Book Reviews
Concert Reviews
CD and DVD Reviews
Continuation of List of Compositions


Friday, September 22, 2006

Music Downloads Reviewed (II)

There are two new download concerts from Universal (available at iTunes, among other websites) concerts – one by the New York Philharmonic offering music by Berlioz and Mahler, the other from the 2006 Styriarte Festival with pianist Pierre-Laurant Aimard leading the Chamber Orchestra of Europe from the keybard in Mozart’s 17th and 18th concertos (K.453, 456) and Symphony No.33, along with Ligeti’s short, New Age-y but pleasant Music ricercata No.7, played in the composer’s memory. Aimard plays neatly enough, but his Mozart is surprisingly cold although he sometimes overly-coaxes warmth from his excellent orchestra, producing a dichotomy in his interpretations. He is not the first excellent specialist in contemporary music to have trouble translating his ideas to the classics. Berlioz’s Harold in Italy is so beautifully played by the Philharmonic’s principal violist, Cynthia Phelps, that her colleagues offer inspired support. Mahler’s First Symphony finds Maazel on automatic pilot for the first three movements, but on fire in the exciting finale. Bear in mind that Maazel, even on automatic pilot, offers a level of technical competence that exceeds many other conductors far more involved with the music.



11:22 am est

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Universal Music (Deutsche Grammophon, Decca, Philips) is engaged in a new project that may eventually revolutionize the way even classical music is packaged. Through Apple's iTunes Music Store and Napster, listeners can download (for a reasonable price) concerts that so far include performances by the New York Philharmonic (DG), the Los Angeles Philharmonic (DG), and violinist Akiko Suwanai (Philips) as m4p files which can then be played on a computer, burned onto a cd, or both. (These concerts are not available as commercial cds.)
The New York Philharmonic, under Maazel, offers three Mozart symphonies (Nos.39, 40 and 41), and a Brahms (Variations on a theme by Haydn) - Kodaly (Galanta Dances) - Dvorak (Symphony No.7) program. The orchestra is one of the world's finest, and Maazel induces fine playing from it, which is hardly the same as offering anything unusual in terms of interpretations. The Mozart symphonies are densely unfolded, as if Maazel were purposely shrugging off any modern stylistic notions in favor of old-fashioned, well-homogonized, heavyish Mozart. The second program offers more opportunities for the orchestra to shine, whether or not Maazel was in an inspired mood, and it does. The Dvorak is beautifully played, perhaps the most successful of these Philharmonic performances, even if Maazel tends to milk it in fairly obvious ways. The Brahms, and even the colorful Kodaly, are routinely interprteted.
The Los Angeles performances, under Salonen, seem considerably more involved, but - primarily devoted to avant-garde music - they would have to be, for the players are faced with less standard challenges. One concert is devoted to Beethoven's Second "Leonore" overture and Fifth Symphony, and Lutoslawski's Fourth Symphony. Salonen's Beethoven has never been particularly inspiring, and is not here, although the orchestra plays vigorously. Lutoslawski's mature works try to simulate normal musical flow (in terms of shape and climax) through avant-garde means, and often succeed in doing so. The Fourth Symphony, in those terms, receives a magnificent performance, although for most listeners the music will be an acquired taste. The other LA program, conducted by Robert de Leeuw, contains music by Arvo Part (Tabula Rasa) and the Dutch avant-gardist Louis Andriessen (Racconto dall'Inferno, De Staat). This is hardly music for the general listener, even if Part, however boring, at least makes pleasant sounds and Andriessen sometimes exhibits a sense of hurmor.
Akiko Suwanai, with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, offers a program of four Bach concertos including the two most important for solo violin, in A Minor and E Major, the Concerto for Two Violins (with Volkhard Steude) and the Concerto for Violin and Oboe (with François Leleux).The playing is enormously fresh, perhaps not overly nuanced, but straightfowardly and impressively appealing.
How good do these downloads sound? They do not compare favorably to a well-recorded cd played on adequate equipment. Played on a very good computer sound system (and allowing for the differences between Avery Fischer Hall, Disney Hall and wherever Suwanai recorded) they sounded like they might on a decent, medium-sized FM radio. Burned to a cd and played on higher-end equipment, they sounded rather one-dimensional compared to a normally-recorded cd. The compression necessary to prepare these sound files for download does something irrevocable to the sound of the music, but it is not disabling for casual listening.
9:51 am est

February 9, 2009




Mimi Stern-Wolfe’s Downtown Music Productions presented a formidable semi-staged version of Blitzstein’s “The Cradle Will Rock” at St.Mark’s in the Bowery on February 8, 2009. The show, a 1937 indictment of capitalism and its attendant evils, is in ten scenes. Ms. Stern-Wolfe found eighteen of the most reliable singers in the New York area, some unobtrusively playing subsidiary roles as well as their primary ones. They also proved fine actors and dancers, for Lisa Brailoff’s brilliant stage direction and choreography requires some fancy dancing and lots of simultaneous movement from groups of characters.

In a sense, “The Cradle” is the musical equivalent of Diego Rivera’s famous frescos, whitewashed from the walls of Rockefeller Center because of their revolutionary content. Blitzstein’s show, originally part of the New Deal’s Federal Theatre Project, proved too controversial for even the Roosevelt administration, which tried to close it down. The villain is Mr. Mister, owner of everything in sight in Steeltown, U.S.A. Larry Foreman, the union organizer hero who doesn’t appear until late in the show, but is feared and maligned right from the first scene, is his natural enemy. Mr. Mister and his wife buy off everyone who might oppose them. In the “mission” scene, Reverend Salvation (Mark Singer is particularly effective), by means of contributions from Mrs. Mister (Darcy Dunn), is converted, in three steps, from a peace advocate to a war advocate, since Mr. Mister is in the armaments business as well. After a charming, jazzy scene in which Mr. Mister’s son (Alex Michaels) and daughter (Rayna Hickman) sing and dance, Mr. Mister (Paul J. Malamphy) appears with Editor Daily (Michael Schilke, with his wonderful diction) who, when informed that Mr. Mister now owns his paper, caves in. In a particularly devastating scene (Blitzstein may have been writing from personal experience) Yasha, the violinist (Ezra Barnes) and Dauber, the artist (Michael Iannucci), are patronized by Mrs. Mister in return for becoming members of Mister’s “Liberty Committee.” All three are particularly winning in this scene. Professors (Ben Strothman, James Solomon Benn, Tom Savage, Greg Senf) sell out by espousing military training at their college (Mr. Mister is a trustee) and a doctor (Alex Michaels) falsely certifies that Ella Hammer’s (Jeannine Otis) husband was drunk at the time of his industrial accident. (The doctor is chairman of the Liberty Committee.) Mr. Mister also arranges to have Gus and Sadie Polock (Joshua Isaacs and Kate Canary, both of whom are impressively charming) framed for an explosion at the Union Hall. A recurring night court scene, involving a prostitute (Laura Newman), a gent (Ben Strothman), the Liberty Committee and several cops serves as a point of reference. When Larry Foreman (Mark Peters) finally appears, in the penultimate night court scene, the show takes on a melodramatic agit-prop atmosphere as he declaims mightily that the “Cradle Will Rock.” Two more singers complete the cast: Steve Sieck, the druggist in the scene where the Polocks are framed and Tony Cangelosi, the clerk in the night court scenes.

 Music director Mimi Stern-Wolfe’s part in these very impressive proceedings cannot be underestimated. At the piano, she provided full support for the singing she had previously coached to an amazingly high level. The show was scheduled for one performance only. It is a quality production, enormously entertaining. A longer run is recommended; hopefully, it will attract proper sponsorship.



April 18, 2009     YouTube Symphony




On April 15th, at Carnegie Hall, the YouTube Symphony appeared. The writer was not at the Hall; this review is being written after viewing the two videos (totaling 2 1/2 hours) posted on YouTube. The players, sponsored by the website, submitted audition videos, which were judged professionally. YouTube paid for the ninety successful applicants (from all over the world) to be brought to New York, and got Michael Tilson Thomas to conduct most of the selections. Thousands of players, professional and amateur, applied. Obviously, there were enough suitable entries for appearance to be based on as well. This is a photogenic group that is better to look at than to hear. The playing is raw, unpolished and the sound often tinny. (The New York Times was kind, the Washington Post unkind; both reviews mentioned the absence of polish.) The program contained excerpts from standard repertory (the scherzo from Brahms’s Fourth, the Ride of the Valkyries, Debussy’s Nuages, the first movement of Dvorak’s Serenade, a movement from Prokofiev’s Second Piano Concerto, played with incredible technique by Yuja Wang and the last movement of Mozart’s Fifth Violin Concerto, (strongly played by Gil Shaham) as well as oddities like Tan Dun’s Internet Symphony No.1, “Eroica,” a few minutes of rhythmic trash spiced with snippets of Beethoven’s Third Symphony  and Measha Brueggergosman’s impressive performance of nonsense by John Cage, with minimal orchestral participation. A difficult piece for piano-six hands by Rachmaninov was played by three talented kids. The audience applauds rapturously after each selection. In reality, only the soloists deserved the accolades. So what were they applauding? My guess is the feel-good idea that music is a universal language and can bring people together, just like YouTube did at considerable expense. The appreciation was for the social implications of the event, not the quality of the musical performances, which was far below professional standards. The audience is having a wonderful time and, by posting the films, YouTube has exposed millions to classical music. What if they do not know the difference between what they heard and a concert by a professional orchestra? The last thing classical music needs is further softening of standards. “Crossover” has already done enough harm.

September 4, 2009

A downloaded concert from the 2008-2009 season of the Los Angeles Philharmonic under Salonen offers music by De Falla (excerpts from El Amor Brujo), Debussy (La Mer) and Ravel (Mother Goose Ballet). The Falla is snappily played, but not particularly sensitively interpreted. The Debussy and Ravel are superb. Debussy’s masterpiece is interpreted as if did not represent something new in its time, but as if it were an extension of the Romantic era. Salonen’s phrasings are keyed to Debussy’s cadences, which are tonal enough here to function the same way as those found in Mahler, making the expressive ritards he takes as effective as they are unusual. It is a very impressive performance. Ravel, who never was as innovative stylistically as Debussy, took his orchestrated Mother Goose Suite (originally for two pianos) and turned it into a ballet score by adding several short, wonderful interludes. Salonen’s performance is colorful and sensitive.  

September 22, 2009

The concluding paragraph in my review of Blitzstein’s "The Cradle Will Rock," presented in February at St.Mark’s in the Bowery by Mimi Stern-Wolfe’s Downtown Music Productions reads, “The show was scheduled for one performance only. It is a quality production, enormously entertaining. A longer run is recommended; hopefully, it will attract proper sponsorship.” It has! The Howl Festival is sponsoring four performances at the 45 Bleeker Street Theater, (45 Bleeker Street, Manhattan) at 8 PM, September 21-24. The show, written in 1937, is about the fight to establish unions, set in Steeltown, U.S.A. with the organizer, Larry Foreman, the tough hero, Mr. Mister, the plutocratic villain, his “Liberty Committee,” of professional toadies and various working-class characters. Although the fight to establish unions is long over, the show still packs an emotional wallop. Blitzstein was not a great melodist. His tunes are serviceable, not memorable. The most successful scene, musically, is the Fourth Scene in Act I, which takes place on the lawn of Mr. Mister’s home. His indolent son and jazzy daughter sing “Croon-Spoon,” a “pops” number, then Mr. Mister and Editor Daily periodically sing “Freedom of the Press,” in an extended scene in which the Editor finds out that Mr. Mister bought his paper, tries to stand up for editorial independence only to be threatened with being fired, and finally is forced to offer the son a “job” as the correspondent in Honolulu (“where nothing ever happens”), leading to the delightful “Honolulu,” sung by the four of them. Alex Michaels and Rayna Hickman are entertaining as the boy and girl. Paul J. Malamphy as Mr. Mister and Michael Schilke as the editor are show-stoppers. Schilke proves not only a fine singer but a fine actor as well. At every step, as he knuckles in to Mr. Mister’s pressure, he makes a small but perceptible gesture of defeat. Blitzstein not only wrote the music, but the book and lyrics as well. Most of the book concerns the attempt to unionize Steeltown, which seems rather dated today. But there is a scene that is as topical as ever, between Yasha, a violinist, Dauber, an artist, and their patron, Mrs. Mister (impressively sung by Darcy Dunn). Satisfying a putative patron’s ego is a perennial problem for artists. Blitzstein offers complete debasement (they agree to be on Mr. Mister’s Liberty Committee, dance around Mrs. Mister and keep kissing her hand) that is not far from the truth in more cases than the reader would like to believe possible. Other notable cast members include Laura Newman as Moll, the prostitute and Mark Peters, who delivers stentorian lines as Larry, the organizer. St.Mark’s in the Bowery is a larger, more open space than the 45 Bleeker Theater. Cute choreography by Lisa Brailoff, that tended to get lost in the church, is more appreciated on the enclosed stage. On the other hand, the piano (expertly played by Mimi Stern-Wolfe, as at St. Mark’s) seems more resonant in the theatre than it did in the church, making it harder to make out the texts being sung. The show, very much a part of our cultural history, is highly recommended.


OCTOBER 26, 2009

Mahler’s Symphony No.1, part of Gustavo Dudamel’s first program with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, is available as a Deustche Grammaphon download. The orchestra plays impressively for him; his interpretation of the symphony is energetic, feelingful and manipulative. The first movement is more energetic than feelingful, but quite successful. The second, a scherzo that is more of a peasant dance, is also energetic, but his stretching and distortions of tempo are irritating (though his conductorial control is very impressive). In the third movement, he misses the “klezmer” elements completely (nothing in his background suggests familiarity with them). The redundancies of the finale are dispelled by his abilities to energize his orchestra and to get the strings (especially) to phrase beautifully. The finale suggests that Deutsche Grammophon’s dream – that Dudamel replace Bernstein and Karajan as a sure-fire sales agent for cds – might be possible.