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Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The magnificent Marilyn Horne

Fabulous article/memoir about Marilyn Horne's early contacts with Stravinsky and his circle in LA. If you haven't heard Horne sing, you should--simply an amazing voice. Listen to her on YouTube here:

As a 13-year old, she sang with the Los Angeles Youth Chorale, conducted by Roger Wagner, and later it's successor, the Roger Wagner Chorale (as did Paul Salamunovich, who was  19 and had sung with Wagner's church choir as a boy--the 14-year old Marni Nixon also sang with the Youth Chorale). I knew Marni Nixon a bit when she lived in Seattle in the late 70's and early 80's and hosted a local TV show for kids called Boomerang. Cyndia Sieden, a coloratura soprano who sang with my Bach Ensemble for a couple years and also was the soprano soloist for me in a Mozart C Minor Mass (and later went on to an excellent international career), was studying with Marni at the time. We talked about Marni doing a concert with Seattle Pro Musica, but unfortunately, we never managed to make it work.

A wonderful article from the LA Times by Mark Swed. Note not only her personal friendship with Stravinsky and his circle, but the incredible repertoire she did (one of the earliest Monteverdi 1610 Vespers, Gesualdo, etc.):

 Marilyn Horne at the Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara. (Patrick T. Fallon, Los Angeles Times / July 29, 2012)

Marilyn Horne: Stravinsky and me

As Music Academy of the West readies the composer's 'The Rake's Progress,' the singer, who heads the academy's vocal program, reminisces about the composer.

By Mark Swed, Los Angeles Times Music Critic
July 28, 2012, 11:00 a.m.

SANTA BARBARA — On Oct. 11, 1954, a 20-year-old soprano, a recent graduate of USC, performed in the premiere of a new version of Igor Stravinsky's "Four Russian Peasant Songs" at the new and unusual music series Monday Evening Concerts, then held in an auditorium in West Hollywood Park. An all-American, a tomboy with the nickname Jackie, she would be singing Russian for the first time in her life, and the 74-year-old Russian composer, who had relocated to West Hollywood, coached her in the language at his home above Sunset Boulevard. He was so delighted with her that before long she was practically part of the Stravinsky family.

Seventeen days after that premiere, "Carmen Jones" opened in Hollywood. This was Otto Preminger's film version of the Broadway musical, which updated Bizet's "Carmen" to World War II, included new lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, and starred Dorothy Dandridge as Carmen and Harry Belafonte as Joe (Don José) in the all-black cast. The white operatic soprano who brilliantly dubbed for Dandridge sounds for all the world like Dandridge. She was the same 20-year-old recent USC grad nicknamed Jackie. Her film credit was Marilynn Horne.

She is, of course, the Marilyn Horne, who became a great Carmen in her own right and an operatic legend.

Now 78, Horne, who looks robust and far younger despite a near-deadly bout with cancer, heads the vocal program at the Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara. Each summer the academy stages an opera and this year Horne has chosen Stravinsky's "The Rake's Progress," which was written in Los Angeles and had its premiere in Venice, Italy, three years before Horne met the composer.

The performances Aug. 3 and 5 at the Granada Theatre are the Santa Barbara premiere of the opera, which has experienced a curious neglect in Southern California. It was a good time to talk to Horne about those early days and how Stravinsky and Hollywood of the '50s helped shaped a uniquely important and influential American opera career.

After Horne's fateful first meeting with Stravinsky, conductor Robert Craft, Stravinsky's inseparable associate, frequently invited her to sing old and new music at the Monday Evening Concerts and the Ojai Festival. They became fast friends. Stravinsky's Russian maid took a liking to Horne (which impressed the old man), as did Stravinsky's wife, Vera, whom Horne refers to as "the dearest person, a great lady."

Before long, Horne was a regular at the Stravinsky dinner table along with the literary likes of writers Aldous Huxley and Christopher Isherwood. Composer Nicolas Nabokov was another. Horne calls him Nicky and has an amusing story about fighting him off the time he got her alone in a gondola late one night in Venice.

So what was it like being around the dinner table of the world's most celebrated composer at the time?

"You know, when you're young, that young, I was so stupid that I actually joined in the conversation. I knew this was the great man and maybe the greatest composer of the 20th century. But I wasn't afraid to be with him.

"That's what amazes me. I didn't just sit there mute."

Horne says the talk was usually about literature, music and current events, which Stravinsky followed closely. Conversation was mostly in English, although Stravinsky usually spoke Russian or French around the house.

His doctor was often present as well. "He was a bit of a hypochondriac," Horne explains. "There was no question about it.

"One night at dinner when he coughed, he popped a pill immediately. I didn't word it too badly, I just said, 'Maestro, have you always been interested in things medical?'

"He took a deep breath, 'I adooore medicine.'" Horne happens to be an excellent mimic (which helped her get the "Carmen Jones" gig), and her breathy, Russian-accented Stravinsky would be worth preserving for posterity.

Stravinsky valued Horne as much for singing early music as he did for singing his music. At the time, Stravinsky was fascinated by the late Renaissance and early Baroque eras, and thanks to the pioneering efforts of Craft and Stravinsky's friend, violinist Sol Babitz, Los Angeles became a progenitor of what later turned into the international early music revival.

Horne's contribution was as a member of the Gesualdo Madrigalists, which Craft had formed to explore the radical, weird music of the late 16th, early 17th century Italian composer who murdered his wife for infidelity. Stravinsky and Huxley were obsessed with Gesualdo. Huxley even toured California with the madrigalists, giving tantalizing talks about Gesualdo, whom he described as a "composer-flagellator."

The Gesualdo pieces were typically rehearsed in Stravinsky's home, and on the occasion when a bass line would be missing from the manuscript, Horne says that Stravinsky would go into his study and write one. They would sing from a manuscript with the ink still wet.

This also led to Craft and the madrigalists making some of the earliest Gesualdo recordings. Horne reveals that they were bankrolled by the film composer and new music champion David Raksin. Royalties were rolling for Raksin's score to "Laura," another Preminger film. "Dave too liked to be around the old man," Horne notes.

Horne came along too late to have had anything to do with "The Rake's Progress," the neo-Classical opera Stravinsky wrote withW.H. Audenand Chester Kallman as librettists. And it never worked out that she would sing either its soprano role of Anne, when she was young, nor the mezzo role of Baba the Turk when she was more mature. But Horne did have important, glancing connections with the opera.

One mentor was Carl Ebert, a noted German émigré stage director who headed the opera program at USC. Stravinsky chose Ebert for the world-premiere production of "Rake" in Venice. Horne says she also had many conversations about "Rake" with Craft. And Vera told her stories about Auden, who stayed with the Stravinskys. Apparently the poet rarely bathed and never used soap.

It was not until a full decade after the opera's premiere that Stravinsky's opera was finally mounted in L.A., with a student production at USC. Its U.S. premiere had been at the Metropolitan Opera and, recognized as one of the most important operas of the 20th century, it was being regularly staged in Europe. But Los Angeles Times music critic Albert Goldberg called the opera "deadly dull." Rather than USC presenting the work, he wrote, "it would have been just as well to let a sleeping dog lie undisturbed."

Stravinsky sent an enraged letter to the editor, complaining of Goldberg's "mole's-eye view of music history." The composer pointed out errors in Goldberg's review and concluded by protesting not only what he said about the "Rake" but the critic's "incompetence to write meaningfully about music of any kind."

A touring production of "Rake" by San Francisco Opera was given the next season at the Shrine Auditorium as part of the worldwide celebration of Stravinsky's 80th birthday. "Lord, what a bore!" Goldberg wrote.

Horne observed the bitterness between Stravinsky and Goldberg on several occasions and says it was known in Stravinsky's circle as the Goldberg Variations. "After one lousy Goldberg review," she recalls, "Stravinsky pulled a silver flask filled with Scotch from his pocket and handed it to me. 'Drink this immediately," he said. 'This is the only way to survive.'"

With Craft, Horne found herself singing all kinds of improbable music. She appeared in one of the first modern performances of Monteverdi's "Vespers of 1610." Now considered a major work of the repertory, it was then all but unknown. Stravinsky attended all the rehearsals and performances.

She also continued to take whatever film gigs came along or even do pop covers. She often appeared in the venturesome concerts of the Los Angeles Festival at UCLA that film composer Franz Waxman underwrote. During a festival performance of Honneger's "Joan of Arc at the Stake" she became a close friend of the ballerina and actress Vera Zorina. In addition, she began singing opera in the Shrine Auditorium with Los Angeles Guild Opera, where she appeared in Smetana's "The Bartered Bride," Humperdinck's "Hansel and Gretel" and Rossini's "La Cenerentola."

She took up with a Los Angeles Philharmonic bass player, Henry Lewis, after meeting him while singing at the Monday Evening Concerts, and they eventually married. Lewis became an assistant conductor of the L.A. Phil under Zubin Mehta and music director of the New Jersey Symphony, making him one of the first major black conductors. Horne met the young Pierre Boulez at the house of Los Angeles Philharmonic percussionist and composer William Kraft. She became chums with Arnold Schoenberg's widow, Gertrude. She worked with émigré conductors Fritz Zweig and Richard Lert.

Horne's career took her in an entirely new direction when she moved to Vienna in 1956 to try to make it in opera. She switched from soprano to mezzo-soprano and concentrated on bel canto repertory. But she never lost touch with Stravinsky.

"I have a wonderful memory of Stravinsky, about 1967," she says, beaming. "We were doing 'Oedipus Rex' in Canada, and a bunch of us were having a conversation. Somebody asked me, 'Jackie, have you ever sung such and such?' I said, 'I've already forgotten that.'

"And then Stravinsky said, 'Oh, the things that we forget. But Jackie, I will never forget the beauty of your voice.'

"That's a nice memory, I'll tell you. And it's even sweeter today."

And what about today? Horne has been one of the fortunate patients to survive pancreatic cancer. "I had another clean bill of health in early June," she says. "It's been five years now."

She then knocks on wood. The rhythm is Stravinskian.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Another obit: Al Swanson

It seems I'm writing too many obits lately as posts, but that's a consequence of getting older, I guess.

Al Swanson was two years older than me, but we (and his wife-to-be Eileen) were in Rod Eichenberger's University of Washington Chorale together. I sang in the choir at his wedding, in particular a setting of the Gloria from the Mass, composed by fellow student Alan Dorsey--I still have a copy.

As you'll see by the obit below, Al was an amazing recording engineer. After UW days we didn't keep in close contact, but Eileen, an accomplished violist, played for me sometimes, and my PLU choir did several projects with the Northwest Chamber Orchestra, where she was an original member and principal violist.

When I took on the Seattle Symphony Chorale from 1990-94, I was again in contact with Al, since he recorded all the SSO concerts and worked on the Delos recordings we did (I prepared the Chorale for 8 or 9 different ones in those four years). Later I also worked on a couple CDs as "producer" with Al for friends: one of Janeanne Houston's CDs and the Northwest Chamber Chorus with Steve Demorest.

Through recording so many artists, Al touched countless lives. He'll be greatly missed, most greatly by his family: Eileen, two children, and what will be their first grandchild this fall.

Albert Swanson

Albert George Swanson

Albert George Swanson - audio engineer, musician, essayist, philosopher, photographer, crossword puzzle creator, and adored husband, father, and friend - died July 24 after battling an overwhelming blood infection. He was diagnosed in 2010 with a rare autoimmune disease, Wegener's granulomatosis, and had been on immunosuppressants from that time.

Al was born Sept. 15, 1948, to Albert George Swanson and Aris Shankle Swanson in Tacoma, where he grew up. He attended Mount Tahoma High School and the University of Washington, playing trombone in the Seattle Youth Symphony and in the Husky Marching Band. While studying music and psychology as an undergraduate and ethnomusicology as a graduate student at the UW, he began recording music, which became his profession after college. Al went on to produce recordings for dozens of musical groups throughout the Pacific Northwest and beyond for more than four decades.

He served as the Seattle Symphony's audio recording engineer from 1983 through 2006, recording the Symphony's live performances and editing them for radio broadcast on Classical KING FM 98.1. As the Symphony's audio engineer, Al participated in the majority of the Seattle Symphony's prodigious discography of more than 140 recordings - some 50 of which were reissued this year -including the 12 that received Grammy nominations, working with labels Delos, Naxos, JVC, MMC, and Reference Recordings, among many others. Al served as principal recording engineer on numerous Seattle Symphony albums, including the works of American composers Alan Hovhaness and William Schuman.

Al's projects ranged from orchestras, soloists and choruses to rap videos and bagpipe bands. Al regularly recorded ensembles such as the Orcas Island Chamber Music Festival, Music of Remembrance, Husky Marching Band, Seattle Youth Symphony, Seattle Choral Company, Seattle Peace Chorus, the Esoterics, and Seattle Girls' Choir, and he spent 25 years as the choir director at Zion American Lutheran Church in Wallingford. He was instrumental in the development of the Seattle film-score recording scene in the 1990s, serving as chief technical consultant (look for Al's name in the closing credits of "Die Hard: With a Vengeance" and "Mr. Holland's Opus"). In 1995, Al recorded the ballet score of "Swan Lake" in Saint Petersburg, Russia, for the Houston Ballet, and in 1996 he recorded organist Carole Terry on the legendary Ladegast Organ in Schwerin, Germany. Of Al's 2009 recording of the Icicle Creek Trio, Jerry Dubins of Fanfare magazine wrote: "The results are astonishing. ... Without a doubt, this recording captures the stage in one of the most transparent, lifelike sonic images I've yet to hear. It's as if the musicians, having been teleported from the recording session, simply materialize in my living room."

In 1977, Al was one of the founding committee members of the Audio Engineering Society's Pacific Northwest section. He continued as a committee member through 1981, and served another term on the committee in 1990. Al was elected chair of the Pacific Northwest section in 1992, and vice-chair in 1991 and 1993.

Al was a man of his mind, and his gift for wit and irony lives on in writings and essays on all subjects. At any given time he was likely to be speaking, reading or writing about topics such as corvid intelligence, quantum physics, the artistry of Carl Barks, temperate rain forests, the psychology of music, home construction, international linguistics, photographic techniques, volcanology, and the health industry. He loved baseball, and in season he could typically be found in his favorite easy chair with the Mariners on television, one or more cats on his lap, and his composition book in his hands.

After his diagnosis of Wegener's granulomatosis in 2010, Al became a self-taught expert on the condition. He was active on forums and blogs dedicated to Wegener's for the rest of his life, dispensing wisdom and serving as a resource for those suffering from the rare disease.

Survivors include wife Eileen; daughter Amy King and husband Geoffrey of Seattle; son Stephen and wife Jeanne of Spokane; sister Pat Kaer and husband Bjarne of Goodyear, Ariz.; numerous nieces and nephews; and his first grandchild, due in October. The family's thanks go out to the staff at the Swedish Medical Center ICU and to Dr. Robert Winrow for taking such good care of Al.

A celebration of Al's life will be held at 7 p.m. on Sunday, Aug. 5, in the chapel at Bastyr University, 14500 Juanita Drive N.E., Kenmore, WA, 98028. Please visit Al's online obituary and guestbook at Memorials may be made to the Vasculitis Foundation at

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Rilling's last year in Eugene--End of an Era

Helmuth Rilling, about whom I wrote here, closes out his long run with the Bach Festival in Eugene this year. An amazing man with an even more amazing career!

From the Eugene Register Guard:

The passion of Rilling

Bach Festival co-founder is approaching the end of his long run

Published: (Thursday, Jul 12, 2012 01:06PM) Midnight, July 12

As he prepared last week for Sunday’s upcoming performance of the St. Matthew Passion, Helmuth Rilling grilled his conducting students behind the scenes at the Oregon Bach Festival, making sure that they were tuned into even the tiniest details in the sprawling choral work by Johann Sebastian Bach.

As he has done here each summer for more than four decades, the 79-year-old festival founder and artistic director from Stuttgart, Germany, demanded that his students — who come here from around the world to work with him — study the music’s text as thoroughly as a good film director might explore the motivations of a movie’s characters.

“These are texts that have a deep meaning,” Rilling explains later that afternoon, relaxing with his wife, Martina, at a borrowed home overlooking Eugene. “I always have to challenge them to understand this.”

Rilling — and the Oregon Bach Festival itself — are at a turning point.

The co-founder, along with University of Oregon music professor Royce Saltzman, of a little summer music festival that grew to international prominence, Rilling is stepping down from his post here after next year’s festival, turning the title of artistic director over to Matthew Halls.

In a wide-ranging interview, Rilling talked about everything from the St. Matthew — Bach’s longest work — to American speed limits (he prefers the anarchy of the German autobahns, which have no limits) and the little cigars that keep him going through long hours of musical study.

First, St. Matthew.

As with most of Bach’s work, it is music that is grounded in a particular faith, the European Christianity of the 18th century. Bach himself was an organist and choirmaster, and Rilling insists there is no way to take the Christianity out of Bach’s music.

“Bach regarded himself as a musical theologian,” Rilling says. “He had to do the same thing with his music that the minister did with his sermons.”

And yet the conductor doesn’t think it’s essential for the audience to share Bach’s Christian faith (although Rilling himself does) to appreciate the music.

“That’s because of (Bach’s) ability to speak to many human problems in the St. Matthew,” he says. 

“Love. Hatred. He speaks about disappointment. He speaks about betraying someone.”

And so, Rilling has been able to conduct the St. Matthew to appreciative audiences in places such as Taiwan.

“Of course there are some Christians there, but most of them are not,” he says. “And yet they are deeply interested in the piece.”

Complexities present challenges

The St. Matthew requires enormous forces to perform. It’s written for two orchestras and two choruses, as well as a number of vocal soloists.

Rilling, who prides himself on conducting without a score in front of him on the podium, admits that the St. Matthew was one of the harder works to get control of by memory.

“It took me a long time to get that piece in my head,” he says. “The most dangerous is the recitatives (words spoken without a musical structure). It is easy to learn a fugue. It’s logical.

“But the recitatives ...”

Rilling, like Bach, was an organist early in his career, although he says he hasn’t touched the pipe organ at his home in Stuttgart for 10 or 15 years. He also is a quiet perfectionist, demanding a high level of preparation and understanding from his musicians.

And he is harder on himself than he is on anyone else.

“That comes from responsibility to the music,” he says. “I am responsible for the quality of the performance, and that is a challenge.

“If I am well-prepared, I know that I can get the music ready for performance in the quickest possible way.”

Despite the fact he is known primarily as a conductor of Bach, Rilling also has been a champion of contemporary music at the festival, which has commissioned or premiered works from such leading composers as Krzyztof Penderecki, Osvaldo Golijov and Sven-David Sandström.

Rilling’s approach to new music is fairly simple. He doesn’t care about styles of composition. What 
he does care about is engagement.

“There is one thing that is important,” he says. “Does it have the quality of speaking to the audience?”

Fesitival is part of his life

In person, Rilling is charming, cordial and reserved. He is not given to small talk, and he gives the impression of being a man who lives very much inside his own head.

Rilling pulls out a tin of small cigars, imported from the Dominican Republic, and lights one up. He explains the tobacco habit in terms of his work.

“I just started smoking 10 years ago,” he says. “It’s because I sit there with my score. You can’t imagine how many hours every year I sit there in a chair, studying my scores.

“And together with that, I puff! I am working, and while working, I smoke.”

It’s clear that it is difficult for Rilling to contemplate stepping down from his post with the Oregon Bach Festival. He and his wife have spent a large part of their lives here.

In fact, he interjects, when you add it all up they have lived in Eugene for more than two years. Their two daughters, Sara and Rahel, have grown up as part of the festival; both have performed here.

“I think it would be great for the festival to have a hall the size of, say, 1,200 (seats),” he says. “The (Hult’s) Soreng is too small. Beall Hall is too small.”

But the Hult’s Silva Concert Hall is so large, at 2,500 seats, that many concerts can’t fill the space. And the acoustics in the Silva are middling at best.

“We could do a Bach cantata, and you have 1,200 people and it’s sold out,” he says.

A commitment to education

Rilling has no special post-Bach plans.

“I very much like being at home,” he says. “We have a beautiful house. I enjoy reading some beautiful books. And sometimes my wife takes me on a walk.”

He and Martina also have their first grandchild, Rahel’s 3-month-old son, Joseph, to entertain them.
There is one thing Rilling insists is important that the festival never change, and that is the focus on education.

Rilling would like to see a youth orchestra alongside the youth chorus, for example. He would like to add voice classes and instrument classes to the conducting master class he has taught.

“You can buy important names anywhere and have them perform,” he says, referring to importing big-name stars such as violinist Joshua Bell, who played at the festival’s opening night on June 29.

“But this festival is unique. Why would you even do it without the education?”