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How South Dakota Shows What Orchestras Are For

Beginning in the 1860s, the conductor Theodore Thomas – a symphonic Johnny Appleseed – began touring the entire United States with his Thomas Orchestra. His credo was: “A symphony orchestra shows the culture of the community.” And in cities large and small, it did. Today, the American orchestra is no longer the civic bulwark it once was. There are exceptions. I would say that the Chicago Symphony is one. That’s partly because Thomas himself was the founding music director, in 1891; and because he was succeeded by his assistant, Frederick … [Read more...]

Jonas Kaufmann vs. the Orchestra of St. Luke’s

  My father, who grew up on the Lower East Side, probably never heard opera until – like other Jews of his generation facing American quotas -- he went to medical school in Vienna in the 1930s. His only prior exposure to full-throated singing, I imagine, came in the synagogue: cantorial tenors. When I was very young and precociously amassing LPs of Beethoven, Brahms, and Wagner, my father collected recordings of the operetta tenors from his medical school years, singers whose high temper and juicy high notes connected with Jan Peerce … [Read more...]

Stokowski and Ormandy — What Happened in Philadelphia?

  As I write in Understanding Toscanini (1987): “In 1932, in a minor cause celebre, Wilhelm Furtwangler was discovered likening American orchestras to ‘pet dogs’ (Luxushunden) in a speech honoring the fiftieth anniversary of the Berlin Philharmonic. To Furtwangler, whose rapport with the New York Philharmonic’s ‘dog owners’ had not been smooth, the absence of government subsidies in the United States implied that orchestras were deemed less essential there than in Europe. When the ‘pet dogs’ analogy stirred American resentment, he … [Read more...]

The Artist and His Audience

As many who follow baseball know, Jacob deGrom is an artist. It’s not just that he’s likely to win the National League Cy Young Award. Or that his stats this season were off the charts: a 1.70 ERA; 29 consecutive starts allowing three runs or fewer; 269 strike-outs in 217 innings. DeGrom throws exceptionally hard. He is deceptive. He is a master of location. But the predominant impression, from the stands, is of Zen-like concentration, of a poetic fluency of self-possession uncanny and impregnable. The vicissitudes of the game seem not to … [Read more...]

Rachmaninoff Uncorked — Take Two: RCA, Ormandy, and the Cork

Charles O’Connell, who commanded “artists and repertoire” for RCA Victor from 1930 to 1944, left a book of reminiscences – The Other Side of the Record (1947) – documenting an astute, querulous intellect and a meddlesome ego. It was often O’Connell who decided what music famous conductors, pianists, and violinists might commercially record. O’Connell admired Sergei Rachmaninoff – yet only recorded Rachmaninoff in two extended solo piano works: Schumann’s Carnaval and Chopin’s B-flat minor Sonata, both classics of the discography for piano. … [Read more...]

Rachmaninoff Uncorked

Today's "Wall Street Journal" includes my review of "one of the most searing listening experiences in the history of recorded sound" -- the new Marston Records 3-CD set: "Rachmaninoff Plays Symphonic Dances" -- which you can sample here. My review reads: One of the saddest and most paradoxical artistic exiles of the 20th century was Sergei Rachmaninoff, who fled the Russian Revolution and wound up in New York and Los Angeles, in equal measure celebrated and obscure.  Rachmaninoff (1873-1943) left Moscow a composer and conductor of high … [Read more...]

What Are Orchestral Musicians For?

Years ago, before I was shown the door, I briefly taught at the Manhattan School of Music within their graduate program for aspirant orchestral musicians. My intention was to impart some knowledge about the history of the orchestra in order to shed light on the decline of orchestras and of orchestral performance – and to suggest that young musicians might be able contribute constructively. I boldly inflicted both reading and writing assignments. The class was large (it was in fact required) – more than 50 instrumentalists. The majority … [Read more...]

THE FUTURE OF ORCHESTRAS — Part Six: What’s an Orchestra For?

Back in the 1990s, Harvey Lichtenstein – who recreated the Brooklyn Academy of Music – invited me to lunch and asked me if I wanted to run an orchestra. Harvey had just read my notorious Jeremiad Understanding Toscanini: How He Became an American Culture-God and Helped Create a New Audience for Old Music. That was published by Knopf when a book about classical music might generate four or five dozen major reviews, including Newsweek and Time. Understanding Toscanini ends with a diatribe about Lincoln Center. I speculate that if an … [Read more...]

On Rescuing a “Dead Art Form” — Take Two

  It seems to me pretty obvious that nowadays it’s far easier to stage a successful Hamlet or Three Sisters than a successful Aida or Siegfried. And one reason is equally obvious: finding an actor to play Hamlet or Masha is no problem; finding a dramatic soprano for Aida or a Heldentenor for Siegfried is difficult to impossible. At the heart of Conrad L. Osborne’s Opera as Opera – the new, self-published mega-book that (as I wrote in The Wall Street Journal) surpasses all previous English-language treatments of opera in performance – … [Read more...]

On Rescuing a “Dead Art Form” — A Landmark Book on Opera in Performance

This weekend's "Wall Street Journal" includes my review of Conrad L. Osborne's new mega-book "Opera as Opera" -- the most important English-language treatment of opera in performance ever written: During the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, when classical music was a lot more ­robust than nowadays, High Fidelity was the American magazine of choice for lay connoisseurs and not a few profes­sionals. Its opera expert, Conrad L. ­Osborne, stood apart. “C.L.O.” was self-evidently a polymath. His knowledge of singing was encyclopedic. He wrote about operas … [Read more...]

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