Any music-lover in the New York area should run, not walk, to Carnegie Hall on December 10. Why? Only the New York premiere of one of the most influential and iconic compositions of the late 20th century: “Requiem” by holocaust survivor György Ligeti, scored for soprano, mezzo-soprano, double chorus and large orchestra.
Ligeti was unquestionably one of the greatest composers of the past century, the best known Hungarian composer since Bartók, and this is one of his most famous major works. The music is, simply put, astonishing.
Ligeti’s “Requiem” became known world-wide when excerpts were used (without the composer’s approval) as part of the soundtrack of Stanley Kubrick’s classic futuristic film “2001: A Space Odyssey.” One of the most moving performances of last season was the playing of those excerpts by Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic as they accompanied the showing of the Kubrick film live. But they left the honor of the much-belated New York premiere of the complete 1965 composition to the American Symphony Orchestra and the Bard Festival Chorale, directed respectively by Leon Botstein and James Bagwell.
Everyone knows that the most popular American Christmas songs were written by Jews. But like Leonard Bernstein’s “MASS,” (see my piece on the recent Queens performance here) there’s a long tradition of Jewish musicians involved in Christian-inspired music — and even a few non-Jewish composers who’ve written for the Hebrews. Here are four of the most interesting:
1. Felix Mendelssohn wrote Christian music like Symphony No. 5 “Reformation,” St. Paul Oratorio along with other chamber and vocal pieces.
Photo: Alex Rivas/Twitter
“Hiney ma tov u’ma-na’im shevet achim gam yachad.” “How good and how pleasant it is when brothers sit together.” That campfire classic came to mind as I sat in the Gilman Opera House at the Brooklyn Academy of Music earlier this month for the second of three concerts featuring Steve Reich and Philip Glass.
The two pioneering composers were appearing onstage together for the first time in nearly 40 years as part of “Nonesuch Records at BAM,” a series marking the 50th anniversary of the influential label, which ran from September 9 to 28. Nonesuch, whose founding mandate was to produce “fine records at the same price as a trade paperback,” has nurtured and promoted an extraordinarily wide and genre-crossing range of composers and musicians, from George Crumb to the Gipsy Kings, John Zorn to Wilco.
Both Reich and Glass studied composition at Juilliard and honed their musical styles in the downtown New York arts scene of the 1960s. In that symbiotic atmosphere their music, often performed in lofts and clubs, developed along similar paths. The result was what is now known as “minimalism,” a term coined by the composer — and fellow minimalist — Michael Nyman, although neither composer embraces the designation.
(JTA) — A bronze sculpture of Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990), one of the last century’s towering musical figures, was unveiled last week at Tanglewood, the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO).
The sculpture, by artist Penelope Jencks, is the second in a series planned depicting Tanglewood’s most iconic music figures, according to a statement issued by by the BSO. The first sculpture, also by Jencks, is of Aaron Copland, Bernstein’s teacher and mentor, who in 1940 recommended the young Bernstein for Serge Koussevitzky’s conducting class at Tanglewood.
Over the next 50 years, Bernstein, who went on to lead the New York Philharmonic, and later conducted around the world, frequently in Israel, became a highly-anticipated presence at the renowned music center, known for its pastoral scenery. “Tanglewood has always been, and will continue to be, the spiritual home of Leonard Bernstein,” said composer and Academy Award winner John Williams, whose donation to the BSO is funding the sculpture series. A courtyard at the music center is named after Bernstein.
The themes of many of Bernstein’s scores, including his Kaddish Symphony and Chichester Psalms, reflected his Jewish roots. The son of Ukrainian Jewish immigrant parents, Bernstein wrote of the early musical influence of Solomon Braslavsky, the European-born and trained vocal director and organist at Boston’s Congregation Mishkan Tefila, the family’s synagogue.
Bernstein, who taught at Brandeis University from 1951 through 1956, launched the school’s Festival of Creative Arts in 1951 and served on the university’s Board of Trustees from 1976 to 81. He performed frequently in Israel, notably during the country’s founding years and during the 1967 Six-Day War. At age 70, Bernstein was named conductor laureate of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra.
Bernstein was also a prolific composer for Broadway, with the musical “West Side Story” his most famous Broadway show.
Of the many great classical music events this year in New York, seven with some Jewish content particularly stood out:
1: Mozart collaborated on three operas with librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte, who was born to a Jewish family in the Ghetto of Venice. All three are among the greatest ever written, and explore issues of identity and disguise — subjects familiar to Jews throughout history. Jewish Hungarian conductor Ivan Fischer specializes in making familiar music fresh, and he certainly delivered with his brilliant, playful, semi-staged version of “The Marriage of Figaro,” the first of the three, at Lincoln Center’s Mostly Mozart Festival.
Figaro, which Napoleon called “the first cannon shot of the revolution,” is a comedy about class and entitlement (or the lack thereof). Da Ponte helped Mozart distill the layers of deception in the original Beaumarchais play. For this semi-production, Fischer distilled them further, eliminating sets and scenery entirely, except for costumes hanging overhead. One by one each “disguise” descended, spotlighting each character’s transitions.
The Budapest Festival Orchestra, which Fischer created and is now widely considered one of the finest in the world, in this production mixed authentic 18th century with modern instruments to create a remarkably vital realization of the score. Focused by these spare suggestive choices, one felt as if hearing the work as it must have felt the first time it was played.
The performance easily equaled Fischer’s thrilling bare-bones staging of “Don Giovanni” from a couple of years ago and artistic director Jane Moss is trying to convince Fischer to take on the third of the Mozart / Da Ponte trilogy, “Cosí Fan Tutte.”
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