Monday, September 15, 2008

"Coppelia" And "Romeo And Juliet"

For the last couple of weeks, Joshua and I have been listening to two full-length ballet scores.

Josh and I like to listen to ballet scores. Over the last couple of years, we have listened to two of Tchaikovsky’s complete ballet scores, “Swan Lake” and “The Nutcracker”, as well as Reinhold Gliere’s complete score for “The Red Poppy” and Sergei Prokofiev’s complete score for “Cinderella”.

Our recent round of listening involved one French ballet, Leo Delibes’s score for “Coppelia”, and one Russian ballet, Prokofiev’s score for “Romeo And Juliet”.

The discs we have been listening to are not among the very finest recorded versions of these scores. In fact, the discs we have been listening to were borrowed from my father’s music library and were deliberately chosen and brought with us to Boston based upon their total lack of distinction—my father will not necessarily mind if these discs are somehow lost, stolen or misplaced.

The “Coppelia” discs Josh and I have been listening to are the discs issued on the Erato label in 1994, performed by the Orchestre De L’Opera De Lyon under Kent Nagano.

This recording is nowhere near as fine as the great EMI recording of “Coppelia” made by Jean-Baptiste Mari, and it does not even measure up to either of the recordings of “Coppelia” on the Decca label made by Richard Bonynge. Nevertheless, the Erato discs allowed Josh to get to know this superb music, and in this respect the Erato recording has served its purpose.

“Coppelia” is a magnificent ballet score. It is easy to understand why Tchaikovsky admired this score enormously, believing, incorrectly, that his own first effort, “Swan Lake”, did not measure up to what Delibes had written just a few years earlier. Delibes’s gift of melody was endless, his command of musical characterization sure, his orchestration imaginative and beguiling. More importantly, Delibes knew how to construct a work for the stage, shaping it with the sure hand of a born dramatist. It is this particular quality that sets the score of “Coppelia” apart from every full-length ballet score that preceded it.

Even persons who are not familiar with the complete “Coppelia” score already know the two most famous tunes, the Mazurka and the Waltz, because these two tunes have somehow been implanted into the consciousness of every person in the Western World. Josh had never heard “Coppelia” before, but his eyes lighted up with recognition and delight the first time he heard these two great tunes emerge from the speakers during their first appearances in the ballet’s Overture. Where had Josh heard these tunes before? He had no idea—he only knew that he already knew them. My initial reaction was precisely the same the first time I heard the full score to “Coppelia” many years ago.

The Nagano recording is competent, so most of the joys of this great score may be experienced through the recording. However, the Nagano recording is nothing more than competent—the rhythms are not handled with enough lightness or with any subtly or charm, the conducting has very little characterization and no elegance whatsoever, and the orchestration comes across as much blander than in fact it is, a result of Nagano not knowing how to highlight and blend the various timbres of the orchestra. The music just churns along, with everything just a little too obvious and everything just a little too heavy-handed. These shortcomings are always the quintessential knocks against Nagano, who simply is not much of a conductor—he is not much of a technician and he is not much of an interpreter. Orchestras generally loathe working with him, and not simply because he has a reputation for being nasty and overbearing in rehearsal—orchestras also loathe him because he is so often unprepared and because he has nothing to offer the musicians, in rehearsal or in performance, other than beating time.

The quality of the Lyon orchestra does not help matters. The orchestra barely rises to a provincial standard. Intonation is always problematic, the standard of ensemble is wayward, the woodwinds have no individuality and lack distinctive timbres, the brass section strains just to hit the notes, and the quality of the string sound does not meet the standard of a proficient student orchestra in the U.S. These sectional deficiencies, alas, are on glaring display because Nagano does not know how to blend the different sections of the orchestra into a pleasing whole. Nagano’s many shortcomings result in a colorless reading of the score. It is hard to imagine a more lifeless “Coppelia”.

This recording was made for the French domestic market. It should never have been granted an international release (unless the French wanted to remind the world how shoddy their orchestras are).

The “Romeo And Juliet” recording we have been listening to is the Deutsche Grammophon recording with the Boston Symphony under Seiji Ozawa. Again, this recording is competent, but it has never challenged the classic Lorin Maazel recording on Decca or the classic Andre Previn recording on EMI, both recorded in the early 1970’s.

This recording was made in Boston in October 1986 and released a year later. Amazingly, it remains in print today (at full price, no less), a startling circumstance given how many superior recordings of the Prokofiev score are in the active catalog.

This recording was made during the years in which the Boston Symphony was in its greatest period of deterioration. The orchestra began the decade of the 1980’s as a great orchestra; the orchestra ended that decade as a regional ensemble. This was the only instance in the 20th Century of a great orchestra losing its greatness, a modern-day American equivalent of what had happened to the great Meiningen Orchestra in late 19th-Century Germany. However, when the Meiningen Orchestra lost its greatness, the Berlin Philharmonic rose to take its place. No American orchestra has risen to take the place formerly occupied by the Boston Symphony, leaving us now with only three great American orchestras: the Cleveland Orchestra, the Chicago Symphony and the Philadelphia Orchestra.

The villains of the Boston Symphony’s deterioration were Ozawa, who lacked the skills necessary to maintain a great orchestra, and the orchestra’s administration and Board, which failed to take the action necessary—Ozawa’s discharge—to halt an unbearable situation. The Boston administration and Board failed to act even though the orchestra’s decline was being followed closely by literally everyone in the music world, with mounting astonishment and disbelief.

The name of Seiji Ozawa should forever be damned in Boston, as should the names of the orchestra’s former administrators and Board members, all complicit in the fall from greatness of one of the world’s most exalted ensembles.

The deterioration in the quality of the playing evidenced on this 1986 recording is readily apparent to anyone familiar with the orchestra’s Deutsche Grammophon and Philips recordings from the late 1970’s, a period in which the orchestra still played at the highest level. The deterioration, over a relatively short period of time, is palpable. This is no longer the orchestra it had been only a few years earlier.

The beauty and transparency of the orchestra’s sound are gone. The string sound has become featureless, thick, sometimes glassy and often strident. The woodwinds no longer inspire and play off each other as they did in earlier years—they have simply lost interest in their music-making, and it shows in their impersonal and lackluster phrasing. The brass playing is abrupt, lacking sheen and brilliance (and confidence).

The orchestra has one sound when it plays softly, and another sound when it plays at full volume. Neither of those sounds is pleasing. When the orchestra plays softly, the sound is thin and unsupported. When the orchestra plays at full volume, the sound is rough, even blowsy. It is all very unpleasant.

The orchestra in 1986 no longer plays with the amazing accuracy of ensemble it commanded half a decade earlier. Attacks are tentative, phrasing is listless, phrase endings are no longer unanimous. There is no lightness and sparkle in the playing, and no rhythmic life. The musicians give absolutely nothing to the conductor.

This was all the result, according to those who were present at the time, of the orchestra’s unwillingness to continue to mask Ozawa’s shortcomings as a conductor. After five to seven years of carrying Ozawa, the members of the orchestra became tired of doing Ozawa’s job as well as their own, and they began marking time, awaiting Ozawa’s departure—which, tragically, was not to come for another fifteen years.

By 1986, the Boston Symphony no longer played as one collective player. Instead, the orchestra played as 100 individual musicians, all vastly talented, all individually admirable, but all operating on 100 different wavelengths. The result: playing no better than that of a good European radio orchestra.

Despite these disheartening deficiencies, the genius of Prokofiev’s score still comes through. The greatness of this score, surely the finest of all 20th-Century full-length ballet scores, is well-nigh indestructible. The music invariably makes its effect even in the hands of the lamest ballet orchestra.

This is so even though Ozawa’s reading of the score is more or less featureless. Tempi are often too broad, and some numbers are so slow that the thread of the story and the inherent tension of the music disappear. The great dramatic moments lack the impact they command on other recordings. There is no emotional commitment in Ozawa’s work, and a total absence of energy.

“Romeo And Juliet” can survive and thrive in a variety of treatments. Maazel brought a sharp, pointed, searing quality to the score, which emphasized the work’s drama. Previn brought an understated elegance and lift to the music, which gently emphasized the work’s emotional arcs. Ozawa, truly, brings nothing comparable to the score—and yet the score’s aching beauty still makes an impact, even in the hands of a hack.

Josh loved “Romeo And Juliet”. He thought “Romeo And Juliet” was the finest ballet score he had ever heard. It has become his personal favorite.

It is fortunate that my father has no further interest in the discs we borrowed from him. Last night, after we had finished listening to these discs and were returning them to their boxes, I broke disc two of “Coppelia”, which contains the music to Act III. The disc snapped in half as I was inserting it into its case.

This is only the third time in my life that this has happened. In the two previous occurrences, it was Erato discs that snapped in half, too. This makes me wonder whether Erato uses inferior materials in manufacturing its discs.

Our next round of listening will involve another group of discs whose absence my father will not miss (and whose possible destruction will not exactly be a tragedy, although I truly am not actively trying to break these discs). We will listen to Richard Strauss’s opera, “Salome”, which we will hear at the Metropolitan Opera in New York over Columbus Day Weekend. We will listen to “Salome” so that Josh can become familiar with the work. We have with us the Herbert Von Karajan recording on EMI, a recording my father loves, but the copy we have with us is not the only copy of the recording in the family.

We will supplement our “Salome” listening with a disc of Mozart Piano Concertos performed by Daniel Barenboim and the Berlin Philharmonic on Teldec.

In the case of the Barenboim Mozart disc . . .now, THAT is a disc my father indeed is VERY happy to have out of the house!


  1. Sounds like you don't like Nagano and Ozawa.

  2. Hello, Andrew.

    The Maazel "Romeo and Juliet" has been a favorite score of mine over the last 35 years. I purchased the original Decca, 3-disc vinyl pressings in late 1973 or 1974 while I was a student at the Army Russian Institute in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany. I literally wore out two complete sets (along with a couple of record player styli) listening to the set, either actively or passively while studying. I must have heard these records about forty times in the first month alone.

    I have NEVER gotten tired of this music.

    I recently heard someone on NPR, just another idiot American music critic, practically trash Prokofiev's opus as containing "long, banal passages" (or something like that) and in need of "improvement". I was amazed at such lack of aural discernment. I personally would not change a single note of this ballet. It is, in my mind, a flawless heart-rending masterpiece.

    The only complaint I have about the Decca recording, notwithstanding the gorgeous sound (especially in the bass register), is that there is an unpleasant, blunt noise which can be heard during the morning scene in Juliet's bedroom. In an aching crescendo - one to die for, really - which begins with the trombones playing forte (I think, I don't have the score before me right now), and then continuing with the horns in an ascending phrase that tears out the heart (mine, at least), there it is: the very brief, extraneous sound intrudes before the horns reach the phrase's summit in the staff. I remember during those 40 or so hearings way back when, using rather inferior playback equipment, every time without fail, I had to rip off my headphones thinking that someone was knocking at my door.

    Having listened since with more sophisticated audio gear I can hear that the noise, much drier now. It sounds like a percussionist dropping a stick onto a snare drum (or Maazel rapping his stand with his baton). I don't really know what the heck it is, but I have heard this irritating distraction on EVERY pressing I've owned, and I continue to hear it on CD as well.

    I've never known anyone else who knew what I was talking about.

    Anyway, I wish the both of you continued settling-in in Boston.


  3. No, Dan, I do not like Nagano or Ozawa.

    Guilty as charged.

  4. Hey, Dane.

    I think “Romeo And Juliet” is Prokofiev’s masterpiece, catching him at peak inspiration.

    “Romeo And Juliet” and “Cinderella” are such wonderful ballet scores that they make me want to seek out and listen to the other Prokofiev full-length ballet, “The Stone Flower”, even though the latter does not enjoy a high reputation.

    Is it possible that the snide comments you heard on the radio about Prokofiev are due to the fact that Shostakovich’s music is now in fashion? In the case of Prokofiev and Shostakovich, it seems that as one composer rises in favor, the other composer witnesses a temporary lapse in fortune.

    I do not recall any extraneous noises in the Decca “Romeo And Juliet”, but it has been seven or eight years since I heard that recording.

    Lorin Maazel made a number of fine recordings during his decade in Cleveland. I think his “Porgy And Bess” is very fine, he made a fine disc of ballet music from Verdi operas, he made a wonderful Respighi album and an excellent “Daphnis Et Chloe”, all for Decca, and he made a few discs for Telarc and Sony that are not bad.

    Do you want to hear a very controversial opinion? The finest integral set of Beethoven symphonies ever recorded in the U.S. is Maazel’s Cleveland set on Sony. It is better even than Toscanini’s or Szell’s Beethoven sets, and yet hardly anyone knows it.

    As of a couple of years ago, it was still in the domestic catalog, at a PREMIUM price, so someone out there must agree with me.

    Do you want to hear a second controversial opinion? The worst integral set of Beethoven symphonies ever recorded in the U.S. is Muti’s Philadelphia set on EMI. Every single symphony in that set is laughably wrong-headed.

    Do you want to hear a third controversial opinion? The great, undervalued set of Mahler symphonies on disc is Maazel’s Vienna set on Sony. I do not know whether it is the finest Mahler cycle on disc, but it is better than either of Bernstein’s sets.

    I would offer an opinion about Shostakovich’s music, but I have offered enough controversial opinions for one evening.


  5. Good morning, Andrew.

    I love “Cinderella”, too; but I don’t think it is quite the masterpiece as “Romeo and Juliet”. “Cinderella” is a bit uneven, I think, but when Prokofiev is at his most inspired in this score – what inspiration! There is a brief passage in Act III when the Prince is searching the world for the heroine and tries out the “glass slipper” on an Indian princess, I think. That passage can’t be more than two minutes in length, but it is one of the most meltingly beautiful pieces of music I ever heard. I was fortunate to see a live performance of “Cinderella” at the Deutsche Oper Berlin in 1977 with Valerie Panov and Galina Ragozina. It remains one of my most memorable experiences.

    I have listened to “Kaminy Tzvetok”, the “Stone Flower”, many times, too; but here Prokofiev is least inspired. Even here, however, there is much to enjoy.

    Yes, I think Maazel’s 1975 Ravel “Daphnis” was a highlight of his recording work in Cleveland. The performance and recording are simply magical, as magical as the “Romeo and Juliet.” I wish Maazel had recorded Hindemith’s “Noblissima Visione.” Based upon the aircheck I heard from the mid-seventies, it would have been the finest record ever.

    I don’t understand why your comment regarding Maazel’s Beethoven set is controversial. I think any music lover with a decent pair of ears can tell that his Columbia set was the finest ever, surpassed perhaps only by Karajan’s 1963 set. All one has to do is listen to the Second and he is hooked for life. Moreover, the playing of the orchestra is jaw-dropping in every area of consideration – even finer than the performances under Szell.

    I haven’t heard Muti’s Philadelphia Beethoven.

    I haven’t heard Maazel’s Vienna Mahler cycle, except for the Sixth (my personal favorite), which is one of the finest I ever heard, worthy to placed along side Szell’s famous live record.

    Okay, I will volunteer now to make a controversial statement about Shostakovitch’s music so that you won’t have to, Andrew. Boulez once said of Shostakovitch that he was “irrelevant.” Not to lump Boulez with the idiot American critics, who use “relevant” and “irrelevant” liberally to mean absolutely nothing, in the context in which the composer spoke, his meaning was clear: Shostakovitch is the MOST overrated Russian composer – and perhaps the most overrated composer who ever put pen to paper. His Second and Third Symphonies are utter trash, but I believe everyone knows this. His Sixth symphony is a terrible composition, in form, in invention, in . . . EVERYTHING; and I refuse to listen to it again. I am bored to death by all his symphonic OPERA written after the Tenth (his best, I think). I believe “Lady MacBeth” is forgettable; and I think the string quartets, all the concerti, and all the film music are entertaining at times (I can pay attention during the eighth quartet), but hardly “great” by any standard. I admit that I like the Seventh Symphony, even though I fully sympathize with Bartok’s take on the first movement. And I like two inner movements of the Eighth. As for the fabled Fifth, I am truly sick of hearing it played on the radio over and over.

    Prokofiev was the greatest Russian composer of the 20th century, and even Khachaturian was a better composer than Shostakovitch.


    P.S.- I like the Seventh of Shostokovitch as long as it is not made to sound like a work by Ligeti, which is what happened at the very last concert I heard by the Houson Symphony in 2006. (I had to rub my eyes to make sure the conductor wasn't using an oversized score.)


  6. Apologies to Mr. Panov in misspelling the Western orthography "Valery".


  7. Dane:

    I have always found it interesting that, in the U.S.A., at least, Lorin Maazel has never been accorded the honor he deserves. He is the finest conductor the U.S. has ever produced, by a long shot, and yet he has never enjoyed the accolades routinely offered to Leonard Bernstein or James Levine, both of whom were and are vastly inferior to Maazel. I have often wondered whether this situation is due simply to the fact that Maazel’s personality rubs so many people the wrong way.

    His integral Beethoven cycle has never received the acclaim it deserves, has it? No one knows it, American commentators never mention it, and I never see it referenced when Beethoven sets are assessed. For example, I cannot recall a single mention of the Maazel Beethoven set in reviews of the Vanska/Minnesota Beethoven project on BIS, although it would seem to me to be an obvious and essential reference point. It was for this reason that I wrote that my opinion about Maazel’s Beethoven cycle was controversial.

    I hate even to get started on the subject of Shostakovich. I am dumbfounded and dismayed about his current popularity. Do you read Robert Craft? Craft, in his many essays, has written occasionally about Shostakovich, and Craft’s analyses of Shostakovich’s music are the best I have ever come across. I do not have Craft’s many volumes of essays with me, so I cannot quote him at present. However, Craft has written that Shostakovich’s compositional technique, in essence, was to take a thin tune and to play it over and over, louder and louder, with an occasional alteration of orchestration. Further, Craft attempts to correct the record about the oft-cited Mahler/Shostakovich parallels. Craft argues that Shostakovich’s inspiration derives, not from Gustav Mahler, but from Franz Liszt.

    Let me mention two Shostakovich symphony recordings I happen to enjoy, even though I dislike both symphonies intensely. Temirkanov’s RCA recording of the Symphony No. 7, with his orchestra in Saint Petersburg, actually makes that work listenable. Jansons’s EMI recording of the Symphony No. 11, with the Philadelphia Orchestra, is even more of an eye-opener. While I am listening to the Jansons recording, it almost makes me believe that Symphony No. 11 is a masterpiece. It is the finest thing Jansons has ever done on disc.


  8. Hey, Andrew,

    I stopped looking at Beethoven cycle reviews a long, long time ago (because I already had so many); so I was very suprised to learn that the Maazel is NOT the standard. I just assumed it WAS (honestly!) since the set is still in the catalogue. Every informed person I know believes in the matchless merits of the Maazel set. The Maazel is superior to the Dohnanyi.

    In fact, I do not know one single informed person who does not acknowledge Lorin Maazel as the finest American conductor of all time. Bernstein? I thought Bernstein's Haydn wasn't all that bad, but I thought everything else, including his own compositions, was utterly unlistenable. Many people think he exuded "sensuality" from the podium, as if that somehow mattered. He didn't for me; and even if he did, what did that have to do with Mahler or Beethoven? (For the same reason some Americans worship Valery Gergiev, who, if one day he decided to actually shave before a concert, his market value might take a nose dive.)

    Maazel, I believe, made a lot of enemies because of his aloofness, I'll wager. But there are some people who deserve to be forgiven for this. Maazel is a true genius. Yes, he can be boorish, yes, he can be self-absorbed - even "perverse" at times. So what? Judge him for the results of his work, not for any perceived character flaws. And his work in general has been superlative. Many people do not know (even those who live in Cleveland) that George Szell greatly admired Maazel but did not always admire Bernstein.

    I haven't read Craft, Andrew, and if I have I've forgotten his essays. I agree 99 per cent with what you have written, however. I confess that I do not know WHY I still like the Seventh Symphony; but I have always known that the piece is by no means a major work. Perhaps I like it for purely sentimental reasons.

    I DO consider the 11th to be utterly unlistenable. But I'm intrigued by your admiration for the Temirkanov.

    I took a risk in sharing my opinion about Shoshtakovitch, Andrew, because I know so many people, including many native Russian citizens, who think he is the greatest of all Soviet-era composers. I have never understood this, and I thought over time that maybe something was wrong with ME.

    I'm greatly releaved.


  9. That is, I'm greatly relieved and surprised.

    As long as I'm on the subject of spelling, by the way, it is perfectly fine to spell Shostakovitch's surname the way I do, which is according to the French transliteration standard. The final cyrillic character in the name looks like an open numeral four or an unside-down chair facing to the left. The character is the same as the first letter in the word "Tchaikowsky," which is rendered "tch".

    I mention this because I've outraged a number of people in the past because of my spelling of certain Russian words by way of the Roman alphabet. There are four different transliteration standards in use; and I've become bored with them all. "Chaikovsky" is actually the closest spelling to the Russian, but if I did that you can imagine the uproar that would cause.


  10. Dane, I do not know a word of Russian, so I always use what I believe to be the standard Anglicized spellings of Russian names—Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev, Shostakovich—and allow anyone to make fun of me as he or she wishes.

    In my experience, hardly anyone is even AWARE of the Maazel Beethoven cycle. You are the first music-lover I know who is even familiar with the set, let alone appreciates it. I have not seen a reference to it in years, if ever. Like you, I believe it is finer than the Dohnanyi cycle with the same orchestra. I find Dohnanyi’s Beethoven cycle to be uninteresting, although it is beautifully played and recorded.

    I was never a Bernstein fan. I guess I must have been inoculated against him at birth. In my opinion, his recordings do not withstand the test of time. He made only a handful of long-lasting recordings, and his recorded legacy pales in comparison to that of Karajan, Maazel, Ormandy and Solti, just to offer four examples (in alphabetical order). Bernstein was a peculiarly American phenomenon, a veritable P.T. Barnum of the music world, more flash than substance. It amazes me that he is even discussed today. How can anyone possibly take the man seriously?

    Did you see the recent New York Times article about Bernstein and his recorded legacy? I cringed. I believe that, if one added up the IQ of all the writers involved in that article, one would still not reach triple digits. In fact, sometimes I cannot help myself and I have to take on these people, as I did last weekend with one of the New York Times stringers, Steve Smith, on his blog, Night After Night. I think I was civil.

    Dane, I encourage you to see if you can obtain a copy of the Jansons Shostakovich Eleventh from your local library. It may not change your mind about the merits of the work itself, but it will allow you to hear the work in a genuinely great performance. The recording features unparalleled emotional commitment coupled with unusual subtlety. I get chills when I hear that recording, although every other recording of the work makes me laugh.

    I cannot even get started on the subject of Gergiev, or I risk a stroke.


  11. Hi, Andrew,

    Yes, I saw the article in the NY Times about those fav picks among those poor little rascals. The listings made me want to vomit: Kent Nagano's "Mass" (Are you kidding me?!).

    I tell you, Andrew, someone ought to write a follow up to Andrew Porter's 2000 article about the decline - no, DECAY - of music criticism in America. It's long overdue. I was waiting and waiting for the NYT to give us even a morsel of coverage of the Salzburg premiere of "Rusalka" last month; and instead there was this garbage about Bernstein; and Tomassini even reviewed Howard Shores's new opera in LA, based upon David Chronenberg's revolting film "The Fly."

    It is possible to even imagine how more shameful the state of music appreciation in the US can be?

    Is your discussion with Steve Smith on the NY Times comment page? I'd like to read it.

    I think I will borrow the Jansons Shostakovitch Eleven.


  12. Dane, I commented directly upon Steve Smith's blog,

    If the link does not work, if you google Steve Smith and Night After Night, his blog will be the first search result.

    Last weekend was only the second time I have commented upon Steve Smith's blog. Fifteen months or so ago, I commented about an inane article Smith wrote about the Bavarian State Opera and Kent Nagano, an entry in which Smith simply copied an equally-idiotic New Yorker article by Alex Ross.

    I am unfamiliar with the Andrew Porter article you mention. Do you know where it was published? I would like to read it.

  13. And, Dane, I predict you will LOVE the Shostakovich Eleventh in Jansons's hands.

    And the musicians of the Philadelphia Orchestra play like gods.

  14. You always have such interesting discussions.

    Ozawa and Nagano have never had London careers.

    Nagano can't even get arrested here. Remember what a hash he made of his time in Manchester with the Halle Orchestra? Manchester was thrilled to see the last of him.

    Bernstein is to you what Beecham is to us: the first high-profile native conductor. Neither was viewed with much importance beyond native borders, although both were big personalities and both liked to drink.

    Orchestra musicians here did not like Bernstein. He always had big fights with the London orchestras, which may be why he was not engaged here often.

    Gergiev is not going over well with the LSO. I wonder how long he will last. Many members of the LSO are already keen to chuck him.

  15. Thanks, Andrew, for the blog address. I know I will enjoy the argument.

    Sorry, Andrew, I goofed about the Porter: It wasn't a published article, it was Porter's Prince of Hesse Memorial Lecture at Aldeburgh in 2000. I don't know if a complete transcript is available. A gist of the lecture, however, was reported in the "Lebrecht Weekly."

    My memory isn't what it used to be. See what you have to look forward to when you reach 55?


  16. Calvin:

    Leonard Bernstein had a very spotty career. His U.S. career was largely confined to Boston and New York. He was seldom welcome in Chicago, Cleveland and Philadelphia.

    Bernstein had virtually no European career until Deutsche Grammophon picked him up, dangling lots of money to Vienna to engage him so that DGG could make live recordings during VPO concerts. Many of the musicians in Vienna found Bernstein to be utterly laughable, especially in Mahler, and the orchestra did not even try to play well for him. Those Vienna recordings are pretty poor, across the board, and DGG lost a fortune on Bernstein. DGG was preparing to cancel Bernstein's recording contract at the time Bernstein bit the dust. That must have been a terrible blow to someone as narcissistic as Bernstein, and I wonder whether such news contributed to his early death.

    I've read about Bernstein's tiffs with London orchestras. In fact, in 1967 he was filmed during a rehearsal with the London Symphony, working through Shostakovich's Fifth. Bernstein treated the musicians like stupid children, and they clearly resented such treatment. The longer the rehearsal proceeded, the worse the musicians played. Bernstein became completely exasperated, and threw a hissy fit. The film actually is sort of funny.

    The Royal Opera House does not seem to have a particularly interesting season lined up for this year, Calvin, at least on paper. Will you and Edythe be going often?


  17. Dane, I found a few references online to that particular Andrew Porter lecture.

    From what I could tell, in that lecture Porter spoke mostly about the Austrian premiere of Richard Strauss's "Salome" in Graz--you know, that fabled premiere attended by Adolf Hitler--and spent a lot of time drawing lurid parallels between Shostakovich working in the Soviet Union and Copland working in the U.S., bad-mouthing the serialists all the while (and writing Pierre Boulez out of the history books), tying the whole thing up with a touching, baton-twirling tribute to pop music, minimalism and multi-culturalism.

    Oh, wait.

    Am I confusing Andrew Porter with someone else who writes for The New Yorker?

  18. Andrew, I think you were very poised and polite in your comment on Steve Smith's blog last Saturday regarding Bernstein and Sibelius.

    You reminded me of Tim Page reviewing a Leonard Slatkin concert in D.C.

    Acquiescing in good faith to the "imprecision" of Mr. Smith's writing, I wonder why Mr. Smith hasn't considered the possibility that Bernstein did not have such a close association with ANY composer, not merely with Sibelius.

    If we ignore the effects of narcisism in the life, is it not reasonable then to question the close association of Bernstein the conductor with Bernstein the composer?


  19. Dane, I never was a fan of Bernstein's music, either. He borrowed far too heavily from Copland, as well as from Gershwin--and Rudolf Friml, of all people.

    I don't even like Bernstein's Broadway scores. "West Side Story" makes me gag, and I have never understood the appeal of "Candide", which I cannot even sit through. That is a miserable, miserable show.

    There is one work by Bernstein I like very much: "Songfest". The composer's DGG recording is interesting. The Slatkin RCA recording is awful.


  20. Andrew, I also like "Songfest," and I like "Make Your Garden Grow," which closes out "Candide." But the show "Candide" itself is abominable - I'll even call it "mandolouepey," which was the unintelligible [adjective] that I had to strain to verify in order to log on to blogger today.

    I think the worst thing Bernstein ever wrote though is his "Kaddish" Symphony, Nr. 3. I think it is worse than "Mass." I think they are in both music and in text blasphemous.

    I have to say that I like the score to "On the Waterfront". But that's it. It amazes me how "soiled" most of his compositions sound to me.


  21. I think all three of Bernstein's symphonies are indescribably bad, and he would have been well-advised to withdraw them from his work list.

    I have never heard "Mass", and do not plan to.

    I can't even stand "Make Your Garden Grow". It strikes me as an offering of treacle at the end of an inept and gruesome evening.

    I am not easily assimilated.

  22. The ROH has an excellent program this season. Between now and February, we will go to "Don Giovanni", "La Fanciulla Del West", "Elektra", "Tales Of Hoffman", "Boheme", "Turandot", "Die Tote Stadt", "Rigoletto" and "Flying Dutchman".

    It is the Met, Drew, that has a bad season lined up. Again.

  23. Yes, Calvin, the Met season stinks, but it always does. New York no longer has an opera audience. The current Met audience is the old Broadway audience, having moved uptown after the demise of the Broadway musical. The Met no longer has a musical audience. It has an audience that could never make it through a Bruckner symphony or a Schubert string quartet or even a performance of "Dichterliebe".

  24. On that we are in total agreement: the Met has the dumbest audience anywhere. I was appalled the whole time I was in New York.

    The Carnegie Hall audience wasn't much better.

  25. Calvin, the San Francisco audience is even dumber, if you can believe it. It has to be the dumbest audience in the solar system.

  26. Actually, the worst audience in the world is in Rovno Gubernya, the home town of Leonard Bernstein's father.

    He should never have moved to Brooklyn.


  27. Then I guess we'll have to cancel that planned trip to Rovno Gubernya.


  28. Dane, that was a brilliant, brilliant joke.

    I am a dullard.

    It took me ten minutes to get it.