Today's Classical Music Video

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Making of Vlaamse Opera's production of L'amour de loin

The Canadian Opera Company is pairing the Puccini warhorse, Tosca, with Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho's L'amour de loin (or Love From Afar), which opens on Feb. 2. Saariaho is one of a handful of contemporary composers whose works get regularly performed.  L'amour premiered in Salzburg in 2000, and has since received stagings at Paris, Santa Fe, Bern, Helsinki, London, Antwerp and now Toronto. Based on a text by French-Lebanese writer Amin Maalouf, L'amour is set in the 12th century and tells the story of a young troubadour Jaufre Rudel's love for an idealized, as yet unseen woman, Clemence, who lives in a distant land.  He decides to travel to meet his "love from afar,"  only to take ill during his long journey. He dies in her arms.The best known production is the one at the Salzburg/Paris/Santa Fe Operas, available on DVD. I saw it at the Santa Fe Opera in 2002, and while visually striking, the production was very static. The COC is reviving the more recent Antwerp Opera production designed by Daniele Finzi Pasca, who has worked with Cirque du Soleil. Here is a video clip of the making of this production. You will notice a brief appearance of Canadian baritone Phillip Addis as Jaufre Rudel. Unfortunately, the clip is mostly in French and German with a tiny bit of English spoken and Dutch subtitles! Still, one can appreciate the dazzling visuals and the tonal textures/colours of the Saariaho score. I am including a second clip, where Pasca talks in English about his vision for his staging for the English National Opera.

Joseph K. So

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Thursday, January 26, 2012

Jaap Van Zweden To Be Music Director of the Hong Kong Philharmonic

Jaap Van Zweden speaks on the occasion of his appointment as the next music director of the Hong Kong Philharmonic. Van Zweden was for many years the concertmaster of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra and came late to conducting. But in just a few years he has established himself as one of the most sought-after maestros on the planet. Just a few months ago he stepped down as chief conductor of the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic but he is still in his post as music director of the Dallas Symphony. Even so, it is a long commute between Dallas and Hong Kong and one wonders why he would have taken a job with another second tier orchestra. The Hong Kong Philharmonic is a good band but it is not the Cleveland Orchestra or the Berlin Philharmonic. But the fact is that the Dallas Symphony is in a holding pattern at the moment, trying to manage its finances. It recently announced it was cutting five weeks out of its schedule for next season. Van Zweden must be all too aware that there will not be much room for personal growth in the forseeable future in Dallas. And as far as major orchestras are concerned there are lots of candidates but not many openings. The Boston Symphony is looking for a new leader but there are not many other openings on this level. No doubt Van Zweden is being considered in Boston but it remains just a remote possibility. The attraction in Hong Kong is that China is moving fast to build up its cultural infrastructure and money is not a problem. During Van Zweden's tenure in Hong Kong a new concert hall is likely to be built and international tours and recordings are very likely. And by committing to just 12 weeks a year in Hong Kong Van Zweden keeps his options open. Paul E. Robinson

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Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Leontyne Price Sings "Libera Me" from the Verdi Requiem

This Friday (Jan. 27) marks the passing of the great Italian opera
composer Giuseppe Verdi 111 years ago. One of his most enduring
compositions is the Manzoni Requiem. Here is the last section, "Libera
Me" with soprano and chorus, here sung by Leontyne Price under the
baton of Herbert von Karajan conducting the Orchestra and Chorus of La
Scala.  Recorded live in 1967 and available on Deutsche Grammophon,
this is a performance for the ages.

Joseph K. So

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Saturday, January 21, 2012

Alan Gilbert Talks About Mahler

Alan Gilbert, music director of the New York Philharmonic, was recently in the news. During a performance of Mahler's Symphony No. 9 a cell phone began ringing and didn't stop. Finally, unable to bear it any longer, Gilbert stopped the performance and turned around to try to deal with the interruption. Members of the audience began shouting and ultimately the offending cell phone owner was identified and shut off his phone. Gilbert explained to the audience that normally he would ignore such distractions but in this case it went on and on and neither Gilbert nor his musicians could do justice to the music under these conditions. In fact, the cell phone noise started at the worst possible place in the score: the quiet final pages of the last movement. For the record, after order was restored in the hall Gilbert finished the performance. He wisely went back to a loud section in the movement so that the structure and emotion of the last section could be fully appreciated.

The New York Philharmonic has a long tradition of Mahler performance going back to Bruno Walter who was a Mahler protegee and one of his most authoritative interpreters, and Leonard Bernstein who initiated the Mahler revival in the 1960s. In our video Alan Gilbert talks about Mahler's music and what it means to him. This video is part of a project undertaken by Mahler's publisher Universal Edition to record interviews about Mahler with many of the leading conductors of our day.

Paul E. Robinson

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Meta Weiss & Arianna Warsaw-Fan's Pop Video Take on the Handel-Halvorsen Passacaglia

The last time I remember a large chunk of the audience clapping between movements at a classical music concert was at the Mariinsky's appearance in Montreal last October and it was, unsurprisingly, during a performance of Tchaikovsky's sixth symphony. 

I attended Santropol Roulant's Gala symphonique last night. During a performance of Dvořák's Terzetto and the Brahms's Sextet No. 1, there was not only enthusiastic applause between each movement, but loud 'bravo's.' I even heard a couple 'wow's', etc. The perfomers—a very strong Andrew Wan, Arianna Warsaw-Fan, Rémi Nakauchi Pelletier, Andrew Beer, Yegor Dyachkov, and Anna Burden—reacted with grins of what seemed like mild surprise as well as pleasure. 

I've written about how the 'silence between movements' rule is quite a recent phenomenon ("The History of Concert Etiquette, Abridged"), and I can attest that listening to these supposed disruptions was a lot more pleasant than taking in the usual releasing of pent-up coughs, recrossing of legs, and shuffling of programme notes. People might have been doing these things as well, but thankfully it was drowned out by the applause.

The applause was in no small part in response to the charismatic playing and players and their relaxed and friendly approach. Wan introduced the performance by making a joke about Vulcans (Sarek, Spock's father, cries at a performance of the sextet in an episode).

Warsaw-Fan's colleague, Meta Weiss, sent this Video of the Day entry to us several months ago. Like last night's performance, it's a quirky and personable take on a chamber music piece (the Handel-Halvorsen Passacaglia). The visuals might be described as a mix of Coppola's Marie Antoinette and Stoker's Dracula alongside graffiti and modern cityscapes. The recording of this very difficult piece is played cleanly and well.

Weiss wrote us that they "wanted to make something that would reach a broader audience outside of the classical music world, and also something that would accurately reflect the nuances of the music."

One of the commenters on Youtube wrote: "Nice performance, ladies. I suppose it's a sign of progress for classical music that the video for 'Criminal' by Britney Spears turns up as related at the end!"

That didn't show up for me, but it is a sign that Weiss and Warsaw-Fan have potential to reach that elusive broader audience they speak of.

Do you know of other classical music videos that successfully take cues from pop music videos?

— Crystal Chan

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Thursday, January 19, 2012

Edo De Waart's Last Season in Hong Kong

Earlier this week came the announcement that Jaap Van Zweden would take over as music director of the Hong Kong Philharmonic. He will assume his responsibilities later this year. In the meantime, another Dutch conductor, Edo De Waart, is finishing up his tenure as music director of the orchestra.

Edo De Waart began his career as an oboist in the Concertgebouw Orchestra then turned to conducting. He has headed orchestras in San Francisco, Milwaukee, Sydney and elsewhere. Later this year he will take over the Royal Flemish Orchestra in Belgium.

In recent years the Hong Kong Philharmonic has become an orchestra of real stature. Under major conductors like De Waart and Van Zweden it has been able to attract better players and soloists. Hong Kong is very much part of the New China and has the financial resources to build cultural institutions every bit as good as those in the West.

In this video Edo De Waart talks about Hong Kong and how he put together his last season with the Hong Kong Philharmonic.

Paul E. Robinson

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Saturday, January 14, 2012

A Conversation with Composer George Crumb

George Crumb is one of those rare composers who manages to be both experimental and accessible. His compositions invariably break new ground in matters of instrumentation and unusual combinations of instruments and voices, and yet they are frequently profoundly expressive and touch the heart as well as the mind.

Crumb was born in Charleston, West Virginia in 1929 and at the age of 82 continues to compose.

One of his earliest successes was a song cycle based on poems by Lorca called Ancient Voices of Children. It remains an astonishingly imaginative piece combining soprano and boy soprano with a wide variety of percussion instruments and mandolin, harp and toy piano. Another remarkable work from the same period (1970) is Black Angels for electric string quartet. For more on Crumb visit his web site at

This video was prepared for West Virginia public television in 2007.

Paul E. Robinson 

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Thursday, January 12, 2012

Weissenberg and Karajan Play Rachmaninov

Alexis Weissenberg died this past Sunday at the age of 82. He had had an erratic career. He was born in Bulgaria but went to New York to study at Juilliard in 1946. The very next year he made his professional debut in New York playing Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto No. 3 with Szell and the NY Philharmonic. He created a sensation and was immediately embarked on a major career. But for all his brilliance Weissenberg was a vulnerable human being. Like Horowitz before him he withdrew from concertizing in 1957 for several years. The pressure of playing in public had become overwhelming.

Weissenberg returning to the concert circuit in 1966 and quickly re-established himself as an important artist. Karajan recognized his greatness and they often collaborated in the years to come. They recorded all the Beethoven concertos and Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto No. 2. In our video they are seen together with the Berlin Philharmonic in a film from 1973.

I interviewed Weissenberg in the 1980s and he turned out to be one of the most articulate and thoughtful artists I had ever come across. He seemed to be interested in everything and particularly loved the cut and thrust of intellectual discussion. We talked for hours.

But the demons of performing in public never really left him and he was again forced to withdraw from the stage. I believe he would much rather have followed Glenn Gould's example and stopped concertizing entirely. Like Gould he was a perfectionship and a man who would rather explore ideas than perform.

For more on Weissenberg visit his website at At his best he was a unique and exciting artist. The performance of Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto No. 2 with Karajan was sublime and Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto No. 3 with Pretre and the Chicago Symphony was equally good.

Paul E. Robinson

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Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Ben Heppner as Tristan

This coming Saturday (Jan. 14) marks the birthday of the great Canadian tenor Ben Heppner, who turns 56 this year. Since his transition to the Wagner/Strauss fach in 1988, Heppner has become the premiere heldentenor of our time. Although he has retired the role of Siegfried, which he was originally scheduled to sing at the Met this season, Heppner continues to sing other Wagnerian roles including Tristan. He sang this most taxing of heldentenr roles beautifully in Munich last July. Currently, Ben is at the Calgary Opera rehearsing Jake Heggie's Moby Dick, as Captain Ahab, a role composed for him and which he created. There are also unconfirmed rumours that the tenor may be singing Tristan for the Canadian Opera Company - we'll find out soon enough as the COC Season announcement is on Jan. 18. Here is Ben as Tristan at the Met, dated fall 2001. If you follow the links, the bulk of this performance can be found on Youtube. Happy Birthday Ben Heppner!

Joseph K. So

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Sunday, January 8, 2012

Ax and Haitink Play Brahms

American pianist Emanuel Ax and Dutch conductor Bernard Haitink have been frequent collaborators, especially in the music of Brahms. Here they are with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe in Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2. The performance was recorded live at the Royal Albert Hall during last year's Proms.

Next week Ax will be appearing with the Austin Symphony playing music by Beethoven (Piano Concerto No. 2) and the rarely-heard Symphony No. 4 for Piano and Orchestra by Syzmanowski. Ax will give a recital at Koerner Hall in Toronto on May 13. For more on Emanuel Ax check out his website at

Paul E. Robinson

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Thursday, January 5, 2012

Daniel Barenboim on the Art of Stealing Time

Barenboim is well-known as one of the most gifted of all musicians. But he is also one of the most articulate too. His brain almost works too fast for most of us but for those who can keep up he is an unending source of illumination. Here he is in a Beethoven Master Class talking about tempo and rubato. His analysis is very subtle and yet absolutely profound. He gets to the very heart of what makes music come alive in the hands of the greatest interpreters.

Paul E. Robinson

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Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Uchida Plays Schumann

Both my videos this week feature Mitsuko Uchida and the Schumann concerto. In the other video she talks about the piece and in this one she is seen playing an excerpt from it with Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic. The concert was given in 2009. In everything she plays Uchida exhibits an uncommon intelligence and beauty of sound. But perhaps her greatest strength is her joy in making music. Simon Rattle has the same qualities as a conductor and together they make the Schumann concerto something fresh and life-affirming.

For more on Mitsuko Uchida visit her website at

Paul E. Robinson

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