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Happy 53rd Birthday, Rossini! (?!?)

By Benjamin K. Roe   |   Tuesday, February 28, 2012
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Classical New England celebrates the birthday of the Italian composer with a full day of infectious wit and fun, including a preview of Boston Lyric Opera's upcoming production of The Barber of Seville.


To hear the program, click on "Listen" above.


The point is... a person feels good listening to Rossini. All you feel like after listening to Beethoven is going out and invading Poland. Ode to Joy indeed. The man didn't even have a sense of humor. I tell you... there is more of the Sublime in the snare-drum part of the La Gazza Ladra than in the whole Ninth Symphony.
-- Thomas Pynchon, Gravity's Rainbow (1973)


Gioachino Rossini via Wikimedia Commons

Let’s clear up the first issue right away: According to the calendar, there should be 53 candles on the cake we baked for Giaocchino Rossini, born on February 29th, 1792. (Blame the vagaries of the Gregorian calendar: 1600 and 2000 were Leap Years, but 1700, 1800, and 1900 were not!)

It may not matter all that much to us, but it certainly would have to Rossini, arguably the most famous, beloved, and wealthiest of composers after the death of Beethoven and the rise of Richard Wagner.

And perhaps the most superstitious: As author David Dubal notes,

To the casual observer, Rossini must have seemed blithely carefree, but in reality he was hopelessly neurotic, plagued by nervous ailments and superstitions of all sorts, including the fact that he was born on February 29th. When taking his first train ride in 1836, he fainted from fear.


Rossini had good reason to be nervous. He grew up seeing his political-activist father go in and out of jail. He was apprenticed to become a butcher and blacksmith in his native town of Pesaro, only to be saved by his fine boy-soprano voice. Perhaps a bit too fine; Rossini was literally a knife’s edge away from becoming a castrato before his parents relented. They opted instead to send him to Bologna to pursue a musical career with a mature pen instead of an immature throat.

That proved to be the most logical decision of Rossini’s profoundly illogical, albeit brilliant, career. According to his biographers, Rossini himself liked to say that he only cried on three occasions: “The night my earliest opera failed; the day I watched a truffled turkey go overboard on a boating-party luncheon, and the first time I heard Paganini play the violin.”

His earliest opera might have failed, but it didn’t take long for Rossini to have an all-time hit on his hands: The Barber of Seville, premiered in Rome in 1816, and on anyone’s short list of Greatest. Operas. Ever. Or, as NPR Guide author Ted Libbey puts it:

It has held the stage continuously since its premiere in 1816, making it the oldest work never to have fallen out of the repertory. The libretto is among the finest Rossini set, and it inspired a score full of musical riches that remains as fresh today as on the day it was first heard. That Rossini was a week shy of his 24th birthday when that happened make The Barber of Seville only that much more of a miracle.


A miracle, in fact, that quickly spread to three continents, thanks to the efforts of “the tenor of Seville,” Manuel García. The Sevillian-born García, (the original Count Almaviva in both Rossini’s opera and Mozart’s “sequel”: The Marriage of Figaro) took Rossini’s works to the New World, leading his family troupe in what’s thought to be the first American performances of Italian opera in both New York City and in Mexico. Their opera of choice? The Barber, naturally!

If Manuel García was the first, then John Tessier will be the very latest to take on the comedic role of the lusty-but-witless Count, in the new Boston Lyric Opera production that opens on March 9th.

Tessier’s take on Rossini, along with BLO cast members Sarah Coburn (Rosina), Jonathan Beyer (Figaro), and conductor David Angus will capped off our day-long celebration of the wit, grace, and genius of Rossini, as they joined Cathy Fuller for a special “preview performance” of highlights from the composer’s immortal composition. To hear it, just click on "Listen" in the upper left-hand corner.

For all of his talk about loathing work and loving the good life – the soireées musicales chez Rossini were the toast of Paris – Rossini was an extraordinarily gifted and prodigiously hard worker. In the space of less than 20 years, Rossini composed no fewer than 38 full-length operas, a body of work – and inspiration – unrivalled by the composers of his day.

And in our day, Rossini’s musical gifts remain as infectious as ever. We truly do feel good listening to him. What is it about Rossini’s music that is as warm and inviting as the Mediterranean Sun? Author David Dubal suggests an answer:

Rossini’s music is crystal clear: his constructions are tight; the harmony is clever and diatonic; above all the melodies are easy to remember. Rossini was the first tunesmith; one might even say that he was the inventor of the pop song. He caught the ear of a growing middle-class public with music that appealed as never before to a mass audience.


Or, as Rossini himself once said: “Give me a laundry list and I will set it to music.”
 

Remembering Gustav Leonhardt

By James David Jacobs   |   Saturday, January 21, 2012
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Gustav Leonhardt, a revered pioneer in the revitalization of Baroque music, died on Jan. 16 in Amsterdam. His performances and teaching influenced countless musicians, but Classical New England host James David Jacobs also encountered his more personal side.


“Excuse me – do you know of a place near here where one could get chocolate?”

That was not the question I expected to hear at that moment, especially considering its source. It came from Gustav Leonhardt, who was to soon be performing his American debut as a conductor. I was singing that night with the University of California Collegium Musicum Chamber Chorus, but the eminent early music pioneer’s question came at an awkward moment. I was in the process of quickly leaving in embarrassment from a place deep within St. John’s Presbyterian Church in Berkeley, California, where the concert was set to take place.

I had gone to this familiar, remote corner of the church, a location I considered my own secret place, in order to get my voice warmed up, never thinking that anyone else even knew about it. It was only when the world’s greatest harpsichordist and foremost expert in Baroque performance practice emerged in an unbuttoned shirt and hanging suspenders that I realized I had invaded the space designated as Gustav Leonhardt’s private dressing room.

I immediately apologized and began to slink away, though he did not seem disturbed at all. Then, in his polite, soft, and somewhat patrician manner, he asked me if I knew where to get some chocolate. I did, in fact, and a few minutes later an expedition was organized, with several choir members and Gustav Leonhardt, to a nearby candy store named Sweet Dreams. Leonhardt very politely, but without a hint of embarrassment, picked out several pieces of candy, which he ate out his paper bag on the way back to the church, bestowing a kind of dignity and gravitas to the act of candy-eating that I’ve tried and failed to emulate ever since.

That night, Leonhardt conducted in very exact gestures. There was no baton in his hands, but he was not at all vague. It was very evident that he knew this music and exactly how he wanted it to sound. Despite his own grim, forceful physical style, the resulting music was flowing and lyrical and free, eliciting some of the most beautiful music-making I have ever heard.

Everyone, even those in the choir and the string section, felt their individual contribution to the total sound. Leonhardt, despite his taciturn manner, created an atmosphere of glowing warmth. It was certainly one the greatest musical experiences of my life.

The principal oboist for that concert was the late Bruce Haynes, and I remember him telling me the story of going to an orchestra rehearsal in Amsterdam the day after Leonhardt had conducted a concert on Dutch television. The concert was notable for employing a particular style of inégal playing, a type of rhythmic emphasis that is not notated in the score, in one of the pieces on the program.

Bruce said that, at the rehearsal, no one said a word or talked about the concert, but it was obvious everyone had watched it because when they started playing everyone employed that exact kind of inégal that Leonhardt used in the broadcast. No one had played like that at the previous rehearsal, but such was the influence and respect commanded by Gustav Leonhardt that his televised performance changed everything.

Leonhardt played the role of Johann Sebastian Bach in the black-and-white 1968 film The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach. It was a brilliant bit of casting, because it required no acting at all. Leonhardt, looking perfectly comfortable in 18th-century costume, played harpsichord and organ, very occasionally said something when there was something important to say, and then went back to playing.

That is exactly how I imagine the real Bach was, and it is absolutely how Leonhardt was, someone very seriously dedicated to the work of creating (and consuming) beauty and pleasure.

(image of Gustav Leonhardt via Wikimedia Commons)

More on Gustav Leonhardt, including remembrances by Boston Baroque's Martin Pearlman, can be found at PRI's The World.

Video from The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach:

The Music of Downton Abbey

By Brian McCreath   |   Thursday, January 5, 2012
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Downton Abbey, from WGBH’s Masterpiece Classic, won the 2012 Emmy Award for Original Dramatic Score for a Series. Classical New England talks with John Lunn, the composer of the winning score.


Highclere Castle, the setting of Downton Abbey
(image by Mike Searle, via Wikimedia;  Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic
)

When you think of Masterpiece’s Downton Abbey, the first thing that comes to mind might be Highclere Castle, which “plays” Downton Abbey itself. Or maybe the mind-boggling “proper-ness” of practically every single character depicted.

One especially powerful aspect of Downton you may not have noticed – at least consciously – was the music you heard.

In a way, that’s as it should be. The score was written by John Lunn and accomplishes precisely what any film score must: a ratcheting up of the emotional trajectory of the story while simultaneously going unnoticed.

You might imagine Lunn as a wizard-like composer in a meticulous process, weaving together strands of silvery sound to form a gorgeous tapestry. But as he told me, that’s not exactly how the process started:
 



To hear more about Downton Abbey from actress Elizabeth McGovern, visit The World.

Here's a look back at Season 2:

Watch Downton Abbey I Wonder Preview on PBS. See more from Masterpiece.

 

Three Pianos: Regular Guys and Schubert

By Brian McCreath   |   Tuesday, December 27, 2011
1 Comments   1 comments.

Three Pianos, a theater work inspired by Franz Schubert's song cycle Winterreise, brings together three friends for song, contemplation, and wine.  Lots of wine.


Rick Burkhardt in Three Pianos

There are times when the solemnity and profundity of classical music can become overwhelming.  There are also times when just the right vehicle comes along to prick that balloon and remind us that, for the most part, classical music is really an art form that deals in the messy reality of human existence.  The play and movie Amadeus pulled this off for millions, and say what you will about historical accuracy, I think our relationship to Mozart's music has been the better for it ever since.

Now along comes Three Pianos, which, like Amadeus, brings a composer of incredibly human dimension back from the brink of plaster bust-dom.  Alec Duffy, Dave Malloy, and Rick Burkhardt tap into the spirit of Schubert through a piece of music that may have been the most difficult choice for the project, but also the one that may bring us closest to Schubert's soul. 

Winterreise takes us into the mind of a character who's engulfed in the depths of despair.  As a work of art, it's considered one of the pinnacles of the song cycle form.  As an emotional experience, it's one of those rare pieces that listeners hold incredibly closely, almost protectively.

Three Pianos tests that protective feeling for those who hold Winterreise most closely.  There's no doubt that Duffy, Malloy, and Burkhardt feel complete liberty to do what they want with Schubert's music.  There's a channeling of the spirit of Schubert's work through the voices of today's experiences and realities.  At times it's hilarious, and at times it's heartbreaking. 

But my overall experience was that, even in light of the copious wine that was served throughout the performance, the reverence for the songs among the performers is palpaple.  In fact, there are moments when it's clear that the trio felt that the most powerful experience was to simply get out of the way and let Schubert's work shine through.

That respect for Winterreise came through when I met with Alec Duffy after seeing a performance.  You can hear part of that conversation and see photos from the play below.

Three Pianos runs through January 8 at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge. 
 



 

Charting Their Own Paths: Top 5 Orchestral Albums Produced In-house

By Brian McCreath   |   Thursday, December 15, 2011
1 Comments   1 comments.

In these times of instability in the recording industry, more and more Symphony Orchestras are making their own albums.


It's old news that technological advances have rattled the grand old record labels. The golden era of companies like EMI, Deutsche Grammophon, RCA and Columbia has come and (mostly) gone. It's been sobering for orchestras that once luxuriated in fancy recording contracts. But there's a silver lining, as the same advances in recording and distribution have enabled orchestras, chamber groups and even soloists to create in-house labels, gaining freedom rarely available when titanic companies set the rules. Below are five releases from American orchestras on their very own labels. Each one makes a distinctive statement, not by pandering to popular tastes, but by playing to each ensemble's strengths.
 

Chicago Symphony Orchestra Live

Like many orchestras who made their reputations in the golden age of big-label recording, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra has recently seen a gradual transition to a new generation of players. After a period of settling in, the CSO brass announce (as only brass can) that one of the strongest aspects of the orchestra's identity is in good hands. No British reserve in Walton's Crown Imperial here, just brawny Midwestern punch. Gabrieli comes at you in full modern-instrument brightness, and, in the highlight of the disc, Grainger's Lincolnshire Posy, with some gorgeous soft playing, could make you wonder if woodwinds are necessary at all.

Purchase

Listen to Gabrieli's Canzon duodecimi toni a 10:


 

Atlanta Symphony Orchestra:  Theofinidis and Lieberson

Music Director Robert Spano and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra have continuously brought new music to the stage, sharing the mantle previously held by groups like the Louisville Orchestra and maintaining a tradition established by one of his predecessors, Robert Shaw. The brightly kinetic First Symphony by Christopher Theofanidis is a blazing demonstration of the appeal of the orchestra's signature "Atlanta School" of composers. By including Peter Lieberson's Neruda Songs in a gorgeous performance by mezzo-soprano Kelley O'Connor, the ASO embraces a piece that was perhaps in danger of being confined to a too-sacred, untouchable space, confirming it now as a truly enduring classic of our time.

Purchase

Listen to Theofinidis's Symphony No. 1 (excerpt):


 

Boston Symphony Chamber Players:  Profanes et Sacrées

The drama of James Levine's departure from Boston and its attendant publicity have tended to obscure the fact that the BSO remains an ensemble with a distinct identity, built on several strands of rich history. The Chamber Players pick up two strands of that heritage in this recording. The BSO's French legacy comes through in these musicians' ability to create both soft-focus and crystal-clear sounds simultaneously. And the orchestra's historic commitment to drawing connections between contemporary music and established repertoire illuminates the music on this disc, which ranges from 1907 to 1991.

Purchase

Listen to Francaix's Dixtuor (excerpt):


 

San Francisco Symphony:  Ives/Brant and Copland

Now that Michael Tilson Thomas' landmark Mahler project has concluded (17 CDs in all), SFS Media comes through with a very different recording, but one that says just as much about MTT and San Francisco. Here's a conductor with some of the best recordings of Charles Ives' music on his resume, so who better to get the most out what could have been the mere curiosity of Henry Brant's orchestration of Ives' "Concord" Piano Sonata? Copland also figures strongly into MTT's musical identity (he studied with the composer), and to hear the Organ Symphony is to encounter that fearlessly robust, all too rarely heard voice of the pre-Appalachian Spring American icon.

Purchase

Listen to Copland's Organ Symphony (excerpt):


 

Cincinnat Symphony Orchestra:  Baltic Portraits

In the 11 years Paavo Järvi led the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, a series of fine if largely undistinguished recordings of standard orchestral repertoire emerged on the Telarc label. This disc represents a dramatic contrast. Järvi leaves Cincinnati after this season, departing with a dynamic, brilliantly played homage to his musical roots in Estonia and Finland. These performances from the last decade show that while this fascinating music was happening during Järvi's entire tenure, only the most conventional repertoire was being disseminated via recordings. No better case for orchestras to cast off the shackles of labels and chart their own paths.

Purchase

Listen to Tüür's Fireflower:


Handel and Haydn Society's "A Bach Christmas"

By Brian McCreath   |   Thursday, December 15, 2011
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Boston's Handel and Haydn Society performs "A Bach Christmas" on Sunday, Dec. 18, featuring the Handel and Haydn Society debut of conductor Steven Fox.


You know the old saying, “Don’t judge a book by its cover.”

"A Bach Christmas" with the Handel and Haydn Society brings that sentiment to the musical world this week.  Yes, there’s Bach, in some of the most glorious music ever composed for the season. But as Classical New England’s Brian McCreath discovered, once you turn that "title page," Bach is only the beginning of a far-flung journey:
 


To hear the program on-demand, click on "Listen" above.

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