The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Georges Prêtre, the French conductor Vienna adored, has died at 92

January 10, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

Vienna has been called “The Paris of the Reich.”

Perhaps that is why the Viennese took such a liking to the suave and debonair French conductor Georges Prêtre (below, in a photo by Dieter Nagli for Getty Images), who died last Wednesday at 92.

george-pretre-cr-dieter-nagli-getty-images

The urbane Prêtre – who specialized in French music but also was much in demand for a lot of German and Italian repertoire — studied karate and judo. But he also enjoyed the good life and by all accounts had a terrific sense of humor coupled to a “joie de vivre.”

He often said he preferred being a guest conductor to being a music director because the former was like a love affair and the latter was like a commitment. Yet Prêtre was committed: He is survived by his wife of more than 50 years.

His conducting career spanned 70 years. He was known for his association with the Vienna Philharmonic and the Vienna Symphony. But he also conducted 101 performances of seven operas at the famed Metropolitan Opera in New York City. He also frequently conducted in Milan, Philadelphia and Chicago.

Here is a good summary obituary, with sound clips of orchestral and operatic music, from National Public Radio (NPR):

http://www.npr.org/sections/deceptivecadence/2017/01/05/508374381/georges-pr-tre-a-conductor-with-a-70-year-career-dies-at-92

And here is a longer obituary, which gives you the French flavor of the man and the musician, from The New York Times:

http://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/04/arts/music/georges-pretre-french-conductor-known-for-improvisation-dies-at-92.html

And here is George Prêtre’s most popular video on YouTube, which also serves as a fine memorial in sound:


Classical music: Van Cliburn biopic is in the works with young star Ansel Elgort to play the late, great American pianist. Plus, Madison maestro John DeMain remembers opera maestro Julius Rudel.

July 6, 2014
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear sees that something for both the ears and the eyes is coming down the pike.

Hollywood sources have confirmed that a biographical film –- yes, a biopic -– about the American pianist Van Cliburn (below) , who died last year at 78 of bone cancer, is in the works.

Cliburn's hands

That is as it should be, despite what some classical musicians see as shortcomings in Cliburn’s artistry.

Here is a post The Ear did before about the opinions that members of the public and musicians have concerning Cliburn:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2011/04/17/classical-music-how-good-was-pianist-van-cliburn/

van cliburn ill

Cliburn was the first classical artist to make a million-selling record -– he played the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat Minor, Op. 23 — on the RCA label (below and at the bottom). It was the same work with which, at age 23, he unexpectedly won the First International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow in 1958.

His victory during the height of The Cold War was an event that led to a ticker-tape parade down Broadway in New York City (bel0w) and a meteoric career, then to premature burn-out and an early retirement from the concert stage. (You can see an archival historic footage at the bottom in a YouTube video. Complete performances by Van Cliburn of the same concerto are also on YouTube.)

Van Cliburn ticker tape parade in 1958

And, if The Ear recalls correctly, Van Cliburn became a phenom or superstar who sold out houses, and was the first classical artist to get paid a fee of $10,000 for a one-night performance.

Cliburn Tchaikovsky LP

Not many classical musicians have the stuff to become the subject of a biopic.

Some composers, especially Ludwig van Beethoven and Frederic Chopin, have lent themselves to such a treatment, several times in the latter case. (We will overlook the case of the mentally ill performer David Helfgott in “Shine,” which seemed more a pathology than a biography.)

But The Ear can’t think of another individual performer, although he remembers more general subjects like “The Competition.”

The young actor Ansel Elgort (below), who The Ear thinks resembles the young Cliburn (who resembles fellow Texan Lyle Lovett), has been cast in the leading role, which focuses on Cliburn’s early years and his victory in Moscow. Apparently, Elgort himself also plays the piano quite well -– but my guess is that he does not play well enough to play it the way that the Juilliard School-trained Cliburn did.

But Elgort’s star is on the ascent, given his performance in the much praised and popular current release (“The Fault In Our Stars,” about two teenagers with cancer who fall in love.

Ansel Elgort

Anyway here are some links to stories about Van Cliburn, Ansel Elgort and the forthcoming movie:

To CBS News:

http://www.cbsnews.com/news/ansel-elgort-to-star-in-van-cliburn-biopic/

To the Dallas Morning News, in Cliburn’s hometown:

http://www.dallasnews.com/news/local-news/20140623-ansel-elgort-tapped-to-play-van-cliburn-in-movie.ece

To TIME magazine with a good video accompanying it:

http://time.com/2917530/ansel-elgort-van-cliburn/

To another video with good comparison photos of Cliburn and Elgort:

http://www.hitfix.com/news/ansel-elgort-playing-van-cliburn-in-new-biopic

To Norman Lebrecht’s tweet-like comment on his popular blog Slipped Disc:

http://slippedisc.com/2014/06/ansel-is-picked-to-play-van-cliburn-in-biopic/

What other classical music performers would you like to see treated on a biopic?

I nominate the great Russian pianist Sviatoslav Richter, a closeted gay man who led a dramatic life including encounters and confrontations with Soviet leaders and his American tour plus his eccentric late-life habits that included touring around Europe in a van playing in schools and old churches and using out-of-tune pianos. And perhaps also the legendary operatic  soprano Maria Callas, who was known for being tempestuous and temperamental as well as supremely gifted in both singing and acting. (There was a Broadway play about her, “Master Class” by Terrence McNally, the same writer who did the “Dead Man Walking,” the opera by Jake Heggie.)

richterwithcross1

Medea Maria Callas

Your nominations?

The Ear wants to hear.

JOHN DeMAIN ON JULIUS RUDEL

And speaking of celebrities, John DeMain (below, in photo by Prasad), the music director and conductor of the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the artistic director of the Madison Opera, sent in his remembrance of the late, great opera conductor Julius Rudel, who led the now-defunct City Opera of New York and who died a week ago at 93:

John DeMain full face by Prasad

Here is a link to the Rudel posting:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2014/06/29/classical-music-conductor-julius-rudel-longtime-director-of-the-defunct-new-york-city-opera-has-died-at-93/

And here is John DeMain’s remembrance:

“It was my great honor to be chosen for the Julius Rudel Award at the New York City Opera in 1971. The purpose of the stipend was to allow an American conductor to work closely with Maestro Rudel to learn how to become an artistic director of an opera company.

Rudel (below) was far and away the best conductor in the house. His performances were vital, theatrical, and intensely musically expressive. His “Marriage of Figaro” was an unforgettable experience for me. I prepared the auditions of singers for the company, and got to sit in on the casting conversations, and learned the criterion for casting a singer in an opera.

Julius Rudel at home in 2010 NY Times

Rudel was extremely demanding musically, and, of course, expanded the repertoire of the company in all directions. He had great flair for American opera and musical theater.

The bottom line for me, however, was he delivered totally engrossing performances night after night. He also was a mentor to me, and provided counsel and advice as new career opportunities presented themselves to me.

I consider Julius Rudel’s time at the City Opera as the “golden age” of that company. It was during that time that Placido Domingo, Jose Carreras, Norman Treigle, Beverly Sills, and many other greats were singing on that stage.

I’m grateful to have had him in my life.

Julius Rudel middle age conducting NPR

 


Classical music: Medea remains a fierce and timely heroine for women in today’s society and politics in America.

November 18, 2012
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By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a special posting, a review-essay written by frequent guest critic and writer for this blog, John W. Barker. Barker (below) is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also is a well-known classical music critic who writes for Isthmus and the American Record Guide, and who hosts an early music show every other Sunday morning on WORT 88.9 FM. He serves on the Board of Advisors for the MadisonEarly Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison.

By John W. Barker

It was just after I filed my review last week for Isthmus on the University Opera’s production of Luigi Cherubini‘s 1797 opera “Medea that I recognized some startling implications for our time in the popular story of the formidable mythic sorceress.

Here is a link to that review:

http://www.thedailypage.com/daily/article.php?article=38262

Even if I had thought of them before finishing the reviews, there would have been no space for such thoughts.

But perhaps The Ear can find a little niche for them now.

Most people have some inkling of the most famous part of Medea’s story.  You know, spurned by her husband Jason, she destroyed his new bride and murdered her own children in revenge.  (Sorcery scenes; blood and gore; escape in a fiery chariot — that sort of thing.)

But the full mythological story of Medea (below, depicted in a historical painting) was, in fact, a very complicated and multi-faceted one. It survives to us piecemeal in ancient Greek sources, and is embodied essentially in four phases. First, when the heroic Argonauts, led by Jason, came to her homeland (Colchis, in the Caucasus), Princess Medea fell in love with him, defied her father to help Jason steal the fabled Golden Fleece, and killed her own brother in escaping with Jason.

Upon their arrival in Thessaly to claim his reward, recovery of his throne, Jason was cheated out of it by his uncle, whom Medea promptly killed through her magic wiles.

Fleeing, Jason and Medea took refuge in Corinth for 10 years, where she bore him two sons. Corinth provided the scene of the second phase. Tiring of his forceful wife, Jason renounced her, winning the daughter of Corinth’s king, Creon, as a bride. In revenge, the discarded Medea used her magic to destroy both the king and his daughter, completing her revenge by the calculated murder of both of her sons.

In her vengeance, Medea had come to an agreement with the aged King Aegeus of Athens to take refuge with him. In this third phase of the story, Medea married Aegeus and bore him a son, Medus, but lost out in competition for power with her stepson, Theseus, and had to flee with Medus.

For the fourth and final phase of Medea’s story, she and her son returned to Colchis, where she defeated her hostile relatives and installed Medus as king.

There is, too, an epilogue, in which we are told that the devastated Jason wandered the beaches by the ruins of his famous vessel, the Argonaut. One of its timbers fell off, striking him with a fatal blow.

Now, there is lots of meat in all these episodes. Over the centuries, dramatists of varying stripe have picked over it all. The fourth and final phase has tended to be ignored, but the medium of opera has witnessed treatments of the first three, some going back to the very earliest years of lyric theater.

The episode of Jason and Medea in Colchis had its first operatic treatment (a comic one) by Francesco Cavalli in 1649, and many followed thereafter for three centuries. The third phase, of Medea in Athens, has been given far fewer presentations in opera, the most important being Handel’s “Teseo” (1713).

It has been, however, the second phase, that of Medea in Corinth, which has by far inspired stage versions, making us particularly familiar with that part of Medea’s story.

That emphasis was first laid down by the classical Greek dramatist, Euripides (480-406 B.C), in his play “Medea.” On his model, the Roman writer Seneca (he of Monteverdi’s opera “The Coronation of Poppea”) wrote a simplified drama on the story in Latin, and this was what future centuries knew best of the dread sorceress. French dramatists were particularly influenced by Seneca’s version, and one of them a younger member of the famous Corneille family, wrote the libretto for one of the earliest operatic settings, Marc-Antoine Charpentier‘s “Médée” (1693). (Belwo is Medea from the film by Pasolini.)

That remains one of the best of all such, though that of a century later, Cherubini’s opera–which was the UW Opera presented–does stand out among close to 30 other treatments, their number still growing down to the present.  (Below, in a photo of the University Opera production by Brent Nicastro, is Also Perrelli, Shannon Prickett as Medea, and the UW Madrigal Singers in the back.)

What survives to some extent in our various operas is still best set forth at the outset by Euripides. An “issue” dramatist, Euripides liked to provoke his Athenian audiences with challenging and unconventional perspectives.

And in the personality of Medea, Euripides found issues that resound through the centuries, and are more than ever relevant today.

Consider. Yes, Medea is branded as a sorceress — all that nasty magic, bad stuff, we all know, disruptive to nature and to the normal order of things. She had a hair-trigger temper, and her revenge could be simply horrible when she was thwarted.  Bizarre character, you know. Someone you might think twice about becoming involved with, and certainly about crossing. (Below is the celebrated opera diva Maria Callas as Medea.)

But what makes Medea so perennially fascinating is the mix of those “negative” characteristics with other elements.  She was a wronged woman: betraying her family and abandoning her homeland for love of her man, she is in turn betrayed by Jason when he finds a more advantageous marriage with a young woman. 

Complicating her plight are two factors.  First, she is a woman in an utterly male-dominated society.  Second, in a smugly xenophobic society, she is an outsider, an alien, a “barbarian”, to be scored as something “other”.  (Might we say she was the “illegal immigrant” par excellence among the Greeks?)  Against both prejudices, she fought bravely, even desperately. Her resources were limited, but what she had she pushed to the extreme.  And, until the final phase of her story, she was constantly defeated or on the defensive.

Right now, in our American setting, the rights and opportunities of women are still in question.  Breaking through the “glass ceiling” remains a problem for women in the men’s world of business. So-called “women’s issues” are under attack up to the moment: politicians prattle about rape, propose outrageously intrusive gynecology, oppose contraception and sex education, politicize abortion, deny plans for maternity leaves, and assault women’s health care.

Here we have had an election that produced for the first time a total of five women in the U.S. Senate. Not that voting for female candidates must be based solely on gender, but certainly their access to public offices needs strengthening. And how much chance was U.S. Rep Tammy Baldwin  (below) first given against for Wisconsin governor Tommy Thompson?

In sum, the situation of women touches on problems whose formulation can be seen as far back as Euripides. Have we learned anything? Perhaps the most provocative anti-war tract ever written was Euripides’ play “The Trojan Women.” And perhaps the best challenge to thinking about the place for women in our world is no less than the same dramatist’s Medea.

And, Euripides might share some credit with the operas, too.  I was set to thinking about all this by Cherubini’s “Medea,” in its now “standard” Italian form, as presented by the University Opera’s wonderful student singers.

Overcoming the absolutely silly visual handicaps of set and costumes in William Farlow’s staging, these brave singers succeeded in bringing to vocal and dramatic life so much of what this complex heroine’s powerful story is really all about. (Below, in a photo by Brent Nicastro, is the UW production with, from left) Ariana Douglas, Erik Larson and Aldo Perrelli with the UW Madrigal singers in the background.)

So opera-goers, and everyone else: listen and enjoy, but think.


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