Music Interviews

BLO's The Barber of Seville

Friday, March 9, 2012
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"Last night I saw Rossini's Barber for the third time in as many weeks. My taste must be totally depraved because I find this Figaro of Rossini a hundred times more preferable to Mozart's."

- G.W. Friedrich Hegel

Is Gioachino Rossini's most popular opera really a guilty pleasure? To the audience for whom the opera was brand new in 1816, perhaps there was a feeling that an opera this "infectious" (to use Boston Lyric Opera music director David Angus's description) couldn't be a true masterpiece, like Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro. On the other hand, does it matter when it's just so much fun?

Boston Lyric Opera brings The Barber of Seville back to Boston, March 9 - March 18, at The Citi Performing Arts Center Shubert Theatre. When the opera premiered in 1816 in Rome, it was a fiasco. According to the BLO, "Stories abound (amusing but as usual in these cases somewhat suspect). A string broke as Almaviva tuned his guitar on stage; Basilio tripped as he made his entrance and he sang his aria while attempting to cope with a bleeding nose; a cat appeared meowing plaintively which was echoed by the derisive audience."

So maybe it wasn't a hit from the very beginning, but it certainly was after all those problems were straightened out for the second night, and it has remained one of the most popular operas in the repertoire ever since.

Classical New England's Brian McCreath visited a BLO rehearsal to talk with David Angus to learn more:

To hear in a new window, click on "Listen" above the slideshow.

Learn more about Rossini.

For more information about The Barber of Seville, visit Boston Lyric Opera.

Lincoln Portrait: The Twists and Turns of an American Classic

By Bob Seay and James David Jacobs   |   Sunday, February 19, 2012
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Bob Seay of WGBH News and James David Jacobs of Classical New England consider the odd history and captivating power of Aaron Copland's Lincoln Portrait.

To hear a performance of Lincoln Portrait with the United States Marine Band, conductor Col. Michael J. Colburn, and narrator Brian Stokes Mitchell, click on "Listen" above.

Abraham Lincoln, by Alexander Gardner [public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Written in 1942, Lincoln Portrait, by Aaron Copland, is a rare musical tribute to an American President. It played an inspirational role when it was written, during the dark, early days of World War II.

But it continued to inspire over the decades, with countless notable narrators giving voice to the words by Abraham Lincoln that Copland chose for his tribute.

Those words, though, were chosen from within a surprising cultural context, as Bob Seay explains:

If Lincoln's words express the highest ideals of American democracy, Copland's music expresses the diversity of sources that have combined to create an American music and culture, as James David Jacobs writes:

Aaron Copland (source: AP)

It’s hard in 2012 to appreciate just how original Copland’s Lincoln Portrait was in 1942. There had been other works that combined spoken text with orchestra, but the combination of serious public statement and serious artistic statement, with ceremony, history, and politics coexisting with music, was, and remains, rare.

The music Copland wrote isn’t mere backdrop for the words, the narrator not even speaking until the piece is about half over. That music tells a story, a story of both an individual life and of a nation. It’s also a story of diverse musical influences, reflecting the diverse musical strands that have come together to create an American music.

The beginning of the work is typical Copland, with woodwinds uttering soft three-note mottoes in intervals of fourths and fifths. That serenity, however, is answered by unsettling chords. It’s not unlike Ives’s The Unanswered Question and its dialogue between a stark, angular statement and its muddled response.

Hear Fred Calland's 1980 interview with Aaron Copland, from NPR.

Comforting, familiar harmonies make a return, culminating in a moment of repose. But then, without any real transition, we’re plunged into a jaunty fantasia of American folk melodies. It’s important to remember that the syncopated rhythms and pentatonic intervals of songs like “Camptown Races” are indebted in no small part to the music of African-Americans, which already in the 19th century was forming the basis of American popular music.

There are also subtle references to the music of Native Americans, engaged in what could be considered Lincoln’s other, less celebrated civil war. The dance-like tone of this section can be considered a sort of analogue to the scherzo in Beethoven’s Eroica symphony, representing both the joys and adventures of the individual heroic figure and the energy and the spirit of the nation and its people.

The strands come together, and the music reverts to the unsettled atmosphere of the work’s beginning. Then, just as we’ve almost forgotten about the speaker, he or she begins to speak.

It’s too important, Copland seems to be saying, to hide behind the cloak of artistic license, of interpretation and ambiguity. No, the meaning of this music must be spelled out, and when we hear the words of Lincoln we know why.

Copland has done us a service by providing a frame in which we can ponder these words, which turn out to be as relevant to today’s struggles as they were in the 1860s. The questions posed by the cultural conflicts illustrated in the differing strands of music are still being asked today.

Lincoln and Copland seem to have some things in common. Both pulled off radical, even revolutionary accomplishments while being regarded as accessible and populist. Both took the ideas of acknowledged radicals and made them palatable for a general audience. Both took their roles in the mainstream as serious, important missions, aimed at bringing wildly divergent philosophical camps together. And both were criticized by those selfsame radicals and branded as sellouts or traitors.

Beyond all that, they occupy similar places in our culture: the historical significance of each has been subject to regular cycles of reassessment, a process that began during each man’s own lifetime. Lincoln Portrait gives us the chance to consider them together, with all the resonance each man’s life and work have for us today.

- James David Jacobs

Van Zweden Debuts at Symphony Hall

Thursday, February 9, 2012
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2011-2012 Classical Mid-Season Report

By Brian McCreath   |   Monday, February 6, 2012
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Boston Globe classical music critic Jeremy Eichler joins Brian McCreath of Classical New England to review the top stories so far during the 2011-2012 classical music season in Boston.

Jeremy Eichler (image courtesy of Boston Globe)

The classical music season has seen some dynamic performances over the last few months, but they took place alongside some unexpected developments.

Jeremy Eichler and Brian McCreath talk about a few of the low and high points.

Part 1: Opera Boston, Bemjamin Zander and the New England Conservatory, and Calderwood Hall at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

For more about Opera Boston, visit the Boston Globe, with reporting and analysis by Geoff Edgers and history by Matthew Guerrieri (registration required).

Classical New England has video from Calderwood Hall, and for more about concerts scheduled there, visit the Isabella Stewart Gardner Musuem.

Part 2: Continued cancellations at the BSO, and looking forward to a few events coming up

For Boston Symphony Orchestra concerts on-demand, visit BSO Radio, and for tickets to upcoming concerts, including the week wtih guest conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen, visit the BSO.

For information about performances of Bach's St. Matthew Passion, visit the Handel and Haydn Society. For more about Tan Dun's Water Passion After St. Matthew, visit the Boston Modern Orchestra Project.

Full conversation, with additional commentary on the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Opera Boston, Calderwood Hall, and more

(image of Boston skyline:  Boston Skyline At Night By Archon Fung (Arfung at en.wikipedia) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)


Boston Symphony Orchestra's Rachel Childers

Tuesday, December 13, 2011
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Messiah In Our Time

By Brian McCreath   |   Friday, December 9, 2011
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George Frederick Handel's Messiah, that musically indispensable part of the Christmas season, wasn't written for Christmas at all.

The manuscript of "Worthy is the Lamb," from Handel's Messiah (source:  Wikimedia Commons)

Messiah, originally written to benefit the Foundling Hospital in Dublin, was premiered in 1742 during the season of Lent, the penitential time of year preceding Easter. 

Handel had more or less invented the oratorio as a way of staging performances at that time of year.  Opera houses were dark for the season, so the oratorio, with the recitatives, arias, and choruses of opera but none of the staging, was a pathway to entertaining, dramatic music and performances ... and the resulting box office receipts.

But not long after that first performance, Messiah found a home during the Christmas season, and it's stayed there almost exclusively ever since.  The Handel and Haydn Society gave the U.S. premiere in 1818, and now Messiah can be found every year in countless performances around the country.

I looked into the Messiah phenomenon with Thomas Forrest Kelly of Harvard University, Handel and Haydn Society Artistic Director Harry Christophers, and Masterworks Chorale Music Director Steven Karidoyanes. To hear the feature, click on "Listen" above.

Here are a few of the performances this season:

Boston Baroque, Dec. 7 & 8

Providence Singers, Dec. 8

Trinity Church, Dec. 9

Masterworks Chorale Sing, Dec. 14 & 15

And here is video from a previous Masterworks Chorale Sing:

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