C1787. CHRISTOPHER KEENE Cond. Syracuse S.O.: Symphonia Domestica (Strauss), Live Performance, 1978; Symphony #10 in F-sharp - Adagietto (Mahler), Live Performance, 1983. (Canada) St Laurent Studio YSL T-1010. Transfers by Yves St Laurent.
“Readers will no doubt be surprised that an unsung American orchestra under a nearly forgotten conductor should attempt anything as ambitious as Strauss’ ‘Symphonia Domestica’. But those facts are what make this disc so intriguing and rewarding. Early on, Christopher Keene began to experience widespread recognition at the Spoleto Festival in Italy where he was music director from 1972 (he was only 26) to 1976; he went on to found the Spoleto Festival USA, which he led from 1977 to 1980. This close connection with Gian Carlo Menotti put him in the same circles where another prominent young American, Thomas Schippers, traveled.
Leonard Bernstein’s spectacular fame was a springboard for rising American conductors in a field dominated by imported Europeans. After achieving admirable success, Schippers died young, of cancer, in 1977 at the age of 47. Keene, who like Bernstein and Schippers was gay, died at 48 of AIDS-related cancer in 1995; he was 48. Where Schippers’s career took him to the Met, the New York Philharmonic, and the Chicago Symphony before he accepted a permanent position with the Cincinnati Symphony, Keene didn’t soar as high. His most visible place was with the New York City Opera as conductor and administrator. Rising to become the company’s general director, he fulfilled his duties up to a month before his tragic death.
The obituary in THE NEW YORK TIMES called him ‘an energetic conductor’, which politely reflects Keene’s mixed reputation. I’ve filled in a few biographical details, given that St. Laurent Studio provides no notes, and the polish and depth of this ‘Symphonia Domestica’ made me wonder. I associated Keene with a level of skill that was erratic and considerably below what is heard here. FANFARE’s Henry Fogel ran the classical-music radio station in Syracuse and had close personal knowledge of the local symphony and Keene’s career. It is Fogel’s opinion that Keene was at his best in Syracuse, owing to a tendency to freeze up in bigger, more prominent locales.
The Strauss calls for highly accomplished playing, and the Syracuse Symphony comes through remarkably well, not for bravura but for characterful soloists and the ability to give Keene such expressive phrasing. The absence of scrambling in the string section pleasantly surprised me. The brass are courageous and strong. Keene was fortunate that the orchestra, founded as a thriving community orchestra of professional musicians in 1961, began under Karl Kritz. (1906–69), a talented Viennese-born conductor who rose to be on the conducting roster of the Metropolitan Opera and who had marked sills at orchestra building.
The felicitous result is a highly enjoyable listen, all the more when you realize that Keene was only 31 when he conducted this ‘Symphonia Domestica’; he was four years into a music directorship that lasted a decade until 1985. The Adagio of the Mahler Tenth is eloquently done and exhibits the same virtues heard in the Strauss. The strings aren’t the full complement of a large symphony orchestra, but they play with finesse and excellent intonation.
Keene’s output on disc was limited, which makes these good-sounding stereo recordings, showing a nice combination of bloom and balance, even more welcome. (Currently Arkivmusic lists Keene only in music by five American composers, of which I knew only Philip Glass, John Corigliano, and David Diamond.) It’s sad to think that the Syracuse Symphony, having reached this high standard, wound up declaring bankruptcy in 2011. Rather than putting it and Keene in the category of ‘What might have been’, I prefer to celebrate them as ‘What actually was’. This release is a valuable legacy of a moment in time that was golden for all concerned.”
- Huntley Dent, FANFARE
“There were few jobs around an opera house that Christopher Keene did not do superlatively well. A magnificent conductor, in particular of 20th-century works, and a successful administrator, he also composed, wrote libretti, directed and, in his younger days, prepared singers with missionary zeal.
At New York City Opera, first as music director then, after the retirement of Beverley Sills, as general director, he made an indelible mark on the city's musical life, but his influence extended far beyond New York City, to the Spoleto Festival, both in Italy and the United States; and to all the numerous other opera companies and orchestras that he worked with over the last 25 years, and to whom he communicated his own passionate interest in contemporary opera. He learnt how to conduct as he went along. Instead of finishing his university course, in 1969 he became the first Julius Rudel Fellow, in the New York City Opera's training scheme, helping to prepare operas such as Janacek's MAKROPULOS CASE for its first New York performance. By that time Keene had already become associated with the Spoleto Festival in Italy, of which he was music director from 1976 to 1980. He was asked by Menotti to conduct THE SAINT OF BLEECKER STREET there in 1968. Back in New York, he made his conducting debut with NYCO in 1970 with Ginastera's DON RODRIGO and his Metropolitan debut the following year with CAVALLERIA RUSTICANA and PAGLIACCI. He then ran a summer festival at Chautauqua and conducted for Syracuse Opera and various other organisations.
In 1973 he made his Covent Garden debut conducting MADAMA BUTTERFLY; in 1974 he conducted a RING cycle at Artpark, Lewiston; and from 1977 to 1980 he worked for the American Spoleto Festival at Charleston, South Carolina. He wrote the libretto for Stephen Douglas Burton's THE DUCHESS OF MALFI, an adaptation of Webster's tragedy, and conducted the premiere at Wolf Trap Farm, Vienna, West Virginia, in 1978.
Keene finally returned to the City Opera as musical director in 1983. He conducted Philip Glass' AKHNATEN the following year, and recorded Glass' SATYAGRAHA with the City Opera forces in 1985. In 1988 he conducted the premiere of Jay Reise's RASPUTIN. The following year he became general director of the company. Since then NYCO has gained enormously in reputation, offering New York its first staged performance of MOSES UND ARON and its local premieres of Zimmerman's DIE SOLDATAN and Busoni's DR FAUSTUS.
During its 50th anniversary season in 1993 the City Opera staged three premieres of American operas in October: Ezra Laderman's MARILYN, Lukas Foss' GRIFFELKIN and Hugo Weisgall's ESTHER. These were not conducted by Keene himself, whose personal contribution to the anniversary season was the New York premiere of Tippett's MIDSUMMER MARRIAGE. In June 1994 Keene conducted the premiere of Dominick Argento's DREAM OF VALENTINO for Washington Opera and in May was to be found in Berlin, conducting the first performance of Joost Meier's DREYFUS – ‘DIE AFFARE’ at the Deutsche Oper.
However, his first commitment was to the City Opera, whose 1995 fall season he opened on 7 September conducting a new production of Hindemith's MATHIS DER MALER. Running an opera company, as he once said, ‘was what I was born to do’.”
- Elizabeth Forbes, THE INDEPENDENT, 12 Oct., 1995