Commentary Magazine


Topic: conductor

The $239,148 Railroad Conductor

When even the New York Times starts running stories on how overpaid government workers are, you know the topic is getting traction.

In this one, the Times reports that more than 8,000 employees of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which runs New York City’s subways and commuter railroads, made more than $100,000 last year. One conductor on the Long Island Railroad made $239,148. That’s more than the MTA’s chief financial officer made. How did he do it? Simple. His base salary was $67,772, and he earned overtime of about $67,000. And he cashed in his accumulated sick days and unused vacation days. He retired in April 2010, and his pension, of course, will be based on his earnings in his last few years.

Allowing soon-to-retire employees to rack up huge amounts of overtime in their last year is standard procedure in many government organizations. The MTA paid overtime amounting to $560 million last year and is currently planning service cuts to eliminate a $400 million shortfall in revenues. I hope the passengers who find themselves standing for long periods of time on platforms in the snow and rain next winter realize that they are doing so in order that some retired conductor can live in comfort in Florida.

There are few corporations that allow employees to accumulate vacation days. They must use them for vacations or lose them. Likewise with sick days. The whole point of sick days is to ensure that employees are not penalized financially if and when they get sick. But the public-employees’ unions and the government agencies that negotiate with them have perverted sick days into a bonus, paid at retirement, for not getting sick. This perversion is then compounded by using the payment to swell the pension received after retirement.

The Democrats are hopelessly in bed with the unions, but Republicans, who won’t get a dime of union money anyway, can earn a lot of votes by calling for reforming how pensions are calculated and for a freeze to wages and benefits until public-sector compensation is brought into line with that of the private sector.

When even the New York Times starts running stories on how overpaid government workers are, you know the topic is getting traction.

In this one, the Times reports that more than 8,000 employees of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which runs New York City’s subways and commuter railroads, made more than $100,000 last year. One conductor on the Long Island Railroad made $239,148. That’s more than the MTA’s chief financial officer made. How did he do it? Simple. His base salary was $67,772, and he earned overtime of about $67,000. And he cashed in his accumulated sick days and unused vacation days. He retired in April 2010, and his pension, of course, will be based on his earnings in his last few years.

Allowing soon-to-retire employees to rack up huge amounts of overtime in their last year is standard procedure in many government organizations. The MTA paid overtime amounting to $560 million last year and is currently planning service cuts to eliminate a $400 million shortfall in revenues. I hope the passengers who find themselves standing for long periods of time on platforms in the snow and rain next winter realize that they are doing so in order that some retired conductor can live in comfort in Florida.

There are few corporations that allow employees to accumulate vacation days. They must use them for vacations or lose them. Likewise with sick days. The whole point of sick days is to ensure that employees are not penalized financially if and when they get sick. But the public-employees’ unions and the government agencies that negotiate with them have perverted sick days into a bonus, paid at retirement, for not getting sick. This perversion is then compounded by using the payment to swell the pension received after retirement.

The Democrats are hopelessly in bed with the unions, but Republicans, who won’t get a dime of union money anyway, can earn a lot of votes by calling for reforming how pensions are calculated and for a freeze to wages and benefits until public-sector compensation is brought into line with that of the private sector.

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Bookshelf

In case you’re wondering where I’ve been, I spent most of the past two weeks working on an opera libretto (about which more later) and writing the concluing chapters of my latest book, Rhythm Man: A Life of Louis Armstrong, which is now finished (you can read all about it here).

My world has thus been far more narrowly circumscribed than usual, and so it was a relief to read about something completely different the other day, the something in question being the life and music of Sir Edward Elgar, one of my favorite composers.

When I last wrote about Elgar for COMMENTARY four years ago, I speculated that a revival of his music might be in the offing:

My own guess is that Elgar awaits a generation of charismatic young performers who will do for him what Leonard Bernstein did for Mahler in the 60′s. It has long seemed to me that his best music is ripe for revival, not least because of its individuality. “I hold nothing back,” he said, and it was the truth. All that he thought and felt went into his compositions, which are so unguarded at times as to make the reticent listener squirm.

Alas, it hasn’t happened yet, though Hilary Hahn, the most gifted and satisfying young violinist to come along in years, did release a remarkable recording of Elgar’s B Minor Violin Concerto later that year (DGG B0003026-02GM) and play the piece in concert with the New York Philharmonic. I heard her performance and wrote that it was “so beautiful that I expect to remember it as long as I live.” One recording does not a revival make, but it doesn’t hurt, either, and neither did the publication that same year of The Life of Elgar (Cambridge, $26 paper), a penetrating brief life by Michael Kennedy that is the best short discussion of Elgar that has been published to date.

While I don’t expect to see Kennedy’s book bettered any time soon, Elgar was big enough, both as an artist and as a man, to profit from being viewed from multiple perspectives. Elgar: An Anniversary Portrait (Continuum, $33), a collection of essays edited by Nicholas Kenyon, offers several different and provocative points of view from which to consider Elgar’s achievement. I was especially pleased that Kenyon invited a number of performers to contribute to the book. It is always valuable to hear from working musicians about the works they perform, and Tasmin Little’s essay about the Elgar Violin Concerto, in which she talks about what it feels like to play that exceedingly English piece with a foreign orchestra and conductor, is highly instructive. So, too, is Stephen Hough’s thoughtful essay on the composer’s Catholicism, in which he discusses how The Dream of Gerontius, Elgar’s dramatic oratorio after the poem by Cardinal Newman, alienated those who heard its first performance at the Birmingham Festival in 1900: “England was a deeply Protestant country, and such a subject choice would be a little like selecting a Talmudic text for an Islamic festival commission.”

When the critics and scholars speak in Elgar: An Anniversary Portrait, it is to no less valuable effect. Best of all is David Cannadine’s “Orchestrating His Own Life: Sir Edward Elgar as a Historical Personality,” which takes a hard-nosed view of Elgar’s relationship with the British ruling class, with which he claimed, not unconvincingly, to be at odds:

This was the man who married for money (one hundred pounds a year) and status at least as much as for love and reassurance; who sought and cultivated aristocratic and plutocratic friends to promote his music and his cause; who did all he could to ingratiate himself at the courts of Queen Victoria, King Edward VII and King George V; who never refused an honour and who was disappointed not to receive more of them; and who hoped “some day to do a great work-a sort of national thing that my fellow Englishmen might take to themselves and love.”

The only essay in Elgar: An Anniversary Portrait that disappointed me was Yehudi Menuhin’s reminiscence of the composer, which is full of his usual vaporous blather. Otherwise the book is a gem, smart and concise and entirely to the point.

In case you’re wondering where I’ve been, I spent most of the past two weeks working on an opera libretto (about which more later) and writing the concluing chapters of my latest book, Rhythm Man: A Life of Louis Armstrong, which is now finished (you can read all about it here).

My world has thus been far more narrowly circumscribed than usual, and so it was a relief to read about something completely different the other day, the something in question being the life and music of Sir Edward Elgar, one of my favorite composers.

When I last wrote about Elgar for COMMENTARY four years ago, I speculated that a revival of his music might be in the offing:

My own guess is that Elgar awaits a generation of charismatic young performers who will do for him what Leonard Bernstein did for Mahler in the 60′s. It has long seemed to me that his best music is ripe for revival, not least because of its individuality. “I hold nothing back,” he said, and it was the truth. All that he thought and felt went into his compositions, which are so unguarded at times as to make the reticent listener squirm.

Alas, it hasn’t happened yet, though Hilary Hahn, the most gifted and satisfying young violinist to come along in years, did release a remarkable recording of Elgar’s B Minor Violin Concerto later that year (DGG B0003026-02GM) and play the piece in concert with the New York Philharmonic. I heard her performance and wrote that it was “so beautiful that I expect to remember it as long as I live.” One recording does not a revival make, but it doesn’t hurt, either, and neither did the publication that same year of The Life of Elgar (Cambridge, $26 paper), a penetrating brief life by Michael Kennedy that is the best short discussion of Elgar that has been published to date.

While I don’t expect to see Kennedy’s book bettered any time soon, Elgar was big enough, both as an artist and as a man, to profit from being viewed from multiple perspectives. Elgar: An Anniversary Portrait (Continuum, $33), a collection of essays edited by Nicholas Kenyon, offers several different and provocative points of view from which to consider Elgar’s achievement. I was especially pleased that Kenyon invited a number of performers to contribute to the book. It is always valuable to hear from working musicians about the works they perform, and Tasmin Little’s essay about the Elgar Violin Concerto, in which she talks about what it feels like to play that exceedingly English piece with a foreign orchestra and conductor, is highly instructive. So, too, is Stephen Hough’s thoughtful essay on the composer’s Catholicism, in which he discusses how The Dream of Gerontius, Elgar’s dramatic oratorio after the poem by Cardinal Newman, alienated those who heard its first performance at the Birmingham Festival in 1900: “England was a deeply Protestant country, and such a subject choice would be a little like selecting a Talmudic text for an Islamic festival commission.”

When the critics and scholars speak in Elgar: An Anniversary Portrait, it is to no less valuable effect. Best of all is David Cannadine’s “Orchestrating His Own Life: Sir Edward Elgar as a Historical Personality,” which takes a hard-nosed view of Elgar’s relationship with the British ruling class, with which he claimed, not unconvincingly, to be at odds:

This was the man who married for money (one hundred pounds a year) and status at least as much as for love and reassurance; who sought and cultivated aristocratic and plutocratic friends to promote his music and his cause; who did all he could to ingratiate himself at the courts of Queen Victoria, King Edward VII and King George V; who never refused an honour and who was disappointed not to receive more of them; and who hoped “some day to do a great work-a sort of national thing that my fellow Englishmen might take to themselves and love.”

The only essay in Elgar: An Anniversary Portrait that disappointed me was Yehudi Menuhin’s reminiscence of the composer, which is full of his usual vaporous blather. Otherwise the book is a gem, smart and concise and entirely to the point.

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Peacemaker’s Encore

Oh, good. Daniel Barenboim, the renowned pianist, conductor, and peace activist, has just taken upon himself Palestinian citizenship, as reported in today’s Haaretz. The Argentinian-born Israeli, who once declared Edward Said to be his “most intimate friend,” has made a career of assaulting the Jewish state and supporting what is one of the world’s leading terror regimes.

A critic of Barenboim’s once wrote that “Barenboim, who can do anything in music, has been known to deliver less than musicians with half his ability and intelligence . . . . A courageous idealist who believes that symphonic music can heal human conflict, Barenboim appears to have no idea how to redeem symphonic music from the slough of 21st century human indifference.” But it is not clear that his sense of politics is much more effective. “I believe that the destinies of . . . the Israeli people and the Palestinian people are inextricably linked,” Barenboim said. “We are blessed – or cursed – to live with each other. And I prefer the first.” Such hopes seem remarkably detached not only from the realities on the ground, but from the terror operations emphatically glorified by his newly adoptive nation.

“Now even not very intelligent people,” he added, “are saying that the occupation has to be stopped.” Hm? Whatever.

Oh, good. Daniel Barenboim, the renowned pianist, conductor, and peace activist, has just taken upon himself Palestinian citizenship, as reported in today’s Haaretz. The Argentinian-born Israeli, who once declared Edward Said to be his “most intimate friend,” has made a career of assaulting the Jewish state and supporting what is one of the world’s leading terror regimes.

A critic of Barenboim’s once wrote that “Barenboim, who can do anything in music, has been known to deliver less than musicians with half his ability and intelligence . . . . A courageous idealist who believes that symphonic music can heal human conflict, Barenboim appears to have no idea how to redeem symphonic music from the slough of 21st century human indifference.” But it is not clear that his sense of politics is much more effective. “I believe that the destinies of . . . the Israeli people and the Palestinian people are inextricably linked,” Barenboim said. “We are blessed – or cursed – to live with each other. And I prefer the first.” Such hopes seem remarkably detached not only from the realities on the ground, but from the terror operations emphatically glorified by his newly adoptive nation.

“Now even not very intelligent people,” he added, “are saying that the occupation has to be stopped.” Hm? Whatever.

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What’s Up With Itzhak?

The November 12 announcement that star violinist Itzhak Perlman will conduct the Westchester Philharmonic as its artistic director starting with the 2008-09 season should be an occasion for congratulations. The local Journal News likened the star’s move to “Alex Rodriguez’s coming to the New York Yankees or David Beckham’s playing soccer on this side of the Pond” (doubtlessly without any irony about those problematic sports superstars). Perlman told the Journal News: “I’m a bread-and-butter kind of musician. I like to do my Brahmses, my Mozarts, my Tchaikovskys. It’s fun. Here’s a term for you: Call it ‘comfort music.’”

A major star for over 40 years, Perlman deserves his fame, yet some of his recent appearances seem to confuse comfort with mere laxity. This past May, at a sonata recital presented by Lincoln Center’s Great Performances series, Perlman seemed only intermittently focused on the music of Schubert and Richard Strauss. His automatic, visibly bored delivery in solo appearances has been commented on for several years, usually with euphemistic terms like “disengaged.” Part of the problem may be that twenty years ago in recital, Perlman would program composers like Webern and Hindemith, not just “comfort music.”

For a decade, Perlman has also been conducting orchestras from Tel Aviv to Philadelphia to audience cheers, despite mixed artistic results. When he conducted the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto on a high-profile 2002 Deutsche Grammophon release with the young violinist Ilya Gringolts, the orchestra sounded shapeless and unruly. In 2005, Perlman made his New York Philharmonic conducting debut, again to a mixed reception.

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The November 12 announcement that star violinist Itzhak Perlman will conduct the Westchester Philharmonic as its artistic director starting with the 2008-09 season should be an occasion for congratulations. The local Journal News likened the star’s move to “Alex Rodriguez’s coming to the New York Yankees or David Beckham’s playing soccer on this side of the Pond” (doubtlessly without any irony about those problematic sports superstars). Perlman told the Journal News: “I’m a bread-and-butter kind of musician. I like to do my Brahmses, my Mozarts, my Tchaikovskys. It’s fun. Here’s a term for you: Call it ‘comfort music.’”

A major star for over 40 years, Perlman deserves his fame, yet some of his recent appearances seem to confuse comfort with mere laxity. This past May, at a sonata recital presented by Lincoln Center’s Great Performances series, Perlman seemed only intermittently focused on the music of Schubert and Richard Strauss. His automatic, visibly bored delivery in solo appearances has been commented on for several years, usually with euphemistic terms like “disengaged.” Part of the problem may be that twenty years ago in recital, Perlman would program composers like Webern and Hindemith, not just “comfort music.”

For a decade, Perlman has also been conducting orchestras from Tel Aviv to Philadelphia to audience cheers, despite mixed artistic results. When he conducted the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto on a high-profile 2002 Deutsche Grammophon release with the young violinist Ilya Gringolts, the orchestra sounded shapeless and unruly. In 2005, Perlman made his New York Philharmonic conducting debut, again to a mixed reception.

Instrumentalists who are “naturals” as conductors are few. One example is Peter Oundjian (born 1955), former first violinist of the Tokyo String Quartet, now Music Director of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and Artistic Director of New York’s Caramoor Music Festival. Oundjian has proven a passionate maestro with a real sense of symphonic line, who motivates both orchestral musicians and soloists to surpass themselves artistically. A decade older than Oundjian, Perlman may have left playing for conducting a bit late in his career.

Music fans will always rejoice in the best of Perlman’s sweet-toned, dazzlingly effortless playing, which can be heard on a recently reissued 1965 New York recital with pianist David Garvey, and in the delightful camaraderie of Isaac Stern’s 60th Anniversary Celebration, starring the so-called “Kosher Nostra” of Perlman, Pinchas Zukerman, et al. Perlman is joyously virtuosic in a 1976 Brahms Violin Concerto conducted by Carlo Maria Giulini, in delightful miniatures by Fritz Kreisler, and in a program of rare Romantic works usually only played by students, Concertos from my Childhood.

Itzhak Perlman has won the hearts of a vast music-going public with his emotional playing, indomitable spirit, and sometimes raucous sense of humor. Westchester audiences surely will give him the benefit of the doubt and cheer his on-the-job training as conductor. Yet by the evidence so far, his main achievement looks likely to remain, first and foremost, as a violinist.

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Rafael Kubelík

A splendid DVD from Deutsche Grammophon, Rafael Kubelík: A Portrait, reminds us that multiple tyrannies can govern a conductor’s life. Kubelík (1914 –1996) was a mightily gifted Bohemian-born conductor, scion of a legendary musical family (his father was the superstar violinist Jan Kubelík). Rafael Kubelík was music director of the Brno Opera when the Nazis shut the company down in 1941. A year later they executed the Opera’s administrative director, Václav Jiříkovský (1891-1942), who had smuggled Jews out of Occupied Prague. Small wonder that Kubelík states in a 1970’s documentary (which is reprinted along with brilliant performances of Beethoven, Mozart, and Bruckner on the new DVD), “A conductor should be a guide, not a dictator. I could never stomach dictatorships.”

When he was named wartime conductor of the Czech Philharmonic, he declined to perform Wagner, and would not give German notables the Nazi salute as required, nearly causing him to be arrested. A stunning interpreter of Mozart, Beethoven, Smetana, and Dvořák, Kubelík helped establish the Prague Spring Festival in 1946, but finally was driven from his homeland by the 1948 Communist coup.

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A splendid DVD from Deutsche Grammophon, Rafael Kubelík: A Portrait, reminds us that multiple tyrannies can govern a conductor’s life. Kubelík (1914 –1996) was a mightily gifted Bohemian-born conductor, scion of a legendary musical family (his father was the superstar violinist Jan Kubelík). Rafael Kubelík was music director of the Brno Opera when the Nazis shut the company down in 1941. A year later they executed the Opera’s administrative director, Václav Jiříkovský (1891-1942), who had smuggled Jews out of Occupied Prague. Small wonder that Kubelík states in a 1970’s documentary (which is reprinted along with brilliant performances of Beethoven, Mozart, and Bruckner on the new DVD), “A conductor should be a guide, not a dictator. I could never stomach dictatorships.”

When he was named wartime conductor of the Czech Philharmonic, he declined to perform Wagner, and would not give German notables the Nazi salute as required, nearly causing him to be arrested. A stunning interpreter of Mozart, Beethoven, Smetana, and Dvořák, Kubelík helped establish the Prague Spring Festival in 1946, but finally was driven from his homeland by the 1948 Communist coup.

Kubelík told one interviewer: “I am an anti-Communist and anti-fascist. I do not think that artistic freedom can cope with a totalitarian regime. Individuals can do nothing in a country dominated by an Iron Curtain, and only truly naïve people think that they can.” He added: “I had lived through one form of bestial tyranny, Nazism. As a matter of principle I was not going to live through another.” Even in exile, he encountered other (if less dangerous) forms of despotism. A brief, artistically productive stint as music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (1950-1953) was aborted when orchestra trustees and the all-powerful Chicago Tribune music critic Claudia Cassidy (1899–1996) decreed that Kubelík was performing far too much modern music. Cassidy was known as “Acidy Cassidy” for her views that Janáček’s “Taras Bulba” was “trash” and Bartók’s “Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta” a “potboiler.” She scorned Kubelík’s “curious beat, being distorted by arms stiff as driving pistons or limp as boiled spaghetti.”

Despite continuing success in Europe, Kubelík’s second attempt at a permanent post in America was even more short-lived, when Metropolitan Opera general manager Göran Gentele invited him to be the Met’s Music Director, a year before Gentele was killed in a car accident. Without Gentele’s supportive presence, Kubelík lasted only six months at the Met.

Kubelík could be tender and charming, as seen on the Deutsche Grammophon DVD, when he mentions during a rehearsal for Haydn’s St. Cecilia Mass that the patron saint of church music is “not so sacred any more, poor girl, How times change!” When Kubelík, who had been based in Switzerland for decades, died in 1996, Václav Havel wrote of his admiration for the conductor, “not only for all the glory he brought to Czech music, but also because he was an extraordinary character and a patriot.”

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Really Terrible Music

The whimsical Scottish novelist Alexander McCall Smith, author of the popular No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series of mysteries, as well as academic works on his research specialty of medical law, has an unexpected new hit on his hands. As McCall Smith told the Daily Telegraph, he and his wife founded the Edinburgh-based Really Terrible Orchestra (RTO) for self-confessedly poor amateur players, as a fun form of musical therapy. A mainstay since 1995 at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, the RTO sold out its London debut on November 3, and doubtless will soon make its New York debut.

Manhattan audiences are always eager to witness a musical car wreck, and the RTO guarantees just that, as McCall Smith, the orchestra’s bassoonist, explains: “Various sections of the orchestra stop playing if the music becomes a little bit too complex. There are all sorts of things that can go wrong and occasionally our conductor has to stop us and take us back to the beginning again and the audience absolutely loves that.” The subject of a 2005 short documentary, the RTO has even released CD’s, featuring mangled versions of pop songs like King of the Road and Yellow Submarine.

Although crowds will flock to see ineptitude on display, as fans of the 1962 New York Mets proved, the RTO’s stance of proudly self-proclaimed incapacity is an innovation. A detailed new documentary from VAI, Florence Foster Jenkins: A World of Her Own tells everything one would ever want to know about the excruciatingly bad coloratura soprano, who drew crowds to recital in the 1940’s.

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The whimsical Scottish novelist Alexander McCall Smith, author of the popular No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series of mysteries, as well as academic works on his research specialty of medical law, has an unexpected new hit on his hands. As McCall Smith told the Daily Telegraph, he and his wife founded the Edinburgh-based Really Terrible Orchestra (RTO) for self-confessedly poor amateur players, as a fun form of musical therapy. A mainstay since 1995 at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, the RTO sold out its London debut on November 3, and doubtless will soon make its New York debut.

Manhattan audiences are always eager to witness a musical car wreck, and the RTO guarantees just that, as McCall Smith, the orchestra’s bassoonist, explains: “Various sections of the orchestra stop playing if the music becomes a little bit too complex. There are all sorts of things that can go wrong and occasionally our conductor has to stop us and take us back to the beginning again and the audience absolutely loves that.” The subject of a 2005 short documentary, the RTO has even released CD’s, featuring mangled versions of pop songs like King of the Road and Yellow Submarine.

Although crowds will flock to see ineptitude on display, as fans of the 1962 New York Mets proved, the RTO’s stance of proudly self-proclaimed incapacity is an innovation. A detailed new documentary from VAI, Florence Foster Jenkins: A World of Her Own tells everything one would ever want to know about the excruciatingly bad coloratura soprano, who drew crowds to recital in the 1940’s.

The self-delusion of Jenkins (1868–1944) inspired a number of recent plays, like Stephen Temperley’s 2005 Souvenir: A Fantasia on the Life of Florence Foster Jenkins, as well as a ballet choreographed by Ohad Naharin of Israel’s Batsheva Dance Company to Jenkins’s caterwauling of an aria from Strauss’s Die Fledermaus. These works mix the pathos of failed aspirations with laughs at punctured pretensions. Yet many who laugh at Jenkins’s recordings are motivated by plain old cattiness, as the arch notes to VAI’s The Muse Surmounted—Florence Foster Jenkins and Eleven Rivals show, ridiculing elderly women who were unfortunate enough to preserve their singing on tape for derision by later generations. This mean-spiritedness happily is absent from McCall Smith’s venture, yet the RTO on display is still uncomfortably close to audience fascination with past spectacles, like the Australian pianist David Helfgott, whose life inspired the 1996 film Shine. Helfgott’s celebrity led for a time to a spate of unlistenable Helfgott concerts and even CD’s.

Classical music may not be in its death throes, as some critics adamantly claim, but it surely does not need concerts and CD’s from the orchestral equivalent of the American Idol auditioner William Hung, who himself has launched a performing and recording career. Performers should not be encouraged to believe that the more objectionable they sound, the more the world will approve of them.

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“Bad Hijab”

On August 29 and 30, Germany’s Osnabrück Symphony Orchestra, led by the conductor Hermann Bäumer, performed much-publicized concerts in Tehran of Beethoven’s Leonore Overture No. 3, Elgar’s Cello Concerto, and Brahms’s Symphony No. 4. Described by one Osnabrück cultural official as a “very small step in improving relations between the people in the two countries,” the concerts also represent some curious cultural compromises.

In December 2005, Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad officially banned “indecent and Western music” on state radio and TV. The Associated Press reported that the Osnabrück Symphony’s female musicians were forced to “wear headscarves” in Tehran. An informed article in the San Francisco Chronicle notes that the much-discussed hijab or chador can be seen as a symbol of patriarchal oppression.

Hundreds of Iranian women have been arrested for “bad hijab,” disobeying Islamic dress codes. In the “Islamic Republic of Fear” (as the Economist recently termed Iran), posters outside hospitals announce that women patients must wear the head-to-floor chador (not just the headscarf) in order to be examined by doctors. (Fortunately for the Osnabrück women musicians, the dress code for concerts is slightly less strict.)

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On August 29 and 30, Germany’s Osnabrück Symphony Orchestra, led by the conductor Hermann Bäumer, performed much-publicized concerts in Tehran of Beethoven’s Leonore Overture No. 3, Elgar’s Cello Concerto, and Brahms’s Symphony No. 4. Described by one Osnabrück cultural official as a “very small step in improving relations between the people in the two countries,” the concerts also represent some curious cultural compromises.

In December 2005, Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad officially banned “indecent and Western music” on state radio and TV. The Associated Press reported that the Osnabrück Symphony’s female musicians were forced to “wear headscarves” in Tehran. An informed article in the San Francisco Chronicle notes that the much-discussed hijab or chador can be seen as a symbol of patriarchal oppression.

Hundreds of Iranian women have been arrested for “bad hijab,” disobeying Islamic dress codes. In the “Islamic Republic of Fear” (as the Economist recently termed Iran), posters outside hospitals announce that women patients must wear the head-to-floor chador (not just the headscarf) in order to be examined by doctors. (Fortunately for the Osnabrück women musicians, the dress code for concerts is slightly less strict.)

The Associated Press also tells us about the works being performed by the Osnabrück musicians: “the program was submitted to Iranian authorities ahead of time.” Given Ahmadinejad’s calls for Israel to be “wiped off the map” and his statement that the Holocaust is merely a “myth,” it’s no surprise that the Osnabrück cultural honchos made sure no Mendelssohn, Mahler, or Bernstein sullied the program. But they scored a few points, if perhaps unintentionally: Edward Elgar, a staunch believer in the British Empire, could hardly be termed an advocate of Islamic revolution. And Johannes Brahms (1833–1897) was unsually philo-Semitic for his time and place, according to his biographer Jan Swafford: “Toward the end of his life,” Swafford observes, “responding to the anti-Semitism that had become endemic in Austrian politics, Brahms was heard to growl, ‘Next week I’m going to have myself circumcised!’”

Making political compromises for the sake of music has some precedent. In 1937-1938, Mozart’s Magic Flute was recorded in Nazi Germany by the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Thomas Beecham. Nazi cultural officials rejected some of Beecham’s chosen star singers, like the Ukrainian Jewish bass Alexander Kipnis in the role of Sarastro; Austrian Jewish tenor Richard Tauber as Tamino; and Hungarian Jewish baritone Friedrich Schorr as the Speaker. Beecham acquiesced, and an all-Aryan cast made the recording, which remains in print even today. Before acquiescing, Maestro Bäumer—who has recorded a number of praiseworthy CD’s for prominent labels like BIS, including a lively program of British music for brass—really should have given this tour further thought.

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Maestros Debunked

If you talk to orchestral musicians, inevitably the conversation turns to complaints, sometimes of intense vehemence, about conductors. Indiana University Press has just given us, in The Right Place, The Right Time!: Tales of Chicago Symphony Days by distinguished flutist Donald Peck, one of the most candid examples in print of this phenomenon.

For over 40 years, Peck was principal flutist of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, where he played under four music directors and made 300 records with the group. Highlights included recordings of Richard Strauss with the fiery conductor Fritz Reiner (1888–1963), the orchestra’s music director from 1953 to 1962. Peck reports that after recording Strauss’s tone poem Don Juan in a single take, “Reiner sat on the podium looking completely fulfilled.” Peck also lauds the “symbiotic relationship” between the CSO and its director from 1969 to 1991, the Hungarian-born Georg Solti, despite Solti’s rehearsal habit of addressing the orchestra in garbled English: “I need a few help,” “I will faster as I was,” and “Softer your noise passion.”

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If you talk to orchestral musicians, inevitably the conversation turns to complaints, sometimes of intense vehemence, about conductors. Indiana University Press has just given us, in The Right Place, The Right Time!: Tales of Chicago Symphony Days by distinguished flutist Donald Peck, one of the most candid examples in print of this phenomenon.

For over 40 years, Peck was principal flutist of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, where he played under four music directors and made 300 records with the group. Highlights included recordings of Richard Strauss with the fiery conductor Fritz Reiner (1888–1963), the orchestra’s music director from 1953 to 1962. Peck reports that after recording Strauss’s tone poem Don Juan in a single take, “Reiner sat on the podium looking completely fulfilled.” Peck also lauds the “symbiotic relationship” between the CSO and its director from 1969 to 1991, the Hungarian-born Georg Solti, despite Solti’s rehearsal habit of addressing the orchestra in garbled English: “I need a few help,” “I will faster as I was,” and “Softer your noise passion.”

Less amusing was the CSO’s relationship with star conductors like Christoph Eschenbach, whose “stick technique was not good” and his interpretations “very mannered and fussy, with tempos getting slower with each performance,” according to Peck. George Szell, a legend in Cleveland, was dismissed by the CSO players as “too much of a pedant” who “made mistakes on the podium,” resulting in performances which were “rife with conductorial errors.” The noted Swiss maestro Günter Wand (1912-2002) was found guilty of “rude behavior” as well as being “studied, technical, and uninspired.” The Austrian Michael Gielen (b. 1927) was seen by the CSO as “too technical, with no music.” Others, like the Russian-born Yakov Kreizberg and Italian Fernando Previtali “seemed egocentric, with no real musical ideas.”

Given the potential hostility between conductor and musicians, examples of ideal cooperation are to be treasured all the more. Peck rightly praises Claudio Abbado’s CSO recording of Bartók Piano Concertos with soloist Maurizio Pollini on Deutsche Grammophon for being “bright and exciting but in a civil way.” Likewise, Abbado’s performance with the CSO of Prokofiev’s Lieutenant Kijé Suite, also on DG, is indeed delectable. Peck also devotes fond word to conductors Pierre Monteux and Leopold Stokowski, whose televised 1960’s CSO performances are must-see viewing on DVD from Video Artists International. Peck also correctly praises the CSO’s Brahms Fourth Symphony on EMI, led by Carlo Maria Giulini, capturing that conductor’s “deep maroon orchestra tone and tragic inner feeling.”

With performances of this magnificence, musicians can afford to be harshly discriminating about conductors, especially when their own artistry is as exemplary as Peck’s, as heard, for example, on a Bach CD from RCA alongside his longtime colleague Samuel Magad, the CSO’s legendary former concertmaster. The Right Place, The Right Time!: Tales of Chicago Symphony Days implies that the next time a concert by a top-flight orchestra disappoints us, we should blame the conductor, not the musicians.

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Stalin’s Music Master

Press reports recently announced the death, at age 94, of Russian composer Tikhon Khrennikov (1913-2007). For four decades, Khrennikov headed the Union of Soviet Composers and advanced his own career, while terrorizing musicians like Dmitri Shostakovich and Sergei Prokofiev. In 1949, Khrennikov scorned Prokofiev for creating works that “smell of the marazm (decay) of bourgeois culture” and failing to draw the “necessary conclusions from the decree of the Central Committee.” Khrennikov expected musicians to “reorganize” themselves and “rebuild their work” to suit Stalinist requirements; he also dismissed Shostakovich as “frantically gloomy and neurotic,” and persecuted recent modern masters, like Edison Denisov and Sofia Gubaidulina, by denying them teaching jobs, performances, and travel permits.

Yet Khrennikov’s own music is still feted with annual festival concerts in Moscow. In 1995, the conductor Evgeny Svetlanov (1928-2002), who recorded many of Khrennikov’s pieces (including his drab, plodding Violin Concerto), was asked by Le Monde de la Musique if he performed Khrennikov’s music “for artistic or political reasons.” Svetlanov candidly replied: “Both.” The star baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky (b. 1962) included on his recent CD of Russian songs for Delos Khrennikov’s syrupy Moscow Windows.

Why should Russian performers and CD companies continue to perform and record Khrennikov so adamantly? One answer may lie in the fact that Russian President Vladimir Putin is a big Khrennikov fan; Putin arranged for Khrennikov to receive UNESCO’s Mozart Medal “for contribution to world peace through music and the arts” (ha!) on his 90th birthday in 2003. This award was bestowed years after UNESCO supposedly had reformed, after long and harsh criticism for its service as a blatant platform for Communist propaganda.

Khrennikov outlived the composers he tormented, and even appeared in several documentary films—such as 1997’s Shostakovich Against Stalin and Khachaturian: A Musician and His Fatherland—trying to justify his own actions. In Shostakovich Against Stalin, Khrennikov claims that the fear under which Shostakovich lived in the USSR “has been terribly exaggerated. There was nothing for him to be afraid of.” To which another persecuted interviewee replies: “The wolf cannot speak about the fear of the sheep.” In the gospel of Matthew, the Lord divides the “sheep from the goats.” Posterity already knows to which category Khrennikov belongs.

Press reports recently announced the death, at age 94, of Russian composer Tikhon Khrennikov (1913-2007). For four decades, Khrennikov headed the Union of Soviet Composers and advanced his own career, while terrorizing musicians like Dmitri Shostakovich and Sergei Prokofiev. In 1949, Khrennikov scorned Prokofiev for creating works that “smell of the marazm (decay) of bourgeois culture” and failing to draw the “necessary conclusions from the decree of the Central Committee.” Khrennikov expected musicians to “reorganize” themselves and “rebuild their work” to suit Stalinist requirements; he also dismissed Shostakovich as “frantically gloomy and neurotic,” and persecuted recent modern masters, like Edison Denisov and Sofia Gubaidulina, by denying them teaching jobs, performances, and travel permits.

Yet Khrennikov’s own music is still feted with annual festival concerts in Moscow. In 1995, the conductor Evgeny Svetlanov (1928-2002), who recorded many of Khrennikov’s pieces (including his drab, plodding Violin Concerto), was asked by Le Monde de la Musique if he performed Khrennikov’s music “for artistic or political reasons.” Svetlanov candidly replied: “Both.” The star baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky (b. 1962) included on his recent CD of Russian songs for Delos Khrennikov’s syrupy Moscow Windows.

Why should Russian performers and CD companies continue to perform and record Khrennikov so adamantly? One answer may lie in the fact that Russian President Vladimir Putin is a big Khrennikov fan; Putin arranged for Khrennikov to receive UNESCO’s Mozart Medal “for contribution to world peace through music and the arts” (ha!) on his 90th birthday in 2003. This award was bestowed years after UNESCO supposedly had reformed, after long and harsh criticism for its service as a blatant platform for Communist propaganda.

Khrennikov outlived the composers he tormented, and even appeared in several documentary films—such as 1997’s Shostakovich Against Stalin and Khachaturian: A Musician and His Fatherland—trying to justify his own actions. In Shostakovich Against Stalin, Khrennikov claims that the fear under which Shostakovich lived in the USSR “has been terribly exaggerated. There was nothing for him to be afraid of.” To which another persecuted interviewee replies: “The wolf cannot speak about the fear of the sheep.” In the gospel of Matthew, the Lord divides the “sheep from the goats.” Posterity already knows to which category Khrennikov belongs.

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Why We Remember Jerry Hadley

My fellow blogger Terry Teachout has already posted an apt expression of poignant regret at the news of the suicide of the American tenor Jerry Hadley, who shot himself at age 55. A career in music can be cruelly difficult, and many performers are worn down by the stresses and frustrations inherent to the profession. Yet classical musicians who commit suicide do so for different reasons, rarely linked to their choice of career.

Listeners to Metropolitan Opera broadcasts will recall how, in 1988, the Bulgarian-born singer and vocal coach Bantcho Bantchevsky (1906-1988), in failing health, threw himself off the balcony of the Met’s auditorium during an intermission between the 2nd and 3rd Acts of Verdi’s Macbeth, ending both that day’s performance and his own life. In 1994, the Duo Crommelynck—two married pianists, Patrick Crommelynck (1947-1994) and Taeko Kuwata (1945-1994)—committed double suicide after an apparent crisis in their relationship. A gifted Australian-born pianist, Noel Mewton-Wood (1922-1953), reportedly committed suicide after the death of his gay lover. The acclaimed Viennese-born conductor Georg Tintner (1917-1999), honored with a posthumous series of CD reissues from Naxos, leapt off the balcony of his apartment after a lengthy battle with cancer. Another conductor, Austria’s Oswald Kabasta (1896-1946), whose performances have been reprinted by Music & Arts, killed himself after World War II, supposedly because, as a Hitler supporter, he feared the aftermath of the Nazi defeat . Meanwhile, the suicide of the modern German composer Bernd Alois Zimmermann (1918-1970) is ascribed to depression and eye problems , and the impoverished Czech-American composer Jaromír Weinberger (1896-1967), whose opera Schwanda the Bagpiper is available on Naxos, ended his life after being afflicted with brain cancer.

Still, suicide is a human problem, not a peculiarly musical or artistic one. French Jewish sociologist Émile Durkheim (1858-1917), in his treatise On Suicide, now available in a new translation by Robin Buss, confirms this assertion. Reading Durkheim, we may conclude that it is not prudent to venture instant guesses about the motives of a suicide, whether the unfortunate subject is a singer in decline, or a disappointed Nazi conductor.

It is best to recall Jerry Hadley for his bright lyric tenor, featured in a 1992 Handel’s Messiah conducted by Sir Neville Marriner and available on Philips; or in a 1986 Schubert Mass No. 6 in E-Flat Major conducted by Claudio Abbado on Deutsche Grammophon. Singing in English, Hadley was particularly forceful and self-assured in such CD’s as Weill’s Street Scene on Decca; Mendelssohn’s Elijah on Telarc; and Jerome Kern’s Show Boat on EMI. These CD’s furnish evidence of why we should remember Hadley’s life, instead of merely his tragic way of leaving it.

My fellow blogger Terry Teachout has already posted an apt expression of poignant regret at the news of the suicide of the American tenor Jerry Hadley, who shot himself at age 55. A career in music can be cruelly difficult, and many performers are worn down by the stresses and frustrations inherent to the profession. Yet classical musicians who commit suicide do so for different reasons, rarely linked to their choice of career.

Listeners to Metropolitan Opera broadcasts will recall how, in 1988, the Bulgarian-born singer and vocal coach Bantcho Bantchevsky (1906-1988), in failing health, threw himself off the balcony of the Met’s auditorium during an intermission between the 2nd and 3rd Acts of Verdi’s Macbeth, ending both that day’s performance and his own life. In 1994, the Duo Crommelynck—two married pianists, Patrick Crommelynck (1947-1994) and Taeko Kuwata (1945-1994)—committed double suicide after an apparent crisis in their relationship. A gifted Australian-born pianist, Noel Mewton-Wood (1922-1953), reportedly committed suicide after the death of his gay lover. The acclaimed Viennese-born conductor Georg Tintner (1917-1999), honored with a posthumous series of CD reissues from Naxos, leapt off the balcony of his apartment after a lengthy battle with cancer. Another conductor, Austria’s Oswald Kabasta (1896-1946), whose performances have been reprinted by Music & Arts, killed himself after World War II, supposedly because, as a Hitler supporter, he feared the aftermath of the Nazi defeat . Meanwhile, the suicide of the modern German composer Bernd Alois Zimmermann (1918-1970) is ascribed to depression and eye problems , and the impoverished Czech-American composer Jaromír Weinberger (1896-1967), whose opera Schwanda the Bagpiper is available on Naxos, ended his life after being afflicted with brain cancer.

Still, suicide is a human problem, not a peculiarly musical or artistic one. French Jewish sociologist Émile Durkheim (1858-1917), in his treatise On Suicide, now available in a new translation by Robin Buss, confirms this assertion. Reading Durkheim, we may conclude that it is not prudent to venture instant guesses about the motives of a suicide, whether the unfortunate subject is a singer in decline, or a disappointed Nazi conductor.

It is best to recall Jerry Hadley for his bright lyric tenor, featured in a 1992 Handel’s Messiah conducted by Sir Neville Marriner and available on Philips; or in a 1986 Schubert Mass No. 6 in E-Flat Major conducted by Claudio Abbado on Deutsche Grammophon. Singing in English, Hadley was particularly forceful and self-assured in such CD’s as Weill’s Street Scene on Decca; Mendelssohn’s Elijah on Telarc; and Jerome Kern’s Show Boat on EMI. These CD’s furnish evidence of why we should remember Hadley’s life, instead of merely his tragic way of leaving it.

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Happy Birthday, Maestro Masur

On Wednesday, at the Royal Albert Hall, the London Philharmonic and the Orchestre National de France combined their forces to celebrate the 80th birthday of Kurt Masur, who leads them both. The orchestras played works by the two composers with whom Masur has felt perhaps the closest affinity: Tchaikovsky and Bruckner.

If Kurt Masur is by some distance the most impressive living German conductor, the reason is in part because he is much more than a musician. Five years ago, there was some turmoil as Masur’s tenure as Music Director of the New York Philharmonic came to an end. But this should not detract from his achievement, both as an interpreter of the grand symphonic tradition, and as an example of a phenomenon rare in German history: the artist who turned against the dictator.

In October 1989, when the people of Leipzig took to the streets every Monday to protest against the Honecker regime, Masur, the Kapellmeister of Leipzig’s Gewandhaus Orchestra, played a key part in preventing a Tiananmen Square-type massacre. On October 9, the Stasi had prepared for a bloodbath as tens of thousands of people emerged from prayers in the Nikolaikirche to gather in the city center.

According to John Lewis Gaddis’s book The Cold War, Kurt Masur’s appeal to allow for “the free exchange of opinions,” broadcast by loudspeakers, was decisive in persuading the security forces to withdraw before the order to crush the protest could be given from Berlin. A week later, Erich Honecker was forced to resign. Masur deserves as much credit for the bloodless reunification of Germany as any of the politicians on either side.

This was Masur’s one moment of political glory. What of his conducting over 60 years? The word that is often associated with Masur is “perfectionism.” On Wednesday of this week, however, what was in evidence was, rather, a genial warmth. Sitting in the choir seats right behind the massed ranks of double-basses, facing the conductor, I noticed that he would sometimes blow little kisses to a section that had just carried off an especially elegant or difficult passage. Masur uses no baton, and his arm gestures at first appear awkward. Yet his tall frame, though stiffened by age, is still eloquent. He sways and swoops, grinning and grimacing. Masur saves the nobility for the orchestra’s performance, not his own. As he left for the last time, a nonchalant little shrug of the shoulders told us: what I do is no big deal.

The most telling aspect of the music was, again, how closely Masur followed the inclinations of the composer. In the case of Tchaikovsky’s Serenade, the gorgeous, shimmering sound of the massed strings gave way to an abrupt glimpse, in the Elegy, of aching depths of sexual despair. In Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony, the intense Catholic piety in the orchestral plain chant demanded restraint, not overkill. With the formidable forces of a double orchestra at his disposal, Masur knew he could fill the vast hall and its 5,000 auditors with ease. He let the fortissimo passages stand out, but not overwhelm. The solemn modal simplicity of Bruckner’s Seventh contrasted strongly with the festive brilliance of Wagner’s Meistersinger Overture, which Masur tossed off as an encore, as if he were only just getting into his stride.

The juxtaposition of Wagner with Bruckner was deliberate. The most revealing part of any performance of Bruckner’s Seventh comes at the climax of the slow movement, written as an elegy to Wagner, and making copious use of the “Wagner tubas.” At this sublime moment, busybody pupils persuaded Bruckner to insert the sound of cymbals. The cymbal clash has become so beloved by audiences that most conductors retain it without a thought, even though Bruckner apparently later added the words “gilt nicht” (“not valid”) beside the percussion line in the score.

Masur, however, obeyed Bruckner’s wishes. When the moment came, it sounded no less grand without the cymbals, and much less Wagnerian. The German tradition, both in politics and music, has always suffered from a propensity to hysteria. Kurt Masur, for one, stood out against it. I hope, for his compatriots’ sake, we shall see his like again.

On Wednesday, at the Royal Albert Hall, the London Philharmonic and the Orchestre National de France combined their forces to celebrate the 80th birthday of Kurt Masur, who leads them both. The orchestras played works by the two composers with whom Masur has felt perhaps the closest affinity: Tchaikovsky and Bruckner.

If Kurt Masur is by some distance the most impressive living German conductor, the reason is in part because he is much more than a musician. Five years ago, there was some turmoil as Masur’s tenure as Music Director of the New York Philharmonic came to an end. But this should not detract from his achievement, both as an interpreter of the grand symphonic tradition, and as an example of a phenomenon rare in German history: the artist who turned against the dictator.

In October 1989, when the people of Leipzig took to the streets every Monday to protest against the Honecker regime, Masur, the Kapellmeister of Leipzig’s Gewandhaus Orchestra, played a key part in preventing a Tiananmen Square-type massacre. On October 9, the Stasi had prepared for a bloodbath as tens of thousands of people emerged from prayers in the Nikolaikirche to gather in the city center.

According to John Lewis Gaddis’s book The Cold War, Kurt Masur’s appeal to allow for “the free exchange of opinions,” broadcast by loudspeakers, was decisive in persuading the security forces to withdraw before the order to crush the protest could be given from Berlin. A week later, Erich Honecker was forced to resign. Masur deserves as much credit for the bloodless reunification of Germany as any of the politicians on either side.

This was Masur’s one moment of political glory. What of his conducting over 60 years? The word that is often associated with Masur is “perfectionism.” On Wednesday of this week, however, what was in evidence was, rather, a genial warmth. Sitting in the choir seats right behind the massed ranks of double-basses, facing the conductor, I noticed that he would sometimes blow little kisses to a section that had just carried off an especially elegant or difficult passage. Masur uses no baton, and his arm gestures at first appear awkward. Yet his tall frame, though stiffened by age, is still eloquent. He sways and swoops, grinning and grimacing. Masur saves the nobility for the orchestra’s performance, not his own. As he left for the last time, a nonchalant little shrug of the shoulders told us: what I do is no big deal.

The most telling aspect of the music was, again, how closely Masur followed the inclinations of the composer. In the case of Tchaikovsky’s Serenade, the gorgeous, shimmering sound of the massed strings gave way to an abrupt glimpse, in the Elegy, of aching depths of sexual despair. In Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony, the intense Catholic piety in the orchestral plain chant demanded restraint, not overkill. With the formidable forces of a double orchestra at his disposal, Masur knew he could fill the vast hall and its 5,000 auditors with ease. He let the fortissimo passages stand out, but not overwhelm. The solemn modal simplicity of Bruckner’s Seventh contrasted strongly with the festive brilliance of Wagner’s Meistersinger Overture, which Masur tossed off as an encore, as if he were only just getting into his stride.

The juxtaposition of Wagner with Bruckner was deliberate. The most revealing part of any performance of Bruckner’s Seventh comes at the climax of the slow movement, written as an elegy to Wagner, and making copious use of the “Wagner tubas.” At this sublime moment, busybody pupils persuaded Bruckner to insert the sound of cymbals. The cymbal clash has become so beloved by audiences that most conductors retain it without a thought, even though Bruckner apparently later added the words “gilt nicht” (“not valid”) beside the percussion line in the score.

Masur, however, obeyed Bruckner’s wishes. When the moment came, it sounded no less grand without the cymbals, and much less Wagnerian. The German tradition, both in politics and music, has always suffered from a propensity to hysteria. Kurt Masur, for one, stood out against it. I hope, for his compatriots’ sake, we shall see his like again.

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New York Philharmonic: New Conductor, New Season

The hoopla surrounding the naming of a 40-year-old native New Yorker, Alan Gilbert, as the next music director of the New York Philharmonic has somewhat obscured the fact that its current conductor, Lorin Maazel, will retain his job until after the 2008-2009 season. Gilbert, who is chief conductor of the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra, will next appear here in March 2008, according to the New York Phil’s newly released 2007-2008 season schedule.

Curious music lovers might meanwhile try a soon-to-be released CD of Gilbert conducting Mozart at the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival on Koch International Classics. Live performances of Gilbert leading the Mahler Chamber Orchestra in works by Mahler and Mendelssohn have appeared; Gilbert has also shown a somewhat uneven interest in contemporary music, including a concerto for recorder by Swedish composer Daniel Börtz on BIS Records. All this suggests that Gilbert is still a talent-in-progress, who will be paid nothing near the reported $2,638,940, which a recent study documented as Maazel’s current annual salary.

Do New York concert-goers get enough bang for their buck? Next season’s finest musical events will surely be three concerts on April 3, 4, and 5, 2008, in which the British conductor Colin Davis leads one of America’s most profound pianists, Richard Goode, in Beethoven’s philosophical Fourth Piano Concerto. Davis, born in 1927, has produced a series of CD’s for the LSO Live label that ranks among the finest classical recordings (of anything) in recent years.

Among other soloists invited by the Philharmonic is the emotive Georgian violinist Lisa Batiashvili, whose EMI Recital CD of works by Bach, Brahms, and Schubert was a revelation. Batiashvili will perform Beethoven’s Violin Concerto with the Philharmonic this September 19, 20, and 21. Other parts of the Philharmonic schedule are sadly trite and predictable, none more than the September 18 season opener with the omnipresent Yo-Yo Ma playing the overexposed Dvořák Cello Concerto.

Then there are concert performances of Puccini’s “Tosca” on June 12, 14, 17, and 19, 2008 conducted by Maazel. A concert performance is most suited to a musical rarity that is almost never staged; the inescapable “Tosca” hardly qualifies. Likewise, when an admirable soloist is programmed—like the Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes playing Brahms’ Second Piano Concerto on January 17, 18, and 19, 2008—he is saddled with a conductor hardly reputed as a Brahmsian, Italy’s Riccardo Muti.

One of the two co-winners of the 2002 Maazel/Vilar Conductors’ Competition, the Chinese conductor Xian Zhang, will perform in November, but nowhere to be seen is the other superbly talented winner of the same competition, the Thai maestro Bundit Ungrangsee, a fine Mozartian on CD. Ungrangsee would himself have been a brilliant choice for music director.

Too many of the Phil’s concerts are centered around presumed “audience favorites,” like the grievously unidiomatic pianist Lang Lang, or Frenchman Pierre-Laurent Aimard, another merciless keyboard hammerer. When Maestro Gilbert takes over the Philharmonic’s helm, he might consider, as an urgent priority, hiring a new concert programmer.

The hoopla surrounding the naming of a 40-year-old native New Yorker, Alan Gilbert, as the next music director of the New York Philharmonic has somewhat obscured the fact that its current conductor, Lorin Maazel, will retain his job until after the 2008-2009 season. Gilbert, who is chief conductor of the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra, will next appear here in March 2008, according to the New York Phil’s newly released 2007-2008 season schedule.

Curious music lovers might meanwhile try a soon-to-be released CD of Gilbert conducting Mozart at the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival on Koch International Classics. Live performances of Gilbert leading the Mahler Chamber Orchestra in works by Mahler and Mendelssohn have appeared; Gilbert has also shown a somewhat uneven interest in contemporary music, including a concerto for recorder by Swedish composer Daniel Börtz on BIS Records. All this suggests that Gilbert is still a talent-in-progress, who will be paid nothing near the reported $2,638,940, which a recent study documented as Maazel’s current annual salary.

Do New York concert-goers get enough bang for their buck? Next season’s finest musical events will surely be three concerts on April 3, 4, and 5, 2008, in which the British conductor Colin Davis leads one of America’s most profound pianists, Richard Goode, in Beethoven’s philosophical Fourth Piano Concerto. Davis, born in 1927, has produced a series of CD’s for the LSO Live label that ranks among the finest classical recordings (of anything) in recent years.

Among other soloists invited by the Philharmonic is the emotive Georgian violinist Lisa Batiashvili, whose EMI Recital CD of works by Bach, Brahms, and Schubert was a revelation. Batiashvili will perform Beethoven’s Violin Concerto with the Philharmonic this September 19, 20, and 21. Other parts of the Philharmonic schedule are sadly trite and predictable, none more than the September 18 season opener with the omnipresent Yo-Yo Ma playing the overexposed Dvořák Cello Concerto.

Then there are concert performances of Puccini’s “Tosca” on June 12, 14, 17, and 19, 2008 conducted by Maazel. A concert performance is most suited to a musical rarity that is almost never staged; the inescapable “Tosca” hardly qualifies. Likewise, when an admirable soloist is programmed—like the Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes playing Brahms’ Second Piano Concerto on January 17, 18, and 19, 2008—he is saddled with a conductor hardly reputed as a Brahmsian, Italy’s Riccardo Muti.

One of the two co-winners of the 2002 Maazel/Vilar Conductors’ Competition, the Chinese conductor Xian Zhang, will perform in November, but nowhere to be seen is the other superbly talented winner of the same competition, the Thai maestro Bundit Ungrangsee, a fine Mozartian on CD. Ungrangsee would himself have been a brilliant choice for music director.

Too many of the Phil’s concerts are centered around presumed “audience favorites,” like the grievously unidiomatic pianist Lang Lang, or Frenchman Pierre-Laurent Aimard, another merciless keyboard hammerer. When Maestro Gilbert takes over the Philharmonic’s helm, he might consider, as an urgent priority, hiring a new concert programmer.

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Getting to Know Beverly Sills

Commemorating a cultural figure like Beverly Sills (1929–2007), who died last week of lung cancer at 78, is not easy. After a much-publicized career as a coloratura soprano, Sills served as general director of the New York City Opera and chairwoman of Lincoln Center, and later of the Metropolitan Opera. On July 3, in a bizarre tribute, the New York Philharmonic gave a conductorless performance, purportedly in her honor, of a work that most certainly requires a conductor—Leonard Bernstein’s Overture to Candide. (The Philharmonic’s press office announced that this silly “tradition began with the death of Bernstein.”)

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Commemorating a cultural figure like Beverly Sills (1929–2007), who died last week of lung cancer at 78, is not easy. After a much-publicized career as a coloratura soprano, Sills served as general director of the New York City Opera and chairwoman of Lincoln Center, and later of the Metropolitan Opera. On July 3, in a bizarre tribute, the New York Philharmonic gave a conductorless performance, purportedly in her honor, of a work that most certainly requires a conductor—Leonard Bernstein’s Overture to Candide. (The Philharmonic’s press office announced that this silly “tradition began with the death of Bernstein.”)

A far better way to honor Sills would be to address a problem mentioned in an astute obituary by critic Tim Page: the fact that Sills made most of her studio recordings after her voice had already begun to deteriorate. Exceptions may be heard on VAI, including a 1969 concert DVD of Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos, a 1964 Offenbach Tales of Hoffmann from New Orleans, and a 1968 Handel Julius Caesar from Buenos Aires, conducted by Karl Richter. Deutsche Grammophon alos offers a few choice recordings, including a 1958 Ballad of Baby Doe by Douglas Moore, a 1969 Donizetti Roberto Devereux led by Charles Mackerras, and a 1970 Donizetti Lucia Di Lammermoor conducted by Thomas Schippers. These and a few other high points are slim pickings for a singer who banked on the sensuous sheen of her voice as a major part of her artistry, in addition to acting smarts and a surprisingly agile stage presence. Sills’s actual performing is probably less known today than her post-retirement persona of jolly, steel-willed fundraiser and promoter of culture.

Getting closer to Beverly Sills—and away from Sylvia Bills—would require transferring to CD a number of surviving performance tapes. They would include a 1967 Handel Semele from Cleveland led by Robert Shaw, and a 1966 production of Rameau’s Hippolyte et Aricie co-starring Placido Domingo. Sills’s work in contemporary music, like a Boston performance of Luigi Nono’s Intolleranza from 1965 conducted by Bruno Maderna, or a 1959 New York City Opera staging of Hugo Weisgall’s Pirandello-based opera, Six Characters in Search of an Author, should be of high interest. Roles that Sills eventually repudiated for extra-musical reasons (like the Queen of the Night in The Magic Flute, which can be heard in a 1966 Tanglewood version led by Erich Leinsdorf, or Suor Angelica in a 1967 City Opera performance of Puccini’s Il Trittico) would also make essential listening on CD.

Add to these a number of concert works never recorded in the studio, like a 1967 rendition of Poulenc’s Gloria from the Caramoor Festival, and a number of Boston Symphony events conducted by Erich Leinsdorf, like a 1966 Schumann Scenes from Goethe’s Faust; 1967 and 1968 versions of Haydn’s Creation Mass; and a 1969 Beethoven Ninth Symphony from Tanglewood. These and other documents from her vocal prime, if made available on CD, would be revelatory posthumous tributes to Beverly Sills.

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No Pomp, Little Circumstance

One way to judge countries is by the way they treat their great musicians. Shockingly, England has dealt a public blow to its national composer, Sir Edward Elgar (1857—1934) on his 150th birthday. Elgar wrote such masterpieces as Enigma Variations and the Pomp and Circumstance marches, one of which provided the music for the popular hymn Land of Hope and Glory.

Just in time for Elgar’s anniversary, Her Majesty’s Exchequer has removed Elgar’s face from the British £20 note, replacing it with an image of the Scottish economist Adam Smith, while the British Arts Council refused to fund an Elgar celebration. Music critic Norman Lebrecht went a step further, declaring in the Daily Telegraph: “Elgar is not a major figure in music history, and we make a mockery of ourselves as a nation if we pretend that he is.” Whatever can the Brits find so incorrect, so objectionable, about Elgar? To some, he embodies the worst of England’s imperialist past; boozy crowds bellowing out “Land of Hope and Glory” at London events like the Last Night of the Proms causes embarrassment in the hearts of influential culture observers.

But “hope” and “glory” per se are not bad goals for a nation, and overseas music lovers need not be concerned with such internal UK squabbles. Elgar’s compositions feature an inherent stiff-upper-lip nobility behind which lurks, as his biographer Michael Kennedy wrote in the Telegraph, a “complex, hypersensitive, self-pitying, unhappy yet idealistic man, yearning for an illusory land of lost content.”

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One way to judge countries is by the way they treat their great musicians. Shockingly, England has dealt a public blow to its national composer, Sir Edward Elgar (1857—1934) on his 150th birthday. Elgar wrote such masterpieces as Enigma Variations and the Pomp and Circumstance marches, one of which provided the music for the popular hymn Land of Hope and Glory.

Just in time for Elgar’s anniversary, Her Majesty’s Exchequer has removed Elgar’s face from the British £20 note, replacing it with an image of the Scottish economist Adam Smith, while the British Arts Council refused to fund an Elgar celebration. Music critic Norman Lebrecht went a step further, declaring in the Daily Telegraph: “Elgar is not a major figure in music history, and we make a mockery of ourselves as a nation if we pretend that he is.” Whatever can the Brits find so incorrect, so objectionable, about Elgar? To some, he embodies the worst of England’s imperialist past; boozy crowds bellowing out “Land of Hope and Glory” at London events like the Last Night of the Proms causes embarrassment in the hearts of influential culture observers.

But “hope” and “glory” per se are not bad goals for a nation, and overseas music lovers need not be concerned with such internal UK squabbles. Elgar’s compositions feature an inherent stiff-upper-lip nobility behind which lurks, as his biographer Michael Kennedy wrote in the Telegraph, a “complex, hypersensitive, self-pitying, unhappy yet idealistic man, yearning for an illusory land of lost content.”

These complexities will doubtless be explored at the upcoming Bard Music Festival, “Elgar and His World,” scheduled for a series of weekends this August and October at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York. The Bard festival features an uneven bunch of musicians, but fortunately it will include such accomplished chamber groups as the Daedalus Quartet and Claremont Trio, as well as the sublime solo violinist Jennifer Koh. Meanwhile, we may relish the many superb Elgar performances on CD, keeping in mind that a poorly performed CD—and there are many such of Elgar—can make any composer seem hard to listen to.

Elgar’s Cello Concerto, which the composer described as “just an old man’s darling,” was recorded with staunch restraint, flowing grace, and eloquent emotion by the cellists Pablo Casals and Paul Tortelier, both conducted by Adrian Boult for EMI Classics. Elgar’s orchestral work Enigma Variations communicates a rare personal tenderness—the variations were inspired by some of the composer’s friends—along with a sense of the passionate heights and depths of human relationships.

Enigma requires a conductor of unusual psychological nuance and direct frankness, such as Elgar himself (although his recordings were hampered by primitive sound equipment) or his friend Adrian Boult. There is also a choice of 1950’s recordings by the great French maestro Pierre Monteux with the London Symphony Orchestra in the studio; a live radio broadcast; and a surprisingly idiomatic outing with the Orchestre National de France on Music & Arts. And LSO Live recently released one of the best Enigmas ever, led by England’s current dean of conductors, Colin Davis.

Elgar also triumphed in larger-scale works like Dream of Gerontius, an oratorio set to words by Cardinal Newman about a man accepting his own mortality and the prospect of heaven. As conducted on CD by the composer Benjamin Britten with the tenor Peter Pears in the title role, or on an EMI recording with Janet Baker as the angel who guides Gerontius in his last moments of life, it is a work of brooding majesty. Achievements of this rank certainly ensure Elgar’s artistic immortality—whatever Her Majesty’s Exchequer might think.

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Music from Kids of All Ages

Lunch-hour pedestrians in midtown Manhattan from June 4th to 8th may have stumbled across one of five consecutive mid-day recitals (part of Bryant Park’s Piano in the Park series) by Roy Eaton, an African-American musician born in Harlem in 1930, gifted with unusual poise and calm grace. Mr. Eaton, who has released CD’s of Chopin on Summit Records and Scott Joplin’s ragtime music on Sony, has a new Summit CD out, Keyboard Classics for Children, which reveals unusual insight into the world of childhood. The disc includes works by J.S. Bach and Claude Debussy, as well as Robert Schumann’s Kinderszenen, played in deliberate (yet never heavy) tempos and with unshowy intimacy, in the spirit of the acclaimed British pianist Clifford Curzon (1907-1982).

Eaton was born, sadly, before it was possible for an African-American classical pianist seriously to envisage a concert career. Instead, he became an advertising executive for Young & Rubicam and Benton & Bowles. (Eaton is responsible for several popular TV jingles, including You can trust your car/ to the man that wears the star/ the big, bright, Texaco star and Beefaroni’s full of meat/ Beefaroni’s really neat./ Hooray for Beefaroni!). After being downsized in 1980, Eaton (who now teaches at the Manhattan School of Music) found time to rediscover his inner child and his musical ambitions.

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Lunch-hour pedestrians in midtown Manhattan from June 4th to 8th may have stumbled across one of five consecutive mid-day recitals (part of Bryant Park’s Piano in the Park series) by Roy Eaton, an African-American musician born in Harlem in 1930, gifted with unusual poise and calm grace. Mr. Eaton, who has released CD’s of Chopin on Summit Records and Scott Joplin’s ragtime music on Sony, has a new Summit CD out, Keyboard Classics for Children, which reveals unusual insight into the world of childhood. The disc includes works by J.S. Bach and Claude Debussy, as well as Robert Schumann’s Kinderszenen, played in deliberate (yet never heavy) tempos and with unshowy intimacy, in the spirit of the acclaimed British pianist Clifford Curzon (1907-1982).

Eaton was born, sadly, before it was possible for an African-American classical pianist seriously to envisage a concert career. Instead, he became an advertising executive for Young & Rubicam and Benton & Bowles. (Eaton is responsible for several popular TV jingles, including You can trust your car/ to the man that wears the star/ the big, bright, Texaco star and Beefaroni’s full of meat/ Beefaroni’s really neat./ Hooray for Beefaroni!). After being downsized in 1980, Eaton (who now teaches at the Manhattan School of Music) found time to rediscover his inner child and his musical ambitions.

An equally moving expression of childhood in classical music can be heard in the merry, radiant works of Conrad Tao, a composer, pianist, and violinist born in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois in 1994. Tao, a student at Juilliard’s preparatory program, has produced a CD of his pieces, Silhouettes & Shadows, expressing a balletic musical grace. His Sonata for Cello and Piano ranges in mood from the impish to the searching. Another disc available on Tao’s website, a 2006 solo piano recital at Juilliard, includes tenderly exalted performances of works by Beethoven, Chopin, and Liszt.

Tao has a sense of musical line—a conviction that each note is part of the total fabric of a given work—found only in the greatest musicians, like the conductor Arturo Toscanini and the tenor Peter Pears. This quality, plus the congenial sense of community endeavor that marks everything Tao does, augurs very well indeed for his future as a musician. He has nothing in common with the usual image of the child prodigy, an isolated misfit in a media fishbowl.

Whether an aging musician re-awakens a talent long ignored, or a child possessing unusual gifts writes music with adult acumen, it’s clear that music can provide an exception to the otherwise cruelly rigid laws of Father Time.

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Getting to Know Grieg

Some composers, such as Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849) or Edvard Grieg (1843-1907), suffer from overexposure. Music lovers feel that they “get” these composers because of their obvious lyricism, and conclude that their works possess no further mystery. In fact, both Chopin and Grieg are profound composers: the more we study their music, the more it reveals. Since 1991, the Grieg Society of New York has done stalwart work on behalf of its namesake, with extra effort put into this year’s events commemorating the centenary of Grieg’s death in 1907.

On September 23 at Carnegie Hall’s Weill Recital Hall, the cellist Darrett Adkins will perform Grieg’s Cello Sonata as part of a program of Norwegian cello music. On October 26, the Norwegian violinist Ole Böhn will play Grieg’s complete violin sonatas at New York’s American-Scandinavian Foundation. And on December 9 at Zankel Hall at Carnegie Hall, the society’s founder and president Per Brevig will conduct members of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic in a concert featuring Grieg’s beloved Holberg Suite.

Norwegian-born maestro Brevig is an apt representative of the diversity of Grieg’s musical legacy. After a legendary career from 1968 to 1994 as principal trombonist of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, Brevig became a conductor, currently serving as music director of the East Texas Symphony Orchestra, although his lyric grasp of the orchestral and operatic repertory should have led to invitations to the Met and New York City Opera years ago. (Fortunately, Norwegians seem to be gifted with a Lutheran sense of patience and stoicism.)

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Some composers, such as Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849) or Edvard Grieg (1843-1907), suffer from overexposure. Music lovers feel that they “get” these composers because of their obvious lyricism, and conclude that their works possess no further mystery. In fact, both Chopin and Grieg are profound composers: the more we study their music, the more it reveals. Since 1991, the Grieg Society of New York has done stalwart work on behalf of its namesake, with extra effort put into this year’s events commemorating the centenary of Grieg’s death in 1907.

On September 23 at Carnegie Hall’s Weill Recital Hall, the cellist Darrett Adkins will perform Grieg’s Cello Sonata as part of a program of Norwegian cello music. On October 26, the Norwegian violinist Ole Böhn will play Grieg’s complete violin sonatas at New York’s American-Scandinavian Foundation. And on December 9 at Zankel Hall at Carnegie Hall, the society’s founder and president Per Brevig will conduct members of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic in a concert featuring Grieg’s beloved Holberg Suite.

Norwegian-born maestro Brevig is an apt representative of the diversity of Grieg’s musical legacy. After a legendary career from 1968 to 1994 as principal trombonist of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, Brevig became a conductor, currently serving as music director of the East Texas Symphony Orchestra, although his lyric grasp of the orchestral and operatic repertory should have led to invitations to the Met and New York City Opera years ago. (Fortunately, Norwegians seem to be gifted with a Lutheran sense of patience and stoicism.)

The same is true of the scholars meticulously studying Grieg in this anniversary year. Tone N. Slotsvik, a graduate student in history at the University of Bergen, observes that Grieg was rightly acclaimed for his outrage at the persecution of Captain Alfred Dreyfus—even refusing an invitation to perform in Paris in 1899. When Dreyfus was unjustly convicted a second time by an anti-Semitic cabal, Grieg wrote to his French hosts, “I am so upset by the disdain of justice demonstrated in France that I don’t feel it possible to be in contact with the French public.” Loads of hate mail from France and elsewhere deluged Grieg, who did not waver in his beliefs. (Yet, as Slotsvik notes, Grieg was no philo-Semite either, repeatedly using the word “Jewish” in his correspondence in a pejorative sense.)

Grieg’s complexities and contradictions are fully expressed in his music, as some of the best available CD’s reveal. Grieg’s Lyric Pieces are played with spiky philosophical grace by the Norwegian pianist Haakon Austbö on a 3-CD set from Brilliant Classics. Glenn Gould gives a fresh viewpoint to Grieg’s Piano Sonata in E minor, Op. 7 on SONY. Listeners who feel overfamiliar with Grieg’s Piano Concerto might sample the freewheeling, dynamic 1927 recording by Grieg’s friend the pianist Arthur De Greef on Pearl and Simax. Grieg himself made magical records in 1903, also reprinted on Simax, though marred by a good deal of surface noise.

Other must-hear interpreters of the Concerto include Benno Moiseiwitsch on Testament, as well as Dinu Lipatti, Sviatoslav Richter, and Leif Ove Andsnes on EMI. (Nothing played by musicians of this caliber seems hackneyed.) Likewise, Iona Brown’s conducting of Grieg’s Holberg Suite on Virgin Classics makes the work sound as vivacious as it doubtless will prove to be under Per Brevig’s baton at Zankel Hall in December.

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The Case of Cho-Liang Lin

Suppose the music world had a violinist with the elegance and eloquence of the legendary Arthur Grumiaux (1921–1986), yet all too few listeners seemed to care? This unlikely scenario is apparently the case for the Taiwan-born Cho-Liang Lin (b. 1960), long a New York City resident. Lin made a series of resplendent recordings of concertos by Jean Sibelius, Carl Nielsen, Igor Stravinsky, and Sergei Prokofiev, all conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen—plus Camille Saint-Saëns’s Concerto No.3 led by Michael Tilson Thomas, and a French chamber music program with pianist Paul Crossley.

Lin’s tone is sunny and life-enhancing (like that of his idol, the late French violinist Zino Francescatti) in this series of CD’s made for Sony, which has since dropped Lin and allowed many of his CD’s to languish out of print. This is surely in part because Lin refuses to dabble in “crossover” music (unlike his friend the cellist Yo-Yo Ma, who remains a Sony headliner). Lin told me a few years ago with characteristic modesty: “I’d be thrilled to play jazz, blues, and bluegrass with ease, but it’s not in my blood, I’m afraid.” What is in his blood is classical music; Lin concertizes constantly and runs music festivals in Taipei and La Jolla, the latter a chamber-music extravaganza.

New Yorkers most recently heard Lin on May 22 under the auspices of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, the concerts of which have been exiled during Alice Tully Hall’s renovation to the garage-like acoustics—totally inappropriate for chamber music—of the Time Warner Center’s chilly Rose Theater, home of Jazz at Lincoln Center. Even so, alongside the accomplished violist Paul Neubauer and others in works by Ernö Dohnányi and Antonín Dvořák, Lin’s qualities of crystalline clarity and passionate involvement shone through.

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Suppose the music world had a violinist with the elegance and eloquence of the legendary Arthur Grumiaux (1921–1986), yet all too few listeners seemed to care? This unlikely scenario is apparently the case for the Taiwan-born Cho-Liang Lin (b. 1960), long a New York City resident. Lin made a series of resplendent recordings of concertos by Jean Sibelius, Carl Nielsen, Igor Stravinsky, and Sergei Prokofiev, all conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen—plus Camille Saint-Saëns’s Concerto No.3 led by Michael Tilson Thomas, and a French chamber music program with pianist Paul Crossley.

Lin’s tone is sunny and life-enhancing (like that of his idol, the late French violinist Zino Francescatti) in this series of CD’s made for Sony, which has since dropped Lin and allowed many of his CD’s to languish out of print. This is surely in part because Lin refuses to dabble in “crossover” music (unlike his friend the cellist Yo-Yo Ma, who remains a Sony headliner). Lin told me a few years ago with characteristic modesty: “I’d be thrilled to play jazz, blues, and bluegrass with ease, but it’s not in my blood, I’m afraid.” What is in his blood is classical music; Lin concertizes constantly and runs music festivals in Taipei and La Jolla, the latter a chamber-music extravaganza.

New Yorkers most recently heard Lin on May 22 under the auspices of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, the concerts of which have been exiled during Alice Tully Hall’s renovation to the garage-like acoustics—totally inappropriate for chamber music—of the Time Warner Center’s chilly Rose Theater, home of Jazz at Lincoln Center. Even so, alongside the accomplished violist Paul Neubauer and others in works by Ernö Dohnányi and Antonín Dvořák, Lin’s qualities of crystalline clarity and passionate involvement shone through.

The same is true of his recordings, of late limited to new or offbeat works for smaller labels. Lin has just released a CD on Naxos featuring the violin sonata of Georg Tintner (1917–1999), a conductor best known as an interpreter of Bruckner, and who wrote music most charitably described as the obiter dicta of a masterful interpreter. Other recent recordings for Ondine include the bombastic violin concerto by the Baltimore-born composer Christopher Rouse (b. 1949) as well as the tedious Maoist folklore of Tan Dun’s Out of Peking opera. Doubtless the best of Lin’s forays into new or rare music is his CD on BIS of the music of Chen Yi (b. 1953), an extremely refined composer of quality, currently teaching at the University of Missouri–Kansas City Conservatory of Music.

Why has Lin not recorded the solo works by Johann Sebastian Bach, Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, Schubert’s chamber works, and other standard repertory pieces which would suit him perfectly? Lin did recently release a CD on Naxos of Vivaldi’s familiar Four Seasons, but unfortunately the conductor was the fussy and fidgety Anthony Newman. It is imperative, for the sake of music-lovers in general and especially violin fans, that some record label with taste (EMI? Philips?) take Lin’s recording schedule in hand and produce the CD’s that this brilliant talent deserves. Even in our distinctly unclassical age, a classical artist of this soaring brilliance must be given his due.

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Why The Four Seasons ?

The Four Seasons, a set of four violin concertos by the Venetian composer Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741), remains one of the all-time bestsellers in classical recording, with over 200 CD versions currently in print (the large majority of them bad, it must be added as a caveat). Written in 1723 as part of a twelve-concerto series entitled “The Contest Between Harmony and Invention,” The Four Seasons has appeared in endless guises in pop culture, particularly on the soundtracks of films: The Banger Sisters, A View to a Kill, Flubber, Up Close and Personal, Tin Cup, and Salem’s Lot, among countless others.

What makes Vivaldi’s work such an all-encompassing hit? The Four Seasons is a pioneering example of program music, evoking the sounds of nature (birdsong, the buzz of insects, dogs barking, and other effects) with the orchestral ensemble and solo violin. By basing his music on nature, Vivaldi attained lasting universality; had he chosen a subject from Greek mythology as a theme, audiences today might find the subjects arcane. Instead, the “Spring” concerto expresses sprightly high spirits, while the “Winter” concerto still sounds starkly moving. Some listeners disagree, like the composer Igor Stravinsky, who made the oft-reprinted crack that Vivaldi wrote the “same concerto four hundred times.” In fact, Vivaldi wrote even more concertos than that; 500 or so survive. (Some sifting is clearly necessary among the many recordings available.)

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The Four Seasons, a set of four violin concertos by the Venetian composer Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741), remains one of the all-time bestsellers in classical recording, with over 200 CD versions currently in print (the large majority of them bad, it must be added as a caveat). Written in 1723 as part of a twelve-concerto series entitled “The Contest Between Harmony and Invention,” The Four Seasons has appeared in endless guises in pop culture, particularly on the soundtracks of films: The Banger Sisters, A View to a Kill, Flubber, Up Close and Personal, Tin Cup, and Salem’s Lot, among countless others.

What makes Vivaldi’s work such an all-encompassing hit? The Four Seasons is a pioneering example of program music, evoking the sounds of nature (birdsong, the buzz of insects, dogs barking, and other effects) with the orchestral ensemble and solo violin. By basing his music on nature, Vivaldi attained lasting universality; had he chosen a subject from Greek mythology as a theme, audiences today might find the subjects arcane. Instead, the “Spring” concerto expresses sprightly high spirits, while the “Winter” concerto still sounds starkly moving. Some listeners disagree, like the composer Igor Stravinsky, who made the oft-reprinted crack that Vivaldi wrote the “same concerto four hundred times.” In fact, Vivaldi wrote even more concertos than that; 500 or so survive. (Some sifting is clearly necessary among the many recordings available.)

The Italian maestro Guido Cantelli (1920-1956) conducted the NBC Symphony in “Winter” from The Four Seasons in 1950, recently transferred to CD by Testament. As conducted by Cantelli, Vivaldi’s work reflects the harsh postwar European winters and stark sufferings of his generation. Leopold Stokowski (1882-1977) was another sensualist in sound, which made him a delectable conductor of Vivaldi. His 1966 recording of The Four Seasons, reprinted on Cala, is with the New Philharmonia Orchestra. The performance is distinguished by contributions from some of Britain’s finest orchestral musicians, like the stellar violinist Hugh Bean (1929-2003) and harpsichordist Charles Spinks (1915-1992).

The clarity and balance of the British orchestral ideal, which also allows for the expression of passion, is found on another CD of The Four Seasons played by the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, led by its first violinist, Iona Brown (available on Hänssler). When Ms. Brown (1941-2004) died, conductor Neville Marriner offered this apt estimation of her talents: “As a violinist, she embraced the Romantic movement with warmth and passion, and in the early classical repertoire she displayed a fastidious elegance that observed the performing conventions of the 18th century without letting the music dry out.”

For those listeners who prefer an “original instruments” approach, a persuasively affectionate rendition is led by Rinaldo Alessandrini in a CD from Naïve that radiates Mediterranean warmth. The Sicilian violinist and conductor Fabio Biondi (b. 1961) offers a more driven, agitated, and dramatic view of The Four Seasons, without going off the rails into mere hysteria, as some of the “authentic approach” versions do. Biondi’s Europa Galante recorded its first attempt at The Four Seasons in 1991 for the brilliant small label Opus 111. It is well worth hunting down the earlier version, yet his 2003 remake for Virgin Classics also contains supplementary works, as well as dazzling musicianship.

Unlike works of visual art made ridiculous through over-familiarity, like the Mona Lisa, over-recorded music, like The Four Seasons, can be eternally renewed by performances as fine as those mentioned above.

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Wagner Without Tears

A commenter asks if I can recommend any performances conducted by the German conductor Hermann Abendroth (1883-1956). Abendroth was the “only conductor who ever made me genuinely love anything by Wagner,” says the commenter, citing a 1943 Parsifal from Bayreuth. Abendroth, who mainly conducted in Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union and East Germany, also produced dynamic recordings of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony circa 1950, of which two, with the Berlin and Leipzig Radio Symphonies, have been reprinted on CD by Tahra.

Must music-lovers look to conductors like Herbert von Karajan or Karl Böhm, to name just two, as the final Wagnerian authorities? Yes, Wagner was a notorious anti-Semite who probably would have approved of Hitler’s Final Solution. But that doesn’t mean you have to be a fascist to produce great Wagnerian performances.

Try listening to the conductor who was—with good reason—considered the truest Wagnerian at Bayreuth and Salzburg, until his anti-Fascist convictions made him refuse to perform there in the 1930’s: Arturo Toscanini (1867–1957). Volume Seven of RCA’s Immortal Toscanini series is devoted to Toscanini’s fearlessly virtuosic performances of Wagner with the NBC Symphony Orchestra. “Siegfried’s Death and Funeral Music” from Götterdämmerung has its typically intense dramatic emotional imagery—it sounds like a noble person has died and we are mourning him with grandeur—along with high intellectual clarity. (We can actually see Toscanini conduct Wagner on Volumes One and Four of “Toscanini—The Television Concerts 1948-52” on DVD from Testament.)

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A commenter asks if I can recommend any performances conducted by the German conductor Hermann Abendroth (1883-1956). Abendroth was the “only conductor who ever made me genuinely love anything by Wagner,” says the commenter, citing a 1943 Parsifal from Bayreuth. Abendroth, who mainly conducted in Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union and East Germany, also produced dynamic recordings of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony circa 1950, of which two, with the Berlin and Leipzig Radio Symphonies, have been reprinted on CD by Tahra.

Must music-lovers look to conductors like Herbert von Karajan or Karl Böhm, to name just two, as the final Wagnerian authorities? Yes, Wagner was a notorious anti-Semite who probably would have approved of Hitler’s Final Solution. But that doesn’t mean you have to be a fascist to produce great Wagnerian performances.

Try listening to the conductor who was—with good reason—considered the truest Wagnerian at Bayreuth and Salzburg, until his anti-Fascist convictions made him refuse to perform there in the 1930’s: Arturo Toscanini (1867–1957). Volume Seven of RCA’s Immortal Toscanini series is devoted to Toscanini’s fearlessly virtuosic performances of Wagner with the NBC Symphony Orchestra. “Siegfried’s Death and Funeral Music” from Götterdämmerung has its typically intense dramatic emotional imagery—it sounds like a noble person has died and we are mourning him with grandeur—along with high intellectual clarity. (We can actually see Toscanini conduct Wagner on Volumes One and Four of “Toscanini—The Television Concerts 1948-52” on DVD from Testament.)

Another of the greatest Wagnerians is Pierre Monteux (1875–1964), a French Jew whose exultant embrace of life expresses the inherent sensuality in Wagner’s music. His performances are available on CD’s from the EMI Great Conductors and BBC Legends series, as well as a fascinating 10-CD box set from Music & Arts, Sunday Evenings With Pierre Monteux. And how about Fritz Busch (1890-1951)? Busch’s musical career might well have flourished under the Third Reich—he was of Aryan birth—but his principles pushed him into exile from Germany. Busch’s exalted 1936 performance of Parsifal at the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires has been released on CD by Marston. This performance features a number of great talents, including the bass Alexander Kipnis, a Ukrainian Jew who would later be forced into exile by Hitler’s regime.

Other must-hear conductors of Wagner include Italy’s Guido Cantelli (1920-1956), who spent most of World War II in concentration camps because of his brave anti-Fascist activities. Cantelli’s fervently poetic performances of Wagner with the Philharmonia have been reprinted by Testament. The Czech maestro Karel Ančerl (1908-1973) was interned in Terezín and Auschwitz (where his family was killed), yet after the war he recorded a pellucid and humane version of the “Prelude to Act I” of Lohengrin with the Czech Philharmonic, reprinted on Supraphon.

Conductors of moral rigor and human depth like Toscanini, Cantelli, and Ančerl overcame the historical stain on Wagner’s music to find its inner value. And thankfully, listeners today need not be limited to historical performances from the Third Reich to find the “real” Wagner.

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Bravo, EMI

When were you last tempted, in a music store or online, by one of those massive sets of classical recordings on CD, presenting all the Bach “your family will ever need”—sets in which quantity threatens to outweigh quality? All too often, the so-called “greatest performances ever” turn out to be marketing ploys for the latest—and least—among new recording artists who happen to be under contract to a given company. Not to mention the 20-CD sets from Delta Entertainment such as Passion—the Most Famous Orchestral Spectaculars or A Little Night Music—the Ultimate Mozart Collection, better designed for heaving at the hapless gift-giver than for actually listening.

But three recent releases from EMI Classics, offered by their Encore imprint, deftly sidestep this pitfall. These fifty-CD sets of archival recordings—in good sound—are devoted to the music of Schubert, Beethoven, and Mozart. And, mirabile dictu, quality and a sense of serendipity are present in them, as well.

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When were you last tempted, in a music store or online, by one of those massive sets of classical recordings on CD, presenting all the Bach “your family will ever need”—sets in which quantity threatens to outweigh quality? All too often, the so-called “greatest performances ever” turn out to be marketing ploys for the latest—and least—among new recording artists who happen to be under contract to a given company. Not to mention the 20-CD sets from Delta Entertainment such as Passion—the Most Famous Orchestral Spectaculars or A Little Night Music—the Ultimate Mozart Collection, better designed for heaving at the hapless gift-giver than for actually listening.

But three recent releases from EMI Classics, offered by their Encore imprint, deftly sidestep this pitfall. These fifty-CD sets of archival recordings—in good sound—are devoted to the music of Schubert, Beethoven, and Mozart. And, mirabile dictu, quality and a sense of serendipity are present in them, as well.

The original recordings were made in the 1960’s, and—especially for the Schubert and Beethoven sets—include much worthy and long-neglected material. Some anonymous compiler with real musical taste, that rarest commodity, must have been at work, burrowed deep in the EMI offices. Among the recordings unearthed are a cycle of Beethoven’s symphonies with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by André Cluytens (1905-1967), a Belgian-born French conductor who possessed an acute understanding of the German repertory. A 1960’s cycle of Beethoven’s string quartets by the magisterial Hungarian String Quartet is complemented by a long-unavailable set of the Beethoven sonatas for violin and piano from 1959 by the ardent French violinist Christian Ferras (1933-1982) and the vivacious, unjustly neglected French pianist Pierre Barbizet (1922-1990).

Sure, there are duds in the EMI Beethoven set, like a dry series of Beethoven piano sonatas by the French pianist Eric Heidsieck (b. 1936), an heir to a champagne fortune, whose performances are all too un-fizzy. And the Mozart set has its rough spots, as well: a series of symphonies unyieldingly conducted by Jeffrey Tate. But good recordings vastly outnumber the bad in both. The Mozart set also includes so many youthful performances by the pianist/conductor Daniel Barenboim in both genres that it amounts to a kind of referendum on his talent. Then as now, Barenboim’s performances at the keyboard are more generally reliable than those at the podium.

And the Schubert set’s rate of success is, if anything, even better. The violinist and conductor Yehudi Menuhin, a devoted Schubertian, conducts the composer’s symphonies with his own Menuhin Festival Orchestra—also known as the Bath Festival Orchestra—in fluent recordings dating from 1968-69. The Melos Ensemble of London deftly handles chamber works like Schubert’s Octet, while the Hungarian String Quartet excels once again in Schubert’s quartet repertory. The presence of the sensitive German pianist Christian Zacharias makes up for a fairly motley group of other pianists included here.

In short, the Schubert and Beethoven sets are must-haves, and often revelatory, while the Mozart is rather less so. But rarely, if ever, has marketing hype in classical music been so well-matched by actual quality of performance. Bravo, EMI.

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