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Archive for June, 2009

Spiegelgasse Today
Spiegelgasse today
(Creative Commons License Franz Jachim, Vienna)

Mozart’s 40th symphony is one of his most emotionally charged (dare I say Romantic?) works. It’s one of only two large-scale symphonies he composed in dark minor keys (the other is #25, also in g minor). And it’s one of three late, lonely symphonies that he actually meant to be played in — of all places — a casino.

The wonder is that he wrote the fortieth at all.

Over a period of 16 years (he started at age 8!) Mozart composed well over 3 dozen symphonies, and several more that were really slightly tweaked opera overtures. But once Archbishop Colloredo’s literal kick in the pants had launched Mozart into his life as a freelance musician in Vienna, he had little further use for symphonies. In the nine years he had left in this world, Mozart created only a half-dozen more.

No wonder. By 1781, when Mozart descended on Vienna, symphonies were falling out of fashion there. What the Viennese clamored for, at least at first, was Mozart at the keyboard. They filled the theatres for his operas, and for a while they even were willing to pay him handsomely – in advance, no discounts or refunds, thank you very much – for music lessons. His purse jingled a happy tune. Symphonies? There was no money to be made from them, so why write them?

He did knock out a few symphonies for specific occasions – in seven years, all of three. But the big symphonic revival came 1788. Mozart composed three more, his last, all in that one year. They’re the ones we call numbers 39, 40, and 41.

Why symphonies? Why then?

Seven years on, Vienna had begun to drift away from Mozart. The needy composer had mined the virtuoso vein voraciously, and it was nearly played out. Then there were matters over which Mozart had no control. The emperor’s reforms – exactly what Mozart admired about him – had taken money out of the pockets of the wealthy, so they were less interested in concerts and commissions. The reforms had benefitted the rising middle class, and they’d filled seats at Mozart’s concerts a few years before. But the Turkish War had sapped everyone’s resources and enthusiasm.

Mozart’s operas were still doing decent box office, but rumors circulated that the Opera would soon be disbanded. It was running a deficit, and the imperial treasury was rapidly draining away into the war. In the end, the Opera survived, but the whispering (and some actual pink slips) drove away some of the best singers – and the audiences.

Mozart’s income was sliding. But Mozart had rubbed elbows with nobility! Surely he deserved to live just as graciously as his musical colleagues – Salieri included – who had steady salaries from their court positions.

So he did. Between his profligate ways and Constanze’s worsening health (no surprise, since he kept her in a nearly constant state of pregnancy), Mozart was spiraling downward into debt. He wrote to his fellow Mason J M Puchberg, “Life becomes impossible when one must bide one’s time between various odd bits of income.”

Mozart was writing to ask Puchberg for – what else? – money. Nor was Puchberg the only one. By 1788 Mozart’s letters to his sister Maria Anna speak ever less of his full datebook, and ever more of his empty pockets.

Finally, desperate for some income, Mozart made plans for an autumn concert series. Phillipp Otto had just opened a new casino in the Spiegelgasse in Vienna. A couple of years before, Mozart had had some success with a "concerts in the casino" series at Trattner’s casino. Maybe Otto’s would work even better.

Initially Mozart sketched out a piano concerto for this series. He gave it up, though, maybe realizing that Mozart at the keyboard wasn’t quite the draw it had been. Instead, perhaps ready to try anything that might attract the jaded and uneasy Viennese, Mozart turned back to the symphonic world he’d mostly neglected.

Mozart had moved yet again, trying to cut his expenses. Although the new digs were cheaper, he now he had an idyllic garden in which to put pen to manuscript paper. There Mozart composed the turbulent 40th, along with its sunnier neighbors the 39th and 41st, during a 2-month period that summer.

Legend has it that Mozart never heard the 40th symphony performed, but that’s very unlikely. It’s tough to be certain, because Mozart’s letters, usually our best map of his musical life, are maddeningly thin on details. However, it appears that he did succeed in mounting at least one of the autumn concerts: Mozart wrote to Puchberg, offering him tickets. Alas, there’s no date on the letter. Although we’re pretty sure that Salieri used it in a benefit for the Tonkünstlersocietät in April of 1791, we may never know for sure whether Mozart’s 40th symphony was actually played where he intended it to be – in the casino in the Spiegelgasse.

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Beaux Arts Trio
Beaux Arts Trio

Over a half-century on, the ensemble that was arguably the world’s most famous piano trio is no more. In August of 2008, when this article first appeared, they played their finale where they made their 1955 debut — the Tanglewood Festival.

It was a poignant moment for me, as a classical announcer and music director. "Beaux Arts" was one of the first names I learned to pronounce when I first started announcing classical music almost 35 years ago! But of course what I really remember them for is their unflagging musicianship. They brought Haydn’s trios to my attention, infused Schubert with an unmatched poetry, and captured the anguish and intensity of the Shostakovich e-minor trio like no one else ever has.

The Beaux Arts Trio I remember best is that group — Menahem Pressler, Isidore Cohen, and Bernard Greenhouse. They’ve been through several personnel changes since, most recently landing the promising young violinist Daniel Hope in 2002.

It was partly Hope’s career trajectory that helped to seal the trio’s fate. It certainly wasn’t Pressler’s. At 84, founding pianist Menahem Pressler is still going strong and is forging ahead with a full performance and teaching schedule. But Hope left to pursue his developing solo career. Pressler and cellist Antonio Meneses said they couldn’t face "breaking in" yet another violinist.

I’ll miss them, and I’m sure you will too. But every end has its concomitant beginning. With luck their departure will spur reissues of the trio’s voluminous older catalog on CD, or at least on downloads.

Further reading:

Beaux Arts Trio Bids Farewell at NPR.org

A Trio Winds Down at the New York Times (registration may be required)

Listening with the Beaux Arts Trio:

Tanglewood Farewell Concert at NPR (includes downloadable music file)

Complete Haydn Trios at Arkivmusic

Schubert Trios at CD Universe

Shostakovich Trios at Amazon

Note: The vendor links above are provided solely for your information. WKSU doesn’t endorse these suppliers, nor does it receive any financial benefit from your use of the links.

This article was originally published on 22 August 2008.

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Russian Julius Block was a music-lover. His German ancestors left him with a prosperous international business, and he built on it as he travelled the globe. Block loved the newest inventions — he introduced his country to the bicycle and the escalator. When he read in the papers about the phonograph, he had to go New Jersey to meet Thomas Edison and see it.

Edison thought of his invention mainly as a way to record voices, especially famous ones. However, Block didn’t want to limit this new contraption to being a simple voice recorder or dictating machine. He wanted to do more. Block was a good pianist, and knew Anton Arensky, Anton Rubinstein, Alexander Taneyev, and — most importantly — Peter Tchaikovsky. He wanted to record these people not just speaking, but performing.

After Block passed away in 1934, his recorded cylinders ended up in an archive in Berlin. When that city was almost totally destroyed at the end of WWII, it was thought that the recordings had been lost. Even Block’s own son had no idea they might have survived. But the Soviets didn’t let that happen. The cylinders were removed to the Pushkin House — where they’d originated in St. Petersburg.

Enter Ward Marston. Marston plays the piano and conducts his own orchestra, and is known for his restoration of old recordings. He lives outside of Philadelphia with his service dog, Vinnie, and nearly 30,000 records. Marston travelled to Russia and was able to access Block’s archives. He’s issued some of Block’s recordings on 9 CDs.

Today (Friday 12 June 2009) you’ll hear a recording made in 1890. In order of their appearances (or sounds, if you like), the voices are composer Anton Rubinstein, singer Elizaveta Lavrovskaya, composer Peter Tchaikovsky, pianist and conductor Vassily Safonov, pianist Alexandra Hubert, and our host Julius Block. Expect to hear Tchaikovsky speak after each time you hear someone sing. He is the one you hear whistling at the end — and Peter Tchaikovsky is the answer to our Friday Quiz.

Ward Marston’s website

A photo of Tchaikovsky taken about the time of the recording (1890)

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In musical news this week:

  • Bloomberg’s, poking through the New York City Opera’s tax returns, berated them for their eleven million dollar 2008 deficit.
  • London mayor Boris Johnson will distribute 31 free pianos to public places round the city, complete with laminated songbooks, in the hopes of encouraging impromptu sing-ins.
  • The Basel Schola Cantorum used computer analysis to make a modern reproduction of an 8-foot-long trumpetlike medieval instrument, the lituus, of which no examples survive.
  • Philadelphia Orchestra musicians volunteered to take a pay cut of almost five percent.
  • The Cleveland Orchestra’s assistant director of choruses, Betsy Burleigh, started her new gig as music director of Boston’s Chorus Pro Musica.
  • Kempton Park in Sunbury announced that they’d engaged England’s Royal Philharmonic to play Rossini’s William Tell Overture at a July horse race, to see if it would encourage the horses to run faster.
Stanley Drucker
Stanley Drucker (World Clarinet Alliance)

But the big news is that this weekend the New York Philharmonic’s principal clarinetist, Stanley Drucker, will play his last concerto performances with the orchestra.

The clarinet and I go back a long way. It was the first orchestral instrument I ever heard and saw up close; I wasn’t even yet in school. In the half-century since then, I’ve grown to love the clarinet’s split personality, its dark chocolate low register and its scotch-on-the-rocks high register.

Few composers have exploited that timbral flexibility better than Aaron Copland did in his clarinet concerto, swinging the instrument from his trademark spare lonely-open-plains sound to a jazzy Chicago speakeasy jam and back again. Our own Cleveland Orchestra’s principal Franklin Cohen played it at Severance Hall almost exactly a year ago (May 2008), but the performance I’ll never forget was a Blossom concert in the early 1980s. Cohen was perhaps a half-dozen or so years with Cleveland then; he’d signed on in 1976. The season was late, the night cool, the audience a bit sparse, and that was exactly the right setting for the Copland. Unforgettable.

So I nodded when I read that Drucker would be playing the Copland for his last Philharmonic solos. Not only is it the clarinet personified, it’s one of Drucker’s trademark works. Stanley Drucker’s been an almost unprecedented 60 years with the Phil, and when he steps off that stage for the last time, he’ll have played the Copland in concert at least once for every one of those years.

Sixty years, 10 music directors, over 10,000 concerts. Stanley Drucker has played every one of them with enthusiasm and joy, and I’m betting he’ll apply the same attitude to his post-Phil musical life. (You don’t really think a musician stops playing when he retires, do you?)

Thanks for the long run, Mr Drucker. Thanks for the music. Thanks for the Copland, the Mozart, the Brahms, and much more. Enjoy your free time. And may our own Franklin Cohen give Northeast Ohio as many years of his artistry as you’ve given New York.

Further reading:

NY Philharmonic Bids Farewell To Clarinetist at NPR

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Betsy Burleigh
Betsy Burleigh (Chorus Pro Musica)

This month (June 2009), the Cleveland Orchestra’s assistant director of choruses begins her newest gig, as music director of Boston’s Chorus Pro Musica. She succeeds Jeffrey Rink, the ensemble’s director of 17 years.

In addition to her eleven years with Cleveland, Burleigh is music director of the Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh — a position she inherited from the great choral director Robert Page — and is professor and coordinator of choral and vocal studies at Cleveland State University.

Betsy Burleigh also directed the Akron Symphony Chorus from 1997 to 2002, and the Canton Symphony Chorus from 1997 to 2000.

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