Mr. Noseda Goes to Washington

Italian conductor Gianandrea Noseda has been named Music Director of the National Symphony.
Italian conductor Gianandrea Noseda has been named Music Director of the National Symphony. (photo from the Washington Post)

 

The National Symphony Orchestra has announced that Italian conductor Gianandrea Noseda will succeed Christoph Eschenbach as its seventh music director. Noseda has developed a reputation as one of the world’s finest opera conductors. Early in his career, he was the first foreign-born principal guest conductor of the Mariinsky Theatre. Currently, he serves as principal guest conductor of the Israel Philharmonic and music director of the Teatro Regio in Turin, Italy. Between 2002 and 2011 he was music director of the BBC Philharmonic in Manchester (UK).

The National Symphony, the resident orchestra at Washington’s Kennedy Center, has yet to meet its full potential in terms of visibility on the national stage. It will be interesting to see what Noseda’s tenure brings.

Here are a few of Gianandrea Noseda’s recordings:

Overture to The Marriage of Figaro

Let’s start off with a sparkling and energetic live concert performance of Mozart’s Overture to The Marriage of Figaro, K. 492. This recording features Spain’s Orquestra de Cadaqués. Noseda has been the chamber orchestra’s principal conductor since 1994.

Overture to The Bartered Bride

Here is Czech composer Bedřich Smetana’s (1824-1884) overture to the comic opera, The Bartered Bride, performed by the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra. Listen to the vibrant, hushed energy of the overture’s opening and notice the dialogue between voices. The opera is full of Bohemian folk influences. At moments you might be reminded of the music of another Czech composer, Antonín Dvořák (about twenty years Smetana’s junior).

A successful opera overture grabs our attention and draws us into the impending drama. By the final note, we should be in a different state of mind than when we entered the theater. Smetanta’s overture seems to do that, spectacularly.

Two Korngold Opera Excerpts

We’ll finish with two seldom heard opera excerpts by Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897-1957). (If you want to hear more of Korngold’s music, visit past Listeners’ Club posts here and here). The first is an achingly beautiful lament: Ich soll ihn niemals, niemals mehr sehn from the 1937 three-act opera, Die Kathrin, Op. 28. Its scheduled premiere in Vienna in 1938 was cancelled by the Nazis due to Korngold’s Jewish ancestry. The second excerpt is the haunting Ich ging zu ihm from the three-act Das Wunder der Heliane, written in 1927.

Renée Fleming is accompanied by Noseda and the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra:

  • Find Gianandrea Noseda’s recordings at iTunes, Amazon.
  • Watch Noseda rehearse Rachmaninov’s Isle of the Dead with the Gothenburg Symphony.

Classical Music Has Long Been at Home on Sesame Street

Isaac Stern with Elmo
Isaac Stern plays a duet with Elmo

In August came the surprise announcement that the popular children’s television program Sesame Street will be moving to HBO. (Reruns will still appear on PBS). The show’s nonprofit producers reached a five-year agreement with HBO. For 45 years Sesame Street has been freely available to the community on Public Broadcasting.

Sesame Street‘s controversial move has raised broader questions about the commodification and privatization of the arts and education at the expense of the public realm. The effect on future programming remains to be seen. But a quick glance back shows that classical music has long been at home on Sesame Street, perhaps giving some children their only exposure to the art form.

Here is a sampling of some of the prominent musicians who have appeared on Sesame Street over the years. Many of these skits involve wacky and unsophisticated comedy. (When Isaac Stern asked for “an A” as a tuning note, he was presented with the letter A). The muppets seem to be asking the questions children might ask if they were there.

Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg

The Kronos Quartet

Renée Fleming

Gustavo Dudamel

Wynton Marsalis

Lang Lang

Yo-Yo Ma

Seiji Ozawa

Itzhak Perlman

Highlights from La Traviata

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The Richmond Symphony in the opera pit before Saturday night’s performance.

 

This month, the Richmond Symphony has been spending a lot of time in the orchestra pit performing La Traviata with Virginia Opera. Beyond the obvious vocal acrobatics, Giuseppe Verdi’s score is full of musical drama and characterization. The introspective orchestral Prelude to Act 1 foreshadows the tragedy which follows. Soon after the curtain goes up, we hear one of opera’s most recognizable drinking songs, Libiam ne lieti calici.  

The plot of La Traviata centers around the emotionally lost Violetta, a courtesan who is recovering from illness. The young nobleman, Alfredo falls in love with Violetta, but his father Giorgio attempts to prevent the relationship. In the final scene, as Violetta is dying of tuberculosis, Giorgio realizes his error in judgement, but it’s too late.

Here is the final scene, sung by Anna Netrebko, Rolando Villazón, and Thomas Hampson in a 2005 performance at the Salzburg Festival. At 2:02:18 Violetta furiously laments the unfairness of her impending early death. At 2:05:47 we hear an ominous funeral march:

Music Inspired by Shakespeare

ShakespeareHistorians believe that today marks the 450th birthday of William Shakespeare. Throughout history, Shakespeare’s plays have been a rich source of inspiration for composers. A few months ago we heard Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet tone poem. Now let’s celebrate with some more music inspired by the Bard of Avon:

Play, music! And you, brides and bridegrooms all,
With measure heap’d in joy, to the measures fall.

-As You Like It

The man that hath no music in himself, 
Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds,
Is fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils;
The motions of his spirit are dull as night
And his affections dark as Erebus:
Let no such man be trusted. Mark the music.

-The Merchant of Venice

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Felix Mendelssohn was 17 years old when he wrote the famous A Midsummer Night’s Dream concert overture in 1826. Sixteen years later, he composed incidental music for the play, which included the Scherzo, Nocturne and Wedding March

Mendelssohn’s overture captures vividly the atmosphere of the play. We hear the magic of the forest and the scurrying fairies who interfere hilariously in the lives of the other characters. Listen for all the subtle tricks and surprises in the fairy music, such as unexpected, “wrong” chords and out of place voices. Also notice the musical depiction of a braying donkey (3:07):

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To hear other musical adaptations, listen to Henry Purcell’s 1692 semi-opera in five acts, The Fairy-Queen, and Benjamin Britten’s twentieth century opera.

Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind,
And therefore is winged Cupid painted blind.

If we shadows have offended, 
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumbered here
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream,
Gentles, do not reprehend:
If you pardon, we will mend:
And, as I am an honest Puck,
If we have unearned luck
Now to ‘scape the serpent’s tongue,
We will make amends ere long;
Else the Puck a liar call;
So, good night unto you all.
Give me your hands, if we be friends,
And Robin shall restore amends.

King Lear

“No man will ever write a better tragedy than Lear,” said George Bernard Shaw. Hector Berlioz was in the audience when an English repertory company came to Paris in 1827. Berlioz’s exhilarating King Lear Overture was written in 1831:

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Could you hear the stubborn, proud character of King Lear in Berlioz’s music? Maybe you also sensed the pure Cordelia in the oboe solo in the introduction (2:47). In his memoirs, Berlioz outlined the program he followed while writing this overture, from the introduction (representing the entrance of the king) to the fast allegro section (the storm). We hear Lear’s increasing insanity as his theme merges with the storm music (10:49). You might have noticed the influence of the recitative music from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in the opening.

Throughout his innovative career, Berlioz was interested in expanding the orchestra and combining instruments in shocking new ways. I love the noisiness of this piece and its slightly deranged quality. The dissonances following the 9:00 mark would have sounded even more jarring in the 1830s. King Lear Overture has all of the romantic, schizophrenic drama of Symphony fantastique. 

I have no way and therefore want no eyes
I stumbled when I saw. Full oft ’tis seen
our means secure us, and our mere defects
prove our commodities.

Othello

In Act 4 of Verdi’s opera Otello, just before she is strangled by the jealous Othello, Desdemona sings a quiet prayer for all who suffer (Ave Maria). Read the translated text here. Here the aria is sung by Renee Fleming:

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O, beware, my lord, of jealousy;
It is the green-ey’d monster, which doth mock
The meat it feeds on. That cuckold lives in bliss,
Who, certain of his fate, loves not his wronger:
But O, what damnèd minutes tells he o’er
Who dotes, yet doubts, suspects, yet strongly loves!

The Tempest

Tchaikovsky’s tone poem The Tempest begins and ends with the musical depiction of a calmly undulating sea. Listen for the sudden ferocity of the storm (5:37). Notice the way Tchaikovsky introduces the love theme of Miranda and Ferdinand, following 8:18, suggesting their initial shyness:

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Also listen to incidental music for The Tempest by Jean Sibelius. English composer Thomas Adès’s recent opera, which premiered in 2004 at the Royal Opera House of Covent Garden, offers a uniquely twenty-first century take on the play. Here Audrey Luna sings a haunting and vocally demanding excerpt.

Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep

Henry V

We’ll finish up with a film score by English composer William Walton. This music was written for the 1944 film version of Henry V, starring Laurence Olivier. Memorable excerpts include Passacaglia: Death of Falstaff and the triumphant Agincourt Song.

“Touch her soft lips and part” underscores the scene in which Pistol bids farewell to his new wife Mistress Quickly, before leaving for battle in France:

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From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered-
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

Now it’s your turn…

It isn’t The Listeners’ Club without you. Leave a comment in the thread below and tell us what you heard in the music. What pieces would you add to this list of Shakespeare-inspired music?

Song to the Moon

full moonFour-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.

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The Last Rose of Summer

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It’s hard to believe but Labor Day weekend is here, marking the official end of summer. Leaves are beginning to change color. The days are getting shorter and a chill is creeping into the night air, reminding us of the inevitability of what’s around the corner. Let’s bid summer a fond farewell by listening to one of the most technically demanding pieces ever written for the violin, Variations on “The Last Rose of Summer” by Heinrich Wilhelm Ernst. Ernst (1812-1865) was a violinist and composer who followed in the footsteps of Paganini, touring Europe as a rock star virtuoso and expanding the technical possibilities of the violin.

This clip is from Midori’s extraordinary 1991 Carnegie Hall debut. She played the sold out concert four days before her nineteenth birthday. The excitement and electricity in the air and the sense of occasion are palpable. This interesting New York Times piece featuring Midori came out in the days following the recital.

Notice the combination of dazzling violinistic effects employed, from double stops and left hand pizzicato to harmonics, up bow staccato and spiccato bowing. Watch closely, because there are moments when this piece seems like a magic act. Is one violin really playing all that? Listen to how many variations can spring from this beautiful melody:

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And now, for a final ode to fading summer, here is the original melody, sung by Renee Fleming: