Category Archives: Classical & Opera
James Levine, who debuted at the Metropolitan Opera in 1971 and became its musical director in 1976, will step down from his post at the end of the current season, the company announced yesterday. In 2011, Amadeus Press published James Levine: 40 Years at The Metropolitan Opera, a collection of the maestro’s reminiscences from his remarkable tenure, as well as the personal stories and recollections of some of opera’s biggest stars and the journalists who covered his career. In this excerpt, Richard Dyer, for 33 years a music and arts writer at The Boston Globe, describes Levine in an essay called “His Own Best Pupil.”
Two little stories tell you a lot about the kind of conductor James Levine is because they tell you the kind of musician he is, and the kind of man.
The first dates back to the mid-1960s, when he was the assistant conductor of The Cleveland Orchestra under George Szell. One of Levine’s first assignments was to rehearse Chopin’s Second Piano Concerto, and he vividly remembers a little oboe solo near the beginning: “The oboist played it more beautifully than I could ever have imagined on my own. There was nothing I could have done that would have made it any more beautiful. I realized immediately that it was not my job to control every element of the performance, but to allow the musicians to bring the best of themselves to an overall conception of the piece.”
The second revealing incident took place 40 years later at Tanglewood, when Levine was supervising reading rehearsals of Mozart’s Don Giovanni with fellows of the Music Center—singers, conductors, and orchestra. No performance was scheduled; this was a learning experience. The conducting fellow was propelling an ensemble at an exciting tempo that
was flustering the Donna Elvira. Levine stopped him. “What are you doing that for?” he asked. “Can’t you imagine how well she could sing it at a slightly slower tempo? What do you have to gain by making her uncomfortable? What does Mozart have to gain?” Once again, Levine was talking about enabling performers to give their best, about how a conductor’s job is not just to lead but also to listen. (“Jimmy hears everything,”
a player once said to me, with mingled admiration and panic.)
The statistics of Levine’s tenure at the Metropolitan Opera are staggering: 40 years, nearly 2,500 performances of 85 different operas, and counting. But the significance of his service lies behind and beyond the statistical record. Statistics define quantity, not quality, and they don’t tell anything about the process through which quality is achieved.
Everyone comments on how the orchestra, under his direction, has become one of the great ensembles of the world. One of his strategies has been to encourage the members to
play chamber music, and to turn them loose on the symphonic repertory—just as in posts he has held with symphonic ensembles, Levine has programmed operas. He doesn’t believe in specialization, for himself or for the institutions he works with; all music unfolds on a continuum, and different parts of the continuum inform and instruct one another. An orchestra must emulate the phrasing, breathing, colorations, vibrancy, and emotional impact of a great singer in full flight; a singer should emulate the precision, ensemble skills, and coloristic range of an instrumentalist.
Another great legacy is Levine’s widening and freshening of the Met repertory, from less-performed works by established composers to 20th-century masterworks to brand-new compositions. And he adds to his own repertory all the time—in the last few years he led his first Madama Butterfly and first Don Pasquale. There are works one wishes he would conduct—Der Freischütz, Boris Godunov, Capriccio, La Gioconda,or La Fanciulla del West, for example—but their absence is as much a question of timing or availability of suitable singers as it is of personal taste. One of his strengths is utilizing the changing interests and abilities of each generation of singers as it comes along. Of course, he also knows better than to conduct works for which he feels no real affinity, or that he feels others can do better.
Like a clerk in a Dickens novel, Levine maintains elaborate ledgers of his performances; the ledgers reinforce his instincts about when to return to central works for his own artistic development, when they have grown in his subconscious and it is time for new insights to assert themselves. And he strategizes repertory for the orchestra the way he strategizes for himself—how often it needs to ground itself in Mozart, for example. He didn’t program Berg’s Lulu before he brought back Wozzeck, and he didn’t attempt Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron before the orchestra had played both Wozzeck and Lulu.
Levine’s formal musical education was as comprehensive as he could make it—general studies under Walter Levin of the LaSalle String Quartet, famous for its mastery of the
Second Viennese School and contemporary music; solo piano instruction with Rosina Lhevinne; chamber music with Rudolf Serkin and others; French repertory with Jean Morel
at Juilliard; German repertory with Szell. At the Aspen Music Festival and School he sought out composers like Darius Milhaud and established singers like Jennie Tourel and Phyllis Curtin. One of his early idols was Toscanini, and he made it a project to work with as many singers as possible who had performed under Toscanini. Levine has coached countless singers, but it is equally important to point out how many singers he has made it a point to learn from. He is his own best pupil.
From the beginning Levine knew what his core repertory would be. Back in Ohio, he created an orchestra at the Cleveland Institute of Music and gave concert performances of Don Giovanni, Don Carlo, and Simon Boccanegra. Mozart and Verdi—Wagner came later, first at the Met, and then at the Bayreuth Festival. To these composers one should add Berlioz and Berg, as well as The Bartered Bride, Pelleas et Melisande, and Strauss’s Elektra, Der Rosenkavalier, and Ariadne auf Naxos. Anyone who has heard Levine conduct these works must have indelible memories of his way with them.
Of course, Levine wants each performance to be as good as it can be, but he is at least as interested in process, in the whole movement from developing a conception prior to rehearsal, building on what happens in rehearsal, and watching interpretation develop through a series of performances—even foreseeing what might happen in future seasons that will build upon the present. He is not afraid to say “Sorry, my mistake” in rehearsal, and he knows when he has not operated on his own best level. I once heard him muse ruefully about a Sirius re-broadcast of a Mozart opera, “What a great cast, and I let them down.’’
Singers love Levine. “It is never easy to sing,” the late Lorraine Hunt Lieberson told me, “but James Levine makes you believe you can do things you never thought you could.”
There are very few singers of the front rank over the last 40 years who have not worked with him, and his collaborations continue today with a younger generation.
For all of Levine’s presence in a starry firmament, he lives in the real world and works within the complex conditions of a major modern opera house. The curtain does not invariably rise on an ideal cast in an ideal production, and vocal cords are subject to the various physical and emotional ills the flesh is heir to. But he has the imagination, ability and true grit to make the best of every situation so no one goes home after a Levine performance with an empty heart.
Often as conductors grow older, their tempos become slower, as if they are reluctant to let go of the music, or accelerate, as if they are trying to outpace time itself. Levine is a collector and student of time-pieces, and he has avoided both extremes, just as he charts a course that avoids complacency and routine at one extreme, and egocentric eccentricity for its own sake at the other. The public has learned to depend on a high level of quality when he is on the podium. But even after 40 years, the public also knows to expect surprise.
Unlocking the Masters
Ravel: A Listener’s Guide
by Victor Lederer
An enigma to those who knew him, Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) composed some of the most popular and beloved music in the repertory. In Ravel: A Listener’s Guide (November 2015, Amadeus Press, $19.99), Victor Lederer surveys and explores this master’s refined and utterly distinctive oeuvre.
Ravel is often mentioned in the same breath as his older contemporary Claude Debussy, but the works of the two composers display as many differences as similarities. Where Debussy rejected existing forms, the structuralist Ravel embraced the baroque suite and classical sonata form as vehicles for his ideas, in addition to his own concise inventions. At his best, which is where we usually find this focused stylist, passion flows just beneath some of the most exquisitely crafted surfaces in music, under which lurk ironies that raise as many questions as answers. A perfect example is Boléro, Ravel’s most famous work, a strange but fascinating experiment that one can hear as maddening or irresistible. Lederer analyzes Bolero and looks at the outsized role it has assumed in our culture.
Lederer walks the reader and listener through Ravel’s relatively small but crucial contributions to orchestral, vocal, chamber, and piano music. Ravel’s two operas, idiosyncratic and underappreciated, are examined in detail as well. The book includes a Naxos CD that samples masterpieces from across the master’s career.
8.5″ x 11″
Amadeus Press, an imprint of Hal Leonard Performing Arts Publishing Group
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Victor Lederer is a writer on music and urban history. His books include Beethoven’s Chamber Music: A Listener’s Guide, Beethoven’s Piano Music: A Listener’s Guide, Bach’s Keyboard Music: A Listener’s Guide, and Chopin: A Listener’s Guide to the Master of the Piano, all for the Amadeus Press Unlocking the Masters series. He lives in New York.
The latest installment in the Unlocking the Masters Series from Amadeus Press has arrived: Ravel: A Listener’s Guide by Victor Lederer. The Unlocking the Masters Series, which now features 23 titles, presents the work of classical composers in a user-friendly style that brings the reader quickly and easily in to the world of the greatest composers and their music. Read below for an excerpt of Chapter one!
There’s no question that the beautiful surfaces of Maurice Ravel’s music provide an easy approach, but subterranean strengths are what make it last. So, in one sense, his works hardly seems to need analysis, partially explaining their immense popularity, while the tug of the composer’s sophisticated compositional technique—his tart harmonies and rhythmic playfulness, for example—and his singular way of expressing passion keeps it from superficiality, bringing one back to listen, again and again.
Ravel’s style, gorgeous on the outside but steely underneath, derives its irresistible outward beauty chiefly from long-spun melodies as well as some of the most skillful and effective instrumental and vocal writing by any composer in any era. His structural strength comes from rhythmic freedom, harmonic richness, and daring, and formal patterns that are mostly straightforward but well suited to the job. Ravel’s gifts as a composer also include the related qualities of brevity, concision, and momentum: he says what he has to say and keeps moving, never dragging his material out. Much of the master’s oeuvre is in dance form, most famously perhaps his various essays in the waltz, but he also composed in Daphnis et Chloé one of the great ballets. But in several other cases that we’ll see, he also transcribed or otherwise reworked his music into ballets: he seemed to be thinking constantly in terms of its choreographic possibilities. More difficult to explain but present just the same is his ability to evoke passion at a distance, a peculiar skill at which he may be unmatched.
[…]Ravel’s style always remains clearly and unquestionably his own. Even though you may be able to point at an influence here or there, his integration of them is so complete that there’s never a sense that he’s mimicking or copying—unless, as in a couple of rather minor instances, he wants you to. Finally, within this small output is an unusually high percentage of the composer’s works transcribed from one form to another. There are several reasons for this, and we’ll examine these, as well as the music itself, in chapter 4.
I discovered while working on the book that generalizing about Ravel’s music is unwise. For instance, several late-period works are rich and heavily scored, going completely against the prevailing leaner manner. And, while I tend to prefer the piano versions of many works (usually the originals) to the orchestral transcriptions that the composer made later, I found that with Ma Mère l’Oye, I love both the four-hand piano original and the orchestrated version equally. Everything Ravel published was crafted with the utmost care, and you need to hear every note and to keep an open mind.
Get yourself a copy of Victor Lederer’s book over at Amadeus Press and let us know your thought on it in the comments below!
Harvey Lee Snyder author of the book, Afternoon of a Faun – How Debussy Created a New Music for the Modern World, now has a website for his book! When visiting the page you will learn more about Debussy’s music and about the book itself. Go take a look by clicking on the link below, and let us know what you think!
Here is the story of a poor, unschooled Parisian boy swept by odd coincidences to the Paris Conservatory at age ten. Here is a brilliant man struggling to invent a tonal language capable of expressing his unique musical vision, finding inspiration not in Bach and Beethoven but in Mallarmé’s poetry and the paintings of Whistler and Turner; a man determined to end two centuries of Germanic domination of European music. Here is a reclusive, gentle man whose misguided love affairs ended in scandal and scorn. His hard work failed to end decades of poverty and debt, but, as is made clear in Afternoon of a Faun, Debussy was at the time of his death in 1918, and remains today, the foremost French composer of the 20th century.
In honor of today being Claude Debussy’s birthday we would like to remember all of the wonderful music that he has made. Claude Debussy was a French composer who was well known for his impressionist music. He was one of the most influential composers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries and was the father of the modern era in classical music. Author Harvey Lee Snyder has written a book on Debussy titled, Afternoon of a Faun: How Debussy Created a New Music For the Modern World, that tells about his life and also his music. Below is an excerpt from chapter 1 about Debussy’s early life and background.
Some historians tried to link Claude Debussy to the Burgundian aristocracy, but no—Claude’s father, Manuel de Bussy, was less nobly descended from peasant stock, men and women who in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were laborers and farmers, locksmiths, tradesmen, and carpenters. Claude’s maternal family too was of humble origin.
Manuel de Bussy enlisted at eighteen in the Second Infantry Regiment of Marines and served his seven-year term. He married Victorine Manoury in 1861, when both were twenty-five years old. The newlyweds moved into an old three-story house in Saint-Germaine-en-Laye, just west of Paris. Manuel ran the china shop on the ground floor, and upstairs, on August 22, 1862, their first child, Achille-Claude de Bussy, was born. Before his first birthday he had a baby sister, Adèle. Emmanuel was born in 1867, and Alfred followed three years later. Another son died in childhood.
The china shop failed after two years of Manuel’s management, and the de Bussys moved to Clichy to live with Victorine’s mother. In 1868, Manuel found work at a printing shop and moved his family to Paris. For most of his life Manuel struggled and repeatedly failed to earn enough to support his family in comfort and stability. He never held a job for very long, and Victorine sometimes worked as a seamstress to help make ends meet.
The eldest boy was called Achille (pronounced “ah-sheel”), but he was Chilo to his family. At his baptism his godparents were Manuel’s sister Clémentine and her lover, a rich financier named Achille Arosa. As a young adult, Chilo preferred to be called Claude, signed his name Claude-Achille, and modernized the family name to Debussy.
He was a quiet boy—“dreamy” was a word often used—who found refuge in solitude. Unlike his three siblings, he never went to school. His mother, who had little education herself, kept him at home and taught him to read and write. But Victorine had no enthusiasm for motherhood. More than once she sent Adèle to Cannes to be raised by Clémentine. Alfred was in Clémentine’s care until her death in 1882.
Clearly, the de Bussy clan was not an auspicious incubator of genius. Nothing in the historical record suggests that music was a significant part of the family life, or that the children were exposed to the ripe artistic and cultural climate of Paris. Manuel confidently believed Achille would follow in his footsteps: He’d be a sailor when he grew up. (Later in life, the composer of La Mer [The Sea] found this amusing.)
This summer, just like every summer since the mid-1930s, musicians and music lovers have come together at Tanglewood in Lenox, Massachusetts. In her book, Tanglewood: A Group Memoir, Peggy Daniel recounts the Tanglewood story as told in first-person accounts by such Tanglewood luminaries as Leonard Bernstein, Serge Koussevitzky, Aaron Copland, Erich Leinsdorf, Phyllis Curtin, Seiji Ozawa, Yo-Yo Ma, Dawn Upshaw, John Harbison, James Levine, and many of the leading musicians, critics, and music professionals who consider Tanglewood a second home.
To mark the start of this year’s festival, the Boston Globe compiled its list of “Seven Books About the Tanglewood Music Festival,” and it begins is list with Tanglewood: A Group Memoir.
I love a good headline as much as anyone, and here’s a peach from the Associated Press: “Dowagers Thumb Ride to Symphonic Concert.” It seems these dowagers were among 3,000 hardy music lovers who, one night in 1942, hitchhiked, walked, or biked to Tanglewood, where Serge Koussevitzky conducted Haydn’s Symphony no. 88 and Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony under the August stars. This was during the war. So many events got canceled that year, due to fuel rationing, but not this one. When Koussevitzky took the stage, the Berkshire Eagle reports, he got a “greeting in which vociferousness surpassed record and remembrance.”
Peggy Daniel has loaded all sorts of goodies like this into “Tanglewood: A Group Memoir” (Amadeus, 2008). It’s full of dowagers with pluck, led by Gertrude Robinson Smith, a socially prominent New Yorker who strong-armed all her connections to launch the music festival during the Depression, fanning out ticket subscription teams to recruit at Rotary and Kiwanis meetings, granges and garden clubs. The recruiters touted the joy of music, plus the joy of jobs: The festival would hire local unemployed electricians, carpenters, and others to build the stages and work the events.
This dowager-meets-laborer quality has set the tone of Tanglewood from the onset. It’s a place of low-price-ticket rehearsals plus high-society picnics, James Taylor plus Anton Dvorak, classical music chestnuts plus avant-garde offerings. The book trumpets Tanglewood’s bolder moments, in fact, like how the festival championed new American composers early on, and how in the 1940s and ’50s, it was the “foremost laboratory for operatic experimentation” according to the conductor/impresario Boris Goldovsky.
There’s also some choice gossip here. The early years contained many catfights with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, it appears, and tales of the vagaries of performing outside. To wit, real thunder and lightning heightened Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries,” and when “Peter Grimes” was staged on a broiling day in 1946, stagehands hosed down a tar paper rock just before the tenor “died” slowly upon it, not willing to burn himself for art.
Read the rest of Katharine Whittemore’s list here.
Carol Montparker, author of The Composer’s Landscape: The Pianist as Explorer — Interpreting the Scores of Eight Masters, chats with Rachel Katz of A Tempo WWFM about her book!
Derived from a popular series of lecture-recitals presented by Carol Montparker over the past several years, The Composer’s Landscape features eight insightful essays on the piano repertoire. Each chapter focuses on a single composer: Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Chopin, and Mendelssohn. Montparker uses landscape as a metaphor for the score, whether it be a well-tended garden of Mozart or the thorny thickets on a Schumann page: the topographical peaks and valleys, the circuitous melodic lines, the thoroughfares where all the voices convene, and so on. The discussions include thoughtful suggestions for navigating these “landscapes,” which differ so greatly from one composer to the next, taking note of the essential technical and interpretive elements, as well as the challenges for the “explorer pianist.”
As an actively performing pianist, lecturer, teacher, music journalist, and author of six other books on music, Montparker has the experience and understanding to guide readers through these issues while elucidating the finer points. Woven into her text are excerpts from her interviews with world-renowned pianists, from Alfred Brendel to André Watts, conducted during her many years as senior editor of Clavier magazine. The book also includes images from original autograph manuscripts and a CD of Montparker performing selections by composers featured in the book.
Picture books get no respect, derided, often rightfully, as decorative objects unworthy of literary consideration. In the opera world, such contempt can be justifiable: frequently assembled for notable company anniversaries, such memory books often offer dry prose, static production tableaux and glam portraits of divas in celebrated roles. John F. Martin’s In Character defies such stereotypes. With its prose confined to the opening pages — Amy Tan’s spare foreword is elegant, Martin’s explanation of process is essential, the rest is noise — and captions smartly placed as a thumbnail index at the end, the result is a rare alchemy of the performing arts, the fine arts and the graphic arts.
Martin began his association with San Francisco Opera as a supernumerary and managed to set up a closest studio in the War Memorial Opera House just off the canteen. He coaxed performers from the wings to sit for a moment in full regalia and character, their emotions engaged. you can smell the sweat of jealousy on Dmitri Hvorstovsky’s chest as Count di Luna in Il Trovatore. You avert your eyes from Natalie Dessay’s Lucia, so upsetting is her frail glance of madness. Qian Yi, as Precious Auntie in The Bonesetter’s Daughter, floats as if to heaven.
But it’s not only stars that shine bright in In Character. Yes, we see boldface heroes, villains and ingenues, but we also see clergy and townspeople and servants and social outcasts and a “fantasia” of freaks. We see wordless gaiety and fortitude, reflections of sorrow and pride, a child bereft of soul, captured as if by Diane Arbus. We also see the masterful skills of today’s leading costume designers in impeccable detail: Constance Hoffman’s terrifying harlequins for Rigoletto, François Barbeau’s bawdy dancers for The Rake’s Progress, Laurent Pelly’s snooty aristocratic ladies forLa Fille du Régiment.
Read the rest of the review here!
The Metropolitan Opera Presents:
Pietro Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana
and Ruggero Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci
If you are planning to see the concert in HD this weekend, be sure to pick up this perfect companion to the premiere!
Opera’s most enduring tragic double bill of verismo masterpieces, Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci share many common features, most noticeably their direct language, plot simplicity, common-folk characters, and themes of adultery, betrayal, revenge, and murder. Written within two years of each other, and both set in villages in southern Italy, they feature dramatic confrontations, turbulent emotions, and gritty realism.
The Metropolitan Opera Presents: Pietro Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana and Ruggero Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci (April 2015, $18.99) is the latest in the Metropolitan Opera Presents Libretto Library Series by Amadeus Press. In this groundbreaking 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, a Met Opera libretto “In Focus” feature; and official Met Opera program notes. All titles include introductions and forewords by renowned opera experts.
Cavalleria Rusticana takes place on Easter in a Sicilian village, where Turiddu, after returning from the army to find his beloved Lola married to the carter Alfio, found solace with the peasant girl Santuzza but ultimately betrayed her and ruined her reputation. When Turiddu goes back to Lola, Santuzza seeks revenge, with tragic results.
In Pagliacci, a troupe of traveling commedia dell’arte players is torn apart when its leader, Canio, discovers that his wife, Nedda, has taken a lover. In the ensuing “play within a play,” the actors struggle to go on with their performance as the line between theater and reality collapses, leading to an explosive climax.
The Metropolitan Opera Presents: Pietro Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana and Ruggero Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci is the sixth title in Amadeus Press’s Metropolitan Opera Presents Libretto Series, following Puccini’s Tosca, Puccini’s La Boheme, and Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte, Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro, and Bizet’s Carmen.