By Brian McCreath | Thursday, December 23, 2010
While Handel's Messiah rightly holds its place as this country's classical musical soundtrack for the holiday season (quibble if you will about its Easter message; there's nothing wrong with talking about Easter at Christmas - just ask Bach!), it's J.S. Bach's Christmas Oratorio that rings through concert halls throughout Europe at this time of the year.
The six cantatas that make up the Christmas Oratorio, meant to be performed on six separate days throughout the liturgical Christmas season, tell the Christmas story as only Bach could. With a combination of individual and communal perspective on both the joyful and meditative aspects of the season, it's a piece that always offers performers the chance to find new perspectives, angles, and ways of expressing eternal thoughts and feelings.
If you'd like to hear all six part of the Christmas Oratorio, in a terrific performance led by Nikolaus Harnoncourt, feel free to listen to them below.
Join 99.5 WCRB hosts for free concerts presented by the Boston Landmarks Orchestra at the Hatch Shell on the Esplanade, Wednesday nights at 7pm.
July 13 Rhapsody in Green, hosted by Ray Brown
This year's series launches with the annual green concert, celebrating the beauty of nature through music by Vaughan Williams, Tan Dun, Copland, Gandolfi, and Respighi.
July 20 Pictures at an Exhibition, hosted by Laura Carlo
Mussorgsky's masterpiece, Pictures at an Exhibition, anchors a program devoted to connections between music and visual art that also includes works by Falla, Loeffler, Offenbach, and more.
July 27 Verdi and Valkyries, hosted by Chris Voss
Soprano Jane Eaglen is joined by the One City Choir, the Back Bay Chorale, and the North End Music and Performing Arts Center Children's Choir in operatic masterworks that include selections from Wagner's The Ring, Verdi's Il Trovatore, and much more.
August 10 Landmarks Lollapalooza, hosted by Laura Carlo
Tchaikovsky, Grieg, Gershwin, and Adams echo across the Esplanade along with the sound of street bands, as the Landmarks Orchestra and soprano Jayne West are joined by ZUMIX, members of the Longy Summer Music Academy, and members of the HONK! Festival.
August 17 Footloose and Fancy Free, hosted by Cathy Fuller
A celebration of dance includes Bernstein's Fancy Free, Richard Rodgers's "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue" from On Your Toes, two world premieres, and much more.
August 31 Rodgers and Hart's The Boys from Syracuse, hosted by Ron Della Chiesa
A swing era re-imagining of Shakespeare's The Comedy of Errors closes the season in only the second-ever performance featuring the original big band style 1938 orchestrations.
Van Cliburn and Haochen Zhang, co-winner of the Gold Medal at the Thirteenth Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in 2009
Go behind the scenes at one of the most important - and intense - piano competitions in the music world.
Watch The Cliburn: 50 Years of Gold, Friday, Sept. 28, at 9pm on WGBH 2
Every four years, a group of the finest young pianists takes the stage at the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in Fort Worth, Texas. In the midst of the drama, the beauty, the nerves and the excitement, they know one thing is true — what happens there can change their lives. They strive to feel the joy of victory and achieve their utmost goal: to become a performer on the world stage.
A young Van Cliburn performing
Seen through the eyes and memories of 15 gold medalists, The Cliburn: 50 Years of Gold follows the half-century-long history of one of the world's most prestigious music competitions, set against the backdrop of beautiful music. Walking onto the stage at the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition is a critical moment in the life of a young pianist. Gut-wrenching drama, strung-out nerves and the joy of victory are elements that make up this extraordinary film retrospective.
Producer and Director Peter Rosen tracked down the Cliburn Gold Medalists wherever they were performing around the world to weave their stories into the legend of Van Cliburn, the competition's namesake, who recalls his victory in 1958 in Moscow at the Tchaikovsky Competition at the height of the Cold War: “I had only a few months to prepare for the Tchaikovsky competition. But, in a way, my whole life had been leading up to it.”
Host Lisa Simeone presents Manon from the Bastille Opera in Paris, Sunday night at 6:30pm on Classical New England.
A scene from Massenet's 'Manon' (Courtesy of Bastille Opera)
Natalie Dessay (soprano) … Manon
Giuseppe Filianoti (tenor) ... Des Grieux
Franck Ferrari (baritone) …. Lescaut
Paul Gay (bass-baritone) .. Count Des Grieux
Luca Lombardo (tenor) ….. Guillot
André Heyboer (baritone) ... Bretigny
Olivia Doray (soprano) … Pousette
Carol Garcia (mezzo-soprano) …. Javotte
Alisa Kolosova (mezzo-soprano) … Rosette
Paris National Opera Orchestra and Chorus Evelino Pidò, conductor
Generally, opera is considered a serious art form. By contrast, composer Jules Massenet has been described as a lightweight -- and at times, it's easy to hear why. Even his wildly popular Manon, an opera with a deadly serious story, has plenty of froth.
But it's not only in the supposedly lofty world of opera that we find astonishingly successful composers with lightweight reputations. For another, we can look closer to home, at a legendary figure of American musical theater: Cole Porter.
Porter was a true Broadway genius, a brilliant lyricist and a first-rate composer -- the creator of dozens of hit songs and shows. Was Porter a "lightweight"? Sure, plenty of his best-known songs sound that way: "You're the Top" and "It's De-Lovely" don't pack much emotional wallop. Yet Porter did have a serious side. His classic song "Love for Sale" conjures up the gritty, workaday side of prostitution. The subject matter and its sophisticated, even disturbing tone are hardly the work of a lightweight songwriter.
Getting back to opera, the two-sided nature we hear in Cole Porter's familiar songs and shows can also be found in Massenet's Manon, an opera which touches on the same dramatic territory as Porter's "Love for Sale."
As the opera open's, it's title character is an innocent 15-year-old -- a kid whose amorous "inclinations" have prompted her mom and dad to ship her off to a convent. At first, that seems a bit harsh. By the time the opera is over, we might wonder if her parents were prescient.
During her journey, Manon falls for a well-meaning young man of modest means, who adores her. Before long, though, it's clear that Manon has a taste for opulence as well as romance -- and that she's not above cavorting with rich men she doesn't love in exchange for a luxurious lifestyle. Despite the frothy spots, Massenet's opera doesn't pull any punches, and he gave it all the complex, emotionally powerful music it needs to drive home some pointedly unsavory realities.
On this edition of World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents Manon from the Bastille Opera in Paris, starring soprano Natalie Dessay as Manon and tenor Giuseppe Filianoti as Des Grieux, in a production led by conductor Evelino Pidò.
Host Lisa Simeone presents La Forza del Destino in a production by the Paris National Opera, Sunday night at 6:30pm on Classical New England.
A scene from Verdi's La Forza del Destino, from Paris National Opera
WHO'S WHO Violeta Urmana (soprano) … Lenora
Marcelo Alvarez (tenor) … Alvaro
Vladimir Stoyanov (baritone) … Carlo
Mario Luperi (bass) … Calatrava
Nadia Krasteva (mezzo-soprano) … Preziosilla
Nicola Alaimo (baritone)... Melitone
Kwangchul Youn (bass)… Father Superior
Mario Luperi … Calatrava
Paris National Opera Orchestra and Chorus
Philippe Jordan, conductor
When puzzling events happen in life -- things that simply can't be explained, or at least can't be explained simply -- people often put them down to fate. It's as though ascribing our troubles to fate somehow relieves us of the need to understand them.
But what is fate, really? At best it's a difficult concept to grasp, much less explain in words. That may be why so many evocations of fate can be heard in music, a medium in which words are strictly optional.
The most iconic musical tribute to fate may or may not have been intentional: It's uncertain whether Beethoven actually considered the opening notes of his Fifth Symphony to be "fate knocking at the door," as they've often been described. But other examples are more obvious, and they come in a wide range of music: from Fatum," a portentous tone poem by Tchaikovsky, to the heavy metal tune "Fates Warning" by Iron Maiden.
Naturally, there are also plenty of operas that dwell on fate, though few do it so dramatically as Verdi's La Forza del Destino -- The Force of Destiny.
Verdi composed the opera to end an extended hiatus from music -- a three year span in which he wrote no new operas and actually told friends that he was no longer a composer. The commission that brought him back to the opera house came from the Imperial Theater in St. Petersburg. After considering a number of subjects for a new opera, Verdi chose a Spanish play called La fuerza del sino -- The Power of Fate. It was adapted by librettist Francesco Maria Piave, who also worked with Verdi on several other operas, including Macbeth and Rigoletto.
As for the story itself, it's surely appropriate for an operatic exploration of fate: Like so many real life events that are attributed to fate, the goings on in the opera are hard to explain in any other way. The result is a drama that can leave even diehard Verdi lovers shaking their heads. Its story can be as confounding as the music is compelling, with a plot in which a single, unfortunate happenstance drives characters to lifetimes of incomprehensible behavior. There's one character who travels the world, braving war and desolation, in an obsessive quest to murder his own sister.
Still, like fate itself, the power of Verdi's score for the opera is undeniable. The music transforms a thorny story line into one of the most compelling of all his operas.
On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents La Forza del Destino in a production by the Paris National Opera. The stars are soprano Violeta Urmana as Leonora, tenor Marcelo Alvarez as her beloved Alvaro and baritone Vladimir Stoyanov as Carlo, who for a moment is Alvaro's ally, but soon becomes his most deadly enemy. The performance, from the Bastille Opera, is led by conductor Philippe Jordan.
Host Lisa Simeone presents Puccini's La Boheme in a production from the Maggio Musicale in Florence, Italy, Sunday night at 6:30pm on Classical New England.
"A scene from "Puccini's La Boheme" (Courtesy of Maggio Musicale)
WHO'S WHO Carmela Remigio (soprano) ... Mimi
Achiles Machado (tenor) … Rodolfo
Alessandra Antonucci (soprano)… Musetta
Stefano Antonucci (baritone) … Marcello
Simone Del Savio (baritone) ... Schaunard
Marco Vinco (bass) … Colline
Andrea Cortese (bass) ... Benoit/Alcindoro
Maggio Musicale Orchestra and Chorus
Carlo Montanaro, conductor
For a long time -- centuries, actually -- opera was dominated by larger-than-life characters: kings and queens, gods and goddesses, mythic figures with power over life and death. The challenge for composers and librettists was to give these legendary characters common feelings -- to put little sorrows in great souls -- so the ordinary humans who bought opera tickets could identify with the on stage dramas.
But as opera became a more and more popular form of entertainment, that changed. Composers turned to stories about simpler, more realistic characters, creating a whole new set of challenges in the process -- and nobody new that better than Giacomo Puccini.
Puccini once said that his success came from putting "great sorrows in little souls." His operas tell us that at some point in their lives, people everywhere, in all walks of life, endure the same trials: love and envy, loss and heartbreak. That's especially true in La Boheme, a story set among struggling artists in the Latin Quarter of Paris.
Boheme is a drama of everyday events and common people. The characters are familiar, maybe even routine. The same is true of many other Puccini operas, which is one reason the composer has always had his detractors. Certain critics have analyzed Puccini's music, and his stories, and concluded that his operas are too easily enjoyable -- and maybe not intellectual enough to justify Puccini's great success. And it would be easy to argue that composers such as Mozart, Verdi and Wagner all produced operas far more complex and innovative than Puccini's -- great operas that work on so many levels that they both invite analysis, and defy it. By comparison, some say, Puccini's dramas seem overly simple and straightforward.
But that conclusion itself may also be too simple. Regardless of his methods, Puccini mastered the unique and mystifying synthesis of music, drama and stagecraft that only opera can deliver, and with powerful results. His enduring, popular dramas are graced by appealing and believable characters whose feelings are portrayed so deeply and so vividly that, as we look on, their emotions soon become ours as well, and their heartbreaks seem as wrenching as our own.
On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents Puccini's La Boheme in a production from the Maggio Musicale in Florence, Italy. The stars are soprano Carmela Remigio and tenor Achiles Machado as the lovers Mimi and Rodolfo, in a performance led by conductor Carlo Montanaro.