Classical Bash

Wednesday, September 20, 2006


Boy, did I have a pleasant surprise a few nights ago.

The local PBS affiliate out of Milwaukee ran a performance of Loren Mazel conducting the New York Philharmonic in a performance of Beethoven's THIRD SYMPHONY. Mind you, I have never really liked Mazel, and my opinion of the New York Philharmonic has been somewhat uneven over the past twenty-six years. Under Mehta it deteriorated to the point where the string section was weak and even a little squeeky. But last night I heard a very lush and responsive string section, perfectly balanced woodwinds, and a brass section which had been endowed with a heavenly glden glow.

And Mazel...My God, he turned in a virtuoso performance that left me speechless. I couldn't believe it was Mazel. All in all this was wonderful Beethoven. The phrasing in the First, Third, and Fourth Movement was both, powerful and graceful, while the Second Movement, the Funeral March was grimly emotional, reflecting everything from despair and hopelessness to glimmers of hope. I walked away from the performance emtionally drained--a sensation that I have not experienced during recent in concert performances of the Beethoven Symphonies in quite some time.

I can only hope that Mazel has finally, FINALLY matured a a conductor, because aside from a few operatic performances from the early to mid 1980s I really haven't been that impressed with him. Until now. Anyhow, I was wondering if you had an opportunity to hear this, because if it ever comes your way, by all means listen to it. It's worth the time and effort.

Peace Jeff

Friday, November 11, 2005


No, we haven't gone away. We've just been busy with other things.

I, personally have been listening to some of the old Furtwangler recordings that Jeff loaned me, and I must say, I am impressed. After listeing to all those old Toscanini recordings, with his riveting attention to rhythm and detail, the emotional, even subjective feel of Wilhelm Furtwangler is a revelation. I never knew a conductor could break so many rules and still produce such an amazing peformance.

My favorite Furtwangler recording to date is the 1950's recording of the Beethoven 9th Symphony with the Bayreuth Festival Orchestra. WOW! The man begins on a loose, casual note, but as the performance continues he tightens control until you're emotionally exhausted. Oddly enough this was a technique that he brought to every piece he conducted. While
Toscanini produced an emotionally exhausting experience through an almost anal retentive control, Furtwangler allows his emotions to show. He infuses each and every passage with what he feels to be the proper emotion for that particular time and passage. Rather like the late Leonard Bernstein and his approach to the Mahler 9th.

If you're into historical performances, I highly, (highly!) recommend recordings by Wilhelm Furtwangler. His control of the orchestra is phenomenal and the fact that he wears his passion on his sleeve is an extra added bonus.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005


After posting this as a comment on another blog. I am offering it here in praise of my favorite film score composers.

I loved a 1979 movie called ALIEN. This may shock you but I loved the Jerry Goldsmith film score, which sounded a lot like minor key Allan Hovanhess (check spelling). This was the same composer (Goldsmith) who wrote the background music for the original PLANET OF THE APES; STAR TREK--THE MOTION PICTURE: the theme music for STAR TREK--THE NEXT GENERATION (which was derived from ST--TMP); the theme music for THE WALTON'S TV series; POLTERGEIST; the Satanic Chants from OMEN I and DAMIEN--OMEN II, not to mention a myriad of science fiction and crime drama movies. Regrettably, Mister Goldsmith has passed away, but his many compositions live on in our favorite movies and soundtrack recordings. But back to ALIEN The Main Title is both haunting and magical. A hard combination to achieve, but it actually sets the tone for the entire picture. Wonderful composition for a wonderful science fiction movie.

As for STAR WARS...Could we ever imagine them six without John Williams film scores? I'm serious. Can you imagine the double sunset on Tatooine without the soaring, romantic "Force Theme?" Can you imagine any other music except the themes that you've heard since 1977? Luke's Theme; the Force Theme; Princess Leia's Theme?: Doesn't the music fit every scene to a T in those films?

The next time you watch the movies--any of the above will do, STAR WARS related or not--give an extra listen to the compositions in the background. Far from just background music, you will hear reoccurring themes, l Wagnerian Leitmotifs, swirling through the action, often emphasizing or predicting the action.

Just think about it.

The closing title of STAR WARS I--the PHANTOM MENACE: Though you never hear it in the movie proper, the final notes of the closing credits are a very slow and very quiet version of the Darth Vader Theme,What about STAR WARS II? The scene where Anakin reveals rage and pain at the loss of his mother; where he confesses to Padme about the way he murdered the sandpeople. Could you imagine any other music besides the Darth Vader Theme? And what about the end to REVENGE OF THE SITH?. With the inclusion of a few snippets from the movie proper, this is actually a replay of the end title of STAR WARS--A NEW HOPE, PART IV. Like I said, it uses a number of themes from REVENGE OF THE SITH, but for the most part, we're talking about an expanded version of the finale to STAR WARS IV--a wonderful form of foreshadowing in which we are told that there will indeed me a happy ending at some point.

I'm sorry about "wasting your time," but this topic that has been tempting me for some time. I love film music, especially John Williams and the late Jerry Goldsmith and I wanted our readers to know that I consider their works to be legitimate works of art.




I'm not sure where I heard this for the first time, but it never fails to bring a smile to my face. The following version was provided by my friend, Kelli Fitzgerald, who is engaged to my best friend, Brandon. It has been cleaned up somewhat for our more sensative readers.

A group of four pregnant women are sitting in the doctor's office, chit chatting about their soon to be born children, when one of the women, the first offered the following comment.

"You, on the day that I found out I was pregant, I'd been listening to Duet for Violin and Cello by Mozart and we had twins. I always thought was a little strange."

Amazed, but not to be outdone, the second woman chimed in. "Now that's very odd," the second woman added. "On the day I found out that I was pregnant, my husband and I had been listening to the Beethoven Trio in C minor and we had triplets.

Equally amazed, the third woman added her remarks. "Now that is strange," she commented. "On the day that I found out I was expecting, the good doctior told me that we would be having quadruplets and my husband had been listening to Bach Concerto for Four Harpsichords."

All of a sudden, the fourth woman began to cry.

"Why deary, what's wrong?" the first woman asked, clearly concerned.

"We only found out we were expecting last week!" The fourth woman now howled, tears now rolling down her face.

"But that's wonderful," the second woman added. "Whatever could be wrong with that?"

"On the morning we found out," the fourth woman wept, "my husband and I had been listening to the Mahler 'Symphnony of a Thousand.'"

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Interesting stuff...

Thought you guys might be interested in reading this...enjoy!

New Vivaldi Work Heard for First Time in 250 Years

Friday, August 05, 2005

What's going ON?!

My post today is more of a vent than a real question. But, nonetheless, I'm going to pose it. What is going ON with classical music? Or just music in general? I'm just so sick of marketing taking precedence over quality. In the case of voice, we have Charlotte Church and a girl named Hayley Westenra. Charlotte has no voice left. It's gone. Probably irreversibly. Why? Because she sang improperly for six years and while the vocal folds are more resilient probably than people think, they're still ridiculously fragile as compared arm or something. Repeated abuse of any part of the body will eventually just wear it out completely. This is exactly what Charlotte did. The producers and record companies were so hungry for profit that they just used her up and spit her out. Has anyone heard her sing lately? She has a breathy, almost ethereal tone. The voice should NOT sound like that. It's not meant to and it means the vocal folds aren't coming together properly. The escaping air only grates against the folds and creates problems like callouses, polyps, abrasions, etc. Simply put, it means this: if you have to have surgery at any point, you're done.

With Hayley, it's more a question of talent. She's only so-so. Why have tastes gone so downhill as to take someone with a half-decent classical voice and say they're the new Renee Fleming? Or Maria Callas or whoever? Half of these so-called "new classical voices" don't even deserve to be in the same ROOM with people like Pavarotti or Callas. Hayley and Charlotte couldn't sing an opera if their lives depended on it. A classical sounding voice does NOT mean "opera voice." First of all, opera is something you train for over years and years. Hayley is 17. Charlotte is 18. The voice doesn't stop maturing until the early to mid-30s. Probably a little earlier, for women. But, people don't know this because they don't bother. They just listen to their Usher and their Justin Timberlake and go on their merry way, thinking that Hayley and Charlotte are some real jewels. They're jewels all right...the kind that are made of glass...

As for performers, Sarah Chang comes to mind. She's a violinist from Philly. Now, she actually has some semblance of talent. But I listened to her "Méditation from Thaïs" and had I not known better, I would have thought it was Joshua Bell. She basically just ripped off his performance. Who's her next subject? Heifetz? Kriesler? It's like those horrible tribute CDs you see..."Sarah Chang plays Fritz Kriesler...AS KRIESLER." People are so afraid to divert from this formula that even classical music stats sounding same-ish. All the same stuff gets regurgitated--excuse me! recorded--and you have one massive "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik" orgy. And not to knock Beethoven but HOW many times do I have to hear the opening notes of the 5th?

Want to listen to something groundbreaking? Listen to "Short Trip Home." It's an album by Edgar Meyer, Joshua Bell, Mike Marshall and Sam O'Connor. It's entirely bluegrass. Using only a bass (fiddle, not guitar), mandolin, banjo, violin and fiddle. Amazing stuff. It gets a little same-y at some points but in all, it's a hell of a lot better than most of what's out there. If nothing else, at least they're trying to bring different music into the public consciousness.

Speaking of Beethoven, you think he would be happy to see the state of music? The man would go on a rampage. HE didn't put his butt on the line composing revolutionary new stuff to see it so familiarized. And yeah, if you started messing with his interpretations, he'd probably get pissed. But I think that secretly, he would have liked it. As long as the interpretations are faithful to what he wrote, I think he might even enjoy it. Isn't that what music is about anyway? Creating? What ever happened to that idea? It got in the way of profit, that's what.

Monday, August 01, 2005


When I visited my friend, Jeff on Sunday afternoon the topic came around to Zubin Mehta's Brahms. Jeff, being the diplomatic individual that he is, tried to skirt the issue by saying how much he enjoyed the Vienna Philharmonic performance that Mehta turned out in the late 1970s. My date for the afternoon, however insisted that Mehta's 1970's recordings with the New York Philharmonic of the Brahms Symphonies (the 2nd in particular) were some of the best recordings out there. Luckily--or maybe not so--I had the opportunity to listen to some of these God-awful recordings the next day. And I have to give my friend credit where credit is due. These were truly horrible recordings.

At the risk of sounding picky, I really have to take issue with Mehta and the New York Philharmonic. Zubin Mehta did a fine job when it came to building the Los Angeles Philharmonic, but his Brahms ( or for that matter, ANY composer) with the New York Philharmonic left a lot to be desired. The string sections have always sounded a little too thin for my tastes, and in Mehta's hands they took on an undisciplined characteristic which annoyed me to no end. Indeed, I always had the feeling that the string section itself was out of balance: as if the violins were too loud and too shrill; the violas all but not existent, leaving a huge gap between the celli and the double basses, which themselves were lacking in strength and discipline. As for the timpani....I could have done better with a tin can and a pencil.

The end result was an entire orchestra which was out of kilter, with anemic violas, celli, and double bases, while a shrill, over-emphasized violin section competed with ear-piercing flutes and trumpets. Moreover, the playing/conducting left a lot to be desired. I expect Brahms to sound rich, luxurious, gentle, conlficted, and impassioned-- as a romanitc composer should sound--and the lack of precision playing from Mehta and the orchestra offered little to nothing in those characteristics. I had trouble with the tempi as well which seemed just a little on the rushed side, but that might have been because the orchestra truly revealed its weaknesses in slow, sustained passages. Overall, I had the distinct impression that I was listening to a rehearsal, not the actual recording. Indeed, there were moments when I thought I was listening to either a very good high school orchestra or a very bad chamber orchestra.

For those who are interested in the Brahms Symphonies,there are plenty of fine recordings out there--some more available than others. For those of you who are keen on historical performances, I would suggest Wilhelm Furtwangler conducting the Berlin Philharmonic. If you're more into modern performances I would recommend either the Berlin Philharmonic under Herbert Von Karajan; the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Sir Georg Solti; the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Erich Leinsdorf and the Philharmonia Orchestra under Otto Klemperer. Any of these sets, if you are lucky enough to encounter them, should present Brahms in the hands of capable musicians.

And yet, I have to admit, that the Vienna Philharmonic performance is to die for. Regrettably I heard it for the first time on a scratchy LP, but beneath the many technical problems which were so common to vinyl recordings, there was a wonderful rendition here. Rich, sensuous strings, golden horns; mellow woodwinds under virtuosic conducting. And to be fair to the New York Philharmonic, I rather enjoyed watching it come back to life once Mehta did the crew a favor ad stepped down from the podium.

As for the New York Philharmonic performances...If you should ever encounter them in CD or LP? Do yourself a favor and leave them where they are. Failing that you might consider ignoring all those warnings against leaving them in the sun on the back seat of your car on a 90 degree day.

Saturday, July 30, 2005


Whenever the topic of music comes around, people almost invariably ask what I listen to; and when I say "classical" they invariably look at me and wonder out loud, "why?" To which I almost invariably respond, "why not?"

My conversion from pop culture (an oxymoron if ever there were one) to classical took place in the late 1970s. For those of you who are too young to remember the 70s or who were too stoned to remember them, this was the age of disco when all the tunes began to sound alike, when the beat was the same in almost every similar tune, and when sane people began to ask themselves: "Do we really want to be doing "The Hustle" when we're in our thirties and forties?"

In my case the answer was a resounding "NO!" I had already been familiarized with a certain amount of classical. First through the obligatory grade school production of "The Nutcracker," and then through the film score of "2002: A SPACE ODYSSEY." Later, in 1977, I would take the official and permanent dive when I both, discovered the orchestra soundtrack to "STAR WARS: A NEW HOPE," and came across a pair of Classical music stations in northern Illinois (WNIU-89.5 FM out of DeKalb/Rockford, and WFMT 98.7 out of Chicago).

I knew my life had changed the first time that I heard the Beethoven "SYMPHONY NUMBER 9 IN D MINOR, 'THE CHORAL' OPUS 125." Initially, I stuck to Beethoven, getting accustomed to the symphonies and concerti and then gradually fanning out to sample the sonatas, chamber works, choral works, FIDELIO, and finally the more obscure masterpieces. Once I seemed to understand what Beethoven was all about, I began to sample other composers. Bach, Brahms, and Chopin were next, followed by Schubert, Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff. I still wasn't into opera, but that changed when a friend introduced me to--of all things--a Sondheim musical, the infamous "SWEENEY TODD, THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET," which, for some odd reason led me into the operas of Mozart (think "DON GIOVANNI" and "THE MAGIC FLUTE," followed in turn by "THE MARRIAGE OF FIGARO," and "LA CLEMENZA DI TITO," etc). Mozart opera led me back into Franz Josef Haydn and Mozart in general: the symphonies, concerti, chamber works, ad infinitum. At the same time my interest in SWEENEY TODD led me (naturally) into Mahler, who put me on a path which led to Richard Strauss, Anton Bruckner, and--of course--Richard Wagner. As you can tell by now, I was gravitating towards the heavy Germans, but then a friend recommended Maurice Ravel and Claude Debussy. All right, it took a few years before I could appreciate French Impressionism in music. But the ironic thing about all of this is that when I finally learned to appreciate Ravel and Debussy, it did not come through the standard, "BOLERO," but through Ravel's ballet "DAPHNIS and CHLOE," the "G MAJOR PIANO CONCERTO," and the "D MAJOR PIANO CONCERTO FOR THE LEFT HAND." These were followed quickly by Debussy's "THREE NOCTURNES" and the haunting "PRELUDE TO THE AFTERNOON OF A FAUN." Of course I had no sooner developed an interest in the French "impressionists" but what I discovered one of Ravel's orchestration pupils, an English composer, named Ralph Vaughn Williams.

To make a long story short, it didn't take long before I wanted to collect the various pieces I had been listening to into a personal collection. Today, my shelves are crammed full of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of volumes which are in desperate need of filing and labeling. And yet, some reason, I still collect. From time to time I ask myself "why?" And the answer keeps going back to the 70s.

At a certain point pop music no longer presented a challenge. Nor was it especially attractive. Maybe it's me, but I tend to be attracted to music which requires a certain degree of patience. Maybe I outgrew the attention deficit disorder that all males go through in their late teens and early twenties. Or, perhaps the music itself had something to do with it.

When I listen to Beethoven--and you might as well know that Beethoven remains my absolute favorite to this very day--I find myself transported to another place and time. Indeed, there are moments when that time and place seems to beyond the natural confines of the natural universe. Classical music, Beethoven in particular, is about something. You can feel the emotional and psychological state of the composer. True, a little in in the way of musical education and some knowledge about the composers' lives didn't hurt, but for the most part the music tends to speak for itself. No, you can't tell that Beethoven was in a deep, nearly suicidal depression when he wrote his jubilant "SYMPHONY NUMBER 2 IN D, OPUS 36," but from the twists and turns that the SECOND takes at nearly every turn you understand that the man and his art were/are a lot more complicated than anything KC and the Sunshine Band might have to offer.

At any rate, my conversion began officially in 1977 and was completed by 1979. At that point I had more or less parted company with pop culture, although I did develop side interests in folk, jazz, and world music, none of which rivaled my affection for the great masters and their creations.

So, if you still need to ask I can only tell you this. Classical never fails to satisfy. It requires participation on the part of the listener. It asks you to become involved, unlike popular culture which does to you and turns you into a passive zombie. Moreover, when listening to Beethoven I get a feeling that each note is meant to follow the last; there is structure, not only in the music but in life, and perhaps in the universe itself.

I suppose that in some ways you might say that's the felling that someone might get from communing with a god.

July 30, 2005