How Important Are Conductors?

“Is the conductor really doing anything, or is he/she just for show? I mean, couldn’t you guys play without someone standing on a podium and waving their arms?” This is the unexpected question once posed to me by an audience member after a Richmond Symphony concert. It’s pretty much the same question that comes up in this classic comedy bit from Seinfeld. Recent news that the Dallas Symphony Orchestra paid outgoing Music Director Jaap van …

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Befriending Mahler: Walter’s 1938 Vienna Recording of the Ninth Symphony

“He had the soul of a mystic.” This is how the legendary German conductor Bruno Walter (1876-1962) described Gustav Mahler in a 1950 pre-concert radio interview. The 18-year-old Walter was a rehearsal pianist and vocal coach at the Hamburg Opera when he first met Mahler, who served as the Opera’s chief conductor in the 1890s. Walter spent hours in wide-ranging conversations with Mahler (everything from Schopenhauer, Dostoyevsky and Nietzsche, to music). Later, Walter …

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Pugnani’s Largo Espressivo: Three Classic Recordings

Chances are good that you’ve never heard of Gaetano Pugnani (1731-1798). The eighteenth century Italian violinist and composer of numerous chamber works and operas has long been overshadowed by his more esteemed contemporaries, Mozart and Haydn. He may be most famous for a piece he didn’t even write: Fritz Kreisler’s Preludium and Allegro, a showpiece originally attributed to Pugnani as part of Kreisler’s elaborate musical hoax. (Kreisler’s Tempo di Minuetto also erroneously bore Pugnani’s name). …

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Sinatra in Sin City

This week, I’m attending the 100th convention of the American Federation of Musicians in Las Vegas. Architectural permanence isn’t one of this buzzing entertainment mecca’s attributes. It’s a place which is eternally re-inventing itself- tearing down the old and rebuilding an ever-more-grandiose present, without much regard for the future. Hotels and casinos go up, and then disappear like a mirage in the desert, as last week’s demolition of the iconic Riviera Hotel reminded us. …

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The Letter Scene from Eugene Onegin

Forget about emails and text messages. When it comes to opera, it’s the handwritten letter, with all of its tactile emotional significance, which emerges occasionally as a dramatic device. There’s the famous “Letter Duet” from the third act of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, in which Countess Almaviva dictates to Susanna, who repeats the lines as she writes. The Countess’ written invitation is part of a plot to expose her husband’s infidelity. Then there’s O mon cher …

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Meet 15-Year-Old Violinist Daniel Lozakovitj

This week, Deutsche Grammophon announced that it will begin a ‘long-term association’ with 15-year-old Swedish violinist Daniel Lozakovitj. Lozakovitj, the youngest musician currently signed to the label, will record one of the violin repertoire’s most mature works in his first release: the Beethoven Violin Concerto. Lozakovitj was 13 when he gave this performance of Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 3 in G Major, K. 216 with Vladimir Spivakov and the Moscow Virtuosi. He plays with a combination of effortless, …

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Musica Celestis: Three Pieces Inspired by the Harmony of the Spheres

It formed the ancient intersection of music, art, architecture, astronomy, mathematics, and mysticism. Originally developed by Pythagoras, the concept of the Harmony of the Spheres linked the movements of celestial bodies with universal vibrations. The sun, moon, and planets were believed to produce their own unique hum as they revolved around the earth. “Tones” of energy, expressed through mathematical relationships, manifested themselves in shapes and sounds. This supreme cosmic order was expressed in …

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