Sir Edward William Elgar (2 June 1857 – 23 February 1934)
Edward Elgar is perhaps best known in the United States as the composer of “Pomp and Circumstance,” the tune to which our high school and college graduates regularly march on the way to the podium to receive their diplomas.
More formally, there are six “Pomp and Circumstance Marches,” and the bit used for graduations is the “Land of Hope and Glory” passage from March No. 1 of the set.
You can listen to the whole of March No. 1 here. [The part everyone knows begins at the 1:50 point in that clip, and takes up about two minutes.]
In Britain, Elgar was for a long time the face on the twenty pound note.
Elgar’s musical reputation has other bases than those, though. He was, among much else, the man who set “The Dream of Gerontius” to music, and it is that I’d especially like to write about today.
Gerontius was a poem for 35 years before it was a choral work. Indeed, it was a poem for 24 years before Elgar ever saw it: he received it in 1889 as a wedding present.
It was the Catholic philosopher/theologian John Henry Newman who wrote Gerontius in late January and early February 1865 and it saw print later that year in the Jesuit magazine The Month.
Newman’s poem, which you can read in full here, was in some measure inspired by the work of Dante Alighieri, who portrayed himself in his Comedy as a pilgrim who had travelled through the realms of the dead: hell, purgatory, and heaven.
Newman’s character also travels in his dreamstate through the realms that may await him, and that dogmas tell us await all of us, after death. Gerontius (the word is based on the Greek phrase for “old man”) dreams that he is being guided to God by an angel.
In the course of Newman’s poem, Gerontius receives a warning of the pain that may accompany the beatific vision.
“For one moment thou shalt see thy Lord” says the angel, “One moment; but thou knowest not, my child, / What thou dost ask: that sight of the Most Fair/ Will gladden thee, but it will pierce thee too.”
Gerontius, in the protective presence of his angel, passes safely by the demons looking to gather souls for hell.
“How impotent they are! And yet on earth/ They have repute for wondrous power and skill.”
But, as the angel had hinted, Gerontius’ soul is pained when he finally does get to see God, a sight for which he is not yet ready. He begs to be sent away, to spend time in purgatory.
He begs, that is, to be taken to the “lowest deep” until he is properly prepared to look at God, “and see Him in the truth of everlasting day.”
The poem ends with the angel’s assurance that that day will come, “Swiftly shall pass thy night of trial here, And I will come and wake thee on the morrow.”
Elgar took a somewhat shortened version of Newman’s poem as his own libretto. He showed a masterly agility at composing music that matched the multiple levels of meaning in Newman’s words.
Why am I writing of this now? Because I recently (on May 3) had the opportunity to listen to a performance of Elgar’s work, as performed by The Hartford Chorale, the Mendelssohn Choir of Connecticut, and the New Haven Symphony Orchestra, in the Cathedral of St. Joseph.
And although Newman originally conceived of the guardian angel in his story as a man, perhaps after analogy with Dante’s spirit guide, Virgil, Elgar reconceived the role as one for a woman, a soprano.
Here’s how it was done in St. Paul’s in London, in 1997.
In Hartford, Connecticut, on May 3, 2013 the guardian angel was performed by the superb mezzo soprano Catherine Martin.
Gerontius was performed by tenor Paul-Michael Brubitzer, and a third role, that of a bass-baritone priest doing the last rites for the departing soul is sung by Douglas Williams.
The chorale and the choir between them provided 300 voices who played the supporting roles, the angels, demons, and purgatory residents that Gerontius encounters. (I’m happy to note that my own sister, Elizabeth Gemmell honorably performed her duties as one of the sopranos for the Hartford Chorale.
One of the underlying themes of the original poem is in fact the relationship between hearing and the other senses.
At one point, Newman has his central character say: “I hear a singing; yet in sooth/ I cannot of that music rightly say/Whether I hear, or touch, or taste the tones./ Oh, what a heart-subduing melody!”
Those words were a very bold stroke on the poet’s part, I submit. Otherworldly, as the context requires, and yet thoroughly grounded in this world, in the phenomenon of synesthesia, an involuntary neurological “union of senses” that can be produced chemically, congenitally, or through a variety of accidents. For someone in a synesthetic state, motions may be perceived as sounds, colors as musical tones and so forth.
Of course even people without a synesthetic neurological condition may use a range of metaphors that indicate a natural understanding of the possibility of such a union. We speak of “loud colors” and “red hot” spices without giving a thought to neurology.
It seems natural to think that our senses will unite into one as we approach paradise, and that recognition of their oneness will be a precursor of the final union with God.
It is pleasant and thematically appropriate at this point to note that less than three years ago, on September 19, 2010, the Roman Catholic Church beatified John Henry Newman. Beatification is the Church’s assurance that the person so recognized has entered heaven, and is often a prelude to canonization, that is, sainthood.
I’d like to conclude this entry with a bit of housekeeping. Over the coming months we at JustSheetMusic will run a series of blog entries about Michael Jackson. These entries will be the work of a new member of our musical-appreciative family, Susan Darnell.
This is not at all a goodbye. My own thoughts on a variety of musical subjects will continue to grace this website. But they will be interspersed for a time with Susan’s observations about Michael Jackson (1958-2009), which will of course honor an amazing singer, composer, and songwriter, a man who helped redefine contemporary R&B, blues, pop, and rock music alike.
I look forward to her work and hope you do as well.
JustsSheetMusic Book Notes
At irregular intervals here at JustSheetMusic, we let our readers know about some of the new books on a range of musical subjects that are always falling off the presses, or downloading themselves into email in-boxes. Today is another of those days.
Hell Yeah! The best quotes in rock ‘n’ roll history By Ryan Birdland
Triple L Publishing, Sacramento, CA, 2013
eBook, 52 pages, $2.99.
Hell Yeah! The best quotes in rock ‘n’ roll history
We start with a new eBook from Ryan Birdland, a long-time music critic who is also known for in-depth interviews he did with David Byrne and Tina Weymouth, both of Talking Heads, back in the mid-1980s. Birdland, then, has been around for decades, covering this beat.
Those of our readers with good memories for such things will remember that Talking Heads, a new-wave band formed in 1975, performed such songs as Psycho Killer and Life During Wartime. They remained active as a band until 1991, and received an induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2002.
Anyway, the eBook under review here is Hell Yeah. And it consists, as the subtitle suggests, of a list of some of the funnier and/or most thought-provoking things rock or rock-and-roll musicians have had to say for or about themselves over forty years. Some of them, as Birdland says in his foreword, are inspiring. Others are just crazy.
Somewhere in between crazy and inspiring there are commonsensical observations such as the following from Clarence Clemons, the sax player with the E Street Band: “To do it the way that I must do it, I must be in good condition. The better shape you’re in, the harder you can rock.” You can perhaps judge his physical condition for yourself from the photo of Clarence wailing by the side of The Boss here.
And there was a (to me) unexpected bit of musical history in this book from Keith Moon of The Who: “I’ve been sitting in for the past 15 years. They never actually told me I was part of the band.”
By Fabrizio Della Seta, trans. Mark Weir
University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL, 2012
320 pages, $55.
This book is not the place to start if you are new to opera as an art form. Della Seta – an associate professor of the history of music at the University of Siena and a member of the Academia Europaea – assumes some familiarity with the form, and for that matter with aesthetic theories, in this collection of essays. Further, the essays, which he first wrote in Italian, sometimes have a rather clunky sound to them in their English incarnation.
Della Seta explains his title in his introduction. The phrase comes from Goethe’s Faust. In a prelude, Goethe has a jester and a poet debate how they should tell this tale. The poet wants nothing to do with the “motley crowd” and contemporary favor. He wants this poem written in a quiet corner of heaven, and for the benefit of posterity.
The Jester is more practical (or commercial, if you like). He wants to entertain, and he tells the poet that while you can include “reason, intellect, sentiment, passion,” you must never produce a work for the stage “without madness.”
Goethe’s jester is right, Della Seta adds, “You cannot have theatre without ‘Madness,’ from the primordial Dionysian frenzy to the exhibitionism of the diva and the spit and sawdust of the proscenium.”
Perhaps the finest essay in this collection is Della Seta’s careful interpretation of the Verdi aria “D’amor sull’ali rosee.” Yet instead of summarizing that essay, I think I’ll just show you a couple of Team Diva all-timers performing that aria. Here is Maria Callas.
And here is Anna Netrebko.
Does either of those performances give you the chills? Goosebumps? Hold that thought. Today’s final book note is for you.
Ed. By Eckhart Altenmuller et al.
Oxford University Press US, New York, 2013
376 pages, $95.
This is an anthology of works by a variety of scholars interested in different aspects of the very broad subject matter indicated by that title and subtitle.
At JustSheetMusic, we were naturally interested in chapter 17, “Toward a neurobiology of musical emotions” and in chapter 19, “A contribution to the evolutionary basis of music: Lessons from the chill response.”
Is it only an expression or do you really get “chills” at specific moments when listening to music? And, if the latter, what does that mean?
In their physiological significance, “chills” are the reactions of our skin to cold temperature, a reflex presumably with some survival/adaptive value. With that thought in mind, what can we say about the chill response in music?
The authors of the essay on that subject in this book are to their credit more interested in empirical data than in speculation. They cite data indicating that 70% of the general population reports positive “chill” responses to music, and that such direct physiological response is “usually elicited by highly complex acoustic patterns.”
But the reaction isn’t a very predictable one, it cannot be reproduced reliably “when playing the same musical passages on different days,” the authors tell us, “even in individuals with high ‘chill susceptibility’.”
Their work involved measuring skin conduction response, skin conduction level, the heart rate, the breathing rate, etc.
In the authors’ study, only 29 to 35% of the subjects got chills from the tested works of Mozart, Chopin, or Max Bruch.
Further, the authors — Eckhart Altenmuller (pictured right), Reinhard Kopiez, and Oliver Grewe – had a tough time identifying any specific acoustic events that would trigger chills. There was one exception: they found you need to defy expectations to get a chill response.
If you are a composer, remember this. Not every surprise will get chills from your audience; but if you don’t surprise them you’ll surely get none. Set up the expectations, and then violate them.
Let’s go back, for our final clip, to Keith Moon and The Who, as mentioned in the first of our three notes. I think it safe to say that at some point he was definitely “part of the band.”
See for yourself
Tomasz Stanko (born July 11, 1942)
Why does trumpet talent at this moment in history seem to flow to men whose surnames begin with the letter S? I don’t know. But then, I have been baffled by lesser mysteries than that!
Devoted readers of this blog will surely want to know that one of these great contemporary jazz trumpeters, Tomasz Stanko, portrayed above, has brought out a new album ( via ECM). Its name is Wislawa, because Stanko was inspired by the writing of the great Polish poet, Wislawa Szymborska, a Nobel Prize winner of 1996 who died last year.
Ten years ago, Stanko came out with Suspended Night, also via ECM. Stanko was working at the time with Marcin Wasilewski on the piano, Slawamir Kurkiewicz on bass, and Michael Miskiewicz on drums. They continue to perform, now without him, as the Marcin Wasilewski Trio.
As to Suspended Night, though, the website AllMusic raved that the ensemble had developed a “bravely compelling yet tonally accessible voice” and that Stanko himself had a “unique compositional language.” Listen for yourself here.
And now we have Stanko’s new effort, Wislawa. Ben Ratliff, reviewing it in The New York Times, praises its “soothing melodic shapes interrupted by flutters and harder intervallic stabs.”
Stanko is again the leader of a quartet. He is ably supported throughout Wislawa by Gerald Cleaver on the drums, Thomas Morgan on bass, and David Virelles on piano. The style of the quartet reminds Ratliff of Miles Davis, and of Davis’ 1959 studio album, Kind of Blue.
This is not only high praise; it is a common attribution of influence: many critics have heard Davis in Stanko.
Sobczak is somewhat better known by his stage name “EDolutionary” than by his given and surnames. As the stage name suggests, Sobczak – an alum of the University of Music in Poznan, Poland, who now lives in Oxford, in Britain – believes that his music represents a new stage in the development/evolution of jazz.
His debut album, One Step Ahead was released in December 2010. It was followed by The Soundtrack (January 2012) and most recently by Epic Film Music (December 2012).
Interviewed for the website All About Jazz, Sobczak said that his music reflects the influence of “everyone I’ve ever heard,” including Davis, Sandoval, Wynton Marsalis, Michel Camilo, and Chris Botti.
Experimentation, a pressing of the boundaries, is critical he says, otherwise “we would all still play and compose like Mozart. As much as I respect Mozart, I’m glad we moved on.”
Seconding that thought, I propose that jazz, and trumpet based jazz, be considered just as mutable as civilization itself. After all, the instrument is as old. People have been re-working the trumpet and its sound, since long before Mozart. Instruments recognizably trumpet-like were employed in the days of the Oxus civilization [central Asia, circa 3500 BC]. Some of the finds are portrayed in the chart below.
But to return to the 21st century Anno Domino, I’ll complete this triptych of contemporary trumpeters with Arturo Sandoval, who’s latest CD; Dear Diz (Every Day I Think of You) pays tribute to Dizzie Gillespie.
Sandoval is a native of Cuba. He met Gillespie, his hero, in 1977 and they played together in concerts in both Cuba and Europe. Sandoval defected to the US in 1990 while on tour. Gillespie died in 1993. Sandoval became a naturalized citizen of the U.S. in ’99.
Arturo Sandoval (born November 6, 1949)
Dear Diz, released through the Concord Jazz label, got to number nine on Billboard’s Top Jazz Albums chart in late 2012 and early 2013. It has also won Sandoval a Grammy.
Going back just a year and a half, here is a clip of a performance of Sandoval with the US Air Force Band, performing, A Night in Tunisia.
A Night in Tunisia, as a song, though it was surely unknown to the Oxus civilization, has a lot of history behind it. Cole Porter composed A Night in Tunisia in 1942, and it was first sung by Sarah Vaughan. Among the great artists who did it before Sandoval … Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, and … Dizzy Gillespie. The song became a signature of the bebop crowd. It’s a tune that has, for western audiences anyway, just the right touch of the exotic, and one that opens itself to a variety of interpretations.
Listening to Sandoval’s interpretation in the above clip will give you a quick sense of range his horn has in his hands – it can sound like a tuba or like a piccolo, with never a slackening of control.
So let us keep the trumpet in our thoughts. Without this ago-old instrument, it seems unlikely that jazz would ever have developed as the great musical genre we know. And, as these three gentlemen each in his own way proves, both jazz and the trumpet remain at the cutting edge of musical development.
It is worthy of remark, too, that none of the three gentlemen discussed in this column was born in the United States: our three masters of the trumpet consist of two Poles and a Cuban. Yes, jazz as a musical genre is a gift that the US has given to the world, but the rest of the world can manufacture the stuff at the very highest level.
Let us conclude with Sobczak, and what he calls his “Untold Story.”
Fishing in the Depths of Benjamin Britten
This year is the 100th anniversary of the birth of Benjamin Britten, a great English composer and conductor who created several outstanding operas: Peter Grimes (1945), Billy Budd (1951), and The Turn of the Screw (1954) among them. [The Queen had made him a peer in 1976, and Britten died of congestive heart failure later that year.]
Benjamin Britten (22 November 1913 – 4 December 1976)
We’ll take a few minutes today to praise Lord Britten, by means of admiring descriptions of each of the three operas just named.
Two of the three have a maritime theme, the third goes fishing in psychological depths instead.
Peter Grimes drew inspiration from a collection of George Crabbe poems, The Borough, published in 1810. In one of the poems in that collection, Peter Grimes, a fisherman by trade, mistreats his apprentices, and [or consequently?] each dies while in his charge. After each of the first two deaths Grimes is acquitted – after all, the townspeople reason, fishing is a dangerous craft, the unskilled youngsters involved sometimes die, etc.
After the third time, the borough’s officials get tough with him; he is prohibited from buying any further indentured servants. “Hire thee a freeman,” says the mayor.
Thereafter he is shunned by the towns’ people. This shunning and his own guilt collude to drive Peter mad.
Grimes himself becomes a much more sympathetic figure in Britten’s treatment, with the assistance of his librettist Montague Slater, than he had been in Crabbe’s. Crabbe (portrayed left) describes Grimes as a “savage master” who discovered, upon buying the first of his doomed indentured boys, that “he’d now the power he ever loved to show/ A feeling being subject to his blow.”
But in the hands of Britten and Slater, Grimes becomes a misfit loner deserving of sympathy. It is the town, he sings, that ought to be ashamed, “Selling me new apprentices,/ Children taught to be ashamed/Of the legend on their faces – ‘You’ve been sold to Peter Grimes!’” Softening the character becomes easier by virtue of the reduction of the number of his victims: ‘only’ two apprentices die in the opera, rather than the three of the poem.
We see a more important change when we come to the manner of Grimes’ death. He doesn’t go mad as a result of anything as mild as a general shunning. Rather, he is pursued by an angry mob, singing “Him who despises us we’ll destroy.” Click that song title for a YouTube clip of 23 minutes from the opera. If you’re impatient, skip forward to about 19:30, when the people of the borough have persuaded themselves that Grimes has done something awful to the second apprentice. See how the crowd is both angry and joyous in equal measure – joyous in its very unity – and how all this is musically expressed.
The choice of this material for an opera was Britten’s, a decision made a year before he requested Slater’s help. The bare plot might seem on first thought a slender thread on which to hang a drama. Yet on second thought the suspicions the town directs against Peter stand for other sorts of suspicion, whether directed at innocent or at not-to-innocent targets. The opera becomes a meditation on the psychology of crowds. That has been the gist of commentaries like this.
Billy Budd was a novella by the superb American writer Herman Melville, one left unpublished at his death in 1891. Since its first publication in 1924, it has become a central work in the canon of great 19th century novels.
Britten’s opera from this work boasts a libretto by E.M. Forster and Eric Crozier.
That libretto includes a priceless bit of self-referential dialogue, as the Master at Arms ‘welcomes’ the newly-impressed members of his crew. Click here for the ten-minute scene that includes this:
“Can you read?
“No, but I can sing.
“Never mind the singing.”
This opera received a posthumous compositional assist from Giuseppe Verdi. According to an anecdote from Mervyn Cooke’s biography of Britten, Peter Pears (a tenor who was Britten’s long-time lover) sent Britten a score of Verdi’s La Traviata while he, Britten, was in the midst of a blockage on this project. In a letter to Pears, Britten thanked him for the gift and added, “I’m in a bit of a muddle over Billy & not ready to start on him again yet. Anyhow one learns so much from Verdi so B.B. will be a better opera for your present, I’ve no doubt!”
Pears played Captain Vere in the opera’s first run.
Turn of the Screw
Turn of the Screw has nearly as lofty a literary pedigree as Billy Budd. Turn was a ghost story written by Henry James, originally published in 1898, with a story that is on its face the struggle for the souls of two children, a young boy and girl named, respectively, Miles and Flora. The combatants in this struggle are: their governess (who is not given any name in the story) who is surely working for the side of good; and two ghosts, one of them that of a former governess, Miss Jessel, who seeks possession of the waifs.
That, as I say, is the struggle on its face, because there have been many readings of the story that have held that this is not really what is going on, that the ghosts don’t exist outside of the deluded mind of the current governess, and that she herself is the real danger to the children she thinks she is protecting. The ambiguity is surely part of the reason Rebecca West once called this novella “the best ghost story in the world.”
Britten worked with librettist Myfanwy Piper in preparing this work for the operatic stage. This was the first Britten/Myfanwy collaboration, though it would not be the last. They worked together in another Jamesian text, Owen Wingrave, years later, and on an opera based on a work by Thomas Mann, Death in Venice, after that.
Here is one interpretation of their Turn of the Screw. For the 1982 movie, director Petr Weigl introduced a long wordless opening sequence that shows Jessel and her lover, Peter Quint, when they were still alive and already a corrupting influence on the children. At about 6:30 in that clip, there’s an erotically charged close-up of Jessel biting into an apple in the estate’s garden, and of course sharing the fruit with the children. [Things get even worse when she’s dead.]
That Britten’s work, like James’, is subject to a variety of interpretations makes life interesting for producers and directors.
Speaking of the subtle and psychological side of ghost stories … Britten’s Turn might be in a sense a precursor of the great Stanley Kubrik movie, The Shining. You can see that this story, too, was much enhanced by the musical element. Original music for its soundtrack was provided by Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind, but the most effective spooky music in the soundtrack comes from Krzyztof Penderecki, his De Natura Sonoris No. 2.
I think Penderecki would have gotten along well with Henry James.
But let us return to Britten. Here is our farewell to a versatile genius. This clip will give you the music that accompanied the Governess’ first reactions to her new abode, as the screws begin turning:
Harvey Lavan Cliburn Jr. (12 July 1934 - 27 February 2013)
Harvey Lavan (“Van”) Cliburn, a classical pianist who has been world famous since 1958, died on February 27th of this year. We at JustSheetMusic bid him a fond farewell.
Cliburn was in a direct chain of succession from the 19th century master Franz Liszt, a chain with only two intermediate links. Van’s mother, Rildia Bee (nee O’Bryan) Cliburn, had been a student of Arthur Friedheim, who had been a student of Liszt. Rildia herself was a piano teacher, and when her boy Van was just three years old, she caught him at the keyboard mimicking one of her students with astonishing success. His own lessons began then.
Though Van’s earliest years were spent in Louisiana, the Cliburns moved to Texas when he was only six, and it was with the Houston Symphony that he first performed in public, at the ripe old age of 12.
At Julliard School, in New York, in the early 1950s, Cliburn studied under Rosina Lhévinne, herself an inspiring example of the Russian pianistic tradition, and of the errors inherent in age discrimination (along with her teaching duties at Julliard, she was just beginning a solo performing career of her own around the time Cliburn showed up in her class – though she was in her 70s.)
Soon after the Soviet Union sent up the first Sputnik, it announced a new international piano contest, the Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition. Inviting pianists from around the world, the designers of the contest expected that a Russian would win, thus allowing the USSR to showcase its cultural superiority so soon after making such a big show of its technological prowess.
Cliburn arrived in Moscow and rather immediately defied the stereotypes of an American capitalist philistine. Heck, he was actually from Texas, and might have been expected to show some cowboy swagger! But he was a soft-spoken, unassuming young man devoted to, and plainly gifted at, music.
“He looked and played like some sort of angel,” a Russian pianist later recalled.
Fortunately, through the magic of YouTube we have available the performances that won the hearts of the Russians, and may in some part have mitigated the severity of the Cold War at its worst. Here. What you’re listening to there is Sergei Rachmaninov’s 3d Concerto in D Minor. And here, for purposes of comparison, is how Rachmaninov himself played Rachmaninov!
Cliburn didn’t just play Rachmaninoff at the contest; he also played the Piano Concerto No.1 of Tchaikovsky, the man after whom of course the contest had been named.
Cliburn loved Russia, returning the affection he encountered there, and he returned to that country often. In a 1962 visit, for example, he played thus.
During that trip too, after Van had completed a triumphant recital and while the audience demanded an encore, Van urged his mother, Rildia, to come out from the wings of the stage to play two numbers herself: she played the Liszt Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 and an étude by Moszkowski. As The New Yorker noted, “She blew the lid right off the place.”
But to return to 1958 and our story: after Cliburn’s performance, the judges wondered how they couldn’t give him the prize, especially after the audience awarded him an eight-minute standing ovation, rather confirming the judges in their own impressions. The story usually told is that the judges, nervous about the political implications, asked Nikita Khrushchev personally what they should do.
Khrushchev answered the question with a question: “Is he the best? … then give him the prize!”
And so they did. For a moment, the Cold War seemed to have faded away.
Of course, politics is not driven by warm fuzzy feelings, and the Cold War hadn’t faded for long. Still, it was a memorable moment, and got Cliburn a ticker-tape parade in New York City, a photo on the cover of Time, and a degree of worldwide adulation seldom bestowed on classical musicians.
To his credit, Van Cliburn seems to have kept a level and un-swelled head. At the World’s Fair in New York in 1962, Cliburn was half of a double bill with the famous composer Igor Stravinsky. The program had Cliburn opening; then after an intermission, it had Stravinsky conducting an orchestral performance of one of his most best-loved compositions, The Firebird. Remarkably, Cliburn insisted on carrying the bags of the older gentleman to their dressing room area.
Also in 1962, a group of music teachers in Fort Worth, Texas created the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. The first two contests under this name took place in 1962 and 1966. With the third, though, the organizers initiated the practice, followed ever since, of holding the contest on the odd-numbered year of a U.S. President’s inauguration: thus, 1969, 1973, 1981 and so forth at fourth year intervals until the present. Cliburn happily accepted a role as the director of the Van Cliburn Foundation, the funding entity behind this competition, and he remained involved until his death.
The 2013 contest is scheduled for late May and early June. The sponsors of this competition have posted a touching memoriam to their namesake and inspiration at their website.
The last such competition, in 2009, produced a rare result, a tie. The judges bestowed the gold medal on both Nobuyuki Tsujii (portrayed right) and Haochen Zhang. [Click on those names to listen to each.] Nobuyuki has a fascinating backstory: he has been blind from birth.
Documentary filmmaker Peter Rosen produced a movie about Nobuyuki, about that contest and the “Nobu fever” that followed in Japan, called: A Surprise in Texas.
The silver medal in 2009 went to Yeol Eum Son, a South Korean. To bring ourselves full circle we have only to mention that two years later, Son won the … 14th International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow. The success of these three fine young musicians has become part of Van Cliburn’s unfolding legacy.
Here’s a fun way to end our own tribute: Van Cliburn on the television program What’s My Line.
He’s Got Them Fooled
I recently read The Fractalist , a memoir of the late Benoit Mandelbrot, the great geometer who pioneered our understanding of fractals and their significance in nature and human society.
The usual way to consider fractals is to start with the Mandelbrot set, an exceedingly complicated geometrical configuration (as left) that arises from a very simple initiating formula.
As Mandelbrot himself wrote, in his groundbreaking 1982 book, The Fractal Geometry of Nature, “Clouds are not spheres, mountains are not cones, coastlines are not circles, and bark is not smooth….” None of the things amidst which we live our lives has the smoothness and regularity of traditional geometrical forms. Studying the geometry of fractals – of detailed (rough) patterns that are self-similar from micro to macro scales – means coming to grips with the actual shapes of coastlines, mountains, and even clouds.
What about music then? Musical form is a natural extension of the fractal idea. Indeed, the first page of Mandelbrot’s memoir lists music as among the sorts of beauty-in-complexity to which fractal geometry may be well adapted.
Mandelbrot (photo on the right) returns to the subject late in the memoir, chiefly to praise Charles Wuorinen, a “composer who understands fractality.”
That’s as good a reason as any to discuss the career of this fellow Wuorinen. Another reason is simply that his life has been a fascinating one. Here’s a complete discography from his own website. He’s a New York City born composer of Scandinavian roots, whose career certainly illustrates that music today, even orchestral music, [an art form that has enthusiasts who bask in what they see as its unchanging character], can and does change.
Wuorinen took a BA from Columbia in 1961, and an MA from the same institution in 1963. He was a faculty member at Columbia for a time but left there in 1971 soon after he had been denied tenure.
His work in the 1960s and early ‘70s was sufficient to bring him favorable attention from the heirs of Igor Stravinsky. Stravinsky, the composer of L’oiseau de feu (1919) and Le Sacre du printemps (1913) was one of the giants of the early years of the 20th century. His heirs wanted Wuorinen to work up that composer’s final sketches into a complete work for publication and performance. He naturally complied with that flattering request, and the result was A Reliquary for Igor Stravinsky. You can listen to it here.
The word “reliquary,” by the way, is used metaphorically there. A reliquary is a container for relics, sometimes the bones of ancestors or other revered figures.
Years later the Stravinsky/Wuorinen “Reliquary” would be put to a related use in the world of ballet. The head of the New York City Ballet, Peter Martins, used it as the scoring of a balletic tribute to George Balanchine (below), one of the founders of that institution, in 1996.
But let’s go back to the 1970s and to chronological order. For in 1976, soon after the appearance of Reliquary, Wuorinen completed his first opera, one expressly based on classical materials, called The W. of Babylon. Though this opera doesn’t seem to have actually premiered until 1988, it was at once a tribute to Mozart and a work clearly of the mid-1970s, as was its libretto by Renaud Charles Bruce.
Click here for another sample of Wuorinen’s work. That is “Fortune,” a composition for clarinet, violin, cello, and piano, that dates to just three years after The W. of Babylon, that is, to 1979. This gets us back to fractals, because Wuorinen (photo below) has said that he sometimes begins with “strings of pseudo-random material, usually pitches but sometimes other things, [which] were generated and then subjected to traditional types of compositional organization, including twelve-tone procedures.” That description will sound familiar to Mandelbrotians.
It was around that time, the late 1970s, that Wuorinen became interested in Mandelbrot, and vice versa. In a sense, fractality is something that every successful composer must understand, for every piece of music, beyond a motif or a brief whistled tune, operates on different scales of time, and the art of the composer is a matter of making those longer and shorter duration patterns cohere, and even generate one another in a way pleasing to the ear. From the late 19760s on, Wuorinen became conscious, one might even say self-conscious, about this compositional task.
Wuorinen has also married the idea of fractality with the modernist 12-tone program that Wuorinen had learned from Stravinsky, and from others (Milton Babbitt, Anton Webern, etc.). This program, part of serialism, raises complicated musical issues itself and is something I hope to discuss in future entries in this blog. For now, let us simply say that for those of us accustomed to the older 7-note scale (do, re, mi….), serialist music can at first sound dissonant.
If the samples of Wuorinen’s work above are your first encounter with serialism, I fear you’ll have to train your ears to it a bit.
In more recent years James Levine, who was until 2011 the music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, has become an important champion of Wuorinen’s musical significance. Levine commissioned from Wuorinen the latter’s Fourth Piano Concerto, which the BSO premiered in March 2005.
Wuorinen also composed (or perhaps is still at work composing) the music for the ballet Brokeback Mountain. He has no responsibility, by the way, for the soundtrack of the 2005 movie of the same name. That soundtrack’s music was the work of Argentine musician Gustavo Santoalalla.
But the ballet, based on the same Annie Proulx short story as that better known movie, is expected to premier in 2014 at the Teatro Real, in Madrid, Spain. It will be fascinating to see what is “fractal” about it when it appears, and what is serialist.
In the meantime, we can enjoy Santoalalla’s take on the music appropriate to that particular mountain.
Kylie Minogue: Her Story So Far
Kylie Minogue, a global music sensation who, though she hasn’t made as big a mark in the U.S. as she might have hoped, has been a star pretty much everywhere else for more than a quarter century now, has been in the news of late for two reasons. First, she signed a management contract with Roc Nation, a music label headed by Jay-Z. He might at last secure her props from the ‘States.
Second, she rocked a striking mustard-yellow dress at a pre-Grammy Awards event this month. These are surely good reasons for a bit of a trip down memory lane.
When Kylie first appeared up on the music scene, she was just another dime-a-dozen pop princess, doing a song that was already then (in 1987) achingly familiar, The Loco-Motion.
Kylie’s Loco-Motion is not in any way an improvement upon that of Little Eva in 1962, [recorded six years before Kylie’s birth, and seven years before the birth of Shawn Corey Carter, aka Jay-Z] and I have to say, probably reflecting my own generational biases all too well here, that the definitive version remains that of Grand Funk Railroad in 1974. One odd change in lyrics does set Minogue’s version apart, though. Instead of motion “like a railroad train” she proposes motion “like a railway train.”
The Delinquents (1989)
Minogue has performed in several movies. I’ll mention only three here. Her first role was in the 1989 flick “The Delinquents,” as Lola Lovell. This whole movie was a piece of young-lovers-are-so-cute escapism, in which the singer played a teenager in the Australian town of Bundaberg in 1950. Her character becomes pregnant by “Brownie” Hansen (played by American actor Charlie Schlatter). Lola and Brownie run away from their home town in expectation that that way they can have the baby together and live happily ever after without interference from their parents or the welfare agencies. After various melodramatic twists and turns, they are to be found back at home and married in a proper wedding with both of their families in attendance.
Minogue sang “Tears on My Pillow” for the soundtrack. “Tears” is a genuine period doo-wop song, done back in the day by Little Anthony. It was the work of composers Sylvester Bradford and Al Lewis. You cannot listen to Little Anthony doing this without ingesting the whole doo-wop era. It’s in the background, it’s in the foreground, and it’s around the sides.
Here, though, is how Minogue did it. And you can see, even in the background of the track the Little Anthony type of Doo-Wop sound is only a spectral presence. Meanwhile in the foreground Kylie’s own singing is something else entirely. And peeking out from around the sides? – more than a hint of Olivia Newton-John of Grease.
In 1996, Minogue got involved in something a bit campier. She was Dr. Petra von Kant in Bio-Dome. This movie was an effort at starting a Bill-and-Ted type comedy pairing, in which the characters Bud and Doyle would provide the laughs and various straight men and straight women would chew up the scenery. But those central characters, played by Pauly Shore and Steven Baldwin respectively, stunk up the joint, so this movie and the whole idea of a franchise disappeared quickly. Minogue called it her worst career move.
Nonetheless, it did give the world this classic moment. By this time clearly the chomper of that carrot was no longer an interchangeable pop princess. She was doing her own thing. Sometimes, when you do that, it doesn’t work. But if you’re brave, you plough on.
The soundtrack of Bio-Dome is as easy to forget as the movie, and Minogue/von Kant made no contribution to that.
Ah, but from here on her career is more of a triumphal progression than a struggle. In the 21st century, Minogue has been carving out her considerable market share of the dance floors of the world. In 2002 she released “Can’t Get You Out of My Head.” The video for this song has its own attractive weirdness, but it’s the music itself, the hypnotic techno-beat and the almost-as- hypnotic chanted chorus that make this a memorable booty-shaker. It was all over the radio waves in the U.S. Or maybe it just seemed that way at the time; because the chorus is so hard to … well … get out of one’s head.
In 2004 Minogue advanced her dance floor diva cred, winning the Grammy for Best Dance Recording for “Come Into My World.” It beat out formidable competition. The other nominees for that award that year included two other career-extension marvels: Cher, “Love One Another,” and Madonna, “Die Another Day.”
Billboard magazine, in a piece written that January, just after the nominees were announced, praised the selection as a fair reflection of the “diversity that exists in clubland,” and quoted Ron Slomowicz, a DJ based in Nashville, Tenn., who had said, “It’s as if those doing the voting actually know what’s going on in dance music.” Grudging praise, but frankly Slomowicz sounds like the sort of hipster to be found in any field, which can once in a while hand out such grudging praise and knows it will stand out from a background noise of carping.
In 2011 Kylie was on tour, the Aphrodite – Les Folies tour, reviewed here. The critic for The Guardian was not impressed, and here (in contrast to Slomowicz’s comment for Billboard) one gets the impression not of faint praise as hip praise, but of faint praise as understated condemnation. “Kylie’s career has never been based on gritty realism but this latest production, themed loosely around Greek mythology, opens up new frontiers in high camp.” And so forth.
Still: what did he know? Triumphal progressions don’t depend on critics. This tour did 72 shows around the world in 52 cities and earned more than $58 million. High camp sells. Santiago Felipe of The Village Voice said of one of these shows that Minogue “radiated at maximum wattage throughout the evening.” And in November of that year, the Australian Recording Industry Association inducted her into its ARIA Hall of Fame.
Personally, I just want to say I wish Minogue and her new managers well in all her and their future endeavors. Despite Bio-Dome, I have high hopes upon learning that an upcoming movie is in the works. She is to be featured in a musical romance called Walking on Sunshine.
And I’ll end by coming full circle, linking you to a performance of one of her early hits, “I Should Be So Lucky.” She was doing a girl-next-door thing here.
Adelina Patti (19 February 1843 – 27 September 1919)
Who was Adelina Patti? She was one of the most successful sopranos in history. Born in Spain, but a subject of the King of the Two Sicilies, she was in her prime a pan-European figure.
Start the video below to listen to a recording of her voice.
The recording was made in Patti’s home in 1905, and is fascinating in part just because it represents an artifact from the early days of sound recording. This is from about as far into the past as we can go in direct knowledge of the way opera sopranos actually sounded – in a sense, into the romantic era.
Yes, I know, by most periodizations 1905 was rather late for “romanticism.” The musical cutting edge had moved on into the impressionism of Debussy or the symbolism of Scriabin.
But consider this: Miss Patti was born in 1843, the year Giuseppe Verdi turned thirty and Hector Berlioz forty, when both of those gentlemen were at the height of their powers. She was singing in public as early as the 1850s, and she was an operatic soprano early enough to be a competitor of Jenny Lind for the affection of their common public.
Patti’s operatic debut was as the title character in Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor.
Patti was well past her singing prime by the time Edison’s invention came along to allow her voice its measure of immortality, but that fact just makes such a recording that much more precious, as the reaching out to us of an era otherwise voiceless.
The song attached to the above YouTube link is “Voi Che Sapete” (“You Who Know”) composed by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart for The Marriage of Figaro.
Lorenzo Da Ponte (1749 - 1838)
Some context: the song is assigned to what is known in the operatic world as a ‘trouser role,’ that is a character presented to the audience as a young man, but that is performed by a woman. In this case, the aria is given to the character of Cherubino, a barely-grown boy who falls in love with every woman in the vicinity and who is being sent off to the army because he’s become so troublesome to the Count.
The words Cherubino is singing here were the work of a frequent collaborator of Mozart’s, Lorenzo Da Ponte, whose portrait is above. Da Ponte also deserves credit for the words that went with that incomparable musician’s music for Don Giovanni and Cosi fan tutte.
How did I come to focus on Miss Patti’s performance of “Voi Che Sapete”? Simply because my recent reading has included The End of Early Music (2007), by Bruce Haynes and Haynes sees this recording as a guide to the way in which the romantic era saw the pre-Romantics, how those whose views of music developed alongside Verdi and Berlioz related to the work of … well … Mozart and Da Ponte.
Haynes brings up Patti chiefly to make the point that she wouldn’t be a big star today. Not singing like that. Even though opera is “the most conservative style of Classical music we have,” its own style has changed over the last century, so Patti would be “laughed off the stage of the Met.”
Here, for purposes of comparison, is another performance of the same aria, this one from the Glyndebourne Festival Opera in 1973. There is some introductory dialogue: the aria proper begins at 0:54. One obvious point of distinction is tempo. Patti took her time with the song, giving it 3:24. Frederica von Stade a/k/a Flicka, gives us the same music – no, that’s wrong; she gives us her music from the same underlying notations! – in 3:11 seconds. It is a short and expressive work – those 13 seconds of difference matter.
Patti also has what Haynes calls a “rare and expressive vibrato” in her voice of a sort that went out of style beginning a couple of decades later. Von Stade’s performance includes its own share of vibrato, but she a good deal more economic therewith.
Would Mozart have wanted vibrato there? Expected it? And how much? That is a very polarizing sort of question to ask. Some musicologists think they are entirely misguided questions, others believe that ignoring them is what is misguided. Haynes’ view seems to be that they are very good questions in principle, even though in this case they may be unanswerable. Historically informed performance of baroque and classical works, in his view, has to try to get beneath both layers of varnish – both the modern and the romantic – in order to get back to the early music as it was.
Haynes’ broad historical contention is that a new style of performing arose in the 1930s and quickly became the norm. This is the style that was associated with the composer Arturo Toscanini, the pianist Glenn Gould, and the violinist Jascha Heifetz. What these modern figures had in common was their insistence upon “unyielding tempo, literal reading of dotting and other rhythmic details, and dissonance left unstressed,” Haynes says. The Modern style is metronomic and regular, whereas the preceding romantic style was spontaneous, impulsive, and irregular.
This Modern revolution lies between Miss Patti and Miss Von Stade.
In considering how performances of “Voi Che Sapete” have developed over the decades, we might as well bring our inquiry into the 21st century with the work of another soprano, (in this case a mezzo) Joyce DiDonata.
DiDonata performed the role of Cherubino for the Opera National de Paris, in June 2003. Her version takes just 2:57. In other words, the time occupied by the play of this aria upon the ears of the audience has continued to shorten.
Also, if you listen to each of the three performances, Patti’s, von Stade’s, and DiDonata’s, in succession I think you will agree that the suppression of vibrato continues. The second of our singers used it less than did the first, and in the work of the third it disappears almost completely. Perhaps the Modern style as Haynes defined it is under challenge in some concert halls and conservatories. But it still reigns supreme on the operatic stage.
We need not take sides in historical or critical arguments today, though. Please enjoy each of these three performances on its own terms.
Hollywood’s take on the long-running Broadway musical Les Miserables opened in U.S. movie theatres in the U.S. on Christmas Day 2012. It stars Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean, Russell Crowe as Inspector Javert, Anne Hathaway as Fantine, and Amanda Seyfried as Cosette.
This opening has us thinking about the history of the production, and about the phenomenally successful collaboration behind it all, that of Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boubil.
Music while reading this article
Les Miserables (Musical London Cast) At the End of the Day
Les Misérables (2012 Movie) Soundtrack – I Dreamed a Dream – Anne Hathaway
Les Misérables (Musical London Cast) lovely ladies
Schönberg and Boubil first worked together on a rock opera, the first ever French rock opera, La Révolution Française, (1973) something conceived by Boublil apparently while he was watching Jesus Christ, Superstar on Broadway in New York.
But their partnership really hit its stride with Les Mis, first performed in Paris in 1980. It was in London five years later and in New York two years after that. They have kept busy since then, composing the music for Miss Saigon (1989), Martin Guerre (1996), The Pirate Queen (2006), and Marguerite (2008).
Arnold Schoenberg (13 September 1874 – 13 July 1951)
Schönberg is a distant relation of the Arnold Schoenberg who epitomized modernist atonal music in the early 20th century. Pictured left.
But there is no modernist atonality or experimentation for Michel. His musical style moves in a straight line from high Romanticism to post-modernism and in interviews he has candidly named his influences: Bizet, Verdi, Gounod. He might have mentioned Puccini, too – but we’ll get to that!
We’ll say something today about each of the two best known of the Schönberg and Boublil musicals, Les Mis itself, and Miss Saigon. As with most of their collaborations, these two are through-sung, that is, there is no spoken dialog moving the plot along between songs. In this sense their creations are more like operas than are the canonical Broadway musicals of, say, Rodgers and Hammerstein.
Through-singing aside, Schönberg and Boublil don’t like the word “opera.” As a label, it seems conservative to the point of staleness, and they’ve certainly had such great success marketing their operas as “musicals” one can hardly blame them for that choice! They may have helped reinvigorate both worlds.
Victor Hugo (26 February 1802 – 22 May 1885)
Les Mis (as most music lovers by now know) follows the plot of Victor Hugo’s sprawling novel of the same name. Like the novel, the musical begins in 1815 with the audience invited to follow a newly paroled prisoner named Jean Valjean, who has a back story that entails another twenty years. It is in 1815 that a holy man’s generosity turns Valjean onto the path of righteousness. But nothing can secure the forgiveness of his implacable pursuer, Inspector Javert.
Schoenberg treats of this opening expository material in less than five minutes. You can see many takes on these opening minutes at YouTube. Here is one of them. (This is from Take-One Theatre, an art academy at Ronkonkoma, New York.)
The bishop of Digne takes Jean in from the streets at 1:47 in that clip. “For you are weary, and the night is cold out there/ Though our lives are very humble, what we have we have to share.”
Again referencing the above clip, Jean is in trouble with the gendarmes by 3:20. The real act of generosity follows from that, when they take him back to the Bishop to check on his claim that he was gifted the silver (we in fact have seen him steal it). The Bishop’s lies get Jean out of trouble. He then says, “You must use the precious silver to become an honest man, by the witness of the martyrs….”
Boublil had assistance from Jean-Marc Natel in creating the original French lyrics, and they were re-worked into the English language by a South African, Herbert Kretzmer, pictured below.
Let us pause here and observe that Les Mis would seem to be inherently resistant to the sort of condensation that makes a staged or filmed version possible – or successful. We have no less of an authority than Victor Hugo himself for this. A biographer of Hugo’s, Victor Brombert, has paraphrased Hugo’s view thus: “At the end of his career, surveying his own works, he was more than ever convinced that the novel, his kind of novel, was a drama too big to be performed on any stage.”
There is a common story that Giaccomo Puccini toyed with the idea of writing an operatic version of Les Mis, but passed on it. If this is so, then Schönberg and Boublil deserve some credit for daring to take on the task that Puccini would not!
Indeed, when he received his Tony Award in 1987, Schönberg posthumously thanked Puccini for leaving this one undone.
“You’re Welcome,” Puccini Says
Giacomo Puccini (22 December 1858 – 29 November 1924)
Boublil and Schönberg soon thereafter began work on a project that Puccini hadn’t left undone – he was their source material for it. Puccini in effect reached out from the grave to assist them in taking on Vietnam, still largely a taboo subject in musical theatre in the U.S. in the mid-1980s.
Richard Maltby Jr., who assisted Boublil with the lyrics for this musical, told an interviewer flatly that every prior Vietnam-related dramatization “had died at the box office.”
Boublil and Schönberg broke such inhibitions by in essence taking over the plot of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly and setting it in 1970s ‘Nam. A U.S. marine sergeant, Chris Scott, falls in love with a prostitute, Kim, as the Viet Cong are closing in on the city of Saigon. But we see him three years later, in bed with his American wife, Ellen, in Atlanta, Georgia; and we see Kim at that same time, still believing that Chris will come back for her, as the communist government of a now united Vietnam stages its three-year anniversary victory celebration.
Here’s a performance of I Still Believe, the duet sung by the two women on opposite sides of the world that conveys that moment in the plot.
And here we may fittingly end with the (roughly) equivalent point in the source material, Madama Butterfly:
Un bel di, vedremo.
So we at JustSheetMusic send a hearty Congratulations to Boublil and Schönberg as the mass audience available to the cinema discovers their work on Les Mis, and we offer congratulations too, to the members of that mass audience who may be seeing and hearing it all for the first time.
Whitney Houston (August 9, 1963 – February 11, 2012)
We at Just Sheet Music would like to bid a fond farewell to the year 2012, as we look with hope to the New Year 2013.
Here, in emotive order, are five stories that especially caught our attention. We’ll begin with a death that saddens us, and move on to a recent dust-up in the operatic world that, in its resolution, has given us reason to hope about the future, musical and otherwise.
Whitney Houston, star of the 1992 musical movie The Bodyguard, died this February while still in her forties, still with music in her.
When we think of Houston, we think almost inevitably of the right named movie, in which she co-starred with Kevin Costner, and of its soundtrack, which included “Run to You,” “I Have Nothing,” and Houston’s cover of tune initially written as well as performed by Dolly Parton, “I Will Always Love You.”
This is how Dolly Parton did the song back in 1974.
And here is Houston’s take on it, not from the movie, but in a charity concert. You have to love the way she milks the audience, which of course knows and is hyper-ready for this song.
A combination of heart trouble and cocaine use led to Houston’s accidental drowning in a guest room of the Beverly Hilton Hotel just before this year’s Grammy Awards. We miss her.
Russian authorities imprisoned three members of the punk-rock collective Pussy Riot this year. The charges involved an unscheduled performance at the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow.
Here’s a sample of their music: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5yjmnE1VwoA
And here is some video of the impromptu performance that got them arrested, a “punk prayer.” The three women convicted and sentenced in August are by name: Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina, and Yekaterina Samutsevich. Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina are currently in prison. Samutsevich is out on probation, her sentence suspended. Amnesty International considers them each a prisoner of conscience.
Here is a discography.
Fiona Apple is touring again. 2012 saw her fourth, The Idler Wheel tour, which she kicked off in Austin, Texas in March. Other cities on the tour included Chicago, New York, Baltimore, and such less populated North America venues as Holyoke, Massachusetts and Danbury, Connecticut.
The album released in conjunction with the tour debuted at number three on the Billboard 200.
The first single released from The Idler Wheel (album) was “Every Single Night. “ Listen here.
This album seems to have confused some critics, with Allison Stewart of The Washington Post writing that it may be Apple’s “best album yet” but it is also “the one you’ll least want to hear again.” I’m not sure those two propositions adhere, but I’m happy with musicians who confuse critics.
Newsies: The Musical opened on Broadway this year. And it is making money!
Newsies is based on a 1992 movie of the same name, which in turn was based on a historical incident, the news boys’ strike of 1899.
Those were the days when mass-produced daily newspapers were themselves new, and when names like Hearts and Pulitzer weren’t the names of corporations or of prize awarding foundations but of flesh-and-blood men. They had thousands of children selling newspapers for them on the street and, yes, the newsies in New York City successfully organized, forcing Joseph Pulitzer himself to recognize and negotiate with them.
So that was a success, but we have to report that the 1992 Disney movie was a flop. One film critic called it “Howard the Paperboy,” a mocking reference to another Disney flop, Howard the Duck. [The star of that one is pictured left.]
Anyway, if the movie version of Newsies hadn’t flopped, then presumably it wouldn’t have taken twenty years for someone to produce a stage version. Yet here we are, and it is good to see persistence bring success out of failure. Indeed, in December came news that Newsies inits stage reincarnation has made more than its costs. Extra! Extra! Musical in the Black! Read all about it!
It is like … well … it is like freedom arising from out of a context of censorship. That thought brings us to our next, final, and most cheering item.
Meanwhile, in the world of opera, a dispute between Opera News and the Metropolitan Opera led to an announcement by the former, a 76 year old periodical, that it will no longer be reviewing productions at The Met!
What is astonishing here, even at first glance, is that the Met should be as thin skinned as it has shown itself in the events leading to this breach.
What is more astonishing, at second, is that was an intra-family quarrel. The Opera News is published by an affiliate of the Met.
Nonetheless, the Met’s general manager, Peter Gelb, was unhappy with an April review of The Met’s latest take on Wagner’s Ring cycle. Reviewer Fred Cohn wrote, “The physical scale of Robert Lepage’s Götterdammerung may have been immense, but its ambitions seemed puny. “
The following month, features editor, Brian Kellow, piled on. “The public is becoming more dispirited each season by the pretentious and woefully misguided, misdirected productions foisted on them.”
One can understand that Gelb, pictured above, wasn’t happy about such comments. Still, on the assumption that he didn’t want to seem like the Vladimir Putin of the opera world, he would have been better advised to put up with it than not.
Instead, Gelb had the pull with the relevant affiliate necessary to force the editors of Opera News to make their no-more-reviews announcement. But this back fired. After all, many of the readers of Opera News are frequent attendees and otherwise patrons of the Met, and they appreciate its distinctive voice. They seem also to appreciate its independence. Negative reviews of Met productions, before the one that set off this tiff, had not been all that frequent, but had not been unknown either. Even patrons of the arts want some idea in advance whether it is worthwhile coming into mid-town for a particular show, and Fred Cohn offered that.
Free speech is better, even for the institutions that come under criticism, than is a puppetry. Free speech heralds free music, free creativity of all sorts. In the end, a free world will be the finest operatic performance of all.
And with that good news, a happy new year to all. Let’s listen to Wagner, marking the end not just of a year but of a world.
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