Thursday, December 25, 2014

Sunday Classics holiday edition: It's "The Nutcracker" -- the whole deal! (One more time!)

With the "Nutcracker Suite" sequence of Disney's Fantasia now unavailable, I thought to kick off we'd just look at this little teaser from Helgi Tómasson's San Francisco Ballet staging.

by Ken

[To repeat, this is a second "encore presentation" of 2011's complete-Nutcracker post (the first since since all the way back in 2012!), which I thought came out pretty darned well. As I wrote in 2012, you probably think it's a huge labor-saver just running a post "rerun," and perhaps I thought so too, but it didn't work out that way.]

The plan is pretty simple. As promised in last night's preview, when we heard two quite differently terrific performances of Tchaikovksy's own Nutcracker Suite, today we're going to hear the complete ballet, and chunks of it -- solely at my discretion -- twice!

Pretty much the last thing I added to what you'll see in the click-through is the plot synopsis (filched from Wikipedia). I went back and forth a lot about this, because I really don't pay much attention to plots, or even programs, when I listen to music written for the dance. I'm not a dance person to begin with, and I guess my listening orientation is to allow the music to plug its own built-in "program" into my imagination. Still, in the end it seemed to me that this curious format (for want of a better word) we've got going here at Sunday Classics is actually an extremely good way to hook up the plot and the music.

I'll have some quick (I hope) notes about the specifics when we get to the click-through, so let me just throw out two points about The Nutcracker:

(1) Tchaikovsky really didn't want to write the damned thing. So no, it was about as far from a "labor of love" as you can get.

(2) It was written to share a double bill with one of the composer's less-performed operas, Yolanta, which is the part of the bill that really interested and moved him. It has, in fact, nothing (that I can see or hear) in common with its birth billmate, and it strikes me as an incredibly difficult piece to really bring to life, but as with many difficult, fragile creations, its specialness holds special rewards. It deals, first, with the desperate desire of a very powerful man -- a king, in fact -- to shield a loved one, in this case his only daughter, from pain, in her case the knowledge that she's blind. But in the larger sense it deals with the futility of trying to protect someone from something it's impossible to "protect" her from, like reality. Someday we should undoubtedly talk about Yolanta. (But it's difficult.)


Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Sunday Classics holiday edition preview: For the first time since 2012, we bring back the legendary DWT gala "Nutcracker ('The Whole Deal')"

You'd want to think twice before bidding on this record. The ABC Command label tells you it's one of the inferior later pressings; you want an original gold-label issue. (Note: Unfortunately, last year's preview-opening video clip of the Nutcracker Suite segment of Walt Disney's Fantasia has disappeared -- not entirely surprisingly, I guess. To be honest, I don't like it much anyway.)

by Ken

As far back as the mind recalls, Sunday Classics has celebrated the holiday musically at last in part with music from Tchaikovsky's ballets, and last year I went whole hog and offered a complete Nutcracker, basically double-covered throughout, and assembled from, well, a whole bunch of recordings. And as I ventured in 2010's Nutcracker preview, what better way could there be to "warm up" for the main event than with the composer's own Nutcracker Suite, good old Op. 71a? In the click-through we've got two quite splendid, and interestingly different, performances.


TCHAIKOVSKY: Nutcracker Suite, Op. 71a:
i. Miniature Overture

Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, William Steinberg, cond. Command, recorded c1963

Montreal Symphony Orchestra, Charles Dutoit, cond. Decca, recorded c1985

You'll note straightaway in the Miniature Overture that William Steinberg is taking a rather spritelier approach and Charles Dutoit a more buoyant, caressing one. Both the Pittsburgh Symphony and the Montreal Symphony play utterly delectably.


Sunday, December 21, 2014

A cluster of explosive young talents explode in "On the Town"

For the 1960 recording, Betty and Adolph reprised their
1944 roles, anthropologist Claire de Loon and sailor Ozzie

Act I, "Carried Away"

Betty Comden, Claire; Adolph Green, Ozzie; 1960 studio cast recording, Leonard Bernstein, cond. Columbia-CBS-Sony

by Ken

On a daily basis we're assaulted by so much slop and slime that I worry about insufficient attention being paid when we're given worthwhile stuff. So it has been on my mind to call your attention, as I mentioned last night, to a really outstanding piece in the November issue of Vanity Fair called "Innocents on Broadway," in which Adam Green gives us a richly and beautifully detailed portrait of the early life and early career of his father, the great lyricist (and sometime actor) Adolph Green, which also includes similarly rich portraits of a band of remarkably talented people whose rising careers were intertwined with his -- notably his eventual writing partner of 60 years, Betty Comden; his best friend, Leonard Bernstein; and the amazing actress Judy Holiday.

"This year would have been my father’s 100th birthday," Adam G writes early on,
and it would have made him indecently proud to see it marked by productions of so many of the musicals that he and his partner, Betty Comden, wrote in their 60-year collaboration: a stage adaptation of their 1953 MGM movie, The Band Wagon, as part of the Encores! series at New York’s City Center; a live broadcast on NBC of their 1954 version of Peter Pan; the first Broadway revival of their 1978 screwball operetta, On the Twentieth Century. Most of all, though, he would have been thrilled to see the ebullient revival, also on Broadway, of On the Town, their 1944 musical, about the amorous exploits of three sailors on 24-hour shore leave in the big city, which introduced the phrase “New York, New York, a helluva town” into the American lexicon and announced the arrival of a new generation in the American musical theater.


Saturday, December 20, 2014

"New York, New York, it's a heckuva town"

In June 1992, lyricists Betty Comden and Adolph Green narrated a famous London concert performance of On the Town at the Barbican Centre with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas. (An audio recording made at the same time is still available, but there doesn't seem to be a DVD issue of the concert.) Here Comden and Green introduce the opening number, as our three sailors, let loose for a single day on the city, sing "New York, New York," with Thomas Hampson as Gabey, Kurt Ollman as Chip, and David Garrison as Ozzie.

"On the Town was a landmark, the first show by a bunch of bright upstarts -- [Leonard] Bernstein, [Betty] Comden and [Adolph] Green, and Jerome Robbins, all still in their 20s -- who would go on, together and apart, to help shape the cultural landscape of the 20th century."
-- Adam Green, in "Innocents on Broadway,"
in the November issue of Vanity Fair

by Ken

After a six-year stint at DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx, he headed out into the world with this inspiring send-off from a teacher who had seen him perform in the class show he had written and directed: "I hope you've got enough talent to make a living at that, because otherwise you're in big trouble."

We have no way of knowing how many people in similar circumstances we never hear more about, either because they just weren't good enough or, more poignantly, because they just never found a way to impress their talents on a big, uncaring world. In this case, though, "he" was Adolph Green, and not only he but a tight circle of his intimates were headed for great things, which came into focus for a number of them when On the Town opened on Broadway on December 28, 1944.

Green's son, Adam, has written a really wonderful piece for Vanity Fair about the history that culminated in that historic night, with both Adolph Green and Betty Comden, who had written the lyrics and who would go on to enjoy a 60-year partnership, in the cast (in roles they had sensibly written for themselves), and with music by Adoph's best friend, Leonard Bernstein. It's such a good story that I want to offer a closer glimpse of it tomorrow, but for tonight I thought we'd hear a musical preview.


including a number of members of the 1944 original cast (among them Betty and Adolph), for a studio recording of On the Town with the composer conducting. I thought we'd hear the opening number from that classic recording.

Adolph Green and Leonard Bernstein at the recording session, with producer Goddard Lieberson in the background

BERNSTEIN, COMDEN, and GREEN: On the Town: Introduction (including "New York, New York")

John Reardon, Gabey; Cris Alexander, Chip; Adolph Green, Ozzie; 1960 studio cast recording, Leonard Bernstein, cond. Columbia-CBS-Sony

TOMORROW: "A cluster of explosive young talents explode in On the Town"

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Sunday Classics diary: I love this theme, especially when it's played like this

by Ken

I love this theme. It's majestic, maybe even monumental, irresistibly forward-moving, even swaggering, and at the same time tender and uplifting -- if I could put it into words, I guess I wouldn't need the music.

Now, the theme can be played kinda fast:

And it can be played kinda slow:

And it can be played the way we just heard it:


Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Re. release of the "Senate Torture Report," what might Beethoven's Don Florestan and Donna Leonore have to say?

"We need reliable intelligence," Young Johnny McCranky said today on the Senate floor. And, he insisted, "Torture produces more misleading information than actionable intelligence."

by Ken

Earlier this evening Howie wrote about the will-they-or-won't-they-release-it situation of the "executive summary" of what I'm just going to call the Senate Torture Report. And he already had me thinking about it yesterday when he passed along the above clip of Young Johnny McCranky on the Senate floor.

As it happened, I took a half sick day this morning, and listened on the radio on to ongoing yammering about the Torture Report release issue, and while most of the commenters -- including local callers-in to WNYC -- were lining up in the expectable ranks for or against, I was made aware that Young Johnny has broken ranks loudly with his normal compadres, the national-security nutjobs for whom any matter slapped with a "national security" label becomes a hot-button issue, whether real national security is really involved or not. I don't have to name names, right? You know the mentality: To invoke "national security" is to end all discussion.

But, as we've known, Young Johnny doesn't toe the "national-security nutjob" line when it comes to torture. And we know that his thinking about the subject comes from a different source than does the "thinking" of, say, "Big Dick" Cheney, who has no reality outside his diseased imagination. Maybe I shouldn't have been surprised, but, having mostly written Young Johnny off as a person of any intellectual or principled responsibility, I'm refreshed to hear him standing by his principles.

And it matters. Because normally when it comes to matters slapped with that "national security" label, it's hard to find turf to his right. Not so here.

In the clip, after acknowledging that, yes, release of the Torture Report summary might lead to violence in some places, but noting that "sadly, violence needs little incentive in some quarters of the world today," and after pointing out that for the world there aren't going to be a lot of surprises in the account of the "degrading treatment" inflicted by American interrogators on terror suspects (black sites, secret prisons, waterboarding -- the standard kaboodle), and arguing that while the report might provide "an excuse" to harm Americans, people who would do so "hardly need an excuse for that," the senator gets to the heart of the mattter:
What might come as a surprise, not just to our enemies but to many Americans, is how little these practices did to aid our efforts to bring 9/11 culprits to justice, and to find and prevent terrorist attacks today and tomorrow. That could be a real surprise, since it contradicts the many assurances provided by intelligence officials, on the record and in private, that enhanced interrogation techniques were indispensable in the war against terrorism. And I suspect the objection of those same officials to the release of this report is really focused on that disclosure: torture's ineffectiveness. Because we gave up much in the expectation that torture would make us safer. Too much.


. . . but this afternoon at work I had a set of proofs that really had to get read, especially after my morning's absence. So naturally I was thinking about a blogpost instead. In the hope that it might possibly help me block out outside thoughts, I decided to put on a CD. For various reasons I don't do this much these days, and so I don't have that much on hand in the office. One thing I do have is the 85-disc-or-so Toscanini Complete RCA Collection, and occasionally I'll pull out a disc at random, which is what I did today. It turned out to be a compendium of shorter Beethoven pieces that begins with a Leonore Overture No. 3 from June 1, 1945, and so this is what I found myself listening to with Young Johnny McCranky still talking about torture in my head.

Talk about being "on point" for tyranny, authoritarianism, torture, and the suppression of any awkward information on those subjects! Leonore No. 3 was Beethoven's third attempt at an overture for his only opera, which happens to deal with these very subjects, and after musically recollecting the happier-days memories of the secretly imprisoned and tortured Spanish truth-teller-to-power Don Florestan, the overture evokes the trumpet calls that in the opera will herald the arrival at the prison of the royal minister Don Fernando. Unfortunately for Florestan, his nemesis, the governor of the prison, Don Pizarro, has had just enough advance warning of the Minister's visit to take the necessary step to eliminate any risk of his exposure: planning the elimination of Florestan. In Pizarro's hastily improvised plan, this should cover his ass, and he and the minister can enjoy a lovely session of mutual congratulations.

So here I was trying to read my proofs, and we came to the first lyrical subject of the overture, and I was struck by how beautifully shaped this Toscanini performance is. Beautiful shaping, you have to understand, is something we don't usually think of in connection with Toscanini, at least the later Toscanini who is most familiar from his most-circulated recordings, which are more often thought of as impressing with their sense of drivenness. And here is old Maestro Arturo (he was 78 at the time of this recording), without sacrificing any sense of forward movement, giving beautiful shape to the music to which the tortured and starved Florestan, dying in his secret dungeon, will recall:

Julius Patzak (t), Florestan; Vienna Philharmonic, Wilhelm Furtwängler, cond. Live performance from the Salzburg Festival, Aug. 3, 1948

Plácido Domingo (t), Florestan; Staatskapelle Berlin, Daniel Barenboim, cond. Teldec, recorded 1999

Jon Vickers (t), Florestan; Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, Karl Böhm, cond. Live performance, Feb. 13, 1960

Here is the section of Leonore No. 3 in question, as played by a conductor of almost the opposite reputation from Toscanini, the ever-so-spaciously inclined Hans Kanppertsbusch (from a complete recording of Fidelio with the Bavarian State Orchestra made in December 1961):

And here's the Toscanini performance sandwiched between two performances of Leonore No. 3 we've heard before:

BEETHOVEN: Leonore Overture No. 3, Op. 72a

Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, Bruno Walter, cond. Live performance, Feb. 22, 1941

NBC Symphony Orchestra, Arturo Toscanini, cond. RCA-BMG, recorded in Studio 8-H, New York City, June 1, 1945

Philharmonia Orchestra, Erich Leinsdorf, cond. Capitol-EMI, recorded c1958


I wrote at some length about the uncompromisingly principled Don Florestan and his equally uncompromising wife in a May 2012 post called "Beethoven's superhero couple: The Florestans have for sure done their duty," with particular reference to the monologue he sings as we first meet him in his dungeon, gaunt and skirting death, at the opening of Act II. We really don't know what Florestan's "crimes" were against the governor of this state prison, Don Pizarro, but it's obvious that Pizarro regards him as a mortal threat. He seems to understand all too well: the thing we need to keep in mind here: that Florestan doesn't compromise his principles, rergardless of the consequences. And the same is true of Leonore.

I realize that the torture dynamics here don't align exactly with those investigated in the Torture Report. Here the tyrant isn't trying to extract information from his torture victim; he's just trying to ensure his permanent silence. Still, what wouldn't the like of "Big Dick" Cheney give for the ability to similarly silence their enemies at home?

Here I'm thinking not of the high dramatics of the dungeon scene, and how the Minister's arrival by sheer luck comes just in the nick of time to prevent Pizarro from exacting his final revenge on Florestan. I'm thinking of the following scene, in which the prisoners have been released and the Minister -- a close personal friend of Florestan and Leonore -- arrives and sings in platitudes so plangent that it's hard to believe a political prisoner has just barely escaped execution.

Although the Minister has only a few more lines to sing than we hear here, the role is so important, the writing so beautiful and noble, that even in the opera house it is usually assigned to something close to a front-line baritone or bass -- and on records it has been cast with genuine front-line talent, as we also hear here. (You'll note that in the orchestral introduction Toscanini definitely lives up to his reputation for, er, getting on with it.)

BEETHOVEN: Fidelio: Act II, Scene 2, Arrival of the Minister
Outside the prison. A crowd of people and liberated prisoners are gathered before the gates.

PEOPLE and PRISONERS [variously]: Hail! Hail!
Hail to the day, hail to the hour,
long yearned for, though unimaginable,
when justice and clemency together
appear before the gates of our tomb!
Hail! Hail!
Hail to the day, etc.
Hail! Hail!
[DON PIZARRO and the Minister, DON FERNANDO, enter, escorted by soldiers.]
DON FERNANDO: Our noblest king's wish and suggestion
lead me to you, you poor souls, here,
so that I may lift the veil of wickedness
which has wrapped you all in heavy gloom.
No, no longer kneel slavishly --
harsh tyranny is far from my mind.
A brother is seeking his brothers,
and if he can help, he gladly will.
PEOPLE and PRISONERS: Hail to the day, hail to the hour!
Hail! Hail!
DON FERNANDO: A brother is seeking his brothers,
and if he can help, he gladly will.
ROCCO [rushing through the guards, with LEONORE and FLORESTAN]: Well then, help these poor people!
DON PIZARRO: What do I see? Ha!
ROCCO: Does it move you?
DON PIZARRO: Away! Away!
DON FERNANDO [to ROCCO]: Then speak!
ROCCO: Let all mercy, all mercy
unite this couple!
Don Florestan --
DON FERNANDO: The man believed dead?
That noble man who struggled for truth?
ROCCO: And suffered numberless torments.
DON FERNANDO: My friend, my friend,
the man believed dead?
In fetters, in fetters,
pale he stands before me?
LEONORE and ROCCO: Yes, Florestan!
Florestan, you see him here.
ROCCO: And Leonore!
ROCCO : Let me present this jewel among women.
She came here --
DON PIZARRO: Let me say two words!
DON FERNANDO: Not a word! She came --
ROCCO: -- to my gate there,
and entered my service as a boy
and did me such good, loyal service
that I chose her for my son-in-law.
MARZELLINE [who with JAQUINO has joined the crowd]: Oh, woe is me! Woe is me! What do I hear?
ROCCO: That monster in this very hour
wished to bring about Florestan's death.
DON PIZARRO [pointing to ROCCO]: Bring it about, with him!
ROCCO : In league with us.
Only your coming called him off! Etc.
PEOPLE and PRISONERS: Let the villain be punished,
who oppressed the innocent!
Justice holds the sword
of vengence poised for judgment!
Let the villain be punished!

José van Dam (bs-b), Don Fernando; Karl Ridderbusch (bs), Rocco; Zoltán Kélémen (bs-b), Don Pizarro; Helga Dernesch (s), Leonore; Helen Donath (s), Marzelline; Chorus of the Deutsche Oper Berlin, Berlin Philharmonic, Herbert von Karajan, cond. EMI, recorded 1970

Nicola Moscona (bs), Don Fernando; Sidor Belarsky (bs), Rocco; Herbert Janssen (b), Don Pizarro; Rose Bampton (s), Leonore; Eleanor Steber (s), Marzelline; NBC Symphony Chorus and Orchestra, Arturo Toscanini, cond. RCA-BMG, broadcast performance, Dec. 17, 1944

Franz Crass (bs), Don Fernando; Gottlob Frick (bs), Rocco; Walter Berry (b), Don Pizarro; Christa Ludwig (ms), Leonore; Ingeborg Hallstein (s), Marzelline; Philharmonia Chorus and Orchestra, Otto Klemperer, cond. EMI, recorded 1962