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:
Four-time Grammy Award winning opera singer Renee Fleming will be singing the national anthem at the Super Bowl this coming weekend. You may remember her singing (yes, singing) David Letterman’s Top Ten list on The Late Show last year. She also appeared at the Obama Inaugural Celebration in 2009 and at Ground Zero after the September 11th attacks.
I performed with the Virginia Symphony when Fleming came to Norfolk about ten years ago and I found her to be one of the most gracious and down-to-earth celebrities I have ever encountered…a humble superstar who was there to serve the music. No wonder she’s earned the nickname “the people’s Diva.”
Let’s listen to Renee Fleming sing Song to the Moon from Act 1 of Antonín Dvořák’s opera, Rusalka. The opera is based on a Czech fairy tale with roots deep in Slavic mythology. Rusalka is a water nymph who has fallen in love with a prince who came to swim in her lake. In order to be with the prince she must be transformed into a human. The aria captures Rusalka’s feelings of sadness, despair and longing for a love which is out of reach. You can read the synopsis of the complete opera here. Watch an English language performance here.
This performance is from the 2010 Last Night of the Proms at Royal Albert Hall in London:
Could you feel the drama of the scene expressed in Dvořák’s music? This is essentially what opera is all about. It takes us out of the literal world, where singing characters and far out story lines seem ridiculous, and plunges us into the world of metaphor. Most of us can’t relate to nymphs and princes, but we can all relate to Rusalka’s character on a human level. Drama which unfolds musically opens the door to a complex mix of deep emotions.
Last week, musicians from the Philadelphia Orchestra made news when they turned a three hour delay on the tarmac at the Beijing airport into an impromptu concert. You can watch the now viral video of their performance of the last movement of Antonin Dvorak’s “American” String Quartet.
Let’s listen to the Cleveland Quartet perform all four movements of this amazing piece. Pay attention to the way the four voices interact and trade around motives. Can you hear a musical conversation taking place between instruments? Listen to the rhythmic “motor” which propels the music forward. Notice subtle details that make the music sparkle, like the cello’s pizzicato line that begins at 0:14.
Now, let’s go back and listen again to pick up a few more details in the music. The first movement is built on sonata form, a structure we explored a few months ago in my post, Baseball and the Symphony. Can you hear sonata form at work here? Listen to the second theme at 1:30. Does it feel different emotionally from what came before? Starting around 4:44, can you hear Dvorak shaking up the themes and motives from the exposition, turning them upside down and inside out and developing them in exciting ways? Consider how we slide back into the recapitulation at 6:28. It’s the same music we heard at the beginning, but this time Dvorak throws us a surprise before fully returning home. Can you tell what’s happening and how it’s different from the beginning of the piece? Listen carefully to the harmony at 6:28.
The third movement starts off simply enough with all four voices playing the same music in octaves, but listen to how quickly things get delightfully complicated. Pay attention to the increasingly complex interplay of rhythms that follows this simple opening. Listen carefully and you’ll hear the melody line popping up in the cello at 16:40.
As you listen to the final movement, consider what feelings the music evokes…wild, fun-loving, excited anticipation? Like a real person, this movement’s musical personality is a complex mix of emotions which can’t be fully put into words. Near the end of the movement, there is a brief moment where the “motor” stops and the music suddenly becomes more introspective (23:29). Consider the emotional significance of this moment of reflection. Why does it come at this moment in the piece? What happens next?
Dvorak wrote this quartet in the summer of 1893 in Spillville, Iowa, a prairie enclave settled by Bohemian immigrants. This was the same year that the “New World” Symphony was written as a commission for the New York Philharmonic. Did you hear any of the motives from the Symphony slipping into this quartet? (If you missed it, go back and listen to the cello at 8:49 for just one example). Learn more about Dvorak’s trip to Iowa here.
Between 1892 and 1895, Dvorak directed the National Conservatory of Music in New York. He was interested in helping a still comparatively young America develop an authentic musical tradition. Dvorak urged composers to draw inspiration from Native American and African American folk traditions. Some listeners hear these uniquely American influences in the “New World” Symphony and this quartet. Others only hear the influence of the Czech folk music which inspired Dvorak throughout his life. Which side do you take? Share your thoughts on this music and the Cleveland Quartet’s performance in the thread below. You can find this recording on Amazon.
Cellist Janos Starker died yesterday in Bloomington, Indiana at the age of 88. You can read about his extraordinary career as a performer and teacher here and here. You may also be interested in this documentary.
Here is his recording of the opening movement of Bach’s Suite for Solo Cello, No. 1 in G Major:
This 1956 recording of the Dvorak Cello Concerto with the Philharmonia Orchestra and Walter Susskind is also remarkable:
Here are the Second and Third Movements of the Dvorak. Find other Starker recordings on iTunes.
Here are some inspiring violin videos from Youtube. As a violinist, I always enjoy soaking up the musicianship of a variety of players, as well as analyzing the way each player uniquely approaches the instrument.
We’ll start with Humoresque in G-Flat Major by the Czech composer, Antonin Dvorak (1841-1904). This is a piece that Suzuki students know from Book 3. Itzhak Perlman and cellist Yo-Yo Ma are accompanied by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Seiji Ozawa. This performance can be found on a recording that features a sampling of Dvorak’s music.
The Sonata in A major for Violin and Piano by French composer Cesar Franck (1822-1890) has become a staple of the violin repertoire. Here is the final Movement, performed by Joshua Bell and pianist Jeremy Denk. It was included on their newly released recording, French Impressions. Bell and Denk discuss the CD here. I also recommend Oleh Krysa’s recording of this piece.
No one had a greater impact on the development of the violin than Niccolo Paganini (1782-1840). Paganini toured Europe, achieving rock star status at a time when the public concert hall increasingly made concerts available to the masses and not just aristocracy.