How the 1918 Flu Pandemic Shaped Classical Music

A hospital orchestra during the 1918 flu epidemic, West Baden, Indiana (Photo: National Archives)

In the June issue of BBC Music Magazine I look at various ways in which composers were impacted by the flu epidemic of 1918-20. The virus, which wreaked havoc for nearly three years and left at least 50 million people dead including about 675,000 in the U.S., impacted music in ways both significant and modest. There were several escapist ragtime songs about “the grip,” and at least one chamber music piece: Darius Milhaud’s Sonata for Flute, Oboe, Clarinet and Piano, which ends with a dirge for the victims of the epidemic. 

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Louis Langrée on Beethoven’s Mega-Concert

Beethoven

Concerts were longer in the time of Beethoven, as were attention spans. But even by those standards, the storied program he organized for Vienna’s Theater an der Wien on Dec. 22, 1808 was over the top. Called the Akademie, it ran from 6:30 to 10:30 pm in two parts and included the premieres of the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, Fourth Piano Concerto, Choral Fantasia in C minor, and other works by Beethoven.  

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Julia Wolfe on Evoking the ’60s in ‘Flower Power’

Julia Wolfe, composer (Photo: John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation)

For all of the iconic protest music that came out of the 1960s and early ’70s, classical composers mostly stayed at a remove from that decade’s turbulent events. There were a handful of noted exceptions, of course, including Terry Riley, La Monte Young, George Crumb and Karlheinz Stockhausen, but their works were not exactly staples of mainstream orchestral programming. Now, fifty years on, composer Julia Wolfe aims to evoke the decade and its sounds in a new 30-minute orchestral work called Flower Power.

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The Crown Season 3 Soundtrack Features Beethoven, Chopin

In the third season of the Netflix series “The Crown,” the story advances from the mid-1960s to the late ’70s, a period that allows producers to draw on a rich array of popular music. American songbook standards give way to rock anthems by the Kinks, the Four Seasons, Deep Purple, the Who and David Bowie, among others. As in the first season and second season, music is often tied to on-screen sources, as when Princess Anne blasts Bowie’s “Starman” on a car radio as she speeds to the palace one night.

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Philip Glass Finds Orchestral Converts

Philip Glass (photo: Flickr/letterchen)

The New York Philharmonic recently opened its fall season with the King Lear Overture, its first commissioned score by Philip Glass. Music director Jaap van Zweden was a driving force behind the premiere. “I felt strongly that this was a symphonic composer that needed more attention from our orchestra,” the Dutch conductor told me in an e-mail before the performances.

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Shostakovich Is Having a Moment and This Conductor Is On It

Karina Canellakis conducts Shostakovich

In scanning the calendars of symphony orchestras this season, you may notice that Shostakovich is having a moment. And it’s not just the popular Fifth Symphony that is getting all the attention (though that is certainly making the rounds).

The Boston Symphony is performing the Russian composer’s Symphony No. 2 “To October” (Nov. 21-26), the San Francisco Symphony is featuring the Seventh (Oct. 24-26), the Chicago Symphony has just revived the Eighth (I produce the CSO’s radio broadcasts), Minneapolis is doing the Ninth (Oct. 10-11) and both the Oslo Philharmonic and the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic in Amsterdam are presenting the Tenth over the same weekend (Oct. 11-14). And that’s just scratching the surface.

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Angel Blue Preps for Porgy and Bess at The Met

The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess is returning to the Metropolitan Opera for the first time in 34 years, with the soprano Angel Blue and the bass-baritone Eric Owens in the title roles. In a bit of luxury casting, they’ll be joined by Ryan Speedo Green, Latonia Moore and Denyce Graves, among several other noted singers. A handsome production by James Robinson arrives on September 24 after a well-received run at English National Opera.

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