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 September 16-23, 2002
Dead Man Walking Shows
American Opera is Alive

By Jerry Bowles
Humankind cannot bear very much reality, as T.S. Eliot famously noted, which may help explain the half-empty house at New York City Opera for the New York premiere of Dead Man Walking, the new opera by Jake Heggie and Terrence McNally which debuted last year to high praise in San Francisco. Arriving as it did on a Friday the 13th at the end of an emotionally wrenching week, many opera-goers may have decided that subjecting themselves to the story of a nun’s relationship with a murderer on death row was simply too much reality for one week. 

More likely, though, the modest turnout reflects the resistance of Lincoln Center’s core audience to anything new or novel and highlights the difficulty that contemporary operas—even those with as much advance “buzz” and built-in marketing advantage as Dead Man Walking—have in finding listeners.  (The turnout also re-emphasizes NYC Opera’s desperate need to get out from under the shadow of the Met, its wealthy next-door neighbor, and into a smaller, less expensive home where worthy new projects can be attempted without fear of financial disaster.
But, that’s a different story.)

 I must confess I came to Dead Man Walking with a certain amount of skepticism.  Young Mr. Heggie’s cozy relationships with several elite opera singers, his “insider” status with the San Francisco Opera, a CD of pleasant but forgettable songs all suggested that he may have been overhyped.  Fortunately, I was wrong.  Dead Man Walking is the best new American opera since John Corigliano’s shamefully-neglected 1991 masterpiece, The Ghosts of Versailles.  The only thing that comes close in the last decade is Tobias Picker’s 1996 Emmeline which, unlike Ghosts of Versailles, at least has a recording to mark its passing.

 Thanks to Tim Robbins’ film of the same name, the true story behind Dead Man Walking is familiar to many. Sister Helen Prejean begins a correspondence with a condemned Louisiana inmate named Joseph de Rocher, who has been convicted and sentenced to die for brutally killing and raping a young teenager and her male companion.  De Rocher asks Sister Helen to be his spiritual advisor which requires being there for him in the weeks leading up to and including his last “walk” (Dead man walking, as the other inmates grimly describe it) to the lethal-injection chamber. De Rocher maintains his innocence and much of the dramatic framework involves Sister Helen’s attempts to get him to accept responsibility for his actions.  Unlike the film, which maintains some ambiguity about De Rocher guilt, Heggie and McNally leave no doubt—we see him committing the crime in the horrifyingly graphic, but necessary, opening scene.  A powerful secondary theme is Sister Helen’s efforts to make peace with the families of the slain teenagers who view her as a traitor.

Dead Man Walking is one those rare artistic events in which all the elements work together perfectly to create a complete and satisfying theatrical experience.  McNally’s libretto creates scenes and speeches that have the unmistakable ring of real-life and provide a coherent framework for Heggie’s music to develop. Sister Helen (sung and acted wonderfully by Joyce DiDonato) is no caricature nun spouting textbook pieties but a real human being struggling to love a man who is unlovable. Sister Helen is also a nun with a wicked sense of humor which she uses to good advantage, especially on the holier-than-thou. 

Dead Man Walking
Composer: Jake Heggie
Conductor: Patrick Summers
Performer: Susan Graham, Frederica von Stade SF Opera Chorus andOrchestra
Elektra/Asylum - #86238 

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Our writers welcome your comments on their pieces.  Send your witty bon mots to jbowles@sequenza21.com and we might even publish some of them here.  And, don't forget--if you'd like to write for Sequenza21 (understanding that we have no money to pay you), send me a note. JB

AH, THAT FAMOUS NEW YORK APATHY: "Why should symphonic subscribers in Chicago or Cleveland be more loyal and proud than in New York? Is it because of New York itself — its size, its diversity, its seen-it-all, heard-it-all 'sophistication'? ...In fact, the Philharmonic's audience problem is rooted in an institutional history so diffuse and haphazard that it's no wonder the orchestra and the audience have never bonded. No other American orchestra of world stature must cope with so generic an identity." The New York Times 09/15/02 

HOPE FOR THE NEXT GENERATION? A recent study claimed that 65% of UK children could not name a single classical composer, and seem to be under the impression that Shakespeare wrote symphonies. The classical music world ought to be used to these surveys by now, but they never fail to produce the most remarkable panic among the type of arts folks who mistakenly believe that children of any era cared deeply about whether a particular musical passage was written by Beethoven or Offenbach. An informal survey of Londoners seems to confirm the study's basic claim of musical ignorance, but Johnny Sharp points out that one of the beauties of classical music is that, like fine wine or great literature, it tends to be a pleasure that one discovers later in life. The Guardian (UK) 09/14/02

RECORDING IS DEAD, LONG LIVE RECORDING: Terry Teachout surveys the history of recorded music and come to a conclusion about the digital revolution - traditional recording companies are doomed. "In the not-so-long run, the introduction of online delivery systems and the spread of file-sharing will certainly undermine and very likely destroy the fundamental economic basis for the recording industry, at least as we know it today. And what will replace it? I, for one, think it highly likely that more and more artists will start to make their own recordings and market them directly to the public via the web. Undoubtedly, new managerial institutions will emerge to assist those artists who prefer not to engage in the time-consuming task of self-marketing, but these institutions will be true middlemen, purveyors of a service, as opposed to record labels, which use artists to serve their interests." Commentary 09/02

TUGBOAT SYMPHONY: Sound "curator" David Toop has organized a 15-minute piece for tugboats. "On September 15, as part of the Thames festival, up to a dozen of these water workhorses, dating from as far back as 1907, take centre stage in the Siren Space concert, which precedes the fireworks finale. Up to 100,000 people are expected to gather between Waterloo and Blackfriars bridges." The Guardian (UK) 09/10/02

AND IT'S 1, 2, 3, WHAT ARE WE FIGHTIN' FOR? "A lot has changed since last year, and as the country discusses going to war against Iraq, there has been almost no response from musicians, despite a tradition of political commentary and protest... But on Monday, one of the first major songs to directly address the nation's stance toward Iraq was released. It is "The Bell," by Stephan Smith, a folk singer whose songs echo Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie." Smith doesn't expect his song will be particularly popular with a nation still in the throes of nationalistic post-9/11 fervor, but then, popularity has never really been high on folk music's list of priorities. The New York Times 09/12/02

THE NEED TO PAY ATTENTION: How can you have a vital music culture when there aren't interesting critics to write about it? A half-dozen prominent composers talk about the crisis in classical music criticism: "The music of living composers is not even despised because to be despised you have to exist. Cultured lay people may know about both Dante and Philip Roth, Michelangelo and Jackson Pollock. But if they know about Vivaldi they don't know about his musical equivalent today. They only know about pop. Pop is the music of the world today, alas." NewMusicBox 09/02

BEHIND THE CRITICAL CURVE: Is there a crisis in music criticism? Daniel Felsenfeld thinks so: "Twenty-five years or so ago, inaccessible was in vogue so critics responded in kind, all but begging for some tunes or nice chords. Now the opposite is true. Avant-garde is praised, the more difficult the better (Babbitt, Carter, Lachenmann, Boulez, Xenakis) while offerings by composers who either never left tonality, or approach it with fresh ears are given, for the most part, short shrift. An audience responding well to something automatically calls it into suspicion; appreciation is likely to elicit the ever-popular 'You LIKED that?' from the alleged musical literati." NewMusicBox 09/02

ARE CD'S TOO EXPENSIVE? Worried about slackening sales, some music labels are lowering prices on CDs to see if consumers will buy more. "Lower prices may at least stop the bleeding. But that's tough for executives to admit. It calls into question their long-held belief that CDs are not only fairly priced, but a good value." USA Today 09/09/02

OFF THE AIR IN CHICAGO: Less than a year after the Chicago Symphony Orchestra killed its long-running series of radio broadcasts for lack of sponsorship, the Chicago Lyric Opera is doing the same. The Lyric's productions have been airing locally and nationwide since the mid-1970s, and in recent years have been funded in large part by donations from American and United Airlines. But the airline industry is in trouble, and last week, both carriers dropped their support for the series, leaving the Lyric holding a $400,000 tab it could not afford to pay. Chicago Tribune 09/13/02

STRENGTHENING THE BERLIN PHIL: What does Simon Rattle taking over directorship of the Berlin Philharmonic mean to the city? "The orchestra now has more influence and power than it ever had before. But we can no longer be just a concert- giving organization in a city like this. We have to be something a bit richer. The demographics of an orchestra can't be changed overnight, but what you can do is touch more hearts in the city and realize that an orchestra is a resource that belongs to the whole city. That's quite new in Germany." Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung 09/13/02

 Last Week's News

Record companies, artists and publicists are invited to submit CDs to be considered for our Editor's Pick's of the month.  Send to: Jerry Bowles, Editor, Sequenza 21, 340 W. 57th Street, 12B, NY, NY 10019  Also, feel free to nominate your favorite composer-- even if it's you--for Spotlight of the Week.

We’re a sucker for a good marketing concept so when a press release promoting a cowboy composer named Jett Hitt and his latest work, Yellowstone for Violin and Orchestra, recorded by the Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra, eluded our spam killer this week, we thought, well, okay, why not?  After all there are cowboy poets --not very good, mind you, but there are some—so why not cowboy composers?  And, anyway, who can resist a name like “Jett” which those of you of a certain age will recall was James Dean’s name in “Giant.”

According to the release, this Jett holds a doctorate in music composition,  gives guided horseback tours in Yellowstone Park, and has ridden horseback through more than 1200 miles of the 2.2 million acres that is home to Smoky the Bear. 

A violin concerto in three movements, Yellowstone for Violin and Orchestra, is now available on CD through Hitt’s Yellowstone Wilderness Publishing web site (http://www.yellowstoneCD.com) Hitt says the first movement was initially inspired by a journey through Yellowstone's Goldengate Canyon onto Swan Lake Flats.  "It was nothing less than a religious experience, and at that moment I knew that I would write this piece," his publicist says.  The second movement, Dunraven, is named in honor of Anne-Sophie Mutter (Hitt dedicated the work to the German violinist although it’s not clear from the release whether she knows about it or not) and her celebrated Stradivarius violin, the Lord Dunraven.  Coincidentally, one of his favorite places in Yellowstone, Dunraven Pass, is named for the same man as Mutter's violin. The inspiration for the third movement, Hoodoos, came from Hitt's many rides through a strange and mysterious geological formation created by a crumbling mountain. 

Hitt, a native of Bentonville, Arkansas grew up in a family of ranchers who were members of a Lutheran church, where he was exposed to the music of J.S. Bach.  At an early age, Hitt developed his passion for both music and horses.  In 1995, he took a trip west to Yellowstone National Park and his life was changed forever.  His newly released CD, Yellowstone for Violin and Orchestra, shares those emotions with his listeners.  In the words of the Yellowstone park historian, Dr. Lee Whittlesey, "It is Yellowstone."

We haven’t heard the concerto ourselves yet our experience is that State Park historians are generally very reliable music critics. --JB


Miller Theatre: 
2002-03 Season at a Glance
Classical Grammy Winners

Previous Interviews/Profiles
Simon Rattle, Michael Gordon,Benjamin Lees, Scott Lindroth, David Felder, Mark-Anthony Turnage, Erkki-Sven Tüür,John Luther Adams, Brett Dean, Judith Lang Zaimont, Meyer Kupferman, Evan Chambers, Poul Ruders, Steven R. Gerber, Gloria Coates

Previous Articles/
Busoni The Visionary
The Composer of the Moment:  Mark-Anthony Turnage
Electronic Music
Voices: Henze at 75
Henze Meets Emenim
On Finding Kurtag
Charles Ruggles:  When Men Were Men
Ballet Mécanique
The Adams Chronicles



Der Bote: Elegies for Piano
ECM New Series
ECM 1771
Alexei Lubimov: piano
Ecm Records - #461812

A  great collection for reflection; I think of a cloudy, moody day, as this day happens to be, or a still night; a time when things are quiet enough to notice the passing of minutes; of a time, of a moment  deep in memory. But while you are dreaming you will also want to be listening attentively to these ten pieces. 

As programmed and played on this recording by Russian pianist Alexei Lubimov, the these widely diverse works from different periods all share the  expression of mourning. Not just mourning for the dead, but of passage, of leaving, of reflection and change.

C.P.E. Bach¹s "Fantasie fur Klavier (fis moll)" is clear and concise with elegant understated piano virtuosity. "In a Landscape" by John Cage is utmost in its quest for stillness in its stealthy motion. The timbre is mostly un-piano like; like chimes blown to speak by the wind. Tigran Mansurian¹s "Nostalgia" is like looking into a well and with just the right light and perspective, glimpsing its depth and darkness. In a way all of the pieces possess this quality. We feel as if we are looking, via Lubimov, into them, peering around their insides.

Liszt is, well, Liszt. Here in a reflective tone and mood the"Abschied". Michail Glinka¹s "La separation" goes hand and hand with Chopin¹s "Prelude opus 45". They are beautiful together. "Elegie" by Valentin Silvestrov is the most complex and in a way, "newest" piece in the set. It is breathtaking and played beautifully. Debusey¹s "Elegie" and Bartok¹s "Vier Klagelieder" segue seamlessly into each other. Another Silvestrov piece, "Der Bote", although written in 1996 but arguably the most classical piece in this collection, rounds out the offering.

Make time for this gentle, poignant collection of works by a pianist who has captured an spirtiual essence in them and conveys it in wholeness to us. --DHG

Symphony 11: The Year 1905
Composer: Dmitri Shostakovich 
      Performers: Mstislav Rostropovich,
London Symphony Orchestra
   Lso Live - #30 

How many ways can you spell superb?  From the tortured beginning to the shattering climax, Rostroprovich maintains a sense of rising foreboding and menace that inspires a cold sweat in the careful listener.  This is one of those live performances that concertgoers tell their friends about years later.  Symphony 11 is rarely mentioned in the list of Shostakovich's greatest orchestal works.  This recording may change that.  The LSO has never sounded better or more Russian.  Surefire Gramophone winner. 

String Quartets 11 13 & 15
Composer: Dmitri Shostakovich 
      Performers: St. Petersburg String Quartet
Hyperion - #67157 

More spectacular music from Russia's tormented genius, superbly played. The 11th Quartet breaks from the more traditional four-movement structure, and comprises seven separate short movements  thematically unified by a sequence of phrases introduced at the beginning of the first movement. The 13th is  the only single-movement quartet in Shostakovich's output. 
The 15th Quartet was written in 1974, the year before Shostakovich's death and seems to reflect his state of health and mind.  Stark and brooding, it sounds most like a last will and testament. 

Shulamit's Dream; Scenes from Shir ha-Shirim: Biblical Songs
Composer: Mario Davidovsky
Conductor: George Rothman, Anthony Korf Performer: Susan Narucki, Mark Bleeke, et al.
Bridge - #9112 
Commissioned by the San Francisco Symphony in 1993 and given its New York premiere by Susan Narucki and the Riverside Symphony at Tully Hall in 2000, Shulamit's Dream is a suprisingly lyrical,  “quasi-rhapsodic”  setting of The Song of Songs by the Argentine-born Davidovsky, who came to the U.S. about 45 years ago and became a pioneer composer of electornic music.

The Miraculous Mandarin
Composer: Bela Bartok 
Performer(s): Robertson, Orchestre National De Lyon
Harmonia Mundi Franc - #901777 

This is billed as the world premiere
recording of the original score restored in 1999 by Péter Bartók, the son of the composer which contains 30 bars previously missing and also restores dynamics, bowings and other performing
directions from the autograph.  Only those who follow along with the score will know the difference.  Extraordinarily precise and sympathetic reading demonstrating why the young American  David Robertson is   considered one of the best interpretors at modern music by critics and audiences around the world. 

Orchestral Works
Composer: Elisaetta Brusa
Performer(s): Mastrangelo, Nat'l So of Ukraine
Naxos - #8555266 

Call it Neo-Tonal or Neo-Romantic, Brusa's pieces for orchestra break no new ground but they have a kind of formal academic elegance that seems more German than Italian in temperament but demonstrates a lively, intelligent mind at work. 

Orchestral Works
Composer: George Whitefield Chadwick
  Performer:  Schermerhorn, Nashville Sym Orch
Naxos - #8559117

Chadwick is considered the first composer of concert music whose works often show the snap, the wit, the independence of the American spirit. During his career, he modernized the New England Conservatory, taught several generations of American composers, and was a pioneer in making professional instruction available to women and racial minorities. Terrific performances from the first-rate Nashville Symphony.

Cello Concerto
Composer:  Ernst Toch
Mutare Ensemble, Muller-Hornbach
Cpo Records - #999688 

cpo continues to make the case for Toch as a neglected modernist master whose serious work was obscured by his success as a Hollywood film composer. Most of releases is this series have been convincing but this one is somewhat disappointing. The Cello Concerto goes off in too many directions and could have used a good editing. Plus, the sound quality on this recording is strange. Can't put my finger on it, but it's strange.


Complete Works for Violin & Piano
Composer:  Aaron Copland, Posnak, Zazofsky
Naxos - #8559102 

Copland is most known for his ballets and grand orchestral pieces but he often used small chamber works as building blocks to larger concepts. Most interesting here are the arrangements for violin and piano for well-known pieces of Rodeo and Billy the Kid.

It Takes Two
Performer(s): Bart Schneemann
Channel Classics - #18598 

 Have oboe, will travel should be Bart Schneemann motto in this delicious set of duos with some of the world's finest musicians on instruments ranging from the clarinet and the viola to the marimba and the bandoneon. The composers are brand names all--from Andriessen and Bartok to Piazzolla to Vanghan Williams. Most inventive. Our personal favorite of the month.

Cello Sonata / Cello Works
Composers: Schumann, Grieg
Performers: Marie Hallynck, Tiberghien
Harmonia Mundi Franc - #911779 
Harmonia mundi's Les Nouveaux Musiciens features the young Belgian/French cellist Marie Hallynck in stunning accounts of Schumann' s "Adagio and Allegro," "Phantasienstke," and "Funf Stucke im Volkston" for cello and piano, as well as Grieg's "Sonate Pour Violoncelle et Piano." Our kind of easy listening. 

Darkness & Light 4
ComposerPerformer(s): Weiner, Starer, Stern, Korngold, Lees, Holt
Albany Music Dist. - #518 

  The latest release from the Chamber Music Series at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum is highlighted by the stunningly original "Piano Trio No. 2 "Silent Voices" (1998) by Benjamin Lees. Anguished and almost unbearably intense, Lees crams more drama, passion and empathy into this 14-minute piece than many composers muster in a lifetime.

Chamber Music
Composer: Lawrence Dillon
Cassatt String Quartet, Borromeo String Quartet, Mendelssohn String Quartet

In 1985, Lawrence Dillon became the youngest composer to earn a doctorate at the Juilliard School. He studied privately with Vincent Persichetti, and in classes with Milton Babbitt, Elliott Carter, David Diamond and Roger Sessions. Upon graduation, he was appointed to the Juilliard faculty. He is currently Assistant Dean at the North Carolina School of the Arts where he is also Composer-in-Residence and conductor of the contemporary music ensemble. The three pieces recorded here might be considered genre-bending in that they attempt to blend elements of post-modernism and older forms like romanticism. 


SEQUENZA21/ is published weekly by Sequenza21/, 340 W. 57th Street, 12B, New York, NY 10019
Publisher:  Duane Harper Grant  (212) 582-4153
Editor:    Jerry Bowles   (212) 582-3791
Contributing Editor: Deborah Kravetz 
(C) Sequenza/21 LLC 2000
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