Wagner’s Parsifal: The “Good Friday Spell”

Heroic sacrifice, compassion, healing, and rebirth…these are central themes of Wagner’s last opera, Parsifal. Unfolding over nearly five hours, Parsifal was conceived as a solemn mystical experience- a Gesamtkunstwerk (“total work of art”) blending Christian and Buddhist symbolism and Schopenhauerian philosophy. The story, based on a 13th-century epic verse by German poet Wolfram von Eschenbach, depicts the Arthurian knight Parsifal’s quest for the Holy Grail- the chalice that held the wine of Christ at the Last Supper. One of the opera’s …

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Hamburg’s New Elbphilharmonie: “Here Time Becomes Space”

Here time becomes space. This enigmatic line from Wagner’s Parsifal suggests the transcendent nature of the 1882 work, which dramatizes a twelfth-century knight’s quest for the Holy Grail. Parsifal goes beyond opera, transporting us into a mystical new realm. Foremost, it’s an experience. Appropriately, this line became the theme for last week’s inaugural concerts of Hamburg’s spectacular, new Elbphilharmonie- the long-anticipated home of the NDR Sinfonieorchester (North German Radio Symphony Orchestra), now renamed the NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchestra. In …

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A Brief Look Back at James Levine’s Tenure at the Met

Last week, the Metropolitan Opera announced that James Levine will be stepping down as music director after four decades and 2,551 performances. Levine, who is 72, has been battling Parkinson’s Disease along with other ailments. Levine, who became music director of the Met in 1976, has been credited with raising the level of the company. In this interview he reflects on some of his achievements. Recently, Alex Ross summed up Levine’s tenure …

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Remembering Seymour Lipkin

American pianist and teacher Seymour Lipkin passed away on Monday. He was 88. Born in Detroit, Lipkin studied with Rudolf Serkin, Mieczyslaw Horszowski, and David Saperton. During the Second World War, while still a student at Curtis, he accompanied Jascha Heifetz in concerts for American troops stationed around the world. In 1948 Lipkin won the Rachmaninov Competition, launching a significant solo career. He was a longtime faculty member of both the Juilliard …

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The Coronation Scene from Boris Godunov: Opera’s Biggest Spectacle?

From its origins in medieval and Renaissance courtly entertainment, opera has always been partly rooted in spectacle. Nineteenth century French grand opera used large casts, expanded orchestras, grandiose scenery, consumes and special effects, and ballet to bring to life epic heroic tales based on historical subjects. (Meyerbeer’s five-act Les Huguenots from 1836 is an example.) A sense of theatricality and spectacle is at the heart of the Triumphant March from Verdi’s Aida, set in ancient Egypt. History (this time recent) became …

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The Joy of Wrong Notes

The element of surprise is an important ingredient in every great melody. Each note of a melody sets up expectations which are either fulfilled or delightfully challenged. Often subconsciously, we enjoy the unexpected “wrong” notes that take a melody in a bold new direction. We listen closely to hear how the disruption will work itself out. For an example, listen to the jarring appoggiaturas in the second movement of Mozart’s otherwise serene Piano Concerto …

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The Bells of Strasburg: Liszt’s Forgotten Cantata

In Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s 1851 poem, The Golden Legend, a storm rages as Lucifer and a host of demonic spirits (Powers of the Air) try to tear down the cross from the spire of Strasburg Cathedral. Ultimately, Lucifer is defeated by the ringing of the Gothic cathedral’s bells, which summon saints and guardian angels. This dramatic poem was the inspiration for Franz Liszt’s 1874 cantata, The Bells of Strasburg Cathedral. The work for baritone …

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