Jiri Belohlavek, 71, Czech Philharmonic Conductor

DvorakSymphonies A few days ago I learned that Jiri Belohlavek had died. I actually heard the news one month to the day since I had seen him conduct the Czech Philharmonic at Prague's Rudolfinum, in a masterful performance of Mozart's Violin Concerto No 5 featuring Nikolaj Znaider and Mahler's Symphony No 5. I hadn't known he was sick, although it was clear when I saw him in Prague that he was recovering from a serious illness: he had lost so much weight and the trademark chock-full of hair I had grown accustomed to seeing, from picking up my favorite CD set [the Complete Dvorak Symphonies and Concertos, with cover pictured to the left], had disappeared.

Since his contract with the Czech Philharmonic had been renewed earlier this year, I hoped that his illness was behind me and that I would be able to attend another concert by him were I to return to Prague, which I hope to, some day. In fact I chose the dates of this trip to attend a performance by Belohlavek. That was one of my requirements: I would not go all the way to Prague for my first trip ever without attending a performance by the maestro with the Czech Philharmonic. And I'm just so glad I made it happen. The concert was almost sold-out when I bought the ticket, the same evening I booked the plane tickets and the hotel. I will always cherish the memories of that concert.

Belohlavek has done so much to raise the profile of Czech music and the Czech Philharmonic. Thanks to him I discovered much great Czech music I didn't know before, such as Martinu's Piano Concertos. His Dvorak moved me like no other conductor's can, and it is only fitting that I am listening to the CD1 of his Dvorak's Symphonies (Symphony 1 and Cello Concerto featuring Alisa Weilerstein) as I type this. I don't remember being so stunned and sad by the passing of someone I didn't know personally since the death of David Halberstam, ten years ago. But we can all be grateful for what he did to advance classical music.  

A side note about the New York Times and Washington Post obituaries, available here and here, respectively. I have included screenshots below. The NYT went with an older picture of Belohlavek (from 2008), which would be familiar to the music amateurs around the world who own his records. In it he is strong and vigorous. It resembles the one on the cover of my Dvorak Symphonies set. The one in the WaPo obituary is more recent, and matches the Belohlavek I saw when I went to Prague. There isn't much resemblance between the two, is it? And I was thinking, I doubt he wants us to remember him with the WaPo picture. But I will always remember him from the covers of his CDs anyway.


Finally, I have to wonder if he already knew he was about to die when he gave that concert of Mozart and Mahler at the Rudolfinum. He looked frail, but his conducting was not frail. I remember the enormous standing ovation we gave him at the end - Europeans, contrary to Americans, are much more parsimonious in their acclaim, but everyone was on their feet - and how touched he was when he faced us, even bringing his hand to his heart. My opinion (without proof) is that he knew, but music carried him forward as long as it could. "Music is my life," the WaPo reports him to have said. I hope he knew how much we love him and are grateful to him for making music our lives too.

Czech Music Played by Czech Orchestras

Over the past few months I have become keenly interested in the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, Jiri Belohlavek and Czech composers ( for various reasons I rekindled my dormant interest in Prague - I have been fascinated by the city since I was in high school over 25 years ago, when our history teacher taught us about the Prague Spring - and since I love classical music it was a natural jump to investigate Czech classical music). This is a post about some of their recordings that I own. This is not about opera, so no Dvorak's Rusalka or Janacek's House of the Dead in there, although the great conductor Vaclav Neumann (1920-1995) deserves a shout-out. Obviously I don't own everything recorded out there by Czech orchestras playing Czech composers, so you will have to forgive me for any omission, but if you feel there's something I really should listen to, feel free to leave me a comment. 

DvorakSymphonies Dvorak: Complete Symphonies and Concertos The title says it all: Jiri Belohlavek conducts the Czech Philharmonic in this set of 6 magnificent CDs pairing all symphonies and concertos of Dvorak. As one expects with Dvorak, the music was sweeping. Listening to this gives me back faith in the world. Before I bought this, I was most familiar with Dvorak's later symphonies (excellent here too) but the earlier ones are played with such mastery I have to wonder why they're not presented in concert more often. With that much music (9 symphonies and 3 concertos on 6 CDs) it is impossible to get bored. A remarkable accomplishment from the Czech Philharmonic and Belohlavek, and a great starting point for anyone who wants to either learn more about Dvorak's works or hear more of the Czech Philharmonic.


MartinuPianoConcertosMartinu: Piano Concertos I had never heard about Martinu before I started buying a lot of Czech music conducted by Belohlavek, and now that I've heard this work I can't help but be stunned that he's not better known. The best way to describe this is: jazzy and Gershwin-esque, but while Gershwin can sometimes come across as a lightweight, Martinu provides deeply satisfying modern music that you can actually listen to, while avoiding the pathos of, say, Shostakovich. Pianist Emil Leichner is in great form. Those piano concertos are a treat to listen to. I am so glad I found this.



DvorakSlavonic Dvorak: Slavonic Dances Dvorak originally wrote this for piano four hands, and drew his inspiration from Brahms' Hungarian Dances. Every piece was composed for a specific type of Slavonic dance. It is hard to imagine the dances being played in a concert hall without having the audience marking the beat or tapping their feet along, but this is perfect when you need a bit of upbeat music to fill you with optimism and motivate you to action. Whenever I listen to this, I think everything will be alright.



AlisaWeilersteinDvorak Alisa Weilerstein: Dvorak One of the greatest cellists working today, playing Dvorak's magnificent Cello Concerto with the Czech Philharmonic conducted by Belohlavek: what is there not to like? The music - not just by the soloist but the entire orchestra - is grand and sweeping, at times even outright gut-wrenching. It instils awe at Dvorak's talent but also a determination to be a better person deserving of such music. Inspirational is not too strong a word here. For the history buffs: while the connection to the United States is better known for his Symphony No 9 "To the New World", Dvorak wrote this concerto while in New York City, where he served as Director of the National Conservatory. His String Quartet in F Major, Op. 96, was also written while he lived in the United States. (See Pavel Haas Quartet below.)


DvorakPavelHaas Pavel Haas Quartet: Dvorak String Quartets G Major Op. 106 and F Major Op. 96 "American" The Pavel Haas Quartet found international success after winning the Prague Spring Competition in 2005, and won the Gramophone Award in 2007 for their recording of Haas and Janacek. My favorite part of this one is the Molto vivace in the String Quartet in G Major. To my American readers who like chamber music: they will be on a (West Coast) US Tour this March, so make sure to see them live in concert if you can.



MartinuCello Martinu: Cello Concertos with of course Jiri Belohlavek conducting the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra. One recognizes much of Martinu's signature style from the piano concertos (modern while remaining enjoyable to hear) while the majesty of the cello gives gravitas to the sometimes jazzy music. While I prefer the piano concertos, this definitely should be the number-two purchase of anyone building a collection of Martinu's work.



MartinuConcerto Martinu: Violin Concerto No 2 (this one is with the Prague Philharmonia rather than the Czech Philharmonic) I didn't like this as much as the Martinu piano or cellos concertos - it was more somber, I felt, with few of the upbeat moments that even the cello concertos had - but Isabelle Faust and Cedric Tiberghien are some of my favorite chamber music artists (I am particularly fond of Tiberghien's Beethoven Violin Sonatas Vol 1 with Alina Ibragimova) and whatever they record is worth listening to and I am looking forward to discovering more Martinu works in the future. If you're interested in learning more about Bohuslav Martinu (1890-1959), here is his Wikipedia page, which states he "wrote 6 symphonies, 15 operas, 14 ballet scores and a large body of orchestral, chamber, vocal and instrumental works." We can all feel underachievers now.


DvorakInPrague Dvorak in Prague: A Celebration This CD, recorded in Prague in the early 1990s, offers snippets of Dvorak's chamber music work. I like this for Humoresque and the last Slavonic Dance. 




MaVlastAnd of course, the masterful performance of Ma Vlast by Rafael Kubelik in 1990 at the first Prague Spring Festival after the collapse of the Eastern Block is a must-own. "Life-affirming" is overused these days, but in this case this recording highly deserves it. Imagine sitting in the audience in Prague, the first spring after Czechoslovakia (not yet split between the Czech Republic and Slovakia) became free again. Then play the first movement. The music makes the case for itself. (Note: to the best of my knowledge, there is no MP3 recording of it. The Amazon webpage links to the MP3 recording of a completely different and rather ordinary performance by a different orchestra with a different conductor. The CD is what you want.) This music fills me with awe every time. Profoundly inspirational.

Listen Magazine on Bob Dylan's Nobel

ListenMagI wasn't going to write a post about Dylan's Nobel Prize in Literature, but since Listen Magazine - a magazine about classical music that I love - published an article dripping of condescension toward the people, like me, who don't believe Dylan even remotely deserved the Nobel, I do feel compelled to share my thoughts.

First, let me say that Bob Dylan is one of the greatest artists of our ages, and that whatever it is he is doing, he does not even remotely deserve the Nobel Prize in Literature. Perhaps what Dylan does is indeed poetry. It is certainly closer to literature than some of the books you find at airport newsstands. Let's agree for the sake of the argument that Dylan indeed qualifies as a poet, even if he is a poet of the spoken word rather than the written word. This would not be in itself a disqualifying fact - playwrights like Eugene O'Neill have received the Nobel Prize in the past, and the fact that their scripts weren't easily available for purchase except from specialized bookstores until recently (this has changed now with didn't raise a concert of shouts about their not deserving the prize. So what makes it ok for O'Neill to receive the Prize and not Dylan? One thing: the depth of insights into the human condition. People who believe Dylan deserved the prize really can't have red much Nobel-winning work.

But let's compare Dylan with that of poets, since that is the one literature category Dylan could lay claim to. Dylan writes fine poems, but they don't compare to the work of poets who have received the Nobel Prize before him, poets who have risked their lives in dictatorships and yet felt compelled to share their art with the world, to bear witness of the times they lived in, poets who have had an incredibly rich output varying poetry forms and syntax and length and topic. Dylan's output is boxed in by its context of song-making. That's not his fault. Within the limitations of songwriting, he definitely has proved the best at writing poem-like songs. But his songs are nothing compared to the poems by T.S. Eliot, Pablo Neruda, Joseph Brodsky, Czeslaw Milosz, Octavio Paz and Seamus Heaney and only a very U.S.-centered freelance writer could possibly fail to see that.

While the author of the Listen Magazine article put up a valiant effort to help readers see the beauty of Dylan's poetry, several passages were both inaccurate - to the extent that I had to wonder whether the author was trying to be deliberately dishonest - and extremely condescending toward people who disagree with the Nobel Prize Committee's choice. I'll quote just one, since this post is already longer than I had planned. The umbrage taken by members of the literary community seemed aimed at what was taken as the Nobel's thin definition of their profession, because they felt the purpose of the prize was to bring global attention to literary lights often laboring in somewhat obscurity in their own land - the names of Svetlana Alexievich, Patrick Modiano and Tomas Transtromer being little known until Stockholm smiled upon them. 

Sir, Patrick Modiano has been a literary giant in France since 1978 when he won the Prix Goncourt (equivalent to the Pulitzer Prize) for his novel Rue des Boutiques Obscures, and some would argue he had been one of France's best-known novelists since his prize-winning first novel, La Place de l'Etoile, published in 1968, which received the Prix Roger Nimier and the Prix Feneon. The fact that you didn't know who Modiano was before he got the Nobel Prize (or more likely before you had to write this article about Dylan's prize) doesn't mean he wasn't well-known, Sir. And if the Nobel Prize can help bring a greater audience to an investigative journalist like Alexievich, who works under incredibly difficult conditions, I don't think it's a bad outcome, Sir. But you can go ahead and pick up your guitar and hum your Dylan songs while Nobel-Prize-worthy writers try to improve their world. I doubt you'll pick up a book, unless it's Allen Ginsberg's Howl

Now there is one argument in favor of Dylan's winning the Nobel Prize, and while I don't think it's enough to justify giving him the prize, I'll cite it here anyway. Maybe his songs are only second-rate poems, but they have moved audiences like no traditional poem ever has, especially in the turbulent era of the Vietnam War. Dylan's songs-poems, in that way, have had a far greater impact that the work of any of the other Nobel-Prize-winning poets. If a work's quality is measured by the impact it has, then Dylan's songs set the standard every other poem should be evaluated by. And as we face turbulent times anew, maybe his Nobel Prize - deserved or not - can serve as a reminder of the power of music in moving audiences to take a stand. 

Cleveland Orchestra and Shostakovich 4

LogoA few weeks ago, I was fortunate to catch a performance of the Cleveland Orchestra at Carnegie Hall, conducted by its Music Director Franz Welser-Möst. It was a Sunday evening and (it seemed to me that) the hall was almost half empty, which was unfortunate, given the quality of the music and the renown of the conductor. The Cleveland Orchestra - which is chronicled up to 2000 in the book "The Cleveland Orchestra Story", the single best book about the rise of an orchestra that I've read to date - performed the New York premiere of let me tell you, with Barbara Hannigan (soprano), and Shostakovich's fourth symphony. The latter was of course the reason I attended.

From the program: let me tell you, by Hans Abrahamsen, "is a song cycle devised by the composer in collaboration with Canadian soprano Barbara Hannigan and British writer Paul Griffiths." Griffith's novel let me tell you, published in 2008, "is an imaginary narrative as told by Ophelia using only the 481 words she is allotted in Hamlet."

Being a Shakespeare fan, I really liked the concept behind let me tell you and wanted to love it, but frankly I found it underwhelming at best. My one-word review would be: awful. I'm aware it has been widely praised by the critics, so clearly I don't pay attention to the same things critics do when they evaluate new work. The soprano sang beautifully, but the way she sang reminded me constantly of a fish under water, making bubbles that slowly rise to the surface. That is the one image I have of that work. Maybe that explains why attendance was so scarce, in spite of the Shostakovich name being usually a draw - maybe most classical music lovers knew to stay away, since on top of that Symphony No 4 is not performed nearly as often as his more popular No 5 or No 7.

But I was one of the few people that night who really, really wanted to listen to Shostakovich's 4th live. I'd never heard it performed in concert and Shostakovich had planned to premiere it in December 1936 but had to shelve it after he ran afoul of the authorities for his Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk opera (I wrote about the movie version here), so for me it symbolizes Shostakovich's incredible creativity that had to be muffled in order for him to stay alive. The symphony was only premiered in December 1961 by the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra with Kirill Kondrashin conducting. In addition, the symphony was discovered in the US when the Philadelphia Orchestra recorded/performed it under Eugene Ormandy's leadership, which adds a local connection since I've spent about a decade outside Philadelphia by now.  

The Cleveland Orchestra was in top form and gave a stunning performance of a long (one hour!) but mesmerizing work. The audience jumped to its feet at the end. The length of the piece also spoke in favor of live performances. If you listen to something on a recording, you can do something else or pause it if you want - you're not confronted with the stamina needed for the musicians to go through with the work without faltering from beginning to end. In a performance hall, however, you can't escape how daunting the task is and marvel at the feat happening right in front of your eyes. 

We all returned to the cold, snowy evening in New York with sheer amazement at the composer's, conductor's and musicians' remarkable genius and collective talent. I feel sorry for those who missed this. Even if that entailed being put through half an hour of music sounding like a fish making bubbles, the second half of the program made it worth it. I only wish Shostakovich's 4th was programmed more often.

If you care to hear Shostakovich 4 performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra, which premiered it in the US, I recommend this recording (part of a set of Shostakovich symphonies with various orchestras, with Wyung Wung Chung conducting) and that one (Eugene Ormandy conducting the 4th and the 10th - superb!) I'm not aware of a recording by the Cleveland Orchestra.

Here is the beginning, played by the London Symphony Orchestra with Valery Gergiev conducting (Gergiev also has an excellent recording of Shostakovich 4 available for purchase, recorded with the Mariinsky Orchestra). I can never get tired of those opening bars. Enjoy, and buy one of the recordings!

Andris Nelsons at Boston Symphony

I've just returned from a concert at the Boston Symphony Orchestra, conducted by BSO's new (and 15th) music director Andris Nelsons - Beethoven's 8th, Bartok's Suite from The Miraculous Mandarin and, after the intermission, Tchaikovsky's 6th (Pathetique). I loved it. I'm not a music critic, so I can't be very sophisticated in my comments, but there is no doubt Nelsons enthralled many concert-goers. Beethoven's 8th in particular was received with great applauses and bravos. Nelsons singled out certain members of the orchestra for extra praise and it was endearing to see the first player who was singled out (a woman in the first row of cellos) look all surprised by the attention, although she clearly deserved it. I had never heard Bartok's Suite from The Miraculous Mandarin before and it was fascinating to recognize in the music the actions, mentioned in the program, that would have normally been shown on stage through a pantomine (Bartok composed the work for the stage). Finally, I found

Tchaikovsky's 6th life-affirming and vibrant in spite of the much darker last movement, which depicts death. In fact, after hearing the Boston Symphony play the piece, this may become one of my favorite symphonies of the moment. The one little quibble I had was that I think Nelsons held the silence after the last note a bit too long and I wondered if that didn't play a role in how subdued the applause was afterward - people applauded for a long time, but in a very parsimonious way, although the playing and conducting had all been spectacular. Or maybe Bostonians don't like Tchaikovsky? Maybe it's too emotional for them? (On the platform waiting for the T afterward I heard elderly concert-goers praise the first half as one of the best concert halves they had ever attended, but they weren't as thrilled by Tchaikovsky, although I couldn't figure out why.) The symphony is indeed very long and every time I hear it I think it's done after the 3rd movement - the darker 4th movement never resonates with me as much as the dynamic 3rd does, and the symphony would be of very respectable length (around 38 minutes) without it, although of course its meaning would be completely changed. But perhaps the audiences, mostly elderly people, were just tired after a long period of attentive listening. I really thought the BSO did a great job with it.

I was reading Chekhov's Three Sisters during the intermission and had almost reached the end of the play, I've seen it already so I know how it ends and maybe it's something about Russian creative types from another century but the three sisters' disappointment with life and their ultimate determination to go on living without answers as to why their dreams didn't come to pass seemed like the perfect accompaniment to Tchaikovsky's music. That might also explain why the symphony resonated with me to the extent it did. 

Nelsons came across as energetic, engaged and inspirational - using the full space available to him on the podium and often leaning toward the players. Maybe it is only due to his relatively young age and, one assumes, his desire to shine in his brand-new role as music director, but he seemed far more attuned to his orchestra than many conductors I've seen elsewhere, and I've seen a lot. Obviously the BSO must have rehearsed a lot for his first season as music director, while guest conductors often only have a few hours with the orchestra before the audience arrives, but even when I've seen Alan Gilbert conduct his own New York Philharmonic, the (very successful) concerts didn't have the same quality of buoyancy and verve. Anyway, I thought the concert marked an excellent beginning to Nelsons's tenure at the BSO.

Catch a repeat of the program on Thursday 10/2 at 8pm and on Friday at 1:30pm. Watch Nelsons lead his first BSO rehearsal on the Boston Globe YouTube channel:

The Heifetz-Piatigorsky Concerts

81vUdDQ4HyL._SL1457_If you like chamber music, Get.This.Boxset.Now. It is a gem. The Heifetz-Piatigorsky concerts let us experience the concerts that violinist Jascha Heifetz and cellist Gregor Piatigorsky held starting in, when both music giants were in semi-retirement from the concert stage and wanted to continue performing music in small settings for their friends. The concerts came to an end in 1974 when Heifetz injured his shoulder. (Piatigorsky died 2 years later.) They are occasionally joined by musicians such as Artur Rubinstein at the piano and William Primrose at the viola. The boxset is a box of 21 CDs all individually encased in cardboard sleeves reproducing the exquisite original artwork, with an informative color booklet providing a short essay and a detailed description of the contents of each CD. I found the sound to be of excellent quality. Overall, an excellent purchase. At $56 on Amazon, this is absolutely a bargain for chamber music lovers.

Below is a detailed description of the CDs' content, since I didn't readily find one online.

CD1 Ravel: Trio in A minor; Mendelssohn: Trio No1 in D minor Op49 (with Artur Rubinstein)

CD2 Tchaikovsky: Trio in A minor Op50 (with Artur Rubinstein)

CD3 Beethoven: Trio for Violin, Viola and Cello in G major Op9/1; Trio for Violin, Viola and Cello in C minor, Op9/3 (with William Primrose)

CD4 Beethoven: Trio for Violin, Viola and Cello in E-flat major Op3 (with William Primrose)

CD5 Beethoven: Serenade for Violin, Viola and Cello in D major Op8 (with William Primrose); Kodaly: Duo for Violin and Cello Op7

CD6 Beethoven:  Trio for Violin, Viola and Cello in D major Op9/2; Bach: Sinfonia No4,9,3; Schubert: Trio for Violin, Viola and Cello in B-flat major D581 (with William Primrose)

CD7 Brahms: Concerto for Violin, Cello and Orchestra in A minor (with the RCA Victor Symphony Orchestra, Alfred Wallenstein conducting)

CD8 Schubert: Quintet for 2 Violins, Viola and 2 Cellos in C major D 956 (with Israel Baker, William Primrose, Gabor Rejto)

CD9 Franck: Quintet for Piano, 2 Violins, Viola and Cello in F minor (with Leonard Pennario, Israel Baker, William Primrose); Brahms: Sextet for 2 Violins, 2 Violas and 2 Cellos in G major op.36 (with Israel Baker, Virginia Majewski, William Primrose, Gabor Rejto)

CD10 Mendelssohn: Octet in E-flat major (with Israel Baker, Arnold Belnick, Joseph Stepansky, William Primrose, Virginia Majewski, Gabor Rejto); Mozart: Quintet for 2 Violins, 2 Violas and Cello No4 in G minor (with Israel Baker, William Primrose, Virginia Majewski)

CD11 Beethoven: Trio for Piano, Violin and Cello No 1 in E-flat major op.1/1 (with Jacob Lateiner); Haydn: Divertimento for Cello and Orchestra (with unnamed [RCA?] Chamber Orchestra); Rozsa: Tema con variazioni for Violin, Cello and Orchestra (with unnamed Chamber Orchestra)

CD12 Arensky: Trio for Piano, Violin and Cello No.1 in D minor (with Leonard Pennario); Vivaldi: Concerto for Violin, Cello, Strings and Continuo in B-flat major RV 547 (with Malcom Hamilton and Chamber Orchestra); Martinu: Duo for Violin and Cello No.1 H157

CD13 Mozart: Concerto for Violin and Orchestra No.5 in A major "Turkish" (with [RCA?] Chamber Orchestra); Turina: Trio for Piano, Violin and Cello No.1 (with Leonard Pennario)

CD14 Dvorak: Quintet for Piano, 2 Violins, Viola and Cello No.2 in A major (with Jacob Lateiner, Israel Baker, Joseph de Pasquale); Francaix: Trio for Violin, Viola and Cello in C major (with Joseph de Pasquale)

CD15 Brahms: Quartet for Piano, Violin, Viola and Cello No.3 in C minor op.60 (with Jacob Lateiner, Sanford Schonbach); Boccherini: Sonata for Violin and Cello in D major; Toch: Divertimento op.37/2

CD16 Mozart: Quintet for 2 Violins, 2 Violas and Cello No.3 in C major K.515 (with Israel Baker, Virginia Majewski, William Primrose); Mendelssohn: Trio for Piano, Violin and Cello No.2 in C minor op.66 (with Leonard Pennario)

CD17 Spohr: Double String Quartet in D minor op.65 (with Israel Baker, Pierre Amoyal, Paul Rosenthal, Milton Thomas, Allan Harshman, Laurence Lesser); Dvorak: Trio for Piano, Violin and Cello No.4 in E minor "Dumky" (with Jacob Lateiner)

CD18 Dvorak: Trio for Piano, Violin and Cello No.3 in F minor (with Leonard Pennario); Stravinsky: Suite italienne; Gliere: Prelude Op39/1; Handel: Passacaglia in G minor HWV432/6

CD19 Brahms: Quintet for 2 Violins, 2 Violas and Cello No.2 in G major op.111 (with Israel Baker, Paul Rosenthal, Milton Thomas); Beethoven: Trio for Piano, Violin and Cello No.6 in E-flat major op.70/2 (with Leonard Pennario) 

CD20 Schubert: Trio for Piano, Violin and Cello No.2 in E-flat major D929 (with Jacob Lateiner); Brahms: Trio for Piano, Violin and Cello No.2 in C major op.87 (with Leonard Pennario) 

CD21 Dvorak: Quintet for Piano, 2 Violins, Viola and Cello No.2 in A major op.81 (with Jacob Lateiner, Israel Baker, William Primrose); Tchaikovsky: Souvenir de Florence (with Israel Baker, Milton Thomas, Paul Rosenthal, Laurence Lesser)

Korngold's Violin Concerto

I've been listening to Korngold's Violin Concerto a lot while I work on my current project, especially the recording that was made with Jascha Heifetz as soloist and Alfred Wallenstein conducting the LA Philharmonic in 1953. It so happens the concerto is available on YouTube thanks to Sinfoniette, so I have included the first movement below. The influence that composing Hollywood movie scores had on Korngold's artistry is readily apparent, and very enjoyable to listen to, although many classical-music critics sneered that he had "sold out" back in the days.

At home I listen to that exact same recording that I've bought on arkivmusic (I highly recommend this website, great service) - because you have to support being fair to composers, artists and their descendants. If you like the concerto, please consider buying the recording too!  



Khachaturian violin concerto

Someone named fur bru posted this recording of David Oistrakh playing the Khachaturian violin concerto with the Moscow Symphony Orchestra on YouTube. (Oistrakh premiered the concerto in Moscow in September 1940, but I'm not sure when the recording was made.) This has quickly become one of my all-time favorite music pieces. Unfortunately, this specific recording is not currently available on Amazon, even as a download. I'll make sure to buy it when it is. It absolutely shows why David Oistrakh is considered one of the greatest violinists of the 20th century.

Music Mavericks (Not)

MetOperaAlex Ross wrote in the New Yorker in May about maestro James Levine's return to the pulpit after a two-year hiatus for health reasons ("Return Engagement", June 10 & 17, 2013). There is no doubt that the concert the Met Orchestra gave under his leadership - to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Wagner's birth, no less - was a significant moment of the season, but of course Levine's return was made all the more moving by the daunting medical issues he has faced over the past few years. I remember attending a Met performance where a singer walked him to the edge of the stage for the curtain calls, and he could so barely shuffle his feet that I thought he had not much longer to live. He has made extraordinary contributions to the Met in his forty years there, and I'm very glad he made it through these trying times and appears to be conducting just as well as before.

In the article, Ross raises the question of whether Levine should resume the full duties of a music director, even if he physically can. He points out that Levine has not, in his opinion, shown himself very open to new work, "nor has he led the way in cultivating imaginative theatrical visions." While Opera Philadelphia produced recent Pulitzer-Prize winner Silent Night this past season (about German and French troops in World War 1 who declare a momentary truce for Christmas 1914) and will show Ainadamar (a work not quite ten years old, about the execution of poet Federico Garcia Lorca during the Spanish Civil War) this coming one, the Met doesn't strike by its willingness to depict opera as a vibrant, living art form - instead of a dusty one dominated again and again works by Verdi or Mozart or other long-dead composers, as good as they are.

This echoes what Ross had written back in March in "Illuminated", a New Yorker article about "George Benjamin's long-awaited masterpiece", where he pointed out, among other things, that music amateurs now saw that sort of vanguard, modern operas at Covent Garden in London (which had lowered ticked prices for the run of Benjamin's piece, attracting more diverse crowds, and has announced commissions from a long list of composers) but not in New York. "Against all odds, London's plush old house has established itself as a global center for new opera. In comparison, the Met, for all its technological pizzazz, looks archaic." (I actually loved the Met's recent tech-savvy production of Wagner's Ring, but I agree that it isn't pulling its weight when it comes to supporting current composers, who may be this century's Verdi or Wagner, and fostering new works (the new Traviata? or Barber of Seville?). Thus it has lost an important opportunity to get younger people and people of more modest means than the average Met opera-goer excited about opera.)

In the "Return Engagement" piece, Ross puts in sharp contrast Levine's Met and Alan Gilbert's New York Philharmonic. While the most fervent music mavericks remain staunchly on the West Coast (San Francisco Symphony with Michael Tilson Thomas comes to mind), thanks to Gilbert "the New York Philharmonic has lost its veneer of dull prestige." In April it capped an All-American program with Ives's fourth symphony, to great acclaim, and next season its new-music series Contact! will expand to four episodes a year. "At the moment," Ross writes mercilessly (for Levine) but perhaps not inaccurately, "Gilbert is the music director the city needs." 

Wagner in Baltimore

DidiBalle(Picture credit: Didi Balle This is another of those posts I meant to write before I left for Paris but wasn't able to, in the rush to finish the semester and get everything ready in time. As a matter of fact, I couldn't go - I had to be in New York that same evening - but I thought Marin Alsop, the music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, had yet again treaded new ground in explaining music to a wide audience when she commissionned "A Composer Fit for a King: Wagner and King Ludwig II" from Didi Balle, who had previously collaborated with Alsop three times on symphonic shows.

From the program: "The symphonic play is a seamless blend of music and theater dramatizing the backstage story behind the making of the Ring Cycle." It was performed mid-April at the Meyerhoff in Baltimore and at the Strathmore in Bethesda, one night each. I find the mix of multiple media (theater and opera, in this case) particularly useful in drawing in audiences which may be reluctant to sit through, say, four hours of Götterdämmerung as their first introduction to Wagner.

I was also pleased to also recognize, in the list of cast members, the name of Pomme Koch (playing King Ludwig II, no less), a young local - meaning DC area - actor I'd seen in February in Henry V at the Folger in a role he had understudied for and had been thrust into due to the sudden illness of another performer. He'd done remarkably well, not only under the circumstances, but as a matter of fact it was completely unnoticeable that he didn't usually play that role. I always enjoy watching young actors getting the success they deserve.

My big regret is not to have seen another of Dalle's symphonic plays, about my other big (musical!) love besides Richard Wagner: Dmitri Shostakovich. Shostakovich: Notes for Stalin premiered at Verizon Hall in Philadelphia with the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Yannick Nezet-Seguin, and for some reason I never heard about it. (I'm very good at not paying attention to anything besides work when it's the middle of the semester and I have tests and assignments to prepare.) Hopefully these shows will be recorded some day and I'll get to see them then.