Remembering Memorial Day, 2016

Today is Memorial Day in the United States—a day of reflection to honor those who lost their lives in war.

Photo by Rogelio V. Solis.

To commemorate this day, and the sacrifice of our fallen heroes, I offer up Ralph Vaughan Williams’s A Pastoral Symphony (Symphony No. 3).  It was written while the composer was in active duty in France during the First World War, and captures his experiences there. But for having been conceived during the war, it is almost the antithesis of wartime music. Instead of marches, percussion and martial fanfares, the Pastoral Symphony is a work of memory and regret; through it, Vaughan Williams laments the loss of many personal friends, as well as an entire generation. It is haunting… yet gorgeous.


Rest in peace. A grateful nation remembers.




Review: The Minnesota Opera’s “The Shining”

The Minnesota Opera just unleashed The Shining—a new opera based on the novel by Stephen King.  And in a word, it was spectacular.  It was the kind of success that most companies dream about, not just in terms of artistry, but in connecting with the community.  For weeks it was the most talked about event in town, and it sold out the entire run weeks before opening night.

Sadly, the run has come to an end… but allow me to provide a review for those unable to secure a ticket. Continue reading

A Guide to Horror Operas, for Those Who Loved “The Shining”

This month the Minnesota Opera pulled off a major coup with its staging the world premiere of The Shining—and opera based on Stephen King’s bestselling novel with music by Paul Moravec and libretto by Mark Campbell.  The opera was a major success and became the Twin Cities’ hottest ticket, selling out the entire run weeks before the show opened.

Part of The Shining’s success was in bringing out people who were not opera regulars, many of whom expressed surprise that someone would turn a horror novel into an opera.  To those folks I responded, “There’s plenty more where that came from!” Opera has long embraced stories dealing with supernatural evil in all shapes and sizes.

For those newbies who loved The Shining, and are curious to explore similar operas, here’s my top 10 recommendations for “horror” operas to tide you over. Enjoy! Continue reading

Thoughts on the Met’s “Box Office Slide” and its Implications

Last week the New York Times’s published article on how to fill the empty seats over at the Metropolitan Opera—a piece that I responded to yesterday.  Shortly after the original article appeared, writer Michael Cooper published a companion article in the Times to give a bit of context to the situation, and provide a deeper analysis about why those seats were empty in the first place.  Based on the Met’s financial data, interviews with the Met’s General Manager Peter Gelb and Opera America’s Marc Scorca, and reports by the National Endowment for the Arts, he sees the Met’s drop in ticket sales as part of a larger decline in participation in the arts going on across the country.

I greatly respect his writing and his sourcing, and fully understand his point.  But based on my own experience, and my own dives into the data, I have a somewhat different take on the situation. Continue reading

On Filling the Met Opera’s Empty Seats

Last week, the New York Times featured a major piece looking at the ongoing challenges facing the Metropolitan Opera.  The key question it tackled—a question that perennially haunts the dreams of all performing arts organizations—was how the Met could fill all those empty seats, performance after performance?  Most of the Times’s top critics weighed in, offering a lightning round of suggestions on how to put “butts in seats.”

Sparked by the Times’s article, many others took up this question as well.  For example, La Cieca over at shared some additional recommendations of how to increase ticket sales.  The discussion has continued among groups online, via Twitter, and even here in Minnesota; one local news organization, MinnPost, actually put forward a hilarious parody video showing what happens when an orchestra follows the advice of consultants to boost ticket sales.  Days later Times itself published a follow-up article by Michael Cooper, purporting to look at the root causes of the Met’s box office woes.  Everyone seems to have an opinion on this topic.

Well, the Met Opera hasn’t asked for my thoughts (this isn’t entirely a surprise—due to my coverage of the Met’s contentious contract negotiations a few years back, I’m sure Peter Gelb thinks of me as The Harlot of Babylon), but since everyone else is chiming in, I feel like I should add my two cents too.  Continue reading

Music to Celebrate Cinco de Mayo

Happy Cinco de Mayo!

It’s a curious holiday with a curious history—it commemorates the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862, between the Mexican army and invading French forces sent by Napoleon III, who hoped to conquer the country and bring it into France’s orbit.




The French troops landed at Veracruz and marched inland toward Mexico City. Mexican forces, who had been beaten badly in a series of skirmishes, retreated back to the heavily fortified city of Puebla.  The French commander, beleiving he could end the Mexicans’ resistance with a single stroke, chose to attack the city from the north.  It was a costly mistake.  The Mexican defenders held, and as the French pulled back Mexican cavalry flanked them and turned the retreat into a rout.

The world expected the French to easily conquer the country, and the Mexicans’ unexpected victory served as a huge morale boost for the beleaguered defenders.   That said, the success was only temporary; the French regrouped, and with the arrival of additional troops were able to win the Second Battle of Puebla in 1863.  The French moved on to capture Mexico City, and where they installed Emperor Maximillian as a pro-French puppet.  This “Mexican Empire” survived until 1867, when Mexican forces under Benito Juárez defeated the last remnants of the French army and had Maximillian executed.

With this background, it’s easy to see why Cinco de Mayo remains more of a mid-level holiday in Mexico today—it was a plucky, momentary victory on the eve of a large-scale defeat.  In truth, the holiday is mostly celebrated in and around Puebla itself.

That said, Cinco de Mayo has taken on a new life north of the border, where it remains a major holiday among Mexican-Americans.  Here, it is a festive expression of cultural pride and the honoring of cultural symbols; in this way, it shares strong similarities to St. Patrick’s Day, which is a much larger event in the US than it is in Ireland.

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Mexico is an intensely musical place; it is the home of a wonderful range of musical styles and forms, in both popular and “formal” styles.  In the spirit of today’s holiday, allow me to share some recommendations of works in a more classical vein. Continue reading

Brahms’ “A German Requiem”—A Visionary Masterpiece

The Requiem.  The ancient Mass for the Dead.

Few texts have had a more enduring, more profound impact on Western Culture.  Originally sung as part of the funeral rites performed in the Roman Catholic Church, the Requiem is now fused into our collective memory… quietly with us whether we’re Catholic or not.

The impact of the Requiem is particularly clear in Western Music, where settings of the Requiem Mass have formed an important part of choral music from the Middle Ages to today.  A vast number of composers from Palestrina to Andrew Lloyd Webber have penned a Requiem, even if they weren’t Catholic—or particularly religious at all.  It’s easy to see why; the Requiem text, like the ritual it is drawn from, is so broadly recognized that it provides as a easily-understood starting point to explore universal questions of life, death, and life after death.

In composing a Requiem, there are several approaches that composers have taken.  On the one hand, there those that emphasize the dramatic nature of the words, focusing on anger at our loss, the fear of the unknown, or our terror of Final Judgment.  The Requiems of Hector Berlioz and Giuseppe Verdi are the best-known examples of this train of thought.  On the other hand, there are those that emphasize notions of comfort, solace, and a spiritual release as the deceased is gathered up by a merciful God—the Requiems of Gabriel Fauré and Maurice Duruflé represent this tradition.  Or, the composer could adopt an “interrupted” approach where outside texts are added in to provide additional reflections or to comment on the traditional liturgy. Benjamin Britten uses this approach in his War Requiem, inserting war poems by Wilfred Owens that provide deeper layers of meaning to the ritualized Latin text, and make a broader statement about the horrors of war.

Still, while these approaches seem very different, they still share a common base—they all focus attention on the deceased individual(s) and place them the center of the unfolding religious drama.  It is a ritual for and about the dead.

How different this is from Brahms’s approach in A German Requiem. Continue reading