A Very Verdi Fall

This Autumn, Amadeus Press will release Verdi: The Operas and Choral Works as part of the Unlocking the Masters Series. Read this glowing, exclusive excerpt from the introduction of the book below.

Verdi and the Culmination of Italian Opera

Sooner or later we learn that in this world popularity and quality do not go hand in hand—far from it, in fact. But in the case of Verdi, they do. Giuseppe Verdi, probably the most popular operatic composer of all, brought Italian opera to its peak, single-handedly saving and reanimating this beloved musical genre for the better part of a century. Italian opera of the 1840s, when Verdi came on the scene, was a hodge- podge of formulas spun out by mostly forgotten composers who were at the mercy of fickle audiences, self-promoting singers, and impresarios whose chief personal quality was greed. A few fine composers—Rossini, Bellini, and Donizetti—had by their individuality and hard work carved out niches for themselves, achieving popularity that spread beyond Italy, over Europe, and across the Atlantic. But with the arrival of ambitious new ideas about musical drama, chiefly those of Wagner, German opera had become the avant-garde, what the cool kids, even in Italy, wanted to see. While even the finest works by Italians still sounded beautiful, they were rarely daring. With his musical and dramatic genius and force of character, Verdi gave Italian opera’s tired conventions new life, while continually raising its standards, ultimately adding sixteen indestructible operas (of the twenty-eight he composed) to the repertory.

Verdi’s music combines lyricism with power, helping it reach its vast and well-deserved popularity. His operas grab you by the throat, demanding your attention and making submission to their beauty and force your only course. They’re not always subtle, but that’s not generally a quality associated with Italian opera. Verdi refined his style continually, though, and his final opera, Falstaff, is nothing if not subtle. Opera, the Italian variety in particular, may be unsubtle, but it is the best musical formfor the direct expression of emotions, at which it is unsurpassed. By any analysis, it’s one of the most important limbs of the Western musical tree; you can perhaps think of it as standing opposite to German-Austrian instrumental music, which runs to the abstract and intellectual. German opera, the fruit of the romantic era, is moody, grandiose, often mystical. But the goals of Italian opera are the expression of emotions, often in showy ways, and sheer entertainment.

To say that opera in Italy fills a much wider position in the national culture than it does in 00118902the United States seems a truism; it’s also safe to say that nothing in American culture, where the boundaries between “high” and “low” are written in stone, is analogous to opera in Italy, where it’s accepted by millions as an essential element of their upbringing and national heritage. While Americans and others seem irritated or amused up to a point, or bored by opera; others feel intimidated, and many seem to be put off by its artificiality. But of course, placed in the proper light, any art—and any sport—can appear unnatural. There’s more than a bit of blood sport in being an opera fan in Italy, where fine performances are cheered, and bad ones booed enthusiastically; and where the ability of tenors and sopranos to execute fast passagework and hit high notes with ease and power—or their failure to do so—are applauded or condemned vigorously during performances. Verdi’s popularity in Italy arises, as we’ll see, not only from his role as perhaps Italy’s greatest composer, but also as a symbol of the national spirit during the unification struggles of the mid-nineteenth century.

Opera’s noble purpose is to say in music what everyone feels—no more, no less. The big solo numbers, or arias, typically express an emo- tion that the character is experiencing. In a duet, each character’s emotion should be clarified and heightened by the music. Termed affects, these are the feelings we’ve all known from early in our own lives: happiness, grief, anger, fear, and all the others. (It seems curious that opera should not gain a wider response in an age and a society in which open emotional expression is accorded high value.) By Verdi’s time, emphasis had begun to shift toward the expression of more complex psychological and dramatic truth, an art Verdi excelled at and brought to transcendent levels of mimesis.

The voice dominates Italian opera, and it is the dominant element of Verdi’s style. His works are written for singers, who at best inhabit their roles and hope to become known as great Lady Macbeths, Rigolettos, or Aidas. Verdi’s mastery of the orchestra was immense, as well, and three of the operatic overtures (Luisa Miller, I vespri siciliani, and La forza del destino) are played in the concert hall. With the exception of a few piano fantasies on Verdian themes by Franz Liszt, there are no suites of material lifted from the operas and played by the orchestra without a singer: the idea itself is preposterous. The opposite holds true for Verdi’s contempo- rary and fellow operatic titan Richard Wagner, whose music has always been excerpted and transcribed for orchestra without voice, and Wagner’s music generally stands up well to the treatment. Verdi came to maturity in an era in which the bel canto style dominated; the phrase means “beautiful singing,” and it’s characterized by elaborate and difficult vocal parts, with lots of high notes for the high voices and decoration of all vocal parts. The voice is what’s on display in bel canto operas, and much of what singers are asked to do requires not only vocal power, but also agility and subtlety. The popularity of singers in Italy, entirely comparable to that of professional athletes, typically rewards those who have mastered this difficult style of singing. As we’ll see, some of Verdi’s operas display bel canto characteristics, though he came into his prime as the style was losing its hold on the public. But even if he had been born a few years earlier, his development as a composer of musical drama would have strained the inherent limitations of the style.

 

But there is more for all of you Verdi fans! This October, Amadeus Press will also release Verdi’s Operas, which studies in detail each of Verdi’s 26 operas, from Oberto to Falstaff. Visit the website for more information about this publication.

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Celebrating Leonard Slatkin at Tanglewood

American conductor and composer Leonard Slatkin will be celebrating his 70th birthday today at the renowned Tanglewood festival. He will be taking the stage with the Boston Symphony Orchestra to lead the world premiere of Pulitzer Prize-winning composer William Bolcom’s Circus Overture. The Music Director of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and the Orchestre National de Lyon as well as the recipient of numerous awards, Slatkin is also author of Conducting Business, a book that takes an insightful look at what conductors actually do for a living. In the following excerpt from Conducting Business, Slatkin speaks about his memorable experiences with the Tanglewood festival.

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Hot and humid. Bugs everywhere. Wine bottles clanking. Babies screaming. Ah, there is nothing like the sights and sounds of summer.

The alfresco concert has been with us for centuries now. Tribal drummers, troubadours and rock stars, even classical ensembles have enjoyed a place in the great outdoors. Handel must have loved the Royal Fireworks Music as he stood at a safe distance away from the barge that carried the musicians and explosives. We don’t know when the formally organized, professional, outdoor concert series was conceived. Major orchestras in America lacked summer homes until both the Chicago an the Boston Symphony moved out of town in 1936. The vision of Serge Koussevitzky helped forge Tanglewood, a bucolic venue in the heart of the Berkshire Mountains. The first concerts were played in a tent, but in two years’ time, the famous Shed was dedicated. The BSO plays and resides in the Lenox area almost all summer. Although located in Massachusetts, it amounts to a second home for New Yorkers who flock to the area, families in tow. This seasonal music center includes a well-known school for very dedicated young musicians, who play with master conductors and soloists. It is arguably the go-to place for serious music-making during the summer months.

Teaching, from its inception, has been fundamental to the Tanglewood ethic. A number of fine conductors have emerged from the program, and for most years, this class was held in Saranac, the original residence of Koussevitzky. All the greats have taught there and that history is so palpable, you can feel it oozing from the walls. Everyone respects the festival’s traditions, no doubt a factor in why it remains at the top of every music lover’s list for summertime listening.

An article from Janet Horvath

Not only is Janet Horvath the author of Playing (Less) Hurt, a guide to avoiding and healing injuries acquired whilst playing musical instruments, she also writes bright, contemporary and amusing articles about the world of classical music! Janet has kindly let us post some of her articles.  Read more from Janet here.

 

Reach Out, Freak Out?

by Janet Horvath

There’s a storm brewing in classical music. The quandary:
#1 how far are we willing to go to achieve reaching out? Can we pursue change without freaking out our musicians and loyal concert attendees?
#2 how do we remedy the erroneous expectations and misconceptions regarding attending a performance in a concert hall or opera house?
#3 how do we entice more people to classical music concerts when knowledge about, and interest in classical music might be dwindling due to cut backs in music education?

There are two camps— those who feel that we have to reach out at all costs to younger audiences and those who steadfastly want to keep the traditions unchanged.

There certainly have been some strange goings-on in the classical world of late in both camps! The Seattle Symphony was taken by surprise when a YouTube went viral on Twitter. They, like many symphony orchestras, have been dancing on a trapeze— attempting to keep patrons happy while trying to attract new audiences. Several women were asked to come onstage to dance during a song of Sir Mix-A-Lot with the Seattle Symphony. The short video features a 38-year-old audience member now known as “the lady in the black dress.” Needless to say, it was Ms. Shawn Bound’s first time at the hall leading to millions of views and considerable controversy. A gimmick? A spectacle? Would you see it as fun or shocking? I wonder what the musicians thought.

The San Francisco Symphony, Cincinnati Symphony, Indianapolis Symphony, Pacific Symphony and the Dayton Opera have something in common— Tweet seats. Tweeting from a designated section of the concert hall during the performance is a strategy to lure young people to concerts in the hope that it will seem more interactive. (See link below for a conversation about this.) One camp certainly finds this a dastardly distraction.

Recently, artistic director of the Bristol Old Vic, Tom Morris, invited the audience to bring their drinks to the front of the stage during an ‘accessible and informal’ performance of Handel’s Messiah saying, “Clap or whoop when you like, and no shushing other people.” American chemist and Royal Society research fellow in London, Dr. David Glowacki, attended the concert but he took the go ahead a step too far by attempting to crowd-surf. I must admit I had to look up the term— crowd surfing, is the process in which a person is passed above everyone’s heads during a concert, with other members of the audience supporting the person’s weight.

Attendees were so irritated, that they physically ejected the academic from the performance. Morris claims it is the first such incident at a classical concert since the 18th century. What to do? He is reluctant to re-instate the oftentimes strict rules of concert etiquette, which he hoped to ditch.

A new use for duct tape in opera, the genre that can be dignified or outlandish makes me feel like we’ve now seen it all. Atthis by Georg Friedrich Haas, is an opera based on writings of the Greek poet Sappho, depicting a fraught relationship between the poet and a student. Ms. Greif, soprano, said in an interview after the end of the run of Atthis, “There could be numerous occasions to be nude in opera. But I thought this one was especially fine on so many different levels.”

“The soprano came to the front of the stage stepped out of her dress and began to tear off the metallic-looking strips of duct tape that girded her naked torso— a close-up of what must be one of the most searingly painful and revealing operatic performances in recent times,” wrote The New York Times. Sounds like it!

Several orchestras are experimenting with putting large screens onstage for projections. The Minnesota Orchestra recently performed a work by Kevin Puts, his Symphony No. 4,From Mission San Juan, a multimedia installation. Sensing devices and sonic inputs gather live data that triggers visual images specific to this music, which are projected on a backdrop behind the orchestra. A performance was free to the public— part of the Northern Sparks Arts Festival hosted by the University of Minnesota—an overnight of arts exhibits and presentations both inside and out in different venues all over the city. Even my son and his friends were talking about it!

There are several artists who are extending the boundaries of their playing, “crossing over” into world music like Yo Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble and more popular music such as Maya Beiser, cellist. Singers Andrea Bocelli and Sarah Brightman, violinist David Garrett, and Stjepan Hauser and Luka Sulić of 2Cellos are the rage.

Still there are classical musicians and loyal audiences that feel degraded by the popularization of the art. Starting with the indignation of cell phones ringing in the concert hall and the ongoing subject of the dress code, behavior code, clapping code and maintaining silence code, feathers are ruffled at the slightest deviation from tradition.

There has always been a place for experimental music, which at times has caused riotous reactions as far back as Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring premier, but other genres have been able to evolve into contemporary arts. How does classical music shed the label of being stuck in tails in the distant past? This May there was proof that it is possible—even without the gimmicks, technologies and stunts. Washington D.C’s Kennedy Center Concert Hall was packed with all types—young and old, dressed up and dressed down, novices and aficionados. The audience roared with joy after the performance. Arvo Pärt’s music, performed by the superlative Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, and the Tallinn Chamber Orchestra, is proof that contemporary music can be riveting and moving. So it is possible. The two opposing camps can unite.

Strauss – An Owner’s Manual

Last May, the latest in the Unlocking the Masters series was released: Richard Strauss! Below is author David Hurwitz’s preface to Richard Strauss – An Owner’s Manual. Be sure to check out the other books in the Unlocking the Masters series

00119744Richard Strauss wrote a huge amount of music in every one of the major media of his day: symphonies, symphonic poems, choral works, operas, songs, piano solo, and chamber music. However, his reputation stands on the symphonic poems and operas of his maturity, and on his orchestral music more generally. For that reason, this survey will consider all of the major works with orchestra and many of the minor ones, including the operas and the orchestral songs. The songs with piano (approximately two hundred of them), chamber music, and choral works belong in a special category of their own (the songs), or are mostly early and/or atypical (the chamber music), or, in the case of the choral works, don’t tell us anything especially significant that can’t be found in Strauss’s other vocal works.

There are also some major works that are barely known, or so seldom recorded that to spend time on them here when you can’t purchase them to enjoy at home would be an exercise in frustration. So they will not be discussed, however much I might have liked to deal with them. As it is, I feel guilty—well, almost guilty—sending you off to find a piece with an unpronounceable name (even in German), such as Panathenäenzug for piano left-hand and orchestra, no matter how delightful and sadly neglected it is.

In this “owner’s manual,” as in others in this series, I have focused on strategies for listening. Strauss’ music is “easy” in the sense that almost all of it is programmatic. That is, it describes an extramusical subject, and if you know the story behind the work, then you know the work, at least on one level, and nothing more need be said about it. For me, though, much of the fascination with Strauss’ orchestral music resides in how he shapes and assembles his material into satisfy- ing wholes whether you know anything about the program or not. I hope that this guide will suggest helpful ways to approach the music at this deeper level.

Strauss’ operas and songs represent his lifelong attempt to find new, fresh, but always appropriate ways to tackle the issue of the relationship between text and music. Many of these works are little known, but all of them have something valuable to offer the listener, and it will be a very great pleasure to describe them to you. Operas and songs are even simpler to hear than programmatic symphonic music: you just follow the text or synopsis and enjoy the show. The only serious issue you might have is making sufficient time to get to know the music really well. That is a problem that no book can solve completely, but it can at least point your attention in the right direc- tion so that the time you do have to invest will be spent productively.

In most of my guides for this series, including this one, I have taken great care to provide full orchestration lists for all of the works described. This was a major project, as most of Strauss’ mature works employ very large orchestras with a notably complicated layout, and the actual scores are sometimes imprecise in giving complete lists of their instrumental requirements. The woodwind section, especially, contains a huge number of “doubling” parts—that is, a single musician plays multiple instruments. A flutist also plays the piccolo; the second oboe doubles on English horn, and the clarinets may take any member of that family. Strauss routinely calls for clarinets in A, B-flat, D, C, and E-flat, and bass clarinets in A and B-flat, plus basset horns, and so as not make things even more complicated, I have simplified the lists somewhat by sticking to raw numbers within each instrumental family—clarinets, for example—where the question is simply one of key rather than significant differences in range or timbre.

Aside from the fact that this is a book primarily about orchestral music, you actually can learn a great deal about a work before you even hear it simply by looking at its scoring. In particular, the relative numbers of woodwinds and strings quite often give a very strong indi- cation of how the music is going to sound, whether the work (if it is an opera) will be comic or tragic, and what the composer’s compositional strategy might have been. Does the lack of a part for contrabassoon signal a general lightness of texture? Does the huge brass section in

An Alpine Symphony anticipate the grandeur of the symphonic journey up the mountain before it even begins? Take a guess and see if your preconception turns out to be correct. Either way, it’s a useful strategy to focus your attention when listening.

As with all the books in this series, there is no reason that you need to go through it in order. You can dip in at your pleasure, though I would suggest reading the introduction first, since it sets the stage and puts Strauss in a helpful context. Other than that, you should feel free to follow your own interests wherever they lead. 

In Memory of Lorin Maazel

Last Sunday, legendary conductor Lorin Maazel sadly passed away at the age of 84. He began conducting at the early age of nine, traveled the world to lead countless orchestras, and served as the leader of the New York Philharmonic from 2002-2009. This amazingly talented artist and scholar is featured prominently in John Canarina’s 2010 book entitled The New York Philharmonic: From Bernstein to Maazel. The excerpt below describes Maazel’s first steps into orchestral fame and his rocky introduction to the New York Philharmonic. Critic Greg Sandow once described Maazel’s work as “impulsive” and “unpredictable”, however he also suggested that, as to Maazel’s impact on the Philharmonic, “We just might be surprised.” Maazel’s talent and passion (for the New York Philharmonic in particular) make him widely regarded as one of the world’s most prominent conductors. Thank you, Mr. Maazel:

 

When Lorin Maazel began his tenure as music director of the New York Philharmonic, he was seventy-two years old. But he made his first podium appearance when he conducted the orchestra Layout 1of the Interlochen Music Camp at the New York World’s Fair in 1939 – when he was nine. At the more advanced age of eleven he conducted a nationwide radio broadcast with the NBC Orchestra, and conducted a nationwide radio broadcast with the NBC Orchestra, and in 1942, at the age of twelve, he made his debut with the New York Philharmonic at Lewisohn Stadium. After appearances with other major American orchestras, he enrolled at the University of Pittsburgh at sixteen, received a Fullbright Fellowship in 1951 to study baroque music in Italy, and made his adult conducting debut in Catania, Sicily in 1953. Engagements with European orchestras followed, and in 1960 he became the first American and the youngest conductor to appear at Germany’s prestigious Bayreuth Festival. (The word “appear” is perhaps misleading, for the orchestra and conductor are hidden from view.)

His contract was for four years, and there were some in the profession who regarded it as something of a stopgap for the Philharmonic. Already there was talk of a search for Maazel’s successor. Maazel, however, spoke of his appointment as possibly “the fruition of my experience as a conductor, to work with an orchestra I really love…I’m more enthusiastic about my future with this orchestra than I have ever been about anything I have ever done anyplace.”

 

Watch: Inside Look at “In Character: Opera Portraiture”

 

In Character: Opera Portraiture, available from Amadeus Press 11/04/14,  memorably captures operatic performers away from the audience but fully inhabiting their roles. It showcases the work of John F. Martin, who for years set up a portable studio in the basement of the San Francisco Opera and photographed the players – in costume and full makeup – right before or after they took the stage. 

Their roles run the gamut of opera personalities: heroes and heroines, villains and outcasts, royalty and common folk, Biblical figures and creatures of myth. Facing Martin’s camera, each artist projects the essence of his or her character, however great or small the part.  A collection unlike any other, In Character will have broad appeal-to opera and theater buffs, costume and fashion aficionados, and anyone who appreciates fine art photography.

An unexpected “Mimi” in Saturday’s La Bohème!

La Bohème can stake its claim as the world’s most popular opera. It has a marvelous ability to make a powerful first impression (even on those new to opera) and to reveal unexpected treasures after dozens of hearings.  Last Saturday’s performance at Metropolitan Opera, however, had one especially large “unexpected treasure”. In fact, this performance is sure to go down in history in terms of last-minute cast changes! At 7:30 AM on the airing date of La Bohème’s broadcast performance of the Met’s Live in HD series, soprano Kristine Opolais received a call asking her to stand in as the leading lady in that afternoon’s show. Anita Hartig, the soprano who had been rehearsing for the part of Mimi, unexpectedly took ill and had to step out of the performance. Opolais, who has just hours previously sung the title role of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, graciously agreed to  perform in the show that would be broadcasted not only to the Met’s audience of 3,800, but would also be transmitted to radio stations and to movie theaters around the world. 

Read the New York Times’ article on Opolais’ unexpected performance HERE .

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The Metropolitan Opera Presents: Puccini’s La Bohème is the latest in the Metropolitan Opera Presents Libretto Library Series by Amadeus Press. In this groundbreaking book series, classic and well-known operas are presented in a fresh new package. Each book features the complete libretto; color image inserts from Met Opera productions, including stage scenes, costumes, and set photos and illustrations; a Met Opera libretto “In Focus” feature; and official Met Opera program notes.