C1874. CHRISTOPHER KEENE Cond. Syracuse S.O.: Images pour orchestre (Debussy), Live Performance, 16 & 17 Dec., 1977; Symphony #7 in d (Dvorák), Live Performance, 15 Jan., 1977 (both Mulroy Civic Center, Syracuse, NY). (Canada) St Laurent Studio YSL T-1091. Transfers by Yves St Laurent.
“St. Laurent Studio’s series of releases devoted to conductor Christopher Keene has revealed a gifted artist who sometimes surpassed himself. But to reach that point in my appreciation, it has taken ten installments, of which this is Vol. 9, to grasp what American music lost in 1995 upon Keene’s premature death, at age 48. In retrospect, as one impressive concert after another with the Syracuse Symphony has emerged from private sources, he should be recognized as a tragic loss to the AIDS plague.
It isn’t only world-class orchestras that have a golden period. The Syracuse Symphony, which was entirely professional, enjoyed a time of remarkable music-making during Keene’s tenure as music director from 1975 to 1984. Two years in, he led this wonderful performance of Dvorák’s Seventh Symphony. It affords a perfect example of the occasions when the conductor surpassed himself.
What stands out is the personal bond between conductor and score. Freely using Romantic rubato, Keene shapes the music from a profound depth of feeling. To demonstrate that this isn’t an exaggeration, the slow movement provides a continuous lyrical flow of melody shaped as few other have been able to - you can’t help but feel that the spirit of Bruno Walter is smiling down. There is warmth, heartfelt playing, and a sense of passion in this movement. Taken more slowly than usual, the Scherzo succeeds on the basis of a secure rhythmic pulse. The finale, despite some scruffy passages, is exuberantly dramatic. One can point to felicities throughout, but what’s important is simply stated: You can’t tear your attention away for a moment. The recorded sound is very good FM stereo, expertly remastered by producer Yves St. Laurent.
The recorded sound is even clearer and more vivid for the Debussy IBÉRIA performed earlier that year. The piece has always been the popular favorite in the IMAGES FOR ORCHESTRA, and Keene, true to his musical inclinations, emphasizes the Romantic side of these sketches from Spain. For a generation of Spanish composers who gained fame in the twentieth century, principally Albéniz, Falla, Granados, and Turina, Paris was a musical beacon, and there was reciprocity in the fervor that French composers had for inventing their own imaginary Spain, although Ravel could also claim a family link through his Basque-Spanish mother.
In the first movement, ‘Par les rues et par les Chemins’ (Along the streets and along the paths), Keene conveys the vibrancy of Spanish dance with instinctive sureness, and the orchestral colors at the center of Debussy’s sound world emerge vividly. I am completely in favor of a visceral treatment like this one that avoids sounding gauzily Impressionist. If anything, some listeners might think the energy level is too brash, particularly at the outset, but how often can you call a Debussy performance soul-stirring?
An atmosphere of sultry gardens permeates the second movement, ‘Les parfums de la nuit’ (The scents of the night), and Keene is completely at home with the shift in mood to the sultrily exotic. The orchestra has a lovely capacity to execute a range of dynamics at the softer level without losing tone. In music that often seems to vanish into the night air, this reading is grounded in just the right proportion to keep the lyrical line alive at every moment.
A troop of guitarists marching through the streets is the picture painted in the third movement, ‘Le matin d'un jour de fête’ (The morning of a festive day). The impression of a processional approaching from a distance is common to the ‘Fêtes’ movement in Debussy’s NOCTURNES and Albéniz’s ‘Corpus Christi en Sevilla’ from Book II of IBÉRIA. Keene’s reading is particularly jubilant, but the whole performance is imbued with the joy of music-making.
I won’t pretend that the Syracuse Symphony rivals the Berlin Philharmonic under James Levine in the most virtuosic reading of the complete IMAGES that I know. But I’ve grown to respect them enormously as the Keene Edition has unfolded. The musicians knew that they were performing at a special time under a conductor of equally special gifts. This release is one of the ‘must-listens’ in the series. Strongly recommended.”
- 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