The best of all possible operas?

La Scala cancelled their run of the opera Candide citing that the performances were not in line with the company’s artistic program. It got me wondering, which theaters would consider a scene with actors posing as world leaders, scantily clad in nothing but a tie and a Speedo “in line with their artistic programs?”

Well, as it turns out, Robert Carsen and Ian Burton’s up-dated collaboration on-stage in Paris, has left audiences roaring in the aisles, especially at the beach party of drunken presidents that leaves Vladimir Putin dead from poisoned champagne. Voltaire’s “Westphalia” is now “West Failure,” with the episode taking place on an oil-polluted sea. But it won’t take place in Milan.

Were George Bush, Tony Blair and Jacques Chirac doing a bacchanal the thing that tore it with La Scala? Or more likely, was it the bare-chested, party-animal Silvio Berlusconi that crossed the line? La Scala’s theatre director says this particular scene was only part of the problem, but declined to give specifics.

Candide was not a great success when it premiered on Broadway 50 years ago. That was due in large part to people turning up their noses at an operetta trying to be a musical. But some feel the overtly political play by Lillian Hellman, that drew parallels between McCarthyism and the Spanish Inquisition, was the real turn-off.

The question of course then is if political satire was what Voltaire was going for in the first place. The 18th century was a time of optimism and mastery of the self, rather than dependence on fate or a divine being. Voltaire, who never signed his name to the book, unsympathetically subjects the eponymous protagonist to a series of misadventures, misfortunes, and even torture while leaving him pitifully clinging to the prevailing philosophy of the time, “it’s all for the best.”

We live in a time of poisoned spies, falling ice shelves, executed dictators and barbaric suicide bombings; maybe we should admit this isn’t quite the best of all possible worlds. And it looks like La Scala might have figured that out after all since just today they have come to an agreement on an abridged version of this current Candide to be staged in June.

I hope we’ll still get some world leaders to poke fun at, even if they’re not half-dressed and falling down drunk.

Mozart 250 — Another Last Word

Writers celebrating the Mozart tercentenary in 2056 will no doubt find late-twentieth-century views of Mozart as expressed in performance and criticism as blinkered as those of our predecessors seem to us. Surely, in the realm of performance we shall be charged with want of humor and — who knows? — of innocence: we know the humor is there but are inhibited about bringing it out. We do have some feeling for his emotional range, for the thin line between laughter and tears,for his dissonances and this rhythmic oddities (those five-bar phrases I never heard about at school), for the color of his sound. We have heard a wider range of his music than any generation since his own, we have some sense of historical context for him. We know that he too worked too hard and sometimes had trouble making pieces come out right.

I want to see him without even a trace of halo, to love him, but not to adopt him or idolize him, to come to him — as to all great music — with the ears, the goodwill, the attentiveness, the heart, and, I hope, with the human experience to awaken him.

Michael Steinberg, from “Tchaikovsky’s Mozart (and Others’), in For the Love of Music

Newly discovered "Wolfango" piece premieres today

This has been the year of Mozart. To mark the 250th anniversary of his birth, Austria invested about 30 million euros in events promoting Salzburg’s most famous son, and it has paid off handsomely for all concerned. Now, to cap off the celebrations, a new piece by the young Wolfie has been discovered and authenticated. The facsimile score for this “Allegro di Wolfgango Mozart” will be officially presented and played by clavichordist Florian Birsak today.

Some time ago, the archives of the city’s episcopal office were offered unsigned keyboard works, including this “Allegro.” Detailed tests led experts to conclude that the piece was indeed written by Mozart when he was between six and 10 years old. A second score in the collection may also be by him.

There's only good music and bad music

Every now and again someone will argue that the term “classical music” needs to be replaced. Strictly speaking, it applies only to the late 18th century, the time of Haydn and Mozart, the “classical” era. Categorically speaking, it applies to everything from Gregorian chant to Lou Harrison’s Concerto for Piano with Gamelan.

But practically speaking, we all know what we’re talking about when we use the words “classical music.”

Or do we?

Billboard magazine has shown once again that the general public’s understanding of the term is different from one that a regular visitor to Orchestra Hall would use. On Billboard‘s just-published list of top classical albums of the year are Sting, Josh Groban and Sarah Brightman. It’s hard to argue with the way Sting is categorized; his newest album features music by John Dowland, after all. As to Groban and Brightman, I suppose it’s the soaring vocal lines over string (or string-like) accompaniment that qualify their recordings as classical.

I bring all of this up not because the distinction matters, but because I think it’s interesting to talk about. If you say that Dowland’s “Flow My Tears” is classical, can you say–on a purely musical basis–that Lloyd Webber’s “Pie Jesu” is not?

Is the Vienna Phil really a He-man Women-haters club?

Is the Vienna Philharmonic a good-ole boy’s club or, in the spirit of Spanky and Alfafa, a He-man Women-haters club? A recent piece Tokenism and Firings takes a ten-year survey of the Vienna Philharmonic (which also serves as the orchestra for the Vienna State Opera) and their record on recruiting, hiring, and firing women.

And the record is not good. The male-dominated band nominally ended its long tradition of excluding women a decade ago when they quickly hired a female harpist only a day before the orchestra was to travel to New York for performances at Carnegie Hall. There was just a tad bit of pressure on them to change their ways from the International Alliance for Women in Music, The National Organization of Women, as well as the commensurate bad press.

I guess from this side of the pond with our highly enlightened stance on gender equality, it’s pretty easy to throw stones. But then I took off my rose-colored glasses and inspected our record. This coming new year, 2007, will be the first time a woman will take the helm of one of America’s major orchestras. (I use size and budget to make that determination of “major.” Anne Manson is in her fourth year as Music Director of the Kansas City Symphony and JoAnn Falletta is making fabulous recordings as the leader of the Buffalo Philharmonic.)

Notable in Marin Alsop’s rise to Music Director of the Baltimore Symphony is that she made it after several musician’s revolted over her appointment. The argument was not about Alsop’s qualifications, but that the search process was not exhausted. Was the almost premature ending of the process by the board a way to cut to the chase and finally push a woman forward?

Without being able to answer that for sure, I then took a look at our own society’s preparedness to be led by someone in a skirt. I had a laugh listening to All Things Considered the other day when the topic was Are U.S. Voters Ready to Elect a Woman President? Much of the conversation centered around what the leader would wear and how she would make herself look tough as the Commander-in-Chief. Someone commented, “Women are either Vogue models or an un-made bed.” Now that doesn’t leave much room for a gal to become the Leader of the Free World!

But back to music, Marin Alsop told Fred Child in a recent interview that she really doesn’t have much perspective on an orchestra’s relationship to a woman over a man. So she continues to work on what she does have perspective on: her conducting technique. She tries to de-genderize it, making her gestures not about being a man or a woman, but about music making.

That may be why thirty years ago, the groundbreaking woman in my field, Doriot Anthony Dwyer – who traces her lineage back to the suffragist Susan B. Anthony – was able to convince the all-male Boston Symphony Orchestra audition committee to grant her the honor of being the first woman to hold a principal chair in a major symphony orchestra. She was just the best at playing the flute, it turns out, and whether that meant her music had a feminine touch or not seemed beside the point.

Maybe those guys over in Vienna might take some more chances with women; maybe even hold a couple of blind auditions and see if what they’re hearing is good music making regardless of whose making the music. It might take them (and us it seems) some getting used to seeing a woman up there in action, but we’re a little over 50% of the population and we probably have something valuable to add to the mix!

No victory for di-di-dit-dah

The opening notes of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony have been described as “Fate knocking at the door.” It just so happens that the pattern of 3 short notes followed by one long corresponds to the Morse code for the letter “V.” During WWII Winston Churchill was famous for giving the two-fingered salute of “V is for Victory,” and in June of 1941, the BBC began using the opening of Beethoven’s 5th as a theme for radio shows beamed across Europe to boost morale during the Second World War.

So it was with some chagrin that I read yesterday in the New York Times that amateur radio operators will no longer be required to learn Morse Code as part of their test. My uncle George was a very active “ham” radio operator all of his life. He and my dad built their own “crystal sets” when they were kids in the 1920s. George went on to get his EE degree and built a radio that filled most of one bedroom of his house. When I was a kid I remember watching with awe and wonder as he fired up the tubes of his transmitter and made connections with other “hams” overseas.

George had the most advanced license an amateur could get, he was a master of Morse, and I’m sure he would agree with many of the die hards that dropping Morse code is just the first step off the slippery slope. What next? A dime novel hidden in the corncrib? Jokes from “Cap’n Billy’s Whizzbang? You got Trouble, my friend!

Do you remember the great PBS Mystery series “Inspector Morse.” Well, Barrington Pheloung, who wrote the haunting theme for the show, not only spelled out M-O-R-S-E in the rhythm of the theme, but in later shows started putting the name of the murderer into the title theme in Morse code rhythm – and then later again, as a red herring, the names of people who were NOT the murderer, just to fool anyone who might have cracked the code. Those Brits!

Of course, composers have hidden messages in their music for centuries, often using names or words as themes (eg. B-A-C-H). In his “Messagesquisse,” Pierre Boulez put the name of his dedicatee, Swiss conductor Paul Sacher, in Morse code in the cello part–and then he repeated it in various anagrams. You can read a lot more about this interesting subject in a learned article by Dmitri N. Smirnov called “Music and Morse code.”

But perhaps this is a good time to come full circle, because it was a hundred years ago, almost to the day, when the Canadian experimenter, Reginald A. Fessenden, achieved what is widely regarded as the first example of voice (and music) transmission over radio. That’s the starting point of a fascinating new documentary called “Hearing America: A Century of Music on the Radio,” from American Radio Works.

Popcorn and Papageno

The Metropolitan Opera’s new “Magic Flute” (the Julie Taymor production) was mentioned here a few days ago. . . . Between this page and this review, you can get some idea of the costumes and sets, and here’s more information from the Met on their Dec. 29 broadcast of the “Flute” into selected movie theaters, including one in Minnesota.

This production came along in 2004, to generally rapturous response, but this year the Met is putting a new spin on it by translating and abridging it. The very first outing of the abridgment is on Saturday, Dec. 29 — so that performance is a premiere, of a sort.


After reading about persons of iffy talent like Britney and Lindsay wreaking pop-diva havoc on a daily basis, it’s sure nice to stumble across a story like this.

They’re calling her “the Russian Maria Callas” and describing her voice as “dark gold on red velvet. She’s been showing up in glamour mags and her latest CD is No. 8 on the German charts. The POP charts.

And yet, soprano Anna Netrebko is charming and down-to-eart…completely candid about her own flaws as a performer and quick to praise other performers, saying this about Joan Sutherland:

“[She has] a completely different way of singing, and different technique,” she said. “I don’t know how she’s singing. It’s just like flute playing. Perfect sound, beautiful, everything is free. I think this is a voice, one in a century like that.”

Well. It’s the next century now, isn’t it? Will Anna Netrebko be the voice of the 21st?

The Memoirs of an Amnesiac

So goes the title of one installment of Oscar Levant‘s autobiography. A few choice quotes to remember this pianist, composer, and wit on his 100th birthday anniversary, December 27, 2006:

“Roses are red, violets are blue, I am schizophrenic, and so am I.”

“I used to call Audrey Hepburn a walking X-ray.”

“What the world needs is more geniuses with humility, there are so few of us left.”

“I’m a concert pianist, that’s a pretentious way of saying I’m unemployed at the moment.”

“Leonard Bernstein is revealing musical secrets that have been common knowledge for centuries.”

“Strip away the phony tinsel of Hollywood and you will find the real tinsel underneath.”

“The only difference between the Democrats and the Republicans is that the Democrats allow the poor to be corrupt, too.”

“I knew Doris Day before she was a virgin.”

Taco Bell's Canon

A Christmasy arrangement of Pachelbel’s well known Canon in D cycled through more than once on the sound system in the home where I spent the holiday weekend. Somehow, despite many, many hearings, I have managed not to get tired of the piece.

But a recent post on YouTube (passed along by colleague Jeff Esworthy) clearly shows how familiarity can breed….well, contempt would be too strong a word; this guy has a light touch. And, as you’ll see, he earned his right to complain.