Katrina fallout good for Gottschalk

Before the Marsalis clan, before Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton, there was a musician in New Orleans who took the Caribbean songs and rhythms he learned from his black nurse and creole mother and combined them with the influences of operas (and minstrel shows!) to create a new American “classical” piano music.

After studying in Paris, Louis Moreau Gottschalk became a worldwide sensation as a pianist who put the exotic sounds of the Americas into the small forms perfected by his contemporary, Frederic Chopin. After an 1851 recital in Paris, Hector Berlioz wrote:

“He phrases soft melodies with perfect grace and has mastered the keyboard’s delicate traits. With regard to deftness, spirit, surprise, brio, and originality, his playing dazzles and shocks. . . . In the presence of a musically civilized public Mr. Gottschalk’s success is immense.”

Earlier this year, the Princeton University Press reissued Gottschalk’s Notes of a Pianist, as a tribute to the victims of Hurrican Katrina. You can find out more about why Gottschalk and his memoirs are such a big deal in this commentary from critic Terry Teachout.

Opera Guides

Opera-goers have questions, and apparently they range from basic ones, like what to wear, to fairly abstruse investigations of libretto-ese.

At least that’s what you glean from two new informational webpages with a casual twist: Hey Opera Lady! (from Pittsburgh) and Ask Figaro (from the Met in New York).

Andrew Druckenbrod of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette also provides some background on the Opera Lady, if you want to learn more, which seems to be the whole idea. . . .

When complaints are welcome

Web audio is generally pretty lo-fi. For that and other reasons, we sometimes wonder how many people really value the classical music we stream via this Web site. One way to find out would be to stop (not that we’re considering such a move).

Just a few days ago, Los Angeles public radio station KUSC learned an interesting lesson that way…as reported in the LA Times.

Another Perfect 10 (x2)

Once again, classicstoday.com has given Osmo Vanska and the Minnesota Orchestra a perfect 10/10 [performance/sound quality] for the latest installment in their ongoing Beethoven Symphony cycle:

“Another measure of “greatness” in a performance is purely comparative: Does this version do anything (that matters) better than anyone else? I would say so: This probably is the finest Scherzo on disc. “

And the Minnesota Chorale comes if for high praise too:

“One thing is certain: the chorus sings magnificently throughout, and with such clarity of diction that you can practically transcribe the text of Schiller’s ode even if you don’t know German. “

You can read the complete review here.

My spies tell me it won’t hit the stores until mid-October; watch this space for details on an exclusive pre-release broadcast premiere on Classical Minnesota Public Radio…

At the Guthrie

Lots of classical-music allusion going on at the new Guthrie, if you’ve seen their production of Tom Stoppard’s “Real Thing.”

At one point, there’s a joke about Verdi’s first name – it got a big laugh, I’m happy to say. There’s also a reference, subtler than it might seem, to the whole question of Bach and Procol Harum’s “Whiter Shade of Pale.” Finally, a major plot thread deals with the BBC’s “Desert Island Discs.”

That’s the radio show where celebrities talk about the records (classical, pop, you name it) that they’d take to the proverbial desert island. The show started in 1942, and it’s still going strong. A sampling of recent guests: Renée Fleming, Alexander McCall Smith, Daniel Barenboim, choreographer Matthew Bourne …. guests, details, and shows that you can listen to online here.

Music doping

Soothe the savage breast…sure…but can music enhance performance on the athletic field? What if you have special running shoes that help you keep running in time with the pulse of your mp3?

Performance enhancing music may be the next hot thing, according to a story from the Discovery Channel.

Sirius trouble for Met broadcasts?

Breaking news in the opera world:

NEW YORK (AP) – The Met will be on the air almost as much as the Mets.

Sirius Satellite Radio and the Metropolitan Opera plan to announce Wednesday that they will launch a new channel to broadcast four performances a week during the company’s 32-week season, part of the company’s vast media expansion under new general manager Peter Gelb.

Metropolitan Opera Radio will debut with Monday’s opening-night gala of a new production of Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly.” When not broadcasting live performances, the channel will air operas from the Met’s archive of 1,500 radio broadcasts that date to 1931.

Sirius, which has about 125 channels, has a subscription price of $12.95 per month, with discounts available for long-term deals. It was available to 4.7 million subscribers at the end of June and expects to be in 6.3 million by the end of the year, spokesman Patrick Reilly said.

Sirius will have 10 historic broadcasts per week, Met spokeswoman Sommer Hixson said. Producers will replace the original commentary by Milton Cross and Peter Allen and original intermission features with new lead-ins and intermissions. The channel’s announcer will be Margaret Juntwait, who replaced Allen in 2004 as host of the Met’s Saturday afternoon radio broadcasts, which run from December until spring and will continue.

Satellite radio is built for narrowcasting and opera is just the kind of programming it’s best suited to deliver. But where does this move leave the Met’s Saturday radio broadcast? The announcement says it will continue, but for how long?

Last I heard, the broadcast’s future sponsorship was far from secure. And more than a few classical radio programmers have long been convinced that the opera audience is different from and smaller than the rest of their listenership. Some have already pulled the plug on the Met. Others have wanted to do the same, but feared backlash from disenfranchised opera lovers. Now that the fans can get their fix in another, arguably better, way, once-tentative programmers won’t hold back any longer. Could the upcoming 75th anniversary of the Met’s Saturday radio broadcast be its last? It wouldn’t surprise me.

Number-crunching with Sibelius

A few days ago, Don Lee, and one of our readers, weighed in on the striking popularity of the Sibelius violin concerto.

I have my own theory on why it’s performed so often, and it’s more about business and numbers than about the (estimable) quality of that piece.

Let’s say that many symphony concerts feature a guest soloist. And then let’s say that many famous soloists are either violinists or pianists (seems like a safe bet), and that they play concertos.

Now there are lots of good piano concertos. Beethoven wrote five, Chopin and Brahms each wrote two, Mozart wrote a whole stackful, Rachmaninoff wrote two very popular ones. And so on. But with violin concertos, things are much slenderer. One Brahms, one Tchaikovsky, one Sibelius, one Beethoven. And so on. So with lots of violinists, but fewer concertos to choose from, it might just make mathematical sense that violin concertos would rise to the top of the most-performed charts.

Apropos of that, a true anecdote (sorry, I cannot remember the musicians of whom this is told). A famous violinist is at the airport, heading off to an engagement, and he bumps into a famous pianist.

They greet each other, ask where the other one is going, etc.

“Tell me,” says the violinist. “When you get to [name of town], what will you be performing?”

“Oh, you know,” groans the pianist. “Another performance of one of those @#$%@ Rachmaninoff concertos.”

The violinist looks at him very gravely. “You must never talk like that,” he says. “Do you know what we violinists would give to have a Rachmaninoff violin concerto?”