Legendary Conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt Dies at 86

The late conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt, rehearsing in Salzburg, Austria in 2012.

The late conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt, rehearsing in Salzburg, Austria in 2012.

Widely influential conductor and early-music specialist Nikolaus Harnoncourt has died at age 86 in the Austrian village of St. Georgen im Attergau, near Salzburg.

His wife, Alice Harnoncourt, announced his death on his website; the cause of death was not disclosed. Harnoncourt had announced his retirement Dec. 5 — the day before his 86th birthday — in a handwritten letter published on his website and included in the program book of the Vienna Musikverein concert hall, where he appeared frequently.

Harnoncourt was born in 1929 in Berlin into a wealthy, aristocratic family. His full name was Count Nikolaus de la Fontaine und d’Harnoncourt-Unverzagt; his father was an Austrian count and his maternal great-grandfather was a Habsburg archduke. From the time Harnoncourt was a toddler, his family lived in the Meran Palace in Graz, Austria. With the Nazi annexation of the country, the family’s security grew more precarious, and in 1944 they moved to the Salzkammergut area, where the young Harnoncourt began playing cello. By 1948, he moved to Vienna to study cello more seriously. It was there, at the Vienna Music Academy, that Harnoncourt founded his first early music ensemble — the Vienna Viola da Gamba Quartet, which included his wife-to-be, Alice Hoffelner.

Harnoncourt did not graduate from the conservatory. Instead, in 1952, he left shortly before his final exams to accept a position playing in the Vienna Symphony Orchestra under Herbert von Karajan, remaining until 1969.

Alongside Harnoncourt’s work with this mainstream orchestra, his interest in pre-Baroque music increased. In 1954, he and his wife formed a group to perform the first notable opera ever written, Monteverdi‘s L’Orfeo. (That performance was conducted by composer Paul Hindemith, another artist fascinated by early music.) By 1957, their ensemble had a name: the Concentus Musicus Wien. With that group’s founding, Harnoncourt became one of the fathers of the early music movement, which sought to bring pre-Baroque and Baroque compositions back into regular performance, played in ways they might have been heard when they were new.

In an essay on Harnoncourt’s website, his interest in early music is presented as the direct inverse of the aesthetics and perhaps even cultural politics of artists like Karajan:

His 1982 book Musik als Klangrede (Music as Speech) was the first to comprehensively describe the theory of historically informed performance practice. He emphasises again and again that when making music every idea must develop from original sources. He demands that his musicians be ready to discuss, that they ask questions; indeed, he expects objections. This is what automatically makes him the antithesis of the traditional conductor who never justifies his decisions to the “lower orchestra musicians,” but rather enforces his will autocratically. The figurehead of this stance is Herbert von Karajan, whose “kingdom,” the Salzburg Festival, was the epitome of established society events in the eighties, and which celebrated art as a kind of High Mass for the financially elite.

There was a similar motivation at work in Harnoncourt’s decision to evolve from his work as a cellist to his calling as a conductor, as he told NPR’s Performance Today in 2006. Speaking of his years playing in the Vienna Symphony, he said, “I played with all the great conductors, I played the whole classical repertoire and practically everything which was newly composed in that time.”

“But in the last years of that time,” he continued, “we had to play the last symphonies of Mozart very, very often, especially the G minor Symphony (No. 40), which is a very tragic and at the same time consoling piece. And when this piece was played, the audience started to smile, and to wave their heads. It was a familiar situation — which I hated, I must say. And when I saw them all starting to smile for this music which speaks of death, I was absolutely sure that we were doing everything wrong by performing this symphony. And there was one day when I said, ‘I don’t want ever to play that again in that way.’ And the next morning, I went to the director and said, ‘I will quit the orchestra; I have to do it myself.’ It wasn’t easy, because I was a young man with four children, and I had nothing in view — and nobody taught me to conduct.”

By the early 1970s, Harnoncourt was conducting performances of Monteverdi’s operas at venues like the Piccola Scala in Milan; in 1975, he presented the first staged cycles of Monteverdi’s three extant operas at the Zurich Opera House. It was also during this time he began a landmark project with his collaborator Gustav Leonhardt: recording all of J.S. Bach‘s known sacred cantatas, about 200 of them, in historically informed performances that featured lean groups of musicians and singers and boy soloists. It was an undertaking that required enormous scholarship as well as immense effort, resulting in 45 double-LP albums recorded over nearly 20 years.

As Harnoncourt’s reputation for early music continued to grow, he was encouraged to reach into material beyond the Baroque. In 1980, the Zurich Opera House hired him to stage all of Mozart’s operas. As time went on, Harnoncourt began to explore larger and larger swaths of the repertoire, from works of Beethoven to music by Dvořák, Bartók and Alban Berg. As a conductor, Harnoncourt was particularly interested in creating highly detailed and often astringently bracing performances — the same qualities he had brought to his work with Bach and Mozart.

Harnoncourt’s recording of a certain 20th-century opera seemed to come out of left field, at least until one heard the story of the conductor’s longtime connection to it. When he was still a child, his New York-based uncle, René d’Harnoncourt (who was director of the Museum of Modern Art from 1949 to 1968), sent his family a vocal score of an opera written by a friend of his. It was George Gershwin‘s Porgy and Bess.

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit NPR.

A Maestro Remembered: A Tribute to Otto-Werner Mueller

by Thomas Burge

One of the more memorable conductors and teachers of my career has passed. Maestro Otto-Werner Mueller was born in Germany in 1926 and passed away here in Charlotte on Thursday. A seemingly formidable giant, he will be remembered for being supremely generous with his knowledge. His life was a true contribution to music, clearly leading the orchestra in rehearsal but then “taking a back seat” in the concert to the performers. It was never about “him”, but always the music.

To my way of thinking he was not a “performing conductor” but his “performance” was always in the rehearsal. He truly honored the title “maestro” for its actual meaning; that of master and teacher. He was never “performing,” but always teaching.

He taught conducting at Juilliard, The Curtis Institute, Yale, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and the Victoria School of Music in British Columbia. A list of his conducting students includes conductors and Musical Directors of the New York Philharmonic, Philadelphia Orchestra, Cincinnati Symphony, San Diego Symphony, Fort Worth Symphony, and many more.

As a student, I will always remember his resounding baritone and his German accent; “TROMBOOOOONES! DO NOT SHOUT AT ME WITH YOUR INSTRUMENTS!”

No matter what musical forces might be necessary, he helped this young developing musician see that for music to be truly understood, the beauty must be honored and at the core of all we do.

Thank you, Maestro. Rest in Peace, surrounded by the beauty of the music and musicians you helped create.

Thomas “Tom” Burge is the principal trombonist for the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra, an instructor at Wingate University and the Sunday evening host on WDAV Classical Public Radio.

Image courtesy of the Curtis Institute of Music

[Audio] Are You Ready for Some Football Music?

There was a time when corporate identification was conveyed as much through music as it was through images. You didn’t even need words. People heard the song, and they knew the product. This form of branding is now almost extinct, mostly because television audiences are so fragmented. Except in the one area where people still consistently watch live TV: sports. And for NFL football, the TV networks are still branding the games with musical signatures that go back a very, very long time.

To read the full article, visit studio360.org

Jon Vickers, Intense Canadian Tenor, Dies At 88

With the death of Jon Vickers, opera has lost one of its most intense voices. The Canadian tenor, often hailed as one of the greatest opera singers of the 20th century, died Friday in Ontario. In a note to London’s Royal Opera House, Vickers’ family said he lost a prolonged battle with Alzheimer’s disease. He was 88.

Vickers’ voice was a force of nature — large, strong and well suited to heroic characters such as the lead roles in Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, Verdi’s Otello and Beethoven’s Fidelio. John Steane, in his book Singers of the Century, talks of Vickers’ incomparable intensity, stating that “if there had not been, working from within, a genuine spiritual refinement, the sheer size of his voice, breadth as well as power, would surely have bludgeoned the listener into insensibility.” The singer could also reduce his hurricane force to a silvery thread of tone, something approaching a croon but fully supported and dramatically absorbing.

Along with his imposing voice, Vickers inhabited his roles with penetrating earnestness, bordering on ferocity. Reviewing the tenor’s 1972 recording of Tristan und Isolde, Robin Holloway wrote: “There is no doubt whatsoever about the stature of his tour de force, but it remains extreme — something unique as if the story were, just this once, literally true. I can pay no higher tribute, but I never want to hear it again.” Vickers was drawn to characters who struggled from within — to Canio in Pagliacci, Don José in Carmen and Jason in Medea, which he sang opposite Maria Callas. Steane says Vickers was one of the very few singers who could match Callas “in the magnetism of performance.”

His portrayal of the title character in Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes may have been the tenor’s crowning achievement. As the misunderstood fisherman within a narrow-minded community, Vickers brought an explosive, if controversial intensity to the role onstage and in a 1978 recording. As Grimes, he could be savage and unpredictable, with a sneer in his voice, then shift suddenly to show a dreamy, vulnerable and tender side of the character. The composer himself had mixed feelings about Vickers’ interpretation. On one hand, Britten disapproved of it and Vickers’ insistence on changing some of the text. On the other hand, the opera had found a new popularity, with companies mounting productions specifically for the tenor, including New York’s Metropolitan Opera in 1967.

Vickers was born Oct. 29, 1926 in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan and grew up in a devoutly religious household where everyone sang and played instruments — “a poor man’s Trapp family,” Vickers said, according to Jeannie Williams’ biography Jon Vickers: A Hero’s Life. He held jobs as a butcher, a Woolworth’s store manager and a tool salesman before enrolling in Toronto’s Royal Conservatory in 1950.

He made his stage debut as the Duke in Verdi’s Rigoletto four years later. In 1957 he began singing at London’s Royal Opera at Covent Garden, where he later triumphed in the demanding role of Énée in Berlioz’s Les Troyens. In 1974 he sang that role at the Metropolitan Opera, along with multiple performances of Tristan and Otello, all in a stretch of six weeks.

Vickers could be a challenging colleague and his religious convictions sometimes conflicted with particular roles. He refused to sing in two major productions of Tannhäuser (at Covent Garden and the Metropolitan Opera) claiming that “Wagner challenged the redemptive work of Jesus Christ.” He was also known to scold fellow singers and conductors, and once even the audience. In a 1975 Dallas Opera production of Tristan, he reprimanded patrons during the prelude to Act 3 to “shut up your damn coughing.”

“The thing that wasn’t printed was that they stopped coughing,” Vickers told the Dallas Morning News in 2002. “It wasn’t necessary to cough.”

As his career and his magnificent voice wound down, Vickers settled into his farmhouse north of Toronto, then retired in 1988, occasionally giving a master class. In 1998 he recorded Richard Strauss’ Enoch Arden as narrator with pianist Marc-André Hamelin. He is survived by two daughters, three sons, 11 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

[Video] Farewell to Henry Janiec, Musical Pioneer

Henry Janiec, former Charlotte Symphony Orchestra Maestro and Conductor Emeritus of Brevard Music Center, died Saturday, October 17, 2015 at the age of 85.

The distinguished conductor led the CSO from 1958 to 1963, was a principle conductor for the Brevard Music Center for 32 years, and served as music director for the Charlotte Opera (now Opera Carolina) in its early days.

WDAV had the privilege of interviewing the maestro in 2009 during its residency at the Brevard Music Center. WDAV’s Frank Dominguez chatted with Janiec about his love for Strauss’ Don Juan and passion for the music.

Read more about Janiec’s life and accomplishments here: Farewell to Henry Janiec, a musical pioneer


Stolen Stradivarius Recovered After 35 Years

The denouement of a 35-year drama takes place Thursday at the U.S. attorney’s office in Manhattan. And I trust that my father, virtuoso violinist Roman Totenberg, who died three years ago, will be watching from somewhere.

For decades he played his beloved Stradivarius violin all over the world. And then one day, he turned around and it was gone. Stolen.

While he was greeting well-wishers after a concert, it was snatched from his office at the Longy School of Music in Cambridge, Mass.

It was a crushing loss for my father. As he put it, he had lost his “musical partner of 38 years.” And when he would ultimately buy a Guarneri violin from the same period as the Stradivarius, he’d have to rework the fingering of his entire repertoire for the new instrument.

My father would dream of opening his violin case and seeing the Strad there again, but he never laid eyes on it again. He died in 2012, but the Stradivarius lived on — somewhere.

Then, on the last day in June, I got a call from FBI Special Agent Christopher McKeogh.

“We believe that the FBI has recovered your father’s stolen violin,” he said.

As the reality of his message washed over me, I had a hard time actually believing it. I called my sisters right away, and we were soon laughing and crying on the phone.

I would love to tell you some bizarre story of the violin’s travels through the underworld, but the true story is much more mundane, even pathetic.

My father had always suspected who had stolen the violin — a young aspiring violinist named Phillip Johnson, who was largely unknown to my father but had been seen outside my dad’s office around the time the violin was stolen. Soon thereafter, Johnson’s ex-girlfriend went to my parents and told them she was quite sure Johnson had taken it. Law enforcement officials believed, however, that was not enough for a search warrant. My mother was so frustrated that she famously would ask friends if they knew anyone in the mob willing to break into an apartment and search for the violin.

Phillip Johnson eventually moved to California, had an undistinguished musical career and died of cancer at age 58, a year before my father died at the age of 101.

Fast-forward four more years. Johnson’s ex-wife and her boyfriend were cleaning house, and they came across a violin case that her former husband had left to her, with a combination lock on it. They broke the lock and opened the case to find a violin with a label inside that said it was made in 1734 by the most famous violin-maker of all time — Antonio Stradivari.

A musician friend put her in touch with violin-maker and appraiser Phillip Injeian in Pittsburgh.

“Of course I hear almost every day people telling me that they found a Stradivarius in the attic,” Injeian says.

That’s because, while there are only about 550 Stradivarius violins in existence today, there are thousands and thousands of violins that have a “Stradivarius” label stamped inside them — some of them good copies, and some just cheap imitations. So Injeian suggested the ex-wife send him photographs rather than waste a trip to the East Coast.

The photos she sent looked “so remarkably good,” he says, that he went to the Violin Iconography of Antonio Stradivari, the compilation of all Stradivarius instruments known to exist, and looked at instruments made in 1734. There he saw that a famous violin belonging to Roman Totenberg had been stolen and never recovered. It was known as the “Ames Stradivarius,” after violinist George Ames, who performed on it in the late 1800s.

Soon the appraiser and the ex-wife agreed to meet in New York. And on June 26, Injeian went to her hotel.

“I opened the case and looked at the instrument” and “checked it out for over a half-hour before I said anything,” he recalls.

“And I said these words: ‘Well, I’ve got good news for you, and I’ve got bad news for you,’ ” Injeian says. ” ‘The good news is that this is a Stradivarius. The bad news is it was stolen 35, 36 years ago from Roman Totenberg.’ ”

Injeian also told her he had to report the discovery to law enforcement authorities right away.

Within two hours, special agents McKeogh and John Iannuzzi from the FBI’s art theft team were at the hotel.

“It’s rare in our business that we have the opportunity for one-stop shopping,” McKeogh says, noting that the stolen violin, the person who possessed it and the expert appraiser were all there. “Having those three things in the same place was very rare, but good for us.”

En route to the hotel, McKeogh and his partner had pulled up on their cellphones photos of the Ames Stradivarius taken before it was stolen, along with its precise measurements to the millimeter. Now, appraiser Injeian measured, calling out the numbers, and they matched exactly.

That was a Friday. McKeogh remembers the following Monday “because I can say that I have probably never been so excited to come to work as I was [that] morning, simply because I couldn’t wait to see the instrument again.” He knew, as well, that further authentication of the violin was necessary, and it came, amazingly, in that first call to me.

“You mentioned little pieces of pearl on the tuning pegs, and I went back to the violin as I was speaking to you and noticed those features, which is very unique,” McKeogh says. A third confirmation would come later from another appraiser.

So, the mystery was solved. All these years, the violin had been in the same guilty hands.

Appraiser Injeian says Johnson had tried to preserve the instrument himself, but knowing that any reputable restorer or dealer would recognize it, he had not had the violin properly maintained by the expert craftsmen who do this kind of work.

“It’s a real miracle that it didn’t take any major hits or cracks or anything of that nature,” Injeian says.

And so on Thursday, at the U.S. attorney’s office in New York, there will be a formal ceremony turning the violin over to the Totenberg sisters — Nina, Jill and Amy — under an agreement filed in federal court. (You can hear more on the ceremony on Thursday’s All Things Considered, and we will update this post after the event in New York. UPDATE: The All Things Considered story is here.)

“It’s nice to return something of great value to a family or a country or an institution,” says U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, adding that these “are moments of celebration that we don’t have that often here.”

Of course, Stradivarius owners are really just guardians of these great artistic instruments. We will sell the Ames Strad — now perhaps the Ames-Totenberg Stradivarius. We will make sure it is in the hands of another virtuoso violinist. And once again, the beautiful, brilliant and throaty voice of that long-stilled violin will thrill audiences in concert halls around the world.

Stolen with my father’s violin was a bow made by the Stradivarius of bow-makers, Francois Tourte. Special Agent McKeogh is “hopeful” that in light of this story, someone with information about the bow will come forward. In addition, there is another stolen Stradivarius out there, the Davidoff-Morini Strad, taken from the apartment of violinist Erica Morini in 1995. Anyone with information about either the bow or the violin is asked to contact the New York office of the FBI at 212-384-5000 and ask for agent McKeogh.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.