Opera Guide #1: Der RosenKavalier

Tuesday, July 17th, 2012

The following is intended to serve as an introduction to opera for those with little or no experience attending this, one of the most comprehensive art forms. Simply stated, opera is drama set to music in which the actors “sing” their parts. It involves staging like a play and often includes poetry, graphic arts, costumes, dance, set design, lighting and other special effects. And all, of course, usually done “live” at the moment you are seeing it. Done well, opera can be one of the most spectacular and moving entertainment experiences possible. While opera excerpts are available on line, a full performance produces the the best effect. The Metropolitan Opera Company produces the “Met Live in HD” series in which selected operas, live or recorded, are shown in movie theaters throughout the U.S. and worldwide. For your local schedule see: www.metoperafamily.org

A) Suspension of disbelief – Audiences often have to disregard the superficial aspects of the stories, characters, settings, etc. in order to reach the deeper emotions and psychological meaning inherent in great opera. The opera goer seeks to be “transported” from the “here and now” to a higher, more receptive mental state. Questions like “What’s that fat lady singing about?” or “Why does that big guy have horns on his helmet?” may signal a refusal to suspend disbelief and to get into the spirit of the opera.
B) Know the story – Since most of opera is not in English, it makes sense to know beforehand the story (libretto) unless the performance has subtitles—It will greatly enhance the experience!
C) Patience will be rewarded – Since many operas are long, often 3 hours or more, it takes longer to build to a climax. Be patient, most great operas will eventually reach moments of totally inspired music making and it will be well worth the wait!
DER ROSENKAVALIER (The Rose Bearer or The Knight of the Rose) by Richard Strauss. Though the much of the music is lively, the opera’s best music happens to be slow and “dreamy”.  The story takes place in Vienna in the 1740’s:
The Main Characters:
1) Marie Therese (soprano) – The Marschallin (the title given to the Field Marshal’s wife) who lives on a vast estate. She is depicted as being older, more worldly, but still attractive.
2) Count Octavian (soprano) – the Marschallin’s young lover (a “trousers” role – an operatic tradition in which a female plays a younger male role)
3) Sophie (soprano) – the pretty young daughter of a wealthy merchant
4) Baron Ochs (baritone) – the Marschallin’s boorish country cousin

A) The opera begins in the Marschallin’s bedroom the morning after she and Octavian have spent a night of illicit love together while her husband is away on a hunting trip. The Marschallin reflects on how she is getting older and may eventually have to resign herself to losing Octavian to a younger woman.

B) The couple hear a commotion downstairs as the Marschallin’s uncouth/boorish cousin, Baron Ochs, barges in for a visit. Octavian runs for cover hoping not to be discovered.

C) Baron Ochs announces that he is going to be married to the young Sophie and asks the Marschallin if she can suggest someone to be the rose bearer (a betrothal ritual in which a courier “presents” a silver rose to the intended bride in order to “seal the deal”).

D) The Marschallin mischieviously suggests that she knows a young man, Octavian (hiding in the closet), who could fill the bill nicely.
To make a long story shorter:
E) Octavian does indeed serve as Baron Ochs “Rose Bearer” to the lovely young Sophie. However, as soon as Sophie and Octavian see each other they fall immediately in love:
Scene: “The Presentation of the Rose” – Octavian and Sophie discover each other.

F) The remainder of the opera is about how Octavian, Sophie, and the Marschallin try to hoodwink Baron Ochs into giving up Sophie as his intended bride in order to free her to marry Octavian.

H) True love eventually triumphs: The way is cleared for Sophie and Octavian to fulfill their love with the Maschallin’s blessing:
Final scene – Trio: Sophie, Octavian, and the Marschallin sing about love, both gained and lost.

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Meiravi Quartet presents Hope Survives: The Lost Generation of Holocaust Composers

Monday, March 26th, 2012

The Meiravi Quartet presented its most recent program: “Hope Survives”: The “Lost Generation” of Holocaust Composers at 3pm, March 25, 2012 in Amado Hall, UPENN. Together with musicologist Karen Uslin, who spoke about each composer and her research experience, I presented commentary on the four works performed: Schulhoff’s Five Pieces for String Quartet, Krasa’s Theme and Variations for String Quartet, Ullmann’s String Quartet No.3,  Op. 46 and Zemlinsky’s String Quartet No.1 in A Major as follows:

Prelude: “The Other Side of the Coin”

The music of Ullmann, Schulhoff, Krasa, and Zemlinsky represents, as it were, the “other side’ of the musical coin that was European music in the first half of the twentieth century. Historically, while the far reaching atonal work of Schoenberg and the Second Viennese School and the folk-inspired modernism of Stravinsky and Bartok was considered more musically significant, the music of our featured composers displays an under-appreciated more moderate course while still remaining open to such new developments as jazz. In style, their music often reminds one of such first generation Hollywood film composers as Max Steiner and Eric Wolfgang Korngold, most of whom themselves were Jews from the Czech-Hungarian-Austrian empire, who were lucky enough to have escaped to the United States before the Holocaust. Had these composers survived, I think that they might have had a moderating effect on the influence of more extreme composers like Karlheinz Stockhausen, Pierre Boulez, and John Cage in the post World War II time period.

I) The Five Pieces for String Quartet by Schulhoff are either characteristic dances or otherwise folk-inspired musical vignettes which are offered filtered through an early 20th century musical lens: liberal use of dissonance, asymmetrical phrases, ostinatos and other complex rhythmic devices, and a harmonic language midway between Debussy, Stravinsky, and Jazz within a style that is energetic, forceful, satiric, and easily accessible. The term “characteristic dances” refers to a composer using dance forms to explore musical creativity. For instance, the opening “waltz” uses some of the rhythmic/melodic concepts associated with waltzes, but the listener soon senses that this was music never intended for  dancing. The second piece, “Al la Serenade,” dwells on the grotesque in keeping with Schulhoff’s Dada roots, and is replete with strummings and pluckings. The third movement is a vigorous dance, evoking Czech folk music, reminiscent of Bartok. The fourth movement, the longest of the set, is a sexy, slinky Tango, reflective of his earthy personality. The final movement is a properly frenetic tarantella.

II) Krasa’s Theme and Variations for String Quartet displays the composer’s natural charm. The variations are based more on the theme’s melodic structure, rather than being derived from any of its harmonic or motivic elements. That is to say, the variations are based on the whole theme itself, rather than any of its individual parts. The theme is a gentle march tune which is slightly varied in the somewhat faster Variation I. Variation II is lively scherzo which is followed by the calmer Variation III, a quiet lullaby. Variation IV is a serenade and features a long transition in preparation for the complete change of character to follow. Variation V, Quasi Fantasia begins abstractly with hints of jazz and then builds to a majestic climax. The lively Finale, Variation IV, treats the theme in an energetic contrapuntal fashion. The work closes with a peaceful coda evocative of Hollywood film music

III) The String Quartet No. 3 by Viktor Ullmann is perhaps the “darkest” work on the program. Composed in 1943, while Ullmann was imprisoned at Theresienstadt, the work often reflects the ominous emotional undercurrent that undoubtedly pervaded the activities of this concentration camp that the Nazi masqueraded as a “Summer Camp” for Jews. Though composed in a single movement, it presents, somewhat reshuffled, all the elements of the traditional string quartet: Sonata-Allegro,  slow movement, Scherzo, and concluding Rondo. Moments of warmth and energy give way to forceful anger, bitterness, and frustration. At other moments, one may hear a fleeting bird call, though giving way, ultimately, to the horrific nightmare that was Ullmann’s life at that time. Scheduled for premier at Theresienstadt in the fall of 1944, Ullman never heard his work performed, as he and three other prominent composers, including Krasa, were all transferred to Auschitwitz and gassed between October 14-16.

IV) Zemlinsky’s String Quartet No.1 dates from 1896. Though not as innovative as Debussy’s String Quartet composed three years earlier, it remains one of the more important chamber works written before the advent of the Second Vienna School and 12 tone music. In this work, some claim that Zemlinsky freed himself from much of Brahms’ influence. I would say rather, that Zemlinsky here followed exactly in Brahms path. In fact, I might also add that, given the work’s beauty and charm, that he “out-Brahmsed” Brahms, himself. The bright first movement, Allegro con fuoco, opens almost abruptly. Characterized by highly accented and syncopated rhythms, a more lyrical second theme smoothes some of the rough edges away. The second movement, Allegretto, begins with a simple folk-like melody. Suddenly, a stormy middle section full of excitement and interesting rhythms blossoms forth into a wild and ferocious gypsy dance. The third movement, Breit und Kraftig, commences with a ‘broad and powerful’ processional slowly progressing to the lovely and highly romantic second theme. The heroic and buoyant finale, Vivace e con fuoco, is one of the glories of late romantic chamber music, full of original thematic ideas, wonderfully executed.


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About Declining Symphony Orchestra Attendance

Wednesday, February 1st, 2012

In response to the question about declining symphony orchestra attendance, as a music professional and long time Philadelphia Orchestra listener, subscriber, and supporter I would initially submit the following factors:

1. Less than exciting and passionate, “Ho-Hum” concerts

  1. Some orchestra members may adopt a “DO NO HARM” attitude while aspiring to the technically “perfect” performances demanded by many current conductors. This attitude is hardly conducive to “inspired” music making!
  2. Long performing seasons may also have an effect: Some key players, especially in the winds and brass, may feel the need to play less than “full out” and to “pace” themselves in order to maintain a high performing standard. In the string section, pervasive use of “subs” may address performance tedium but certainly does not enhance orchestral cohesion and unity. This begs the question: “Does a less demanding schedule allow for more optimum performance conditions?” Then, If so, would it follow that declining attendance and revenues would, ironically, create better performing conditions, i.e., fewer concerts?
  3. Today’s audiences have lost touch with what great music and what its performance is all about. I would advise reviewing audio and video recordings of the great orchestras and great conductors of the past. While not always up to today’s technical standards, the sheer life, energy, and passion in many of these older recordings are much more stimulating to  perceptive audiences than today’s more polished, but often lifeless performance practices.
  4. The net result of the previous (ABOVE) seems to be a condition I would call the “General Motors effect.”

Q: How do we sell more cars? (concert tickets)

A: Make better cars! (better, more inspiring concerts)

2. Questionable management decisions 

For instance, how has the continuous parade of conductors the Philadelphia Orchestra had in the last 25 years–after Ormandy and Stokowski—affected the ensemble? And why is this condition allowed to persist, especially when we have seen the positive results of a superior permanent conductor? Also, conductors should be willing to demand not only technical perfection, but also some exciting, risk taking raw emotion. To be fair, however, it should be acknowledged that, more recently, the orchestra has given more stimulating and exciting concerts. Hopefully, Yannick will have staying power and help turn the tide of the orchestra’s fortunes. Perhaps management can demand that a music director/conductor be not so profligate and commit to our orchestra.

3. Lack of education about, and exposure to classical music 


  1. We have today, in general, a less musically educated audience. Today’s younger listeners are largely unable or unwilling to understand or perceive the great beauty and emotional depth of the great classic works. One is competing with computers, cell phones, and hand held devices which give immediate, but not substantive gratification.
  2. Of course, this problem extends to educators, as well. Some K-12 school principals, University presidents, deans, etc. are either clueless or have a superficial understanding about the residual effects, nature, and value of participating in or learning about classical music and the other fine and performing arts. Many schools have dropped music education (as well as the other arts) from their curriculum, pulling away from the holistic, Humanities approach, refusing to see the value of, and need for the integration of the Arts, Humanities, and Sciences for a ‘complete’ individual. What is the message we convey to our next generations of performers/listeners when music/arts education is dropped or marginalized from the curriculum, or constantly made to seem expendable?
  3. Rebuild our young audiences with a “hip” Young Audience membership: There needs to be more effort to make classical music a more integral part of the culture of more youthful audience. There was a time when it was considered the “thing to do” to go to a Philadelphia Orchestra concert.

4. New Music Quandary: Lack of emotional depth or maturity in contemporary classical music

While some progress is evident, many contemporary composers are too often concerned with current stylistic trends or techniques. While I would never argue the need for musical innovation or exploration, composers seem not to have been taught that the main goal is the mature expression of emotion and meaning through the true integration of stylistic, formal, and technical musical elements. Though not to suggest that all new music is devoid of meaningful content, I would broadly catagorize much of what I’ve heard in recent years in the following terms:

  1. Noisemakers –  Such music may be energetic, but somewhat like a jet engine: all the parts are moving simultaneously creating a visceral excitement…but does one really want to stand in front listening?
  2. Alms for the Poor –  This music may offer “slivers” or “snippets” of melody or meaning which musically deprived audiences may gratefully hang onto and devour like starving prisoners grasping at crumbs.
  3. Minimal Music: Minimal Effort – Music that constantly repeats the same patterns over and over again until these patterns are literally imprinted on the audience’s minds, a la Pavlov. The audience, then, responds by “liking” this music, whether they like it or not!

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