Romeo and Juliet

Romeo and Juliet

Romeo and JulietI just finished watching the 1968 film version of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, directed by Franco Zeffirelli.  The play is by far the most popular of Shakespeare’s plays, and I believe it is the earliest effort in the genre of tragedy that we have from the Bard.  The story is ubiquitous, and I hardly can imagine a rock to turn over where you wouldn’t find someone familiar with at least the outline of the play.  Even if you weren’t familiar, it is a tragedy, and as such really does not have any huge surprises.  It will turn out badly, everyone will die in the end, and the audience only has to sit there and watch it all unfold.  There is no suspense, as in a melodrama, where things may possibly turn out good in the end, just maybe.  Shakespeare makes it clear in the prologue of the play that the star-crossed lovers will die in the end. 

Zeffirelli cast two unknown young actors in the lead of his movie, Leonard Whiting as Romeo and Olivia Hussey as Juliet.  It was a bit of a risk, to place such weight of the production on two young people under the age of 18.  It worked out brilliantly, as the film remains a classic version of the play even until this day.

Interview with Whiting and Hussey

Zeffirelli has to edit and interpret the play, because Franco cannot leave well enough alone.  The biggest diversion from the original that I see is in the ending of the play, where Romeo encounters Paris at the tomb of Juliet.  In the film version, Paris is absent at the end, and action is streamlined to Romeo encountering what he believes is a deceased Juliet.  With my musician’s ears, the most distracting part of the film is not the changes in the text of the play, but the sentimental love theme in the soundtrack.  I suppose the musical melody is good enough the first time, or first dozen times it is heard.  My problem is that it does not wear well, and by the end of the film it seems a distracting sentimental bit of mush that detracts from my enjoyment.  You can hear the melody I am referring to in the opening of the trailer to the film.

Trailer for Romeo and Juliet, 1968

Sergei Prokofiev

Sergei Prokofiev

I studied the Overture-Fantasia  to Romeo and Juliet by Tchaikovsky for the brilliant orchestration, but my favorite musical setting of the play is the ballet version composed by Sergei Prokofiev (1892-1953).  I think it is because of the familiarity of the story that the play is ripe for a ballet setting.  The audience knows the action, even without the text, and can follow a long story with only music and dance.  Sergei Prokofiev composed music for a ballet in 1935, following a synopsis of the play written by Adrian Piotrovsky.  Originally they had substituted a happy ending for the star-crossed lovers, but further revisions restored the tragic ending.  The ballet languished unperformed for five years, only receiving its premiere in Leningrad in January of 1940.  

Prokofiev extracted three different orchestral suites from the complete ballet.  These suites are performed and recorded fairly regularly, and represent some of the composer’s most familiar music.   I think my musical brother Mike prefers Dmitri Shostakovich to Prokofiev, and Sergei Rachmaninoff to almost everyone, but certainly Prokofiev is one of the major Russian composers of the twentieth century.

Tchaikovsky, Overture-Fantasia to Romeo and Juliet

Prokofiev, Romeo and Juliet Suite No. 2

Bolshoi Ballet, Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet

Brahms Festival 2016

Brahms Festival 2016

Johannes Brahms

Johannes Brahms

For the next three weeks, my hometown orchestra will be celebrating the music of Johannes Brahms.  My musical brother from another mother, Mike, would say the Detroit Symphony Orchestra is inflicting the music of Brahms on its audience.  He is not a fan of Brahms, to say the least, and honestly has some valid criticisms to voice.  Brahms has been a bit of an acquired taste for me, and I have grown to have an appreciation for old Johannes.  Seriously, how bad could a guy be that hung out at a tavern named “The Red Hedgehog”?

Press Release for Detroit Symphony Orchestra Brahms Festival, 2016

 

Previous years have seen the Detroit Symphony Orchestra celebrate the symphonies of Beethoven in a winter festival, and the music of Tchaikovsky in another festival.  Each winter celebration of these composers was followed up by a digital music release made from the live performances.  I have very much enjoyed the Beethoven Symphony cycle and the set of Tchaikovsky Symphonies  in which Maestro Leonard Slatkin led the orchestra.  There has not been an official announcement that there will be a similar collection of downloadable music made available from the Brahms Festival this year, but I have high hopes that it would happen.

Johannes Brahms resisted writing a symphony for a long time, so even his First Symphony is a mature work.  The truth is, Brahms very much felt the weight of the legacy that Beethoven had left, and was very self-conscious about the comparisons that any symphony he made would have to Beethoven’s.  His buddy Robert Schuman published an article when Brahms was only 20 years old, proclaiming Brahms a sort of musical messiah who was  “destined to give ideal expression to the times.”  This made the already self-critical Brahms even more self-critical for the rest of his career.  Johannes had a habit of burning musical manuscripts he didn’t want performed or published, to prevent posterity from seeing anything but what he thought were his best efforts.  We don’t know how many symphonies Brahms wrote and then fed to the fire before he let one be performed and published.

I really like the idea of a concentrated immersion in one composer’s works over several concerts and several weekends.  I wish I could attend all of the concerts in this year’s Brahms Festival with the DSO.  Alas, everyday life will present too many obstacles to make that possible.

Brahms Symphony N0. 1

Digital Tchaikovsky in Detroit

Digital Tchaikovsky in Detroit

dso BeethovenThe crown jewel of music performance venues in Detroit is Orchestra Hall, the anchor of the Max M. Fisher Center.  It is the home of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, and the acoustics of the hall are simply world-class.  You can choose your seat based on the view you would like, but the music sounds fantastic from every seat in the house.  In recent years the orchestra has made some wonderful live recordings.  In 2013, Music Director Leonard Slatkin led the DSO in a series of concerts comprising a Beethoven Festival.  This series included all of the Beethoven symphonies, and were made into a digital cycle available through a service called Instant Encore.  Fans of classical music can argue for hours about which is their favorite collection of Beethoven symphonies, but no matter how many you have, there is always room for one more.  The DSO sounds great in these live recordings, and it is well worth a listen.

Beethoven, The Nine Symphonies, Detroit Symphony Orchestra, Leonard Slatkin

dso tchaik The formula must have had some success, as Slatkin and the DSO have done it again.  The 2015 season included a Tchaikovsky Festival, and this last weekend saw the release of a live album of all six Tchaikovsky symphonies.  This time the digital recording was made available on iTunes, and I pre-ordered the cycle as soon as I heard it was going to be available.  I was not disappointed in the least.  The sound of the recordings is absolutely fantastic.  Tchaikovsky is known for his lush orchestration and wonderful melodies, and the acoustics of Orchestra Hall show off the sound of the orchestra at its finest.  The strings are lush, the woodwinds clear, and the brass is warm and powerful in all the right moments.  I think classical music fans have several good choices to pick from when it comes to recordings of Tchaikovsky, but this new album should make just about everyone’s short list of favorites.

 

 Tchaikovsky, 6 Symphonies, Detroit Symphony Orchestra, Leonard Slatkin

Leonard Slatkin

Leonard Slatkin

For full disclosure, I will tell you that this is not any sort of paid review (I wish it was!!).  I purchased my own copy of the recordings, and make not a single cent if you actually purchase a copy.  I am a big fan of my hometown orchestra.  I came of age during the time when Neeme Jarvi was music director, and now get to enjoy another special time with Maestro Slatkin serving in that position.  I eagerly downloaded tracks the first day the album was available and started listening.  I, of course, skipped to the end and listened to my favorite work first, the Sixth Symphony.  Almost a year ago, I wrote a blog post entitled “CSI: Saint Petersburg”, wherein I included some of the history and mystery around the Sixth and final symphony of Peter Tchaikovsky.  It is one of the most moving and gut wrenching works in the orchestra repertoire. Donald Tovey writes about Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony:

It is not for merely sentimental or biographical reasons that Tchaikovsky’s sixth and last symphony has become the most famous of all his works.  Nowhere else has he concentrated so great a variety of music within so effective a scheme; and the slow finale, with its complete simplicity of despair, is a stroke of genius which solves all the artistic problems that have proved most baffling to symphonic writers since Beethoven.”

The symphonies of Tchaikovsky are beautiful, melodic works which are audience favorites year after year.  This new cycle from the Detroit Symphony Orchestra is a worthy addition to anyone’s collection.  If you have never heard the works, this album would be a fine place to start.  Great performances from a great orchestra in a legendary hall with a master conductor.  What more could you ask for?