Yesterday, CBS News’ 60 Minutes aired a profile of James Levine, the conductor credited with building the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra into one of the best ensembles of its kind in the world. The interview details Levine’s return to conducting after two seasons spent recovering from injury. This was Bob Simon’s last interview before his tragic death in a car accident last month. If you missed The Maestro: James Levine, you can watch it here.
Every established conductor was once a student. This short clip shows a young Levine studying with George Szell, the legendary Music Director of the Cleveland Orchestra between 1946 and 1970. Szell would later invite Levine to be his assistant in Cleveland.
Here’s the Overture from Rossini’s L’Italiana in Algeri from a 1986 Metropolitan Opera production with Levine conducting:
Tricksters relish the disruption of the status quo, turning the Ordinary World into chaos with their quick turns of phrase and physical antics. Although they may not change during the course of their Journeys, their world and its inhabitants are transformed by their antics. The Trickster uses laughter [and ridicule] to make characters see the absurdity of the situation, and perhaps force a change.
Petrushka, a centuries-old archetypal character in Russian folk puppetry, is the quintessential trickster. He’s the Russian equivalent of the English puppet, “Punch”-a subversive jester who straddles the comic line between benevolent and aggressive. Petrushka is the clown that makes you slightly uncomfortable.
As Igor Stravinsky’s 1911 ballet began to take shape, he wrote in a letter,
…my Petrushka is turning out each day completely new and there are new disagreeable traits in his character, but he delights me because he is absolutely devoid of hypocrisy.
Throughout the ballet, Stravinsky identifies Petrushka with a distinctive and slightly menacing chord, heard first in the clarinets at this moment. The “Petrushka chord” combines two triads (C major and F-sharp major). Played together, a tritone apart, they clash with striking dissonance. The same chord can be heard in Maurice Ravel’s Jeux d’eau, written ten years earlier in 1901.
Petrushka opens with the bustle of St. Petersburg’s Admiralty Square during the Shrovetide Fair carnival (Mardi Gras). We hear the crowd’s exuberant shouts in Stravinsky’s music, as well as the brief, cranky sounds of an organ grinder. Attention shifts to a puppet theater and a Magician, introduced by mystical and exotic sounds in the bassoon and contrabassoon (beginning around the 5:18 mark in the clip below). Three puppets (Petrushka, the Moor, and the Ballerina) come to life as the Magician touches them with a flute (6:52). Petrushka is in love with the Ballerina. Although she flirts and teases him (11:00-11:42), she only cares for the Moor. In the ballet’s Third Tableau, the imprisoned Petrushka breaks free and jealously attacks the Moor, interrupting his seduction of the Ballerina. The Moor beats Petrushka, who flees. Ultimately, the Moor catches Petrushka, fatally stabbing him as the horrified Shrovetide Fair crowd looks on. A policeman is called and the Magician holds up Petrushka’s “corpse,” showing that it is only a puppet. The crowd disperses and the Magician is left alone on the stage. Suddenly, Petrushka’s ghost appears above the puppet theater. In the ballet’s final bars, we hear the “Petrushka chord” leeringly in the muted trumpets (the passage begins at 33:05). As the immortal spirit of Petrushka has the last laugh, the terrified Magician flees. The line between the perceived illusion of the puppet show and “reality” vanishes.
Chronologically, Petrushka sits squarely between two other monumental ballet scores Stravinsky wrote for Diaghilev’s influential Ballets Russes in Paris: The Firebird (1910) and The Rite of Spring(1913). At moments, Petrushka anticipates the primordial, raw power of the Rite. But listen closely, and you’ll also hear surprising echoes of the music of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and other Russian Romantics (For example, the orchestration and sudden turn to major here and the harmony at this moment).
At times, Petrushka grabs our attention with ostinato passages which are simultaneously static and bursting with activity. For example, listen to the colorful new sonic world we enter at the opening of the Fourth Tableau. This is the moment in the ballet when the action stops briefly as we indulge in a series of dances and, in this case, a celebration of the Russian folk song. The song “Down the Petersky Road” emerges out of the bubbling anticipation of woodwinds in the Wet Nurses’ Dance. Following the Peasant and Bearand the Dance of the Gypsies, comes the mighty Dance of the Coachmen, which culminates in an exhilarating canon between the brass and violins.
Here is the 1947 version of Petrushka with Amsterdam’s Concertgebow Orchestra, conducted by Andris Nelsons. There’s a special “edge of your seat” electricity in this 2011 performance:
Recently, some the world’s top conductors have been playing a game of musical chairs. Early last month it was announced that Alan Gilbert will step down in 2017, following eight seasons as Music Director of the New York Philharmonic. Christoph Eschenbach will be leaving his post at the National Symphony. Yesterday, we learned that Sir Simon Rattle will take the helm at the London Symphony Orchestra in 2017. He talks about the appointment here. Kenneth Woods has some interesting thoughts about Simon Rattle and the culture of celebrity in classical music. In the 1980s and 90s, Rattle rose to international prominence as principal conductor of Britain’s City of Birmingham Symphony. He has been leading the Berlin Philharmonic since 2002.
The anticipation of a new Music Director is an exciting time for any orchestra. It’s a time when it’s easy to sense new possibilities, renewal and growth, and an infusion of fresh artistic energy. An incoming Music Director’s honeymoon usually follows a long period of “courtship” as a guest conductor. Both the conductor and the orchestra have to make sure the chemistry is right.
As Sir Simon Rattle prepares to return to his English roots, let’s listen to a recording from his days in Birmingham. Here is Ralph Vaughan Williams’ ethereal “pastoral romance for orchestra,” The Lark Ascending. Nigel Kennedy plays the violin solo:
Orchestras belong to their communities. Like sports teams, art museums, and theater, they are important components of the cultural and economic fabric of a healthy city. It’s always exciting when an orchestra is able to shed a popularly perceived ivory tower image and engage the community in new and creative ways.
The Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra has found a fun way to do this with a recent lighthearted TV commercial produced by Eye Openers Optical Fashions, a local business specializing in eyeglasses. Eye Openers features local celebrities and organizations in its ads. The RPO’s ad shows a handful of the orchestra’s musicians as well as Music Director Ward Stare and Principal Pops Conductor Jeff Tyzik. Eye Openers owner Richard L. Levy tries to sneak to the podium and ends up in the percussion section:
In 1993 the Seattle Symphony got a rare opportunity to venture into the world of TV news. Amid a rebranding effort, Seattle CBS affiliate KIRO used music for its newscasts performed by the Seattle Symphony and written by its Music Director, Gerard Schwarz. Listen to the music for the newscast’s open and close.
Polish-born conductor Jerzy Semkow passed away last week at the age of 86. A longtime French citizen who resided in Paris, Semkow served as principal conductor of the National Opera in Warsaw (1959-1962), the Royal Danish Opera and Orchestra in Copenhagen (1966 to 1976), and as Music Director of the Orchestra of Radio-Televisione Italiana (RAI) in Rome. Between 1975 and 1979 he was Music Director of the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra. Semkow enjoyed long associations as a regular guest conductor with American orchestras, including the Detroit Symphony and the Rochester Philharmonic. His mentors included Erich Kleiber, Bruno Walter and Tullio Serafin.
As a teenager, I heard the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra perform numerous times under Jerzy Semkow. His concerts left a powerful and lasting impression. Even after many years, I can still vividly recall the music which was performed on each program. His interpretations of Mahler and Bruckner seemed to come alive with an almost supernatural power. He brought a unique warmth and purity to Mozart. It’s likely that he left a subtle imprint on the sound and musicianship of the orchestra which remained beyond his guest conducting appearances.
Audience members and musicians will remember Jerzy Semkow’s slightly eccentric and aristocratic stage presence. Following the orchestra’s tuning, minutes would often elapse before Semkow appeared onstage, wielding his enormously long baton. During the final applause for a large orchestral work, he would often walk throughout the orchestra, acknowledging each section.
Semkow’s deep and inspiring musical vision became apparent in rehearsals. On one occasion, the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra offered a solid first reading of the opening of the final movement of Brahms’ Second Symphony, a hushed passage which requires great control. Semkow called attention to the first note, which he found to be lacking in warmth and buoyancy. Immediately, the sound of the orchestra was transformed and the entire movement took shape.
The Detroit Free Press offers this tribute. Also, read comments by Leonard Slatkin, William Wolfram, Peter Donohoe and others at Norman Lebrecht’s Slipped Disc. Submit your own memories of Jerzy Semkow in the comment thread below.
Highlights from Jerzy Semkow’s Recordings
Schumann’s Third Symphony “Rhenish” performed by the Saint Louis Symphony:
James Erb, a beloved member of Richmond’s music community, passed away last week at the age of 88. He will be remembered as a composer, arranger, conductor and musicologist, who specialized in the works of Renaissance composer, Orlando de Lassus. In 1971, Dr. Erb founded the Richmond Symphony Chorus. He also served as director of choral activities at the University of Richmond.
Those who knew James Erb will remember his youthful energy and contagious love of music. It would have been easy to imagine him enthusiastically pulling a score off the shelf for study at 6:00 on a Saturday morning. Violinist Holly Mulcahy offers a tribute here.
Here is James Erb’s arrangement of the American folk song, Shenandoah:
Let’s celebrate the end of the week with Hector Berlioz’s Le Corsaire Overture. The high voltage performance below, featuring Sir Mark Elder conducting the Manchester (UK)-based Hallé Orchestra, is from this past summer’s BBC Proms at Royal Albert Hall.
You can take the significance of this overture’s name with a grain of salt. Written in 1844, it was first performed under the title, La tour de Nice. Then it was renamed Le corsair rouge after James Fenimore Cooper’s 1827 novel, The Red Rover and again renamed The Corsair after Lord Byron’s poem. Berlioz also published articles and provocative music criticism in the newspaper, journal Le Corsaire.
Le Corsaire starts off with a bang, instantly grabbing our attention with a swoosh of virtuosity. Like so much of Berlioz’s opium-influenced music, there’s something slightly schizophrenic and deranged about this overture. It keeps us off balance, harnessing the power of the unexpected. Rhythmically, it seems on the edge of spinning out of control, with notes frequently appearing on the “wrong” beats. Notice the strange, parallel harmony (1:31) and sudden interjections (3:58).
Berlioz expanded the orchestra (trombones and tuba, for example) and mixed instruments in bold and innovative new ways. In the passage beginning at 4:47, listen to the way the melody is passed between instruments. Also pay attention to the obsessive repeated rhythm in the strings (later picked up by the chirping woodwinds) and the unpredictable bass interjections. There’s a sudden new dimension to the sound as the cellos double the violins at 5:00, but like everything else in this overture, the new sound emerges and then, suddenly, it’s gone, like an opium-inspired vision.
It’s all resolved with an earth-shatteringly powerful exclamation point. Elder brings out the trumpets for this final chord. You’ll see them raise their bells for added volume.
Conductor Lorin Maazel passed away yesterday at the age of 84. He will be remembered for his long, distinguished career and dramatic and idiosyncratic interpretations.
Maazel debuted as a conductor at the age of 9, after starting violin lessons at 5. As an 11-year-old, he received an invitation from Arturo Toscanini to conduct the NBC Symphony. His music director posts included the Cleveland Orchestra (1972-1982), Vienna State Opera (1982-1984), Pittsburgh Symphony (1988-1996), Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra (1993-2002) and the New York Philharmonic (2002-2009). In 2008 he served as a cultural ambassador, leading the New York Philharmonic on a tour of North Korea. In 2009 Maazel and his wife founded the Castleton Festival, a summer program for young musicians at his Virginia estate.
Learn more about Lorin Maazel’s life in this obituary at The Guardian and this PBS Newshour interview.
These memorable quotes reflect Maazel’s views on the essential role of the arts in society:
Our Orchestra must also continue to play its leadership role in the community and in our nation. The young look to us to provide substance in place of dross, emotional depth in place of shallow titillation.
In these confused times, the role of classical music is at the very core of the struggle to reassert cultural and ethical values that have always characterized our country and for which we have traditionally been honored and respected outside our shores.
Here is the final movement of Dvořák’s “New World” Symphony with the New York Philharmonic: