Sunday, January 31, 2010

Filming Day....

(Not our set...)
What Jonathan Yardley said. If I ever had the time (haha) I was going to write about how much and exactly why I hate Catcher In The Rye with a bloody passion. This article did a pretty good job for me.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Greatest Political Ad Ever?

h/t Jonathan Chait.
Choral Conducting Flowchart....comes in handy.

Charlie Rose: by Samuel Beckett

Amazed that it's taken this long for me to post this. A youtube Hall-of-Famer if ever there was one.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Perlman and Zuckerman

(Playing the Handel/Halvorsen Passacaglia together back when they looked to be the Ruth and Gehrig of the violin)

They must have seemed incredible back in the day. The lead musicians in what was (hilariously) named the Kosher Nostra (or even more hilariously, the Stern Gang) a group of Jewish (or almost Jewish) musicians mentored by Isaac Stern (Perlman, Zuckerman, Jacqueline Du Pre, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Daniel Barenboim, Zubin Mehta, Lynn Harrell et al) who looked to take the entire world by storm. Something terrible happened to them, almost to a man, and by the mid-80's it looked clear that nearly every one of them decided that their career would best function on autopilot. Of all these potential giants, only Barenboim looks today as though he's come close fulfilling his infinite potential (and it was a very bumpy road to that point.) But while time is running short, it hasn't run out for any of them just yet.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Quote of the Day

Neal: How does this sound for a book title
Leftist Historians: From Zinn to Zoidberg

Keynes/Hayek Beef

h/t Koosh

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

From Tonight's Rehearsal

With the Baltimore Chorus:

Me: (shaking head, wanting to say anything but this analogy...) I had a teacher who would always say that there are two kinds of crescendos, (pause...another head shake)

1. A boring crescendo that expends all the sound halfway through and
2. An erotic crescendo that saves its energy and peaks...well you get it.

(chorus disolves into groans.)

So let's practice these crescendos and make them as erotic as possible.

(practice crescendos five times.....)

75-year-old-Alto: Evan, stop this. I need a cigarette!

Monday, January 25, 2010

RIP Earl Wild (1915-2010)

(Earl Wild doing his own arrangement of the Mexican Hat Dance at a mere 88 years old. Sort of incredible...)

One of the Great American Pianists died on Saturday. Earl Wild was one of a select few in the category commonly termed the 'supervirtuoso' who could produce literally any sound on the piano. His technique was not only a wonder of the world fifty years ago, it was still a wonder of the world as late as two years ago when he gave by all accounts impeccable concerts well into his nineties. For over seventy years, he was Romantic pianism personified here in the good ol' U S of A and his career outlasted many younger challengers to that title three times over.

(Rachmaninov's arrangement of the Scherzo from Mendelssohn's Midsummer Night's Dream as rendered by Wild...impressive no?)

He started out his career as the 'house pianist' for NBC radio in the late '30's, but in 1942 he got skyrocketed to fame when Arturo Toscanini chose him over many more famous artists to be his soloist when Toscanini performed Rhapsody in Blue (for the "World's Greatest Conductor" to embrace the music of an American in 1942 was considered a very big deal for American music).


While his repertoire was huge, Wild was not particularly sought after when he ventured outside the repertoire he was best known for: Rachmaninov, Gershwin and especially Liszt. So while he had a very prominent career exploring the unknown crevices of Liszt and making his own 'wild' (sorry) transcriptions of the other great Romantics, he had an equally fruitful second career exploring out of the way repertoire in out of the way places. Classy man that he was, no venue was too out of the way and no repertoire too unknown to champion.

(Wild's own transcription of Gershwin's The Man I Love as a pianistic etude...kind of scary...)

Sunday, January 24, 2010


I have no idea how I stumbled on this today. But in all seriousness, this clip has enough to get me through a day when conducting is the very last thing I want to do. And now...back to work...


I think I must have screamed out loud yesterday when I was with friends around 8 o'clock last night at 4P's or 4 Green Fields or 4 Irish Hos whatever that overpriced Irish bar in Cleveland Park is now called (sorry, my loyalty to Nanny O'Brien's across the street is eternal...even if the bar no longer smells quite like pee anymore).

The reason I screamed was because a commercial I never thought I'd see ever again on television actually came on last night: Raisin Brahms! What is it selling or promoting? I'm still not sure, but the commercial freaked the hell out of me when I was a kid and it's only slightly less creepy for a classical geek twenty years later.

Let's Try This Again Conan

Hopefully it will be up longer this time.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

In Honor of Conan

I'm pretty sure the last time I laughed this hard at anything on television was also at something on Conan...the Walker Texas Ranger skit with Haley Joe Osment for the record.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Keep politics to a bare minimum is one of the watchwords of this blog...still....

a brief link: because politics, like music, is 1% feeling and 99% detailed analysis...on both counts, not the best week.
Do I still have the brain to edit my own ten-voice counterpoint? Did I ever?

Man in Black and Satchmo

No music is too far apart to be brought together.

I've Got A Mouthful of Crabs

h/t Ethan. Somebody, maybe Domask, showed it to me a couple of months ago. I vaguely remember being entirely grossed out. This time, it was goddamn hilarious.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Stuff I'd Like To Arrange For Chorus #2: The Boys Are Back In Town

The live recording doesn't quite do the great effect in this song justice. For that you'd have to hear the studio version from Jailbreak. Honestly, I have an unquenchable urge to hear a choir sing the guitar riff from the end of this song in an unbroken three octave harmonic chain at the third and the fifth. At each repetition another group of singers enter at the next inversion, one-by-one, until the riff (or motif) is repeated simultaneously in eight inversions. F-in awesome that would be.

Le trompettiste et l'âne

h/t Ed Goldstein. I have to find a way to put this in a composition.

Jesus's Brother Bob

h/t my father. Who sent this to me with the nice note: Do not use this for any of your singing groups, under any circumstances.

Thanks Dad.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Belshazzar's Feast by William Walton

(excellent though slightly smallish performance led by Andrew Davis. Willard White is the bass.)

Let us give praise to those works of music that didn't make any difference to the history of music, did not plunge into any depths of profundity, and gave general offense to those who view art as a sacred temple that may in no way be profaned. Let us give praise to those works of music that are awesome purely in the same way a fast car or a mechanical toy are. No elusive poetic truths, just the ability to say 'VRRRROOOOOOOM!'

Belshazzar's Feast is an almost completely vapid piece of music, and so much the awesome for it. Properly done by a chorus of 300 and an orchestra of over 150 (including two offstage brass bands). The story is of 'the writing on the wall' from the Book of Daniel (though it begins with the Book of Isaiah) and basically takes the form of the Handel oratorio for a 20th century attention span. There are no affecting arias, no moments of quiet repose, just 35 minutes of non-stop Old Testament Fire and Brimstone done at a stratospheric level of tongue-in-cheek kitsch. For me, the entire piece is like a Wes Andersen take on the Old Testament. All the gestures of profundity are there, but never for a moment can you believe that William Walton is being serious about any of this.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Musical Pet Peeve #034958723049857

Performers who are playing at mezzo-forte, then drop down to pianissimo right before a big crescendo. Who do they think they're fooling?

Ginger Fights Back

Monday, January 18, 2010

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Figure Humaine is one of the absolute choral masterpieces. Poulenc remains consistently underrated, even by me.

That is all.
Seriously....Bernard Haitink has just become unbelievable. I used to find his stuff, particularly his recent stuff, deadly dull. But the new Brahms, Mahler, Bruckner (not the Beethoven though), it's the hand of a total master.

(Bruckner 7's slow movement. My candidate for the greatest - orchestral - slow movement of all time. I have yet to hear a conductor handle it better than Haitink.)
You know you're getting older when you start realizing that Bernard Haitink really is as great as people say...

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Thoughts on Completing the Complaints Choir

(What Have I Done?)

RIP Otmar Suitner (1922-2010)

(Suitner conducts the Overture to Engelbert Humperdink's Hansel and Gretel.)

One of the very last of the old-school German conductors passed on this week. Otmar Suitner was the director of the Berlin State Opera in East Berlin for the quarter-century before the fall of the Berlin Wall and the almost simultaneous arrival of Daniel Barenboim as its director. For the entirety of that period, his #2 was the Washington National Opera's own Heinz Fricke. Like Fricke, he was strictly of the Kappelmeister tradition. He worked his way up the German opera scene the way conductors had from time immemorial in the provincial German opera houses: doing every job in the theater - prompter, accompanist, vocal coach, offstage conductor, choral director, assistant conductor - finally arriving at podium with immense knowledge and an exceedingly Protestant work ethic. His musical presentation was entirely unfrilled - like a German Bernard Haitink - no fancy tempo changes, emphasis on dynamic contrast and registering every detail through the fog of orchestral textures (which is rare among German conductors). He was a champion of much new German music, but his great strength was in the German tradition, a tradition which is now gasping its last breaths.

(Suitner conducting the end of Die Meistersinger - an aging Theo Adam is Hans Sachs. Ehrt Eure Deutschen Meister though!)

Friday, January 15, 2010

The Inevitable...

h/t Malon. Now back to work..

Pachabel Canon Rant

h/t Lederman. So true.
Note for the night: is there a single composer who has been more lucky on record than Sibelius (who would the other candidates be? Shostakovich? Richard Strauss? Bartok?). We have all those wonderful recordings from the era when Sibelius was considered a second Beethoven - from Koussevitsky, Beecham,

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Ol Man River: sung by Dino

...and I thought Bing Crosby was in bad taste...Dino can't even keep a straight face...writing this complaints choir song I'm realizing again that if I were born two generations sooner I probably could have made a good living as a low-rent Don Rickles.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Rejected by Don Hertzfeldt

It's entirely possible that the time I spent in college watching this video could be measured in percentage points. But now that the creative work for the chorus is beginning in earnest, this short film is making more sense than I'm comfortable with...

Rejected by Don Hertzfeldt

It's entirely possible that the time I spent in college watching this video could be measured in percentage points. But now that the creative work for the chorus is beginning in earnest, this short film is making more sense than I'm comfortable with...

h/t Jannol. That is all.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Lu Yehi: by Naomi Shemer

About to rehearse an old arrangement of this with the Baltimore chorus. It really is a great song...even it's Let It Be in exact reverse (minor key, depressing themes, reads from left to right....). Shemer, Israel's semi-answer to Bob Dylan, wrote this in response to the Yom Kippur War in 1973. Like a great deal of Shemer's work, it holds up far better than the politics which may have informed it - a hardline nationalist who advocated the Gush Emunim settlements to the bitter end (she died in 2004, right before Sharon's evacuations of Gaza began). Critics have rightly taken her to task for her But however nutty and naive, Shemer was not a fanatic. For the first anniversary of Rabin's death, she translated Whitman's "O Captain, My Captain" into Hebrew. The result was 'Ho Rav Chovel.'

This was the beginning of Naomi Shemer's obituary from the Independent:

Naomi Shemer wrote the kind of songs Israelis wanted to hear: warm, patriotic, nostalgic, rooted in childhood memories and an idealised biblical landscape.

Soldiers were comrades, never oppressors. The land "belonged" to the Jews. In a verse she added to her "Jerusalem of Gold" after the 1967 war, she wrote: "The market square is empty." Critics pointed out that it was not empty at all, just full of Arabs."

It's a legitimate criticism, but tremendously unfair. Shemer was a poet, not a politician and almost completely adrift in the actual world of what politics means. She was the voice of Israel in its founding generation, which came of age with the first knowledge of the Holocaust and believed as so many of her time did that moral righteousness would always be at Israel's back. The idea that a Jewish State would ever have even been physically capable, let alone morally, of being an 'occupier' would never have occurred to her. When divorced from the poetry, the 'message' in the music hasn't dated very well, but then again perhaps not as badly as some would like to think.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Complaints In The Raw:

This is roughly 1/3rd of what we're hoping to get by Wednesday at Noon. Still, impressive no? (and yes, I'm aware that the original draft kinda sucked):

only ugly people take part in the pantsless metro ride
yuppies have taken over the bars in dupont, college students and thugs have taken them over in adams morgan and hipsters have taken them over in columbia heights,
tourists don’t know how to stand on the right
people who don’t wear deoderant in the summer on the metro
women wearing white tennis shoes with hose and suits
ward 8 having no grocery store
the white house security perimeter
cars with diplomatic plates that try to run you over
conversations at bars where people judge you on your job
people using your city services in dc without paying taxes there
taxation without representation
hill staffers and summer interns taking over all the restaurants and bars
really the entire Hill
teenagers visiting in big school groups and acting like buffoons, especially on the metro
homeless everywhere who are really aggressive
scam artists selling free maps for the city
expensive restaurants that are not great
$6 yuengling
Real World DC
The burbs esp. in VA
The traffic
The 495 motor speedway
People who cant drive in snow, rain, or their cars in general
Persian guys at bars trying to pick you up by humping
Military industrial complex contractors
$2000 a month for a 1br
the sports teams, and riding the metro after a game ends
height restriction on buildings
a downtown that shuts down on the weekend
K street
People who think Baltimore is so much better
NYC being 5 hours away
The Kojo Naaaandi show, esp. the DC politics hour
City schools
$26,000 annual tuition for kindergarten
really all the tourists all summer
how expensive the Newseum and the Spy Museum are
The Madame Toussads and its very existence
Having to care about VA politics
People whose headphones are so loud on the metro that you can curse along with their song
Congressional staffers-their conversations, their mannerisms, their attire, their snobbery,
Local elections being decided in the democratic primary
The shadow senators
The buses never on time or sometimes never showing up at all
Crystal City
Getting lost on GW Parkway and accidentally trying to go through security at the Pentagon or ending up in DC when you’re trying to go to Arlington and vice versa
Georgetown undergrads and really the entire neighborhood of Georgetown
People who name drop
No underground walk between ferragut north and west
How many Starbucks there are in the city
How expensive the gyms are
Dulles, esp its people movers
How expensive parking is
How expensive the metro is
People who try to step in when the doors are closing.
People whgo don't stand on the right
Shopping, meeting up, on a date, I hate to pay for parking.
The Humor I see is the push for a Green DC through the hiring of more
meter maids that requires a rise in parking fees, what is now 8 quarters
= 1 hour along with extra fee for plastic bags that you need to carry
all the quarters. Oh and more meter service technicians to fix the
jammed meters from all those quarters, more Boot engineers to install
boots on cars that received tickets for parking next to a jammed meters,
along with more tow truck operators move the cars so the coin collectors
can access the meters, more court personal to process the parking fines
for the cars that where moved to no parking areas. Oh and DC still has
no budget do to the salaries of all the personal needed to handle the
new parking rates. Quarters are silver not Green.
Taxation without representation.
Why are the longest Metro escalators the ones that are always broken?
The racist name of the football team.
Some people who live D.C. have a limited "relationship radius" that keeps them from dating people outside the city.
"Summertime, and the smell of the SW Waterfront."
trying to find parking for 6 o'clock appointments
ever rising metro fare
entitled douchbags hanging out at the bars
RATS larger than opossums
cockroaches. everywhere.
"acronym" syndrome (where one only speaks in a series of agency letters...)
Over abundance of BMW, Lexus, and Mercedes owners and yet no one knows how to drive (which leads to outstanding insurance rates)
The yellow pillars in parking garages
495 between college park and the Mormon temple
Built on a swamp!
Driving in DuPont Circle
Jack and coke for 7.50
Federal government efficiency
Complaint Number 1: The U.S. Senate is a broken institution.
I also think a big "Taxation without representation" refrain would be nice :-)
Thers is no nightlife
Obnoxious Interns
Career Driven Lunatics
Name Dropping
Talking Heads
Badly Dressed People Everywhere
Not to mention, skinterns (slutty interns)
Aside from museums we have nothing to do during the day on the weekends.
Evan, kickball needs to make the list.. Seriously, it's weird.
The beltway is a death-trap.
Good record stores closing.
The MARC closes on the weekend and I am trapped in DC (fuck Amtrak and their $40 trip to Baltimore!)...
Getting to dulles
ridiculous, poorly-planned sprawl
Add Real World DC to the list
DC DMV is atrocious
Tourists who stand on the left and not on the right
Marion Barry (though, he is good for comic relief)
Boo to the exurban NIMBYs who keep blocking extended metro service in NOVA and Montgomery County. Stupid NIMBYs
Can you say, obscene housing costs.
Drinks starting at 7 bucks.
Giant Fing doublewide baby strollers.
Crappy Metro (this is also the F you Senator Coburn complaint).
Two council members not of the party of our choosing.
Autocratic Adrian Fenty, and his union busting lacky Michelle Rhee.
No vertical growth.
Lack of diners.
The many other obnoxious things that tourists do.
Diplomatic immunity, by which I mean bad drivers.
We saw Dick Cheney twice.
Meter maids trained by the Stasi.
The Red Skins.
The bloody US Senate.
Adam's Morgan.
Police state in Trinidad.
Absence of a decent crab cake.
Taxation without representation!
poor air quality
de facto segregation
California Pizza Kitchen in Dupont closing
1 inch of snow shutting the whole freakin city down
Nanny O'Brien's "classing up" costing more but still smelling bad
apartment complexes that feature east german architecture
Pat Buchanan was born in DC
closing Babe's and replacing it with...... oh thats right, NOTHING!
people farting in elevators (we need some non-DC specific things in there too)
Chinatown is one lousy block
people checking their email at dinner
erections lasting longer than four hours that apparently require medical attention
the Wizards
planning the city on a grid, then fucking it all up by adding state streets
People staying in DC when they should be moving to Boston.
Stand on the right, walk on the left! Stand on the right, walk on the left!
It's no judicUARY square!
Stand clear of the closing doors!!
No, tourist, I will not take your picture.
Let's protest protests.
Taxation without Representation
One inch of snow- everybody panic~!
There are other quadrants besides northwest?
No more larouche fliers
The nationals suck.
Everybody gives business cards
Late Night Shots.
There's more to life than politics.
Sooo what do you do?
Females outnumber males.AIDS!
President turned Ben's Chili Bowl into a tourist spot.
Friday Nights in Adams Morgan
Saturday Afternoons in Georgetown
Panels and roundtables on everything no matter how insignificant.
Think tanks which seldom think; very often tank
No decent clothing stores. Really there are almost none. I have to order clothing online.
Panda bears on the metro cards
"did you buy two fares?" for those hateful people who put a bag next to them on a metro seat and the annoying and singular obsession with employement in dc:"and who do YOU work for?" or "what do YOU do?"
traffic, busy people, lack of snow in the winters...
people who block the escalator.
people on bikes who don't know the traffic laws for biking.
high prices of beer.
Hill interns.
Redskins fan.
people who say O at the Nats game.
single tracking.
people driving in "weather."
people starting conversations with "what do you do?" not "what to you do for fun?"
800-1000$ is a great deal on rent!?!
the guy on the metro who doesn't shower.
knowing the difference between people and their blue tooth and skitzos is a matter of life and death.
The group of drunk chicks in Adams Morgan wearing altered prom dresses.
Who said music was a dead end? h/t artsjournal.

Complaints Choir Song So Far

This is probably much too over-people's-heads. But these are some first thoughts I jotted down this morning. The song will be written by Wednesday night and the music will be composed by Thursday.

Washington DC:

- Where rain and snow are considered terrorist attacks

Washington DC:

- Where afterschool programs are replaced with classes on namedropping.

Washington DC:

- Where an evening on 495 is considered nightlife.

Washington DC:

- Where think tanks rarely think, but always get tanked.

Washington DC:

- Where rats are bigger than Smithsonian Museums

Washington DC:

- Where traffic circles have more influence than roundtables.

Washington DC:

- Where kickball is considered a national pasttime.

Washington DC:

- Where Tower Records is replaced by (silence)... (conductor turns around) NOTHING!!!

Washington DC:

- Where getting to the airport takes longer than the flight.

Washington DC:

- Where a Jack and Coke costs more than preventive care.

Washington DC:

- Where a night in Adams Morgan means ripping your prom dress in half.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

DC Complaints Choir Time

The word 'Valituskuoro' means 'complaints choir' in Finnish. it means roughly 'a lot of people complaining.' Finnish artists Tellervo Kalleinen and Oliver Kochta-Kalleinen got the idea to take the word literally and make a choir of people singing their complaints. The idea has spread worldwide to places as distant as Melborne, Juneau and Singapore.

It is time to launch a DC version of this project. Because there is perhaps no place in the world more deserving of complaints than illustrious Washington DC and all its environs. If you have complaints or grievances to air, please send them to Thanks so much in advance for your marrow-chilling bitterness.

Victory—victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory however long and hard the road may be; for without victory there is no survival.

...just sayin.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Ave Verum Corpus

Last week I spent an hour on this piece with the chorus, going over the finer points of pianissimo singing and the pronunciation of Germanized Latin. If I did my job correctly, it must have been an excruciating experience for every one of them. One later admitted to murderous thoughts, and I knew that I did right by my job.

It's so easy to sing Mozart, notes that fit the voice so naturally as though he tailor made it for singers like a glove. And yet there is so much more to be mindful of. As has so often been said (because it's true), Mozart is both the easiest and most difficult composer to play. Any musical five year old can sing the melody from Ave Verum Corpus, but it takes another fifty years to get all the subtleties of the score exactly right. The great Artur Schnabel would say that it's a piece that's too easy for children and too difficult for artists.

It's one of those rare 'perfect pieces.' Three minutes of music in which every note is completely necessary. But it's also one of those pieces that's better than it can ever be performed (Schnabel again). If you like, you can sit there for as long as the chorus can maintain its ability to sing pianississimo and weigh every singer within every chord for exactly the right color and blend. But you'll never get there.

Instead, all you can do is make the singers aware of just how much delicacy goes into the piece from beginning to end. Work every phrasing until they understand that this is the kind of piece that only works if they're listening as closely as you are. We'll probably keep this piece in the rep for quite a while, who knows how long ultimately? But in the meantime, I hope I still have a chorus that'll forgive me for putting them through the ringer on this.

Verdi's Funeral

Truly amazing footage. But you gotta wonder....why did somebody put Mozart's Requiem underneath it?

And for good measure here's a link to footage from Puccini's Funeral.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Viva Palestrina

Is it bad that whenever I see a sign in the news that says Viva Palestina my first thought is invariably that they are well-meaning but spelling-challenged appreciators of the savior of polyphony?

There are precedents...there's a famous story that the conductor Claudio Abbado's father was arrested by Mussolini's secret police for an afternoon because the ten-year-old Abbado put some graffiti on a church that said "Viva Bartok!" and the town police decided Bartok must have been a dissident.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

I made a promise to myself that I would keep political (and other non-musical) commentary on here to a very bare minimum. But well...The New Republic's Jonathan Chait now has a blog and the cockles of my mildly liberal heart have been warmed to their core.

...this organization is now officially in danger of folding.

Art of the Fugue - Brass Version

(Pittsburgh Symphony Brass)

This is really something. TAOTF really is a tough piece to get into. Most performers treat it with kid gloves, as though it's purely schematic music with no real reason for interest except academic ones. Two years ago I heard Pierre Laurent Aimard play it exactly like that, and I've never seen an audience so excited to hear Elliott Carter...

I've had the sneaking suspicion since I had to make a study of it in college that TAOTF only really works on the organ. Rhythmically, the piece is often flat as day-old matzoh. There's simply no way to shape it without an enormous dynamic range. Perhaps this is also why a brass quintet works so well for it. Not only does the piece get enormous dynamic range, but the bass line can have octave doublings at the climaxes.

One day there will be an enormous post of Art of the Fugue, not tonight though.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Sarkozy Drunk

An oldie but a goodie. This is especially weird since Sarkozy an avowed teetotaller (probably the first French leader in history to claim that). But when you're trying to impress the world's Judo-chopper-in-chief I suppose there are certain lengths one must go, with rather hilarious results. Somehow, this Sarkozy strikes me as a more likable world leader.

Presentation of the Rose

All this Strauss has made me think about one of the other bedrocks of Imperial Vienna - the other Strauss. Richard has no relation to Johann, and his purebred Bavarian stock cut a distinctly out-of-place figure in the fin de siecle Vienna of Mahler and Klimt. But right as Mahler left Vienna, Strauss hitched his wagon to the star of one of Vienna's great poets - the extremely Viennese (and part-Jewish...perhaps that goes without saying) Hugo von Hoffmansthal. I suppose I could talk about the greatest of all "Viennese" operas: Der Rosenkavalier. But perhaps its better to reprint (without permission..) what the great Clive James has to say about the matter:

In Der Rosenkavalier, the Act II duet usually known as the "Presentation of the Silver Rose" is likely to be the way in for a first-time viewer. It’s so seductive at first hearing that you want them to sing it again. This duet was one of the things that got me started on grand opera in general, and Richard Strauss became one of my first enthusiasms. The old devil thought that there could be nothing more truly beautiful than a soprano and a mezzo singing rings around each other. This conviction could sometimes cloy, but in the case of the Silver Rose duet he was right. The opera, premiered in 1911, was already a flashback to a more gracious time, Vienna in the 1740s, but from our standpoint it makes the pre-WWI period look like the lost paradise. In the libretto, by Strauss’s long-term collaborator Hugo von Hofmannsthal, the lecherous but cash-poor Baron Ochs has his oafish eye on Sophie Faninal, prize daughter of a rich upcoming family, and has sent the dashing young Count Octavian Rofrano to make the pitch. In the music, what happens next is a revelation. The two young people prefigure the fulfilment of their future passion through a sublime tissue of interweaving melodic lines. With so much lyricism on tap, it’s all too easy to dip the silver rose in chocolate, but in this performance it shines clean, bright and infinitely elegant.

The number is as hard to act as it is to sing, but it was done brilliantly in the 1985 Covent Garden performance recorded for television and now on DVD. Sir George Solti was the conductor, the American soprano Barbara Bonney was the perfect Sophie, and the role of Octavian was majestically incarnated by the stunning British mezzo Anne Howells, singing and acting with the finely controlled clarity of emotion that the role demands but doesn’t always get. With everyone at the top of their game, together they made magic, even though the composer was so obviously intent on achieving nothing else.

(and just for good measure the final trio sung by three sopranos. Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Sena Jurinac and Anneliese Rothenberger, with Herbert von Karajan conducting the Vienna Philharmonic.)

Saturday, January 2, 2010

In Praise of Tradition - part 3

Ah hell, more Johann Strauss. Why not? Nobody listens to him much after the first week of January. Might as well let him have his day in the sun.

Here's Erich Kleiber doing "The Artist's Life" in 1929 with the Vienna Philharmonic, only audio unfortunately. Again, this is how to play Johann Strauss, and it's fascinating that the Kleibers gave Strauss so much attention when so many of the other great German conductors refused to give Strauss his due (Herbert von Karajan actually being a shining exception). They all conducted him a little bit: even Furtwangler did from time to time, but neither Furtwangler or Klemperer or Bruno Walter or Fritz Busch seemed to view Strauss as more than a wonderful purveyor of encores. Very few musicians have ever given Johann Strauss the seriousness he deserves as a great composer. No, his music does not particularly plumb the depths, but there's far less harmonic variety in major keys than there are in minor keys. As in life, it's far harder in music to be interesting when you're happy. And any composer able to keep things interesting and light at the same time deserves all due credit.

And for anybody who thinks that Strauss is all fluff, there's a famous story about Brahms that a young Viennese musician once asked him for an autograph. Brahms, a close friend of Johann Strauss's, complied by writing in the student's notebook the opening theme from the Blue Danube with the inscription underneath "Unfortunately not by J. Brahms."

(A frail Herbert von Karajan conducting the Vienna Philharmonic in Voices of Spring in 1987 with Kathleen Battle singing the often omitted solo soprano line.)


I would certainly lend an h/t if it were the case but my idea to post Kleiber doing the Blue Danube came to me completely independently of the wonderful Jessica Duchen and her post of the same material a few hours earlier. Good taste thinks alike I suppose.

The Beautiful Blue Danube

This is an incredible document. The still-underrated Erich Kleiber (yes, Carlos's father) conducting the Berlin Philharmonic in 1932. Perhaps as much a memento of Weimar Germany as it is of a bygone era of performance (Erich Kleiber was a fierce anti-Nazi who rarely ever returned to Germany after Hitler's rise). Carlos once recounted a story that his father told him 'Never conduct a waltz, it's the most difficult thing in the world to conduct.' But both father and son mastered the waltz as few others ever have and listening to this video you see exactly why. As opposed to the waltz melancolique muzak that performances of Strauss often sound like, this is exactly how Johann Strauss is supposed to sound. No two beats of a Strauss Waltz should ever be exactly alike. The players have to be absolutely alert for every nuance of the music because no music sounds more boring when played on autopilot. It's music that is every bit as commanding and charismatic as any ever written, but it needs performers of equal greatness to come alive.

...and for the hell of it here's Carlos doing the Fledermaus overture with the Vienna Philharmonic in 1989. For anybody who needs to understand why CK might have been the most gifted conductor of the century, just watch. Even of the picture is two beats ahead of the sound, you'll understand almost immediately.

Friday, January 1, 2010

I promise by all that is holy if this decade is ever called the 'Tweens' again I'm going to set off a nuclear device in the lobby of the NPR offices.

Osama Bit Me

I'm not sure if this was an idea of genius or incredibly stupid, but I'm reasonably certain its one or the other. Below is the original (most watched video on youtube) for reference.

Happy New Year!

(Blue Danube, 2008 conducted by Georges Pretre)

Uncork the Strauss in Vienna. It's 2010! And that means I tune in like a crack monkey to the Vienna Philharmonic New Year's Concert knowing fully well that it will be a crashing bore. But I love the music too much not to.

Georges Pretre does the honors again this year after a surprisingly excellent outing two years ago. New Year's will always be Strauss for me, try to tell me this music doesn't put anybody in a good mood. And now that Walter Cronkite's dead maybe the VPO will try to do an interesting broadcast (we miss Walter!!!).

(Radetzky March 2009, conducted by Daniel Barenboim)