]

‘Dover Beach’ on video: When scope is achieved with many shades of gray

Whenever someone of visibility in the music industry proclaims that the pandemic lock-down world now needs this (whatever that is), the chances are good that it’s here already. The crucial ongoing question of how to maintain the depth and scope of the opera/symphonic world without the usual trappings (like a grand opera house) is being addressed, both comically (in the well-circulated Das Rheingold: Coronadämmerung video) and seriously (in the newly-unveiled Samuel Barber Dover Beach, seen here). Beyond their engagement factor, do these … [Read more...]

‘The Wake World’ comes from somewhere, but where?

David Hertzberg's opera The Wake World arrives on a new recording with a lot of praise already behind it. Though written in a matter of months by a composer who was then hardly known, the piece was a curious success at Opera Philadelphia's O17 festival and won the 2018 Best New Opera Award from the Music Critics Association of North America. But time and again while listening to the Tzadik-label release, I asked myself, What zeitgeist did this arrive from? What cultural phenomenon contributed to why it was written now? And why have audiences … [Read more...]

The Met’s ‘Porgy and Bess’ in the cold light of morning

How often can you say that the Metropolitan Opera rocks? That happens in much of the new recording of Porgy and Bess taken from live performances of the Met's hit production. But the price of capturing that live energy was surprisingly high. The Warner-label issue is an excellent souvenir of the production starring Eric Owens and Angel Blue under the baton of David Robertson. I'd love to say the recording is an overall triumph at a time when the Met badly needs exuberant press. But for all of its strengths, it's a lustrous but secondary … [Read more...]

Is there room in the world for this clarinet trio? There’d better be.

During one of the idyllically discussed Philadelphia Orchestra golden ages, music director Eugene Ormandy (ca. 1960) was sometimes compelled to change programs if key principal players were not able to perform. That past is a foreign country: we're now in an age when the proficiency and artistry among classical musicians is at a level where the second- and maybe third-in-command can capably step in to cover most any situation, barely batting an eye. That's why, when working as a music critic in Philadelphia, I'm almost used to hearing from … [Read more...]

Schubert and Mendelssohn on the verge of nervous breakdowns (like the rest of us)

Hundreds of performances of Schubert's String Quartet No. 14 ("Death and the Maiden") have come my way over the decades, but none seized me from the very first notes like the new recording by the vision string quartet, titled Memento, recently issued on Erato. It arrived in my inbox in a series of sound files for the label's March releases; I had forgotten about this particular one, but now, with a little bit of time on my hands, I tried it as an alternative to circling my home office like a caged animal. Razor sharp unisons and … [Read more...]

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