We’re only a few days into the new year, but 2017 is still in our rear view mirror. So this week, Ether Game is looking back on 2017 and some of its big events, with a show we’re calling “The Year In Review.” Here’s our playlist:
- A Don Giovanni kind of year – I don’t know about you, but to me, 2017 felt kind of like the final act of Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Throughout the opera, the notorious womanizer Don Giovanni attacks women, murders, and lies, and thinks he can get away with it. But at the end, he gets his final comeuppance. 2017 was the year that notorious womanizers and sexual predators in all different walks of life have received their own comeuppance—OK, maybe they haven’t been dragged into hell by a statue like in Don Giovanni, but thanks to the brave stance from many women and men, accused predators like Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey have been ousted from public life. And the classical music world has its share of sexual assault accusations too, against people like James Levine and Charles Dutoit. Maybe these accused sexual abusers should have learned a lesson from Don Giovanni: you are not the hero, you can’t do whatever you want, and the past can always come back to haunt you.
- “Total Eclipse! No Sun, No Moon!” – One of the biggest news events from 2017 was the total solar eclipse that stretched from coast to coast on August 21st of this year. If you missed witnessing totality, don’t worry there’s another happening on April 8, 2024, and the total eclipse will be right over Bloomington, Indiana. Total eclipses are awe-inspiring events, when day turns to night for a brief moment. In the opera Samson by George Frideric Handel, the title character uses a total eclipse as an analogy after being blinded by his enemies: “All dark amidst the blaze of noon! Oh, glorious light! No cheering ray, to glad my eyes with welcome day!” The words come from poet John Milton, and must have been meaningful. Like our hero Samson, both Milton and Handel went blind later in life.
- Happy 100th Birthday, Jazz! – There were a lot of milestones in 2017, and one of the most important ones had to do with jazz. 2017 marked the centennial anniversary of recorded jazz music. This particular recording of “Livery Stable Blues” by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band was the first commercial jazz recording. It was made on February 26, 1917 in New York City and released on the Victor label the next month. The Original Dixieland Jazz Band was a group of white musicians from New Orleans consisting of a drummer, pianist, and a wind trio of trombone, clarinet, and cornet. At the time, jazz was a brand new phenomenon, so much so that they hadn’t even settled upon a standardized name. On the original pressing of this recording, the the Original Dixieland Jass Band spelled “Jass” with two Ss instead of two Zs. It wasn’t until later in 1917 that they settled on the spelling J-A-Z-Z.
- Dmitri Hvorstovsky (1962–2017) – We lost a number of prominent musicians in 2017, and one of the biggest losses in the opera world was Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky. He first rose to national prominence in 1989, when he won the Cardiff Singer Of The World competition, beating out another prominent baritone (and the Welsh hometown favorite) Bryn Terfel. Hvorostovsky’s rich voice, good looks, imposing figure, and iconic silver mane made him a star on the opera stage. He had an amazing career, singing in every major opera house, including the Metropolitan Opera, La Scala, and the Vienna State Opera. His voice was especially made for Verdi. In 2015, he was diagnosed with a brain tumor, and retired from performing shortly after. However, in May 2017, he made a surprise appearance at the Met Opera Gala, performing (you guessed it) a Verdi aria. Sadly, Hvorostovsky died a few months later at age 55.
- Renée Fleming, retiree? – The classical music world was stunned last April when the New York Times reported a story that Renée Fleming was announcing her retirement from opera. The headline read “The Diva Departs: Renee Fleming’s Farewell to Opera.” Within hours of the story appearing online however, Fleming was running damage control. She had planned to accept no more operatic stage roles in the near future, but was by no means retiring from singing or from performing opera. In follow up interviews she noted that the Times article was misleading and that she had never planned to step away from the stage for good. She clarified her plans in an interview with Minnesota Public Radio, saying “Right now I feel like I’m doing everything: singing, concertizing, touring, creating new work. I just kind of love doing all these different things. Time will tell. I may never choose to focus more.”
- Happy 80th Birthday, Philip Glass! – Last January, Philip Glass celebrated his 80th birthday with a premiere concert at Carnegie Hall of his 11th symphony. He is regarded as one of the most sophisticated composers of minimalism, a style in which numerous repetitions of small musical motives experience simple changes over time, creating an organic and memorizing soundscape. Glass became popular for his film scores, especially in the 1990s with Candyman and The Truman Show. He has also composed prolifically in classical music genres. Glass was recently asked if he felt he was slowing down after 80 years, to which he replied: “I have a lot more to write. I don’t know how many more years I get to write it, but I have a lot to do.”
- 150 Years of Amy Beach – One milestone anniversary that we celebrated in 2017 was for American composer Amy Beach and her sesquicentennial, or 150-year anniversary. She was born in 1867, and was a child prodigy by any standard. At the age of one, she could sing 40 tunes accurately, and always in the same key. By age two, she could improvise harmonies with her mother. She mentally composed her first piano pieces at age four, later sitting at the piano and playing them fully-formed. She was 16 years old when she made her debut in Boston. However, her career as a concert pianist was halted by her marriage. In the late 19th century, it was considered improper for a married woman to travel alone. However, that did not stop Amy Beach from composing. She composed dozens of piano works, and was the first American woman to publish a full symphony.
- A Pulitzer for Du Yun – Chinese composer Du Yun gained wider prominence this past year when she won the Pulitzer Prize for Music for her opera Angel’s Bone. Yun is the second Chinese composer and the seventh woman to win the prize in its 74 year history. The 39-year-old composer is also a singer and performance artist, and has become known for her avant garde style, as we just heard in this violin showcase piece. Her award-winning opera Angel’s Bone is even more provocative, combing Renaissance chant with atonal music. The opera tells the story of two angels who have fallen into the yard of a middle class couple. The couple nurses the angels back to health, before clipping their wings and exploiting them for profit. The opera is an allegory about the problems of human trafficking—a problem that is still prevalent in our modern society, even if it’s hidden from everyday view.
- Goodbye to the “Funky Drummer” – In the pop music world, we lost a number of musicians in 2017, including Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Tom Petty, Gregg Allman, Glen Campbell, and many others. But the musician I want to highlight is one you may not have heard of: drummer Clyde Stubblefield. Stubblefield was the drummer for James Brown for much of the 1960s. He became an uncredited pioneer in the early years of hip-hop, because of his 10-second drum solo from this 1970 song “Funky Drummer.” Hip-hop DJs sampled this particular drum solo or “drum break,” and looped it over and over again, creating a musical bed for emcees to rap over. The “funky drummer break” was used in literally hundreds (if not thousands) of hip hop songs by Run D.M.C., Public Enemy, and many others. Stubblefield died in February of 2017, but we have him to thank as one of the fathers of hip-hop—even if he never received the proper credit.