Editor's note on Nov. 9, 2015: WNYC in New York has identified three additional stories written by Brian Wise and posted on NPR.org that contain unattributed words or phrases. They were first published on May 9, 2014, Oct. 1, 2014 and Oct. 1, 2015. They have been added to this page. The words and phrases at issue have been highlighted in bold and links have been added to show where the material was originally published.
Editor's note on Oct. 29, 2015: The 10 stories below originally appeared in the classical section of NPR.org's music site, NPR Music. They were written by Brian Wise, a reporter and online editor for member station WQXR, and accompanied archived audio or video of performances from Carnegie Hall. They were removed because some unattributed words or phrases in it matched those in previously published sources. NPR cannot allow such work to stand. But a news organization should not hide its mistakes. Below, you'll see the full text of all 10 stories, which include material taken from 17 sources without attribution. The words and phrases that were at issue have now been highlighted in bold and links have been added to show where the material was originally published. NPR's policy on plagiarism is clear: It is unacceptable. WQXR accepted Wise's resignation on Wednesday, Oct. 28.
New York Philharmonic Live At Carnegie Hall Wednesday
By Brian Wise
Oct 1, 2015
To open its 125th season, Carnegie Hall is bringing back the New York Philharmonic, an orchestra that presided there from 1891 until 1962 in more than 5,000 concerts — the most of any ensemble in the venue's storied history.
The program, which NPR Music and WQXR will broadcast Wednesday at 7 p.m. ET, features Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto — a piece the composer himself conducted during the hall's five-day inaugural festival in 1891. Joining the Philharmonic is Evgeny Kissin, a pianist who made his Carnegie Hall debut 25 years ago, at age 18, and who still draws intensely loyal, even rabid, fans to his recitals there.
But the gala concert is not all retrospective. It opens with the world premiere of Finnish composer Magnus Lindberg's Vivo, one of 125 new works the hall is unveiling over the next five seasons. Concluding the evening is Ravel's Daphnis et Chloé Suite No. 2, music Lindberg had in mind while writing his own.
The Philharmonic's ties to West 57th Street go back to 1887 when Walter Damrosch, the conductor of the New York Symphony Society, met steel magnate Andrew Carnegie onboard a ship to Europe. Damrosch made his pitch for a new building. "The city very much needed a hall for orchestral playing," says Barbara Haws, the Philharmonic's chief archivist. "Fast-forward a couple years and lo and behold, here's this great hall."
The inaugural concert, on May 5, 1891, featured Damrosch leading the Symphony Society. In 1928 the orchestra merged with its better-regarded rival — the Philharmonic Society of New York, founded in 1842 — into what we know today as the New York Philharmonic. It eventually left for Lincoln Center in 1962 though it has returned periodically since, most recently in 2011 (a planned merger between the Philharmonic and Carnegie in 2003 fell through).
Kissin brings his own ties to both Carnegie and the Philharmonic — he made his U.S. debut with the orchestra in 1990. It also doesn't hurt that he embodies a Russian Romantic tradition that is well-suited for the Tchaikovsky concerto. This concert begins a season-long Perspectives series featuring Kissin, in which he will give recitals, recite Yiddish poetry and play chamber music.
Carnegie Hall Live: Jordi Savall And Le Concert Des Nations
By Brian Wise
April 15, 2015
When the Catalan viola da gamba player and conductor Jordi Savall brings his ensemble Les Concerts des Nations to Carnegie's Zankel Hall for a program of French Baroque composers, he'll be revisiting a corner of the repertoire that gave him his unexpected mainstream breakthrough almost 25 years ago.
Savall's robust, soulful performances appeared on the soundtrack of Alain Corneau's 1991 film Tous Les Matins Du Monde ("All the Mornings of the World"), the story of two historical French viola da gamba players and composers, the reclusive Jean de Sainte-Colombe and his student Marin Marais (played by Gerard Depardieu).
The film was a runaway hit in France and Germany, and its French Baroque soundtrack sold more than 500,000 copies in its initial release.
In a 2005 New York Times interview, Savall acknowledged the film's success in building his career. "When we gave concerts, before Tous les Matins, we had audiences of maybe 300, 500 or sometimes 1,000 people," he said. "The recordings were known to people who were interested in early music. But when we did the film, a lot of young people discovered this music and the viola da gamba. A lot."
Leading three different early music ensembles and pursuing his strong scholarly bent, Savall has since explored cross-cultural programs of Middle Eastern Sufi music, Balkan Gypsy dances, Sephardic romances, Persian melodies and 13th century Spanish dances. Savall's aims are idealistic, and through his own boutique label, Alia Vox, he produces almost annual recordings accompanied by serious annotation and lavish packaging.
The Zankel Hall program features Les Concerts des Nations, an ensemble Savall formed in 1989 with musicians from mainly Latin countries (including Spain, South America, Italy, Portugal and France). The group will take on a particularly vibrant corner of the Baroque repertoire, encompassing Sainte Colombe's knotty Concerts a deux violes égales (for two bass viola da gambas), selections from Lully's boisterous comédie-ballet Le Bourgeois gentilhomme and three of Rameau's Pièces de clavecin en concerts, which are full of novel effects, as well as courtly pieces by Couperin, Forqueray and Leclair.
András Schiff Plays Mozart, Haydn, Schubert And Beethoven At Carnegie Hall
By Brian Wise
March 10, 2015
András Schiff can come across as one of classical piano's deepest-dyed traditionalists. The 62-year-old Hungarian has spent decades focusing on a core repertoire spanning Scarlatti and Bach through Beethoven and Schubert. Aside from the occasional foray into Bartok or Janacek, Schiff rarely ventures into the 20th or 21st century. With few affectations and attention to the purity of the recital experience — he once shushed a London patron for an errant cellphone — he is to some the anti-Lang Lang.
But appearances can be deceiving. Schiff has been outspoken on interpretive and political matters. He's an unapologetic critic of the right-of-center Hungarian government led by prime minister Viktor Orbán, and in 2013 the pianist told the BBC, "I have been threatened that if I return to Hungary, they will cut off both of my hands. I don't want to risk physical and mental assault." In 2001, Schiff, who lives in Florence, Italy, gave up his Austrian citizenship after the far right came to power.
The principled pianist comes to Carnegie Hall with a program dedicated to composers in the late stages of their careers, including two who grappled with life's struggles and conflicts. Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 30 in E major, Op. 109 reveals a composer pushed to the edge of a precipice, concluding with unvarnished and resigned variations.
Schubert's Sonata in C minor, D. 958 is one of three brooding and dramatic masterpieces the composer wrote during the last few months of his short life. It contains an immense finale with a constant horse-gallop rhythm spread over far-flung harmonies. But the turmoil is interrupted by moments of optimism and serenity.
Schiff's program is not all storm and stress. Mozart, like Schubert, was cut down by disease in his early 30s but never had a true late period, as evidenced by his seemingly untroubled Piano Sonata in C major, K. 545. The program begins with Haydn's exuberant Piano Sonata in C major, Hob. XVI: 50, the work of a 77-year-old still exulting in wry wit and trickery.
So what is Schiff's message? As he told WQXR's Jeff Spurgeon in 2013, the pianist himself is keen to stress slow, continual growth. "It's like a good bottle of wine that needs time to mature," he said of a piano career. "There are no shortcuts in musical interpretation. I have to study these works and live with them for decades and decades and learn from my own mistakes. I'm never arriving anywhere. It's always a work in progress."
Carnegie Hall Live: An Opening Night Gala With The Berlin Philharmonic
By Brian Wise
Oct 1, 2014
Finding the right mix of artistic heft and party-night pizzazz is a balancing act orchestras face when planning an opening night gala concert for Carnegie Hall.
The Berlin Philharmonic and its chief conductor Simon Rattle will especially want to start things right when they open the legendary venue's season Oct. 1. They're sticking around for five more concerts in New York, including three at Carnegie and two at the Park Avenue Armory. The former will include all of Schumann's four symphonies; the latter, Peter Sellars' staged presentation of Bach's St. Matthew Passion.
This gala program is an altogether different affair. It will feature two servings of late Russian Romanticism — Rachmaninoff's Symphonic Dances and scenes from Stravinsky's The Firebird— along with Bruch's First Violin Concerto with German soloist Anne-Sophie Mutter. NPR Music and WQXR will broadcast the performance live.
Long identified by her sumptuous tone and glamorous presence, Mutter has a long and somewhat complex history with the Philharmonic. She made her debut with the ensemble in 1978, when she was just 13, playing Mozart's Third Violin Concerto in Salzburg. The orchestra's music director, Herbert von Karajan, had heard her play two years earlier.
There was some skepticism around Mutter in those early years. Critics and some members of the orchestra didn't feel the teenage violinist was ready for the big time. But with Karajan's support, she managed to overcome the doubters and made her first recording with the ensemble in 1978 (Mozart's Concertos Nos. 3 and 5). Several more recordings followed, including the major concertos — Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Brahms and Bruch — usually with Karajan on the podium.
Karajan arranged for an exclusive Berlin contract for Mutter, by which in that city she appeared only with the Philharmonic.
Then from 1987 there was a 26-year hiatus between Mutter and Berlin that has been shrouded in mystery (Mutter guards her personal affairs carefully, and many published profiles of her read similarly). But in recent years, she has been on the Philharmonic's speed dial again, appearing several times. Last year saw the release of Dvořák's Violin Concerto, their first recording together since 1983.
As things often coincide at Carnegie Hall, the opening night concert also kicks off Mutter's "Perspectives" series at the venue — and, perhaps surprisingly, marks her first performance with the Berlin Philharmonic in the U.S.
Spring For Music: A Rare American Oratorio At Carnegie Hall
by Brian Wise
May 9, 2014
When NPR Music and WQXR present the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and May Festival Chorus' performance of R. Nathaniel Dett's The Ordering of Moses at Carnegie Hall Friday, there will be one significant difference from its first airing: it should be free of interruptions.
Just why the 50-minute oratorio was not heard in full on NBC radio in 1937 is a story steeped in allegations of racial censorship. Dett (1882-1943) was a black Canadian-born American composer who earned degrees at the Oberlin Conservatory and the Eastman School of Music. He later studied in Paris with Nadia Boulanger, the revered teacher of composers from Aaron Copland to Philip Glass. Dett called his mission "the emancipation of Negro music" and cited Dvorak's promotion of black spirituals and folk songs as a strong influence on his own works.
The Cincinnati May Festival commissioned Dett to write The Ordering of Moses. He used a text based on Exodus, fusing biblical narrative with spirituals to capture the idea of freedom from bondage.
In NBC's live broadcast, only 40 minutes of the work aired. Near the end of the original acetate disc, the announcer can be heard saying, "We are sorry indeed, ladies and gentlemen, but due to previous commitments, we are unable to remain for the closing moments of this excellent performance." Some organ music filled out the hour.
"It's very clear from the program that was published, it was meant to be a full hour and a full piece," said James Conlon, the May Festival music director, who will conduct this performance at the Spring for Music festival. "So it's very clear that something happened." Historians suspect the broadcast was cut short after callers to the network objected.
The Cincinnati May Festival revived Dett's oratorio in 1956, but it has been rarely heard since. After a 1993 performance at the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters in New York, Alex Ross wrote in the New York Times that the piece suffered from an unwieldy structure and some meandering moments, but added, "there are episodes of startling power."
This concert will begin with John Adams's Harmonium, a 1980 piece based on poetry by John Donne ("Negative Love") and Emily Dickinson ("Because I could not stop for Death," "Wild Nights") that is regarded as milestone of Adams's minimalist period. The texts, an essay by the composer and an excerpt may be found here.
Conlon, who has promoted composers suppressed by the Nazis, sees this Dett performance as an extension of that rescue mission. "If any of us artists hear music that has a value and for whatever reason is not played, I'd rather do that than the umpteenth performance of Beethoven or Tchaikovsky," he says, adding that there's nothing wrong with those composers. "This was an ideal opportunity to do that in the context of Spring for Music."
Atlanta Symphony Orchestra At Carnegie Hall
By Brian Wise
April 30, 2014
The most successful polemical art succeeds first as art. Benjamin Britten proved that with his War Requiem.
Robert Spano will make the case on Wednesday, April 30 at Carnegie Hall when he conducts the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus at 8 p.m. ET. NPR Music and WQXR will broadcast the concert, which also features soprano Evelina Dobračeva, tenor Anthony Dean Griffey, baritone Stephen Powell and the Brooklyn Youth Chorus.
Britten composed his War Requiem for the 1962 rededication of the cathedral in Coventry, England, destroyed in a 1940 air raid. The selection of Britten to write and conduct the work was both ironic and appropriate. As a pacifist, he had endured intense criticism during the war for registering as a conscientious objector. His Requiem's great innovation lies in the blending of the traditional Latin Mass for the Dead and nine poems by Wilfred Owen about World War I.
Owen was an English soldier who died in 1918, one week before the armistice that ended the war. He had taken a medical leave because of the stress of the war. While convalescing, he had begun writing poems that didn't concern heroes or deeds but rather drew on the horrors he'd experienced as a soldier.
"Britten was aggressively pacifistic and taking the text of the Latin Mass for the Dead and refracting it through this poetry speaks eloquently to the ravages and horrors of war," Spano told WQXR's Jeff Spurgeon. Over 85 minutes, bold gestures of collective mourning are seamlessly mixed with intimate, song-like passages.
The Atlanta Symphony's Carnegie Hall show happens to fall on the birthday of Robert Shaw, who was the orchestra's hugely influential music director from 1967 to 1988. Under Shaw's direction, the orchestra and chorus became the gold standard for symphonic choral works by Berlioz, Brahms, Verdi and Britten, winning a clutch of Grammy Awards in the process. "Sometimes we refer to ourselves as Requiems 'R' Us," Spano jokes.
Directed by Norman Mackenzie, the ASO Chorus remains an all-volunteer organization, whose members are said to come from across Atlanta's spectrum of jobs and backgrounds. "Mr. Shaw was adamant that it was important to have an amateur aspect to the institution because of the word itself, which means 'the lover of something,'" Spano said. "So rather than meaning not good enough to be professional, [it means] so good as to be in love with one's work."
Carnegie Hall Live: Dresden Staatskapelle Plays Bruckner
By Brian Wise
April 19, 2013
Anton Bruckner divides audiences. For admirers, his sprawling, stately symphonies — with their great pauses and timeless repetitions — represent the summit of the 19th-century Viennese symphonic tradition. For skeptics, the symphonies are exercises in lumpy piety, plagued with bombastic sonorities and numbingly long-winded development sections.
Yet in a hyper-kinetic, overstimulated world, Bruckner's symphonies may not fit comfortably at either extreme. In recent years, some conductors and ensembles have sought to contextualize the Austrian composer in broader, semi-mystical terms. They've programmed him alongside contemporary minimalists like Philip Glass, Arvo Part and Henryk Gorecki they've encouraged listeners to think of his writing as a kind of heavyweight version of Gregorian chant. The message: Bruckner is a composer who rewards patience and contemplation.
The Dresden Staatskapelle brings Bruckner's Symphony No. 8 to Carnegie Hall April 19 — webcast live on NPR Music and on WQXR, which is also broadcasting the concert. Listeners will hear an orchestra with plenty of experience working through Bruckner's quirks and thrills. Founded in 1548 as an ensemble of trumpets and timpani, and considered one of the world's oldest orchestras, the Staatskapelle has recorded the stately Eighth Symphony many times over, most recently in 2009 under Christian Thielemann.
Thielemann became the Staatskapelle's principal conductor this year, and by many accounts it's a strong match. Both orchestra and maestro are steeped in 19th-century Germanic repertoire. The orchestra's previous chief conductors included Carl Maria von Weber and Richard Wagner. Richard Strauss also maintained a close association with the ensemble for some 60 years, both as a stand-alone orchestra and as part of the Sächsische Staatsoper, or Saxon State Opera.
In modern times, the Staatskapelle has risen to international prominence through recordings and tours led by Giuseppe Sinopoli, its chief conductor from 1992 until his sudden death in 2001. The past decade has seen greater turnover on the podium; conductors Bernard Haitink and Fabio Luisi each had brief and tumultuous tenures with the orchestra.
But unlike his predecessors, the Berlin-born Thielemann has spent the bulk of his career with the major German opera houses and orchestras, most recently with the Munich Philharmonic and the Bayreuth Festival (where he's chief musical advisor). While Thielemann's tenure in Dresden is just getting underway, music critics have been optimistic about the results. Donald Rosenberg of the Cleveland Plain Dealer called a recent performance of Bruckner's Eighth a "mesmerizing experience." L.A. Times classical music critic Mark Swed wrote that a "rapturous live performance of Bruckner's Eighth Symphony indicates that Dresden could be in for yet another golden age of German Romanticism."
Gustavo Dudamel Leads The Simon Bolivar Symphony At Carnegie Hall
By Brian Wise
Dec. 11, 2012
When conductor Gustavo Dudamel brings the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela (SBSOV) to Carnegie Hall as the culmination of a two-week, five-city tour, many of its 200 musicians will have traveled a long way from desperate poverty and crime.
The ensemble is based in Caracas, Venezuela, one of the most violent cities in the Western Hemisphere. Caracas registered 3,218 homicides during the first 10 months of this year, putting it on track to beat last year's toll of 3,488, according to CICPC, the national police agency. Last year, there were 19,336 homicides in Venezuela — an average of 53 murders per day — ranking it higher than neighboring Colombia or even Mexico, which is plagued by a drug war.
At the same time, the SBSOV has dramatically climbed the classical music ranks since its last visit to Carnegie Hall five years ago. It has received awards, a major-label contract, a 60 Minutes profile and millions of views on YouTube. The orchestra has played to a rapturous reception at the BBC Proms and participated in a three-week residency in Los Angeles. Founded in 1975 and previously known as the Simón Bolívar Youth Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela, "youth" was dropped from the group's name last year because the players' average age has risen into the 20s.
The SBSOV was for decades the flagship ensemble of El Sistema, the Venezuelan music education system that takes underprivileged children from decaying slums and bullet-scarred shantytowns into a vast network of regional music schools and youth orchestras. The program is the brainchild of Dr. José Antonio Abreu, an economist and pianist who believes music can help children from impoverished circumstances achieve their full potential and thus promote social change.
The program has taken more than a million children between the ages of 2 and 18, the majority of them poor, and provided them with instruments and free lessons. About 100,000 now participate. (The program has also been adapted internationally as a vehicle for social change, and dozens of El Sistema-inspired programs exist throughout the U.S.)
Among El Sistema's most famous graduates is Dudamel, who entered the program as a 10-year-old violinist and at 31 is music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Dudamel has not only helped to put a young face on an art form often perceived as graying and elitist, but also continued to champion the cause of El Sistema. "The Bolívar Symphony Orchestra for us is like a family," Dudamel said in a video interview for Carnegie Hall. "It's not like the relation of a regular orchestra and conductor."
While the SBSOV has recorded albums of mainstream repertoire by Beethoven and Mahler, it also advocates for Latin American composers. For this Dec. 10 Carnegie Hall performance, which NPR will webcast live, the orchestra is spotlighting two lesser-known pieces — The Sinfonia India by Mexican composer Carlos Chávez and Cuban composer Julián Orbón's Tres Versiones Sinfónicas — along with La noche de los Mayas by Mexican composer Silvestre Revueltas.
Dudamel has called Revueltas the "Latin American Stravinsky," and for good reason. This 30-minute suite, a portrait of a traditional Mayan tribe, features obsessive ostinato rhythms, wild brass outbursts and a final sacrificial frenzy like that of The Rite of Spring.
Before the concert, there will be a Carnegie performance by the SBSOV's brass ensemble (Dec. 7), a panel discussion with Abreu (Dec. 8), neighborhood concerts and a family concert (Dec. 9).
Dudamel and Abreu are to collect awards at Lincoln Center from Musical America, which has named Dudamel Musician of the Year and Abreu Educator of the Year. "Rarely has a young artist captured the public fancy so completely," editor Sedgwick Clark said of Dudamel on the publication's website. "The timing was simply right."
Carnegie Hall Live: The Chicago Symphony Orchestra Performs 'Carmina Burana'
By Brian Wise
Oct. 3, 2012
It is one of classical music's most resilient creatures, repeatedly set loose across concert halls, recording studios and the landscape of popular entertainment.
Its footprints can be found in commercials for sports drinks, aftershave and Walmart. It has left its mark on hip-hop (forming the basis for the Nas song "Hate Me Now"), and hundreds of television commercials and movies (from Oliver Stone's The Doors to Jackass: The Movie). It is the ultimate cliché for the apocalypse, used these days more for parody than for serious effect.
It is Carmina Burana, a scenic cantata by the German composer Carl Orff and centered on 24 medieval poems about love, drinking and gambling. The piece lands at Carnegie Hall this Wednesday night at the venue's season-opening concert by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Riccardo Muti.
It's easy to see how a score that premiered 75 years ago remains so popular: With its thigh-slapping drinking songs and visceral choruses set to blaring trumpets and thundering percussion, Carmina Burana (Songs of Beuren) pleases audiences. But its popularity only extends so far. Music critics have occasionally disparaged the work for being blunt and a knock-off of Stravinsky's 1923 choral ballet Les Noces.
Worse yet for Orff's reputation, it is an artifact of Nazi Germany. Before Carmina Burana triumphed in American culture, it became hugely popular in 1930s Germany. With their love of pre-Christian mythology, Nazi propagandists trumpeted the fact that the piece glorifies a largely pagan civilization — and is full of rousing melodies the masses can readily understand.
Although Orff has seldom been subjected to the same scrutiny as Richard Wagner — another composer championed by the Nazis — the shadow of that era clings to Orff's legacy. It is the main reason the cantata was not performed in the U.S. until 1954.
Should we hear authoritarianism in Carmina Burana's primitive rhythms and colossal climaxes? That would be a difficult to argue because the music itself never presents such an explicit message, says Michael Beckerman, the chair of New York University's music department.
"There are all kinds of different reasons why people can plug into Carmina Burana," said Beckerman. "It's elemental, it's powerful, it's physical, but that doesn't make it Nazi. Just because the Nazis like the sunset and I like the sunset doesn't make the sunset a Nazi aesthetic. There are different reasons why people plug into different pieces."
A reading of Orff's biography suggests that he may not have acted particularly heroically during turbulent times. He was close to the Nazi Party and obliged it by writing new incidental music for A Midsummer Night's Dream to replace the score by Felix Mendelssohn, who had been banned as a Jewish composer (Richard Strauss had turned down the commission). After World War II, Orff was interrogated by the denazification authorities. Eager to put himself on the right side of history, he claimed that he had been a co-founder of the White Rose resistance movement, even as his close friend, Swiss-born academic Kurt Huber — an actual member — was arrested and executed by the Nazis.
If Orff failed to oppose the Nazis actively, he also never joined the Party, nor did he express anything resembling anti-Semitism, a point documented in detail in Michael H. Kater's book Composers of the Nazi Era. What's more, Orff had many Jewish friends, including Kurt Weill and poet Franz Werfel, author of The Song of Bernadette.
Ultimately, many historians believe Orff was simply an apolitical opportunist, playing his cards for maximum gain. "Most of the people who took heroic stances during that period lasted about five minutes," notes Beckerman. "I'm uncomfortable with applying standards of behavior to people in the past when very few of us know how we would have behaved. Orff wasn't a camp guard. It's not clear in any case about what people knew what was actually going on.
"Let's put it this way," he continues. "I like to be in a world where people can say they like Carmina Burana or not without fearing that if they say they like it, somebody's going to say they're a Nazi. Because music doesn't have the kinds of things that allow us to say in words precisely what it means, people can impute meanings and there's very little way that the music can defend itself."
Bach's 'St. John Passion' At Carnegie Hall
By Brian Wise
March 23, 2012
J.S. Bach's St. Matthew Passion has always gotten more respect than his other telling of the crucifixion story — the St. John Passion. The St. Matthew, with its six-part choir and double orchestra, is grander, about 45 minutes longer and generally more imposing.
But don't underestimate the St. John. Its very compactness gives it a power of its own.
And you can judge for yourself this weekend, as it will be the centerpiece of Les Violons du Roy's Carnegie Hall performance Sunday at 2 p.m. ET, heard live on this page.
"The St. John's text is much more direct and burns like a coal," says Kent Tritle, director of cathedral music and organist at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine an a WQXR host. "The St. Matthew is much more narrative and takes more time to work out."
The St. John has also become a somewhat harder sell in an era sensitive to ethnic characterizations. The work's harping on "the Jews" as the driving force behind the crucifixion of Jesus have led some people to view it as anti-Semitic. Some orchestras have printed disclaimers in their concert programs. A performance today at the Berlin Cathedral is substituting texts by poets as varied as Rumi and Paul Celan, as well as words from the Yom Kippur liturgy, for some of the texts Bach set.
"The gospel of John is problematic because of the burden it places upon the Jewish people for Jesus," Tritle says. "There's a comfort zone issue here."
Scholars and performers have wrestled with the work's message over time. Lately it has been suggested that Bach took the St. John's narration and dialogue almost verbatim from the Gospel of St. John, which grew out of the era in which the book was written — between A.D. 90 and 130. In those days, Christians were trying to ingratiate themselves with their Roman rulers rather than laying the blame for the crucifixion on the Roman Pontius Pilate. Some scholars have also suggested that Bach mollified through his music the anti-Semitic tendencies of the text.
Controversies aside, Tritle says the work is rich in its formal structure, with the Evangelist's telling of Jesus' crucifixion regularly interrupted with timeouts for ruminative arias and reflective chorales. These sweeping choral moments not only portray the crowd — soldiers, priests and populace — but were also the work's most interactive aspect in its day.
"The chorales come at points where the congregation would actually join in singing some affirmation of what has just happened," Tritle explains. "You can imagine that the interaction was rather consistent from beginning to end."
The Vienna Philharmonic At Carnegie Hall
By Brian Wise
March 1, 2012
Many conductors lead concert programs featuring the standard orchestral excerpts from Wagner's Ring cycle, but Lorin Maazel went much further with his symphonic synthesis "The Ring Without Words."
Maazel assembled this 70-minute distillation of Wagner's four-opera, 17-hour cycle at the request of Telarc Records, which recorded it in 1987 with the conductor and the Berlin Philharmonic. More than a one-off project, it has taken on a life of its own: Maazel has performed it in New York with the Pittsburgh Symphony (in 1990) and the New York Philharmonic (during his days as music director, in 2000 and 2008). For this concert with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Maazel is pairing his whittled-down 'Ring' with a pinnacle of Viennese classicism: Mozart's Symphony No. 40.
In his notes for the Telarc recording, Maazel expressed the hope that his labors might "bring some of the magic of this monumental work a mite closer ... to a new audience of music-sensitive people." Certainly, removing the vocal parts from Wagner is asking for a fight — and some listeners have taken issue with Maazel's "cut and paste" approach. Still, former New York Times chief classical music critic Donal Henahan took a less purist view in 1990, arguing that "there is good musical logic for preferring such a treatment over the ill-assorted chunks of Wagner that make up most orchestral programs."
"The Ring Without Words" is also a fantastic playground for a virtuoso orchestra, and this is where the Vienna Philharmonic comes into the picture. This group has a 170-year heritage and an intimate association with some of classical music's most revered repertoire. Tradition is serious business in the orchestra. It has one of the world's most glorious musical homes, the gilded Musikverein in the Austrian capital. The orchestra takes no chances with its distinctively warm sound, going so far as to have extra violins hanging on some stands, just in case a string breaks.
The self-governing ensemble's supposed stubbornness in maintaining an unbroken link with its history has also brought into focus its hiring policies over the years. In 1997, after international protests and negative media coverage, the orchestra ended its policy of excluding women from its ranks. The orchestra's critics and its supporters continue to debate whether equality has since been achieved quickly enough, a complex issue that can't be given due justice in this space. (For those keeping score, of 130 full-fledged members of the Vienna Philharmonic, the orchestra says there are currently eight women in its ranks; six are permanent members and two are in a probationary hiring period.)
If one thing is for certain, however, it is that Vienna continues to promote its brand around the globe. This season, the musicians are touring four continents (plus a summer cruise in the Baltic Sea), and they began 2012 with a broadcast of their famous New Year's Concert in more than 70 countries around the world. This week, Sony Music, which released the recording of that concert, announced it had sold more than 150,000 units, going double platinum in Austria and hitting the pop charts in France.
Spring for Music: Oregon Symphony
By Brian Wise
May 12, 2011
The concept behind the Oregon Symphony's concert tonight at the Spring for Music festival may seem ripped from the headlines. With the U.S. engaged in conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the global response to terrorism fresh in people's minds, a program of war-themed works couldn't be more timely. But Carlos Kalmar, Oregon's music director, insists that current events played no part in the programming.
"I must say very clearly that we did not go towards that idea because we, as a human race, are in a time of war now," said the Uruguay-born Kalmar. "As a matter of fact, unfortunately, the human race is always at war somewhere with someone."
The evening traces a wartime journey, starting with Ives' The Unanswered Question, proceeding to John Adams' The Wound Dresser (with baritone Sanford Sylvan), then Britten's Sinfonia di Requiem, and finally, Vaughan Williams' turbulent Symphony No. 4.
"Yes, the music is about war but not every piece on the program was written specifically because of war," Kalmar notes, adding that the Ives work helps set up a philosophical point: "You could understand it as 'why on earth are we doing what we're doing to mankind?' Or 'why do people fight?' The good thing about the Ives is it can be used in so many different contexts."
At the heart of the program is Ralph Vaughan Williams' Symphony No. 4, composed in the gathering gloom of Europe in 1934. "We can debate long and hard whether that has anything to do with war," Kalmar says. Britten's Sinfonia da Requiem, written in 1940, was ostensibly composed as a requiem memorial to his parents, but it was also the composer's reaction to the developing menace of the war.
Adams's The Wound-Dresser, a setting of Walt Whitman's poem, describes the poet's personal horror treating wounded soldiers just off the battlefield during the Civil War. It's also the only piece written specifically about war itself.
After two years of planning and extensive fundraising efforts — in many ways, a battle in itself — the Oregon Symphony's visit to Carnegie Hall marks the longest distance traveled by any orchestra in the Spring for Music festival. Kalmar believes that the pacing of the concert will be important, and that, given the grim subject matter, audiences shouldn't come expecting a happy ending.
"There is redemption in our concert, but not at the end," said Kalmar. "I think that is an important point. I don't think that anybody who goes to this concert will come out and think everything is alright. I think the pacing is good because nothing is alright. If we humans have to live with war, that is pretty much what the message should be."
Chamber Music In The Greene Space: The Tokyo String Quartet
By Brian Wise
April 7, 2011
The devastation in Japan has brought attention to one facet of the country's cultural life: its vibrant classical music heritage. As the Montreal Gazette recently reported, the world's third-largest economy encompasses the world's second-largest music market. And, unlike the more recent boom in China, Japan's classical heritage reaches back decades.
The Tokyo String Quartet is a prime example. Formed in 1969 by four Japanese musicians studying at the Juilliard School of Music, they trace their origins to the Toho School of Music in Tokyo, where the founding members studied under Hideo Saito, the legendarily skilled and tyrannical pedagogue. The ensemble was at first a casual endeavor — a "study quartet" — but it got serious quickly.
A series of awards came in the early 1970s. In 1976, they joined the faculty of the Yale School of Music. Television appearances (on Sesame Street, CBS Sunday Morning and PBS's Great Performances) followed, recalling the days when mass media exposure was a routine feature of quartet life.
As with most major string quartets, personnel changes have reshaped the ensemble even down to its ethnic identity. These days, there are two non-Japanese players: the British cellist Clive Greensmith, who joined in 2000, and Canadian Martin Beaver, who joined as first violinist in 2002. Second violinist Kikuei Ikeda joined in 1974, while violist Kazuhide Isomura is the group's remaining original member.
Adventures in obscure and modern repertory have never been the Tokyo String Quartet's main focus. Yet, over the years, the group's cycles of Beethoven and Brahms, Mozart and Haydn have been widely respected, as have their detours in Bartók, Janácek and Barber. Last fall, the quartet released the fourth and final volume of its Beethoven string quartet series on the Harmonia Mundi label, which received the French "Diapason d'Or" critics' award.
In New York City's Greene Space, the Tokyo players will apply their "Paganini Quartet" of matched Stradivarius instruments to works by Haydn, Bartók and Beethoven. Don't miss the night's final piece: Beethoven's immense and involving Grosse Fugue.