Today's Classical Music Video

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Karajan: the 25th Anniversary of His Death

It was 25 years ago this month (July 16) that Herbert von Karajan passed away. He was 81 and still conducting regularly even though he had been in almost constant pain from back problems for years. At the time of his death he was rehearsing a new production of Verdi's Un Ballo in Maschera at the Salzburg Festival.

In the above video the current conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic - Simon Rattle - talks about his illustrious predecessor. As usual, Rattle is articulate, balanced and perceptive in what he says about Karajan. After all these years, he can't get over how Karajan conducted mostly with his eyes closed. Rattle still can't fathom how Karajan communicated with his players. But the answer to that is that it was another kind of communication that Karajan reserved for the concert. In rehearsal Karajan had constant eye contact with his players and a great deal to say as well. After days of hard work in rehearsal, Karajan closed his eyes in the concert to create a new level of concentration and intensity. And with orchestras familiar with his methods it worked. In fact, for most of his career Karajan guest conducted only rarely. He worked mostly with either the Berlin Philharmonic or the Vienna Philharmonic, and both orchestras found Karajan's conducting style highly effective.

Rattle credits Karajan with being uniquely innovative in matters such as the technology of audio recording and film. But he questions the authenticity of the film work. The fact is that at the time, in the 1960s when Karajan began his film work, filming an orchestra was a cumbersome process and by 2014 standards downright primitive. Karajan took huge risks and spent a lot of his own money trying to find new ways of making it better. Were he still alive Karajan would look back on the methods he used in the 1960s as "gaslight," one of his favorite phrases for things that were out of date and left behind by newer technology.

Nonetheless, while some of the early Karajan films are somewhat labored and/or self-absorbed; others are works of art of the first order. Still others are extraordinary musical experiences.

Paul E. Robinson 

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Monday, July 21, 2014

David Zinman Retires from the Tonhalle Orchester Zurich

On July 11, 2014 David Zinman conducted his last concert as music director of the Tonhalle Orchester Zurich. He has headed the orchestra for 19 years and together they have made dozens of highly-acclaimed recordings including all the Schubert, Beethoven, Schumann, Brahms and Mahler symphonies. Not to mention nearly all the orchestral works of Richard Strauss.

Zinman is now 78 years old and says that due to medical problems he intends to slow down. There will be some guest conducting but no more permanent positions.

Zinman is one of the most successful and underappreciated American conductors of his generation. In his early years it was hard to get work in America but he landed the job of conductor of the Netherlands Chamber Orchestra. It was a fine orchestra and gave him the start he needed in the profession. Later came positions back home, first with the Rochester Philharmonic (1974-1985) and then with the Baltimore Symphony (1985-1998). He put the Baltimore Symphony on the map with numerous excellent recordings, and their broadcasts were among the best to be heard anywhere on radio. The repertoire was always interesting and the lively introductions by Zinman himself with announcer Lisa Simeone were models of how this sort of thing should be done.

David Zinman became known for his wry sense of humour but also for his insight into the music he conducted.

After a decade in Baltimore Zinman moved to Europe to head the Tonhalle Orchester Zurich. Critics couldn't believe how well the orchestra played under Zinman and how impressive they were together in their recordings. Zinman maintained an American connection as head of the Aspen Festival but it was in Zurich that he achieved many of his musical goals.

The attached video is a souvenir of the years Zinman spent working on Mahler in Zurich. It is mostly in German but I am sure you will get the idea. It is all about Zinman's search for the ideal cowbell player in Mahler's Symphony No. 6.

For more on this outstanding conductor visit his website at

Paul E. Robinson

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Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Lorin Maazel (1930-2014) RIP

I first saw Lorin Maazel conduct at Plateau Hall in Montreal in 1962. He was touring with the French National Orchestra. He was 32-years-old at the time and a real whiz-kid. He conducted everything from memory and seemed to have the most precise stick technique I had ever seen. Among other works he conducted Stravinsky's Petrouchka and Berlioz' Roman Carnival Overture. At the end of the Berlioz there is a loud sustained brass chord and Maazel dealt with it in the most theatrical way possible. He demonstratively dropped his arms while the brass players held their chord. Then when it seemed they could not hold the chord a second longer he flamboyantly cut them off. For much of his career he was that kind of conductor. He loved to draw attention to himself rather than to the music.

On that night in Montreal, he conducted a lot of flashy music and conducted it brilliantly. If you wanted brilliance he was your man. If you wanted sensitivity or depth of feeling, well, better look elsewhere.

I had the opportunity to interview him in Cleveland when he was the music director of the Cleveland Orchestra. As a successor to George Szell he was a huge disappointment. In the interview I found him pompous with intellectual pretentions that were laughable. During my visit to Cleveland he conducted the dullest performance of the Bruckner Fifth Symphony I ever heard.

He became known for performances in which the conductor pulled the music this way and that for no apparent reason. This was not interpretative insight; it was sheer willfulness.

In his later years he mellowed a great deal and pontificated less as he became more at ease with himself. He married for a third time and bought a farm in Virginia. He had the idea that he would start a school-festival at the farm. This became the Castleton Festival. Unfortunately, he probably started it too late in life and had only a few years to work on it. It was a worthy concept and showed that Maazel really cared about young people and about nurturing talent.

The last time I saw him conduct was at the ill-fated Black Creek Summer Festival in Toronto in 2011. He brought the Castleton Festival Orchestra in for a few concerts. The one I heard was superb. Mendelssohn's Incidental Music for a Midsummer Night's Dream with readings from the play by Helen Mirren and Jeremy Irons. It was not repertoire I would have associated with Maazel but he did it splendidly.

Maazel was renowned the world over as an orchestral technician. He knew how to rehearse, he had a great ear and an amazing memory. The performances he gave were nearly always well-rehearsed but one seldom left his performances feeling that the music had been well-served.

In the attached video recorded just a few years ago Maazel comes across as exceedingly affable and self-deprecating. Unfortunately, not many of the musicians who played for him remember him that way.

Paul E. Robinson

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Sunday, July 13, 2014

Trumpeter Philip Smith Steps Down From the NY Philharmonic

Philip Smith has been principal trumpet of the New York Philharmonic for several decades. He joined the orchestra in 1978 and stayed for 36 years. He was universally admired for the quality of his playing. His reputation was so great that many people came to believe that he never missed a note. The fact is that he very rarely cracked a note but more than that he played with phenomenal technical control and tonal variety.

Philip Smith is retiring from the Philharmonic at the end of this season and his chair will be hard to fill. It will be nearly impossible to replace his personality. He was known as a great musician, a fine and inspiring teacher, and his sense of humor was second to none. In this recent video we get a glimpse of the comedian at work.

Phil's next stop is at the University of Georgia where he will become Professor of Trumpet.

Paul E. Robinson

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