Tuesday, March 4, 2003; 1 p.m. ET
Tim Page is the chief classical music critic for The Washington Post and the author or editor of a dozen books, including "Dawn Powell: A Biography," "The Glenn Gould Reader," "The Unknown Sigrid Undset," "William Kapell: A Documentary Life History of the American Pianist" and the forthcoming "Tim Page on Music" (Amadeus Press). He won the Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 1997 for his writings about music for The Post.
He has also worked as an artistic adviser (the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra), a radio host (WNYC-FM in New York), a record producer (BMG Catalyst) and, in his younger days, a rock musician and cocktail pianist. A graduate of Columbia University, he lives in Washington with his wife, Julieta Stack.
A transcript follows.
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Tim Page: Good afternoon and welcome to another on-line discussion of classical music.
We have a little controversy this afternoon. I heard the Vienna Philharmonic play Strauss and Beethoven last night and -- with all due respect to the wonderful orchestra -- I thought Nikolaus Harnoncourt's conducting was absolutely awful.
Yes, I know that he is an important scholar and (sometimes) an effective interpreter. And I have hopes for this evening's concert, which will feature music by Schubert and Dvorak. Moreover, I am grateful to the Washington Performing Arts Society for presenting such an expensive and important group.
Still, for all the occasional beauty of the orchestral playing, the Strauss waltzes sounded charmless and martial and the Beethoven "Pastorale" was simply dead in the water. Or so I thought.
I have a few comments from readers already in the bank -- some agreeing with me, others disagreeing strongly. I'd be delighted to post any thoughts you have, about this or any other subject. It ought to be a wild hour.
Thanks for putting up with my odd schedule this week. I am forced to leave town on family business tomorrow and won't be back till this weekend. In the meantime, my colleague Joe Banno will cover the Vienna Philharmonic tonight: I always read Joe with interest and admiration and will be very curious to see where he will come down.
Let's take some questions -- and comments.
Alexandria VA: Dear Mr. Page,
I must say I strongly disagree with your review of the Vienna Philharmonic's performance of Beethoven's 6th. Harnoncourt's was a brilliant interpretation that combined scholarship (i.e., reflects current research into how music was played at the time it was written) with musicality.
I was following with the score, and I've read a few texts lately on historically informed performance of Beethoven. So I can testify that almost all of the effects Harnoncourt brought out are there, in the music itself. He shows us that, stripped of its usual romantic era overlay, the 6th can stand on its own. It is -- and the VPO is -- that good.
Tim Page: Thanks for your voice. I'm sure you will find a good amount of agreement among my readers.
Alexandria, Va.: Thank you for your review of last night's Vienna Philharmonic concert. I was disappointed, too, for many of the same reasons eloquently stated in the review. I have a specific question about the string techniques used in the second movement of the Beethoven. It sounded to me as if there were a "damper" on the instruments; it wasn't just soft in volume, but a different sound quality. I've never played a stringed instrument, and (clearly) have no knowledge about any particular technique that might have been involved. Did you notice this, and can you explain to me what the players were doing? (By the way, I didn't care for the effect . . .)
Tim Page: Thanks for your comment. I'm quite nearsighted and couldn't see the stage as well as I might have, but I tend to think that mutes were probably used. Add to that Harnoncourt's odd ideas about bowing and his seeming dislike for vibrato and you come up with a curious sound indeed.
washingtonpost.com: "The Vienna Philharmonic, Unencumbered by Tradition" by Tim Page, Post, March 4, 2003.
Columbia, S.C.: Mr. Page,
Did I miss an obit of Jerome Himes in the Post or did they not run one? He was a class act in every way, both individually and musically. I shall never forget a recital (now there's an endangered art form) he gave, which included a memorable and chilling Erlkonig. We were lucky to have had him making such wonderful music for so long.
Tim Page: I agree with you about Jerome Hines. He was a kind and good man, who did a great deal for young singers, all the while pursuing a career that lasted for more than 40 years.
The Post has a curious policy about obituaries. They are usually written in house, by our obituary editors, rather than by critics in the field. (Occasionally, we will write "appreciations" of famous artists, but only rarely.) We place an emphasis on people who lived or worked in Washington, sometimes to the exclusion of celebrated people without a local connection.
I can remember how startled I was when I first came to the Post and would see seven or eight inches devoted to the life of a recently departed housewife, as opposed to an inch or two about a Nobel prize winner. It's just a question of philosophy. Since we are often compared to the New York Times, I'll make an unofficial comparison myself: the Times wants to be the world's newspaper and we want to be the best local paper in the world.
I may add that I was very moved when the Post carried an obituary of my Washington-born-and-bred mother, who devoted her life solely to caring for her children and for my father. There is something to be said for our focus on our city and our neighbors.
Arlington, Va.: A comment on the Washington Opera production of "Aida." I had good seats with a view of the entire stage. But, the director thought it more important that I see the projections than the singers. So, I (and large portions of the audience) could not see Aida and Radames during the entire final scene because they stood behind the curtains/projections. Very frustrating and annoying! It seems that the director's "vision" was more important than the the desire of the audience to see the principle singers. And it would have been so easy to remove the front scrims/projection and instead use only the ones BEHIND the singers! I think the projections worked well in certain scenes (such as the Triumphal March scene), but on the whole I thought it was overdone and thus lost its effect. Thanks for letting me comment.
Tim Page: I think you're right. I've heard from enough people who weren't able to see the singers that I now believe the Washington Opera overdid it a little with the curtains. Also, you can't see the subtitles if you're watching the stage from the parquet seats of the auditorium.
I still think it was, overall, a creative use of the space. I expected much worse. Given what it had to work with, I think the Washington Opera did a pretty fair job of rehabilitating Constitution Hall.
Any other thoughts? I'll post as many as I can.
Washington, D.C.: What can you tell us of the operatic & comedy career of Leo Slezak? Any recording he may have made. This in contrast to his more famous actor son Walter Slezak.
Tim Page: Slezac (1873-1946) was one of the leading heroic tenors of his time, known for his superb, highly dramatic renditions of the Wagner canon and Verdi's "Otello," among others. He made many recordings for Zonophone, Gramophone and Typewriter, Columbia, Edison, Pathe and, indeed, almost every major label but Victor.
I don't think he was ever a comedian himself, although he wrote some lively autobiographies with some very funny memories. One time he was supposed to have been singing Lohengrin when the "swan" that was set to carry him off was pulled into the wings too early. He is said to have looked at the audience and asked, in German, "What time does the next swan leave?" I don't know if the story is true or not, but it has long been a favorite.
Bethesda, Md.: For the classical music novice or for someone who is primarily a popular music listener and just wants to round out their musical experience a bit, what do you think of collections such as this 16-CD "Forever Classics" collection at www.encoreclassics.com ? Is something like this a good way to get started for those of us who are too lazy to avail ourselves of your "Top 25 Albums for the Novice" suggestions? Thanks!
Tim Page: I'd have to know more about the set before giving you any sort of judgement. I'm not crazy over those "50 Great Moments From the Classics" LPs they used to have that played only popular themes from the most familiar works. Try to make sure that this set has complete pieces and not just the "hit tunes."
Silver Spring, Md.: You wrote Monday that Ingrid Fliter included Chopin's fourth Scherzo in her recital. I'm a great devotee of the four Scherzos, having first heard them in the Philippe Entremont recording (on 8-track) in the 1970s. Could you please give your impressions of how she did with this work?
Tim Page: Ah, the lost world of the Eight-Track! How well I remember the sound of its "cah-THUNK" as my friends and I drove around the hills of Eastern Connecticut 30 years back.
I liked just about everything about Fliter's recital. What I most enjoyed about her Scherzo was the way she remembered that the form implies a sort of "musical jest." So often these very difficult works are turned into heroic showpieces and overplayed. I enjoyed Fliter's wit and lyricism -- more appropriate, it seems to me, for this music.
The City of Olives, Malta: Mr Page;
Have you ever had the chance to see Donizetti's (sp?) opera 'Lucia de Lamermoor'? I ask because it is being played in my country's one and only opera house this week-end, and I haven't ever seen an opera, and I would like to see it -- the only problem being that the tickets are terribly expensive. Do you think it would be 'worth it'? (whatever that means)
Tim Page: Greetings to Malta! I wouldn't necessarily choose "Lucia" as my first opera -- it has a lot of dull patches and is rather stagey at times, although the best music is admirable, of course. I might wait and rent a video or DVD instead -- especially if the prices are high. You can come back to "Lucia" once you know it appeals to you.
Washington, D.C.: Hope you can help, I'm looking for free or inexpensive concerts to take my 3-year-old to. We listen to quite a variety of classical music at home and I'd like to take her to see some music live.
Tim Page: We run lists of concerts in the area every Friday in our Weekend section. You might also check with local schools and churches.
Unless your three-year-old is used to sitting quietly for a length of time, you might want to wait and take her to family concerts, where participation is invited. I worry sometimes that children are scared away from music by being taken to long events at too early an age.
Bethesda, Md.: If you could attend only one opera production this year, what would you choose? Or would you wait until the Kennedy Center reopens?
Thanks for your wonderful reviews -- always a pleasure and an education!
Tim Page: At the Washington Opera, I think I'd wait for Wagner's "Die Walkure" with Placido Domingo (and Heinz Fricke's conducting) later this year. I'm not sure there are any more performances left of Berlioz's "Les Troyens" at the Met in New York but that was simply stunning.
Look out for offerings from the Virginia Opera -- and the Baltimore Opera as well. I was glad to read Joe McLellan's positive review of Shostakovich's "Lady Macbeth" the other day.
Takoma Park, Md.: There are a zillion places and sources for info on the recently departed Nobel Prizewinner.
The Post is it for the obit on the "housewife" or the teacher or the nursery owner. That person may have had a strong and direct impact over a 70-year lifetime in this area on hundreds of people.
Local obits are one of the few ways the Post really reflects our community.
Tim Page: I agree wholeheartedly with your basic premise; that's one of the things that I love about the Post.
On the other hand, I sometimes do wish for more information on the deaths of notable figures outside the Beltway. I'm always getting letters from people asking why we ignored the passing of this composer or that singer. I wonder if we might be able to have the best of both worlds.
Washington, D.C.: Mr. Page,
I too disliked last evening's VPO performance. The Beethoven was constantly interrupted by assorted touches and was perhaps the slowest version I've heard in some time. Though I love the piece, I found myself wondering when it would be over. In 2001 at Carnegie Hall, Claudio Abbado and the Berlin Phil played Beethoven's 6th (and the 5th); Abbado has also emphasized the historic integrity of Beethoven, and yet his interpretation was more melodic. The clarity of the piece was marvelous. Could you comment on the differences in interpretative style of the two conductors?
Tim Page: Yes, it was very slow -- but conductors such as Klemperer and Furtwangler have been able to make slow tempos work. There was something weirdly nerveless about it all -- as if Harnoncourt was afraid to let any extraneous passion invade his conception. The first movement in particular was excruciating -- it seemed a deconstruction of the music.
I am reminded of one of Sir Thomas Beecham's lines: "A musicologist is somebody who can read music but can't hear it." Harnoncourt has an almost Robespierrean impatience with old traditions, while Abbado (and any good conductor) clarifies and builds on them.
re Free Concerts:: Hi Tim,
I'd like to recommend this directory for its list of free concerts in D.C., as well as good links to other local classical music Web sites:
Open Directory Project.
Tim Page: Thank you. This is good to know.
Washington, D.C.: I have to agree with the earlier commenter about the use of scrims in front of the stage in the Washington Opera's performance of Aida. We were sitting in the stage left tier, and our view of the supertitles, and more importantly, the singers, were obstructed during most of the performance. As far as I can tell, there was not one seat in the house which did not have their view of a soloist obstructed at some point during the performance. After the intermission, many people in my part of the audience started booing when the front scrims came down again. My question -- what could they (the producer, the set designer) have been thinking? Were they so caught up in the idea of projecting things onto scrims that they forgot that there was supposed to be an audience, too?
Tim Page: Clearly, there is going to need to be some tinkering at Constitution Hall. You ought to let the Opera know your feelings. This is the sort of thing that can probably be cleared up without too much difficulty.
Baltimore, Md.: Mr. Page,
Realizing that every performance venue is different, where do you generally like to sit for orchestral performances? Closer to see better or get more direct sound? Further away to experience more "mix"? Lower level? Upper deck?
Tim Page: In general, I like to be where I usually am -- on the aisle, about a third of the way from the stage. But there are halls where the sound is much better in the upper tiers. The old Metropolitan Opera was famous for the way the sound grew brighter and more immediate the higher one went in the house -- the "cheap seats" were actually the best ones.
washingtonpost.com: Here is a list of upcoming classical music events from washingtonpost.com's Entertainment Guide.
Washington, D.C.: Tim, While I have liked Harnoncourt's Beethoven recordings with Chamber Orch of Europe, I know what it’s like to be disappointed by the big-names in concert. I heard the Cleveland with Dohnanyi on tour in Boston about 15 years ago and thought they did awful things to Brahms. Dick Dyer, the Boston Globe critic, said similar things in his review.
Tim Page: Oh yes, that was a famous scuffle. Dohnanyi didn't like the orchestra, the orchestra didn't like Dohnanyi, and the performance was apparently a disaster. And Dohnanyi was capable of such marvels with the Cleveland Orchestra.
Dick Dyer is a splendid critic -- probably the best writer on deadline now working. I am always awed by what he can turn out in an hour.
Alexandria, Va.: I'm the person who asked about string technique in last night's concert. I'm glad you mentioned "odd ideas about bowing" in your response, as that's how it seemed to me, to the point where it interfered with phrasing and articulation. Would you elaborate on your comment?
Tim Page: It was just extraordinarily reserved, half-hearted, stiff, unnatural. Or so it seemed to me.
Tim Page: Well, we are out of time. It's been good to hear from you and I will be back at my regular hour two weeks from tomorrow.
Till then ...
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