Miscellany

(Curated news and views from around the web. Click on the highlighted links to read the full articles.)

In The New Yorker, David Denby writes a fine summing up of the career of conductor Arturo Toscanini, on the occasion of the maestro’s 150th anniversary and the publication of a mammoth new biography by Harvey Sachs…. The Canadian guide to classical music slang intersects with our own only intermittently, but it’s still amusing…. Beethoven’s Ninth means different things to different people, including, probably, the leaders attending the G-20 summit…. Tom Service has written a guide to contemporary classical music, taking 50 composers and their music one at a time…. Italian conductors still make headlines: Riccardo Muti has led a joint concert in Tehran with the the Luigi Cherubini Youth Orchestra and the Tehran Symphony Orchestra …. Mason Bates’s new opera “The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs” will have its premiere at Santa Fe Opera this month…. A new recording (well, a reissue and remastering) features the music of — gasp — music critics. Some can.

Kleiber conducts ‘Thunder and Lightning’

An old standby. If this isn’t my favorite classical video, I can’t think which one is. The great Carlos Kleiber conducts the “Thunder and Lightning” Polka by Johann Strauss, Jr. This is stupendous conducting but most everything has already been accomplished in rehearsal. Now he’s just reminding them and enjoying himself, having a party in fact.

Symphony in the Cities program

The musical agenda for this summer’s Symphony in the Cities concerts has been announced, a nice mixture of light classics and patriotic fare. Carl St.Clair, who, as always, will conduct, has selected two works each by several composers.

Leonard Bernstein is represented with the Overture to “Candide” and the “Mambo” from “West Side Story”; John Williams with the “Superman” March and “The Flying Theme” from “E.T.”; Johann Strauss, Jr., with the “Thunder and Lightning” Polka and “The Blue Danube” Waltz; Bach with “Air on a G String” and the first movement of the Concerto for Two Violins (with the young violinists Danielle and Sarah Liu as soloists); and Sousa with “Hands Across the Sea” and “The Stars and Stripes Forever.”

The program is rounded out with the Hungarian Dance No. 5 by Brahms, the Intermezzo from “Cavalleria Rusticana” by Mascagni, a salute to the Armed Forces and patriotic songs by Key, Ward and Berlin.

The concerts are free and will be held on July 16 in Newport Beach, July 22 in Mission Viejo and July 23 in Irvine. Click here for further details.

Playlist: Neglected symphonies

Here’s a neglected symphony sampler for your listening assessment.

What, exactly, is a “neglected symphony,” you ask? In this case, these are works which your curator — me — has decided are worthy of at least a few more performances than they get. They range from the obscure to the fairly well known, but in all cases they rarely turn up on symphony orchestra programs.

For this playlist, I have included just the first movements of symphonies by Rota, Rubbra, Freitas Branco, Berwald, Chausson, Schmidt, Vaughan Williams, Tubin, Aho and Shostakovich.

If you don’t already have Spotify, you have to download it to listen to more than a sample (there is a free version). Let us know if you hear something you like. –TIMOTHY MANGAN

 

Word: ‘Crescendo’

(One in an occasional series)

Let us now consider an oft-misused and misunderstood word: Crescendo. Musicians get it, of course, but others don’t. Take this recent example:

“After seven years of political fireworks over the Affordable Care Act (ACA), a vote on the Senate’s bill to repeal and replace key elements of the law could be the prelude to a grand finale – or at least a crescendo – this week.” — Anne Phelps, Health Care Current, June 27, 2017.

Or this, a few years ago, in The Los Angeles Times:

“Rumors about the impending exit have swirled for months, reaching a crescendo in recent days.”

A musician will cringe when reading either of these examples. Some music critics, especially in general circulation publications, try to avoid using technical terms in their writing. But my own feeling was always that if the term was in Webster’s (and not just a music dictionary) then it was fair to use it. Crescendo is in Webster’s and it seemed easy enough for most readers to understand anyway.

Not so fast. Along comes Kingsley Amis. In his “The King’s English: A Guide to Modern Usage,” he has this typically curmudgeonly thing to say on the word:

“Once a musical term meaning ‘(passage played) with increasing volume’ and a derived figurative term meaning ‘progress towards a climax’. For many years now taken to be a fancy synonym for ‘climax’ as in ‘the gunfire reached a crescendo’ or ‘the chorus of vilification rose to a crescendo’ and rendered useable only by the unwary or vulgar. Outside of a strictly musical context, that is.”

Yes. The important distinction to remember is that a crescendo is not a particular point in a musical composition — such as the climax — but a process therein, i.e. a process of getting louder. The musical marking for it is quite simple and illustrative, consisting of an elongated “lesser than” sign (as used in mathematics) placed directly under the passage for which the composer wants a gradual (or fairly sudden, but never instantaneous) increase in volume. A crescendo sign varies in length, depending upon the length of the crescendo desired.

The definition, however, is complicated, I now see, by Webster’s. The second definition of the word in my old collegiate edition says it’s synonymous with “climax,” which is entirely wrong from a musical point of view.

The longest crescendo in music is probably Ravel’s “Bolero,” which is, in fact, one long crescendo. Another very long crescendo occurs in the first movement of Shostakovich’s “Leningrad” Symphony. I’m not sure how long it is, exactly, but it’s something around 10 minutes. “Rossini crescendos” are much shorter but quite effective. The one in the Overture to “La Cenerentola” is a particular delight. — TIMOTHY MANGAN

Video: Overture to ‘Candide’

As part of their annual Symphony in the Cities concerts this month in Newport Beach, Irvine and Mission Viejo, Carl St.Clair and the Pacific Symphony will perform Leonard Bernstein’s rambunctious Overture to “Candide.” Here’s Bernstein himself conducting the New York Philharmonic in a lightning fast account of the score in 1962. The performance was nationally broadcast in the Young People’s Concerts series.