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About Superconductor

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, July 31, 2017

Opera Review: Tsarface

The Time of Troubles comes to Bard College with Dimitrij.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Family snapshot: the false tsar Dimitrij (Clay Hilley, center)
flanked by Marfa (Nora Sourouzian) and Marina, his wife (Melissa Citro).
Photo courtesy Bard College and Bard SummerScape.

The operas of Antonín Dvorak are central to the repertory in that composer’s native land, but apart from Rusalka, remain neglected here in the United States. That may change after this weekend, when Bard SummerScape offered the first fully staged U.S. Performances of Dimitrij. Planned to be Dvorak's breakthrough international success, this opera is his most ambitious stage work: an absorbing, turbulent drama chronicling the start of the Time of Troubles, the most turbulent period in Russian history,

Sunday, July 30, 2017

The Total Perspective Vortex

Strauss, Nietzsche and Ein Alpensinfonie
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The climactic moment of Strauss' Ein Alpensinfonie.

Before he rose to fame as the creator of operas like Salome, Elektra and Der Rosenkavalier, Richard Strauss was famed for his tone poems. Of these, his last and most ambitious is Ein Alpensinfonie from 1915. It is a mind-boggling 22-movement work which follows some of the conventions of a proper symphony but is designed to be played as one single unit, telling the story of a day's journey up an Alp in his native Bavaria.

Friday, July 28, 2017

Death, Congress and Tosca

On Twitter with Puccini and the banality of evil.
by Paul J. Pelkonen

Cover art for the CD issue of the 1980 Karajan Tosca.
Image © 1980 Deutsche Grammophon/UMG.
It started because I couldn't sleep.

Tonight was the super-stealthy midnight vote by the Republican Party to enact a so-called "skinny repeal" of the Affordable Care Act, the health care achievement by President Barack Obama that has enabled me to continue my career both as a freelance writer and as the author of Superconductor, my very own classical music publication that you're reading if you're reading this right now.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Opera Preview: Dimitrij

Superconductor delves into "The Time of Troubles" and Dvořák's opera.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The incident that started it all: Ivan the Terrible (top) holds his dying son Ivanovich.
Painting by Vadim Repin. 
The biggest opera premiere of the summer is this Friday evening, when Bard SummerScape unveils the rarely performed Dmitrij by Antonín Dvořák. Dmitrij is a Czech opera that delves into a bloody and to historians, fascinating period: the Time of Troubles. With the premiere scheduled for Friday night, I thought it would be a good idea to delve into the history of Dmitrij, and its more famous "prequel": Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Metropolitan Opera Preview: Die Zauberflöte

We test the theory that everything is funnier in German.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Kathryn Lewek is the Queen of the Night in Mozart's Die Zauberflöte.
Photo by Ken Howard © The Metropolitan Opera.
James Levine continues his tour of the great Mozart operas with the composer's last work. Die Zauberflöte ("The Magic Flute") is part knockabout comedy, part love story and part sacred mystical journey into enlightenment for its young hero. This is the uncut version of the opera, sung in German. (A shorter version in English will be offered in December, geared toward a younger audience.)

Monday, July 24, 2017

Recordings Review: He's No Hero, That's Understood

Paavo Järvi and the NHK Symphony Orchestra unleash Strauss tone poems.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Helmsman: Paavo Järvi leading the NHK Symphony Orchestra.
Photo by Belinda Lawley © 2017 NHK
The NHK Symphony Orchestra is one of the twenty-four professional ensembles that call Tokyo, Japan their home, a mind-boggling number to the critic who lives in a culture where the arts are treated as some sort of afterthought by those  who see to the dispersal of public funds for such matters. So far, the pairing of the orchestra with Estonian conductor Paavo Järvi has been a fruitful one. The first harvest from his term as music director is an exciting new recording, made in Suntory Hall of two very familiar Richard Strauss tone poems: Don Juan and Ein Heldenleben.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Concert Review: The New Teen Titans

The National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America marks five years at Carnegie Hall.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Members of the National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America,
also known as the Red Pants Brigade. Photo courtesy Carnegie Hall.
A concert performed by an orchestra of musicians between the age of sixteen to nineteen is usually not an occasion for comment. However, on Friday night, the National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America played at Carnegie Hall, under the baton of Marin Alsop. The NYO-USA was established five years ago through the good offices of Carnegie Hall’s Weill Music Institute and remains an important initiative in the sadly neglected and underfunded field of American music education.

It would be fallacious to hold these young musicians, in their uniform of black jackets, red concert slacks and low-cut canvas sneakers to the same standard as the Berlin or Vienna Philharmonics. There were missed notes, or notes played past the measure. There were some lured and awkward phrases. However the lack of polish in their playing was compensated for with a raw energy and enthusiasm, and a fearlessness as they took on the challenge of two works by modern composers and one of Gustav Mahler’s most familiar and most forbidding symphonies: the First.

The concert started with Short Ride in a Fast Machine, a four minute curtain raiser by John Adams that epitomizes the phrase “truth in advertising.” A repeatedly tapped woodblock provided the piston pump on that machines engine, with violins  winds and brass sawing, chirping and bellowing Mr. Adams’ trademark short cells of sound. Rough this the woodblock persisted, embodying either the ticking of an overworked engine or an excited woodpecker strapped firmly into the passenger seat. This is a work of propulsive movement that climaxes in a golden glow of sound.

Ms. Alsop proved to be a rally-class driver of this very large ensemble, navigating Mr. Adams’ gear-shifts of meter and phrase. She whipped the big orchestra around the hairpin turns while immersing the listener in the dens orchestral soundscape, Somehow this short piece seemed a lot longer and more absorbing then its four-minute length would indicate.

The orchestra seemed more enthusiastic about the second piece of the evening, the three movement Apu: A Tone Poem for Orchestra from the pen of Gabriella Lena Frank. This was a kind of concerto for orchestra in three movements, with complicated lines for woodwind a and high percussion. Its purpose: to depict the Apu, a wilderness spirit that appears to travelers high in the mountain passes of Peru. Like the playful mountain spirit, the spiritual center of Ms. Frank's work revealed itself slowly and proved to be well worth the journey. The final movement was exuberant and demanding.

Mahler's First Symphony is one of the composer's most accessible: an early statement of purpose loaded with quotes from the composer's own songs, children's rhymes and even a fragment of Humperdinck's Hansel und Gretel. It remains popular with audiences and regularly programmed as a result. However the four movements of this symphony (once nicknamed “the Titan”) are a stiff climb for even the most seasoned professional band. Here. The NYO-USA players seemed challenged in the first movement where woodwind phrases were overextended and the first roar of the horns feeble and timid. However, Ms. Alsop recognized the difficulties and responded with an urgent tempo, letting the energy of the movement build and build before erupting in a storm of timpani and trumpet in its closing pages.

The dance movement was taken at a similar urgent pace, with the cellos chugging out the rollicking almost nautical rhythm. Some slurred string phrases in the trio were forgivable. E slow movement was super, a smoldering funeral march that ascended into a manic celebration before relapsing into the quiet meditation of the opening theme. The final movement detonated, with Ms. Alsop letting her charges burst forth into exuberant fanfares. Wind and brass. Indeed, the horn section did the heroic, heavy lifting at the end. They stood and played proudly with robust tone and bells raised for maximum volume, hammering home the last notes of this audacious and ebullient work.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

The Met Al Fresco: Summer Live in HD Festival

A look ahead at next month's Peter Gelb film festival in Lincoln Center Plaza.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Eric Owens in L'Amour de Loin.
Photo by Ken Howard © 2016 the Metropolitan Opera.
The Metropolitan Opera returns to its tradition of showing reruns to an adoring public at Lincoln Center plaza in the late summer. This year the company offers screenings of eight operas plus filmmaker Ingmar Bergman's version of The Magic Flute. Why only eight operas, you ask? Because one of them, Wagner's four hour epic Tristan und Isolde is being split into two nights.

All the screenings will be held on Lincoln Center Plaza, with the 3,000 FREE seats filled on a first-come first-serve basis. Programs and playbills will be provided.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Concert Review: Outside it May Be Raining...

Beating the heat with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Partners at work: David Finckel and Wu Han.
Photo from the artists' website.
Most summer music festivals take place under hot tents or purpose-built structures open to the elements. Neither are conducive to good music-making, although the combination of grassy swards, majestic trees and a good bottle of cab. franc makes up for any unpleasantness. The Chamber Music Society's summer series, which gave the second of three concerts on Wednesday night, offers a comfortable alternative: the air-conditioned acoustic excellence of Alice Tully Hall.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Follies on the Roof

Tosca star, conductor take the act to Tanglewood.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Jump they say: Karita Mattila in a promotional shot for the Met's old production of Tosca.
Image © 2009 The Metropolitan Opera

Those wanting to see the original conductor and soprano scheduled for the Metropolitan Opera's new production of Tosca should head to Tanglewood in Lenox, MA. on August 26. Conductor Andris Nelsons and his wife Kristine Opolais will perform Act II of the opera in a special opera gala at the Boston Symphony Orchestra's annual summer festival.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Concert Review: When the Typewriters Talk....

Lincoln Center Festival does Naked Lunch.
by Paul J. Pelkonen

Liquid courage: Peter Weller drinks up in Naked Lunch.
Image Copyright 1991 201th Century Fox.
Ornette Coleman carved his own path as a composer. As he burst upon the scene, he epitomized the atonal explorations of free jazz and then developing his own musical system of “harmolodics” to express himself with saxophone and pen. On Tuesday night, the Lincoln Center Festival kicked off its week-long Coleman tribute with a screening of Naked Lunch, the surreal, disturbing and very funny David Cronenberg film for which Coleman supplied part of the soundtrack.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Orpheus in Thuringia

Why did Wagner choose to set Tannhäuser?
by Paul J. Pelkonen
This isn't exactly what happens in Tannhäuser but to be fair
it is a long opera. Art by John Byrne from The Incredible Hulk No. 315 © Marvel Comics.
Of the thirteen operas that Richard Wagner brought to the stage, it is his fifth, Tannhäuser that creates the most headaches for singers, conductors and directors. It is a Germanic update of the the Orpheus myth. Wagner distilled his libretto from theee separate medieval legends, creating a complex and flawed work that meditates on the dichotomy between reason and passion, between celestial fate and earthly lust, with an artist and musician trapped in the middle.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Transformative Alchemy: Beethoven's Sixth Symphony.

An analysis of the Pastorale Symphony.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
 Beethoven and Nature.
Detail from the painting by N.C. Wyeth.

What is program music? This is a question that musicians and music critics have been wrestling with (and generally losing the match) for 200 years. The debate started in 1808, the year that Ludwig van Beethoven premiered his Symphony No. 6 in F Major, the Pastorale. While it would be Hector Berlioz who created the first detailed program for a symphony 22 years later in his Symphonie-fantastique, Beethoven pointed the way forward by substituting movement titles for the usual tempo markings. 

Recordings Review: One Man Against the World

Jonas Kaufmann sings Mahler solo.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The mysterious Jonas Kaufmann.
Photo by Julian Hargreaves for Sony Classical.
How does a singer start his next act? If you're Jonas Kaufmann, the heartthrob tenor who is known for his good looks, stage presence and (more recently) frequent cancellations, you do it on record. Mr. Kaufmann is known for the lighter Wagner tenor roles (Lohengrin, Parsifal) as well as heroic parts in the operas of Puccini, Bizet and Massenet. However his newest recording, released this spring by Sony Classical is something different: a solo flight through Mahler’s autumnal epic Das Lied Von der Erde.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Opera at Random: Pelléas et Mélisande

A walk in the dark woods with Claude Debussy.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
A scene from the (rather beautiful) Robert Wilson staging of
Pelléas et Mélisande from the Opera de Paris. Photo courtesy
Like the forests of Allemonde, Superconductor was dark for the last week as I rested, recharged and figured out what direction I want to take this blog in next. Today, I borrowed an idea from the composer John Cage: indeterminacy. Using the shuffle function on my old 160GB iPod Classic to decide which composer I'm writing about. And the winner is: Claude Debussy and his lone opera: Pelléas et Mélisande.

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