“Believe It or Not” in Classical Music, 2013

Clockwise from top left: Michael Tilson Thomas passed out cough drops from the podium; a possible violin from the Titanic; The Magic Flute on a ship in Austria; erstwhile weapons turned instruments.

By Melinda Bargreen

As the calendar winds down for the year, we take a look backward at the more unusual news items in 2013. And in the last few weeks of December, may you enjoy these items just as much as we’ve enjoyed collecting them for you. Here goes:

— A Glass menagerie:  Composer Philip Glass does it again, polarizing fans and detractors with a new opera that is either “a great American opera and the only great L.A. opera,” or a work with “a vast emptiness at its heart,” depending on whom you read. The opera, called “The Perfect American,” which explores the last days in the life of Walt Disney, may not appeal to Disney fans: according to a reviewer of the work’s Madrid debut last January, the creator of Mickey Mouse is depicted as “arrogant, misogynist, racist, tyrannical, mean, ultraconservative, uncultured, hypochondriac and megalomaniac.”

— Classical health benefits: Dutch researchers have found that playing music may reduce your blood pressure and lower your heart rate. In a 2013 study of healthy young adults, those who practiced their instruments (piano, flute, voice, guitar) for 1.8 hours daily showed significant reductions in blood pressure. This was probably due to the musicians’ higher levels of “somatosensory nerve activity,” which “beneficially modulate the autonomic nervous system.”

— Don’t try this at home: A fire-eating stilt walker in last February’s “Die Meistersinger” at Chicago Lyric Opera ran into trouble during a dress rehearsal before an audience of about 1,000. Wesley Daniel, 24, was hospitalized but soon released after his fire-eating trick went awry. Press accounts said he was a stand-in for the original fire-eater, who stepped aside after his mustache got singed.

— Musical gun control: A British group, the Post War Orchestra, made headlines this year by turning weapons of war into musical instruments. So far they have an electric guitar made from two rifle carcasses; six Native American flutes made from Lee Enfield Rifles carcasses; and a lyre made from a World War II steel helmet, field radio antennae, and camouflage fabric. They also have an array of percussive instruments made from ammo boxes, empty shell cases, and steel jeep wheels covered with specially treated camouflage fabric. They’re devoted to making music out of war. Unfortunately, the project failed to make its Kickstarter funding goal, but the group is still actively seeking support.

— Was it the Titanic violin … or not? Experts are still arguing over the claim that surfaced last March, when a violin found seven years ago in an attic in Bridlington, UK, supposedly had proven “beyond a doubt” to belong to Titanic ensemble leader Wallace Hartley and to have been gone to the briny deep with him when the vessel sank. The water-stained violin has been exhaustively analyzed by forensic efforts, and it now is cautiously referred to in press reports as “A violin thought to have been played by the band leader on the Titanic as the vessel sank.” In October, that violin was claimed for $1,454,400 at auction in London.

— And you think you’ve ever been embarrassed before: How’d you like to be tenor Lance Ryan, who was supposed to star in an April production of Wagner’s Siegfried at the highly regarded Berlin Staatsoper, but failed to appear in time for the (unusually early) 4 p.m. start? Someone should have told Siegfried about the early curtain. As it happened, an announcer arrived on stage just before curtain time to declare: “We don’t know where our lead tenor is.” Ryan did appear in time for Act II, after the company had improvised by asking another tenor (Andreas Schager) to sing the first act from the wings while a costumed company member went through the motions. Ach du lieber.

— Oh, those Germans! In a country famous for (let’s say) creative reinterpretations of opera, they may have gone a bridge too far in Düsseldorf, where a Nazi-oriented presentation of Wagner’s “Tannhäuser” distressed some patrons so much that some required medical assistance. In this production, Tannhäuser, dressed in an SS uniform (he is intended by Wagner to be a medieval traveling minstrel) shaves the heads of and executes an entire family by stripping them and shooting them individually in the neck. In one scene, naked performers came onto the stage in smoke-filled gas chambers to kill the character Venus, dressed as an S.S. officer. In another, the character Elisabeth was brutally raped by Tannhäuser’s rival Wolfram and left bloodied and crying on stage. Oddly, we didn’t find any of that in Wagner’s meticulous instructions in the opera’s score.

— And oh, those French! A Paris Opera production of “Aida” in October was loudly booed from start to finish, despite good performances from conductor Philippe Jordan and the orchestra. Director Olivier Py gave operagoers a show they won’t forget: a young man waving the Italian flag was brutalized during the overture, while the rest of the show offered machine guns and tanks, racist demonstrators during the “Triumphal March,” and a trial of Radames by the Ku Klux Klan.

— Too much Dolly Parton:  Evidently you can get thrown off a commercial flight if you refuse to stop singing … especially if you are singing “AY-eee-ay-eee-ayyyy will always love youuuuuuu.” A woman on a May 9 American Airlines flight from Los Angeles to New York was “disruptive” and “refused to stop singing,” and the flight diverted to Kansas City. Her favorite song: “I Will Always Love You,” the Dolly Parton tune made famous by Whitney Houston in the movie “The Bodyguard.” You can bet the other passengers caught this one on video.

— A tough year for street musicians in Atlanta: First it was the violinist. Johnny Arco (stage name for Juan Pablo Chavez), who was doing a little busking in the train station. He spent five days behind bars for “misdemeanor panhandling” and “vending without a permit” for selling CDs. Then a trombonist, Eryk McDaniel, who was playing for patrons entering a Braves stadium in Atlanta as the crowds entered … until he was arrested and cited.

“I was in jail. I’ve never been in jail. What you do? I played trombone,” said McDaniel.

McDaniel says his attorney told him he’s allowed to play on the city’s streets because there’s an exception in the law for musicians, but he’s not allowed to ask for money.

McDaniel says he never said a word, but police said because he had his case out, that was enough for the arrest.

Honestly. Things are a little better in Ocean City (Maryland); read on:

— Violinist William Hassay, Jr., who has played in professional orchestras, was arrested for making “excessive noise” while busking on the Ocean City boardwalk. He went to court and won the right to busk – as well as $21,000 in lost income, plus $105,000 in attorney fees and $11,000 in court costs — for infringement of his freedom of speech rights.

— A “Magic Flute” with Rhinemaidens? No, it was just a nautical misadventure at Austria’s Bregenz Opera last summer, when a boat on a floating stage overturned with some of the “Magic Flute” principals aboard. After a half-hour delay, the singers – soaking but still game – continued the show. The Queen of the Night, Kathryn Lewek, had to be rescued because it was impossible to swim in her costume (three skirts, two layers of bodice, two mic units and a heavy horned helmet).

— Finally, don’t you hate it when a beautiful evening at the Symphony is interrupted by fortissimo coughing and hacking from the audience? So does conductor Michael Tilson Thomas. When his opening concert with the Chicago Symphony playing Mahler’s Ninth was plagued by loud coughing, he came prepared the following night. After the first movement was punctuated by even more coughing, Tilson Thomas went offstage and emerged with large handfuls of cough lozenges, which he tossed underhand into the main floor audience seats – urging audience members to pass them on to those who needed cough drops. The listeners responded with laughter and applause (and a little less coughing).

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