Thursday, June 28, 2012

From Russia with Dangerous Love

courtesy Wikipedia

Given its overwhelming popularity, direct emotional power and heart breaking lyricism it's hard to believe that Peter Tchaikovsky approached the Pushkin text with reservations. His concern, which I think gives it a touch of modernity, is its episodic nature. I will admit a personal prejudice - it was the first opera I ever saw at the Met, back "When Moses wore short pants" from the Crows Nest or the Nose Bleed section. None of that mattered I have loved Eugene Onegin from that first hearing to this day. I have also been interested with the way the story renews itself. It has been filmed in the last decade or so with Ralph Finnes and was used as a symbolic touchstone in the filming of Patricia Highsmith's powerful The Talented Mr. Ripley. It moves Tom Ripley to see how youthful emotions of love, covetousness and jealousy lead to murder.

Eugene Onegin tears away the facade of both innocence and experience. These "young people" are capable of not only powerful feeling, but incredible acts of destruction. The early effusions of Tatyana and Onegin are a storm of real desire and impulsiveness that once unleashed are impossible to control. Later, when they meet again, they are the captive of the reverse of wild and free expression. They have learned decorum, renunciation and conformity. In both instances truth is sacrificed to form, in Act One by Onegin and in Act Two by Tatyana.

The plot is on the surface the simplest thing in the world. Aloof and urbane, Onegin descends on the countryside. Local girls are wowed and provincial egos and hearts are threatened. Unfortunately for everyone no one is as "civilized" as they seem. Tatyana opens her heart and has it crushed by Onegin's brutal rejection. Worse his cruelty is a pose. He will kill his friend Lensky in a duel over something that could easily have been avoided. They are savage children on the rampage. Still, underneath all the self - deception and blind subjectivity is love and authenticity trying to break out, but they fail utterly and the result as a character ruefully remarks in Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility as another character blunders from one impetus choice to another, she warns "You must control yourself or none of us shall have happy lives".  This true, beating heart of the opera Tchaikovsky expresses in ravishing lyricism; first the Letter Scene:

                                             Uvi ! ne silakh ya vladyet svoyei dushoi !

                                  Alas, I have not the strength to subue my heart !

                                                        I will confess all! Courage! 

And then Lenski horrifyingly walks to his death as when neither, he or Onegin will back down from social embarrassment:

                                                      Kuda, Kuda kuda vi udalilis,

                                                  Where oh where have you gone,

                                                        golden days of my youth ?

The operas three great acts give us innocent confession, then social manipulation and finally after a senseless murder by way of a duel. A lifetime of searching and regret subdued finally by a retreat into stoicism, after the terrible trauma of these events. In the third act Tatyana confesses that she in fact does "still love Onegin" but she will not leave with him. She speaks of responsibility, but there is a fatal, sadness and fear in this renunciation. Tchaikovsky illustrates in music of this arc of emotional transformation as he communicates levels of enthusiasm to confusion, then rejection, to violence and finally regret and the search for meaning and contrition are one of the great achievements of Romantic Music. This feeling stuff he tells his audience is serious business. The real life Pushkin would himself perish at the height of his powers in just such a duel, age 37, in 1837. 

courtesy Wikipedia

Tune in this Saturday at noon for Tchaikovsky's masterful adaptation of Pushkin's novel in verse, Eugene Onegin. Here at noon on KPAC and KTXI  

by Ron Moore

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Top Ten American Composers

American Flag, in the public domain

As July Fourth approaches, we thought another Top Ten list would be nice for America's birthday, and so here are great living American composers you should listen to this summer!

10. Walter Mays (hear the Pro Arte Quartet play his String Quartet in g minor)
9. Andrew Waggoner (listen to a recent interview)
8. Mason Bates (Mimi Stillman plays Elements)
7. John Adams (St. Louis Symphony plays Dr. Atomic Symphony)
6. Steve Reich (great video interview about influences)
5. Kevin Puts (Einstein on Mercer Street with the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble)
4. Christopher Rouse (Elinor Frey plays Ricordanza)
3. Steven Stucky (new release of August 4, 1964)
2. Jennifer Higdon (has a new cd from Ft. Worth Symphony)

and the number one living American composer you should give a listen:
Augusta Read Thomas,
photo by Jason Smith used with permission

1. Augusta Read Thomas (The Lincoln Trio plays her Moon Jig)

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

New out of Big D

Clare and Stucky in San Antonio
Just out today (June 26, 2012) is Pulitzer Prize winning composer Steven Stucky's August 4, 1964. An evening length work we wrote about around the premiere, it is now available on compact disc and digital download.
 There is a lot to love about this work, and after having performances in Dallas and New York City's Carnegie Hall, listeners everywhere can enjoy this recording! Especially moving is "August Fourth" sung by Kristine Jepson, Indira Mahajan and Rodney Gilfry. Central to August 4, 1964 is an all orchestra interlude Elegy - moving as Barber's Adagio and not yet overused! It serves as a perfect function, allowing the soloists rest and further setting the mood.
Gene Scheer's libretto is also fitting without bias or ornamentation. In The Secret Heart of America (movement 5) the writing shifts between President Johnson's March 1965 speech to Congress "We shall overcome" and Mrs. Chaney's family story of her grandfather's farm - absolutely brilliant! (And ironic that neither are from the actual day, August 4,1964.)
I spoke to Stucky and Scheer in Dallas the week of the premiere:

Now released! (courtesy of Dallas Symphony)
From the DSO site: "Previous DSO Live releases distributed by Naxos include Beethoven's Fifth and Seventh Symphonies; Tchaikovsky's Fourth and Fifth Symphonies, Capriccio Italien and Mozartiana Suite, all conducted by Jaap van Zweden. These recordings are available for download on iTunes, and other leading stores and websites. The DSO released its first recording in 1946, and has since grown its catalog to more than 75 recordings under such eminent conductors as Antal Dorati, Walter Hendl, Donald Johanos, Eduardo Mata and Andrew Litton."

- Host John Clare

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Prokofiev: Cinderella and Romeo & Juliet

The opportunity afforded me this year by the double-Prokofiev season of the Houston Ballet has been terrific. Not only did I have the chance to see Prokofiev’s Cinderella, fully staged a couple of months ago, but this weekend I returned to see what is undoubtedly Prokofiev’s most important ballet: Romeo and Juliet.

For more than 60% of my lifetime, my experience with ballet has been mostly as a pit musician. I wouldn’t trade it for anything, though there is always a sense of missing something when in the confines of the pit. I’ve endured it for years, craning my neck in rehearsals, and even performances, to get a fleeting glimpse of the action which might be at the very front of the stage. Sometimes the great singers would come for the fully staged opera seasons in San Antonio, ages ago, and a Beverly Sills, or Donald Gramm, might intentionally come forward on the stage in order to better connect with the accompanying musicians. Of course, now and then a musician might actually be assigned a passage to be played either onstage, or offstage, in the wings of the stage. The point of this is that working orchestral musicians don’t often get to enjoy the stagecraft, nor do they get the full experience of a Rosenkavalier, or Traviata, or Rodeo.

I do have especially fond memories of the mini-seasons the Joffrey Ballet used to give in San Antonio. On rare occasions, I would have the opportunity to actually view a performance from the audience perspective. Copland’s Rodeo required only 2 horns in the pit, so I got to witness some of the most American, and athletic, ballet I have ever seen. Same with the Joffrey’s performance of the bold anti-war classic The Green Table. But I digress (willingly).

In the case of Prokofiev’s stage works, I have only played War and Peace in anything resembling staged. In fact, it was a semi-staged performance, in San Antonio, conducted by Sarah Caldwell. Yes, I’ve played extended suites from Cinderella and Romeo and Juliet, but only in orchestral form. That’s why the recent opportunity to see both of these Prokofiev masterworks from the public side of the proscenium has been so special. First, there was Cinderella, in a choreography by the Houston Ballet’s resident Artistic Director, Stanton Welch. Sources in the orchestra, from whom I got my prized complimentary tickets, thought the Cinderella was a bit twisted and quirky. Of course, they hadn’t actually seen the show; they were relying on comments heard from the dancers. And maybe they were right, though I thought the quirks were entertaining and well executed. I came away from the Cinderella experience quite moved by the power of the art of dance with great music. I also drove back home to San Antonio with a genuine respect for the Houston Ballet and its musicians. Brava to my friend Margaret Ayer for the quarter century she has put into the horn section. She always told me it was a fine orchestra, and now I knew she was right.

This week, I have been keenly anticipating the weekend trip to Houston for the Houston Ballet’s season closing staging of Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet. How would it compare with Cinderella, still fresh in my memory? Will Romeo and Juliet truly prove itself the superior work of the two? Will the orchestra impress me as much as it had on first hearing? And how would my friend Margaret be feeling about these performances? She had made the difficult decision to step away from the job at the end of this 2011-2012 season. I knew this couldn’t be easy. Margaret outdid herself with the tickets she scored for R&J. I got a great seat in the orchestra section, 6th row from the front. From there I could hear every detail within the orchestra and, more impressively, I could see every gesture from the excellent company of principal and company dancers. One word – WOW!

This was the Ben Stevenson choreography, dating back to 1987. I say this not as a ballet snob, for I am no where near, but because of the opinions I hear from within the Houston company. There are preferences and prejudices in every direction contrasting the company's work with Mr. Stevenson (he was Artistic Director from 1976-2003) and his successor, Stanton Welch. It was interesting for me to see Mr. Welch's Cinderella and Mr. Stevenson's Romeo and Juliet; I enjoyed both immensely. Interestingly, they both had little twists and quirks. I loved that Cinderella was a bit of a tom-boy, and the zombie dance in the graveyard scene (also in Cinderella) was both funny and twisted. Regarding Ben Stevenson's Romeo and Juliet, I found it interesting that he portrayed the Montagues as a much more footloose clan of the streets, intent on joking and provoking the Capulets, especially Tybalt, who had little patience for it.

Of course, the real story is the love between Romeo and Juliet, and that is amplified by the deeply moving music of Prokofiev. As with his Cinderella score, Prokofiev is an expert at providing the prescribed solo, duet and ensemble numbers which are expected in ballet. But in skilled hands, both those of the composer and the choreographer, these dances are much more than just filigree or athletics. Also apparent is that these are great fun for the dancers. And before I get to the emotionally charged performances by the principals, I must praise the attention to every detail so impressively realized in Houston. If the audience could pull its focus away from the center stage event, the viewer would find the periphery just as entertaining, albeit in a different manner, ranging from young thieves stealing loaves of bread from the street vendor, to amorous couples in the implied alleyways.

Venezuelan born Karina Gonzalez danced Juliet to Ian Casady's Romeo in the matinee performance I witnessed. Amazingly, Ms. Gonzalez is not among the principals or first soloists in the roster. She is in the third rank of soloist. This, I suppose, gives remarkable evidence of the depth of this company, for her performance was amazing. She played the character exactly right – as a girl just on the cusp of womanhood. It wasn't so much physical womanhood as emotional coming of age. And, or course, Prokofiev's music perfectly underscored that moment of first love. The balcony scene moved me to tears, as did the final scene at the Capulet's crypt. There is still no explanation of why art grips us as it does, why it reaches within our breasts and squeezes our hearts. I'm not sure there should ever be an explanation. It is best to simply allow music, dance, painting, theater, literature (the list goes on) to make us laugh, to make us cry, to overwhelm us emotionally. Every living soul needs such nurture. It's why we must never allow the lights to go dark on the arts. This is the food for our souls and we must continue to cultivate it at every corner.

-James Baker

Mozart's Last Opera, La Clemenza di Tito

courtesy of Wikipedia

Constanza Mozart is pregnant and resting at a spa; Wolfgang is in the midst of the completion of The Magic Flute and into this hectic time comes a commission from Prague and Mozart benefits because Salieri is too busy! And as the commissioner explains, the clock is ticking. Arguments vary as to just how astonishing Mozart's response is; some say he completed the work in eighteen days. Others say perhaps two months or (as I suspect) about six - seven weeks; mid July to late August. The opera premieres in either case September 6,1791. As they say, you can't make these things up ...

In this,these final years of life 1789-91  he has also written two great instrumental masterworks: the Clarinet Quintet and the great Concerto for Clarinet, the opera comes between the two. These inspired by the superb instrumentalist Anton Stadler. With the prospect of now doubling his Viennese fee for The Magic Flute, Mozart plunges into the composition of La Clemenza di Tito. An unforeseen trilogy of works will bear Stadler's imprint as Mozart inserts within the opera two virtuoso arias for soprano, with clarinet or basset horn again inspired by the clarinetist's playing.
                                       Parto, parto ma tu ben mio,
                                           meco ritorna in pace ;
                                                      I go, but my beloved,
                                                           make peace with me once more ;
                                                     Non piu di fiori
                                                         vaghe catene
                                                                        No longer will Hymen
                                                                           descend to weave
                                                                               lovely garlands
                                                                                   of flowers
It is I think fitting that we present La Clemenza after Ernani. We encounter two worlds of sensibility, Verdi's Romantic world of tragic vengeance and Mozart's hymn to the Age of Reason and the Dream of the Enlightenment. Two noblemen are presented with both a choice and an opportunity; to yield to the baser instincts or transcend themselves and we receive two very different responses. Our Emperor of Rome is entangled in a both political and emotional choice. He is to marry and chooses a woman loved by a friend. At the same time, a woman who believes she should be Empress goads her lover (the same friend) to assassinate the Emperor. The Emperor learning of the love of Servilia and Annio withdraws the marriage proposal and in fact chooses Vitellia. She has, thinking herself betrayed by his earlier choice of another convinces Sesto, who loves her and is the Emperor's friend to kill him and burn down the capitol. What must the Emperor now do and what informs his choices ? Political action, emotional upheaval, the fate of the state and moral examination meet with a most unforeseen outcome ...   

courtesy of Wikipedia

 Please join us for this Saturday Afternoon at the Opera presentation of Mozart's La Clemenza di Tito, in a recording new to the library and a cast that includes: Anthony Rolfe Johnson, Sophie von Otter, McNair and Julia Varady with John Eliot Gardiner directing his English Baroque Solists and the Monteverdi Choir. It all starts at noon here on KPAC and KTXI.

by Ron Moore

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

YOSA: Pop-Up Orchestra at IAH

The Youth Orchestras of San Antonio are in the United Kingdom this week for a concert tour that includes performances in Liverpool, Cardiff, and London.  We'll be sharing some of the highlights online here, and you can also follow their official blog at

Before they hopped on the plane that would carry them across the pond, members of the group decided to stage a pop-up concert performance at the George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston.  Watch below as they perform Belgian songwriter Gotye's "Somebody I Used to Know."

Friday, June 15, 2012

Verdi's Ernani, Less IS More

The opera Ernani of 1844 finds the young Giuseppe Verdi (he's about thirty-one) in the midst of a series of transformations that will lead to his middle period with its' astonishing successes and discovery of his "true style."

The initial arrangement, that finds him writing for the intimate La Fenice in Venice as opposed to the vast stage of Milan's La Scala, is part of an intention to probe more deeply the idea of character. He has his reasons which include a handsome fee, a rejection of the tradition of the house dictating subject and librettist and finally the shaping of a new style where he shorns away the drama of vast choruses and pursues a complex intimate drama of characters in perpetual evolution. The result is a kaleidoscopic work of great emotional and musical complexity and richness. Finally in a struggle with singers and management Verdi even changes the tradition (going back to the baroque world of Handel) of the hero as a trousers role; our contralto becomes the modern tenor ! So great were Verdi's changes that Victor Hugo was outraged that his work had been altered beyond all recognition.

The opera's four acts are dense and swift. It begins in the mountains where Ernani lives the outlaw's life; the future King has murdered his father and now Ernani swears revenge. His men sing of their allegiance. Then we are in the De Silva castle.The older noble intends to force a marriage on Ernani's beloved Elvira and she gives us the powerful and now famous Ernani, Involami :
                                                          Ernani ! Ernani , involami
                                                            all'abborrito amplesso.
                                                     Ernani ! Ernani, carry me away
                                                       from that abhorred embrace 
                                                                        Let us fly ...

In a breathless sequence of events Ernani and De Silva become enemies and rivals for Elvira.Then the future King, Don Carlo appears a second and more dangerous rival. Elvira threatens suicide rather than wed another. Then the King demands Ernani from De Silva, who refuses insisting on the observation of the rules of hospitality. De Silva discovers that the King loves and threatens to abduct his bride to be. The matrix changes again, incredibly, as Ernani and De Silva strike an alliance and swear a portentous oath. De Silva may kill Ernani whenever he wishes, by the blowing of a horn, after he has murdered the King in revenge of his family honor. As the mad sequence progresses with his ascension to the throne of the Holy Roman Empire, Carlo the King undergoes a change of character. He now agrees to the marriage of his one time rival and proposed assassin. Now Ernani has all he wishes but in violation of his earlier oath as his bride to be dreams of their future happiness ... 

Tune in for the surprising end of Verdi's Ernani, with a cast recorded live from the Met in 1962 including Carlo Bergonzi and Leontyne Price with Thomas Schippers conducting. That's Saturday at noon here on KPAC and KTXI. 

by Ron Moore

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Classical Spotlight: Summer

Troy Peters, photo by TPR
The concert season is winding down and so is Classical Spotlight. We'll feature concerts and new releases on this show, from the Alamo City Men's Chorus and composer Andrew Waggoner. YOSA heads to jolly ol' England and we'll talk with Troy Peters about their pre-Olympic performances in Cardiff, Wales and London.

Classical Spotlight will return in July for the Cactus Pear Music Festival and the Mozart Festival Texas! Listen Thursday afternoons at 1pm on KPAC & KTXI.

-host John Clare

Monday, June 11, 2012

Classical Dads

used by permission

Father's Day is this Sunday, June 17th. We thought we'd celebrate early with some great father-son/daughter here goes our next Top Ten!

10. Leopold and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
9. Franz and Richard Strauss
8. Sergio and Clarice Assad
7. Alfred and Adrian Brendel
6. Erich and Carlos Kleiber
5. George and David Crumb
4. Michael and Alan Gilbert
3. Johann and his sons Johann II, Eduard and Josef Strauss
2. Long and Nancy Zhou

Johann Sebastian Bach in a portrait by
Elias Gottlob Haussmann, in the public
domain in the United States.
and the number one Classical dad is...

1. Johann Sebastian and CPE, WF, JC, JCF, PDQ et al Bach

No doubt any of these composers/performers cds, dvds, or blue-rays might make a great gift for dad too! How about taking Dad to a concert?

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Goethe, Massenet & Werther

Like Berlioz with his astonishing trilogy Romeo and Juliet, Faust and Benevento Cellini  it was a crucial reading marked by intense affinity that seized Jules Massenet and gave inspiration to his Werther from the earthquake of a novel by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.
For the public at large there are essentially two Goethe's; on the one hand with the troubles of being young and his Werther and later Faust and old age on the other. The scene as described by Georges Hartmann, Massenet's publisher, is set on the return trip from a Bayreuth Festival where he and Massenet had seen Parsifal. On the return the two men stopped at the town of Wetzlar. It was in this place that the young Goethe met and fell desperately in love with Charlotte Buff in the 1770's. So desperately that he believed that to survive the intensity of his passion it had to be sublimated and objectified into a work of art.To read The Sufferings of Young Werther and to be young is one of the great events in any budding romantic life. The book has the power of a natural event in which the passions are raised to the heavens and the two lovers merge with forces of nature and the boundless world of dreams. At its' center is a hopeless love that is none the less real, but cannot be acted on or fulfilled in this world. For the character Werther and the man Goethe the alternative was suicide and real men did die as a result of these feelings at this time. 

As in Tolstoi and Prokofiev's War and Peace all the great themes and scenes are there. To turn it into opera Massenet rightly reduced it to it's essential elements. There is a drama of truth versus duty, passion overwhelming reason and tradition threatened by this revolution in human feeling as Goethe literally drops a bomb on the foundations of the Age of Reason. The conclusion is a terrible settling up of accounts of the heart. Werther cannot and will not ignore his promptings and if need be will be consumed and destroyed by them rather than live out a life of practical renunciation. Charlotte feels as he does but cannot bear the burden, the terrible weight of the consequences of abandoning family, society and the man she is promised to. No one is really right or wrong, but there a choice and not simply of marriage but the implication of "a world of feeling " either embraced or denied; life lived on the dazzling heights or in the pallid lowlands. 
There are no end to great melodic moments and some of operas most memorable are in this work. Pourquoi me reveiller ; O Nature pleine de grace and Charlotte's shattering collapse :
                                             Va! Laisse couler mes larmes,
                                                 elles font du bien, ma cherie !
                                                                      Oh, let my tears flow,
                                                                           they do me good, my dear !
                                                                               The tears that go unshed
                                                                                      all fall back into the soul ... 
The last scene that on paper looks ridiculous as Werther has already shot himself and must sing lying on the ground, actually works. I saw it years ago with Shicoff and von Stade and the music carries the day. Death is announced in the beginning and there is only the matter of how we intend to confront it that defines us and our relation to this extreme and uncompromising love, at once gift and curse. 
Tune in for this Saturday Afternoon at the Opera and hear from the present generation of opera singers and conductor. Live from Covent Garden with Rolando Villazon, Sophie Koch and Antonio Pappano. Here at noon on KPAC and KTXI. 
by Ron Moore

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

More (cow) Bell

Josh Bell and John Clare, photo by Michele Krier
Joshua Bell is in the news again, not with the ASMF or in the DC subways, but with Carnegie Hall and the new  National Youth Orchestra! From the press release: Carnegie Hall today announced that renowned American violinist Joshua Bell will be the featured soloist for the debut performances by the National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America (NYO-USA), a major new initiative that, beginning in summer 2013, will bring together the most talented young orchestral players, ages 16–19, from across the United States. Under the baton of conductor Valery Gergiev, Mr. Bell and the orchestra will perform Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto. Following a two-week residency at Purchase College, State University of New York, the NYO-USA will make its debut at Washington DC’s Kennedy Center, followed by its first exciting international tour, including stops in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and London. In addition to the Tchaikovsky concerto with Mr. Bell, the orchestra’s concert program will include a new work by young American composer Sean Shepherd, co-commissioned by Carnegie Hall for NYO-USA, and Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 10. 
 It was also announced that James Ross, associate director of The Juilliard School’s conducting program and artistic director of the National Orchestral Institute at the University of Maryland, will lead the NYO-USA faculty in 2013. Comprising some of the finest players and section leaders from America’s greatest orchestras and music schools, the faculty will oversee rehearsals during the orchestra’s residency in Purchase and will conduct master classes, chamber music readings, and other seminars on essential music skills, all leading up to the launch of the international tour.
- Host John Clare

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Classical Spotlight: Rounding out the summer

Nicolas Gilles, with a cello he created
 - photo by John Clare
As the regular concert season closes, a few more concerts and releases entertain South Texas. Round Top International Music Festival has its 40th season and violinist Angele Dubeau has a summer blockbuster, A Time For Us!
Exciting times at Terra Nova Violins as renowned Luthier Nicolas Gilles visited San Antonio with a new violin and cello! Hear about all of these on Classical Spotlight, Thursday afternoon at 1pm on KPAC & KTXI.
- host John Clare