Bernstein at 100: From Broadway to the Symphony

As a composer and conductor, Leonard Bernstein passionately sought a style of concert music which could be called uniquely “American.” “What is American Music?” was the subject of one of his nationally-televised Young People’s Concerts. Composing the “great American opera” remained an elusive goal. It must have been on his mind with the creation of A Quiet Place in 1983, as well as an ill-advised 1984 adaptation of West Side Story performed by an operatic lineup including José Carreras and Kiri Te Kanawa. Like …

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John Adams’ “Doctor Atomic”: Three Excerpts

In a 1987 interview with Edward Strickland, John Adams discussed myth and archetype in relation to his new (at the time) opera, Nixon in China: …My Nixon is not the historical Richard Nixon, he is every President. I take him to be an archetype of an American head of state- maybe not even necessarily a head of state, just any emotionally undeveloped man who finds himself in a position of tremendous power. It’s …

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Penderecki: “Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima”

On this day, seventy-three years ago, the U.S. dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Three days later, on August 9, 1945, a second bomb destroyed the Japanese city of Nagasaki. Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima, written in 1960 by Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki (b. 1933), was not originally inspired by the devastation of the atomic bomb. The piece was first called 8’37”- a reference to its estimated duration, with a nod to John Cage. It …

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Bernstein at 100: “Serenade, after Plato’s Symposium”

This month, we celebrate the centennial of the birth of Leonard Bernstein. Born on August 25, 1918, Bernstein was a uniquely energetic and multi-faceted figure- a bold and inventive conductor dedicated to adventurous, American programming during his tenure as music director of the New York Philharmonic, a composer who seemed to be trying to wrap his arms around the entire Western musical canon from Mahler to Ives, a passionate teacher and communicator …

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“Tapiola”: Sibelius’ Mysterious Final Tone Poem

In Pohjola there are thick, dark forests that dream wild dreams, forever secret. Tapio’s eerie dwellings are there and half-glimpsed spirits, and the voices of twilight. – Jean Sibelius  Tapio is the mythological spirit of the mysterious, remote forests of northern Finland who figures prominently in the Nordic folklore of the Kalevala. This is the subject of the tone poem, Tapiola, Jean Sibelius’ last major work, written in 1926 on a commission from Walter Damrosch and the New …

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Remembering Oliver Knussen

Oliver Knussen, the influential British composer, conductor, and teacher passed away last Sunday. He was 66. As a conductor and teacher, Knussen will be remembered for his associations with Tanglewood (where he served as head of contemporary music activities between 1986 and 1993), the Aldeburgh Festival, the London Sinfonietta, and the BBC Symphony Orchestra, among other organizations. In a 2005 San Francisco Chronicle interview, Knussen talked about his life in music, including his aversion to composing up against deadlines. …

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Sibelius’ Seventh Symphony: “Turning Space Upside Down”

It begins with a distant drumbeat in the night- a barely-audible triple-beat timpani summons. Then, a strangely amorphous scale in the brooding low strings rises out of the darkness. A vague remembrance of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde blends into a gradually-shifting kaleidoscope of veiled colors. Icy dissonance opens out into a vast, magnificent, sonic expanse. These are the first, primal seconds of Jean Sibelius’ Seventh Symphony. Actually, we don’t perceive this piece as having a …

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