Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Vienna in Philadelphia

In last night's dream, Yannick Nezet-Seguin was a friend of mine. We went to the Camden Aquarium with other friends who I used to hang out with when I was working on my master's degree in Music Theory in the 1980s. (I'm not sure that the Camden Aquarium was there yet, but that's not important.) Nezet-Seguin would have been about ten years old then, living in Montreal, and there's little chance I would have let him drive my friends and me through Philadelphia and over the Ben Franklin Bridge to Camden's Aquarium. This stuff happens in dreams and fiction, though, and it's fun to think about. We had a great time at the Aquarium, us four.
Yannick Nezet Seguin - Orquesta Filarmónica de Rotterdam, 
photo by Quincena Musical
The truth is, he's been on my mind a lot since he took over as Music Director of my beloved Philadelphia Orchestra in 2012. Riccardo Muti was the director when I was in school then, and he was a hero, too. (I was behind him in line at the Barnes & Noble once and noticed his stack of CDs before I noticed who he was.)
In-between, there were other directors, no less fantastic, I'm sure, but they had the misfortune to populate that post when I had neither the time or the money to visit the orchestra much. Then came Yannick, and he breathed energy and vitality into the orchestra without sacrificing artistry. He's charismatic on the podium and well-known on social media.

I discovered that the orchestra has a Cyber Monday sale (the Monday after American Thanksgiving) where fans can buy tickets at a good price. I bought three sets of tickets for the three Vienna concerts in January 2016 and invited friends to attend. I was thrilled to revisit these Viennese masters I had been studying and writing about since my two trips to Vienna this summer. (Read my short blog post about Vienna's surprises here.) We heard Strauss, Beethoven, Haydn, Mozart, Bruckner, Schumann, Brahms, at these concerts, plus a more recent composer I'd never heard of: HK Gruber.

This photo is from a 2009 article by Geoffrey Norris in The Telegraph. Read it here:http://www.telegraph.co.uk/journalists/geoffrey-norris/4592446/HK-Gruber-a-composer-who

HK Gruber was born in Vienna, was educated at the music academy there, and lives there now. In the program notes for this concert (1/16/16), Paul Griffiths describes Gruber as an "early postmodern transgressive." Rather than trying to translate that label, I'll describe him as a guy who has a lot of fun with his music and writes some interesting, energetic, and compelling stuff. You can meet him in this video:

Also from Griffiths's program notes, we learn that Gruber's first big-time composition was named Frankenstein!!, and included a part for Gruber himself as narrator in a scary style. That was 1978.

He composed the piece we heard in 1981 (Charivari) when he was obsessed with Johann Strauss Jr.'s "Perpetuum mobile" polka. Here's Herbert von Karajan and the Vienna Philharmonic performing that Strauss piece:

Gruber's piece is a deconstruction of the Strauss polka, and the listener can hear some of the original piece in the newer one. The name Charivari is taken from the title of a French satirical journal from the 1800s and means to bang on pots and generally make noise to annoy people (such as newlyweds). The audience at our concert demanded an encore, so Yannick and his crew performed the Strauss "Perpetuum mobile" polka. We got to hear where the newer piece came from. The BBC Philharmonic Orchestra made this recording in 2007:

I really like the idea of programming a selection of music from the same place in a concert or concerts like this. Next year, Yannick Nezet-Seguin plans to take us to PARIS!

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Wohnungs: The Strauss and Mozart Apartments in Vienna

Johann Strauss II in the Stadtpark
I have had a long-term relationship with the composers of Vienna: Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Strauss, Mahler, Bruckner, and Schoenberg, but during my two-week stay in Vienna I had to focus on just two. I was in the city for a summer residency, one of the requirements of the Pan-European MFA Program in Creative Writing at Cedar Crest College. We listened to lectures on art,  music, history, literature, and psychology, and visited some important places like Schonbrunn Palace, the Literature Museum, the Kunsthistorisches Museum, and further away Bratislava and Melk Abbey. I'm just skimming the surface here--we did way more than that in-between fantastic cafe meals and delicious desserts.

With my own writing projects in mind, I visited as many Johann Strauss and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart destinations as possible, and I was lucky enough to catch a tour of the famous Vienna State Opera House. This enormous building opened in 1869 with a performance of Mozart's Don Giovanni which Emperor Franz Joseph and Empress Elisabeth ("Sisi") attended.

The Opera at night

The Opera's fountain
Inside the opera house
And then there's Johann Strauss II. Standing in below for JS is André Rieu at Schönbrunn Palace.

Johann Strauss II, "The Waltz King"
One of my essays for this writing program is a defense of the music of Johann Strauss. His waltzes, marches and polkas were intended to be light entertainment and succeeded in this genre. Strauss's face and music are iconic in his home city, so why is there so much resentment against him by high-brow music lovers and wannabes? In college, my classmates and I  were advised to ignore him by our snooty Music History professor. My essay argues for the man and his music and will benefit from my visits to some Viennese sites.

I had a Dickens of a time finding Johann Strauss's place. It's not well-marked and it's on the first floor which in Austria means up the first flight of steps. His apartment overlooks the Praterstrasse, a fashionable boulevard in the late 1800s when he lived there. I checked out his view and he could keep an eye on a good stretch of the Praterstrasse from his front room. The high-ceilinged rooms of the apartment are decked-out with memorabilia from his exciting life as Vienna's Waltz King. I saw newspaper articles about him, sheet music covers, a lock of his first wife's curly brown hair, his piano, and his violin in a fancy gold showcase. Listening stations are set up to provide the visitor with an audio experience, and all of the items are labeled...in German. The item that made the biggest impression on me was the death mask. That was Johann Strauss's exact face in that glass case! I was surprised to see his teeth under that big mustache of his--do teeth usually show in death masks? Creepy: his right eye was slightly open. Creepy. (Photographs inside were verboten, sorry. You'll have to imagine the creepy death mask.)

The Stadtpark featuring the famous Johann Strauss II statue
 While walking around in the Stadtpark (the City Park), I found the famous golden statue of The Waltz King and snapped a few photos. This statue is quite the tourist spectacle, and it was fun to watch people attempting to photograph each other posing with the golden Strauss.

The Kursalon in the Stadtpark

Nearby is the Italian Renaissance Kursalon finished in 1867, where many Johann Strauss concerts were held. If you're looking for a venue for a big celebration, this could be your place.

I had time for one more visit on my last day in Vienna, so I chose the Mozarthaus, also known as the Figarohaus or MozartWohnung. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart figures prominently in one (or maybe two?) of my essays for the program and a course I'm putting together, so this visit was an efficient use of my time. This museum was much easier to find than the Strauss house, mainly because St. Stephen's Cathedral (its own subway stop) points right to it.
St. Stephan's Cathedral at the upper left, and Mozarthaus at Domgasse 5 at center right (Thanks, Google Maps!)
Mozart's house gave me shivers, but not the same kind of shivers induced by the Strauss death mask.. Even though there wasn't much authentic Mozart "stuff" in there, I was thrilled to look out the windows and see what he saw.

Looking out Mozart's front door at the Blutgasse
Mozart and his family (one wife, one child) lived in this space from 1784 to 1787, and composed The Marriage of Figaro here (hence the name Figarohaus). The rooms of the house/apartment are in the same configuration as they were in Mozart's day and before, but we are not sure which room was which. The curators of the space made some educated guesses and hung (mostly facsimiles of ) paintings and documents in each room. An inventory of Mozart's possessions at the time of his death exists, so we can make guesses: "Perhaps this is where Mozart's billiard table was since it is the only room big enough to accommodate it," and "This was probably Mozart's bedroom." Chills happened on my spine when the audio tour narrator said, "This is most likely where the Haydn Quartets were first performed for Haydn himself with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart on viola and Leopold (his father) on violin." At that moment I was standing in the Billiard Room where light streamed in from the Blutgasse. It's the closest I'll ever get to time travel, and valuable inspiration for that new essay I've been mulling over.

And now if you will excuse me, I have to go do my homework.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Musical Treasures of Lobkowicz Palace, Prague

View from the terrace showing Prague, the Charles Bridge, and the Vltava River
The Lobkowicz name should be familiar to music aficionados as most of them were grand supporters of the arts. The family's palace is now a museum and the property has an interesting history of its own: it was confiscated by the Nazis at the beginning of World War II, and then again by the communists in 1948. William Lobkowicz, until recently an investment banker in Boston, managed to claim the family's property in the 1990s and turned it into a museum. The Lobkowicz Palace is part of the gigantic Prague Castle complex which overlooks the city and is mobbed by tourists every day. Our tour group was treated to lunch in one of the palace's sumptuous rooms and it looked like this:
We ate salad, goulash, and strudel.
Our group was treated to a short concert after lunch, at which a violinist, cellist, and pianist played selections from the family's heyday. Then, inside the museum, we found famous Canalettos, a Bruegel famous for being the first secular landscape painting, arms and armor, Lobkowicz family portraits, and decorative arts. The recorded tour is narrated beautifully by William Lobkowicz himself and takes about an hour.

One crazy-beautiful Lobkowicz ceiling!
 The Music Room brought tears to my eyes, though. Behind glass cases live manuscript scores of Beethoven's Fourth and Fifth symphonies, an early manuscript of the Op. 18 String Quartets used for the first performances, a printed copy of his Third (the "Eroica"), and a score of Handel's "Messiah" with corrections and reorchestrations by none other than Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. There are more scores in the collection's archives, but these are the items on display.

It seems Beethoven met the 7th Prince Lobkowicz, Josef František Maximilián, when the two were in their twenties. They became friends and the Prince arranged for Beethoven to receive a pension or subsidy which continued beyond the Prince's death until Beethoven's own. Beethoven showed his gratitude by dedicating a number of his compositions, important ones, to the Prince: Symphony No. 5, Symphony No. 6, the six String Quartets Op. 18, the Harp Quartet Op. 74, the Triple Concerto, and the song cycle An die ferne Geliebte.

I mentioned that there is an early printed copy of the "Eroica" Symphony (Beethoven's Third) on display. While composing this heroic symphony, Beethoven was planning to dedicate it to Napoleon Bonaparte. He even went as far as to inscribe the title page, and then Napoleon declared himself emperor. This didn't sit well with Beethoven, and he erased the dedication. There's a hole in the paper of the manuscript where the writing had been. He substituted the inscription "To the memory of a great man," meaning "Hey, remember when Napoleon was cool?" Eventually, he re-dedicated the piece to his friend Prince Lobkowicz. This celebrated symphony, a quintessential specimen of this genre, was premiered privately a whole year before its public Vienna premiere in the Lobkowicz's other property, Jezeří Castle, in 1804.
Photographs are not allowed in the Collection, so here is a photo of the postcard I bought of the early Eroica edition.
 The scores and stories were enough to stop me in my tracks, but the room is filled with instruments from the castle's musical history. There's a wall of early clarinets, several oboes, trumpets, violins, violas, cellos, lutes, and guitars. The Lobkowiczes maintained their own court orchestra, and many of the instruments are from that ensemble. Following is the closest I could get on YouTube, the Vienna Philharmonic conducted by Maestro Bernstein...

In order to preserve the treasures in the collection, photography is not allowed. BUT, if you are interested in seeing some of these items and learning more about the history of this notable family, click on through to the Lobkowicz Palace website!

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Hanging Out in Philadelphia's Kimmel Center

Verizon Hall exterior under the Kimmel Center dome
The reason I chose Temple University for both undergraduate and graduate Music Theory study was that I wanted to be in a big city with a big orchestra, a big opera company, a big ballet company, and a big amount of chamber ensembles and other music opportunities. By 'big' I mean well-respected and frequently offering performances. Back when I was in college and graduate school,
Inside the Academy of Music
most of these performances happened in the stately Academy of Music, built with opera in mind in 1857. Riccardo Muti conducted most of the time. Back in my heyday, there was talk of a future venue designed for the city's world-class orchestra, but I finished school and moved away before groundbreaking. That new venue turned out to be Verizon Hall in the Kimmel Center, a little over a block south from the venerable Academy, and approximately an hour's automobile or train ride from my current dwelling. While the Academy seats 2900 listeners, Verizon Hall seats a mere 2400 on more comfortable red mohair seats.

"It's only an hour away," I thought, as I examined the Orchestra's schedule of concerts. I was in a giving (to myself) mood and selected an early November program devoted to Mahler's Second Symphony, "The Resurrection," and a later November program which featured the Orchestra's first-chair clarinetist, Ricardo Morales. The concerts were fantastic as I expected they'd be, but the extra stuff before and after were unexpected delights.


I like getting lost in a Mahler symphony, but the real reason
Gustav Mahler (1860-1911)
I selected this concert was to watch the relatively new conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra conduct the giant piece. I hadn't seen Yannick Nezet-Seguin conduct yet, but I've been impressed with his social media presence and his outreach to the musically-interested community. He has a superstar reputation and held that orchestra in the palm of his hand throughout the over-eighty minute work.

This symphony first performed in 1894 is known as "The Resurrection" because it's the kind of work that builds and builds to a humongous climax as the huge orchestra and choir (the Westminster Choir College choir from Princeton) works out the melodies and motives and transforms them into a giant new sound. One of the delights of this afternoon was the pre-concert talk where I learned a bit about The Resurrection. There's no indication on the score, but Mahler described the 'program' or story in general terms. The listener should imagine themselves standing at the grave of a beloved deceased person and let the music of the first movement represent their grief. The second, third, and fourth movements are intermezzi in which the mourner reminisces on the deceased's life. Then in the fifth movement, the listener is graveside again, experiencing the pain of loss along with a glimpse of optimism that comes with thoughts of the last judgment and resurrection. (I struggle with words to describe this profound piece; the music says so much more.) It's during the fifth movement the the giant choir sneaks in, at first barely perceptible, but ultimately strong at the conclusion.

After the meal of Mahler, there was desert! three of the orchestra's cello players came back on stage to play some chamber music. Yannick Nezet-Seguin himself (in street clothes now) introduced this "Postlude,"Leopold Mozart's Frosch-Parthia in C major and the Beethoven Trio in C major, Op. 87, both works arranged for three cellos.


Ricardo Morales
After many years of playing the clarinet in school, college, graduate school, and in various ensembles afterwards, the clarinet seems to me my own voice. Back in the days when the orchestra performed in the Academy of Music, Anthony Gigliotti was the first-chair clarinettist that everyone went to hear and schlepped to Philadelphia to study with. Since 2003 that chair is held by Ricardo Morales, who, before his arrival in Philadelphia, was first-chair with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. (A career to envy!) Morales dazzled us with two clarinet works, the Debussy Rhapsody No. 1, for Clarinet and Orchestra and the Rossini Introduction, Theme, and Variations for Clarinet and Orchestra, two pieces that I've studied and on my best day might have played at one-eighth the speed. Take a look at the photo at the left of Morales with his clarinets (orchestral clarinetists carry two, one in A and one in Bb). One of them is brown. This is unusual as most clarinets since the beginning of time are black as licorice and made from grenadilla wood or African mpingo. This orangey-brown wood is called cocobolo and comes from Central America. I want one. Here's a sample of a rehearsal of the Debussy piece with this very soloist:

The orchestra, under the baton of guest conductor Juanjo Mena, also played Rimsky-Korsakov's Capriccio Espagnol (with all its fiery clarinet licks) and the Tchaikovsky Symphony #5. And there was desert after this: four orchestra members enchanted us with the Ravel String Quartet.


A soft-spoken veteran usher named Bill walked a gang of us through the Kimmel Center: Verizon Hall, the Perelman Theater, and the mysterious Roof Garden. Verizon Hall is where the Philadelphia Orchestra concerts happen along with other events including the venerable Philadelphia Speaker Series I also attend. The spectacular mahogany interior of this hall is shaped like a cello to enhance the sound, and (I didn't know this until the tour), is protected from subway noise by twenty-four-inch blocks of rubber under the building. The corridors we walk through to get into the hall also provide insulation from noise. Centered behind the stage is the Fred J. Cooper Memorial Organ with its 7,000 pipes. It is the largest concert hall organ in the United States.

Verizon Hall's stage set up for the Philadelphia Orchestra
The Perelman Theater was created for smaller performances and features a rotating turntable stage that I didn't know about. The seats on the floor (orchestra level) actually fold down and slide under the stage in order to permit even more varieties of events. The unexpected concrete floors add to the live acoustics of this hall.
Inside the Perelman Theater
And then there is the Roof Garden. I'd never seen this space, but I had heard that after only a few years it was necessary to renovate it. The story is it was meant to be a garden with trees and plants, but it was too hot to use in the warmer months. Under that glass dome temperatures rose to 130 degrees! So, the space was re-thunk and the Roof garden got its own roof and air-conditioning system and now accommodates parties, weddings, concerts, meetings, and other events that do not require oppressive tropical heat.

The Kimmel Center's cool Roof Garden space (looking north)

The Roof Garden again, looking west
Looking south at Broad Street (the Avenue of the Arts) from the Roof Garden
I'm pleased that I splurged these two orchestra concerts and their extras. All too often I get hung up on how things used to be back in the glorious college days and why do they have to change, EVER? I feel content now that Yannick Nezet-Seguin has replaced Muti, the Kimmel Center has replaced the Academy of Music, and Ricardo Morales has replaced Gigliotti. I just had to get to know them!

Monday, October 6, 2014

The Barber of Seville, a Guest Post by Lester M Choodle

Your author, Lester M Choodle, waiting for the train to Philadelphia

My name is Lester M. Choodle and I am guest blogging for Margaret. My credentials: I sit on a perch in Margaret's house and as such I view an inordinate amount of operas, independent films, Law & Order episodes, and 1970s sitcom reruns on SD TV. I also get to hear music of all genres. I could file a report on the latest Bruce Springsteen record as easily as this blogpost on Rossini.

You may be wondering why I am writing the blog when she is sitting right beside me for the entire excursion. It seems that Margaret publicly stated this week that Rossini Operas Buffo are not her favorites. "I like drama," she said. I (Lester) am here as an impartial observer so that you, Margaret's readers, can be assured an impartial report on this opera production.

We took the train to Philadelphia for this matinee performance.

Here I am on the train with my ticket:

We attended the pre-performance talk at the Academy of Music where we got to sit in the posh seats close to the stage to hear Composer-in-Residence Lembit Beecher filled us in on this opera's history. Evidently, the first performance of The Barber of Seville was a catastrophe. A cat actually ran onstage, twice, distracting the singers and the audience. The tenor singing the Count Almaviva part sang his favorite Spanish song (not from the opera) in the first act, accompanied by his own untuned guitar. The second performance was much smoother, no animals ran onstage, and the opera has been a hit ever since. This setting of this performance, directed by Michael Shell, was updated to somewhere in the late twentieth century, the technicolor costumes were extraordinary, and the singing actors were given opportunities to ham-up their comic performances with exaggerated dance moves. Shell claims the movies of Pedro Almodóvar served as inspiration.

After the talk, we made our way up to the highest balcony called the Amphitheater for the performance. Where else would an owl perch for a performance? Here I am perched on the high wooden back of the seat in front checking out the stage:

Here I am back in my red velvet seat with my program and opera glasses:

But enough about me...This opera was probably familiar to most people in the audience, possibly from Bugs Bunny or Alfalfa on the Little Rascals, but we were instructed by Michael Shell's Director's Notes in the program to watch and listen as if this is the first time. This was not difficult since the sets and jewel-toned costumes were updated to the late twentieth century. Close your eyes and it is 1816. Open them and it is Technicolor 1970s or thereabouts. Don Basilio, Rosina's music teacher, performs an interesting Elvis impersonation.

Do you remember the plot? Lovely Rosina is the ward of Dr. Bartolo, and he falls in love with her. She falls in love with dashing Count Almaviva who is disguised as "Lindoro" so that he can assess whether Rosina is in love with him or his money. Figaro, the barber and jack-of-all-trades, ultimately helps the two young people get together by distracting Dr. Bartolo. Almaviva gets the girl, but Bartolo keeps her dowry, so everyone is happy.

One of the best scenes of this production was Dr. Bartolo's nightmare. (This scene replaces the traditional thunderstorm.) Bartolo was obsessed by roosters, and about seven of them, human-sized, invaded his bedroom and danced around. Roosters! Dancing! Terrifying! Colorful!

Margaret asked me which character I would like to perform if I were a singer/dancer/actor. She suggested "Figaro because he gets to wear that great coat with the eyes on it?"
"FIG--oh yeah, you're an owl." ['Who?' in Owlspeak means 'yeah.']

Here's a different Figaro with a different coat singing "Largo al Factotum," one of the most popular arias of this opera. It's a patter aria which means it has fast-moving text that has a tendency to get stuck in your head. (Don't say I didn't warn you!) This is one of the aspects of Opera Buffo that grates on Margaret's nerves and gave me the opportunity to guest-post on this one.

Margaret realizes that this is an important step in the evolution of opera and that Rossini was a true opera innovator. In fact, The Barber of Seville is one of the milestones of opera history that she discusses in her course, The Passion of Opera. I'll close this post with a few slides from her course showing Gioacchino Rossini, the Teatro Argentina in Rome where The Barber of Seville premiered, and two images of Rosina.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

"Fifty Years of Makin' This Guitar Talk" at Monmouth University

Wilson Hall, Monmouth University
What's your favorite Bruce Springsteen song? That was the gist of the first panel at "Fifty Years of Makin' This Guitar Talk," a symposium to celebrate Springsteen's 65th birthday this week, presented by the Friends of the Bruce Springsteen Special Collection and Monmouth University. As you might expect, "Born to Run" was the favorite of most of the panelists and audience members. One panelist suggested that if you tend to ignore the song because it's old and often-played, then you should listen to it again fresh, as if you've never heard it before. I'm happy to say that I do this every time I hear the song, and I always hear something new or different in the lyrics or the music taken as a whole, or in sections, or in the individual instruments. The music and performances are transformative on so many levels.

I can imagine what you're thinking. That a bunch of us Springsteen fans, experts and scholars got together at a symposium at a university to talk about our favorite Springsteen songs and that that is superficial indeed. But wait. That initial discussion served as an icebreaker, and soon the panel and audience were naming their favorite "guilty pleasure" and twenty-first-century songs and then those songs that may have done better if they had been recorded differently. "Girls in Their Summer Clothes" was suggested as a favorite from the current century, possibly because of the excellent imagery:

Since many of the attendees have been to many Springsteen shows, there was also a category of discussion for songs that were okay on the recording but brought to live in live performance. Springsteen has been playing for a long time (50 years according to the title of this event), and performances have evolved and matured along with the performers and the audience.

Stan Goldstein (blogger and author), Christopher Philips (Editor/Publisher of Backstreets Magazine), Holly Cara Price (writer, Huffington Post), and Barry Schneier (long-time photographer of Springsteen et al) sit on a panel at the symposium

So if you still don't get why people would bother convening at a symposium to discuss a man's body of work and his influence, let me try to understand. I enjoy spending lazy days off reading and writing. It's almost as if I am hosting my own storytelling salon where famous authors share their stories with me and I'm writing my stories for anyone who will read them. Even when I take a break for lunch and pop on the TV for an hour, I'm drawn to stories being told by actors. Guess what: Bruce Springsteen is a master storyteller, and if you listen closely to his lyrics you'll hear that. Every person brings their own experiences and knowledge to a story being told, and that is why it is so interesting to discuss a book with a book club, or discuss a movie around the office water cooler, or, discuss Springsteen's music at a symposium.

'Symposium' is a word with stuffy, pedantic connotations, but this symposium was not that. It was casual and interesting, with ample opportunity for attendees to offer their thoughts on various panel topics. I'll be honest: I wasn't sure I wanted to dissect my beloved Springsteen music in this way. I deeply appreciate his work as an innovative musician and poet, but I don't analyze his music in the same way as I would a Beethoven symphony or Puccini opera, The symposium topics were more general, assessing Springsteen's relationship with his audience and how it's evolved, his use of religious themes, and what's happening in Springsteen scholarship and media. Speaking of which, if you are not aware of Backstreets Magazine and BOSS, an open-source scholarly journal on Springsteen-related topics, you should check them out right now.

Waiting to start
My favorite moments had to be when panelists and attendees responded to the question, "How did you become a fan?" This sharing of stories brought tears to eyes as individuals described hearing their first Springsteen record or attended their first show in a seedy little bar or a giant stadium. Everyone agreed that no matter where he plays Springsteen has a way of involving everyone present, and showing that he appreciates everyone's attendance. Every show is different, and that is why fans go to multiple concerts when he plays in their town, and they might even follow him around the country to see him in other cities, and some even catch him abroad.The Springsteen audience is cohesive because they've experienced these feelings that they have not with other performers and they share. In this age of social media, there's even more sharing, and more firs-hand accounts of what various concerts are like. Did you know concert attendees live-Tweet set lists so those not in attendance will know what was played? (Springsteen fan Tweets were a subject of a scholarly study.)

As with any conference or symposium or event where experts speak on a topic that interests me, I came away with a list of books to investigate. Interested?

  • A Race of Singers: Whitman's Working Class Hero from Guthrie to Springsteen by Bryan K. Garmin (University of North Carolina Press, 2000).
  • Talk About a Dream: The Essential Interviews of Bruce Springsteen edited by Christopher Phillips and Louis P. Masur (Bloomsbury Press, 2013)
  • Bruce Springsteen, Cultural Studies, and the Runaway American Dream, by Kenneth Womack, Jerry Zolten, and Mark Bernhard (Ashgate, 2012)
  • Finding Grace in the Concert Hall: Community and Meaning Among Springsteen Fans, by Linda K. Randall (Waveland, 2010)
And the upcoming
  • Trouble in the Heartland: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Songs of Bruce Springsteen, by Jamez Chang, Jen Conley, Mark Krajnak, James Peterson, and Chuck Regan.
So there you have it: a day well-spent listening to people share their ideas about Bruce Springsteen and calling up my own similar stories. I can't wait until the Boss plays in Philadelphia again! Here's another of the big favorites...

Monday, June 23, 2014

J-B Lully and The Sun King

Jean-Baptiste Lully

"Oh! I've seen that name before. I just didn't know it was pronounced 'loo-LEE'." I was telling a friend about a course I'm teaching. It focuses on Jean-Baptiste Lully's musical innovations (mainly in opera and ballet) in the court of Louis XIV (1638-1715). I loved preparing this behemoth course, but as it is multidisciplinary, it took a lot of time and a lot of reading. I spent much class time introducing the court of the "Sun King," its major players and Louis XIV's lifelong desire to make France the epitome of culture and intelligence of the early Baroque. Only with an understanding of that milieu would Lully's court entertainment make sense.

Louis XIV, King of France, in Royal Costume
Hyacinthe Rigaud, 1701
Musee de Louvre
ARTSTOR 1039490421
Louis XIV's father, Louis XIII, died when XIV was only five years old. His mom, Queen Anne (of Austria) took over as regent until XIV was old enough, or as they say, attained his majority. Queen Anne selected Cardinal Mazarin as her assistant. Depending on who you listen to, Mazarin might be an evil, power-hungry genius, or he may be a nice, smart guy who administered France until XIV was ready to take over. In any event, Louis was crowned in 1661, and he set about modernizing Paris and creating an opulent lifestyle that he hoped would be emulated by all other European countries. Part of that lifestyle was top-notch entertainment, and here is where Jean-Philippe Lully (1632-1687) enters the story. 

Lully came to Paris from Italy and worked as a page and choirboy at the palace. He was trained on the violin as most musicians were then, and eventually began composing music for ballets. There were two kinds of ballets then, Ballet de cour which were spectacles, and La belle danse ("The Dance of Kings") which evolved into classical ballets as we know them. Louis XIV danced often in these productions, at least when he was young, and he was very proud of his dancer's legs. That is why his legs are often shown in portraits (with different colored tights). He got his nickname "The Sun King" from his affinity for portraying the sun itself in these performances. Here's a clip from the movie Le Roi Danse with Louis XIV as the sun, and music by Lully. The ballet is Ballet de la Nuit, a ballet de cour.

Eventually, Lully enjoyed a collaboration with actor/playwright Molière (real name Jean-Baptiste Poquelin) and they created a new form of ballet called comédie-ballet which combined music, dance, and theater. This collaboration only lasted from 1664 to 1671, but it happened at a very important time in Louis XIV's career. He had just moved to the new palace at Versailles (did you know it had been a hunting lodge before it was transformed into an opulent palace?), and Louis XIV ordered lavish entertainment for his housewarming. Lully and Molière came up with Les Plaisirs de l’Île Enchantée, a six-day celebration where the king and 600 of his closest friends visited various spots on the Versailles property for installments of Ludovico Ariosto's epic poem "Orlando Furioso." On the second night, the king, as the character Roger, introduced the Lully-Molière comédie-ballet La Princesse d'Elide. Here is some lovely music from that production:

After the brief but productive collaboration with Molière was over, Lully turned to writing opera. His contributions to this field were numerous and long-lasting. French operas long after Lully contained ballet sequences, and his French Overture form would be copied by many composers in the Late Baroque (J.S. Bach, G. F. Handel to name two) and forward. The opera Phaëton from 1683 was nicknamed "The People's Opera" because it was so darn popular. (You know the story--Phaëton borrows his father's chariot to impress a girl, drives it too close to the sun and threatens the very existence of the Earth and gets shot down by the girl's boyfriend's father and Phaëton dies. Did I mention that Phaëton's father is the sun?) Lully's operas contained magnificent scenery, costumes, and machines, so you can just imagine what a crowd-pleaser that sun-chariot was.

J-P Lully enjoyed a fantastic career in Louis XIV's court, making lasting innovations in music and ballet, but he is probably best-remembered for his unique tragic death. Back in Baroque France, conductors conducted with a tall staff instead of a little baton. Lully was jubilantly conducting his Te Deum, a sacred work in honor of the king's recovery from an illness. He accidentally stabbed his own foot with the staff, developed gangrene and died a few weeks later. "Ne me coupez pas!" Ironically, Louis XIV would also die of a gangrenous infection in his dancer's leg 28 years later. 

During those 28 years after Lully's death and before XIV's, the court continued to enjoy Lully's compositions and newer composers would continue to compose in Lully's style because that is what the king liked. His reputation spread throughout the French provinces and beyond to other European cities. So have you heard of him: loo-LEE?