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Arts & Entertainment Preview - June 1998

Classical Music
B Y   A U S T I N   B A E R

Spinning Gold -- Transforming a Best Seller Into a Symphony

"You've read the book; now hear the symphony." If not unprecedented, the pitch is certainly rare. The Alchemist's Symphony, by the twenty-nine-year-old French composer Walter Taieb, takes off from The Alchemist, by the Brazilian author Paulo Coelho. The novel, published ten years ago, has sold 17 million copies and been ranked as the No. 1 best seller in sixteen countries. Taieb's symphony is in eight brief movements (keyed to specific moments in the book), punctuated with improvised interludes on such folk and ethnic instruments as the darbuka, the nay, and the oud. A whiz kid whose other credits include chart-topping pop songs and 3-D computer graphics, the composer thinks that too many influential movements in twentieth-century classical music have been dominated by concepts, in analogy to the visual arts. "I feel music needs to speak and tell stories and develop emotions," he explained recently over the phone from his home on Long Island. Like many others, he has rediscovered tonality: "an international language," he insists, "a universal language," suitable for telling stories. He calls his style "neo-melodism." If the uninitiated think of movie music, Taieb politely disagrees. "I love movie music, but it's not a free form of art. Listen to a movie score without pictures, and generally it's terrible: a potpourri of little things of two minutes, not a composition to be heard on its own. I think my music is sufficient alone. For forty-five minutes the music makes you travel. You don't waste any time. You get a theme with a short development, and then right away you jump. It's a lot of work to write this way!" The Alchemist's Symphony receives its first live performance on June 5 at a gala in the ancient Spanish town of Tarifa, which in the book is where the hero's journey begins. Fortunately for those with other plans that night, a polished recording on BMG reveals how evocative the score is of the novel's exotic locales. The movement "The Oasis," with its drowsy melody and lopsided African rhythm, is especially fetching.

Spirit of the Radio

The New York Philharmonic has just wrapped up an eventful, often brilliant season that was remarkable, too, for its reach. Through the largesse of Time Warner, nine of the best programs aired on more than 200 radio stations. Such exposure, rare these days, was once common. The Philharmonic reminds music lovers everywhere how thrilling live performances on the air can be with its ten-CD package The Historic Broadcasts 1923 to 1987. The roster of maestros includes legends like Willem Mengelberg, Otto Klemperer, Arturo Toscanini, Bruno Walter, Dimitri Mitropoulos, and Fritz Reiner. The composer Francis Poulenc is dazzling in the piano part of his own Concert champêtre, and Igor Stravinsky forges links to tradition with an idiosyncratic but illuminating account of Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 2 (the Little Russian). Listeners unused to archival material may blanch at the sound quality of some of the earliest entries, but the verve of the performances offers rich compensation. Of related interest: a CD of Leonard Bernstein's historic New York Philharmonic debut, as a last-minute replacement for the revered Bruno Walter. Unlike the big box, this single disc documents the entire concert, announcements and all. The music is electrifying--and knowing what we know now, the sense of occasion is breathtaking. (For the former call 800-557-8268; for the latter 800-99-MUSIC.)

A New Voice for Arianna

Titian: Bacchus and Ariadne (Arianna)

Lost operas probably number in the thousands, but the ones posterity mourns for are few. The Arianna of Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643), the father of opera as we know it, is certainly close to the top of the list--particularly since it is not wholly lost. The ornate, highly literate libretto of Ottavio Rinuccini survives. So does the monologue of the heroine, the Cretan princess abandoned by Theseus, slayer of the Minotaur. Seventeenth-century cognoscenti recognized this excerpt as a very fine thing indeed, and copies circulated in both printed and manuscript forms. Modern composers have made arrangements. Now the British composer Alexander Goehr has recomposed it completely--along with the rest of Rinuccini's libretto. To appreciate how eccentric this is, suppose we knew Macbeth only from a synopsis and the dagger monologue, and a playwright wrote a new, mock-Shakespeare tragedy that paraphrased the only original fragment we had. Other vocal compositions prove Goehr to be a careful student of Monteverdi's emotional, supremely flexible style, and in England his pastiche has won high praise. This month Opera Theatre of Saint Louis mounts the American premiere, in English, which adds a new wrinkle. Goehr has written that his purpose was to rescue the beauty of Rinuccini's original Italian. So in that sense the new production violates the composer's intention. Make of this what you will; he has not withheld the performance rights (June 7, 10, 13, 19, and 25; 314-961-0644).

Austin Baer is a writer based in New York.

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