Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Rossini the Leap Year Baby

Gioacchinno Antonio Rossini was born on February 29, 1792. If anyone deserves to be a leap year baby, it's the composer of The Barber of Seville, La Cenerentola, Semiramide, William Tell, La gazza ladra and on and on.

Rossini wrote his first opera La cambiale di matrimonio (The Fake Marriage) as a teenager. His last, William Tell, was twenty years later.

Beethoven was jealous of Rossini, and the Italian had the admiration of Schubert, Verdi and lived long enough to hear the early works of Wagner. During his twenty year opera career he worked throughout Italy, and his operas traveled across Europe and into the United States. Great singers were devoted to him: Maria Malibran, her sister Pauline Viardot, Gilbert Duprez and Luigi Lablache among them. Rossini's first wife was the Spanish mezzo-soprano Isabella Colbran (1785-1845). Many of his greatest operas were created for her. The couple separated ten years before Isabella's death.

Rossini was a sharp business man, nasty to librettists and impresarios and known for his wit. Yes, he admired the tenor Duprez but said that gentleman's high C sounded "like a chicken having its throat cut". William Tell was dropped by the Paris Opera for being too long. When years later Rossini was informed that his Act II was to be performed at a gala he sniffed, "Not all of it, surely."

And here's my favorite quote from a musician. Rossini said of Mozart

"He was roused my admiration when I was young. He was the despair of my maturity and he is the comfort of my old age."

There's a lot more to Rossini than The Barber of Seville. Semiramide is the Queen of Babylon who almost marries her son who is played by a woman and I suggest you listen to the music and forget everything else.

And then, there's Figaro:

Rossini died in Paris in 1868, in the arms of his second wife, Olympe Pellisier. In his later years he composed a Messe solenelle and a collection of piano music he called Sins of My Old Age. He convened a salon and sponsored early readings of Wagner's Tannhauser. He enjoyed his brandy, women and the great music he had written years before.

Di tanti palpiti
from Tancredi the hit tune of 19th century Italian opera:

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Steve Reich at Ohio State

I'm interviewing composer Steve Reich from the stage of Weigel Hall Auditorium this Thursday, February 23rd at 12:30, as part of the College of the Arts Winter Convocation. Come one and all!

Over twenty-five eyars ago I was having lunch with the late Robert Jacobson, editor of Opera News. The minimalist school of music and its composers were then echt-cool. It was becoming easier to fill a hall for Tehillim than for Puccini. Bob, God bless him, railed over his cobb salad. I sat and nodded and seemed to agree because I was afraid not to. But I was envious of those full houses at BAM, Cooper Union and Avery Fisher Hall. As time went on I was convinced that organizing sounds in a different way-different sounds-would not make the world unsafe for La boheme.

My first live performance of miniamlist (like all labels a partial misnomer) music was Steve Reich's Tehillim. I scored a ticket from a buddy of mine who was among the singers. This telling of the hebrew pslams is scored for singers, vibes, electronic sounds and hand clapping. You get the idea. I loved it then ans I love it now.

John Adams Grand Pianola Music was on the same program. The last two minutes of this work featured a tune-a real melody. The audience was incensed:the booing was as long as the performance.

Phillip Glass is probably the most commercial of the Reich-Adams-Glass triumverate. His work has embraced many different media-his delivery can have broader appeael. He and Adams have worked a lot in the theater in recent years. Twenty years after Bob Jacobson died, the august Met got on the bus with Dr. Atomic and Nixon in China, the latter approaching Puccini status in number of performances.

Steve Reich to me is the true experimenter. He seems afraid of nothing. He continues regardless of public approbation or disapproval. I was interested in meeting him that far from being stuffy he wore his now older downtown persona with charm

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Charles Anthony Died

I was so sorry to hear earlier today of the death of Metropolitan Opera tenor Charles Anthony, at age 82. He holds the record at the Met: 2928 performances. He made his debut in 1954 and gave his last performance on January 28, 2010. His final role was the 10,000 year old Emperor Altoum in Turandot

He was born in New Orleans as Charles Anthony Caruso. Advisedly, he shortened his name before embarking on an opera career.

Charles Anthony sang in Maria Callas's Met debut in 1956 (Norma) He held Leontyne Price's hand the night she made her double debut with Franco Corelli in Il trovatore, and he sang often with "My dear Luciano". He sang often with every great singer of the past sixty years, and he was no slouch himself.

Years ago at the Texaco Opera Quiz (late lamented) we were played a recording of a fresh voiced young tenor. He was singing Ernesto's Serenade from Don Pasquale. The voice was beautiful and the style impeccable. Who was this young find? It was Charles Anthony, on a recording made for the Met in the late 1950s.

It must have been his choice to concentrate on the character roles that bought him fame, fortune and longevity. He was a superb technician and at 80 his singing needed no apology. It was said that James Levine "would not hear" of Charles Anthony retiring from the Met. Time told, but we are all the richer.

Monday, February 13, 2012

JAY HUNTER MORRIS (and remembering a late, great Brunnhilde)

Somebody needs to explain to me why heldentenor Jay Hunter Morris, one of maybe three guys who can sing Siegfried has languished so long. A lot of opera companies put him on stand by. My God, who was he replacing? Based on the Gotterdammerung HD showing this past Saturday, JHM is sensational. The tone can be open and white, but he has the guts and stamina to really sing the thing-no breaks at the final Brunnhilde, heilige braut!

From the earlierr Siegfried that ball buster, here's Jay Hunter Morris at the Met, 'newly discovered'

And while we're talking Wagner singers, soprano Hildegard Behrens, who was the Brunnhilde of my youth, died a few years back. She could destroy you with a glance.

and I'm a sucker for the curtain calls. Back in 1987 I may have been there!

Wagner's past has been splendid. Jay Hunter Morris is the future.

Tuesday, February 07, 2012



I repeat the composer's name, having laughed for years at those for whom Mahler is an obsession, now having joined their ranks. At present I'm immersed in the Symphony no. 6. Karajan called this "the bleakest of all music". Norman Lebrecht called the finale of this symphony "irredeemably grim" and Wilhelm Furtwangler called in "nihilistic". Nobody but nobody claims that Mahler's Symphony 6 is a barrel of laughs.

This to me is a symphony of high drama and-in the Andante-almost unbearable beauty. The opening march is described as "menacing", "frightening" "horrible". I wonder what the audience in 1907 thought-a few years before WWI and 25 years prior to the Third Reich. Did they find this relentless tramping horrifying, predicting the future in a militaristic society, or merely irritating.

There's also the question of movement order. Nobody knows for certain if its Scherzo-Andante or the other way around. Most recordings I know do Scherzo-Andante which some think at odds with the composer's last word. I don't know and neither do you. Do I care? Not a lot.
(Jean Marie Zeitouni and the Columbus Symphony will play Andante-Scherzo)

If you read Mahler's letters to his wife Alma, you find that a composer writing "bleak" music is often cute, corny, endearing and wildly in love. As work on the 6th progressed Mahler was finessing the Kindertotenlieder-the collecting of five songs on the death of children. Alma was terrified and not a little angry. They had two young daughters: Maria (Putzi) and Anna (Gucki). What a bad omen to bring such music into the house. And then Anna died, aged five in 1907. Mahler loses his long time position as boss of the Vienna Opera-the world's most prestigious. He is diagnosed with the heart condition that leads to his death at 51.

Alma was right. Did she ever forgive her husband? It was around this time that Alma began affairs, notably with Walter Gropius who she would later marry. Gustav went to New York, first to conduct at the Metropolitan Opera, then the New York Phiharmonic. Mahler's tenure at the Met ended with a clash with Toscanini. But the New York critics were quick to get on the Mahler bus:

"The score was revealed in all its complex beauty and allurement, of grave
dignity, with its strands of interwoven melody always clearly disposed and united with exquisite sense of proportion and an unerring sense of the larger values. Delicacy and clearness where the characteristics of many passages, yet the climaxes were superbly effectual. Through it all went the sense of dramatic passion and sensual beauty...The audience was very large. It greeted Mr. Mahler upon his entrance into the orchestra with several rounds of applause...After the first act he was called out again and again, and received a token of approval that this audience is slow to bestow on any newcomer..." (New York Globe, Jan. 2, 1908)

Calling Mahler, the dominant musician of Europe a "newcomer" was a bit much, but clearly his Met debut, conducting Tristan und Isolde on New Year's Day, 1908 was a triumph. He stayed two seasons, directed the New York Philharmonic and sailed home to Vienna, thin and ill in the spring of 1911 where he shortly died.

The sixth symphony begins and ends in a minor ("the key of resignation") I'd say battle more than resignation and in this music he is either trying to keep Alma or get her back.
Indeed the huge theme a few minutes into the first movement, after the first menacing tramping, is called 'Alma'. The composer reportedly said to his wife, "This is for you, you may as well get used to it". Not a smooth talker he, but Mahler's love for Alma must have been passionate and overwhelming.

Don't miss the irony in Mahler's music. It's all over the place. The sixth is filled with a military type drama and foreboding-but 'Alma' is gorgeous and the Andante movement is of unspeakable beauty. Wherever its played.

Yet through all this angst you also hear distant cowbells, and Mahler's love, no, need for the countryside is evident.

The long fourth movement is famous for the three hammer blows-crushing, destroying -life ending (as for me the adagio is life affirming) It was suggested that these three blows also predicted the trio of blows later to attack the composer: the death of his daughter, the loss of position and the diagnosis of a fatal heart condition. But it it significant that Mahler later deleted the final hammer blow.

Don't think this a minor symphony ends in triumph-as some of them do-or a sigh of a minor "resignation". The 6th packs up at the very end. It just runs out of steam and goes away. Leaving you to think what is the future? Military marches, chaos, war or passion?

There's Bernstein near the end of his own life. I think what makes the 6th bleak to many is the lack of recovery from the hammer blows. They aren't followed by any rollicking or soaring major key triumph. It's the end.

Until the 7th symphony.
But that's another story.