Richard Tucker at 100: An Opera Celebration
Friday, January 10 at 9 pm
One of the most eagerly awaited events on the New York musical calendar is the annual concert by the Richard Tucker Music Foundation. To honor the memory of the great American tenor whose name it carries, the Foundation identifies rising young American opera singers who are on the brink of distinguished careers. Winners receive a grant of $50,000 from the Foundation—up from previous years' awards of $30,000—and are instantly spotlighted in the opera world-at-large. Among winners in previous years have been Susan Dunn, Aprile Millo, Dolora Zajick, Renee Fleming, Deborah Voigt, Dwayne Croft, David Daniels, Matthew Polenzani and Lawrence Brownlee. 2013’s winner is the lyric mezzo soprano, Isabel Leonard, who was just one of the dazzling list of singers who congregated on the stage of New York's Avery Fisher Hall for this year's Richard Tucker Music Foundation concert. Our cameras and microphones were on hand to capture this remarkable event, and the result will be shown on PBS on Friday evening, January 10.
American opera singers have figured prominently in the history of America's leading opera company, the Metropolitan Opera. One need only recall some names from the first third of the 20th century, names such as Louise Homer, Geraldine Farrar, Rosa Ponselle and Lawrence Tibbett. But it was not until the 1940s that American singers became prominent if not dominant at the Met. Just remember Rise Stevens, Eleanor Steber, Leonard Warren, Jan Peerce, Regina Resnick, Leontyne Price, Frederica von Stade, Marilyn Horne, Robert Merrill, Roberta Peters and dozens of others. And of course, Richard Tucker.
Rubin Ticker, his birth name, was born in Brooklyn in 1913. His radiant voice was discovered early on, and his first musical training was nurtured at lower Manhattan's Congregation Tiferet Israel. He was also a fit athlete as a youth, and for a while had to wrestle with a choice between athletics and singing. But service as Cantor at synagogues in New Jersey, the Bronx and Brooklyn sealed the deal: music won out. During this period he also studied opera with one of the stalwarts of an earlier generation, the tenor Paul Althouse. In 1941 he entered one of the era's most popular radio features, “The Metropolitan Opera Auditions of the Air.” He did not win, but he made a sufficiently strong impression on the Met's General Manager, Edward Johnson (himself a former tenor at the Met), that Johnson made an unannounced visit to hear Tucker at the Brooklyn Jewish Center. Johnson's initial impression was confirmed, and he offered Tucker a contract with the Met. Enzo in Ponchielli's La Gioconda served as the role for his debut at the Met in January, 1945. For thirty years thereafter Richard Tucker was a cornerstone of the Metropolitan Opera's artist roster.
Soon after Richard Tucker's untimely death from a heart attack in 1975, his widow Sara and their three sons created the Richard Tucker Music Foundation in order to continue his legacy “through projects in aid of gifted young singers.” And it was the oldest of the sons, Barry, who became, and continues to be, the creative master behind the Foundation's activities.
As I stated above, the list of singers who participated in the 2013 edition of the Foundation's concert is staggering. I can offer only a tantalizing sampler listing of the proceedings. Angela Meade, the winner of the 2011 Award, performs an aria from Verdi's early opera, I due foscari. The much-acclaimed bass-baritone, Eric Owens, sings the "Te Deum" from Puccini's Tosca. Renee Fleming (Tucker Foundation Award winner in 1990) and Susan Graham are heard in the duet "Viens, Malika" (made famous by an omnipresent television commercial) from Delibes' Lakme. Matthew Polenzani (winner in 2004) sings the Ballad of Kleinzach from Offenbach's The Tales of Hoffmann. Isabel Leonard is heard in one of the songs from Granados' Canciones Amatorias. Stephanie Blythe (1999 winner) along with bass-baritone Greer Grimsley performs the duet, "J'ai gravi la montagne" from Saint Saens' Samson et Dalila. Joyce DiDonato, the 2002 Tucker Foundation Award winner, sings "Tanti affetti" from Rossini's La Donna del lago. And on and on.
And throughout the evening members of the great Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus are conducted by Riccardo Frizza.
So make a date with your local PBS station on Friday evening, January 10 for “Richard Tucker at 100: An Opera Celebration.” As always I urge you to check with you local station for the exact date and time in your area.
The New York Philharmonic Gala with Yo-Yo Ma
Tuesday, December 31 at 8 pm
For decades now New Year's Eve on PBS has meant a Gala Concert by the New York Philharmonic. This year's installment in what is now a continuing tradition will be a Ravel sandwich, with filling of music by Piazzola and Golijov. The Philharmonic's Music Director, Alan Gilbert, will open the program with Ravel's "Alborada del Gracioso" and close it with the composer's “Bolero.” In between will come a Suite from Piazzola's "La serie del Angel" in an arrangement by Octavio Brunetti and Osvaldo Golijov's “Azul.” Both the latter works are scored for Cello and Orchestra, and our soloist will be no less a master of the instrument than Yo-Yo Ma.
Ravel's “Alborada del Gracioso” began its musical life in 1905 as a piece for solo piano in a collection titled “Miroirs.” Thirteen years later he transcribed the work for symphony orchestra with an enlarged percussion section. The word "alborada" references an old type of Spanish poetry and song in which a lover takes leave of his beloved at dawn. So “Alborada del Gracioso” is “The Jester's Morning Song.” The instrumentation is a riot of orchestral color, with a particularly haunting solo for English horn.
As George Gershwin's “Rhapsody in Blue” was once characterized as the introduction of jazz into the classical music concert hall, so the music of Astor Piazzolla (1921-1992) may be said to have introduced the tango into the classical music concert hall. Argentinian by birth, Piazzolla spent his early years in New York's Greenwich Village. At some point his father acquired the Argentinian instrument, the accordian-like bandoneon, and young Astor began to explore the music of the Argentine tango. He also discovered the recordings of Carlos Gardel, the master of the bandoneon and the tango.
Years spent in Europe resulted in Piazzolla studying conducting with the legendary Hermann Scherchen and composition with the equally legendary Nadia Boulanger. In the end, however, he turned back to the bandoneon and created what was termed the ‘new tango.” In the early 1960s Piazzolla composed a series of works to accompany an Argentinian play about an angel who comes down to earth to give aid and comfort to the inhabitants of a downtrodden village. The angel accomplishes its mission, but is ultimately killed in a knife fight. It was the New York Philharmonic, expressly for this concert, which commissioned Octavio Brunetti, the inheritor of Piazzolla's mantle, to make this arrangement for cello and orchestra of Piazzolla's “La serie del Angel.” And this will mark the first of Yo-Yo Ma's two appearances with the Orchestra this evening.
Yo-Yo Ma will also take to the stage for the performance of "Azul" for cello and ensemble by the Argentine-American composer, Osvaldo Golijov. “Azul” was composed for Yo-Yo Ma in 2006 and received its premiere with Ma and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, which had commissioned it. The word “azul” in Spanish and Portugese means “blue.” In the half-dozen years since the premiere it has become a favorite in Yo-Yo Ma's repertory, and he has played it with colleagues the world over. Golijov's “Azul” is an evocation of music from the Baroque period, specifically of the 17th and 18th century French master Francois Couperin. It is rhapsodic, melismatic and altogether haunting in effect.
The concert concludes with Ravel's iconic “Bolero,” created in 1928 as a dance for the famed Ida Rubinstein. Ravel himself once described the score as “orchestral effects without music.” But what effects! A single theme is introduced by snare drum and solo flute, the snare drum continues with its rat-a-tat rhythmic motif throughout the piece while the theme is passed from one group of instruments to another, all the time increasing in volume. The ending is a shattering collapse.
It did not take long for “Bolero” to enter the mainstream of symphonic literature. As a matter of fact it was the New York Philharmonic, under Arturo Toscanini, that played the American premiere of “Bolero” in 1929. History is fuzzy concerning that premiere. Ravel paid a four-month visit to the United States in 1928, touring virtually the length and breadth of the land. There appears to be no record of a return visit by Ravel the next year. Yet legend has it that he attended that 1929 New York premiere and refused to acknowledge Toscanini’s singling him out in the audience afterwards because he felt Toscanini's tempo was unacceptably fast. Whether to make the point or not, Ravel himself recorded “Bolero” in January 1930 conducting the Paris Lamoureux Orchestra. The tempo is considerably slower than on a recording by Toscanini. Maestro Gilbert's tempo? We shall see and hear on Live From Lincoln Center on New Year's Eve, December 31, 2013!
I leave you with the usual suggestion that you check with your local PBS station for the exact day and time of the telecast in your area.
Happy New Year!
MARTIN BOOKSPAN was Commentator for Live From Lincoln Center for 30 years, since its very first broadcast in January, 1976 until our 30th Anniversary broadcast in 2006. Martin's lifelong love and appreciation for music and all the performing arts have fueled and shaped his distinguished career in both print and broadcast media, which has included associations with the Boston Symphony, the New York Philharmonic, classical music radio station WQXR, and television Channel 7 News and Channel 11 News in New York City. He is the author of 101 Masterpieces of Music and Their Composers (Doubleday) and Consumer Reports Reviews: Classical Recordings (Consumers Union), as well as biographies of Zubin Mehta and André Previn, written with Ross Yockey.