Category Archives: Music Reviews

Another excellent Wozzeck and the usual, superb Tcherniakov production

Dmitri Tcherniakov Wozzeck

It’s a good sign that we now have half a dozen excellent Wozzecks available on DVD. The best is probably the Patrice Chereau/Barenboim production (which was long, inexplicably available only in Europe). However, no single production has the final word and it is refreshing to see this opera (once considered a type of avant-garde boogey man) now almost standard repertoire. Even more encouraging is “standard” does not equate with stagnancy.

Tcherniakov Wozzeck 2010

Director Dmitri Tcherniakov is among the most respected art directors active today and for very good reasons. He is nowhere near as provocative or idiosyncratic in this opera, as say, Calixto Bieto in his 2010 production, but nor is Tcherniakov as by the book as Mussbach (in what was, for a long time, the only available version and an ultimately inadequate at that).

Tcherniakov Wozzeck 2010

This is not to say Tcherniakov’s staging is not an interpretive one. Indeed, he takes a frightening, Orwellian approach. The tonal shift from soldier to business man casts the opera in a political sheen, which is apt as Berg’s libretto does not shy at all from such implications.


Tcherniakov Wozzeck 2010Alban Berg

Sociological themes abound. Wozzeck (Georg Nigel) is caught in a 21st century bourgeoise hell, living his postmodern, virtual life in perverse role playing games while failing to make human contact with his lover, Maire (Mardi Byers). Byers excels in her role of a frustrated sex symbol type. Their son is even more alienated, a constant, distant spectral presence, only coming to life with Wii remote control in hand.

And oh, that box.

Tcherniakov Wozzeck

Nigel and Byers are as up to their respective roles vocally,as they are in the acting department. The remaining cast is uniformly superb, including Maxim Paster, as the Captain, Pyotr Migunov as the Doctor, and Xenia Vyaznikova as Margret.

Tcherniakov Wozzeck

There is much more to Tcherniakov’s thoughtful concepts, which everyone can probably agree captures the contextual and gestural spirt of Alban Berg (of course, the opera fundamentalists will carp, but they can just go home).

Tcherniakov Wozzeck

The dvd includes a valuable making of documentary. There is room on Berg’s shelf for this Wozzeck.

Tcherniakov Wozzeck DVDAlban Berg by Schoenberg

Continue reading Another excellent Wozzeck and the usual, superb Tcherniakov production

Karajan, Or, Beauty As I See It: Ambitious, compelling, beautifully complex, and commendably close


Robert Dornhelm’s film Beauty As I See It is a compelling, ambitious documentary on the life and career of the late conductor Herbert Von Karajan, who, more than any other musician of the twentieth century, made an obsessive, downright bizarre fetish of surface beauty in musical interpretation.


A billion words have probably been written about Karajan, from the adulation of Richard Osborne, who surprisingly wrote the fairly well balanced biography, “Karajan, a Life in Music,” to Norman Lebrecht, author of the intentionally provocative “The Maestro Myth” who sometimes likens Karajan to Lucifer himself. 2009 was the centenary of Karajan’s birth and, predictably, the Berlin celebration garnered intense praise and intense criticism.


Karajan (who died in 1989) left far more audio recordings and filmed performances than any other conductor in history. His last series of films, for Sony, were produced, edited, and directed by himself, sparing no expense. Karajan is often lit from below, like a descending deity. This was the conductor’s final valentine to himself.

HERBERT VON KARAJAN Continue reading Karajan, Or, Beauty As I See It: Ambitious, compelling, beautifully complex, and commendably close

A lucidly filmed documentation of a mature Brucknerian’s energetic 4th

It could very well be that maestro Daniel Barenboim’s greatest contribution to music has been in filmed performances. Perhaps, none of his Wagner opera recordings, though “generally” excellent, could be considered reference versions. Yet, his filmed Ring and Parsifal (with Harry Kupfer), and three excellent Tristans (Ponnelle, the much missed Muller, and the recently departed enfant terrible Patrice Chereau) have no serious competition in the DVD market (it remains to be seen whether Barenboim’s 2010 Ring with Cassiers, coming to DVD this year, will hold its own).

Bruckner The Mature Symphonies Barenboim  Berlin

Barenboim’s recordings of the Beethoven piano sonatas, again, while A contender amongst contemporary pianists, will not retire the likes of Schnabel or Serkin. However, his filmed traversal is an epic and indispensable record of sound and vision. Likewise, the recent DVD production of the five Beethoven Piano Concertos with the Staatskapelle Berlin. The 2005 Ramallah Concert with his West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, despite the naysaying of a few hardened cynics, is one of the most joyously filmed musical celebrations extent.

DIGITAL CAMERA“Barenboim in Chicago”oil on canvas. Alfred Eaker ©2001

Though not generally known as a top conductor of Verdi, Debussy, Mahler, Schoenberg, or Boulez, Barenboim has collaborated in excellent filmed performances of the Requiem, La Mer, the 9th Symphony, Variations for Orchestra, and Notations. Of course, Barenboim has maintained a lifelong commitment to Bruckner with two complete cycles (the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Berlin Philharmonic). Both have their proponents and critics, possibly because like Barenboim himself, they are an uneven lot (and while all conductors are uneven, Barenboim is almost radically so). Regardless of one’s stance, few would argue that Barenboim’s way with Bruckner can displace acclaimed masters Furtwangler, Karajan, Kna, Jochum, Wand, Klemperer, Cleibidache, or Giulini (although I would subjectively argue a few of these). Accentus with Unitel Classics has produced Barenboim’s performances of the mature symphonies with Staatskapelle Berlin. So far, the 4th and 5th have been released and although Barenboim has considerably more extensive Brucknerian competition in the DVD/Blu-ray medium (Karajan, Wand, Celibidache) his first two entries have already met with critical accolades.


Bruckner once said that his music, like his faith, was boundlessly expansive. With that in mind, the inherent spiritual quality and devout Catholicity of Bruckner cannot be blanketed, but there is little worry in this since such is rarely the case (although some have argued that Boulez’s Bruckner does just that). The trend has long and often been the reverse: promoting the transcendental qualities at the expense of the music’s corporal muscularity and direct earthiness (which, just about Catholic would say are far more pronounced tenets, despite the trappings, of that epically complex faith).

DIGITAL CAMERA“Barenboim in Chicago” oil on canvas. Alfred Eaker © 1998

While Barenboim acknowledges the composition’s religiosity through the music’s hushed qualities, he commendably keeps it latent and opts for a red-blooded, dramatic reading that emphasizes the theatrical German tradition that he belongs to (and that is the key to Barenboim, as opposed to the tiresome, often repeated claims that he is a mere Furtwangler clone. Barenboim has about as much in common with the likes of Klemperer and Walter as he does Furtwangler).

Barenboim's Bruckner

The camerawork and sound are lucid and non-intrusive. This a welcome release to the DVD/Blu-ray market and can be acquired without reservations. Hopefully, symphonies 6-9 will be forthcoming in a timely manner.

DIGITAL CAMERA“Barenboim in Chicago” oil on canvas. Alfred Eaker © 1998


Carl August Nielsen (1865-1931) is generally regarded as Denmark’s greatest composer. Nielsen is best known for his six symphonies, which composer Robert Simpson described as “Progressive tonality, the practice of beginning a work in one key and ending in another and, in Nielsen’s case, to convey the outcome of a symphonic struggle.”[1] Nielsen’s First Symphony characterizes personal strength. His second symphony, inspired by a painting, is soulful, paralleling the augmentation of the human characteristics: choleric, phlegmatic, melancholic and sanguine “with the dolfulness of Mahler.” [2]

Nielsen wrote two operas, the first of which was “Saul & David” written in 1902 to a libretto by Einar Christiansen. Nilesen sketched the outlined plot from which Christiansen, an accomplished playwright, worked from. Nielsen and Christiansen worked closely together throughout the four months of the libretto’s composition. Christiansen sought to give expression to Nielsen’s ideas. “This great and strange subject stirred and haunted me, so that for long periods I could not free myself of it no matter where I was”[3] said Nielsen.

“Saul & David” has never been in the standard repertoire. Musicologist David Hurwitz offers up a theory, “It’s amazing that this superb biblical opera isn’t better known. Nielsen’s symphonies are firmly in the international repertoire, and given their high level of drama and energy, you would think that his opera would receive at least the occasional performance outside of Denmark. The lack of a conventional female love interest may be what keeps this piece from becoming more popular. Handel solved this problem in his oratorio Saul by giving the David role to a woman, but Nielsen wasn’t into anything that kinky.”[4]

The biblical text appealed to Nielsen both psychologically and aesthetically. Nielsen identified with both figures. The composer had been subjected to an onslaught of professional criticism for his progressive musical experimentation. He saw a mirror-like personality in David, the underdog who came from modest roots and displayed exceptional musical gifts. “The portrait of David is strongly drawn, both brightly shining and lyrical, as he blazes through the opera world of battle, turmoil and love and it is he, who as the opera nears its close, points towards a new epoch.” [5]This description of Nielsen’s David springs from the biblical text of Samuel, “He is a skilled player, a brave man and a fighter, well spoken, good-looking and Yahweh is with him.” [6]

Yet, Nielsen also identified strongly with Saul’s impatience and independence of mind. To Nielsen, Samuel’s anger towards Saul was unreasonable. Saul is on the eve of battle and has been instructed by Samuel to wait seven days to offer sacrifice. However, the text tell us that Saul “waited seven days, the period fixed by Samuel, but Samuel did not come and the army, deserting Saul, began dispersing.”[7] Desperate, Saul sacrifices the burnt offering himself, after which, of course, Samuel arrives. The timing is suspect. Naively, Saul tries to explain to Samuel, “I saw the army deserting me and dispersing, and “you had not come at the time fixed.”[8] Samuel rebukes the king, telling him “You have acted like a fool. You have not obeyed the order which Yahweh your God gave you. Now your sovereignty will not last.”[9] Like Nielsen, it is easy to find Samuel’s anger to be nonsensical. Perhaps Saul thinks so as well since he offers no reaction to this initial rejection and goes to join the warriors.

Samuel rejects Saul a second time. Oddly, the text almost reads like it is the first rejection and the narrative point for the second rejection is unnecessarily repetitive. Saul is told to utterly destroy the Amalekites. He supposedly fails to do so by sparing the cattle and King Agag. Saul explains that he was going to kill the cattle during sacrifice but Samuel is unwilling to listen. We might assume that Saul also intended to sacrifice Agag but, curiously, neither Saul nor Samuel address the presence of Agag, at first. Samuel again acts as the mouthpiece of Lord and rejects Saul as he did before, with slight variation, “Since you have rejected Yahweh’s word, he has rejected you as king.”[10] Despite the incredulous unfolding of angered events, Saul remains humble and repents. Shockingly, Samuel/Lord rejects Saul’s repentance and, after Saul asks Samuel to forgive him, Samuel rejects Saul’s act of contrition. Pathetically, Saul reaches for Samuel’s cloak an unintentionally tears it. Samuel seems to take arrogant pride in the symbolism, “ Today Yahweh has torn the kingdom of Israel from you and given it to a neighbor of yours who is better than you.” [11]Samuel then brutally hacks Agag to pieces in front of Saul, “Samuel then butchered Agag.”[12]

It is no surprise then that Saul begins to go mad. What is surprising is the explanation given by the text, “ An evil spirit from Yahweh afflicted Saul with terrors.” [13]Nielsen psychologically reacts to this text with a dramatic, haunting aria in the opera when Saul sings, “The Lord is evil and evil am I because evil has made me.”[14] Nielsen found much to admire in Saul’s devotion to his people and Lord and, despite traditional painting of Saul as villainous, the actual biblical text supports this characteristic of Saul, “And there, at Gigal, they proclaimed Saul king before Yahweh; they offered communion sacrifices before Yhaweh, and there Saul and all the people gave themselves over to great rejoicing.” [15]Nielsen also identified strongly with Saul’s “impetuous decisions and moody self-doubt. One cannot imagine this impertinence from David, whose less complex character presented the librettist with fewer problems.” [16]

The premiere conductor, Johan Svendsen, intentionally or not, in his assessment of the opera, painted Nielsen in Saul’s independent coloring, “A highly interesting work, “ “bearing throughout the stamp of an independent, gifted artist. The composer goes his own way with clarity, dramatic action, and original characterization.” [17]

However, some critics did not share Svendsen’s appraisal and the four act opera was premiered in 1902 to decidedly mixed reactions. The conservative music critic Gustav Hetsch wrote, “ Ni e l s e n, who seems to compose by virtue of an urge and will matched by no fertile creative gift, should learn from Tchaikovsky to sing from the lungs. If he has something to say, with his talent he should say it straightforwardly, and refrain from seeking the oddest expression, speculating in the most ingenious combinations. He should write music with air in its lungs and blood in its veins, and not sit down to construct contrapuntal exercises. There was much in this opera that sounded most odd, even ugly”

The musical language of “Saul & David” is free of the romantic pronunciations which traditional operagoers were comfortable with. Critic Charles Kjerulf was far more open to Nielsen’s modernist expression, “The sounds of Nielsen’s Saul & David rose stately and passionately and appeared as a tonal painting full of beauty and character. Nielsen is taking a great step forward, for the independence and novelty of this music at no moment turned into the distortion of these grand qualities, as has happened before to the impetuously onrushing composer.” [18]

David’s expressions compellingly contrast to those of Saul. While David sings in melodious articulation, Saul’s arias are sweeping and far more unconventional. It is a fascinating, almost jagged, cubist-like dialogue interaction between the two characters. Although Nielsen’s sympathy for Saul is without question, the composer and librettist are equally clear in their view for the tragic necessity of Saul’s downfall, followed by David’s succession. In this, Nielsen and Christiansen do not ignore the postlude to the Saul and David narrative and they acknowledge that with admiration and a touch of cynicism, “God’s new blue-eyed boy is the perfect combination of selfless bravery and subservience. To the history of civilization the winner, the Davidic dynasty, was attributed with everything from the invention of the harp, the “composition of the psalms, the Temple of his son, Solomon, and the liturgy through to the birth of Christ and thus the New Testament.” [19]

There is exhausting rage in Nielsen’s dying Saul, who acclaimed David and curses God as he, like Mozart’s Don Giovanni on the brink of death, declares his individuality, “Jonathan is Slain! Slain! See how greedily the earth drinks his blood. Soon shall I lie with death’s stone-hard door over my mouth. My Lord and My Tempter! You eternal mocker up there, who laughs at my agony, see now I splatter my blood on your heaven. Wash myself clean of my sin if you dare!” [20]

Saul’s breathy lament is followed by David’s exaltation, “ Strong as lions, swift as eagles were Saul and his son. Israel’s daughters, weep with me. Israel’s pride lies slain. The “Lord is King, high above all men. Honor is his to all eternity, might and power. Children of men are merely feeble clay in his hand.”[21]


[1] Simpson, Robert Carl Nielsen: Symphonist. London: Hyperion, 1979. P. 36.

[2] Ibid. P. 25

[3] Fanning, David Nielsen. United Kingdom: Cambridge University, 1997. Excerpt from Nielsen interview.

[4] Hurwitz, David. “Nielsen’s Saul & David.” Classics Today 1992.

[5] Krabbe, Niels. Carl Nielsen Studies. Ed. Jorgen Jensen. Copenhagen: Royal University of Denmark, 2009.

[6] New Jerusalem Bible: 1 Samuel. New York: DoubleDay, 1985. P. 376

[7] ibid. P. 370.

[8] Ibid.

[9] ibid.

 [10] ibid. P. 375

[11] ibid.

[12] ibid.

[13] ibid. P.369

[14] Krabbe, Niels. Carl Nielsen Studies. Ed. Jorgen Jensen. Copenhagen: Royal University of Denmark, 2009.

[15] New Jerusalem Bible: 1 Samuel. New York: DoubleDay, 1985. P.369

[16] Hansen, Wilhelm. Carl Nielsen Works. Ed. Johan Svendsen. Copenhagen: Carl Nielsen Library, 2002.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Krabbe, Niels. Carl Nielsen Studies. Ed. Jorgen Jensen. Copenhagen: Royal University of Denmark, 2009

[20] Nielsen, Carl. Saul & David. Record. With Aager Haugland and Peter Lindroos. Cond. Neeme Jarvi. Danish National Radio Symphony Orchestra & Choir. Chandos. CHAN 8911/12, 1990.

[21] Ibid.

Not one for the opera fundamentalists, but a vital Figaro for the 21st century.

If one thinks comic book fans are a tad over-zealous in filmed approaches to their tight-wearing heroes, then a quick glance at reactions from many American opera fans, to contemporary opera, will reveal that those Marvel boys are a subdued lot. American opera fans tend to approach staged/filmed opera the way some fundamentalist Christians approach the good book, insisting on face value inerrancy and or the King James Version. So impassioned, or insistent on orthodox and/or period staging, are such American Opera fans that their first line of attack is to typically spew the over-used, tiresome, and oh so predictable “EURO-TRASH” slur. The idea, for those inclined, is to keep the composer locked in his or her own boxed time and, thus, shut the composer off to newer generations and fresh interpretations (Traditional Shakespeare fans are almost as bad). However, Mozart is still a vital voice in music, regardless of his worshippers. It is no accident that opera in Europe is far bigger, far more attended, and better supported than it is here in the states where the opera “fans” make a false religion out of the art form, slap an institutional sheen on it and transform breathing theater into a museum piece.

Over two hundred years after its debut, The Marriage of Figaro remains an extraordinarily three dimensional work, which does not flinch from portraying deeply flawed characters. Numerous filmed versions of the opera have been released, but the 2006 Salzburg entry may be the most uncompromising to date. There is, of course, Peter Sellars mid-nineties version which, aptly, takes place in Trump Tower, but the line-up of the 2006 film should be a yield sign to opera fundamentalists. The conductor, Nikolas Harnoncourt, has a well-earned reputation for “weirdness.” In that, Harnoncourt,an Austrian by birth, possibly even surpasses that typically eccentric German music director Michael Gielen. Harnoncourt lead several of the M22 projects but Le nozze di Figaro is Harnoncourt at his most personal and insightful.Harnoncourt’s is not porcelain conducting here; he mirrors the disconcerting underside of Da Ponte’s libretto as interpreted by star director Claus Guth. Harnoncourt’s seasoned pacing reinforces the nuanced poignancy, beauty, mature humor, and prospective, life-affirming drama of this music. Thankfully, Harnoncourt does not try to coat Mozart’s writing with a kind of Rossini whipped topping.

Continue reading Not one for the opera fundamentalists, but a vital Figaro for the 21st century.

Claus Guth, Mozart, Czernowin: Relentless Communication


Mozart’s unfinished Zaide is considered a slightly older, less memorable brother to the composer’s Die Entfuhrung aus dem Serail [The Abduction from the Seraglio.]. Zaide is a rescue opera, with a plot based on Voltaire’s “Zaire.” The exiled Christian Gomatz is visited by the Muslim harem slave Zaide, the sultan’s favorite concubine. Zaide falls in love with the enslaved Gomatz, rescues him, and together they flee with the aid of the overseer, Allazim. Zaide chooses spirited freedom over financial security, and invokes the Sultan’s wrath. Zaide and Gomatz are recaptured, imprisoned, and sentenced to death. Awaiting execution in the dungeon, Zaide remains defiant, and the opera abruptly stops with an emotional quartet in which the principals express their anxieties, hopes, and fears. Entfuhrung/Seraglio ended on an optimistic note. Had it been completed, it is doubtful Zaide would have followed suit; Voltaire’s original play ended tragically. Zaide ends with the Sutlan’s decision to kill Zaide and Gomatz. The unhappy ending may have been the reason for Mozart’s eventual abandonment of the project.

For his Salzburg production, Claus Guth’s intertwines Mozart’s neglected, unfinished work with Adama (Earth in Hebrew), by 21st century Israeli composer Chaya Czernowin, commissioned especially for this project. During Mozart’s brief lifetime, he worked with traditional forms and then, especially later in his career, defied those forms. It is one of the great tragedies of music that Mozart did not live another ten to twenty years. His late works (such as the Symphony in G minor ) saw Mozart at his most expansive and innovative. To achieve a true Mozartean spirit, contemporary directors, when interpreting Mozart, should first and foremost forget that this is the work of “THE” Mozart.

Continue reading Claus Guth, Mozart, Czernowin: Relentless Communication


Alban Berg (1885-1934) may be the most notorious member of the Second Viennese School, even more so than leader Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951) and Anton Webern (1883-1945). Berg, the most romantic of the school, was as influenced by Gustav Mahler as Schoenberg. Berg died young and did not live long enough to compose a large a body of work. However, he did compose what may very well be the two most repulsive operas ever written. Even Schoenberg was aghast, and urged his younger colleague to discontinue writing such filth. A premature death stopped Berg from finishing his final opera, “Lulu.” He completed two of the three acts and the final act was completed in the short particell format. Some forty years later, Friedrich Cerha completed the orchestration for the third act, which premiered under the direction of Pierre Boulez. Both “Wozzeck” and “Lulu” are extreme operas from an extreme composer. One would think that this fact would make opera fans receptive to interpretive stagings.

Olivier Py belongs to that school of enfant terrible stage directors working in European opera today. Py, while creating mixed reactions in Europe, is among the most in-demand and successful stage directors. Singers clamor to work for him, his productions usually sell out within a matter of hours, and are almost always considered newsworthy events. The European climate for opera stems from a different mindset altogether. Most telling was a recent newscast covering the expressionist nightmare “Magic Flute” staged by Martin Kusej. This “Flute” received wildly mixed reactions. The audience was torn between passionate applause and equally passionate catcalls. The newscaster shrugged: “It would not be an event if opera goers were not challenged.”



Calixto Bieito’s 2006 staging of Alban Berg’s “Wozzeck” has reaped equal parts praise and damnation from critics and audiences. It is a powerfully reprehensible staging of a powerfully reprehensible opera.

Wozzeck is a common solider, shaving his Captain. The Captain chastises him for having fathered an illegitimate child with one Marie. Wozzeck defends his lack of virtue, explaining that he is too destitute to have the blessings of the Church, but Wozzeck reminds his superior of Christ’s words “suffer not the little children.” The Captain heaps even more abuse and scorn on Wozzeck, and the soldier becomes indignant.

Wozzeck and his friend Andres are cutting sticks in a field as the sun sets. Wozzeck tells Andres of horrifying visions and Andres unsuccessfully tries to offer Wozzeck reassurance. Wozzeck visits The Doctor. The Doctor scolds him for abandoning his diet. The Doctor, who is obviously insane, is delighted, however, when Wozzeck tells him of the violent visions he has been having. Meanwhile, Marie notices the regiment’s Drum Major, and the two begin an affair. The Drum Major gives Marie earrings as he parts. Feeling remorse for her infidelity, Marie sings her child a lullaby.

Wozzeck returns him and tells Marie of his hallucinations. Marie is disturbed and the tension between the two of them escalates when Wozzeck notices Marie’s new earrings and begins to question her about them. Wozzeck’s jealousy engulfs him, and he becomes wild with visions of blood.



There are endlessly fascinating artistic directors working in the art of opera. Then, there are great artists. Claus Guth is a great artist. In his 2009 staging of Handel’s “Messiah,” Guth calls to mind the Protestant theologian and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who believed that the Church had become inadequate in speaking about God. Bonhoeffer was embarrassed by the Church’s failure to convey the shocking, liberating, revolutionary power of the divine ideal. To attain that, Bonhoeffer once symbolically suggested a one hundred year moratorium on the name (and word) God. Perhaps then, the name and word could be attained.

Guth’s “Messiah” inhabits Bonhoeffer’s realm with a strikingly prophetic voice. We are, unwittingly or not, starved for such a challenging and provocative voice. Guth’s productions have never been less than impressive. Fortunately, many of these have been filmed and are available on DVD: Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro (2006), the Mozart/Czernowin Zaide (2006), Richard Strauss’ Ariadne Auf Naxos (2006), Franz Schubert’s Fierrabras (2007), Mozart’s Don Giovanni (2008) and 2011’s Cosi fan tutti (Guth’s most uneven production and an odd fit in his Da Ponte trilogy ). From Guth’s body of work on film, it is clear why he is such an in-demand artist.

Still, I was not prepared for his version of Handel’s perennial favorite, Messiah (2010). Guth’s staging has been called agnostic, and that might be an apt description according to the traditional meaning (as opposed to contemporary interpretation) of the word. Simultaneously, this may also be the most “Christian” filmed religious narrative since Michael Tolkin’s The Rapture (1991). Guth’s Messiah makes an overly familiar yuletide narrative startling again. This production was staged for the 250th anniversary of George Frideric Handel’s death. I believe Handel would have approved.

The history of the composition is well known. Handel was in ill health, destitute, and on the verge on being sent to debtor’s prison when he received a commission from librettist Charles Jennens to write an oratorio on Christ’ Nativity, Passion, Resurrection and Ascension. The libretto was a pastiche, borrowing from the Bible and the Book of Common Prayers. Handel composed it within three weeks and insisted on its being performed in secular theaters, as opposed to churches. Handel’s decision was harshly criticized by the churches, but it was an enormous success. Handel paid off his debts and used his extra earnings from “Messiah” to feed the poor, clothe the naked, and give comfort to those in prison.


An Aptly Titled Boulezian Primer

This two hour plus dvd of the 85 year old Boulez at the Lucerne Festival Academy is well filled. Documentary footage of master classes, rehearsals and spoken intros from Boulez are mixed with performance footage of Debussy’s cubist “Jeux,” Boulez’ own “Notations,”and “Repons,” (we desperately need a film of the full performance) , Stravinsky’s “Rite,”Stockhausen’s ‘Gruppen,”and a student composition. This serves as an excellent primary introduction to Boulez the teacher and Boulez the communicator. He clearly and rightfully has the intense respect of his students, whom he (sometimes humorously) interacts with, giving lie to the silly myth that he is merely a stuffed-shirt academic. The students at Lucerne are, indeed, inheriting a lifetime’s worth of aesthetic dedication.

The filmmakers follow Boulez’ cue, structuring the film itself with commendable lucidity and professional visuals. It helps tremendously that the Lucerne summer festival provides beautiful location footage. Although Boulez remains an ambiguous personality, he is devoted to what he loves and, in his advanced years, he remains remarkably active in order to ensure the survival of contemporary music. Only the most jaded viewer will be unimpressed. Equally valuable is some of Boulez’ recollections on peers such as Bruno Madera.

A delightful and valuable example of music on film that is not only an apt homage to an unquestionably great composer, conductor, and teacher, but also a homage to the younger musicians following the lead of the veteran avant-gardist. Boulez seems in no hurry to slow down and we can only hope that he will have many active years ahead of him