March 1, 2012

America's television opera composer

Today would have been the 101st birthday of the composer Gian Carlo Menotti, one of the major figures in the early days of television. Menotti is probably best known for Amahl and the Night Visitors, the first opera commissioned and composed for television, but there were other television milestones: his 1939 opera The Old Maid and the Thief (written for NBC radio) was the first production of NBC Opera Theatre in 1949, The Medium (1946) was the third broadcast on CBS's Studio One in 1949, a second NBC commission, Labyrinth, was broadcast in 1963, and Martin's Lie (1964) made its American debut on CBS in 1965.  Other of his operas, including his Pulitzer-Prize winner The Saint of Bleecker Street (1954) and Maria Golovin (1958) were presented through the years on NBC Opera broadcasts.

But there’s another TV link that I wanted to focus on today. It's from 1952, when Menotti took a break from opera writing to answer a commission for a violin concerto from the director of the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia.  The work made its debut in December of that year, after which Menotti went back to his operas.  I listened to it earlier today; it's an interesting piece; although it doesn't really have what I'd call the distinctive Menotti sound (it actually reminds me in many ways of Erich Korngold, who not coincidentally did a lot of movie music as well as writing operas), I could hear the playfulness of the Shepherd's Dance from Amahl in the final movement.

Oh, and the TV tie-in?  Well, the director of the Curtis Institute, the man who commissioned the Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, was none other than Efrem Zimbalist.  No, not Efrem Zimbalist Jr., the star of 77 Sunset Strip and The FBI, but Efrem Zimbalist Sr., who in addition to his job at the Curtis was one of the world's great concert violinists.  Talent ran in that family; Zimbalist Jr's mother was the famous soprano Alma Gluck,

Here's a movement from the Concerto for Violin and Orchestra:


A well as a clip from Amahl:


And, for good measure, the opening to The FBI:


And now, as Paul Harvey would say, you know the rest of the story.

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