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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Monday, November 17, 2008

The Die Hard Story: A Reflection

(It's a quiet week on the concert-going so I thought I'd share some thoughts on why we're all here--why a certain young man named Paul J. Pelkonen is nutty about classical music.)

or How I got (back) into Classical Music:

It's true that I came to opera first--my mother and father were great ones for making sure I was "cultured", taking me to Broadway shows as early as 6 or 7 years old. When I was about 8 (?) years old, Mom and Dad brought me to a performing arts series at Brooklyn College--attending a dance recital, some theater piece, and an opera. I don't really remember. But of all those shows, opera was the one that stuck.

When I was 9, (this was in 1982), Mom and Dad bought a subscription for us at the New York City Opera. My first was Turandot, followed in that strike-shortened season by La Boheme, Candide and Carmen. We went to the opera regularly after that, even continuing when my Dad passed away in 1985.

But by the time I turned 16 or so, I was into a different kind of bombast--I had gotten into progressive rock, heavy metal, and the music that is today called "classic" rock. My first rock concert was that summer of '88: Aerosmith, Deep Purple, and Guns N' Roses at Giants Stadium (a show immortalized in the G'N'R' video for the song "Paradise City." The next day, my friend Ethan and I decided to go to the movies. Our choice: Die Hard.

Now, you might recall that the first Die Hard movie has a score pervaded by the "Ode to Joy" theme from Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. It shows up first at the cocktail party, played in a string quartet arrangement. Later, Hans Gruber (the villain, played by Alan Rickman) hums or scat-sings it to himself in the elevator. At the end of the film's second act, when the bad guys crack open the safe, a sprightly version of the "Turkish March" comes bursting out of the orchestra, celebrating the thieves' glee at their success. And after the final, apocalyptic conclusion to the movie, the Ninth roars over the final credit scroll in all its glory--albeit in a slightly compressed, edited version.

I don't know which chorus or orchestra was used in the film--the original arrangements were by the late Michael Kamen but I don't know if he recorded another Ninth (unlikely) or simply edited down an existing recording for the movie. Either way, I stood there, in the theater, for the entire closing credits. The next day, I went to the Record Explosion on Broadway and Fulton, and for $3.99, bought a cassette of the 9th, featuring the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, conducted by Eugene Ormandy. I was hooked. I still am.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Opera Review: A Hi-tech Hell

La Damnation de Faust at the Metropolitan Opera.
by Paul Pelkonen
Stairway to heaven: Marguerite ascends in La Damnation de Faust. 
Photo by Ken Howard © 2008 The Metropolitan Opera.
The Metropolitan Opera's new computer-driven mounting of The Damnation of Faust is a showcase for the staging techniques of Robert Lepage, the Quebecois director best known for his work with Peter Gabriel and Cirque de Soleil. It is the Met's first attempt to stage this Berlioz work since 1906.

Concert Review: Eschenbach Conducts Beethoven and Bruckner

Last Friday's matinee performance of the New York Philharmonic, conducted by Christoph Eschenbach, featured pianist Lang Lang playing the Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 1 and the Ninth Symphony by Anton Bruckner.

Christoph Eschenbach does a neat baton trick.

Lang Lang is a fast-rising star of the piano and this performance shows why. His entry was a torrent of liquid notes, played with poise and seemingly very little effort. If it is accepted that best pianists make the most technical passages look effortless, and Lang Lang's traversal of this Beethoven concerto was an absolute cakewalk.

However, he was hampered by Eschenbach's conducting, which missed the pace and rhythmic snap necessary to make this Beethoven work not just listenable, but spectacularly entertaining. This performance was pretty and note-perfect. All the meters were correct and the rhythms were strict. But it was drained of blood and passion when Mr. Lang was not playing, and was ultimately let down by the conductor.

Happily, these problems did not occur during the second piece on the program Bruckner's mighty, unfinished Ninth Symphony. This work exists as a torso, and is generally performed without its unfinished last movement, which Bruckner did not live to complete. Like most of the composer's output, the score is massive, static blocks of brass and strings, powerful fanfares, thunderous crescendoes, weighty pauses and mighty chorales.

The Philharmonic is an orchestra that thrives on its brass section, and the horns were well equipped to play Bruckner. The mighty first statement shook the hall, and the orchestra was off, blasting through the score. The first movement rolled, swelled and roared. The second, built like most Bruckner scherzos, around a distinctive five-note "Bruckner rhythm" and the Landler, a traditional Austrian peasant folk dance.

Even Eschenbach's podium gyrations could not keep up with the orchestra's inspired playing in the final adagio, a powerful movement replete with quotations from Wagner (including a theme from Walküre and the bell-motif from Parsifal.. Since Bruckner sketched the finale but did not live to complete the last movement, this Adagio made a powerful close to the concert.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Top Ten Recordings!

These are ten classical and opera recordings I really like.

Schubert--String Quintet Op. in C Major Op. 956, Melos Quartet with Mstislav Rostropovich, Cello

Wagner--Götterdämmerung, Vienna Philharmonic, Birgit Nilsson, Wolfgang Windgassen, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, cond. Sir Georg Solit

Strauss--Der Rosenkavalier, Dresden Staatskapelle, Kiri Te Kanawa, Anne Sofie von Otter, Barbara Hendricks, Kurt Rydl, cond. Bernard Haitink

Dvorak--Symphony No. 9 in E minor ("From the New World") Op. 95, Berlin Philharmonic, cond. Rafael Kubelik

Mahler--Symphony No. 1 "Titan", Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra cond. Leonard Bernstein

Beethoven--Symphony No. 9 "Choral" in D Minor cond. Wilhelm Furtwängler, recorded at Bayreuth,, 1951.

Debussy--12 Etudes for Solo Piano, Mitsuko Uchida, piano.

Verdi--Simon Boccanegra, Orchestra and Chorus of La Scala, Piero Cappucili, Jose Carreras, cond. Claudio Abbado

Vaughan Williams--The Lark Ascending and others, various orchestras and ensembles

Mascagni--Cavalleria Rusticana, O and C of La Scala, Carlo Bergonzi, others, cond. Herbert von Karajan

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