Elgar’s “The Dream of Gerontius” – Rising from the Ashes

Edward Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius is frequently regarded as his masterpiece—a towering oratorio noted for its complex score and profound religious message.  In the autograph score, Elgar wrote the work represented “the best of me,” and countless listeners have agreed with him.

It is, quite simply, one of the greatest spiritual dramas ever written.

Gerontius is based on Cardinal Henry John Newman’s epic poem of the same name, which traces the journey of the soul from death to its arrival before the Throne of God in a vivid dramatization of Catholic theology.  Along the way it explores some of the greatest questions of the human experience: what is our purpose? What is a good life? And what is the nature of God?  But the score is so vividly drawn, and filled with such fascinating incidents and memorable characterizations that it never feels like a religious lesson or a string of platitudes.

Unfortunately, the work is still something of a concert rarity in the US—quite a contrast to the situation in Britain, where it generally considered a national treasure, and performed almost with the same regularly as Handel’s Messiah is here.  For listeners coming to a performance on this side of the pond, this represent a double-edged sword.  On the one hand, they will be able to experience this lush, late-Romantic score completely fresh and without preconceptions.  The danger is that because it is such a dense, many-layered score that some of its complexities will be lost.

I have the pleasure of performing Gerontius this spring with the Minnesota Orchestra, Minnesota Chorale and a crack team of soloists under the direction of Edo De Waart, and it has been a thrill getting to know this sublime score.  Allow me to share some insights to help new listeners understand it better. Continue reading

The 10 Greatest Works of the 20th Century

A while back, I ran across an interesting tidbit on my Facebook feed: Pierre Boulez’s list of the 10 greatest works of classical music in the 20th Century. Boulez, for those who aren’t immediately familiar with him, is a hugely influential/controversial composer, conductor, performer, and writer who has long been associated with the avantiest of avant-garde music.

I was intrigued to read his top 10 list—as he was at the epicenter of 20th Century music, his insights are invaluable. But in looking them over, I found myself in disagreement with several of his choices.

Naturally, I decided to come up with my own list. Continue reading

Music for Rio—Celebrating the Music of Heitor Villa-Lobos

The Olympic Games are set to open in Rio de Janeiro—the first time a South American country is hosting them.  In honor of this event, I wanted to share a bit of Brazilian culture.

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Brazil is, of course, a major musical center, and has contributed much to the world music scene.  That said, Brazil is most famous for its popular music… dances like the samba or bossa nova.  Brazil’s dance tradition is so magnificent, it’s easy to forget that it has made great contributions to the world of classical music, too.

And while there have been many classically-trained composers over Brazil’s 500-year history, none has had the popularity or impact of Heitor Villa-Lobos.

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Villa-Lobos is a curious character, with a life of contradictions.  He was essentially self-taught, and had a contentious relationship with standard music theory… yet he always aspired to write symphonies, concertos, string quartets, and Grand Opera.  As a boy he scratched out a living as a street musician in Rio de Janiero but ultimately rose to become a national hero. He traveled extensively, but always kept Brazil in his heart.

He was, quite simply, an original.

Getting to know Villa-Lobos’s music is a bit of a challenge.  He was incredibly prolific, writing more than 2,000 works before his death in 1959.  Given the vast quantities of music, some works feel like they were dashed off in a careless rush or tossed off on deadline.  Moreover, he had the reputation of being musically restless—choosing to jump to new works rather than edit those he finished.  In this, he was the mirror opposite of his contemporary Jean Sibelius, who often revised his works so thoroughly that the works he ultimately published were quite different from those heard at the premiere.

The result is that Villa-Lobos’s works can come off as sprawling, riotous and untamed.

But that is exactly why they are so exciting.

At his best, Villa-Lobos was a master of fusing classical forms with the sounds, rhythms, and instruments of Brazil.  His music literally teems with the street sounds of Rio, from bird calls and African street music to the sound of traffic and vendor’s cries. It is music that explodes with vitality and resolutely refuses to be tamed.  Moreover, he was brilliant at creating soundscapes… pulling sounds out of an orchestra that had never been heard before.

Curious to know more?  Here are some recommendations, grouped in a few key categories. Enjoy! Continue reading

Remembering Rautavaara and His Music

Today I learned some sad news—the passing of Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara at age 87.  I’m saddened by the loss, as he was not just a brilliant composer, but one of my favorites.  Long-time readers may remember that I’ve referenced his music many times here on my blog, and included his Angel of Light symphony on my list of the greatest works of the 20th century.

I first ran across his music through a recording of his breakout hit, Symphony No. 7, Angel of Light.  It was one of those gripping works that, while thoroughly modern, was written in a thoroughly approachable manner and contained a profound, palpable spirituality.  I started tracking down other works, which was made easy by the heroic efforts of the Finnish label Ondine—a company committed to releasing recordings of his new works nearly as soon as the ink was dry on the page.

As I’ve mentioned before, I had the good fortune to hear the world premiere of his Harp Concerto in 2000, performed by none other the Osmo Vänskä and the Minnesota Orchestra.  It was Osmo’s first performance with the Orchestra, some years before being appointed Music Director.  The inclusion of a world premiere by one of my favorite composers, coupled with a performance of Sibelius’s Sixth Symphony (one of my all-time favorite works of music) sealed the deal for me; even though I was living in Kansas at the time, I drove eight hours each way to hear the concert, and felt it was more than worth it.

Rautavaara’s career spanned many decades, and encompassed many different styles. To honor his life and music, allow me to share a few recommendations, for those who might wish to know him better. Continue reading

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

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.

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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