“Just Call Her ‘Tailleferre’ ”

by Michael Johnson Added 01.09.2016
We have come a long way since the day when female composers suffered denigration for their supposed inability to compose anything of substance. That battle is over, and the women have won. There is no longer any such thing as “women’s music,” if there ever was. Male music-lovers once imagined they heard a more satisfying growl and grumph from the men composers and just a lot of tinkling and charm from the women. Going by the logic of this...

Così Fan Tutte: racial and sexual abuse should shock audiences, not the titillation

by Eleanor Smith Added 30.08.2016
The new production of Mozart and Lorenzo da Ponte’s classic opera Così Fan Tutte has attracted no shortage of controversy. After its premiere in Aix-en-Provence in France in July, the organisers of the Edinburgh International Festival wrote to all ticket holders offering a refund “due to the adult nature of some of the scenes” and its unsuitability for younger audiences. Christophe Honoré, better known as a novelist and auteur film director,...

Interview with Serge Bulat: Grappling with the concept of time

by Michael Johnson Added 26.08.2016
A new sound in the realm of electronic music is evolving from the mind of a transplanted Moldavan avant-garde composer now struggling to make his way in New York. He has based his recent work on “lounge electronica” but, he adds, “with a classical twist”. Serge Bulant, face painted Serge Bulat, 30, a music-school product from post-Soviet Moldava, dropped his radio career and fled his homeland to seek artistic freedom in New York. “I wanted...

How to negotiate the tricky territory of 'fascist music'

by Ian Pace Added 10.08.2016
Certain musicians or pieces of music, for one reason or another, will always carry unsavoury associations. Wagner, whose music was co-opted by the Nazi party, is the obvious example. The overture of his opera Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg was featured in a Nazi propaganda film. And there are many other examples of music that have been performed to great acclaim in societies that have conventionally been labelled fascist, and as a result...

Music day and night: a summer festival in France

by Michael Johnson Added 26.07.2016
France is a favorite European venue for summer music festivals, attracting international artists and audiences from throughout the world. Somehow, despite the often-predicted dropoff in classical concert attendance, the festivals all seem to thrive. One of the longest-running events, the Festival de Saintes, recently concluded with record results – 11,145 tickets sold and an average 85 percent seats filled in 35 concerts and recitals....

Drawing on musical emotion --- it’s all in the eyes

by Michael Johnson Added 28.05.2016
For the past few years I have focused my critical sense mainly on piano music and my artwork on the performers who struggle to play it. The faces of some pianists mirror the creative process and thereby inspire my approach to their portraits. My challenge is to capture their moments of deepest feeling – be it joyous or tragic – in drawings.  In a book-length treatment now in preparation, I am bringing together the critical commentary and the...

Sendak restorations highlight “The Magic Flute” in Portland Opera production

by James Bash Added 14.05.2016
Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” sounded better than ever in Portland Opera’s opening night performance (May 6th) because of the sets that were designed by Maurice Sendak, the beloved children’s book illustrator and author who created “Where the Wild Things Are.” Sendak’s whimsical scenery elicited numerous oohs and aahs from the audience at Keller Auditorium and seemed to inspire the performers as well. Sung in English from a translation by...

Big hair: Classical pianism meets show business

by Michael Johnson Added 06.05.2016
Many young pianists, increasingly desperate to draw attention to themselves, are resorting to new levels of flamboyance at the keyboard – sometimes in their interpretations, more often in excessive showboating antics. It would seem that everyone wants to be a Lang Lang. Lang Lang, as seen by the author Michael Johnson As young graduates spill out of the conservatories and jostle in the music scene, the trend threatens to get worse. Although...

Prokofiev on fire in Bordeaux

by Michael Johnson Added 29.04.2016
“Alexander Nevsky”, the cantata version of Sergei Prokofiev’s film score from 1938, captivated a full house at the Bordeaux Auditorium last night (Thursday, April 28) with a degree of fire and heart that other orchestras often lack. Paul Daniel conducted the Orchestra National Bordeaux Aquitaine and a 75-voice chorus in this pristine performance. Mezzo-soprano Aude Extrémo sang the lament for dead warriors, a scene artfully staged and...

The pianist’s hidden secret: a great tuner -- man or woman

by Michael Johnson Added 07.04.2016
Tanglewood chief piano technician Barbara Renner once won a $50 bet by proving to a male tuner that she could manipulate the nine-foot Steinway Model D as well as any man. And she has gone on to thrive in this man’s world of piano tuning, never looking back. Equipped with a refined and well-trained ear, she is now in great demand, tuning pianos all over the East Coast of the U.S. with great classical and jazz pianists. It wasn’t the first...

Sharp contrasts and rarefied beauty from the Cantata Singers

by Michael Johnson Added 04.04.2016
In an adventurous programming gambit Friday night (April 1) the Cantata Singers and Ensemble under David Hoose matched up two opposites – Johann Sebastian Bach and Anton Webern – and concluded with the monumental Brahms Requiem, all impeccably rendered. David Hoose, conductor The near-capacity Jordan Hall audience sat rapt for the hour-long Brahms and burst into a standing ovation after the quiet climactic sigh. Everyone on the crowded...

Nagano’s Quebec orchestra triumphs in Boston

by Michael Johnson Added 18.03.2016
Kent Nagano made a triumphal return to Boston Wednesday evening (March 16) with his Orchestre Symphonique de Montreal, conducting there for the first time in many years before a wildly enthusiastic audience. Amid the seven curtain calls and two full-orchestra encores, he stopped to pay homage to Montreal, where he has served as music director for ten years, and addressed the audience in French: “Merci beaucoup.” Nagano spent his formative...

Soprano substitute wins the day in Seattle Opera’s “Maria Stuarda”

by James Bash Added 17.03.2016
Joyce El-Khoury [picture below] made her Seattle Opera debut in grand style, replacing an ill Serena Farnocchia with just a couple of days’ notice, and sang her heart out in the title role of Donizetti’s “Maria Stuarda” (“Mary Stuart”) on opening night (February 27) at McCaw Hall. The Canadian-Lebanese soprano was already scheduled to perform the same role at the matinee on the next day, and if she rested her voice, she was a lock to deliver...

Georges Cziffra’s ‘tiny hot pearls’

by Michael Johnson Added 07.03.2016
Pianist Georges Cziffra couldn’t believe his eyes when a young soldier delivered an upright piano to him on a military base in Hungary in 1942. The soldier called it “that little cupboard you tap on to make music – sorry, I don’t know the word for it.” Cziffra, writing in his memoir Cannons and Flowers, recalled that he was already an established artist when conscripted in World War II, but his past was not generally known to army officers....

In the Service: Koussevitzky of Boston

by Michael Johnson Added 01.03.2016
"[......] music-lovers watched the obituary columns to guess when new subscription seats might become available." A few months ago I set out to piece together the true story of Serge Koussevitzky, the complex, flawed and almost forgotten genius of the orchestral podium. Determining the legacy of Boston’s legendary conductor is a task plagued with blind alleys, for almost everyone who knew him has died, and the tiny fragments of film of the...

The chill winds of Schubert’s Winterreise

by Michael Johnson Added 20.02.2016
It’s a crowded field, but to my mind there are never too many variations of Franz Schubert’s late masterpiece, the Winterreise (Winter Journey) song cycle. Each singer and each pianist brings personal touches to bear on these 24 songs and the heavyweights are all there on CD: Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau with Alfred Brendel, and again with Daniel Barenboim; Peter Pears with Benjamin Britten; Peter Schreier with Sviatoslav Richter. The list goes...

Alexander Paley interview: ‘Classical music is not for everybody’

by Michael Johnson Added 09.02.2016
Pianist Alexander Paley’s new CD of Medtner and Rachmaninov couples the works of two great friends whose lives evolved in similar ways. Both enjoyed early success but Rachmaninov’s sense of melody won larger acclaim from the international public. In this interview, Paley explains their similarities and differences. He also expresses his views on the attitudes of disaffected youth and acknowledges that “music is a temple and not everybody...

A perfect pairing: Rachmaninov with his friend Medtner

by Michael Johnson Added 09.02.2016
Pianist Alexander Paley brings together some rarely heard and nicely coherent pieces by Sergei Rachmaninov and Nikolai Medtner, close friends from their Moscow student days, in a new CD (La Musica LMU005). The 14 selections call for a wide range of moods and styles and the Moldavia-born Paley seems to relish the challenge. Towering technical feats aside, there is no sign of effort on his part. Paley’s choice of this repertoire is a sign of...

The enigmatic Julius Eastman : Black, gay and loaded with talent

by Michael Johnson Added 30.01.2016
One of the great innovators of new music, composer Julius Eastman, was born unlucky – both black and gay. Only the most hardy of souls could prosper with those dual handicaps in 1950s America, the “doubly whammy” as his brother Gerry noted. Eastman died in obscurity in 1990, emaciated and exhausted, suffering from what looked a lot like AIDS. He was 49. The music world had almost forgotten him. An Eastman renaissance is now under way, with...

Seattle Opera’s “Le nozze di Figaro” finds humor despite an assortment of challenges

by James Bash Added 23.01.2016
Seattle Opera kicked off the New Year with a performance of “Le nozze di Figaro” (“The Marriage of Figaro”) that strayed a little off target. Part of the problem stemmed from the sets, which featured a series of huge, movable panels. Also, the cast didn’t have quite the right chemistry to make the story flow, which was too bad, considering that the production marked general director Aidan Lang’s debut as stage director of a Seattle Opera...
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