Happy Birthday, Lenny!

Today—August 25, 2018—would have marked the 100th birthday of Leonard Bernstein. One of the most (if not the most) distinguished American-born classical musicians, Bernstein succeeded in almost every aspect of musical life. He composed both “serious” classical pieces and lively theatrical works, sometimes even bridging the gap between the two. He conducted orchestras worldwide and served as music director of the illustrious New York Philharmonic for eleven years. He made hundreds of recordings, which encompass everything from canonic works to his own compositions. To top it all off, he was a fine pianist and a charismatic music educator, introducing both children and adults to the wonders of classical music.

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Lenny in his element!

Bernstein’s life was not without its flaws, though. His personal life was often complicated and marred with controversy. (Some aspects would undoubtedly raise more than a few eyebrows in the climate of the current MeToo movement.) He smoked almost constantly. He could occasionally be short-tempered and confrontational in rehearsal—one of my favorite clips, albeit a cringe-worthy one, involves Bernstein dealing with a miscast José Carreras during a recording session for West Side Story. It’s clear that Bernstein’s larger-than-life personality could sometimes get the better of him.

However, there’s no question that Bernstein succeeded in bringing classical music to millions of people, and his wide-ranging achievements are being celebrated this year by orchestras around the world.

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Beyond Control: Ligeti’s Violin Concerto

Sometimes you witness a performance that is so incredible, so out-of-the-ordinary that it sticks with you and will just not leave you alone. That’s just what happened a few days ago when I attended a performance of György Ligeti’s Violin Concerto.

Programmed as the conclusion to Augustin Hadelich‘s recital at the Aspen Music Festival—a forward-looking program of pieces by Francisco Coll, Stephen Hartke, and Tōru Takemitsu—Ligeti’s concerto is a wildly virtuosic workout for the soloist and presents almost every technique from the string player’s bag of tricks. The accompanying chamber orchestra (in which four of the players double on ocarinas!) is also no mere supporting role; many of the players’ parts are tremendously challenging to execute.

Sound-wise, the Violin Concerto is a far cry from Ligeti’s “sound mass” compositions of the 1960s, such as Atmosphères and Lux aterna—both made famous (or infamous?) in 2001: A Space Odyssey. By the 1980s and 1990s, Ligeti had begun to hone a style that reconciled avant-garde elements with the eclecticism of postmodernism. His Violin Concerto (composed, premiered, and revised between 1989 and 1993) is written with this sensibility in mind, embracing everything from medieval music to Classical forms, from the virtuosic Caprices of Paganini to folk music. This creates a work that’s a sort of a stylistic “grab bag”—one that is not fully tonal and traditional, but not fully avant-garde.

Sounds intriguing, right? Well, I thought so too going into the concert. I was already familiar with Ligeti’s music and this piece from YouTube videos and performances on the Berlin Philharmonic’s Digital Concert Hall. But nothing would prepare me for hearing it live.

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Revitalizing the Classical Concert – Part 2: Program Notes

This is the second installment of my multiple-part series. You can read the first installment here.

Program Notes:

After finding my seat (which is sometimes easier said than done), one of the very first things I do when attending a classical concert is sit down, open the program book, and read through the program notes. Whether or not I am familiar with the pieces on the program, these short essays often provide useful information and prepare me for the music I am about to hear. Program notes can include any or all of the following: historical, cultural, and biographical information; stories about the work’s composition and premiere; details on instrumentation and length; musical features to listen for; texts and translations (if a vocal work); and other interesting facts relating to the piece.

However, there exists a fine line between good program notes and bad program notes. Some performing organizations do a fantastic job with their notes, providing the information in an informative, yet engaging fashion. Others, not so much. Some program notes are too “jargony.” Some don’t provide enough information. Some provide too much. Some are flat out boring.

So, what makes a good program note? As someone who has experience reading, writing, and editing program notes, I have seen a wide variety of formats over the years, and am slowly gaining insight into what works well and what doesn’t. While I don’t profess to be an expert on this subject quite yet (maybe someday!), here are my thoughts on what makes an ideal program note and how performance organizations could both revitalize and maximize the potential of this tool. Additionally, interspersed throughout are some examples of excellent program notes or organizations who are doing intriguing things with the concept itself.

Continue reading “Revitalizing the Classical Concert – Part 2: Program Notes”