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Richard Wagner

Monday, July 24, 2017


My Classical Notes

July 16

Hamburg’s New Concert Hall

My Classical NotesIt is definitive news when a new building for the performing arts opens its doors. No, not in the US. Rather, this is a brand new building in Hamburg, Germany. The Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg presented its Grand Opening Concert with performances of the following works: Beethoven: Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125 ‘Choral’: Ode to joy Britten: Six Metamorphoses after Ovid for solo oboe, Op. 49 Caccini, G: Amarilli mia bella Cavalieri: La Pellegrina: Dalle piu alte sfere Dutilleux: Mystère de l’instant: Appels, Échos et Prismes Liebermann, R: Furioso for Orchestra Messiaen: Turangalîla Symphony: Finale Praetorius, Jacob: Quam Pulchra es a 5 Rihm: Reminiszenz – Triptychon und Spruch in memoriam Hans Henny Jahnn Wagner: Parsifal: Prelude to Act 1 Zimmermann, B A: Photoptosis – Prelude for large orchestra, with Philippe Jaroussky, Sir Bryn Terfel, Wiebke Lehmkuhl, Pavol Breslik, Hanna-Elisabeth Müller NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchester, Ensemble Praetorius, NDR Choir, and the Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks, Thomas Hengelbrock conducting. The Elbphilharmonie is undoubtedly the new landmark of Hamburg, a monumental combination of breath-taking architecture, a unique location and a world-class concert hall. In this recording, the NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchestra, under the baton of Principal Conductor Thomas Hengelbrock, and several top-class soloists explore the possibilities of the Elbphilharmonie’s Grand Hall and its acoustics with an exciting program that spans across all musical eras, from the Renaissance to the present. It culminates in a brand-new commissioned work, created especially for this occasion by the most important living German composer. BONUS: This documentary accompanies the formation process of this grand building, from the first sketches, to the rehearsals before itS festive inauguration. Here is Gustavo Dudamel, conducting the Symphony number 9 by Beethoven at the Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg:

Norman Lebrecht - Slipped disc

Today

Sir Peter Jonas makes his Bayreuth stage debut

The former director of English National Opera and Bavarian State Opera will take the stage at Bayreuth later today to deliver a homage to Wieland Wagner in the centennial year of his birth. This is not just the first time Peter takes a solo bow the Bayreuth stage. It may also be the first time Wieland has been mentioned on stage since his brother Wolfgang erased all trace of his work after his death in 1966.




On An Overgrown Path

July 20

No big bearded imam was going to tell me music was haram

That header photo shows the British Muslim musician Ali Keeler playing with his Al Firdaus Ensemble. The status of music in Islam - forbidden or permissible - is frequently discussed and almost as frequently misunderstood. So I thought it useful to share an extract from an unpublished memoir by Ian Whiteman who was multi-instrumentalist for the mod band The Action and the Sufi-influenced cult psychedelic folk rock band Mighty Baby in the 1960s. Ian went on to make what is, to use a tired and devalued label, an inexplicably neglected masterpiece, the one-off album If Man But Knew by the Habibiyya. In 1971 Ian converted to Islam and became a member of the celebrated Bristol Gardens/Wood Dalling Sufi zawiya founded by the controversial Abdalqadir as-Sufi who later wrote an Islamic interpretation of Wagner's music. After converting to Islam Ian Whiteman took the name Abdallateef and as Abdallateef Whiteman has established a considerable reputation in the Muslim world as a graphic designer. He now lives in Andalusia where together with Ali Keeler and other local musicians he contributes to recording of Islamic sacred music such as the Rawdat al-Shuhuda’ which I praised recently. In 1994 I was invited to participate in a symposium at the Royal College of Music in London, on the subject “Music in Islam: Permissible or Forbidden”. Two of the speakers were pro music and two hard line against, with myself in the middle trying to have an open mind, and not really knowing much about it either, other than that I knew what I liked and what I didn’t. Music had played an enormously positive part in my life and no big bearded imam was going to tell me otherwise, but I also knew the dangers of music having seen the music business in tooth and claw. We had on the panel one bearded Imam who spoke very much against it and I couldn’t see much light in what he was saying but he did speak a lot about the Fire. His speech had a palpably depressing effect on the symposium. It was just a rant citing the prophetic tradition about how music when accompanied by drinking and fornication was not permissible. But I knew enough to know that traditions can be very misleading and taken out of context can be made to mean almost the opposite of what they appear. The other speaker, who was attacking music was an English convert who had been a musician at one time also spoke about sinister pop recordings which if played backwards spelled out evil incantations. Those who spoke in defense of music quoted Al-Ghazali and declared therefore its permissibility. There are of course prophetic traditions which seem to defend music in principle as well but I won’t go into that. It is certainly not even mentioned in the Qur’an, the highest legal authority, so on a scale of seriousness it is not even up there with even minor legal infractions which are mentioned in the Qur’an. The truth is that to most scholars it’s not even important – just a matter of taste. My belief was that music in the company of people seeking spiritual elevation or enjoining good was therefore not only acceptable but a virtue. Music was a passive force which could be used for whatever you wished whether good or bad. I knew the dangers of music, the most obvious being just bad music. It would be like saying speech was forbidden because some people used it profanely. This literalism is deep in the mind set of some people, some scholars included, and is not unconnected to some of the serious problems that beset Muslims and the general public in the 21st century. When a young man untrained in Islamic sciences, with resentments and grudges, gets hold of a book of traditions translated into English he will make enormous presumptions and errors. It has been likened to a man doing brain surgery only having read an article on the Internet. It’s dangerous for everyone concerned and in the case of Islam, lethal. Ali Keeler who sings with Ian Whiteman and others on the Rawdat al-Shuhuda’ recording is a classically trained violinist and my 2015 interview with him attracted considerable attention. Ali shares Ian Whitman's belief that music in the right context is not only acceptable but a virtue, and like Ian he believes that the definition of 'right context' must be flexible to connect with the zeitgeist. As well as contributing to recordings of sacred Islamic music and being a highly respected exponent of tajwid, the art of Quran recitation, Ali actively explores wider musical contexts. In the 1990s he played on two of the albums by the trip hop group Archive and much more recently he has developed a unique and globally accessible brand of Celtic-tinged Andalusian Sufi music with his Al Firdaus Ensemble. In this his violin and voice is joined by the Spanish cellist Salma Vives, and from Morocco qanun player Yusuf Mezghildi and percussionist Omar Benlamlih; the two accompanying photos taken by me at an Al Firdaus gig show the four musicians, and one of their Sufi musical earworms can be sampled below. Safa, the first album from Al Firdaus Ensemble has remained high on my playlist for months and now it has been joined by their second album Nur - which translates from Arabic as 'The Light'. The new album delivers more of Al Firdaus' catchy and unique brand of Celtic-tinged Sufism, but with new more commercial and upbeat sound that is suffused with the sonic equivalent of Andalusian sunshine. Nur is available as a download from Amazon and iTunes and a taster video is below. It is very easy to dismiss Ali Keeler's music and my frequent posts about non-Western music as multicultural hot button fodder that is subservient to the pseudo events which dominate Western culture. But such an attitude is foolish and myopic. My interview with Ali Keeler ranks as the fourth most widely read in this blog's twelve year history. Contributing to this was a tweet by the British-Iranian singer/composer Sami Yusuf. Now Sami Yusuf's name may not mean much to those steeped in the Western classical tradition, but he is a very big property in global markets. To illustrate this, Alex Ross has 106,000 Twitter followers, Sami Yusuf has 769,000. Those who chant the mantra that Western classical music needs new markets should note that Shelina Janmohamed's recent book Generation M: Young Muslims Changing the World points out that the global Muslim population is growing more than twice as quickly as overall world population growth. Of 11 countries forecast to join the elite club of economic superpowers this century, six have a dominant Muslim majority and two substantial Muslim minorities. Two-thirds of Muslims are under the age of 30, representing a huge and rapidly growing market. And those who prefer humanitarian to commercial ideals should note that Al Firdaus have taken their multi-cultural music to countries as diverse as Indonesia and the United States, with a Washington Post reviewer writing "Their music is far from political. It’s all about beauty and faith and peace and devotion..." I am grateful to Ian Whiteman for making the manuscript of his unpublished memoir Average Whiteman available to me. My copy of Nur was purchased via the the LaunchGood crowdfunding platform. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also on Facebook and Twitter.



Classical iconoclast

July 10

Abendstern Tannhäuser - Bayerische Staatsoper Munich

Wagner Tannhäuser at the Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich  with Klaus Florian Vogt, Christian Gerhaher, Anja Harteros and Georg Zeppenfeld, conducted by Kiril Petrenko.  That the singing was brilliant is no surprise, since these singers are so familiar that what they do isn't "news", though I'll write more later.  What was a surprise was the staging, or rather the thought that went into the dramaturgy.  The Overture seemed to make no sense at all. Venusberg represents unbridled sexual excess. Wagner's description is unashamedly explicit - Sirens are bathing - naked - in waters pouring from a cave hidden by cliffs, lit in lurid flesh tones. A vagina !  Modern audiences couldn't cope. Yet here we saw maidens in Grecian garb, as elegant as marble figures.  An Abendstern Venusberg ? "Wie Todesahnung, Dämm'rung deckt die Lande,umhüllt das Tal mit schwärzlichem Gewande". Venusberg aping Wartburg ? Upside down, I thought, at first.  But maybe that was the point. Venusberg and Wartburg represent opposite poles. Venusberg symbolizes sex, creativity, and life : Wartburg symbolizes denial and death. Which, in fact is more "pure"?  Thus the Cupids around Venus's couch are unformed blobs of flesh : a shocking image, but again that might be the point.  Venusberg is tainted. Tannhäuser needs to get away if he is to develop.   In Tannhäuser, Wagner develops his ideas on the role of art in life. Tannhäuser is a precursor of Walter von Stoltzing, the two Siegfrieds and Parsifal, who don't spring fully formed from the start.  Hence the Sirens at Venusberg, firing arrows, an image that doesn't make sense til we journey awhile with the production.  If you don't know what you're shooting at, don't shoot ! You might just be wrong. Wagner's heroes start out thinking they know everything. They only grow when they learn to learn.  Nothing wrong with that, as Wagner shows.  In our own time, when anti-intellectual populism prevails, Wagner's message is frighteningly prescient.  Like the Knights of the Grail, the Knights of Wartburg are aggressively insular, blocking out ideas other than their own, resenting dissent.  Tannhäuser could have an easy life playing their games, but he chooses not to, striking out on his own. He searches for truth whatever the forces against him. And Elisabeth sides with him, sacrificing herself.  Tannhäuser may never unlock his Grail, but redeems himself because he has vision. For Wagner, religion "is" art, so the quest for artistic integrity can never end.   An artists seeks enlightenment, not playing to the crowd.  The Pope rejects Tannhäuser but Tannhäuser doesn't need the Pope  Thus the Grail Knights dessicate until they learn compassion. What will happen to Wolfram and the Knights of Wartburg with their sterile dreams and inhibitions ? An insular community based on denial, and hatred of women in particular, isn't conducive to creativity.  The best Tannhauser I've ever heard live was Johann Botha (read my tribute here)   Klaus Florian Vogt comes pretty close : two voices of exceptional beauty and purity.  In fact, I can't think of any time when I haven't loved what Vogt's done, even outside opera.  Fortunately, the action in this production was understated  - "Abendstern" stillness - so we could savour the voice and its subtle nuances.  Vogt's voice is glorious, but he can convey Tannhauser's weariness, suffering and, at last, humility."0 Wolfram, der du also sangest, du hast die Liebe arg entstellt!"  and later "Hör an, Wolfram, hör an! Inbrunst im Herzen, wie kein Büsser noch sie je gefühlt, sucht' ich den Weg nach Rom"  When Tannhauser sings like that, Wolfram is eclipsed.  Even in small, trelatively unobtrusive moments, Vogt excels "Heilige Elisabeth, bitte für mich! "  The voice is luminous, Vogt;'s face glowing as if lit from within. .  Christian Gerhaher is the Wolfram of choice these days, after his  astonishing breakthrough in the part seven years ago.  He's had his ups and down in recent years, so it was good to hear him back on form here : much better than in Vienna in 2015 though not quite as astounding as in London.  I've been listening to him since he was young and unknown, nearly fifteen years ago and have his first CD.  He's an opera fan's idea of a Lieder singer, better in opera than in art song, though it would be nice if he'd broaden his repertoire.  I'd like to hear Matthias Goerne as Wolfram in the alternative cast, with a darker, more mysterious timbre.  Anja Harteros we hear a lot of live, too.  So what if she doesn't do the Met ? The European market is huge, the population's coming up to 750 million.  Rich as her voice is, there's a sensitivity to her singing, which suits houses like Munich and London (ROH capacity 2200). She's an unusual Elisabeth, but interesting. Elisabeth's a strong, independent minded person who stands up to the bullies in her community.  Harteros's Elisabeth is no warrior. Her weapon is prayer. Hence the air of humility which Harteros brings to the part expand characterization, and makes the role even more sympathetic.  Georg Zeppenfeld, another much loved regular, creates a firceful Hermann, Landgraf von Thüringen.  Unlike Wolfram and the other Knights, The Landgraf is decisive : a Gurnemanz, a leader among conformists.  Elena Pankratova 's Venus was full throated and voluptuous. As always, minor parts and chorus at the Bayerische Staatsoper are wonderfully cast. Kiril Petrenko conducted. The Overture and other orchestral passages were written to accommodate dancers, so a certain amount of rhythmic liveliness is in order, In many productions, the dancing is much more exuberant : Venus hosts orgies, and her sirens dance in order to seduce.  Petrenko's tempi were on the slow side, more langorous than orgasmic, but coolness works better with the "Abendstern" imagery, and the idea of the Moon. (Wagner would,of course have been familiar with Goethe and his relationship with the Duchess of Weimar.)  The orchestral playing was well judged and rather elegant, again matching the marble and silk stylishness of the staging.  I would have like more punch in the Pilgrimage music to emphasize these of movement and physical travail.  Still, in music as good as this, there's plenty of room for interpretation. Excellence from Munich is pretty much the norm. What's "news" is the staging,. It's controversial because it's not simplistic, and can be unsettling. Lots of stylized symbolism and abstraction, but also a lot of detail to reward careful observation.  Plinths with key words like "Kunst" spell things out to make things clear.  Amidst the sterile orderliness, a glass case with squirming, indistinct objects, like trapped life forms.   Rocks are seen, from which gold can be extracted - a metaphor for Tannhäuser's development as man and artist. The Knights of Wartburg are seen wrapped in white, like nuns and curtains like shrouds. This is by no means as strange as it seems, since they are a mystical order, vowed to purity and self denial.  To Wagner and to Tannhäuser, asceticism, is living death, a rejection of creative growth.  The Knights don't know what they're missing because they block out the world.  That's why they're so scared when Tannhäuser praises Venus.  Tannhäuser and Elisabeth sing toi each other in front of tomb-like structures with the names "Klaus" and "Anja" carved thereon. An interesting if quirky way of reinforcing the idea that art is an act of creative imagination, made by living people.  The director, Romeo Castellucci is new to me. He seems to do a lot of theatre work, hence perhaps the formal, stylized abstraction of the designs, costumes and lighting.  Much more intriguing, though is the thought that clearly went into the dramaturgy, by Piersandra Di Matteo and Malte Krasting. Opera is more than ear candy. Especially Wagner opera, for whom ideas, drama and the human condition were inextricably linked.  These days the word "concept" is used as a swear word, but all it means us joined up thinking, connecting different ideas, examining things from different perspectives. Di Matteo and Krasting understand how the music connects to ideas, and how this opera connects to Wagner's other work and even extra musical concepts like classical antiquity. The staging nis a lot closer to the libretto than meets the eye.  Tannhäuser is allegory, a fantasy, a work of art about art.  How else does a medieval German hook up with a Greek Goddess ?  Art doesn't exist in a vacuum : the more you put in yourself, the more you get.  And as Tannhäuser discovered, an artist needs to create to live, to keep learning and keep, developing.  He chose the more difficult path to Rome. The Pope didn't understand, but too bad.  His loss, not Tannhäuser's.

Richard Wagner
(1813 – 1883)

Richard Wagner (22 May 1813 - 13 February 1883) was a German composer, conductor, theatre director and essayist, primarily known for his operas (or "music dramas", as they were later called). Wagner's compositions, particularly those of his later period, are notable for their complex texture, rich harmonies and orchestration, and the elaborate use of leitmotifs: musical themes associated with individual characters, places, ideas or plot elements. Unlike most other opera composers, Wagner wrote both the music and libretto for every one of his stage works. Initially establishing his reputation as a composer of works such as The Flying Dutchman and Tannhäuser which were in the romantic traditions of Weber and Meyerbeer, Wagner transformed operatic thought through his concept of the "total work of art". This would achieve the synthesis of all the poetic, visual, musical and dramatic arts, and was announced in a series of essays between 1849 and 1852. Wagner realised this concept most fully in the first half of the monumental four-opera cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen. His Tristan und Isolde is sometimes described as marking the start of modern music. He had his own opera house built, the Bayreuth Festspielhaus, which contained many novel design features. It was here that the Ring and Parsifal received their premieres and where his most important stage works continue to be performed today in an annual festival run by his descendants.



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