The New York Times has had a flurry of articles on the new and controversial production of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. Now Joe Nocera has written an excellent overview of the work’s importance.
From the San Francisco Classical Voice: SF Opera’s 2012-13 season will include Jake Heggie’s Moby-Dick and Dolores Claiborne, by Tobias Picker and J.D. McClatchy, based on Stephen King’s novel. Several other new operas and new productions as well, which is a brave thing to do in these economic times. Kudos.
Venezuela’s El Sistema, which has had phenomenal success in teaching young people how to play classical music, has been tranplanted to Los Angeles by the LA Phil’s new Music Director, Gustavo Dudamel. Results so far are encouraging; read about it here.
NPR’s Linda Holmes reports on a problem I was unaware of: Music being replaced in streamed-or-DVDd movies and TV shows because of copyright laws. But it has to be “It Had to Be You”!
Beginning rehearsals tomorrow for my second go-round with Mahler’s Fifth Symphony (February 11). Compared to his other symphonies, it’s hard for me to find the expressive core of this elusive and far-ranging piece. Is it merely Beethoven’s Fifth taken to a new level? So many moods, yet few of them seem deep; it’s more of a “surface” work when compared to any of the other symphonies, or so it seems to me. Even the triumphilism of the D major sections seem hollow, much as Shostakovich described the sadistic triumph of the D major end of his Fifth. The funeral marches and frenzied action sequences in the first two movements seem tongue-in-cheek and the most memorable feature of the scherzo is the demonic fanfares first stated by the clarinets, the first point in the movement where the harmonies begin to shift uneasily away from wholesome diatonicism. The incandescent fourth movement, made famous by the film Death in Venice, has been proposed often as the key to the whole work, but it doesn’t work that way for me–yet. More study needed!
On November 19, Redwood Symphony will perform the West Coast premiere of Der Ring Ohne Worte.
Richard Wagner’s huge four-opera mythological cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung) took 26 years to write (he wrote other operas in this period as well) and was given its first complete performance in Bayreuth, Germany in August of 1876. The composer (with the financial backing of Ludwig II of Bavaria) actually designed the theater, the Bayreuth Festspielhaus (“Festival Theatre”), for the sole purpose of presenting Wagner’s works, especially The Ring. Since then, these four operas have been a focus of analysis, debate, adoration, controversy, contempt, satire (“Kill the Wabbit!”) and fanatical obsession, and Bayreuth has become the destination for an annual pilgrimage that is quasi-religious in its devotion.
Wagner greatly expanded the forces and flexibility of the orchestra and assigned it a central role in the four operas, both supporting the dramatic and emotional flow of the stage action and giving musical clues to the character, motivation and destiny of each of the protagonists. It does this through the pervasive use of musical leitmotifs, short melodic phrases that are connected with a particular person, place or idea in the story.
So it was a natural impulse for conductor Lorin Maazel, a composer himself, to want to take Wagner’s amazing dramatic vision and translate it, sans scenery, sets, costumes and singers, to the concert stage, condensing 19 hours of music to a 70-minute symphonic sequence. Mr. Maazel writes of “The Ring Without Words”:
“I was intrigued by the challenge: could a symphonic synthesis of the Ring reveal the essentials of its code? I bolted the following list of criteria to my drawing board.
“ONE: The synthesis must be free-flowing (no stops) and chronological, beginning
with the first note of Rheingold and finishing with the last chord of Götterdämmerung.
TWO: The transitions must be harmonically and periodically justifiable, the pacing contrasts commensurate with the length of the work. THREE: Most all of the music originally written for orchestra without voice must be used, adding those sections with a vocal line essential to a synthesis and only where the line is either doubled by an orchestral instrument, ‘imaginable’ or, in the rare instance, when it can be reproduced by an instrument. FOUR: Every note must be Wagner’s own…Though no conscious attempt was made to include all the Ring’s motifs, most of them do surface in one form or another.”
Mr. Maazel does a remarkable job of putting these excerpts together. Although the score is clearly a cut and paste (slash and burn?) job, drawn from the four very thick scores of the operas, it works surprisingly well. Its continuity is seamless and natural for the most part, doubly surprising when considering that the excerpts occur in the operas’ chronological order; it would have been far easier to put them together without that requirement. All of the well-known orchestra excerpts are included, as well as many sections that originally included voices. In the later cases, the voices were easily omitted without any ill effects, though in a few places an instrument takes the singer’s place. Key and tempo transitions are also handled very imaginatively.
It’s worth noting that this is not a symphony; the word symphony implies a careful
attention to large-scale form and structure. The more random, haphazard and additive means of construction here is anything but symphonic. This is more like an extended tone poem, or even a suite played without breaks.
The work is very difficult to play. The lack of movement pauses for brief rests makes this continuous 70-minute work even more difficult to play than a Mahler symphony from an endurance point of view. The string writing, which includes pages and pages of intricate “noodling,” is particularly grueling. There is also the issue of the six (!) harp parts; we will condense them down to two harpists, augmented by two amplified synthesizers, needed because there are many sections where even six harps can’t be heard above the full orchestra, and because the writing is really more idiosyncratic for the keyboard.
Supertitles coupled with program notes will let the audience know where we are in the Ring’s chronology. Quite an undertaking, but just par for the course for Redwood Symphony!
Redwood Symphony’s newest venture is one that I’m very excited about: a chamber music series at Angelica’s Bistro in downtown Redwood City.
This is a unique opportunity to enjoy an eclectic variety of chamber music accompanied by wine and good food. I also see it as a way to showcase some of the most exciting chamber musicians on the local scene.
Is this series limited to musicians in Redwood Symphony? Most emphatically no! We will feature musicians from throughout the bay area. Please contact me if you’re interested. I’m especially interested in projects that include an element of “crossover” between the classical and popular worlds of music.
The Angelica’s series is coming together nicely. Coming up on October 28: “From East to West,” music from opera, Broadway and Persian art music with soprano Raeeka Shehabi-Yaghmai and pianist Kristin Pankonin. The Persian art music will be a preview of the concert Raeeka will do with Redwood Symphony in the 2012-13 season. Raeeka is a charismatic and passionate performer!
On Saturday, January 21, 2012, we will have a night of Jewish/Klezmer music with Chai Five. There are still two dates, Saturday, March 17, Saturday, July 21, 2012, which have not been programmed as yet, so send those suggestions in!
With so many arts groups reporting deficits, financial problems and low audience figures, it’s a pleasure to announce that Redwood Symphony not only finished last season in the black, but did very well indeed! Besides far exceeding our best estimates, our audiences are up (though not as much as we’d like) and musicians are waiting for openings to get in. Many thanks especially to our volunteers, the Auxilliary and our Brand New and freshly energized Board President, Kristin Speer!
Redwood Symphony’s newly-remodeled website is up and looking fantastic. Many thanks to George Yefchak, Andrew Callejo and others who assisted in what turned out to be a huge undertaking. It’s worth noting that George created Redwood Symphony’s first website at a time when this was new; we were one of the first community orchestras in the Bay Area to have one.
Redwood Symphony tries to project a lack of pretension and a curious and outgoing “personality” regarding the world of contemporary symphonic music. At all times, we emphasize just how unusual a group we are.
Redwood Symphony is unique in several important ways – our uniqueness is the chief selling point! Here are some examples:
The first way, from which much else flows, is that this is a group that reflects the personal vision of one person: me. When I founded this group in 1985, I envisioned
a new paradigm of what an all-volunteer group could do. That vision has changed over time, but it’s remained predominantly mine, and I’ve been incredibly lucky that the board has supported my vision and sustained my freedom to execute it.
Second, my selection of unusual, even risky repertoire is the most important key to the orchestra’s success. A delicate balancing act is required between the unusual and the familiar. We want to lead and educate, and not just reflect back what people say they want. Our audience is not necessarily one that is educated in classical music, but they are curious and enthusiastic.
Third, we’re casual and unpretentious, which is actually rare among orchestras; symphony concerts tend to be pretty buttoned-down affairs! The orchestra’s concert dress reflects this too: solid black with a “splash of color,” jackets and ties optional. It looks sharp yet casual, and creates a “formal festivity” of colors within a black background that is uniquely our own.
Redwood Symphony is unique in another way: we are a musician-centric group, as state in the mission statement on the main page. Our repertoire ensures that the best and most musically adventurous players in the area will come and play with us. In addition, musicians rotate or share the principal chairs in their sections (depending on the repertoire,) which creates a collaborative, supportive culture. I strongly believe that a happy orchestra communicates its mood to the audience.
Fifth and finally, we’re the only local arts group that allows all kids and teens under 18 in for free. This reflects both our strong commitment to music education and our
desire to see younger adults and parents attend concerts.
Five unique things.
That’s a record to be proud of.
To both our musicians and audience members, thank you for being part of the Redwood Symphony community. Please check out the new website and our Facebook page, and spread the word!
Bravo California is a new arts blog by Daniel Kepl which features Skype interviews with conductors and other artists. I interviewed with him today.
According to Nielsen Soundscan, classical music had the biggest gain in sales of CDs of any genre for the first half of 2011 –13% over the first half of 2010, totaling 3.8 million in sales. It’s further evidence that there remains a strong market of classical music fan who prefer discs to downloads. This comes on the heels of other reports that classical downloads have grown at a faster rate than those of other kinds of music.