A Classical Music World Series

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For nostalgia-lovers, the 2016 World Series is a gold mine. There are dozens of articles out there recounting what life was like in the years the Chicago Cubs (1908) and Cleveland Indians (1948) last won the World Series. The drought has been so long for both teams…and I thought it would be fun to take a look (and listen) to what was happening in the world of classical music during those years.

At the bottom of this post, you’ll find a playlist of much of the music that I mention here. Feel free to check it out and share this post with others.

1908 in classical music:

  • A number of great symphonies receive their first performance, including Mahler’s 7th, Rachmaninoff’s 2nd, and Elgar’s 1st.
  • Claude Debussy marries his mistress, the singer Emma Bardac. His Children’s Corner Suite, for solo piano, is premiered in Paris.
  • Same town, a few months earlier, the orchestration of Maurice Ravel’s Rhapsodie espagnole is given its first performance. Ravel is accused of plagiarizing Debussy’s Habanera in the work, so Ravel carefully indicates on the score that the Rhapsodie was actually written many years earlier as a work for two pianos.
  • Alexander Scriabin’s The Poem of Ecstasy receives its premiere in New York. The writer Henry Miller describes it as being “like a bath of ice, cocaine, and rainbows.”
  • Igor Stravinsky writes one of his first works for orchestra, Feu d’artifice (Fireworks). The work isn’t premiered until 1909, but when it is, a fellow named Serge Diaghilev is in attendance and he quickly commissions a ballet, which is quite successful (The Firebird) and leads to more Diaghilev commissions, including Petrushka and The Rite of Spring.
  • The Chicago Symphony Orchestra was known as the Theodore Thomas Orchestra (named for its founder and first music director). Its music director was Frederick Stock, who held that post from 1905-1942.
  • The Cleveland Orchestra did not yet exist.
  • Conductor Herbert von Karajan, violinist David Oistrakh, and composer Olivier Messiaen are born.
  • Composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and violinist/composer Pablo de Sarasate die.
  • It’s not classical music, but I just found this too good to ignore: 1908 was also the year that a certain baseball song was published. You know it well. It is still sung at every single baseball game 108 years later.

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1948 in classical music:

  • The great maestro of the radio airwaves, Arturo Toscanini, makes his television debut, conducting the NBC Symphony Orchestra in music by Richard Wagner.
  • Beethoven’s 9th Symphony is aired on television for the very first time. Again, Toscanini conducts the NBC Symphony Orchestra and the chorus master was a 32-year-old up-and-coming conductor named Robert Shaw.
  • Columbia Records introduces a new long-playing record: 33 1/3 rpm and a whopping 25 minutes of music per side!
  • Still four years away from his landmark 1952 composition 4’33”, two works by composer John Cage were premiered on a concert at Black Mountain College in North Carolina: the Suite for Toy Piano and In A Landscape.
  • Less than a year before he died, 85-year-old Richard Strauss, composes his Four Last Songs. He does not live long enough to hear the first performance (by Kirsten Flagstad), which takes place in 1950 in London.
  • Soprano Eleanor Steber (with the Boston Symphony, conducted by Serge Koussevitzky) sings the first performance of Samuel Barber’s rhapsody on texts by James Agee, Knoxville: Summer of 1915.
  • On a commission from jazz clarinetist Benny Goodman, Aaron Copland completes his Clarinet Concerto. It would be two years before the work would receive its first performance, by Goodman and the NBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Fritz Reiner, who would become the music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra three years afterwards.
  • Andrei Zhdanov, Chairman of the RSFSR Supreme Soviet, accuses Dmitri Shostakovich, Sergei Prokofiev, Aram Khachaturian, and other Soviet composer of writing inappropriate and formalist music. Most of Shostakovich’s music is banned and he is fired from his job at the Moscow Conservatory. He writes film music to help earn money to pay his rent.
  • A number of great symphonies receive their world premieres, including Lutosławski’s 1st, David Diamond’s 4th, Walter Piston’s 3rd, Hans Werner Henze’s 1st, and George Antheil’s 5th.
  • George Szell, in his second season as the music director of the Cleveland Orchestra, is in the process of revitalizing the orchestra and raising its profile to become one of the top American orchestras.
  • Former Cleveland Orchestra, New York Philharmonic, and Los Angeles Philharmonic music director Artur Rodzinski spends one season (1947-48) as music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. As was the case in previous posts, he does not get along with the orchestra’s board and quickly leaves his post with the CSO.
  • Cellist Misha Maisky, soprano Kathleen Battle, composer Andrew Lloyd Webber, and conductor Richard Hickox are born.
  • Composer Manuel Ponce, hotelier and theater impresario Rupert D’Oyly Carte, and composer Franz Lehár die.

Please enjoy the playlist below! At the end, I’ve included side-by-side performances of the Bartok Concerto for Orchestra, performed by Reiner/Chicago and Szell/Cleveland…you know, just for fun!



Learning to Hate: A Story Whose Relevance Reaches Beyond the West Side

West Side Story

Gustavo Dudamel conducts the LA Phil in Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story at the Hollywood Bowl. Photo: my iPhone

At the climax of West Side Story, Maria brandishes the gun that killed her star-crossed lover, Tony, and declares that, “We all killed him,” because of the unbroken cycle of violence and hate between the two rival gangs.

“I can kill now,” Maria screams, “Because I hate now too!”

When they programmed a concert performance of West Side Story for this summer at the Hollywood Bowl, the LA Phil didn’t know the shows would take place at a moment when Americans are having an earnest, frank discussion about race, guns, power, and fear of The Other in the wake of a series of tragic murders by and of police. But as rapper Jay Z said when he released the song “Spiritual,” (written in the aftermath of the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, but not finished or released until last week) sadly, “this issue will always be relevant.”

And that’s the problem with America, the problem with this planet. These kinds of stories will always be relevant. West Side Story, performed Thursday night by the LA Philharmonic conducted by Gustavo Dudamel, felt chillingly relevant. The story of learning how to hate a human being simply because of who he or she is was relevant when Shakespeare told it in the 1590s, it was relevant when Arthur Laurents, Leonard Bernstein, and Stephen Sondheim told it in the 1950s, and it will be relevant when the next writer, composer, or filmmaker tells it in the future.

Thursday’s performance, for me, had the urgency of the moment on its side. Three hours before the downbeat, President Obama had gathered law enforcement officers and advocates together with activists for #BlackLivesMatter and families of victims of police violence for a public conversation about how each side viewed The Other and how we could find common ground on this contentious battleground. As he did in his speech at the police officers’ memorial service in Dallas, President Obama voiced his optimism, saying, “Nobody’s more hopeful than me. I’m Mr. Hope when it comes to these issues. I’ve said from the start that we are not as divided as we seem.”

Those words, and more, from the President’s town hall meeting were ringing in my ears as Gustavo Dudamel and the LA Phil started playing Leonard Bernstein’s music. Considering the challenging circumstances of the Hollywood Bowl, the performance was remarkably well-executed. (The orchestra was set up in front of a raised area that acted as the stage for the actors–the regular stage of the Bowl functioned as an orchestra pit. The actors were miles away from the conductor; sight-lines seemed awkward for the actors and some of the musicians of the orchestra. Hearing one another is always difficult on a stage that large.)

Still, it was well-executed…and also fun. The audience was primed to be swept up in this familiar show. They snapped along with “Cool,” and shouted out at the appropriate times during “Mambo.” For purely nostalgic reasons, I was super-excited to hear Dudamel and the LA Phil do “Mambo,” because that’s the first piece of music I ever saw Dudamel conduct. (You know, that 2007 performance from the BBC Proms with the dancing, trumpet-spinning Bolivares.)

Solea Pfeiffer, making her Hollywood Bowl debut, was stunning as Maria. As Tony, Jeremy Jordan was solid, but played the character a bit on the smarmy side. Drew Foster brought the house down as Action in “Gee, Officer Krupke,” a song which is more than just comic relief–it’s the song which points us back to the thesis of the entire show and forward to the climactic moment with Maria brandishing the gun.

In “Gee, Officer Krupke,” Action looks to everyone else as he searches for a reason as to why he’s “so bad…psychologically disturbed…a mess…sociologically sick…a jerk…no good…no damn good.” He blames his parents, society, the system, anyone but himself.

Later, after Action and a group of Jets assault Anita in the drug store and she leaves to go set the fatal flaw in motion, Doc asks Action, “What does it take to get through to you? When do you stop? You make this world lousy!”

To which, Action replies, “That’s the way we found it, Doc.”

For Maria, however, it’s no one’s fault but her own. In the end, gun drawn, Maria owns her own hate. She says, “We all killed him,” but she includes herself in that indictment. In so doing, Maria accepts responsibility for the perpetuation of the story. “I can kill now, because I hate now too!”

Tony’s death is not the tragedy. That Tony and Maria are never able to realize their love for each other is not the tragedy. The tragedy is that we will continue to learn to hate The Other. The tragedy is that the story will go on.

Ultimately, Maria lays her weapon down, but Leonard Bernstein’s music suggests she doesn’t lay her hate down with it. The upper strings and woodwinds try to resolve the drama with a reprise of the theme from “Somewhere,” but the lower strings and timpani punctuate this with the dissonance of a tri-tone. The interval that was designated as “dangerous” by medieval composer Guido d’Arezzo and referred to as “The Devil in Music” in the 18th century is the interval that punctuates the conclusion and attempted resolution of this story.

Hate wins in West Side Story. But in life, love must win. Otherwise, we keep telling this same tragic story over and over and over again. Accepting responsibility is a start. Maria doesn’t say the Jets made her hate or the cops made her hate or the culture of gang violence made me hate. She just says, “I hate.”

When we recognize hate of The Other in ourselves, how do we respond? Do we blame someone or something else like Action did? Or do we accept responsibility like Maria did? We all fail. We all hate. It’s what happens next that counts.

Resurrection of Hope

alton-sterling-and-philando-castileIt’s been a hell of a week.

As we struggled to process the murder of Alton Sterling, we learned of the murder of Philando Castile. The Washington Post tells us 509 people have been killed by police this year. The Minneapolis Star-Tribune tells us that 148 people have been killed by police in Minnesota since 2000 and no officers have been charged in any of the deaths.

Then Dallas happens.

And we are reminded that one of the greatest strengths of America–its diversity–is also one of the greatest sources of societal fragility. We are only strong when we value others as highly as we value ourselves. We are only great when we recognize where we have failed our fellow citizens and alter our course.

Maybe because it happened in Dallas, maybe because it happened on the 156th birthday of Gustav Mahler…whatever reason, I was thinking about Leonard Bernstein’s response to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Two days after Kennedy’s death, Bernstein conducted a performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 in a live CBS television broadcast.

(This is the only fragment of that historic performance that is available on YouTube.)

On the surface, Mahler’s second symphony seems like a curious choice to memorialize a great tragedy. It’s the “Resurrection” Symphony. It’s a triumphant work with one of the most ecstatic conclusions in all of music. Why Mahler 2? Why not something with a little more emotional weight, like a Requiem…or the funeral march from Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony?

The day after the live broadcast–also the day of President Kennedy’s funeral–Leonard Bernstein explained his choice in a speech at the United Jewish Appeal Benefit that has since become as famous as it is inspirational. (His conclusion, pictured, has become a meme that gets shared–overshared, tbqh–in classical music circles in the aftermath of tragedy.)

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Reading from handwritten notes, Bernstein said:

“Last night the New York Philharmonic and I performed Mahler’s Second Symphony—“The Resurrection” –in tribute to the memory of our beloved late President. There were those who asked: Why the “Resurrection” Symphony, with its visionary concept of hope and triumph over worldly pain, instead of a Requiem, or the customary Funeral March from the “Eroica”? Why indeed? We played the Mahler symphony not only in terms of resurrection for the soul of one we love, but also for the resurrection of hope in all of us who mourn him. In spite of our shock, our shame, and our despair at the diminution of man that follows from this death, we must somehow father strength for the increase of man, strength to go on striving for those goals he cherished. In mourning him, we must be worthy of him.”

Bernstein chose to perform music that inspires the resurrection of hope in the midst of shocking, tragic, and seemingly hopeless circumstances.

This has so much relevance for us today, as our nation continues a contentious conversation about race and power and guns and fear and we seek to find answers to extremely nuanced and complicated problems.

Through art, we express and confront the deepest emotional trauma we face as well as vivid aspirational visions of what we can achieve as a human race. Art showcases the best that humanity has to offer.

We can do better. We must do better. It is not easy. Life’s most important challenges never are. But with Leonard Bernstein’s words ringing in our ears, “we must somehow father the strength for the increase of man, strength to go on striving.”

This has been a hell of a week. A lot of weeks are hell. And when we don’t have the strength inside of ourselves to resurrect any hope whatsoever, thank goodness we can turn to music.

Mahler’s second symphony begins with a defiant funeral march. We grieve, angry that we have once again been forced to grieve. The symphony ends in triumph with words, written by Mahler himself, that remind us that death is not meaningless when it is transformational.

“O Pain, You piercer of all things,
From you, I have been wrested!
O Death, You conqueror of all things,
Now, are you conquered!

 

With wings which I have won for myself,
In love’s fierce striving,
I shall soar upwards
To the light which no eye has penetrated!

 

Die shall I in order to live.
Rise again, yes, rise again,
Will you, my heart, in an instant!
That for which you suffered,
To God shall it carry you!”

Conductors Conducting the Climax of Mahler 2

The Symphony No. 2 by Gustav Mahler is the biggest, most epic symphonic statement since Beethoven’s 9th. It’s subtitled “Resurrection,” and the work climaxes with the words:

O Pain, You piercer of all things,
From you, I have been wrested!
O Death, You conqueror of all things,
Now, are you conquered!

With wings which I have won for myself,
In love’s fierce striving,
I shall soar upwards
To the light which no eye has penetrated!

Die shall I in order to live.
Rise again, yes, rise again,
Will you, my heart, in an instant!
That for which you suffered,
To God shall it carry you!

Mahler wrote the text himself and set it to the most glorious, heaven-storming music that had ever been written.

Here’s what it sounds like:

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No doubt, Bernstein is the best. He seems to be genuinely reacting to the ecstasy of the moment. As you can imagine, such an epic musical and poetic statement elicits an incredible amount of podium histrionics from various conductors. A close second to Bernstein, in terms of raw emotional choreography, is Sir Simon Rattle.

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You’d think Gustavo Dudamel would have a similarly crazy reaction to this music–after all, one of the great inspirations in his life is Leonard Bernstein–but here, he is remarkably restrained.

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Oh, sure, he’s still into the music, but not with his trademark unbridled passion.

If there’s one general consistency throughout conductors’ interpretations of Mahler 2, it’s that the mouth must be open. From typically reserved Claudio Abbado…

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…to the exuberance of Zubin Mehta.

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Valery Gergiev (not famous for being a Mahler conductor) tries to keep his mouth closed…and, it seems, choke back some tears.

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Myung-whun Chung has ice in his veins and wields his baton with the precision of a surgeon.

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Pierre Boulez has steely resolve that borders on stoicism. (Would you expect anything else from Pierre Boulez?)

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Mariss Jansons wins the award for Best Facial Expression.

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Christoph Eschenbach wins the award for Best Head Movement.

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And Riccardo Chailly wins the award for Most Deranged.

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So, there you have it. The many faces of the ecstasy and bliss that is Mahler’s Second Symphony. Now, go listen to a complete performance of it. I suggest this one:

A Devastating Double-Bill: Thoughts on Elektra and Mahler 9 at Lincoln Center (part 2)

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(To read Part 1 of this post, please click here.

The Metropolitan Opera and the New York Philharmonic don’t get together in the offseason and plan out their repertoire as a team, so it was pure coincidence that Richard Strauss’ dark psychodrama, Elektra, opened at The Met the same weekend the Philharmonic was playing Mahler’s bleak final symphony. Lincoln Center’s coincidence was my good fortune and turned into the reason my wife and I booked a long overdue trip to New York the week we did.

A blistering one-act revenge opera in a brand new staging that emphasizes the inner turmoil of the characters over their actions? Yes, please! A tragic symphony which disintegrates at the end and which is quite possibly a farewell to life itself? You betcha!Hamilton this was not. (Neither was it Hamilton prices, which meant we could also afford to eat meals while in New York.)

Often, when I get really excited about a particular performance, it fails to live up to my expectations. But in the cases of Elektra (conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen and featuring a stellar cast led by soprano Nina Stemme in the title role) and Mahler 9 (conducted by a legendary Mahlerian, the eminent Bernard Haitink), both exceeded expectations–for different reasons. Both, also, were enhanced by art exhibitions we visited during the day.

My thoughts on Mahler 9:

  • “Unfinished paintings are more admired than the finished because the artist’s actual thoughts are left visible.” -Pliny the Younger
  • That’ll make more sense in a moment.
  • I had never seen Bernard Haitink conduct live, but of course, I know his incredible recordings, especially of Mahler. There was plenty of Mahler pedigree in this performance: Haitink spent 27 years at the helm of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra–an ensemble which Mahler adored. Mahler himself was music director of the New York Philharmonic when he wrote his Ninth Symphony.
  • I’ve become a bit of a Mahler 9 groupie, but before this concert, it had been quite a while since I had heard anyone other than Gustavo Dudamel and the LA Phil perform it.
  • I’ve always loved the way the symphony disintegrates at the end. It’s such a wonderful metaphor for life, as well as a bit more than a metaphor for Mahler’s own life. I tend to subscribe to the Leonard Bernstein interpretation of Mahler 9: the beginning rhythm is Mahler’s irregular heartbeat and each of the movements represent a farewell of some kind.
    • 1st movement –  farewell to family and friends
    • 2nd movement – farewell to the dance
    • 3rd movement – farewell to the city
    • 4th movement – farewell to life
  • Of course, that is only an interpretation, and certainly one could argue that Mahler was in good spirits when he wrote his Ninth Symphony (which he was, at least publicly). But Mahler was also highly superstitious and avoided writing a Ninth Symphony for fear of the Curse of the Ninth.
  • What is clear is this is symphony is extremely fraught, psychologically. Which made it a perfect follow-up the night after seeing the intense psychodrama that is Strauss’s Elektra at The Metropolitan Opera.
  • Even though he made his United States debut with the LA Phil (1959), Bernard Haitink doesn’t make it to Los Angeles anymore. So, the only opportunity for a West Coaster like me to see the 87-year-old conduct is to head east. Haitink conducting Mahler 9 at the New York Philharmonic was one of two reasons my wife and I scheduled our New York vacation when we did. (Salonen conducting Elektra at The Met was the other.)
  • The performance was so worth it: Haitink’s interpretation changed my perspective on Mahler 9–something I didn’t think was possible. Something that may not have been possible without the art exhibition we had seen earlier in the day at the newly-opened museum at the Metropolitan Museum of Art: The Met Breuer (pronounced BROY-er).

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  • That’s where that Pliny quote (first bullet point above) comes from. One of the two inaugural shows at The Met Breuer is called “Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible.” It is two floors and 197 works dating from the Renaissance to the present which ask the question: When is a work of art actually finished?
  • Every work in the show is in some way unfinished: either accidentally, intentionally, experimentally, or conceptually.
    • Sometimes the reason a work was left unfinished was because the artist died during its creation.
    • Sometimes the reason a work was left unfinished was because the artist became unsatisfied with it and abandoned its creation.
    • Sometimes the reason a work was left unfinished was because the artist was pushing the boundaries of artistic convention.
    • Sometimes the reason a work was left unfinished was because the artist was making a specific statement about the importance of process over product.
  • Each work is a window into the mind and soul of each artist.
  • So, too, is Mahler 9.
  • Bernard Haitink certainly has conducted this symphony dozens, if not hundreds, of times. His concept of the work is totally internalized. Having lived with the work for this many years, allows him more artistic freedom in his interpretation.
  • That interpretation last weekend with the New York Philharmonic allowed me to hear the symphony with nearly fresh ears.
  • For the first time, I heard Mahler 9 as a symphony where it’s not just the final movement which vaporizes into tiny strands of music as the music gradually and devastatingly falls apart.
  • In fact, all four movements of Mahler 9 disintegrate into nothingness. Throughout the entire symphony, Mahler is foreshadowing what will happen in the finale.
    • In the first movement, the falling two-note “lebwohl” (farewell) motive, which launches all of the thematic material of the nearly 30-minute movement, eventually takes over at the end. Just two notes, which get passed among members of the wind section, the French horns, and eventually the solo violin, before the eerie sound of the piccolo finally plays a single high note that dies away without resolution. Accidental incompletion.
    • In the second movement, three dances vie for supremacy and in the end, none of them win. Instead, Mahler just gives us a sinister coda which features the contrabassoon and the piccolo again. Experimental incompletion.
    • In the third movement, the main theme is fragmentary to begin with and the ending takes the bits and pieces and ramps them up to warp speed before crashing into a wall. Conceptual incompletion.
  • The fourth movement collapse is well-documented, and as all these new revelations about the first three movements had come to me during the course of the performance, I was more than eager to settle in for one of my favorite movements in all of classical music.
  • Haitink took the fourth movement at a rather brisk pace, which was an incredibly risky and courageous move. It’s way easier to milk it for all its worth. That’s what the people want. But Haitink’s tempo was more matter-of-fact. It was as if he was saying, “I’ve set you up for this in the first three movements. You know what’s going to happen. Let’s not pretend this is going to end with a triumphant adagio, like the third symphony does.”
  • In the past, I’ve heard the fourth movement of the ninth as having three big farewells to romance, with the third as the ultimate climax. With Haitink, though, I now hear the fourth movement as three unfinished paintings: the first two are left unresolved (conceptually unfinished) to prepare us for the final unfinished painting. It’s the one that should be the Big Finish, the ultimate climax. But in fact, it too, is unfinished.
  • For the first time in the symphony, we have a painting that is intentionally left unfinished. And that is what makes Mahler 9 so devastating. Sure, there’s a big cymbal crash (that, again, reminds us of the big cymbal crash at the climax of the finale of the third symphony), but unlike the third, the cymbal crash of the ninth is not a crash of culmination. The cymbal crash of the ninth is a cymbal crash of failure.
  • (At the performance I attended, this final cymbal crash also came about half a beat early, which can’t have been on purpose, but which actually added to my experience of the performance.)
  • The “climax” of Mahler 9 is the moment when Mahler puts down his brushes with resignation, realizing that he has created something that can never be complete.
  • “To finish a picture? What nonsense! To finish it means to be through with it, to kill it, to rid it of its soul.” -Pablo Picasso
  • And this, to me, is the essence of Mahler 9. We could learn a lot from Picasso and Pliny the Younger. I still see Mahler 9 as devastating music. But after Haitink and The Met Breuer, I now also see Mahler 9 as one of the most supremely uplifting pieces of music ever written. Because there is fulfillment in the unfulfilled. There is joy in the process.
  • Who says when something has reached completion? Who decides when process becomes product?
  • Mahler never wanted to finish his ninth symphony. He avoided No. 9 by calling what should have been his ninth symphony Das Lied von der Erde. Failure to finish can actually mean success. After all, everything we create in life is, in a way, incomplete.
  • So, thank you, Bernard Haitink and the New York Philharmonic. Thank you, also, The Met Breuer…and Esa-Pekka Salonen, Nina Stemme, The Metropolitan Opera, and The Whitney Museum of American Art.
  • Collectively, you reshaped my concept of Mahler’s Symphony No. 9.

A Devastating Double-Bill: Thoughts on Elektra and Mahler 9 at Lincoln Center (part 1)

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The Metropolitan Opera and the New York Philharmonic don’t get together in the offseason and plan out their repertoire as a team, so it was pure coincidence that Richard Strauss’ dark psychodrama, Elektra, opened at The Met the same weekend the Philharmonic was playing Mahler’s bleak final symphony. Lincoln Center’s coincidence was my good fortune and turned into the reason my wife and I booked a long overdue trip to New York the week we did.

A blistering one-act revenge opera in a brand new staging that emphasizes the inner turmoil of the characters over their actions? Yes, please! A tragic symphony which disintegrates at the end and which is quite possibly a farewell to life itself? You betcha! Hamilton this was not. (Neither was it Hamilton prices, which meant we could also afford to eat meals while in New York.)

Often, when I get really excited about a particular performance, it fails to live up to my expectations. But in the cases of Elektra (conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen and featuring a stellar cast led by soprano Nina Stemme in the title role) and Mahler 9 (conducted by a legendary Mahlerian, the eminent Bernard Haitink), both exceeded expectations–for different reasons. Both, also, were enhanced by art exhibitions we visited during the day.

Click here to read my thoughts on Mahler 9.

My thoughts on Elektra:

  • Elektra is riveting, jaw-dropping, spellbinding, mesmerizing, and everything a one-act opera should be. The drama seethes from beginning to end and Strauss’ score is nothing short of heart-pounding.
  • The story is all about Elektra’s quest for revenge against her mother and her mother’s lover, who before the opera begins, have killed Elektra’s father, Agamemnon. Most of the opera is Elektra trying to convince people why her mother deserves to die. Spoiler alert, the killing does eventually take place but that action is only the final 20 minutes or so. The real drama in Elektra takes place in the mind of the title character.
  • Such a psychological opera requires a production with similar focus. The music *is* great, of course, but a park-and-bark version of Elektra totally misses the point.
  • Director Patrice Chéreau’s Elektra was hailed as a masterpiece when it debuted in 2013 at theFestival d’Aix-en-Provence. Audiences at The Met have known it was coming for three years and they’ve been waiting excitedly.
  • What makes the Chéreau staging so incredible is the insight you get into each character through their movements on stage. (This is where being married to a physical therapist pays dividends: professionally, my wife analyzes people’s movements to determine how their injuries or chronic conditions are affecting them. That’s certainly a physical process, but there’s a ton of psychology involved as well. So, she noticed things on stage in even greater detail than I was able to.)
  • We feel Elektra’s inner turmoil through the tiniest of gestures: a head tilting in one direction or another; her posture when addressing her mother directly; her facial expressions (bring opera glasses…or go to the HD theater screening); her fear and hesitancy as she unwraps the axe (the one that killed her father) that she’s been hiding.
  • Most prominently and most powerfully we see the physicality of psychology exhibited in the opera’s final scene: after Elektra’s brother Orest (or however you want to spell/pronounce it) has killed their mother and her lover, Elektra sings of celebration and dance. But she cannot dance. She is physically unable to move.
  • Nina Stemme’s performance of this moment was so devastating. It was like watching someone turn to stone in front of you. She kept trying to move–even getting to her feet and making a few triumphant movements–but in the end, she ended up glued to the ground. In other productions, Elektra dances herself to death. Her greatest purpose in life has been accomplished and the rage and revenge that has completely filled her soul now has no object. In this production, Elektra is slowly killed from the inside out.

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  • Nina Stemme (Elektra), Waltraud Meier (Elektra’s mother, Klytämnestra), and Adrianne Pieczonka (Elektra’s sister, Chrysothemis) made for the most formidable triumvirate of singers I’ve ever seen grace an opera stage…and Eric Owens (Orest) added his trademark power to the lineup.
  • Esa-Pekka Salonen fuels the psychodrama with his interpretation. New York audiences really love Salonen. Other than Nina Stemme (Elektra), Salonen got by far the biggest cheers. New York audiences also seem to really want Salonen in their city long-term. The performance of Elektra we attended was on the same day James Levine announced he was retiring as The Met’s music director. As we were walking out of the opera house, I overheard several conversations among patrons who were suggesting Salonen take over for Levine. The next day in his review of the performance for the New York Times, Anthony Tommasini suggested the same.

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  • Earlier in the day, my wife and I visited the Whitney Museum of American Art in its bright, new Renzo Piano-designed building, which opened in May 2015. One of the featured exhibitions, “Laura Poitras: Astro Noise,” was fresh in my memory as I took in Elektra. Poitras is an artist, filmmaker, and journalist, and this is her first solo museum exhibition.
  • The show focuses on mass surveillance, the war on terror, the U.S. drone program, Guantánamo Bay Prison, occupation, and torture. One of the pieces was raw, unedited footage that she shot while embedded with the U.S. military in Iraq. While she was shooting, the unit she was embedded with was ambushed and a number of the servicemen and women were injured or killed. Poitras was detained and questioned without being told why. It was only after a lengthy lawsuit against the government that she learned that the U.S. military thought she might have provided information to Iraqi troops to aid in the ambush. She offered to show the government the footage she shot that day, but they declined to watch it.
  • As I watched Elektra melt down psychologically and then eventually completely bring about her own demise because of emotions that, while understandable, ultimately led to immoral and unjust actions, I couldn’t help but feel a connection between Elektra and post-9/11 America.
  • Final thoughts: if you’re going to be in New York during the run of Elektra (through May 7), go see it. If not, go to the HD theater screening of this production on April 30th. You won’t regret it.

Buzz-Feeders: Why Art and Capitalism Should Play By Different Rules

Bernie Sanders, Jane Sanders

Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and wife Jane walk in Times Square on their way to see the Broadway show Hamilton, Friday, April 8, 2016, in New York. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

A strange thing happened the other day: Bernie Sanders went to a performance of Hamilton. A presidential candidate going to a Broadway show isn’t the strange part. The strange part is *this* presidential candidate going to *this* broadway show. Bernie Sanders, champion of the people, advocate for the little guy…the man leading the assault on a rigged system of privilege and wealth inequality.

That guy, somehow, scored a ticket to the hottest Broadway show ever. Hamilton, a show that is completely sold out for the next nine months, which requires a convoluted lottery system for tickets, and which keeps breaking records on secondary ticket market sites such as StubHub. Bernie Sanders used his position and privilege to score seats at a show which most Americans can’t see because they can’t afford. Nice.

But before all the Bernie Bros start swarming…this is not a rant against Bernie Sanders. I actually think it’s great that a presidential candidate decided to make attending the performing arts part of his campaign. We could use more of that from the other candidates in the race.

The issue that the Hamilton craze brings to light is an important one. The show has done what every show wants to do: it is a critical and a box office triumph. Good for Hamilton. (I’d make a Hamilton reference here—perhaps quote a line from the show or something—but I haven’t seen the show. I can’t get tickets.) But with its success we see, with dramatic clarity, how quickly commerce corrupts art.

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If you want to go to Hamilton, but you’re not among the lucky few to have procured your tickets nine months in advance—or through the nearly impossible digital lottery—you then head to the secondary market, where you will pay significantly astronomically more than face value for a ticket.

In fact, on StubHub right now, the cheapest single ticket for a weekend evening performance is $814.35. Plus fees, plus dinner, plus in my case flight and hotel and oh never mind I’m not going.

Tickets to LA Lakers legend Kobe Bryant’s final game are cheaper than Hamilton. Tickets to see the Golden State Warriors potentially break the NBA single season Win-Loss record are slightly more than 1/3 the cost of a ticket to Hamilton.

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On one hand, score one for The Arts that there is more demand for tickets to a theater show with an ongoing, indefinite run than there is demand for the two most significant NBA games of the last 20 years. On the other hand, the demand has created a situation whereby most people who want to see the show can’t, or won’t, because they either simply don’t have enough money to see it or they’ll choose to spend their money on other things—like a European vacation—instead.

The reality right now is that Hamilton is not a show for everyone. It is only a show for the elite.

Buzz creates demand, demand creates a secondary ticket market where anyone can profit off the artistic achievements of others, and lack of money becomes a barrier to art.

Back in the day, art used to be only available to the aristocracy…or at church. Then, folks like Mozart and Haydn started playing concerts publicly and publishing the music they wrote for the culturally elite, so everyone could experience what they were bringing into the world.

Today, capitalism and commerce has replaced the aristocracy as the thing to deny art from the people.

This is not just a Hamilton problem. This issue exists on smaller scales as well. Big museums charge $20-$30 for admission, the cheapest seats for concerts by major orchestras are also in that range, but it’s half that price to get into a Major League Baseball game. A night at the ballpark makes more financial sense for most people than a night at the theater or symphony.

So, with the base prices for access to art being double the base prices for access to live sporting events, I suppose it shouldn’t be so surprising that the truly buzzworthy arts events cost more than their sports counterparts.

Still, it’s unfortunate. While there are numerous arts organizations who are trying to make the arts more accessible financially (the excellent Hammer Museum in Westwood is now free all the time), there are others who exhibit the behavior of the secondary market: upselling their experiences to create buzz, capitalizing on that buzz, and monetizing that buzz.

[Case study: the hottest performing arts ticket in LA last year was for Hopscotch, a mobile opera performed in limousines and various diverse locations around town. Tickets started at $125. A lottery was established and a lucky few were able to get in for $25.]

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Where does this leave us? I understand it costs money to put on a show and that ticket prices offset some of that cost. I understand that manufacturing “An Event” is necessary to get attention in a world with infinite entertainment options. However, it is possible to create buzz without pricing people out of an artistic experience.

[Case study: the Kaleidoscope Chamber Orchestra performed recently at a club-like venue in Downtown LA. They gave away piles of tickets mostly to young millennials, who probably wouldn’t have attended a concert of music by Schoenberg otherwise. The line went out the door and the concert was delayed because so many people came to see the spectacle. People felt like they were part of a really cool event and afterwards said they were much more likely to attend a classical concert in the future because of it.]

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I guess in a country where start-ups and entrepreneurs are king, I suppose I should just let the market be the market. But, to me, art should be a little more sacred than that. Art reflects who we are as human beings; art shapes the human experience; art helps us make sense of our all-too-complicated existence. Art should not be subject to the whims of the marketplace. Access to art should not depend on one’s level of privilege. Art should be accessible to everyone—from Bernie Sanders to you and me.