Sunday, December 20, 2020

Julie Andrews, Andre Previn, and one wild Firestone album

Today I put up my Christmas tree and I am going to kick off an exploration of Christmas music.

Our pick today is Julie Andrews and Andre Previn teaming up for a Firestone classic!

Christmas is really a magical time of year when you listen to anything from the 1950s and '60s. This album, I know it inside out, from when I was a little kid. My brothers and sisters and I listened to it ALL THE TIME over the holiday season. This, and other Firestone records. They are all great. But I want to zero in today on this one.

Of course as kids we loved Julie Andrews. And we loved this record. I listened to it today as I assembled my, ahem, Kmart artificial tree, and put lights on it. It all came back to me. "Joy to the... joy to the .... Joy to the ... joy to the..." sang the Firestone Chorus at the beginning of "Joy To The World." We used to laugh ourselves silly over that.

 And we used to love Julie Andrews doing her number on "Deck the Halls" with harpsichord backing her up, and who knows what else.

These arrangements by Andre Previn!

That is what I am appreciating now!

As a kid, I do remember we liked this album. But his arrangements were over our head. Now I listen to them and I see what he is doing, and I love them. I know a little bit about Previn because Leonard Pennario worked with him. They did a great album of Rachmaninoff concertos. Here is the cover.

A couple of nice looking gentlemen there.

What do you know, that album dates to 1965, the same year as this Firestone album. That was a good year for Previn!

You can tell just by listening to his Christmas creations that Previn loved the heck out of Richard Strauss, who at the time was only recently deceased. He lifted stuff from "Rosenkavalier" for half the album. You hear the Presentation of the Rose in "Away in a Manger." And later you hear the famous waltzes. It might have been in "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear" but I did not take notes, I was too tangled up in my Christmas lights. The point is, he does it so well. You would think it would be annoying but it is not.

He also gives you a lot of Handel. Even as kids we could recognize that. And he just throws in a lot of surprises and boldness and fun. As Julie Andrews is singing "Jingle Bells," the orchestra just breaks out in squalls all over the place. It is like unpredictable wild Buffalo weather. "Jingle Bells" ends the album. Julie Andrews soars up to some incredible high note on the last "sleigh." And then the orchestra blasts in with this big honk.

So much fun! Too sophisticated for kids maybe, but great for grown-ups, people into jazz and Handel and Richard Strauss. Previn is a great jazz pianist and we will have to get to that another day.

For now, grab this album and put it on your stereo, whether you are isolated or not. What a great mid-century creation it is.

It is a classic!

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

Beethoven turns 250

 Today being Beethoven's 250th birthday, people are calling on me to make a statement.

 What do you say on such a momentous occasion?

Two hundred fifty years!!

Maybe what I will say as a statement is, I can name a few of the Beethoven creations that I love the best. I do love a lot of them. I have always had a kind of funny relationship with Beethoven. All my life I have loved Mozart -- Mozart is my top guy, but then I got more into piano, and I began playing Beethoven sonatas, and I could not stop. I just love them so much. And it brought me closer to Beethoven.

It is funny, thinking of Beethoven vs. Mozart. I read this beautiful book on Mozart several years ago by the British musicologist Paul Johnson. He spent some time dwelling on this topic, Mozart vs. Beethoven, which I liked about him. He said that they would go through history together, both magnifying the other.

That is true, I think!

They were so different. But I do not think you would have had Beethoven without Mozart. Imagine Beethoven going through life always up against this superman. I wrote about that once. It had to have made him who he was. Not Haydn, not Cherubini, not even Handel. Mozart. Imagine having to follow that act. Lucky you, Beethoven, to have been born when you were, on Dec. 16, 1770.

Things Beethoven wrote that I love:

The slow movement of the "Archduke" Trio.

The "Eroica Variations." They are better than the Diabelli variations, I think because they have a better theme to start with. The theme matters. I was lucky enough to learn to play these.

The Sonata in E, Op. 109. This was Leonard Pennario's favorite Beethoven sonata and it is mine too. That last movement! But the whole thing, really, is great. I love the first movement. There are moments that just get to me. There is this measure that sounds like jingling sleigh bells -- just haunting.

The "Appassionata" sonata, especially the slow movement. The second variation gets me. It sounds like a guitar accompaniment.

Of course the slow movements of the "Emperor" concerto and the Allegretto from the Seventh Symphony. My dad said how he loved that Allegretto when he was a kid. I did too, and you know what, it grows up with you. You never have to shove it under the bed in shame the way you would have to shove away some pop album or other.

Of course I love the finale of the Ninth Symphony. My friend Margaret at church, she and I have a joke about it. At moments of stress we will say, "Freude schoener Gotterfunken, Tochter aus Jerusalem." As I write this there is a note from Margaret in my email inbox with that in the subject line. But really, I love it, how can you not.

Back to my list. The slow movement of the last string quartet. I got to know the quartets pretty intimately while working for The Buffalo News and covering the Slee Beethoven Quartet Cycle. I got the scores and I studied them. And I love a lot of them. Some of them sound kind of studied and overengineered to me, to tell you the truth. But that must be me, not Beethoven. That last quartet is breathtaking. And the Razumovsky quartets with their Russian folk tunes, I love those. I love Russian music.

The song "The Flea." What, you don't know that? You should!

Lots of other piano sonatas. I should write a book, you know?

I think over the next week I will go out of my way to listen to Beethoven, celebrate his 250th.

He is looking good for his age!

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Dreaming of Brahms

I have been joking with my friends about this dream I had about one of my favorite musicians of all time, Johannes Brahms.

For better or worse this was the older, bearded Brahms ... 


... not the young version that Howard, the guy I married, always says somewhat snarkily looks like Clint Eastwood. That is the Clint Eastwood Brahms at the top of this post. I used him as click bait.

Anyway, I approached this older, bearded Brahms, and I asked him, "Herr Doktor Brahms, do you like to go out and hear live music?"

Herr Doktor Brahms said ja, jawohl.

I said, "Because my friends and I, we like to go out and hear music. If this Covid craziness ever ends and we are allowed to go out and hear live music again, would you like to go with us?"

And he said he would!

So I was really happy about that.

Of course then I awoke, and ... no Johannes Brahms, no plans to go out with him to hear live music.

I consoled myself by finding on YouTube that wonderful little recording we have of Brahms speaking.



Then he plays the piano. But you know what, I have never really heard the piano part. I just keep rewinding the speaking part. 

One day maybe I will get to the piano. But meanwhile, I listened to Brahms speak a few times. He says something to the effect of this is Herr Doktor Brahms, Johannes Brahms. I used to think it was in English but it is not.

It is so cool, the things you can find on YouTube.

So cool!

Friday, October 2, 2020

Introducing The Mozart Bookshelf

I got on AbeBooks and I ordered this novel about Mozart. It is called "Sacred and Profane" and it is by an author called David Weiss. I remembered this book from when I was a teenager. I know I read it though I have forgotten most of the details.

"Sacred and Profane" is a terrible title because it does not make you think of Mozart. You could write pretty much any book and call it "Sacred and Profane." Perhaps I will title my biography of Leonard Pennario that! On the other hand look, I remembered it after all these years. So what do I know.

I paid something like $5 for "Sacred and Profane" on AbeBooks shipping included. I am excited about getting it. When I was a kid I got it out of the library. I am sure the library has de-accessioned it long ago.

After a few decades at it, I have amassed a pretty good collection of books about Mozart. I have a few children's books and an ancient copy of the biography of Mozart by Edward Holmes, who I recently learned was a friend of John Keats. Get out, who was a friend of John Keats? But Holmes was. I put it together and figured out they knew each other through Vincent Novello, who with his wife Mary wrote "A Mozart Pilgrimage."

I have that book too. The library de-accessioned it, surprise, surprise. But that book is another story for another day!

I also own several novels about Mozart. All of them are kind of weird -- the authors do not seem to get Mozart, they don't get the Catholic Church, they don't get music, they just don't get it. You know what I should do? I should start writing about all the Mozart books I have. I will title my miniseries "The Mozart Bookshelf." 

Haha.. I should actually call it "The Mozart Bookcase," or, "The Spare Room That Has Been Eaten Up By All My Mozart Stuff." That would be more accurate!

 Back to "Sacred and Profane." I just looked it up on Amazon and cannot believe the reviews. Five stars, from reader after reader!

One gentleman who describes himself as a musician and a Mozartian writes, "It's one of the greatest books I ever read!"

It looks as if it has been reprinted several times.

Well, there goes this plan I had. I was thinking that in the week or so before this book gets here, I should write my own novel about Mozart. Just a mini-novel, see how it goes. I know enough about him, that is for sure.

But now I wonder what is the point.

I am looking too forward to this one!

Saturday, August 1, 2020

Opera-tunity knocks: This week at the Met

"Don Giovanni" at the Met this week.
I want to go back to watching the MetOpera's opera stream.

Remember, I was going great guns with it back in April, when we were in the depths of the lockdown. I quickly fell behind with it because I got hooked on Tchaikovsky's "Eugene Onegin" and began watching it over and looking for different versions. Then there was Wagner week and I caught a few of the Wagner operas as I recall. And then .... and then ...

And then I guess what happened to me was like what happened to everyone else as we went through the Coronavirus craziness. The weeks began passing faster and faster and running into each other and now suddenly it is months later and I have not watched one single other Metropolitan Opera opera.

But now I do believe I will start again. I was just looking at what is coming up.

In the next week -- the week beginning August 2 we are talking -- they have two Mozart operas coming up, "The Magic Flute" and "Don Giovanni." There is also a "Madame Butterfly" with Roberto Alagna and a "Parsifal" with Siegfried Jerusalem.

"Parsifal" is a little heavy for me though Leonard Pennario liked it a lot. I might watch it to try to see what he saw.

There is an illustrated synopsis for "The Magic Flute." Cute!

There is also an interesting essay about "Don Giovanni" which I have been enjoying picking over. There is a trend these days, say I, to see Don Giovanni as not a bad man but as a rather attractive rebel, a man who insists on his own happiness. I am saying it is a trend because when I saw the opera in Toronto a few years ago, they took that tack.

I admire this essay for acknowledging the Catholic background to the opera, and the literal nature of hell. The director, Michael Grandage, suggests that literal interpretation is something quaint, something the public in general might have trouble understanding. I do not have that trouble, I will tell you that. I believe hell exists. But Grandage has a point, I do not think a lot of people would agree with me. It is nice that he would even explore this topic because Mozart's Catholicism informs so much of his work and few musicologists acknowledge that.

What else is on tap this week? Handel's "Agrippina." They keep giving us this Handel in modern dress and pointing out political parallels to modern times ....

...  I don't know, not to use the language of Don Giovanni but are people seduced by this? Have these operas drawn audiences and gained fans? They seem to me tough to swallow.

But anyway ....

A lot to look forward to this week, if I get back into the opera saddle!

Sunday, April 19, 2020

Free from the Met, "Der Rosenkavalier"

The free opera tonight from the Metropolitan Opera is "Der Rosenkavalier." I watched half of the first act while I was cooking dinner. I took a break and left dinner simmering on the stove so I can share my initial observations.

One, Renee Fleming, just lovely. She is a lovely person in real life, from where I sit ... or sat, which is the chair of the music critic at The Buffalo News. I interviewed her on the phone a couple of times and I really enjoyed the conversations. I love Richard Strauss and we had a wonderful talk once about the Four Last Songs, which she was singing with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra. That was a dream come true for me! I have loved the Four Last Songs since I was a teenager. And to be discussing them with a world-class soprano ... unbelievable.

My life has been blessed, you know?

Anyway, Renee Fleming is one of the glories of the production ... so beautiful, and such beautiful singing. She is believable as the Countess. Did I say the Countess? I meant the Marschallin. I think of her as the Countess because Strauss was inspired by the Countess in Mozart's "The Marriage of Figaro," another opera I love. I think of them as the same person because they are.

Elina Garanca who was our bad-ass Carmen a few weeks ago is Octavian. You figure she will take it over the edge and she does. What a good-looking gal and she makes a good-looking guy. This was their last performance in these roles. Both were retiring, at least from these particular parts.

They are very good together.

I have special praise for the singer who sings Baron Ochs. Gunther Groissboek.

Peter Gelb, introducing the opera, refers to his terrific panache, and that is true. Panache. It is cool to have an Ochs who is cute and has panache. It makes it more fun.

Here are my thoughts on the opera as performed by Renee Fleming, Susan Graham, and a great Scandinavian Baron Ochs, Kristinn Sigmundsson. That Ochs also had panache.

Reading back on that post just now, I am glad I wrote it! There are things I had forgotten. Such as how Ochs says of Octavian, "I see myself in him." And the possibility that Octavian is Ochs' son. Their names are similar, you know? Both start with the same syllable. That is something to think about.

I do not think I mentioned this before but watching that other production, I noticed something else. There is this one moment that struck me. I had missed it previously, or something. That is in the last act, when Ochs puts it together about the Marschallin and Octavian. It dawns on him. You see it in his face, if he is a good Ochs. He says something about, What am I to think about this?

And she says Nothing, if you are a gentleman.

And he says, Never let it be said that a Lerchanau was a spoilsport. That is his name, Ochs von Lerchenau. And you remember at that point that he is her cousin, they are related.

They are cut from the same cloth, after all! That scene is a game-changer, and to think that I missed it before. I am looking forward to seeing it.

Along with the rest of the opera. "Rosenkavalier"!

There is nothing like it!

Tuesday, April 7, 2020

The fun and beauty of the Met's "Die Meistersinger"

Son of a sea cook, I never did get around to posting my report on "Die Meistersinger," the production the Met aired free last week.

Or whenever it was. Everyone says that in our Coronavirus homebound social distancing, the days are running together. It is true!

Anyway, about "Meistersinger." I loved it. I love this opera and they did a beautiful job with it.

This "Meistersinger" was staged about six years ago. The staging is magnificent, just the way I like it, a beautiful medieval street scene.

Hans Sachs is Michael Volle and one thing that hit me was, his portrayal made it clear that Sachs has real feelings for Eva. I always kind of figured that was the case but in this production there was no missing it.

Six years was a while ago and it is sad that Johan Botha, who sang Walther von Stolzing, is no longer with us. He died young. Botha's portrayal of Walther, like Volle's of Sachs, also gave me new things to think about. His bearing is so knightly, I had never really thought about how Walther is a knight, a nobleman, thrust into the world of tradespeople, of common people. He not only has to make his way among them, he has to submit to them. He has to compete for Eva's hand. He has to deal with Beckmesser. He is lectured by Sachs, a shoemaker, and is grateful for it.

This world is Lutheran but you have to wonder about Walther whose hero is the Roman Catholic medieval singer Walther von der Vogelweide. Well, I will not get into the weeds about this.

It was touching to see Walther von Stolzing with his finery and his girth, standing in the humble cobbler's shop, enjoying this unexpected episode in his life. He had to get his bearings in this humble new world. Earlier in the opera you saw his impatience -- he kept drawing his sword, he wanted to get Eva out of there.

Eva -- Annette Dasch -- was so beautiful and I got such a kick out of when Walther showed up in his knightly finery ...

...and she was just staring at him with stars in her eyes. This huge guy. so graceful! And you never forgot he was a knight. He projected that. You could see what she saw in him.

The last scene was stunning. I always get tears in my eyes, just seeing the sheer number of people on stage, all of them gathering before dawn. The trumpet calls, the pageantry. For some reason I noticed the children's chorus and just now I found this charming blog post written by a woman apparently studying singing who was in a production of "Die Meistersinger" at the Met. Imagine that! It was funny to find it right when I had been thinking about that. I loved her account of what it was like.

The picture up at the top of the post shows the famous Quintet. It is rare to have something classical like that in Wagner and the beauty of it made me wonder if he was thinking of Mozart. I know, I always wonder that. But then I think I am usually right!

Granted, not everybody hears what I hear. Once reviewing a performance of the Verdi Requiem for The Buffalo News I wrote about how I was sure Verdi was thinking about Mozart and ways in which the music reflected that. One woman got really mad and wrote me a nasty letter!

Ha, ha! I will have to go back and review my arguments. They were on deadline and off the cuff. But I bet I was right. I bet he was thinking of Mozart. And I do not think he would have minded me saying so. It is high praise when you sense, from hearing someone's music, that the composer was thinking of Mozart.

Back to Meistersinger. I could ramble on and on. These great works, you always find something new in them.

Just a few other observations: Sixtus Beckmesser was Johannes Martin Kränzle, a little too handsome for the part but a ton of fun. Beckmesser must be a great part to play because you know at the end you will get the biggest hand. Another Wagner role like that is Hunding. I was thinking that the other day watching "Die Walkure." Hunding is a great thug. "Bring us men our meat." "Sacred is my hearth." There are a million ways a guy can take that part, starting for when he just walks onto the stage. The Hundings and the Beckmessers, they rule the world. Got to love them.

Since I watched "Meistersinger," the themes have taken up residence in my head. Along with the scene from "Die Walkure" between Brunnhilde and Siegmund, but that will have to wait.

I was thinking, as long as I'm home all the time, I might learn one of Liszt's Wagner transcriptions. I think he did one of Meistersinger.

The book is sitting on the piano.

I think I will go right now and look.

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Hans Sachs in quarantine

After watching and loving "Meistersinger" free from the Met's archives, I took a break to Google the singers. And I found that Michael Volle, our Hans Sachs, was in quarantine.

He does not have Coronavirus, or the Wuhan flu, or Covid-19, or whatever its name is. However he has been in quarantine because he was singing at La Scala and someone there had it. He discusses it here.

Opera singers in the spotlight! That is as it should be. Volle addresses us from a laptop. It is a funny feeling hearing him talking about this now having just finished having watched him as Hans Sachs in this magnificent performance. It is kind of intimate because in his performance, you really get to know Sachs. You feel this character exists somewhere. His portrayal is that vivid. It is really touching, too. I will explain more about that tomorrow, but it gets to you. Someone online wrote somewhere -- I have to find it -- "You want to hug him."

I am still listening to Volle talking about his quarantine. He is giving us the news! He says the latest update is that all cultural events are canceled in Italy until April 3. Volle actually was giving this report back on March 9. He is speaking in English.

I am sorry he has had to go through this but he seems to be dealing with OK. Just as Hans Sachs would.

Stay well, Hans Sachs.

I mean Maestro Volle!

Just now I am listening to President Trump saying our guidelines are being extended until April 30. That means a lot more opera coming our way.

We're going through this together -- literally!

Saturday, March 28, 2020

The Met's "Die Meistersinger"

Tonight the Met's Nightly Opera Stream is "Die Meistersinger" and I am tuned in.

It is kind of emotional watching these Met broadcasts because of the current situation, I mean with this virus. Wagner's "Die Meistersinger" shores me up and gives me courage. Last fall when I had my first art show, I was playing "Meistersinger" as I framed up my pictures and got them ready to show. This music got me through it.

What I have seen so far ... and I am not through the first act ... this production looks fine. Not like "Goetterdaemmerung" yesterday, I have to say that. I had to stop watching "Goetterdaemmerung" because the production was just so Goetterdaemmerung awful.

Just get out of Wagner's way, you know?

Just stage the darned opera!

That guy, whoever did "Goetterdaemmerung," he had how much money to work with? I am guessing a lot. I am also guessing that I could have done a better job. The costumes were a mess. The mechanics ... you never lost sight of that you were seeing machines. Maybe it looked different from the seats but I doubt it. Everything was a mess. And Siegfried looked like a slug. I could not stand it.

OK, you cannot look a gift horse in the mouth so, whatever. On to this one.

I do not often take the opportunity to watch the entire "Meistersinger" and whenever I do, new things jump out at me. The way in the first act David, Sachs' apprentice, has such a prominent part. All his musings about music, and what he is learning from Sachs. Wagner must have enjoyed that.

The Master Singers ... I still cannot get over that one of them is named Kunz. I love that! I watch for Kunz Vogelgesang. He is a tenor. The one in this production looks young and he throws himself into the part -- I mean, he establishes a character for Kunz. I like that. They have little name plates in front of their seats and I love that. Kunz Vogelgesang.

In high school one of my best friends was Anne Conrad and she pointed out to me that my name meant hers. Kunz is short for Konrad.

There is a Konrad also among the Master Singers.

And there is also Erich Kunz, the late great Viennese baritone, who was the ultimate Beckmesser. I mean Sixtus Beckmesser, the baddie in "Die Meistersinger."

At left is a signed photo of Erich Kunz as Beckmesser in the Bayreuth production of 1943. I love what a ham he was. From other pictures I have seen he was actually a very good-looking man. Very Viennese, very urbane. You have to admire a guy who sacrifices good looks to look the part he is playing. Erich Kunz, God love him, he did that!

The picture is for sale on eBay only unfortunately I am too cheap to buy it. It is $90! I am glad a photo of my Uncle Erich is commanding so high a price but still.

Well, just looking at the picture makes me proud.

My name is all about "Meistersinger"!

Now I have to go ahead and watch the rest of the opera.

I will report!

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

My 'Onegin' experience

The duel in "Eugene Onegin" as imagined in 1901 by the great Russian painter Ilya Repin.

My relationship with the Met and its free opera streaming continues rocky. Like an opera itself, it is!

It is complicated. The opera streams until a certain time the next day, but at some point you lose the subtitles, is my experirence. That is why Howard and I had to watch a different "La Boheme."

And I watched "Eugene Onegin" half and half. Half was the Met production, and half was another.

"Eugene Onegin" took me by surprise. I had not actually intended to watch it. But when they aired it I peeked at it, and then to my surprise something happened. I could not look away.

Howard was laughing at me because I was toting my tablet around and he found me in the bathroom brushing my teeth and watching it!

Then I had to put it away for a bit. I may be in lockdown but I am still busy. I work from home anyway and I have a ton of work to do. When I went back to it later, it pulled the subtitle thing on me, and then it froze up completely.

By that time I was totally hooked. I knew more or less how things worked out because I did see the opera live once.. But I think when I saw it some years ago my mind was addled up over something or other and I could not give Tchaikovsky the attention he deserved. I had to see this drama play out. So I found a different one on YouTube, from Glyndebourne.

I missed Dmitri Hvorovstovsky who had been starring in the Met production. He is so handsome and icy! But this new Onegin grew on me. He is a Polish singer and I cannot begin to spell his name (I can however spell Hvorovstovsky off the top of my head). Let me cut and paste: Wojtek Drabowicz. He is very good too -- he projects the look of a misfit, a definite plus in this situation.

The duel scene got to me. Lensky in the Glyndebourne production is a beautiful man and you just cannot stand it. I actually had not recalled the duel even happening. This seems a good time to admit, I do not like prepping for operas by reading the synopsis. I like being surprised. Before you know it, you will know the opera inside out, and there is a different joy to that. But the first couple times you see an opera, I do not see any reason to read up on it. Enjoy the suspense!

That gets me to one more point: Everyone thinks opera is an acquired taste and they cannot possibly appreciate it. Just sit down and watch "Onegin." Find one with subtitles and sit down with it. Easy.


Tatiana in the Glyndebourne production is not as human as Renee Fleming, who can be wrenching as no one else can. That scene where Tatiana is scorned, Fleming just breaks your heart. She is very bold when it comes to this kind of thing, I mean putting herself into a part.

Tchaikovsky has a kind of Wagnerian thing going on in "Onegin," at least from where I sit, in that the opera is about you. I identify strongly with Tatiana. I was very naive and romantic and sheltered the way she is. So the famous letter scene gets me and so does that terrible scene where Onegin scorns her and lectures her. "I had to listen meekly to your sermon," she tells him later.

That scene later is very satisfying to me, coming from where I am coming from. Tatiana has married a handsome older man, a military hero, and she is a princess. And she has the mental fortitude to stick with her husband. To tell Onegin no.

I found myself talking to the screen. "Tell him to get lost." "Walk away."


When the opera was over I found myself dipping into different productions of "Onegin." Such as this excellent one, in German, starring Hermann Prey. Prey is terrific in this part, which is high praise. He is handsome and has that bedeviled look and that intensity. Speaking of intensity, a young Brigitte Fassbaender is Olga. And ... get this ... Fritz Wunderlich is Lensky.

Let me say that again: Fritz Wunderlich!!


Interesting thing about this production, the ending is different. After Onegin exits in anguish, Tatiana has a bittersweet interlude to herself. She pulls out the letter she wrote to Onegin, and she reflects on what has happened.

All this has been a great learning experience for me. On the minus side, I have not gotten around to much of the Wagner. Here I was looking forward to the Met's Wagner week and all I have watched is the first act of "Tristan und Isolde" which, now it is too late to finish that. I do have some comments but they can wait.

This Coronavirus lockdown different-opera-every-night thing is great but it is like traveling on a whirlwind tour -- you know, 10 cities in 10 days.

Sometimes it is better to spend a week in a city and get to know it! That is my situation with "Eugene Onegin." I fell behind. I could not help it.  I do know the Wagner operas much better but this was new territory for me, and I had to linger a little longer.

Plus, "Tristan," I just could not clear the time in my life. These Wagner operas mean a lot to me and you cannot watch them just anytime. You have to have time when you can concentrate, when you can give them space and attention. You have to treat them with respect.

It is like when you turn on the car radio as you are running errands and they are playing Mozart's "Jupiter" Symphony or Beethoven's Ninth, you have to change the station. Masterpieces need space and attention.

I am glad I did right by "Eugene Onegin."

It is a masterpiece!

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Pre-judging the Met's "Eugene Onegin"

Eugene Onegin, screening tonight free from the Metropolitan Opera, starts out with great promise. The intro is by Mikhail Baryshnikov!

It is good to see him again! He stands there in the middle of the screen and tells you how you are going to fall in love with the opera.

He pronounces it "Ev-gen Onegin."

And it occurs to me for the first time, that the pianist Evgeny Kissin is Eugene Kissin. Or shall we say, Gene Kissin. Like Manny Ax.

Back to Onegin, my one gripe with it so far is that before the overture, you do not get to hear: "Maestro to the pit. Maestro to the pit."

That is one of my favorite moments!

However we still have the entire opera to go so I will forgive this otherwise fatal error. The maestro who should have been audibly called to the pit is Valery Gergiev. The opera stars Renee Fleming as Tatiana and the late Dimitri Hvorostovsky as Onegin. That is sad that we lost him. What a marvelous Russian baritone and so beautiful to look at.

The production's staging looks kind of wacky so far -- a big box of fallen leaves. But as the picture above illustrates, the costumes are lovely. That picture must be from near the end, when Onegin comes crawling back. Cry me a river! Odds are this Russian roulette will turn out well.

I like Tchaikovsky operas the way I prefer most operas, on the traditional side. I once saw "Onegin" live and it struck me like a Chekhov play, hours of an absorbing psychological drama, Russians explaining what is in their hearts. I do not remember being bored. I love this kind of stuff.

You know what, when you play those games of who is overrated and who is underrated, I would say Tchaikovsky is underrated.

Once when I saw "The Queen of Spades" I screamed! It was one of the most terrifying moments. My sister-in-law, Natalie, was with me. We grabbed each other and screamed. The whole audience did likewise.

Bravo, Tchaikovsky!

Friday, March 20, 2020

Losing it with "La Boheme"

So the other night -- Wednesday, this was -- I watched "La Boheme." Howard watched it with me -- I said something about Date Night and guilted him into it.

End result as we say in Buffalo ... I cried buckets.

I was astonished at myself. I did not think "La Boheme" would get me like that. I mean, I knew it was sad, but not in the way some other operas are sad, operas that hold a higher place in my lexicon. You forget how good this opera is, how good Puccini was.

That last scene!

I should mention this was not the Met production. I am having a rocky relationship with these Met free streams. I want to watch them but my timing is off. I end up looking for them too late and in this situation what happened was, I had it ready to go, and I could watch it, but there were no subtitles. I think after the allotted time they cut out the subtitles.

Which, maybe I could deal with that, but Howard could not. So I worked fast and said prayers to St. Anthony -- please, St. Anthony, find me a good "La Boheme" -- and I found this.

It stars Anna Netrebko. I  believe it was a little abridged, but that was fine for my purposes.

It was more than fine actually. Peeking at the Met production earlier that day, when it had subtitles, I was a little dismayed at how slowly the first act moved, with Rudolfo burning his play. I had no problems with it, but I worried Howard would.

You have to watch out for opera newbies! They are fragile creatures.

And so we watched this. At first I worried it was kind of broad, kind of jerky. But as the opera went on we both fell into it. That winter scene was beautifully filmed. My brother George, I always think of him when I see this, I have to tell him that. Once we were watching "La Boheme" at the Canadian Opera Company he said he loved how that part rang true to him, about how the couple is about to break up but they decide to stick together until the spring.

That is true to life! George is right.

Put it off! Kick that can down the road.

Anyway. That scene is beautiful, with the snow drifting down, and Anna Netrebko and Rollando Villazon, they're both so beautiful, you can't stand it. The snow is in their hair. That music. It's all so glorious.

Then you get the last act. I was broadsided by it. What gets me isn't really that Mimi is dying. It's how the other bohemians behave, standing around helplessly, doing what they can The one sells his coat, and Musetta sells her jewels -- I started getting tears in my eyes and I was desperately trying to blink them back. I totally lost it when Musetta began praying to Our Lady. Dear Musetta is such a toughie, and to see her humbling herself like that -- I was trying so hard not to cry I was gasping.

Finally I said something to Howard to try to explain myself and then I was actually sobbing. I could not stop.

Howard tried to reassure me. He said: "The software --"

Meaning that the software Puccini put in place still works.

The word "the software" is code with us for that. I have probably written about it. In this case it did not make me laugh. I only cried harder. But that only proved Howard was right.

This software, it still works!

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Our Wagnerian quarantine

Such dramatic times we are living in! And next week, the Metropolitan Opera is celebrating that. That is all I can think.

It is Wagner week!

There are different Wagner operas being streamed every night. Or every afternoon, or whenever you feel like watching them. I watched "Carmen" a few days ago mostly in the morning. Opera in the morning, it's weird, but nobody knows what day it is any more, and things like this have less and less relevance. Opera goes with morning coffee as well as it goes with evening wine, as long as you do not have any other commitments that you cannot ignore, cancel, or postpone.

The Wagner schedule is this (click on the link above for more info):

Monday: Tristan
Tuesday: Rheingold
Wednesday: Walkure
Thursday: Siegfried
Friday: Gotterdaemmerung
Saturday: Meistersinger
Sunday: Tannhauser

Can you beat that? I had been looking forward to The Flying Dutchman, which unfortunately had to be scrubbed because of the Coronavirus, the Wuhan Virus, the China Virus, COVID-19 ... never has a virus had so many names, you know?

But much as I was looking forward to the Dutchman this little schedule is a dandy consolation prize. I am especially anticipating "Die Meistersinger." That is a picture of it up above, complete with a hefty Walther von Stolzing. If Walther does not look like a biker something is wrong!

I wonder if anyone is planning on watching every single Wagner opera next week. Including the "Ring" cycle, right in the middle.

I think I will!

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

5 operas with English subtitles you can watch free on YouTube

Opera in the time of Coronavirus! I love that the Metropolitan Opera has its free stream going on, a different opera every night. Imagine if you watched all of them. I just might.

I respect the Met for the idea, which I share, that we cannot get through a crisis like this without opera. We need it as much as we need hand sanitizer and toilet paper. We require it.

All this being said, my initial attempts to access "Carmen," the opera promised to start off the series, were unsuccessful. I was having trouble accessing the site. Opera fans across the country must be mobbing it. With which, as a public service, I thought I would list a few operas you can watch free on YouTube, operas that have English subtitles.

Here is the "Carmen" the Met promised us but the video keeps stopping. I will look for another one. But I am not going to forget about this one. The Carmen is Elina Garanca who seems to me to strike just the right tone. She looks perfect, too. There she is in the picture up above.

Onward, damn the torpedoes! Here is an old survivor, a '60s production of Wagner's "Die Meistersinger" starring Wolfgang Windgassen and conducted by Thomas Schippers. Unfortunately it is only Act III, Scene 1, which is all that exists. But... better than nothing! And... it has subtitles!!
Here is Wagner's "Lohengrin" with subtitles. From Bayreuth. This looks like a must-watch to me.

This looks like a pretty decent "La Boheme," and it has subtitles as well. Just from the couple of minutes I have watched the voices sound wonderful.

Here is a hipster "La Boheme," also with subtitles.

Karajan conducts Wagner's "Das Rheingold"! This fine vintage cast includes Thomas Stewart as Wotan. He is a terrific actor as well as a great singer.

Here is Richard Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier starring Renee Fleming. I have already watched this in its entirety a couple of times. It is from Baden Baden in Germany. My father's family came from Baden Baden. Watch this one if you watch nothing else. It can occupy you for a few evenings.

So many operas.

So little time.

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Mirella Freni and one unforgettable opera evening

When I read today that Mirella Freni had died, all I could do was picture her as Susanna in "The Marriage of Figaro." I watched it when it was on TV. I was 14. I'm sure I have written about that here. I will never forget that opera as long as I live.

The production was made for TV and the singers were all good actors. I have seen parts of it here and there over the years on YouTube and such and unlike many movies that I loved in that era, this has held up.

Mirella Freni was so lovely. That last act! My dad came into the family room where I was camped in front of the TV, had been camped for hours. He loved classical music but he did not quite understand my obsession with Mozart. That was why I was watching the opera, I loved Mozart. I did not know a thing about opera but I loved Mozart.

"Isn't it over yet?" my dad asked me. It was about midnight or something.

I said, "No! There's still one more act."

He shook his head in disbelief and went up to bed.

Here is part of that last act. Beautiful Mirella Freni.

Her voice was so glorious. Her makeup and everything are so of that era. That was sort of a golden era of television, you know? The look everyone had.

That opera, that one evening, I never got over it. It made such an impression on me. You had Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau as the Count and -- already the future music critic, LOL -- I remember when I first heard him and I said, "Who's that?" He was just this giant and I could tell.  I have always known quality when I heard it. I was starstruck and I wrote to him and we had a little correspondence and he sent me two signed pictures of himself. What a nice man.

And I remember overhearing my dad telling my mom, "He'll never write to her." Ha, ha! Dad and I never stopped laughing about that. My father was the greatest. I wish he were still alive. I wish everyone were still alive, you know?

Looking at this production more recently I saw a funny thing I could not have known at the time. Hermann Prey was Figaro and he was always kind of second fiddle to Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, I mean as far as their careers went. It was nobody's fault, not Prey's, not Fischer-Dieskau's, it was just the way the cookie crumbled. And in that opera, these two great singers, they worked that. There is one scene where Fischer-Dieskau blows smoke in Prey's face. Fischer-Dieskau was always a smoker, as I understand it. His Count smoked and he blew that smoke in Figaro's face and it is chilling to see.

I will have to find that scene and post it. I have other thoughts on that Figaro and Susanna / Count and Countess situation that I will also have to post. It has been on my mind.

But for now, Mirella Freni. That last scene, so magical. For years I never quite saw that last act the way I see it now. I was too taken up with the first act, with these characters jumping out at you, each scene more magical than the last. I loved Cherubino, who doesn't? In this production Cherubino was Maria Ewing. The singing, the staging, I was just entranced.

However then there is that last act, when Mozart comes up with all these overwhelmingly beautiful melodies and shoots them off one after another like a fireworks display. I wrote that in the paper once because that was how I felt it. It was like a fireworks finale, each creation more gorgeous than the last, and you just sit there with your mouth open, you don't know what to do.

What an opera. What singers I saw, that night when I was 14. Since I have gotten more into my Catholic faith I have been remembering not just to mourn the dead, but to pray for them. Dear God, have mercy on the soul of Mirella Freni. Welcome her into Your kingdom.

Ask her to sing Susanna!

Friday, February 7, 2020

'Porgy and Bess' gets my goat

I went to the Metropolitan Opera's simulcast of "Porgy and Bess" by accident. My friend Meghan mentioned it just that afternoon as we were sketching and we ended up going that night to see it.

These simulcasts, I have finally gotten over my bad experience years ago at "Der Rosenkavalier," and now I enjoy them.When I really like the opera they are doing, it does not take much to make me go. The theaters are not crowded and you can stretch out and watch this long opera with your shoes kicked off, reclining back in these big sleepy seats.

About "Porgy and Bess," Meghan asked me how many times I had seen it.

That stopped me in my tracks. I know all the music to "Porgy and Bess." I weep through "Bess, You Is My Woman Now." However ... I do not think I had ever seen the show.

Not even in movies!

I am very glad I saw it, long story short. It held my attention. I do have some observations but they will have to wait. For now, I hate to start with the bad news, but one thing horrified me.

No goat!

There was supposed to be a goat in "Porgy and Bess." Porgy had a goat and the goat pulled him around in a wagon.

I know this was true from the start because of our friend Al Tinney. Al unfortunately died about 10 years ago so I cannot present him as a witness. However he spoke first hand about this many times. He was some kind of prodigy teenage pianist and he had the job of helping George Gershwin prepare "Porgy and Bess" for Broadway. Al was the rehearsal pianist.

Plus he got an additional gig that afforded him an actual stage appearance. Gershwin, or whoever, gave Al the job of leading the goat onto the stage.

Ha, ha! We would laugh about that, sitting around.  Al did not go into big detail because he was not a talker. Only later did it dawn on me how pivotal his role actually was. It is a big deal at the end of the opera when Porgy gives the command: "Bring my goat!"

That was when Al would come in, leading his goat! In the original production, I mean.

The goat was iconic. I mean, look at this picture!

And the line had a special significance. It meant Porgy was now proactive, on his way, as he sings in his last song. The music author Joe Horowitz even wrote a book about it, about this director Reuben Mamoulian who put in the "Bring my goat!" line. I think it was Mamoulian's idea anyway. I have the book somewhere but I was too busy to read it when it came out.You can read about it here where Horowitz writes about it. And look! It says that Stephen Sondheim called that line "Bring my goat!" "one of the most moving moments in musical theater history."

Now, no goat!

The Porgy at the current Met production just rides around on some kind of scooter. It distressed me. I whispered, "Meghan, there's no goat."


"There's supposed to be a goat."

At the end, Porgy goes, "Bring my cart!"

NOT the same thing!

Give the guy a break.

Bring his goat!

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Schubert karaoke, sing it loud, sing it proud

I should not let this get out there because if anyone out there is like me, we will have done the last work we will ever do. Nothing but fun and games, from now on.

You can do Schubert karaoke!

There are these accompaniments on YouTube. I have found "An Die Musik"...

... and it is amazing, great fun, singing along with it. I would rather play the accompaniment myself to tell you the truth ...

... but I can't find my Schubert Lieder book anywhere. Not surprising because the last time I played anything out of it I was 17, but I know I saw it around here recently somewhere. It did wash up on the tides of the house and one of these days it will wash up again.

I used to play Schubert accompaniments for my sister. We did a bunch of Schubert songs, "Der Musensohn" (yes, I have always been a pretty good pianist!) "Fruehlingsglaube," "Litanei"... we did a million of them. Here is an old snapshot of us performing.

I would try to get her to learn the songs because I was not a singer.

Well, guess what.

I am a singer. As Goethe said you must do the thing you think you cannot do.

I am buoyed by my success at church recently singing Tomas Luis de Victoria. I have sung as one of a small ensemble of singers and I have done well. So although all my life I have said, I am not a singer, today I am changing that. And I am saying, I am a singer.

I am singing a different tune!

I sing alto at church so the Schubert is in an alto key. There is no shame in singing alto either. Brahms wrote great songs for low voices. I should do one of those. I am also going to work to expand my range. Howard is helping me. He studied with Andy Anselmo, the vocal coach who taught Liza Minnelli and Mandy Patinkin and learned from the soprano Eleanor Steber. With an artistic bloodline like that, how can I lose?

Mi mi mi ... me!!