There has been plenty of eulogizing and assessment of Maurice Sendak’s remarkable career, most of it focused (rightly so) on his wonderful books. While Sendak’s work in opera and ballet has been praised, I don’t feel that enough attention has been paid to the two operas he worked on with Oliver Knussen. The first, Where the Wild Things Are, is the best children’s opera of our time; the second, Higglety Pigglety Pop!, is one of the best late 20th-century operas of any type. Higglety Pigglety Pop! is a fairy tale with great appeal to children, yet the surreal story of a selfish dog’s quest for happiness is laden with potent symbolism that speaks deeply to adults.
The efficiency of Sendak’s librettos to both works, and the ways he created new dialogue for Where the Wild Things Are, and distilled the text for Higglety Pigglety Pop!, reveal the handiwork of a shrewd man with a gift for the stage. Knussen’s music–impressionistic in Wild Things, parodic and post-modern in Higglety Pigglety Pop! is colorful and contemporary, yet highly accessible. I hope that more companies consider mounting a production of one or both operas.
I’ve posted my review of the 1990 LA Opera production of both works on my blog, and I hope it will give you a sense of the magic that Sendak and Knussen conjured for an audience full of children and adults. You can read the review here.
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Breaking news from Cuernavaca, Mexico–Stefano Scodanibbio has passed away, a tremendous bassist, a fearless improviser, and a gifted composer. Faced with ALS, he decided to spend his last days in Mexico, a country he loved. I haven’t found any reports in English, but for those of you who speak Spanish, here’s the report. Google translation (not too bad) here.
Peter Lieberson’s record label, Bridge Records, has been kind enough to share some of his music with us: an excerpt from The Six Realms, for Cello and Orchestra (2000), one of his later and larger works and a piece that has an explicitly Buddhist programmatic element.
Here is movement 5, performed by cellist Michaela Fukacova, the Odense Symphony Orchestra, and conducted by Justin Brown. The recording is from Bridge 9178, The Music of Peter Lieberson.
In addition to silk and other precious goods, the Silk Road helped disseminate Buddhism, one of its earliest, and most valuable, cultural exports. For almost thirty years, Peter Lieberson has been a devout Buddhist, having studied with the great Chogyam Trungpa, a Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhist master he met in 1974. Says Lieberson, “Buddhism’s appeal to me in the early 1970s was that it was not a religion in the conventional Western sense. Buddhism did not posit the existence of any external deity or savior or, for that matter, an individual personal ego…The basic message of the great Buddhist masters was: Be brave enough to experience existence without dogma or beliefs of any kind.” Read the rest of this entry »
We’re saddened to learn from David Starobinof the passing of composer Peter Liebersonin Israel, due to complications from Lymphoma. He had been battling the disease since 2006 and for a time it had been in remission. But in late 2010, Lieberson travelled to Israel to seek treatment for a recurrence of the cancer.
Lieberson’s music was an extraordinary mixture of disparate strands of influences. It encompassed an intuitive post-tonal vocabulary, rooted in dodecaphonic training but also capable of lush verticals and, particularly in his vocal music, supple lyricism and sweeping melodies. In later years, his interest in meditation and Zen Buddhism contributed another layer of resonances and an intriguingly metaphysical counterweight to some of the modernist tendencies of his oeuvre.
Among the many honors he attained was the prestigious Grawemeyer Prize, which he won in 2008 for Neruda Songs. Although he was a finalist for the award on multiple occasions, the Pulitzer Prize eluded him. Back in 2004, I suggested that this injustice made him the “Pulitzer’s Susan Lucci.”
Of course, during this sad time, one can’t help but think of the passing of Lieberson’s late wife, the extraordinary mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, also of cancer. Lieberson wrote a number of memorable pieces for her, including the aforementioned Neruda Songs. If there’s a signature example to use when we advocate for our government to continue to fund medical research, I’d offer this one up: two brilliant creators in the prime of life laid low so cruelly. Both had so much yet to offer. It’s a tragedy that we’re bereft of their artistry and humanity far too soon.
Composer Paul Lansky writes at his Facebook page: “I’m sorry to report that Milton Babbitt died this morning at age 94. He was a great and important composer, and a dear friend, colleague and teacher.”
Whether as a pillar of strength, or a pillar to push in opposition to, Babbitt was one of the most dominant presences in American classical music these past 50 years. As news and appreciations pop up, we’ll try to give you links. Meantime, there’s this wonderfully human interview from just about 10 years ago, with NewMusicBox’s Frank J. Oteri.
We’re saddened to hear the news of Ann Southam’s death this past Thursday after a long battle with cancer. Southam was one of Canada’s foremost composers, an influential teacher at the Royal Conservatory, and longtime arts advocate, active in several groups which fostered contemporary music.
She received numerous honors during her distinguished career. Earlier this year, she was named a member of the Order of Canada.
Southam’s oeuvre encompassed several compositional styles and genres: twelve-tone music, lyrical Neoromanticism, electroacoustic music, and postminimalism. I particularly admire her writing for the piano and have included two videos of contrasting works for piano soloist below.
Some of Henryk Gorecki’s closest collaborators were the members of the Kronos Quartet. He composed all three of his string quartets for Kronos. As it happens, when the composer passed away yesterday, the group was in Poland. Late yesterday, David Harrington, Kronos’ first violinist, released the following statement:
“The three string quartets Henryk Górecki wrote for Kronos are a totally unique
body of work. With ‘Already it is Dusk’, Quasi Una Fantasia’ and ‘…songs are
sung’, Górecki extended a tradition that includes Bach and Beethoven, among
many others. When we rehearsed with Henryk, the experience was as close as
we have ever been to witnessing the raw, impassioned core in the heart of
Europe’s great invention: the string quartet. When he demonstrated phrases on
the piano for us I was always reminded of Beethoven: his fortes were shattering,
his pianissimos unfathomably inward. From us, he always wanted as much as
our bows could handle and more.
“Górecki represented a totally independent voice. He only listened inward.
There was no amount of pressure that ever pulled him away from his ideals. He
was known for his cancellations, as even the Pope discovered. Kronos waited 12
years for a piece that was so personal he couldn’t let it out of his sight until the
right moment mysteriously arrived. And I always loved him more for that
devotion to his muse.
“I learned that Henryk was a skilled furniture maker known for his beautiful
chairs. I once asked him if he would consider making me a chair. He said,
‘David, you can have the chair or you can have String Quartet #4. You choose.’ I
chose String Quartet #4. But it looks like I will have to wait.
“There is no one who can replace Henryk Górecki in the world of music. Many
others have created beautiful, passionate, even exalted music. But Henryk found
a way forward and beyond, through thickets of styles and fashions, that
resonates of the single human being in communion with the power of the
Universe. I miss him immensely.”
November 12, 2010
Polish composer Henryk Gorecki died today at the age of 76. Gorecki was one of Poland’s most prominent musical figures and, along with Estonian composer Arvo Pärt and Englishman John Tavener, is widely credited with popularizing the “spiritual minimalism” strain of Postmodern era European music.
He is perhaps best known for his Symphony no. 3, Symphony of Sorrowful Songs (1976). Fifteen years after its premiere, a Nonesuch CD recording of the work, featuring soprano Dawn Upshaw and conducted by David Zinman, became a best-seller in 1992, breaking into the mainstream charts in the UK and dominating US classical sales during that year.
While the composer has denied a direct program for the work, it’s frequently been linked with the experiences of the Polish people under German occupation during the Second World War; in particular, with the Holocaust. Below is a video excerpt of the symphony performed at Auschwitz, from a film commemorating victims of genocide during WWII.
The recent deaths of both George Perle and Lukas Foss are part of the sad but expected passing, of composers who came of age in the 1940s and 50s. But a slight shock went through me with Douglas Britt’s surprising news in the Houston Chronicle blogs that pioneering composer, percussionist, visual and sound artist Max Neuhaus (b. 1939) has just died as well. Neuhaus is from the generation that gives us Lucier, Ashley, Young, Reich, Glass and Riley.
He semi-retired some time ago from pure composition and performance, preferring to focus on sound art and installations (one of which quietly hums day and night just down the street from me here in Houston, a few steps from Rothko Chapel). Neuhaus’ own website gives a good overview of where his imagination took him these past years, and you can pay homage to his earlier self — percussion iconclast and champion of the likes of Stockhausen, Brown, Feldman, Cage — by revisiting his seminal 1960s recordings courtesy of UbuWeb.