Books on classical music: Some essentials (4)

By TIMOTHY MANGAN

Two autobiographies …

“The Memoirs of Hector Berlioz” by Hector Berlioz. Berlioz was the archetypical Romantic — sensitive, poetic, experimental, nostalgic, given to flights of fantasy, easily wounded, progressive, dramatic verging on melo-. He was also a terrific writer. In addition to the adventurous and colorful narrative — which includes his bewitchment with the Shakespearean actress Harriet Smithson, for whom he wrote the Symphonie fantastique, their marriage and not so eventual separation — and entertaining bouts of score settling, there are deep insights into the music. This must surely be one of the greatest autobiographies written by an artist.

Excerpt:

I had been greatly struck by certain episodes in the life of Benvenuto Cellini. I had the misfortune to believe they would make an interesting and dramatic subject for an opera, and I asked Léon de Wailly and Auguste Barbier — the powerful poet of the Iambes — to write a libretto around them.

The result, according to even our mutual friends, lacked the essential ingredients of what is known as a well-made drama, but I liked it, and I still do not see in what way it is worse than many that are performed daily. The then director of the Opéra, Duponchel, regarded me as a kind of lunatic whose music was a conglomeration of absurdities, beyond human redemption; but in order to keep in with the Journal des débats he consented to listen to a reading of the libretto of Benvenuto, and appeared to like it, for he went about saying that he was putting on the opera not because of the music, which he knew would be preposterous, but because of the book, which he found charming.

Accordingly he had it put into rehearsal. I shall never forget the horror of those three months. The indifference, the distaste manifested by most of the singers (who were already convinced that it would be a fiasco); Habeneck’s ill-humour, and the vague rumours that went around the theatre; the crass objections raised by that whole crowd of illiterates to certain turns of phrase in a libretto so different in style from the empty, mechanical rhyming style of the Scribe school — all this was eloquent of an atmosphere of general hostility against which I was powerless, but which I had to pretend not to notice.

***

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Pre-concert talk for Philip Glass concert at Carnegie Hall

(Here’s my pre-concert lecture delivered at 7 p.m. last Saturday in New York. Due to a change in plans, it wasn’t actually given in Carnegie Hall, but across the street in a meeting room at the Park Central Hotel.)

Carnegie talk

Hi everyone,

Welcome to Carnegie Hall. I’m Tim Mangan, Pacific Symphony’s writer-in-residence, and I’m going to give a short talk on the program we’re about to hear, hoping to prepare you for it. But first I’d like to talk a little about Carnegie Hall itself, because it, too, is going to be very much part of the experience.

Carnegie Hall opened on May 5, 1891. The original program had Walter Damrosch conducting the New York Symphony playing “America,” Beethoven’s “Leonore” Overture No. 3 and the New York premiere of Berlioz’s Te Deum, with the Oratorio Society joining. The special guest of the evening was Tchaikovsky. Damrosch had wanted him to compose a new march for the occasion, but instead he just used his Coronation March that he wrote for the coronation of Tsar Alexander III, giving it a different title, Marche solennelle, hoping that no one would notice that it was an earlier piece. Tchaikovsky conducted it himself that night. The story goes that the march was recognized as the Coronation March and this pleased the composer, who said that American audiences knew his music better than the Russians did.

(Incidentally, on the same trip to America, Tchaikovsky also visited the Peabody Conservatory of Music in Baltimore — the alma mater of tonight’s featured composer Philip Glass, and my alma mater too.) 

The hall was at first called just Music Hall (founded by Andrew Carnegie) but soon, at the start of the 1894-95 season, it was officially changed to Carnegie Hall. But if you go out front and look up, those words — Music Hall founded by Andrew Carnegie — are still there, etched in the building above the entrance. Andrew Carnegie was one of the richest men in the world at the time, an industrialist who spent the latter part of his life as a philanthropist, funding this hall and of course Carnegie libraries around the country.

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Reviews of Pacific Symphony’s Carnegie Hall performance

Here are links to the reviews of Pacific Symphony’s debut at Carnegie Hall on April 21 in a program of music by Ravi Shankar and Philip Glass. I will add reviews if as they come in.

The New York Times

The Orange County Register

Agence Press France

Berkshire Fine Arts

Classical Voice North America (John Rockwell)

Photo: Richard Termine

Saturday at Carnegie Hall and other adventures

Saturday in New York was jam-packed for anyone associated with Pacific Symphony. My own day started pleasantly with breakfast below the Plaza Hotel with wife and brother-in-law, also in New York on business.

In the early afternoon I met Symphony videographer Paul Harkins to take care of some on camera duties around Carnegie Hall. Then rehearsal inside. Carl St.Clair brought Philip Glass with him to the podium and before running through “The Passion of Ramakrishna” said to him: “If you hear anything you can’t stand, just yell at me.”

In the event, the composer sat quietly in the hall and listened in silence all the way through. St.Clair adjusted some dynamic markings here and there and now and then turned around to see if assistant conductor Roger Kalia and Pacific Chorale conductor Robert Istad felt the balances were right. (They did.)

When “Ramakrishna” ended, a smiling Glass approached the stage and said simply, “Great, I’ve never heard it sound so good,” and made his exit. Nervous he was not.

After a break, the rehearsal of Ravi Shankar’s Sitar Concerto No. 3, with sitar soloist Anoushka Shankar, and the Glass/Shankar “Meetings Along the Edge” went similarly without incident and all seemed prepared for the big event.

My next job was to quickly stuff down a dinner — pizza at Angelo’s — for I had a pre-concert lecture to deliver at 7 p.m. at the optimistically named Manhattan Skyline Room at the hotel.

A choice audience showed up for my palaver and seemed to find it illuminating and then we were off to Carnegie — across the street.

The venerable Hall was warm and sold out. The orchestra and choir and soloists performed superbly, giving the best rendition of this program that these ears had witnessed. There were standing ovations at intermission (after the Shankar) and at the end of the concert (after the “Ramakrishna” premiere). St.Clair interviewed Glass onstage before the latter, the crowd greeting him like a returning hero. The Carnegie acoustics lived up to their reputation, the lower strings sounding especially lush and present. We heard through the grapevine that several critics were present, including someone from The New York Times. (We’ll share the reviews in this space as they become available.)

The after party — in the Rose Museum and adjoining rooms, on the premises — was everything it should be, with speeches and celebration and the composer in almost regal presence. After that, I went down the block for a ridiculously expensive beer with an old journalist colleague and a new friend, a composer who had come to the concert, Raphael Mostel, nephew of the famed Zero. Only in New York.

See also:

Friday in New York

Tuesday night at Carnegie Hall

Friday in New York

Friday was an eventful day for the orchestra as well as for me.

First, on the personal front, the wife and I grabbed a cab and took in the fabulous Thomas Cole exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. During our ramblings there, she snapped this rather grand photo:

Some hot dogs from a street vendor, mustard on my pants and a chilly walk along Central Park …

…and I was off to Steinway Hall to hear a discussion moderated by Pacific Symphony president John Forsyte with conductor Carl St.Clair and Carnegie Hall director of artistic planning Jeremy Geffen.

Geffen, it turns out, grew up in Orange County listening to St.Clair and the Pacific Symphony and studied viola at USC. He gave the audience of Symphony patrons some insights in the artistic side of running Carnegie Hall, which is the venue for some 700 concerts a year.

St.Clair spoke movingly and emotionally about the program he has brought for the orchestra’s Carnegie debut, and offered some deep insights into “The Passion of Ramakrishna” by Philip Glass.

Steinway Hall is also a showroom for the famed piano brand. I liked this one:

After the discussion, a young pianist, Drew Petersen, winner of a 2018 Avery Fisher Career Grant, gave us a short and impressive recital that included Beethoven’s Sonata, Op. 54, Liszt’s transcription of Schumann’s song “Devotion,” and the crackling finale (a fugue) of Samuel Barber’s Piano Sonata.

The biggest news of the day, though, was this:

The orchestra has sold out its Carnegie Hall debut concert and the poster duly went up at the entrance.