By macleans.ca - Tuesday, March 5, 2013 - 0 Comments
His music is among classical’s best known, and best loved. Still, Verdi can’t seem to get our respect.
Giuseppe Verdi, the Italian composer who was born in 1813, will never be a forgotten man of music, since his works are in the repertory of every opera company in the world. But his bicentenary may be overshadowed by an accident of birth. He was born the same year as a man he barely knew, the German Richard Wagner, and not only are there more arguments over the racial and political implications of Wagner’s ideas, but there are more Wagner celebrations: conductor Valery Gergiev is recording Wagner’s complete Ring cycle, and London’s music world is holding a “Wagner 200” festival with no equivalent Verdi festival. “Performing Wagner is a much bigger occasion in general,” says Alexander Neef, general director of the Canadian Opera Company (COC).
Verdi also suffers in comparison to Wagner because he rarely tried to be a musical theorist, and even those who put on his operas sometimes treat him condescendingly as more of a showman than an idea man: the director of Covent Garden recently referred to Verdi as “rather like the Steven Spielberg of his day.” It could be that Verdi, who lived a long life, worked hard and made lots of money, is harder to talk about than an intellectual like Wagner. “Verdi wrote nothing for publication,” says Conrad L. Osborne, a long-time music critic for publications such as Opera News, “espoused no lofty ideology or philosophy, founded no Bayreuth, and sent no echoes down the corridors of 20th-century horror. He just wrote operas.”
Though he just wrote operas—plus a Requiem that remains one of the most popular choral pieces of all time—Verdi may claim to be the definitive opera composer, the one whose music is most likely to be known to people who have never set foot in an opera house. One of the first bestselling records was a duet from his La Forza Del Destino. In Italy, his music is a part of everyday life: Johannes Debus, musical director of the COC, says the slaves’ chorus from Verdi’s Biblical opera Nabucco “became not the national anthem of Italy, but kind of the secret national anthem. Everybody knows it.” In North America, the Anvil Chorus from Il Trovatore has been lampooned by everyone from the Marx Brothers to TV cartoon characters. And Verdi has the endorsement of another 2013 birthday boy, composer Benjamin Britten, who wrote of “a devotion to the music of Verdi that grows greater as I grow older,” and proclaimed that “in the case of a few composers, a very few, when I hear a work I do not like I am convinced it is my own fault. Verdi is one of these composers.”
By macleans.ca - Wednesday, December 19, 2012 at 9:00 AM - 0 Comments
A new wave of young musicians is promoting the pipe organ—no hymns, no religious baggage
Pipe organ music is often associated with two unpleasant events: a vampire attack by Bela Lugosi—da, da, da, dahhhhhh—or an endless Sunday liturgy. Its reputation has been tarnished by pianists banging out hymns on unfamiliar instruments, like tourists driving badly in a foreign country. And the popularity of pipe organ music has also been hampered by, well, organists themselves.
“We’re the geeky outcasts playing an eccentric instrument,” notes John Terauds, an organist and classical music blogger for the website Musical Toronto. “When I tell people I’m an organist, I’m met with dead air.”
Sarah Svendsen is a 23-year-old, award-winning organist who recently formed a group called Organized Crime Duo with colleague Rachel Mahon. “We don’t have the best set of social skills,” she admits, laughing. Their goal is to change the outdated image of organists as blue-haired church marms; their strategy involves stilettos, sequins, some theatrics and lots of mascara. For their debut in October 2011 at Toronto’s Phantoms of the Organ concert at the Metropolitan United Church, they vamped it up, spoofing Bach’s famous Toccata and Fugue in D Minor; this year, they played the Star Wars theme. “What better to attract a 12-year-old boy than a 23-year-old girl in a sexy dress?” asks Svendsen. “And Star Wars?”
By Jaime Weinman - Thursday, September 6, 2012 at 10:00 PM - 0 Comments
10 did it for Boléro, now Fifty Shades is giving a 16th-century composition a bounce
A sexy bestseller is the best way to introduce someone to serious music. Or that’s the assumption record companies are making about Fifty Shades of Grey. EMI Classics, one of the oldest classical record companies in the world, announced that it will be releasing an album of classical pieces “personally selected by author E.L. James herself.” These works were mentioned in her hit series of novels, or, as she put it in a statement, “inspired me while I wrote the Fifty Shades trilogy,” and all of them are being presented on the album as a way to get her readers interested in the classical back catalogue. The hope is that since her protagonist Christian Grey likes Frédéric Chopin and Johann Sebastian Bach, her readers will too. Or as British music critic Norman Lebrecht puts it, “Classical labels were always quick to jump on a book or movie bandwagon.”
The potential of Fifty Shades of Grey as a classical gateway drug became apparent to record companies earlier this year. The book provided a major boost to recordings of a 16th-century choral composition, Spem in Alium by Thomas Tallis, whose “astral, seraphic voices” accompany a sex scene in the novel. “We noticed a big jump in sales back in April but did not know why,” says Steve Smith, who produced a recording of the piece for the group the Tallis Scholars. “We remained oblivious to the reference in Fifty Shades of Grey until early in July when, having reached No. 7 in the U.K. classical singles chart, we made a determined effort to understand what was happening.”
Fifty Shades isn’t the first movie to boost the popularity of classical music. It’s not even the first to give it naughty associations: the Dudley Moore movie 10 mainstreamed the idea that Ravel’s Boléro was the perfect accompaniment for sex. “Classical music is often used as shorthand for ‘sophistication’ or indicating a character’s depth,” explains Vancouver Courier arts and entertainment editor Michael Kissinger. By tying a potentially trashy scene in with this type of music, authors and filmmakers can give a high-class veneer to their work—and encourage fans to check out the music to prove they’re as sophisticated and sexy as Christian Grey.
By Jaime Weinman - Wednesday, April 25, 2012 at 3:04 PM - 0 Comments
The 17-year-old virtuoso, signed with one of the oldest classical labels, sticks with the tried and true
Jan Lisiecki, the 17-year-old Canadian piano virtuoso, is releasing his ﬁrst album on Deutsche Grammophon, one of the oldest and most respected classical labels. That makes him a big recording artist—but in today’s world, that doesn’t mean he’s going to make a lot of money. Recording is “not a source of income,” he says. “Not nowadays, not in classical music.” This first DG recording, of Mozart’s 20th and 21st piano concertos, can mean a lot for his career, but “you have to be an opera singer or a pop star to make true money on recordings.”
Classical recordings have never sold as fast as pop, but a major label contract used to mean royalties. For agents, “classical recordings used to be something they would pursue as a deal, because you would get an advance,” says Jean Cook, who co-founded the U.S.-based Artist Revenue Streams project to study how artists make money. Today, advances and royalties have dried up, and “it’s not something that the managers I’m talking to are spending a lot of time pursuing.”
By Jaime Weinman - Thursday, February 24, 2011 at 12:10 PM - 0 Comments
Without major label contracts, classical groups have to record themselves
Independent musicians realized a long time ago that they’d have to record and market their own music. Now classical orchestras are doing the same thing. In the 20th century, orchestras used to sign contracts with major music labels, but a combination of higher costs and lower sales have made those contracts unavailable; Mark Volpe, managing director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, says that “occasionally we get a project with Sony, but the days of a 20-record deal are over.” That means the future of recording may be with self-financed labels like Boston’s BSO, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s TSO Live, and even conductor-based labels like “Phi,” for period instrument conductor Philippe Herreweghe. Recording is still about what Andrew Shaw, president of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, calls “having a calling card, having a chance for radio stations to play your disc.” What it’s not about anymore is making money.
It’s hard to believe, but classical recording used to be a way for artists to supplement their income. “In the old days, the Boston Symphony used to make quite a lot of money,” Volpe says. “Contracts covered all the costs and paid a royalty on top of it.” Today, Shaw explains that though orchestras have managed to cut the costs of recording—mostly by recording live instead of going into the studio—there’s no way to make a profit, and no one expects to: a TSO live recording costs $35,000, much less than a big-label recording, and yet, “if we earn back 10 per cent of that $35,000, we’ve got a smash hit.”
But it’s a cost that may be worth writing off, because recording is “promotional. It’s branding,” Volpe says. Shaw says recordings “keep our customers more engaged in our core product offering,” namely live concerts; like pop artists, orchestras use CDs and downloads to entice fans into buying tickets. And Shaw adds that recording can improve orchestras: it gives players “the experience of listening to themselves and thinking about the recording when they’re performing.” Musicians may need the extra pressure of knowing their playing will be preserved forever.
By Josh Dehaas - Thursday, December 2, 2010 at 2:40 PM - 3 Comments
Classical tunes signal to thugs that they don’t belong in a given environment
Police in Christchurch, New Zealand (pop. 348,000), say they’ve reduced crime in the city’s pedestrian mall from 77 incidents per week in October 2009 to just two per week a year later—by piping Mozart through loudspeakers. But the Press newspaper, which carried the report, sent Pop Tart, its music critic, to eat her lunch there and conduct her own study of whether classical music was making the site safer. “I had only just sat down when a thug hovered into view,” she writes. “ ‘Give us a bite,’ thug said. Mindless Mozart playing around us, thug punched the tree behind my head and then walked off.” Then two teen girls began brawling. Pop Tart concluded that anti-social acts were still happening, but that there were just fewer shoppers left at the boring mall to harass.
Musicologist Lily E. Hirsch has, however, documented successful police efforts to shoo away hooligans with music. But how does it work? The best theory is that classical tunes signal to thugs that they don’t belong in a given environment. But it seems strange that the earliest example Hirsch noted was a handful of 7-Eleven stores in British Columbia that used classical music to scare off loitering teens in 1985. If Mozart and Bach signal to teens that they don’t belong at 7-Eleven, who will buy the chain’s Slurpees?
By Jaime Weinman - Thursday, November 11, 2010 at 4:00 PM - 4 Comments
Opera’s obsession with finding a new star tenor can end up ruining a singer’s career
On Oct. 17, Italian tenor Vittorio Grigolo made his Metropolitan Opera debut in La Bohème, and you’d have thought it was the opera event of the year instead of a 30-year-old production. The New York Times ran a long story calling him “the great tenor hope.” Sony, which is releasing Grigolo’s first album (unimaginatively titled The Italian Tenor), put out many press releases touting his good looks and his background—he used to be a “popera” singer and briefly was part of Simon Cowell’s group Il Divo. But Grigolo is only the latest in a long line of recent tenors who have received the same kind of publicity build-up, and it rarely works. “It’s always ‘the next Pavarotti,’ ” says Zachary Woolfe, music critic for the New York Observer. “The expectations are a bit unfair.”
The tenor voice, the high yet masculine sound that usually sings the hero’s music, has been the currency of operatic stardom since the 19th century. But since Pavarotti’s death and Placido Domingo’s shift into baritone parts, the music business hasn’t found anyone who can cross over into full-fledged popular stardom the way those tenors did. Most successful tenors today are relatively small-voiced lyric tenors who can sing Mozart or Rossini, but not the heavy parts (in Verdi, Puccini and Wagner) that feature the things that make big stars: loud singing and, above all, high Cs like the big one in the tenor aria from La Bohème.
By Paul Wells - Thursday, November 4, 2010 at 9:20 AM - 0 Comments
Paul Wells experiences the madness of Warsaw’s Frédéric Chopin International Piano Competition
By the third stage of the 16th Frédéric Chopin International Piano Competition in Warsaw, the jury had winnowed the field of contestants from more than 300 to 20, and the rules now gave the survivors more rope to hang themselves. In earlier rounds they had been asked to play only a half-hour of Chopin. Now each pianist had nearly an hour to show what they knew about Poland’s greatest composer in the 200th anniversary year of his birth. If what they knew wasn’t much, there was lots of time to show that, too. It was gruelling.
The 16th pretender to the greatest crown a young pianist can win was Ingolf Wunder, a pug-nosed blond 25-year-old from Klagenfurt, Austria. On this Friday evening he followed a petite, fastidious Russian, Yulianna Avdeeva, and a Polish kid who rummaged around in Chopin’s mazes to little effect. From the first notes it was clear Wunder was another matter.
He began with rarities, a rondo and a bolero, deft where others had been turgid. His program grew more challenging, ending with the Sonata in B Minor and the Polonaise-Fantaisie, a 14-minute epic. Wunder reacted to his own playing with detached interest, nodding at a quick change of dynamics, smiling at a clever turn.
When he ﬁnished, the audience at the National Philharmonia gave him a standing ovation, something it had done for only one other pianist. A woman behind me with a laminated press pass was crying.
By Jaime Weinman - Thursday, October 21, 2010 at 2:40 PM - 0 Comments
A new recording of The Magic Flute takes a lot of liberties with the original score
Classical music fans are very familiar with Mozart’s The Magic Flute. So in his new recording of the opera, conductor Rene Jacobs set out to make it sound unfamiliar. In the Harmonia Mundi three-CD set, Jacobs offers a “historically informed” performance, played on instruments of Mozart’s time. That’s conventional enough.
What’s different is that Jacobs is willing to go against Mozart’s score to make things sound more exciting. When Jacobs has singers insert a whistling interlude that Mozart didn’t write, or adds an unmarked pipe solo before a number ends, we realize he’s trying to give us the last thing anyone would expect from classical music: surprise.
By Paul Wells - Wednesday, October 6, 2010 at 11:20 AM - 0 Comments
“I wish this stuff would be easier”
“Contrary to what is constantly being said about me, I don’t enjoy playing difficult music,” Marc-André Hamelin said the other day over the phone from his home in Boston. “I wish this stuff would be easier.”
This claim is not entirely incredible. It is possible to imagine a mountain climber who simply likes the view and the fresh air, and wishes all the peaks he scales were flatter. But the least that can be said about Hamelin is that he puts up well with the difficulties life throws his way.
The Montreal-born pianist, 49, is one of the world’s foremost classical music soloists. His reputation for technical command of the keyboard is unparalleled. His mastery of music’s subtler and more enduring charms is, at last, beginning to be noticed as often as his fast fingers. Alex Ross, the New Yorker writer, has lauded Hamelin’s “monstrously brilliant technique and his questing, deep-thinking approach.” Ross rarely lets Hamelin sneak into Manhattan without sounding the alarm for New Yorker readers.
Why does everyone write about his technique? Simply because it’s often on display. The “stuff” he plays does happen to be difficult. “It’s just that the music I tend to like often ends up to be rather difficult because of its characteristics—its density, its orchestral character, its hard counterpoint sometimes.”
But this autumn Hamelin has nobody to blame but himself. Hyperion Records has just released his first CD of his own compositions, Études. It features his Ten Études in All the Minor Keys, and as the title suggests, he has left his fellow pianists a lot of homework.
By Jaime Weinman - Friday, April 10, 2009 at 1:45 PM - 2 Comments
I love classical recording, not just as a way of preserving pieces or performers, but as an art form and a business. (Before groups like the Beatles changed the way pop records were produced and marketed, classical recordings were where most of the innovation and excitement was in the recording industry, and the classical producers were the most interesting characters in the business. And even the Beatles’ producer, George Martin, started out in classical.) There have been a lot of stories lately about how the classical recording business is in trouble, and one British critic, Norman Lebrecht, has practically made a career out of arguing that classical recordings are doomed. And it’s true that the old model of classical recordings, where you have several major labels with a roster of artists under contract, a roster of in-house producers and engineers, and lots of new releases in stores, is more or less gone; all the major labels of the golden age of classical recordings are either gone or exist in name only. (Decca, once one of the two great British labels — they had Luciano Pavarotti and Renata Tebaldi under exclusive contract, and their pop division turned down the Beatles but signed the Rolling Stones — long ago stopped existing in any meaningful way; Universal still releases recordings under that name, but it’s not an actual record company.) But while it’s hard to say how healthy the classical recording business is, in part because sales of individual recordings look puny compared to pop recordings, I think that classical recordings are actually much better now than they were when the business was supposedly booming.
One of the things Lebrecht often writes about, and he’s right about this, is that one of the things that got classical in trouble was that the companies glutted the market in the late ’80s and early ’90s. The compact disc had just come in, increasing the market share of classical as collectors replaced their LPs with CDs. The big companies produced more classical than they ever had before, and new labels got into the act (especially Sony Classical, the revamped version of what was once CBS Masterworks; one of the heads of Sony was a huge classical fan who allotted unrealistic budgets to classical CDs). At that time, there was an incredible amount of classical in stores. And what I suspected at the time, as a collector, is even clearer now in retrospect: most of those recordings were kind of useless. Not bad recordings, just pointless: there were hundreds of very bland, very middle-of-the-road recordings that might have made for a good concert but had nothing new to say about the pieces. There were tons of opera recordings, but most of them were very patchily cast; the Mozart bicentennial of 1991 produced many, many Mozart opera recordings, but almost all of them suffered from casting weaknesses. Of all the Mozart opera recordings of 1991 there are maybe two or three that actually surpassed or equalled earlier recordings of the same operas. The major labels were “major” only in the sense that they had the most money and that their artists were the most famous (in part because they had big recording contracts).
You see where I’m going with this. Today there are few “major” labels to speak of; only Deutsche Grammophon and possibly EMI still have distinct brands to speak of. Many big companies are getting out of classical Continue…
By Jaime Weinman - Thursday, March 5, 2009 at 1:20 PM - 0 Comments
In times of crisis, don’t expect to see opera companies staging risky, lesser-known works
This is a boom time for depressing news about arts cutbacks, but the news from the world of classical music and opera may be the most depressing of all. All over the world, especially in the U.S., where music gets fewer state subsidies than in Canada, opera companies are shortening seasons, replacing risky repertoire with tried-and-true works that are guaranteed to sell. In times of crisis, only the strong—or the popular—can survive.
The Metropolitan Opera certainly seems to be functioning on that basis. The 2009-2010 season was supposed to include a revival of John Corligano’s The Ghosts of Versailles, which had its premiere at the Met in 1991. But the revival has been dropped, and singers who had already been signed for Versailles were transferred to a certain hit, Verdi’s La Traviata. Modern music, even if it’s as unthreatening as Corligano’s, is too much of a financial risk. The same goes for older works that are expensive to mount: the Washington National Opera cancelled plans to build a new season around a production of Wagner’s four Ring operas, which require large casts and a big special-effects budget. As for works that aren’t well known, forget it: the Met ended plans to revive Dmitri Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtensk (best known for getting the composer in trouble with Stalin), and when the Baltimore Opera went out of business earlier this year, some local critics blamed it on too many productions of lesser-known works—like Lady Macbeth of Mtensk.
By Jaime Weinman - Friday, December 19, 2008 at 6:46 PM - 1 Comment
Decca is calling their new 11-CD collection “Puccini: The Definitive Collection,” but really it’s a tribute to the label’s superstar, the late Luciano Pavarotti: remastered, repackaged recordings of five Puccini operas, recorded at different times in different places, but all of them starring Pavarotti.
Of the five remastered sets, only one — the La Bohème conducted by Herbert Von Karajan — is available separately. Which is sort of too bad, because only one of the five recordings represented here, Turandot, is my very favourite for that particular piece, and I’d have preferred to get it separately. But I found the collection at L’Atelier Grigorian in Toronto for about $94; Amazon.ca has it for $84, but on backorder; one way or another it comes to less than $20 per set, which isn’t a bad deal for starting a Puccini opera collection, particularly since four of the five recordings are good, and the fifth (Tosca) is at least competent.
The recordings have all been remastered in high-resolution technology; I haven’t seen detailed comparisons of the old CD versions, but most of them were first released on CD in the ’80s, when digital remastering technology was a new and haphazard thing; it sounds to me like the Turandot, whose original CD issue came out in 1984, sounds more like it did on LP (and this was one of the greatest-sounding recordings ever made), but I don’t have that CD issue any more so I can’t say for sure. Certainly it seems like the remastering process has improved the recordings at least a little. They all come with text and English translations, of course, but no other notes except a synopsis and recording-session photos (including several that show Pavarotti without his beard!).
For those who are interested in the idea of recordings as a separate medium from stage performance — an art form in and of themselves — most of these recordings occupy an interesting time in the history of the opera recording: in the ’70s, when most of them were made, companies were making opera recordings a little less dramatic and idiomatic, a little more about sheer sound and stardom. Not a single one of these Puccini recordings was made in Italy, and only two use orchestras of actual opera houses, whereas in the ’50s and ’60s it was assumed that you wanted to record operas with real opera orchestras, idiomatic orchestras and choruses, and a cast that might perform these operas in the theatre. In the ’70s, Pavarotti in particular made many recordings where he was the only Italian cast member, that were made with pickup orchestras assembled purely for recording, and where there was no real sense of drama; the great critic Conrad L. Osborne railed against this in his article “Diary of a Cavpag Madman.”
But the first of these recordings in chronological order, the Turandot under Zubin Mehta, is one of the greatest opera recordings of all time, and an example of how this strategy can work. It was made with the London Philharmonic, an orchestra that had never played this music before; it had an English chorus that sang Italian with a slight English accent; and most of the singers had never performed these parts in their Continue…
By Jaime Weinman - Friday, October 3, 2008 at 7:50 PM - 6 Comments
I haven’t seen this in Canadian stores yet, but EMI Classics has reissued their three-disc set of Otto Klemperer conducting Haydn symphonies, at a low, low price. (This is in anticipation of the 200th anniversary of Haydn’s death in 2009; more about that later.) This set contains the contents of four LPs Klemperer made at various times in his career; two of those LPs are among the best things this prolific conductor ever recorded, and at the price the set is well worth picking up for those four symphonies. These are the recordings he made in 1964-65, one LP of symphonies # 88 and 104 (Haydn’s last symphony) and another LP of symphonies # 100 and 102 (in my opinion, Haydn’s greatest symphony). The British critics hated these discs, calling the performances charmless and heavy. But the British critics’ ideal of Haydn performance and recording was the work of Sir Thomas Beecham, a famous British conductor and Haydn specialist whose performances (often from scores that were re-touched by people who thought they could improve on Haydn) made Haydn’s music sound light, cute, and harmless — the stereotypical view of Haydn as the guy who influenced Mozart and Beethoven but wasn’t really in their league. Klemperer’s performances were among the few of the era that really took the music seriously, and really grasped how much Beethoven borrowed from Haydn: the sudden pauses, the weird shifts in tone within a movement, the complex development of seemingly simple melodies. Most conductors of the time tended to let the strings dominate Continue…
By Paul Wells - Friday, August 15, 2008 at 11:49 PM - 0 Comments
Here’s a rave review of R. Murray Schafer’s string quartets by a blogging Florida composer and educator. I post it here because I’ve been listening to Schafer’s quartets — or the first seven of, I think, 10 now — since I heard the St. Lawrence Quartet play the extraordinary Quartet No. 3 a couple of weeks ago. Turns out they’re all extraordinary, pensive and passionate, bracingly modern but not devoid of sense for an ordinary listener. But if you’re like me, you mistrust a Canadian who tries to tell you Canadian music is good, so here’s an American, Jay Batzner:
The big question is: why doesn’t Schafer get the love in the US? He has some choral pieces that get done but those quartets, all 8 are total masterworks, are largely ignored around here. Carter’s quartets get a fair amount of play and, while I’m a fan, they don’t have the expressive emotive power of Schafer’s works. There is a lot of music in Schafer’s quartets, plenty for the performers as well as the audience. The sheer craft and musicality in those scores is totally off the charts. Quartets should be crawling all over themselves to play and record them.
Who cares? Most people won’t. But as soon as I heard the St. Lawrence play the Third Quartet, I was immediately grateful to learn that they tour with it all the time and play it all over the world. That’s rare.