I've written in the past about my cousin Diana Leviton Gondek, who's a terrific artist in Chicago. Among other things, she's worked with the Special Olympics -- who are based in Chicago -- even to the point of being commissioned to design their 50th anniversary poster. I've also noted the three fiberglass horses she was commissioned to create for the city to honor fallen policemen, one horse of which was on display outside of Mayor Rahm Emanuel's office.
It turns out that the Special Olympics is introducing a new program, where they feature artwork from their athletes shown side-by-side with professional art. The CBS-TV affiliate in Chicago, WBBM, did a report on this, and the Special Olympics asked Diana to speak on behalf of it.
(I think this could lead to a spin-off series, an artist who solves crimes as a hobby, finding patterns that lead her to the culprits, accompanied by her sidekick cat, Banksy.)
So, okay, yes, I'm biased. In either event, I can now refer to her as my artist cousin Diana Leviton Gondek as Seen on CBS News. And so, we take you now to our correspondent in the Windy City.
After going a while without an "IneterMISSION" podcast from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, they appear back up to speed, and here's another.
This week, as they describe, "Six CSO musicians describe the power of sharing music with audiences of all ages, while working with a commitment for unified impact. As they also anticipate the return of live concerts again, each also describes the timeless power of the orchestra to connect with listeners."
What I also love about these podcasts -- and sets them apart from many, I think -- is that they also post links to full versions of all the snippets of music that play through the show.
We haven't an an InterMISSION podcast from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for a while, so let's head back to the orchestra.
These are very enjoyable broadcasts put together by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, filled with interviews with the musicians, interesting history, and interlaced with a lot of music. This new piece features a conversation with Lawrence Neuman, who has been a member of the CSO viola section since 1991. He talks about how the requirement of viola players is more to play almost as one instrument, rather than have individual parts, and the challenges when one's role is basically to "fit in." He also discusses the way musicians work together to create the Chicago Symphony's unified sound, and tells the story of overcoming his self-doubt as a student to become a professional musician.
One of the things I particularly like about these CSO InterMISSION podcasts is that they don't just rely on the conversations themselves -- which are interesting enough on their own -- but they intersperse each episode with examples of the music being discussed. And then further, not relying on just that, they provide links to a playlist of all the music that was featured, so you can hear it more in full, rather than just as snippets..
No, not that one.
This is a big treat for classical music lovers. But I also think that for those who aren't, at the very least the first 201 minutes of this video may well still be fascinating. It's similar to a video a posted a while back but for a different Beethoven symphony. That was for the famous Fifth, this for the Seventh. (Though that might be my favorite -- and if not, then a razor-thin close second place.)
I comes from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s centennial season, Their longtime conductor and music director Sir Georg Solti had recently been named the orchestra's first music director laureate, and he conducted them in Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7. It was recorded on Oct. 17, 1991, for PBS’ Great Performances, an episode they called "The Symphony of Rhythm."
What makes the broadcast so special is that this isn’t just Solti conducting Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, but the video begins with over 20 minutes of Solti talking about how and why he chose to interpret the performance this new way, throwing out his old notes to look at it fresh. His discussion -- often sitting at a piano and playing examples of what he's describing -- is intercut with extensive clips of him rehearsing the orchestra to get what he wants. Only after that do they have the full piece. The whole thing is wonderful but it's that first 21 minutes that's riveting. So, you really get an idea what a conductor does, better than almost anything I’ve seen – and you also see why Solti and the CSO were considered so great together.
For those who only want to see and hear the symphony itself, you can jump to the 21:00 mark. Any who just want to see the documentary part, it runs...well, 21 minutes. But you probably figured that out.
Because it's only on the CSOtv website, I can't embed it on these pages, but you can watch it here.
And one caveat: I don’t know how long this video will be available to watch. The earlier one with the Seventh Symphony is no longer online, though I originally posted that five months so, so there's no way for me know how when it was taken down. I suspect it should be up for at least a few weeks, but no guarantees
This is a one-minute "teaser" trailer that will give you a brief idea of what those first 21 minutes are like.
I've periodically mentioned my Internet friend Peter Breiner here over the past few years -- a conductor, composer, arranger, pianist and I think he'll clean your windows if it fits into his schedule. I've lost count how many albums he's released, but it's over 100 at this point, which is closing in on the number of CDs I own. And he can now add to that number, since he released a new album last week on the Naxos label.
It was recorded with the Royal Philharmonic that he he conducted and is called A Journey – Calm Romantic Piano Music, Vol. 2. (I was going to say "under his baton," but since he performs at the piano and conducts the orchestra by waving his hand around, I figured that "baton" wasn't appropriate.) There are 23 tracks, around half by Bach, Handel, Haydn, Dvorak and that crowd, and half composed by Breiner himself. He also did the orchestrations
(See what I mean about the "cleaning your windows" quip?)
I’ve only listened to about the first half of the album so, and I find it so wonderful that I wanted to write about it tonight before I finish the whole thing. The selections that he wrote (which I’ve heard so far) are much less traditionally “classical” than some of his other work and seem more -- for lack of a better word -- accessible, as befits “calm piano music.” I don’t say that critically, just descriptive. After all, the point of the album is “calm piano music.”
The first two pieces by him are especially terrific – “The Magic Goblet” and “We Reached This Far.” But I also was particularly taken by the selections, “Snowfall” and "The King of Hyperboles."
You can find the album here on Amazon as MP3 downloads, either in full.or whatever individual selections most interest you.
Just to give you a sense of Peter's work on the album, I'm posting a couple of the official music videos that Naxos has released from the recording session. This first is the aforementioned, “The Magic Goblet”. That’s him at the piano and conducting. No baton included.
And this is a music video of one of the other pieces of Peter's own music that I mentioned, as well, his work “The King of Hyperboles,” which I think is beautiful. Though I have no idea which on earth it's called that -- however, I love the whimsy of the title, even if I don't understand it.
Oh, okay, I'll throw in a bonus, just to let you know that I wasn't lying about how there are actually selections by by traditional classical composers on the album, about half of tracks. This is "Dank sei Dir, Herr" by Georg Frederic Handel.
Today, we have our next episode of the new InterMISSION podcast from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Up to this point, it's been very well-done with fairly interesting stories and wonderful music in the background.
This new episode features Jennifer Gunn, who has been a Chicago Symphony Orchestra member since 2005, performing on the flute and piccolo. As the site notes, "She shares the dramatic story of how she won the audition for her position and pays tribute to Walfrid Kujala, her famous predecessor. She also gives advice to aspiring performers; explains how she prepares her parts in advance of rehearsals; and talks about why she loves the live CSO concert experience."
And there's another reason I really enjoy these InterMISSION podcasts from the CSO. It's because along with the episodes themselves, they also post a chart with links to all the music -- in full -- that was heard, even if only played for just a few seconds as snippets.
As long as we're on the subject of classical orchestral music, I figure this is as good a time as any to post the majesty of the season, Beethoven's 9th Symphony. This is a wonderful video recording by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, under the baton of their Music Director Riccardo Muti.
It's long, of course, but if you only want to hear the Ode to Joy" section, it begins around the 52-minute mark.
Back in 2008, I wrote a piece for the Huffington Post about new discoveries surrounding the holiday classic, Handel's "Messiah." Several months later, I followed it up with additional revelations. Given that 'tis its season yet again - it seems like a fine time to repeat the story, as just another of the many holiday traditions. Sort of like a very early, 18th century version of "The Grinch."
But have a glass of nog, as well. Fa la la...
Over the passage of years, we lose track of the conditions that existed when artworks were created. When those years become centuries, the history vanishes, and all that remains is the work itself.That is, until someone researches that history, and puts the piece in its original context.
And that brings up Handel's "Messiah."
By any standard, it's a brilliant piece of music, which has understandably lasted 250 years. Even to those who don't share its religious underpinning, the music is enthralling, and part of the celebration of the Christmas season.
Now comes this detailed, deeply-researched article in the New York Times by Michael Marissen.
"So 'Messiah' lovers may be surprised to learn that the work was meant not for Christmas but for Lent, and that the 'Hallelujah' chorus was designed not to honor the birth or resurrection of Jesus but to celebrate the destruction of Jerusalem and the Second Temple in A.D. 70. For most Christians in Handel's day, this horrible event was construed as divine retribution on Judaism for its failure to accept Jesus as God's promised Messiah."
Mr. Marissen does an impressive, scholarly and even-handed job uncovering the history of Handel's "Messiah." If anyone is interested in that history, do read the article. At the very least, read it before stating an opinion on it...
To be clear, this is not about political correctness. This is about correctness.
The truth, we are told, shall set us free. Either we go out of our way to learn the truth in our lives - and embrace it - or we bury our heads in the sand and listen to the sounds of gravel.
People will still listen to Handel's "Messiah" for centuries to come, whatever the reality behind it. The music is glorious. The words? Well, be honest, it's a fair bet that most people don't know <em >exactly</em> what's being sung about anyway - it's 2-1/2 hours, for goodness sake. Most fans wouldn't listen to "American Idol" for that long. People tend to tune out Handel's "Messiah" about six minutes in and let the music wash over them. When the "Hallelujah Chorus" is about to begin, they get nudged and sit up straight. And even at that, the only words most people know are "Hallelujah" and that it will "reign forever and ever." (Some people probably think it's about Noah's Ark.)
So, in some ways, the libretto of Handel's "Messiah" is not of critical importance 250 years after the fact. And that might be the biggest joke on Charles Jennens, who wrote the text and apparently saw the work as a way to confront what he believed was "a serious menace" in the world By having his friend Handel set his pointed tracts to music, Jennens felt that would help get his point across more subtly to the public. The result, of course, was that the spectacular music swamped over the words, and over time they took on a completely different meaning.
This is known as the Law of Unintended Consequences. Or also, be careful what you wish for, you just might get it.
Somewhere up in heaven, or more likely down in hell, Charles Jenniens has been pounding his head against a wall for the last couple hundred Christmases, screaming, "No, no, no! Don't you people get it?!! It's supposed to be about celebrating the destruction of heathen nations, not the embracing love of mankind. You people are so lame!"
And it gets worse, because starting the day after Christmas - until the next Christmas when Handel's "Messiah" starts playing again - Jennens berates himself all year, wondering if he screwed up his work and didn't make it clear. Like maybe he used too many metaphors, or commas. Or perhaps in Scene 6, when he wrote, "Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron," he should have explained who "them" was or described a different bludgeon.
No doubt there will be some people aghast by the revelations (no matter how valid) about the writing of Handel's "Messiah." I also have no doubt that almost all those who are aghast have never sat through the 2-1/2 hour work. Nor that most of those ever paid attention to what the precise words actually were. But they will be aghast anyway.
On the other hand, most people who <em >have</em > sat and sat through a 2-1/2 hour performance of Handel's "Messiah" likely welcome having an excuse now not to have to do so again.
Mr. Marissen concludes his study with a thought on the subject.
"While still a timely, living masterpiece that may continue to bring spiritual and aesthetic sustenance to many music lovers, Christian or otherwise, 'Messiah' also appears to be very much a work of its own era. Listeners might do well to ponder exactly what it means when, in keeping with tradition, they stand during the 'Hallelujah' chorus."
And while singing along, they might want to add a "Hallelujah" for the truth, as well.
And that, I thought, was the end of the story. But it wasn't.
A few months later, while reading Volume 9 of Will and Ariel Durant's majestic Story of Civilization, entitled "The Age of Voltaire," I came upon their extensive discussion of Handel. After the passage on "The Messiah," the Durants continue on with the composer's life and eventually reach five years later, April of 1747, when Handel had hit hard times. Not only had he written a string of failures and needed to close his theater, but he went into a sort of retirement, and rumor passed that he may even gone insane, though perhaps it might have been mental exhaustion. (The Earl of Shaftesbury remarked, "Poor Handel looks a little better. I hope he will recover completely, though his mind has been entirely deranged.") However there was yet more to Handel - and to the story relating somewhat to the controversy today about "The Messiah." The Durants write -
"...Handel, now sixty years old, responded with all his powers to an invitation from the Prince of Wales to commemorate the victory of the Prince's younger brother, the Duke of Cumberland, over the Stuart forces at Culloden. Handel took as a symbolic subject Judas Maccabaeus' triumph (166-161 B.C.) over the Hellenizing schemes of Antiochus IV. The new oratorio was so well received (April 1, 1747) that it bore five repetitions in its first season. The Jews of London, grateful to see one of their national heroes so nobly celebrated, helped to swell the attendance, enabling Handel to present the oratorio forty times before his death. Grateful for this new support, he took most of his oratorio subjects henceforth from Jewish legend or history: Alexander Balus, Joshua, Susanna, Solomon and Jephtha. By contrast, Theodora, a Christian theme, drew so small an audience that Handel ruefully remarked, "There was room enough to dance."
No doubt, Charles Jennens, author of the text for "The Messiah," is spinning even faster and deeper in his grave. But quality does win out over time. And so does transcending decency. And that, perhaps, in part, and in the end, may well be what we're left with.
No, the other one.
This is a huge treat for classical music lovers. But I also think that for those who aren't, at the very least the first 20 minutes or so of this video may well still be fascinating. It's a video that the Chicago Symphony posted on their new CSOtv website of Sir Georg Solti conducting the orchestra in 1989 playing Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. I believe this may have aired originally on PBS Great Performances. I don’t know if this video will only be up during the holiday weekend or longer. I suspect the latter, but no guarantees
What's important to add – this isn’t just Solti conducting Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. They call it “Revisited,” and the video begins with over 20 minutes of Solti talking about how and why he chose to interpret the performance this new way, which is much more “violent” than usual, but which -- after years of studying it -- he believes is close to what Beethoven wanted, and that is intercut with extensive clips of him rehearsing the orchestra to get what he wants. Only after that do they have the full piece. The whole thing is wonderful but it's that first 20 minutes that's riveting. So, you really get an idea what a conductor does, better than almost anything I’ve seen – and you also see why Solti and the CSO were considered so great together.
For those who only want to see and hear the symphony itself, you can jump to the 22:30 mark. Any who just want to see the documentary part, it runs...well, 22-and-a-half minutes. But you probably figured that out.
Because it's only on the CSOtv website, I can't embed it on these pages, but you can watch it here.
By the way, speaking of Solti and his deep connection to the Chicago Symphony brings up a fond memory. Back in 1997, I was home visiting Chicago and remember going to a CSO concert with my mother to what was supposed to have been Solti's 1,000th concert with the orchestra – but he’d passed away a few weeks earlier (having done 999 concerts). They still went ahead with the scheduled festivities, but it was more a memorial than gala celebration.
After the concert, they still had the planned reception for invited guests. We found this out as we were leaving and passed by a large, glass-enclosed conference room, and my mother asked the security guard at the door what it was for. Now, for this tale to have any meaning, you must understand that my mother was 74 at the time, tiny (about 5’-2” 90 pounds), had had polio and was deeply Midwestern polite, she never swore, always went by decorum, tried to be nice to everyone, if you or she or anyone did something rude, even accidentally, it really bothered her, and she was a full-believer in apologies – the point being that she was profoundly sweet, on the frail side, and very lowkey -- but when she found out about the reception she insisted to me on getting inside. When I explained that it just didn't seem possible, she stood her ground. (My joke about her -- and I even said it to her -- was she was someone who wouldn't take "No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no" for an answer. And the reason she was so insistent on getting inside was because, as she said -- I want to see Lady Solti.” So...we actually sneaked it. Somehow. My recollection was that the security wasn’t very tight, to say the least, but thankfully not because it made her SO happy that she did get to see Lady Solti.
I never would have imagined that she’d have wanted to sneak into anything. But she did. So, that’s what convinced me that it must me done.
This is a real historic treat. Even if you don’t want to watch the whole thing (or any of it), it’s music, you can just let it play in the background.
A couple months ago, as I've mentioned here, the Chicago Symphony massively beefed its online presence, with their CSOtv service. Many things are fee-based, but not everything. (They have some free audio material -- including the podcasts I've posted here that have been excellent.) And the other day, they sent a link to this --
At first I thought it was just audio, but not actually video from March 4, 1962. It’s a televised performance the CSO gave at the WGN Studios, of all places, with its new Music Director Jean Martinon conducting and Isaac Stern as soloist. (Though WGN is known for its decades broadcasting the Chicago Cubs, it's always been a very interesting independent local station in its efforts to provide different programming from the competing network. This was from their Great Music from Chicago series. It also speaks to how different the TV landscape was in 1962.)
By the way, to place this in additional perspective, this comes 10 months after then-FCC Chairman Newton Minow (father of our oft-mentioned Nell here...) came his famous "Television is a vast wasteland" speech. (Delivered in Chicago, as it happens. That was really more-directed at networks, and I don't know if it had any impact on WGN broadcasting this -- as I said, they had long done interesting counter-programming. But it's all an interesting look at the times.
The concert is just under an hour long, and includes Handel’s Concerto grosso in G Minor, the Scherzo from Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Mozart’s First Violin Concerto featuring Stern. It’s wonderful. I remember when Jean Martinon was their Music Director, but I’d never seen him conduct, so this was a special treat for that.
Unfortunately, I can't embed it on the website, but you can watch it here.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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