Program for New Year’s concert from Vienna

The 2018 New Year’s concert from Vienna (with the Vienna Philharmonic), on January 1, will be conducted by Riccardo Muti for the fifth time. KOCE will broadcast the event at 9 p.m. on Jan. 1. This is always one of the most enjoyable classical music broadcasts of the year (in our opinion) and is best accompanied with a good bottle of champagne.

Muti and the Vienna Phil will perform the following program:

  • Johann Strauss, Jr.
    Einzugsmarsch aus der Operette „Der Zigeunerbaron“, ohne op.
  • Josef Strauss
    Wiener Fresken. Walzer, op. 249
  • Johann Strauss, Jr.
    Brautschau. Polka, op. 417
    Leichtes Blut. Polka schnell, op. 319
  • Johann Strauss, sen.
    Marienwalzer, op.212
    Wilhelm Tell Galopp, op. 29b
  • Franz von Suppé
    Ouvertüre zu “Boccaccio”
  • Johann Strauss, Jr.
    Myrthenblüten. Walzer, op. 395
  • Alphons Czibulka
    Stephanie-Gavotte, op. 312
  • Johann Strauss, Jr.
    Freikugeln. Polka schnell, op. 326
    Tales from the Vienna Woods, Waltz, op. 325
    Fest-Marsch, op. 452
    Stadt und Land. Polka mazur, op. 322
    Un ballo in maschera. Quadrille, op. 272
    Rosen aus dem Süden. Walzer, op. 388
  • Josef Strauss
    Eingesendet. Polka schnell, op. 240

They will also, of course, play the two traditional encores, which are the “Blue Danube” Waltz and the “Radetzky” March. The U.S. broadcast has in the past trimmed some items from the program, but these days the complete concert will be viewable on YouTube.

Audio: A Christmas symphony

I give you herewith “Santa Claus (Christmas Symphony)” by William Henry Fry, an American composer and critic who lived from 1813-1864. He was a most interesting musician and writer, and is often credited as the first native-born American to write a grand opera and to compose for large symphony orchestra. As a critic, he advocated for the performance of American music and encouraged composers to look to our folk music for inspiration long before Dvorak did so in the 1890s.

The symphony posted above is perhaps not a masterpiece, but neither is it anything to sniff at. You will hear a distinctly American touch here and there. The piece was given its premiere on Christmas Eve, 1853, in New York. It is performed here by the Royal Scottish Orchestra conducted by Tony Rowe.

“Santa Claus (Christmas Symphony)” is a programmatic work in one movement, which, according to George Templeton Strong, consisted of,

“an Introduction, Slow Movement, Christmas Merrymakings, Juvenile Dances and Songs, Separation of the Merrymakers as midnight approaches. Prayers of the Children, Lullaby, Stillness (all being hushed in slumber), A Snow Storm and Episode of a Perishing Traveler, The Church Bell tolls midnight, Santa Claus comes in his sleigh and distributes Christmas Gifts, Visions of happy sleep. Angels chanting the glad tidings. Sunrise, Joy of Children on discovering their toys, Christmas Hymn, Adeste fidelis—and Grand Finale—Hallelujah Chorus!”

Fry passed out a detailed program of the work for the opening night audience. A scholarly, but clearly written, discussion of the premiere, and the ensuing controversy, is here.

Merry Christmas.

Listen to this: ‘Bolero’

In our ongoing efforts aimed at improving the listening skills of people new to classical music, we come to instrumentation. It is helpful in learning to understand a particular piece to be able to identify, just with your ears, which instruments are playing when and what. Putting mental labels on sounds is an aid to our brains in sorting things out.

There are two melodies in Ravel’s “Bolero,” each played twice before alternating with the other. The piece is basically one long crescendo in C, and Ravel sets the melodies in a variety of solo instruments, and then groups of instruments.

For the sound file below (which features a performance of “Bolero” performed by the London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Claudio Abbado), we have added the timings for the entrance of every appearance of the melodies, and the instrument(s) that Ravel has decided will play them. (Later in the piece, when Ravel has large groups of instruments play the melodies, it is difficult to aurally distinguish every single instrument, but you can hear changes in the overall tone color.)

  • 13”: Flute
  • 59”: Clarinet
  • 1’46”: Bassoon
  • 2’32”: E-flat clarinet
  • 3’19”: Oboe d’amour
  • 4’05”: Trumpet with mute, flute
  • 4’50”: Tenor saxophone
  • 5’36”: Sorpanino saxophone, then at 6’07” soprano saxophone
  • 6’21”: Piccolos, French horn, celesta
  • 7’06”: Oboe, oboe d’amour, cor anglais, clarinets
  • 7’50”: Trombone
  • 8’37”: Piccolo, flutes, oboes, cor anglaise, clarinets, tenor saxophone
  • 9’22”: Piccolo, flutes, oboes, clarinets, first violins
  • 10’07”: Piccolo, flutes, oboes, cor anglaise, clarinets, tenor saxophone, first and second violins
  • 10’53”: Piccolo, flutes, oboes, cor anglaise, trumpets, first and second violins
  • 11’38”: Piccolo, flutes, oboes, cor anglaise, clarinets, sopranino saxophone, trombone, violins, violas, cellos (last four bars tenor saxophone and bass clarinet).
  • 12’22”: Piccolo, flutes, sopranino saxophone, tenor saxophone, piccolo trumpet, trumpets, violins
  • 13’07”: Piccolo, flutes, sopranino saxophone, tenor saxophone, piccolo trumpet, trumpets, trombone, violins.
  • At 13’46” the only chord change in “Bolero” is heard, a blazing E major. At 14’06” we return to C major for the raucous denouement.

Great moments in commercial music: Lincoln

From time to time we spot a commercial on TV or elsewhere that uses classical music. In this occasional series, we aim to share said commercials and identify said music. We caught this advert for Lincoln in a movie theater the other day. The music is the second waltz from the Jazz Suite No. 2 by Shostakovich.

Audio: Rossini: Overture to ‘L’Italiana in Algeri’

It’s Friday, time for some Rossini. Here’s the Overture to “L’Italiana in Algeri.” Carlo Maria Giulini conducts the Orchestra of the Teatro alla Scala di Milano. From 1954.

Instant recording libraries: Classical CD box sets for Christmas

[This article was first published in 2016. Some of the prices may have changed, but the general situation discussed is the same.]

Browsing through the Amazon classical music section recently, in search of ideas for Christmas, I once again noticed that CDs are now, in many cases, dirt cheap, especially when ensconced in gargantuan boxed sets. They are not only cheaper than downloads, but also higher fidelity, which is to say for you youngsters out there, better sounding.

In some cases, you can make a single purchase and have an instant and respectable library of classical music.

For instance, a newbie could buy “Karajan: Official Remastered Version,” released in September by Warner Classics/Parlophone, and get 101 CDs at about $1.70 a pop, and a large swath of the Western canon to boot. OK, some of these recordings are mono, but with current remastering techniques these will no doubt sound just fine. The orchestras featured include the Berlin Philharmonic, the Vienna Philharmonic, the Philharmonia and others, in other words some of the best on the planet.

The new complete edition of Mozart, “Mozart 225,” a bestseller, is similarly low-priced, 200 CDs, and some 240 hours of music, for a mere $340.

OK, so you don’t have a couple hundred to blow on CDs, there are plenty of boxed sets for cheaper. I had my eye on the complete Chicago Symphony recordings of the great French conductor Jean Martinon, 10 CDs of wonderful repertoire (by Mennin, Varese, Roussel, Martinon, Hindemith … the Weber clarinet concertos played by Benny Goodman … as well as more common fare) for a mere $19.

Boxes devoted to conductors from the golden age are especially attractive. I have a thing for French conductors (as anyone who reads this blog will know). Decca has released a complete package of the recordings made for the label by Pierre Monteux, 20 CDs for $70, great recordings with the London Symphony, the Vienna Philharmonic, the Concertgebouw and the Paris Conservatory Orchestra. (I probably won’t buy it, though; I have virtually all of it on vinyl.)

Or there’s a hard-to-surpass set of French music recorded by Ernest Ansermet and the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, 32 CDs of definitive accounts of music by Debussy, Ravel, Faure, Dukas, Martin and others for just $80.

71fgsdyn1yl-_sl1200_Need a set of the Beethoven Nine? Bernstein’s with the New York Philharmonic (no slouch) is $11. George Szell’s exceptional traversal with the Cleveland Orchestra is $13. Slightly higher in price is a compelling Nine led by Monteux. Want some history? You can find Toscanini leading all nine symphonies for less than $9, Furtwangler for $16.

Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic in the nine Bruckner symphonies (9 CDs): $35.  Bernard Haitink and the London Philharmonic in the nine Vaughan Williams symphonies (7 CDs): $18. Paavo Berglund and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra in the seven Sibelius symphonies (4 CDs): $13.

It’s not all orchestral. It goes on and on. The Tokyo String Quartet plays all of Beethoven’s string quartets (there are 16) on 9 discs for … $13. There’s a lot more; go look for yourself.

Many labels have also been releasing huge sets of their general catalog. Mercury Living Presence, justly celebrated by audiophiles, has three volumes, of 51, 55 and 53 CDs, respectively, with the highest priced at $119.

No longer have a CD player? Good portable models are easy to find for less than $30.

Update: The complete works of Stravinsky, conducted by the composer, 22 CDs: $26.

Video: Leonard Bernstein conducts Nielsen’s Symphony No. 3, ‘Sinfonia Espansiva’

None of the six symphonies of the Danish composer Carl Nielsen (1865-1931) turn up very often on U.S. concert programs, and that’s a shame. The set is certainly one of the most remarkable and satisfying of the 20th century (though No. 1 was written in 1892). The reason they aren’t performed here much is perhaps hard to say with certainty, but I think it probably has something to do with our programming in general, which is overwhelmingly focused on German and Russian classics. There are simply no Danish works in the standard repertoire, Nielsen or otherwise.

At any rate, here’s a rather athletic and terrific live performance of the Third, with Leonard Bernstein conducting the Royal Danish Orchestra in 1965. (The sound is decent; you can even hear Bernstein stomping at several points. The picture is virtually high def.) Bernstein at one time took up the Nielsen cause with some enthusiasm, and recorded the symphonies 2-5 with the New York Philharmonic, as well as the flute and clarinet concertos. He also recorded the Third with the Royal Danish.

The top 10 greatest notes of all time

[First published in 2011 on Classical Life, but still true.]

Top 10 lists are big these days in the sophisticated world of the internet and its readership. Even the august New York Times (in January) got into the act recently by naming (or taking a deep breath and beginning to try to start to name) the 10 greatest composers of, like, forever. But never before has the world seen a list like the one we attempt today: The Top Ten Greatest Notes of All Time.

A word on our methods. First, we ate dinner. Then we started to think about doing the dishes but decided to do them later. They can wait. The food won’t stick, not with the dishwasher we have. (We paid a little extra.) Secondly, or thirdly, it’s hard to keep track, we got a committee of the world’s leading musicians together at a retreat in the mountains of Nevada, fed them lavishly and then corralled them all into a small meeting room without heat or air-conditioning and told them not to come out until they had settled on a list of the ten best notes ever. We took the resulting list and compared it to our own and decided to use ours. Theirs was totally wrong, a product of “group thinking” and “political correctness.”

We won’t claim that our list will be approved of by all. We’ve made some controversial choices, for sure, but, in sum, we stand by them. At the very least, we hope that our list of the Top Ten Greatest Notes of All Time will serve as a teachable moment, the start of a further and fruitful discussion, nationally and globally, on this most important topic. Without further ado, then …

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