Remembering Sanford Sylvan

The renowned American baritone Sanford Sylvan passed away suddenly last week. He was 65. Sylvan’s career on the opera stage included premieres of works by John Adams, Philip Glass, Peter Maxwell Davies and Christopher Rouse. He was the first to perform the role of Chou En-lai in Nixon in China (1987) and Leon Klinghoffer in The Death of Klinghoffer (1991). In addition, he premiered Adams’ haunting setting of Walt Whitman’s poem, The Wound Dresser. He was an …

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Wagner’s “Das Rheingold” Prelude: Currents in E-Flat Major

Das Rheingold, the first opera in Richard Wagner’s mythic Ring Cycle, begins as a distant, barely-audible rumble in the dark, murky depths of the orchestra. Entering one by one in cool, overlapping sonic currents, eight horns announce the Ring‘s expansive, rising “nature” motive. It’s a gradual, primal awakening- 136 bars and over four minutes of pure, unending E-flat major. We’re forced to confront the power and majesty of the basic, fundamental elements of …

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Wagner’s “Die Walküre”: Magic Fire Music

At the end of the third and final act of Wagner’s Die Walküre, Wotan bids farewell to Brünnhilde, sending her into an enchanted sleep. Loge, the Norse god of fire, creates a protective circle of fire around the rock where she lies. Only the bravest of heroes will be able to penetrate the fire. At the opera’s 1870 premiere in Munich, the special effect of the flames terrified the audience. From the beginning of this …

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New Release: Rossini’s “Semiramide,” Sir Mark Elder and Opera Rara

“Rossini’s music is primarily rhythmic,” says British conductor Sir Mark Elder. “It bubbles. Even in the saddest music, there is a sense of bubbling going along underneath.” According to Elder, control of the tempo is more important than the tempo, itself. It is a sense of collective precision that keeps the audience “leaning forward.”  Sir Mark Elder and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment put these concepts to work in a new studio recording of Rossini’s Semiramide. Based …

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Wagnerian Brawn: “Siegfried’s Forging Song”

In celebration of Labor Day, here is one of opera’s greatest displays of heroic physical labor and brawn. It’s “Siegfried’s Forging Song,” which concludes the first act of Wagner’s Siegfried, the third music drama in the Ring Cycle. Disgusted with the dwarf Mime’s lack of progress in reforging the broken pieces of Nothung, the sword that will slay the dragon Fafner, Siegfried takes up the task himself. The music takes on a frightening, almost violent, …

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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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Mozart and the Tragic Key of G Minor

Mozart wrote 41 numbered symphonies. Of these, only two are rooted in a minor key- in both cases G minor. The first is the exuberant, fiery Symphony No. 25, which we heard last week. The second and more famous is the “Great” G minor Symphony No. 40.  Last Friday’s post inspired me to consider the uniquely tragic significance of G minor throughout Mozart’s music. This is the key to which Mozart turns in the second …

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