• While Lotfi Mansouri was general director of the Canadian Opera Company, he wrote a sunny memoir called An Operatic Life. Now, almost thirty years later he has followed up with this far more detailed, but decidedly bittersweet, chronicle of his life. It’s a candid and probing look at the world of opera. And it’s especially compelling because, right from his lonely, privileged early years in his native Tehran, Mansouri has led a thoroughly fascinating life.
Mansouri certainly left his mark on the COC, as he proudly points out, calling the chapter on his twelve years in Toronto “From Provincialism to World-Class.” Under his leadership, the COC Orchestra and the COC Ensemble were established, a splendid home for offices and rehearsal spaces was built, and the CBC began broadcasting COC performances on radio and television. But his most far-reaching legacy – he credits his wife Midge with the original idea – is the invention of Surtitles, which have revolutionized the way opera is presented throughout the world.
Mansouri set up a Canadian Composer’s Program, though it was cancelled by his successor, Brian Dickie. He produced R. Murray Schafer’s Patria 1 (misidentified as Patria II, quite a different opera altogether), and commissioned Harry Somers’ Mario and the Magician. So it’s not just discouraging, but downright perplexing to read what he has to say about his attempts while in Toronto to find a composer for A Streetcar Named Desire (André Previn’s score was a great success for him later in San Francisco). After Stephen Sondheim(!) turned it down, “I checked out Canadian composers, of course, but most of them were academic navel-gazers … My composer had to understand smoky jazz and genteel decay. With all respect, Toronto could never inspire that kind of music – Canadians are too hygienic.”
Though his time in Toronto was “exciting, joyous and highly collaborative,” his frustrations over trying to get a new opera house built here drove him to the San Francisco Opera in 1988. Although he had spent a good deal of his directing career there, he had no inkling of the far more insidious frustrations that awaited him. The earthquake that wreaked havoc on his early seasons was nothing compared to the betrayals that eventually forced him out.
The issues weren’t merely personal. It was his traditional approach to presenting opera, which for Mansouri meant “to read between the lines without neglecting to read the lines,” that was attacked by those who wanted to see a director’s personal stamp on a production. Mansouri, who started as a singer, felt his own work as a director was being written off as not just old-fashioned, but, even more disturbingly, as lightweight. So at the heart of this book lies a plea for staging operas by using the score as the starting point, not the director’s vision.
Mansouri is a born storyteller. Among his many delightful anecdotes, my favourite tells how the irascible conductor Otto Klemperer, who had been hideously rude to Mansouri, fell asleep with his head on Mansouri’s shoulder during a dress rehearsal. “No amount of training can prepare anyone for a situation like that.” At least he keeps laughing – and making us laugh – in this wonderful memoir.
• At first, pianist Roberto Poli was simply questioning certain performance directions which he found confusing. How, he wondered, had composers actually intended performers to interpret markings that seemed to either contradict each other, like a hairpin < to pianissimo, or repeat each other, like a hairpin > with decrescendo written underneath.
Poli began to suspect that in the past the hairpins hadn’t been used just to indicate dynamics, as is usually assumed today. In fact, he realized that they could be indicating flexibility in the timing, or the shaping of a melody. With this, he was inspired to re-examine traditional ways of interpreting a number of musical signs, including stretti, pedalling, and sforzandi markings, though for reasons he doesn’t explain he doesn’t look at tempo markings, which, especially in the case of Beethoven, can be equally baffling.
At every step of this fascinating study, Poli has consulted original scores and documents. He has also looked at the instrument the composer wrote for, and the size of the room where the work would have been performed. This is all familiar territory to period instrument players. Yet Poli expresses no inclination to give up his modern piano in favour of an historical instrument. Instead, he advocates more freedom, suggesting that interpretations of composers’ markings have become too rigid during the past century. “Decades of traditions,” he writes, “have been instilling a sense of overexactness in our reading habits – a way of evaluating notation that is remote from how a composer probably imagined it.”
Poli looks at works by composers from Haydn to Prokofiev. But his main focus is on Chopin. As it happens, there’s an exhibit of original scores and letters from Chopin’s time on display at the Royal Ontario Museum. To celebrate Chopin’s 200th birthday, the ROM has pulled out some precious items from its rarely displayed collection of scores and instruments, including a splendid piano made by Pleyel, whose instruments Chopin favoured because of their clear bass register, transparent tone and sensitive action.
Poli’s quest for greater interpretive insight unfolds like the plot of a captivating mystery story. His ideas about what lies behind the notes on the printed page are made all the more persuasive by the many musical examples included in this book. n
Fryderyk Chopin & the Romantic Piano is on view at the Royal Ontario Museum in the Samuel European Galleries until March 27.
• The many facets of Canadian composer John Weinzweig’s life and work revealed in this collection of essays reflects the breadth of his impact on Canadian music. He created a lasting body of adventurous works, promoted Canadian music with untiring ferocity and taught many generations of composers.
Sixty years ago, as co-editor Brian Cherney points out in a discussion of Weinzweig’s irrepressible activism, Weinzweig declared that Canada’s composers “have a special distinction. We are the most unpublished, unheard, unperformed and unpaid composers in the Western world.” He devoted his life to changing that situation.
Weinzweig, who died in 2006 at the age of 93, was a rebel. But even though his pioneering use of serial techniques pushed Canadian music into the modernist ethos, he didn’t impose his own style on his students. His strongest influence was in the way he approached composing as a process of creative thinking. Throughout this book we read how he would tell his students “We don’t do it this way anymore,” when he felt the music they were writing was not daring enough. Especially in his later years, he would complain about how conservative the younger generation of composers was. Nonetheless, as John Rea observes, even when Weinzweig didn’t accept the ideas being put forward by his younger students, “he would teach others to be as eager and enthusiastic as him and, yes, teach them also to be and to become just as impatient.”
Weinzweig referred to himself as a “radical romantic.” In an essay about how to play his music, Robert Aitken writes about “his spry wit, intense irony, twinkling eyes yet steadfast seriousness of purpose.” By the end of the final essay, co-editor John Beckwith’s affectionate Weinzweig As I Knew Him, a vivid portrait has emerged from the various perspectives explored in this superb book.
This book has been produced with uncommon care, right from the cover art, through the documentation on Weinzweig’s compositions and recordings, to the enclosed CD of his music. Throughout the text there are photos of items such as a page from his first piano teacher Gertrude Anderson’s hand-written account of his early years, and a portrait by Harold Town, whose rejection of realism, as Robin Elliott shows, parallels Weinzweig’s own unswerving rejection of tonality.
Leonard Bernstein At Work: His Final Years, 1984 – 1990
photographs by Steve J. Sherman
192 pages, photos; $34.99 US
• Leonard Bernstein was a trail-blazing conductor, a superb pianist, a composer of both Broadway hits and classical masterworks, a communicative writer, and an innovative educator. As his assistant Craig Urqhart says in this splendid book, “He was living five lives at a time.” Bernstein’s life and work have been well-documented. But Steve Sherman’s ability to capture Bernstein’s remarkable charisma, both on and off stage, makes this collection of photos taken during the six years before his death in 1990 especially powerful.
Bernstein was strikingly photogenic. The toll that his years of intense living took on him is evident here, especially in the casual shots. But the photos of him conducting reveal the spontaneity, intelligence, joyfulness, wit and intensity that made his performances so thrilling. They show how Bernstein became a conduit for the music, with his balletic body language and expressive facial gestures. “I’m not interested in having an orchestra sound like itself,” he is quoted as saying. “I want it to sound like the composer.”
Sherman’s photos tell stories that words can’t. In the stunning wide-angle two-page shot of Bernstein conducting the Chicago Symphony at Carnegie Hall in 1988, almost every member of the orchestra is watching the conductor intently. There’s a poignant shot of Bernstein with violinist Isaac Stern, taken backstage after a concert with the Israel Philharmonic in Carnegie Hall in 1985, each with his arm around the other’s shoulder. There’s an amusing photo of Bernstein showing up for a rehearsal for Irving Berlin’s 100th birthday gala at Carnegie Hall in 1988 wearing a purple feather boa and sunglasses. The most dramatic photo here is of Bernstein conducting the Vienna Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall in 1988, arms reaching out to the camera.
The texts include an eloquent remembrance from Bernstein’s daughter Jamie which makes clear just what his energetic commitment to whatever he was doing cost him. Comments from a number of associates of Bernstein, culled from interviews done over the years by the photographer’s father, writer and broadcaster Robert Sherman, complement this beautifully produced and well-priced volume.
The New York Philharmonic: From Bernstein to Maazel
by John Canarina
495 pages, photos; $29.99 US
• In this engaging history of the New York Philharmonic, John Canarina relates how someone at a public forum in 1991 suggested that the orchestra should install a giant mirror at the rear of the stage so audiences could watch the conductor’s facial expressions. The orchestra’s music director at the time, Kurt Masur, responded, “When I conduct Beethoven, I wouldn’t like to replace Beethoven. He should be in your mind, not me.” Masur’s attitude is similar to that of another of the orchestra’s long-time conductors, Leonard Bernstein. In fact, the orchestra has consistently attracted principal conductors who, like Masur and Bernstein, are more concerned with letting the composers’ voices be heard than stamping their own personalities on the orchestra. This has allowed the distinctive sound of the orchestra – which Canarina characterizes by its openness and immediacy – to develop under a succession of conductors.
Canarina, who was an assistant conductor with the orchestra under Leonard Bernstein, starts his history with Bernstein, who took over from Dmitri Mitropoulos in 1958 amid concerns that he was just a “personality boy.” At 39 he was considered too young to lead a major orchestra, though today that doesn’t sound so young, with 29-year-old Gustavo Dudamel leading the Los Angeles Philharmonic and 35-year-old Canadian Yannick Nézet-Séguin leading both the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Rotterdam Philharmonic. In any case, the choice of Pierre Boulez sparked even more controversy, though it turned out to be just as visionary.
The conductors are quite properly Canarina’s main focus. But he certainly gives the orchestra players their due. He quotes his own interviews with orchestra members and highlights the work of legendary principal players like cellist Lorne Munroe, flutist Jeanne Baxtresser, (who came to the orchestra from the Toronto Symphony), clarinettist Stanley Drucker, and current concertmaster Glenn Dicterow.
Canarina also pursues his particular interest in how the orchestra has been treated by the press throughout the years, which leads to numerous quotations from past reviews. But far more interesting are the quotes from performers, composers and conductors, and especially his own insightful comments, which enhance this lively portrait of a great orchestra.