Sunday, April 26, 2015

Escaping the Cliche of Canon: 5 Lesser-Known Works of Mozart

The music of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is as canonical as Shakespeare, no longer a matter of taste but a statement of musical fact.  However, as with Shakespeare, this is a double-edged sword, since once anything becomes a museum piece we begin to lose our connection to it.  The nervous, mercurial energy of Symphony No. 40 becomes background music in Panera Bread, and the bitersweet lamentations of the Requiem floats through a car commercial.  It’s a sad fact that even the most inspired music, if played too often—and in the wrong context—can become a cliche.  So how do we rediscover the Mozart that his contemporaries heard, the one that made Haydn (arguably the greatest composer of his age) to exclaim, “I tell you before God and the world, he is the greatest composer known to me”?  In the end, you have to “unhear” every musical cliche and start from scratch, listening to the music of his contemporaries and work your way forward to the musical masterpieces.  Or, perhaps more simply, you could listen to the lesser-known works of Mozart which, for one reason or another,  have escaped the broad brush of cliche.  Here are 5 works which I think represent every facet of Mozart’s genius: his melody, his harmony, his orchestration, his eccentricity (especially his penchant for the minor mode), and his forward-thinking appeal to modern audiences (at times you really think Mozart is a Romantic).  There is no good reason these works have not passed into the public domain, so to speak, but I’m glad they haven’t.  When you listen to them, you almost go, “my God, what music—who composed it?” and then remember, right, it’s Mozart.  Then you start to realize why great composers become great; not just because your teachers said so, but because you, too, can hear this greatness.  Just don’t tell the people who supply music to on-hold services and Panera Bread! 

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Tarzan of the Apes at 100 (well, 101)

Edgar Rice Burroughs published Tarzan in 1914, after successfully serializing it in 1912, and it quickly became a modern myth: radio adaptations and movies followed as soon as technology could catch up, as well as a bewildering 22 sequels from Burroughs himself.  While the character of Tarzan is certainly nothing new, as he is equal parts Caliban, Crusoe, and Mowgli, it goes much further than any of these in its frankness about racial identity and the true meaning of civilization.  Few readers know the ‘real’ Tarzan, as the 21st century has to combat the cultural dissonance of the “Me Tarzan, You Jane” movies (he never says this or speaks like ‘Tarzan’ in the books), or the New Age noble savage we find in Disney.  Probably the closest media depiction of the book occurs in the 1984 film, The Legend of Greystoke, which preserves many of the trademark elements of the book, and interestingly casts Christopher Lambert, a Frenchman, as Tarzan (since Tarzan initially learns to speak French, not English).  What we find in the book is astonishing and quite unusual: a Tarzan who kills indiscriminately (often for the clothes on a natives’ back), yet is capable of compassion and downright maudlin behavior.  The book is at once better than you were lead to believe while at times staying true to its pulp origins.  Is it great literature?  No, but it has the makings of a great myth, and there are moments that match Kipling or Defoe, and at times anticipate the darker worlds of Conrad.  If nothing else, it merits its inclusion as a seminal work of 20th century popular culture, and should be read widely (and by young readers) because, when all is said and done (and making allowances for some of the dated contents of the book), it is full of imagination and delight. 

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Rachmaninov in St. Louis: the Complete Vox Box Recordings

Leonard Slatkin Conducting Rachmaninov 
When I first started collecting classical music in the early 90’s, I caught the Rachmaninov bug: a piece called The Isle of the Dead enraptured my heavy-metal heart and never let go.  It was darker, more intense, and more exciting than any piece of music I had ever heard—and there was so much of it: 20 minutes of brooding, spine-tingling music!  Not even Iron Maiden could match that!  :) I quickly began investigating everything Rachmaninov wrote, though in the early days of CD, there really wasn’t much available other than two of his three symphonies, the piano concertos, and a handful of piano music.  Until one day I stumbled on a chunky three-disc set of Rachmaninov’s Orchestral Works performed by Leonard Slatkin (a new name to me back then) and the St. Louis Symphony.  Vox Box recordings exciting in those early days, since each one had anywhere from two to four discs, but were economically priced and contained a thick, detailed booklet inside with a wealth of information about the composer and the works included.  This set introduced me to works I had never heard of, many of which still remain rarities.  Besides the relatively familiar Symphonic Dances, Isle of the Dead, and Vocalise, Slatkin included works which really stretched my understanding of Rachmaninov’s orchestral language: the epic, powerful choral symphony, The Bells, which should really have been called his Symphony No.3, the creepy, Mussorgskyian choral piece Spring, the uber-Romantic, Rimsky-Korsakovian tone poem, Prince Rostislav, and an Tchaikovskyian overture, the Caprice Boheme (Capriccio on Gypsy Themes), among others.  Where had these works been, and why did no one else seem to bother with them?  For despite the derivative nature of some of the earlier works, I heard masterpiece after masterpiece, any one of which could have been a concert-hall staple.