Sunday, July 23, 2017

HUEY 2: Des Moines Symphony

DES MOINES SYMPHONY: "Music in Motion" (Isn't it always?)

Office: The Temple for Performing Arts, 1011 Locust Street, Suite 200, Des Moines, IA 50309
Performance Site: Des Moines Civic Center (capacity 2,744)
Conductor: Joseph Giunta (26th year)

Des Moines Civic Center: who chose the color scheme?
Of course, the best seats are usually in the middle;
Get there early. There is no center aisle.

And the exterior: brutalism at its best?
General: Because of its location the Des Moines Symphony has access to a talented player base, including faculty from Iowa State University and Drake University. Maestro Giunta's programming is conservative, and concert titles make little effort to inspire, e.g. "Invitation to the Dance," "Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake," "Stravinsky's Petrouchka," and the like. Each concert remains in large part the Overture - Concerto - Symphony format or some variation on that theme. The one truly new work is a world premiere by Augusta Reed Thomas, to be offered in March. That said, there will be two Beethoven works (the first piano concerto and the seventh symphony) to "soften the blow."

Regarding highlights, there is not a concert on this series that shouts out, "I just have to go to this show!" Solo works include violin concertos by Bruch (G-minor) and Sibelius, piano concertos by Beethoven (No. 1), Shostakovich (No. 2) and Gershwin (Rhapsody in Blue), as well as the ubiquitous Concierto de Aranjuez (for guitar) by Joaquin Rodrigo. Pops concerts include "The Music of Queen," the New Year's Pops - "The Classic Hits of Motown," and "Leslie Odom, Jr. in Concert."

In more ways than vitriolic politics, our capital city can do much better.

Saturday, July 22, 2017


The Paramount Theatre in Cedar Rapids
Without a doubt, Iowa's most beautiful concert "palace."

In Summer 2011, I began an ongoing series of posts rating the programming of local "regional" orchestras (those within a three-hour drive from the home office in Dubuque, Iowa). Originally, I wrote that,

The "Huey awards" are arbitrary, based on my own criteria which include possible thematic content, the inclusion of both contemporary and American composers, and overall creativity and originality.  The latter would imply programs that step out of the Overture - Concerto - Symphony box.  Also of note is the presentation of works outside the standard repertory.  Why offer yet another performance of Dvorak 7 (or 8 or 9) or Shostakovich 5--regardless of my own love for those works--when there are hundreds of neglected works that may be favored by audiences (and surely the players)?  Do we need yet another performance of Beethoven 5 instead of say, the Bizet Symphonie?  Or what about the Franck--long a staple of the repertoire that now seems to be rarely played?  I could make a long list of neglected works, and that's just the works of the "masters."

And I made short mention of contemporary composers. For the record, my own programming over the past few years has included a concert of female composers (with another to come in 2018) and our Musica Nova, focusing solely on the music of the twenty-first century.

Last year I established criteria for scoring; this year that, to me, got cumbersome. So to change it up (it's my system anyway), discussion of each orchestra will include "highlights" and "lowlights," as well as a look at each ensemble's contributions outside "classical" concerts.

Greg Sandow, composer, teacher, critic, and mensch wrote a November blog post on how not to write a press release. In it, he states,

My Juilliard course this fall is well underway, and its title (slightly shortened for clarity) is “How to Speak and Write About Music.”

We read descriptions of music, by critics and others. We practice describing music I play in class.

And, in the spirit of entrepreneurship, we study press releases, bios, and program notes to see how they’re written. And — you knew this was coming if you’ve read me on these subjects — how they could be written better.

They do a terrible job, so many of them, describing the music they’re trying to sell.

For more, read here.

Much of the same could be said for a lot of the publicity generated by orchestras and other arts organizations. Seasons are often highlighted by a catch phrase that is either esoteric or almost incomprehensible. Others are simply too cute for their own good. It's also interesting to read of so called "alternative facts" on some organizational web sites. But that will be left up to the reader. I'm a notorious fact checker, so it's in my blood. That may be unimportant to others. To each his (or her) own.

What? And miss the great music?

Friday, April 21, 2017



a: a mythological or legendary figure often of divine descent endowed with great strength or ability
b: an illustrious warrior
c: a person admired for achievements and noble qualities
d: one who shows great courage

The word is grossly overused. My all-time favorite running back: Barry Sanders. An extraordinary athlete, but a hero? I think not. Michael Jordan, Muhammed Ali (he called himself the Greatest!), Hank Aaron? Not a hero among them, but Jackie Robinson? He was a hero, putting his life and safety on the line to break the color barrier in Major League Baseball. Yes, these were admirable athletes with amazing abilities, but that's it. To me, that last definition--"shows great courage" sums up what it means to be a hero.

Musical heroes? Hard to think of one except for (possibly) Shostakovich and that's a stretch. Bach, Beethoven, and all the other killer B's? Nah. Other artists as heroes? Writers? Painters? Sculptors? Leonardo was the ultimate Renaissance man, but no hero.

Uh Uh....
Military men and women as heroes? Yes, but it's usually the unsung kind: the grunts in the trenches willing to throw themselves on a live grenade to save their fellow soldiers. But the generals? Usually not, as most are sitting in the background watching the battle unfold before them.

Definitely not...

Many heroes are expressed in music and the journey the Quad City Wind Ensemble takes with its next concert, Heroic Measures. This is music about individuals or groups who made sacrifices for their beliefs or for others around them. In this, the close of my tenth year with the ensemble, I'm hard pressed to think of a more profound and emotionally wrought program.

William Walton, among the great British composers of the 20th century, is very well-known in his homeland for his film music. It is spectacular. His Spitfire Prelude and Fugue was extracted from one of the four film scores that Walton composed in 1942. That film, The First of the Few, chronicles the design of the famous fighter plane and pays homage to the boys who flew them in the Battle of Britain. Their courage inspired Winston Churchill's speech, "Never was so much owed by so many to so few". The Prelude is hailed as one of Walton's greatest marches, and the Fugue is a flurry of notes, eventually combining with elements of the Prelude at its thrilling climax.

Anyone who knows me is aware of my deep love of the music of Mark Camphouse. His 1992 work, A Movement for Rosa, remains one of my favorites. Written in three distinct sections, it expresses significant events in the life of civil rights heroine (yep--she was definitely one). These include her early life following her 1913 birth in Tuskegee, Alabama; the years of racial strife in Montgomery and the quest for social equality, and an almost serene conclusion, broken however with dissonance that reminds us all of the lingering presence of racism. Mr. Camphouse actually sat with Miss Parks at a performance, stating, "the most memorable experience that I've had – as a musician and as an American."

The tale of Siegfried begins before his birth in the second part of Richard Wagner's massive tetralogy, Die Walkure. The third part is based on Siegfried's adult life, while Götterdämmerung is truly the "twilight of the Gods," the climax of the entire story, and the end of at least 15 hours of music(!) The five hour conclusion is a tale of mistaken identities, magic potions, and an accord gold ring, among so much more. Siegfried, the hero who slew the dragon, Fafner, is himself slain by enemies of his family and the Funeral Music ensues. This brief interlude is full of many of the leitmotivs Wagner has constructed as the basis for the entire four-part opera "mini-series," composed over a period of 26 years and first performed in its entirety in August 1876 at the new Festspielhaus in Bayreuth.

Miklos Rozsa: "Parade of the Charioteers," from Ben Hur

Few scenes on film can match the intensity of the chariot race sequence in William Wyler's 1959 epic. The 18-acre arena itself was the largest movie set ever constructed. Planning for the sequence lasted a year and the scene itself took five weeks to shoot. In 2004, the National Film Preservation Board selected Ben-Hur for preservation by the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress for being a "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" motion picture. And the music? Rózsa's score won the Academy Award (his third) and is considered his cinematic masterpiece. While a charioteers' "parade" is not at all historically accurate, who would really have it any other way?

Eric Ewazen: Hymn for the Lost and the Living  Ewazen writes:

On September 11, 2001, I was teaching my music theory class at the Juilliard School, when we were notified of the catastrophe that was occurring several miles south of us in Manhattan. Gathering around a radio in the school’s library, we heard the events unfold in shock and disbelief. Afterwards, walking up Broadway on the sun-filled day, the street was full of silent people, all quickly heading to their homes. During the next several days, our great city became a landscape of empty streets and impromptu, heartbreaking memorials mourning our lost citizens, friends and family. But then on Friday, a few days later, the city seemed to have been transformed. On this evening, walking up Broadway, I saw multitudes of people holding candles, singing songs, and gathering in front of those memorials, paying tribute to the lost, becoming a community of citizens of this city, of this country and of this world, leaning on each other for strength and support. A Hymn for the Lost and the Living portrays those painful days following September 11th, days of supreme sadness. It is intended to be a memorial for those lost souls, gone from this life, but who are forever treasured in our memories.

Artie Shaw: Clarinet Concerto, Ian Aplington, winner of our solo competition

Stephen Melillo has composed more than 1145 works (!), including 33 hours of pieces written for what he calls "Ensembles of the 3rd Millennium." Melillo is counted among the earliest composers for any medium to self-publish his own work; his astute business sense (or a great staff) assures fast delivery. Best of all (to me) is that Steve is a really nice guy, inscribing scores and parts with personalized messages and including "gifts" with any purchase made. David, Stephen's 800th, 4-movement work, has many layers of meaning. True for all of the "storm" works, these layers have been extended to include the use of many new and fresh colours. It is a dramatic work, calling for a boy-soprano or soprano-actress who can depict David, the boy before battle! David is a work about Faith Triumphant! David's faith brings down the insurmountable Goliath. The work is dedicated to Faith and Hope despite the untimely passings of friends and family.

We're mounting a performance that says something; that sends a message, or possibly many of them. It is surely not to be missed.

Saturday, May 13, 2017, 7:30 PM
Galvin Fine Arts Center
St. Ambrose University
Davenport, IA

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

WOW: the joy of youth

Keep true to the dreams of your youth.
~Friedrich Schiller

When we think of Richard Strauss, we are drawn to his early operas: Salome or Elektra, or his many tone poems, Don Juan and Til Eulenspiegel, among them. But none of these were Strauss's "breakthrough" compositions. That was something much briefer and steeped in a language and tradition much different than the direction that his compositional journey would take him.

Strauss was born in Munich (1864), the son of the principal horn player in the Court Orchestra. Like the modern day Vienna Philharmonic, the ensemble performed in both the opera and subscription concerts of the Musical Academy. The Munich Court Orchestra, under the leadership of its esteemed conductor, Hans von Bulow, offered the first performances of both Tristan und Isolde and Die Meistersinger. Richard's father, Franz--possibly the finest horn player of his day--despised anything to do with Wagner. And yet, this "Joachim of the Waldhorn" (as Bulow would call him) never performed anything without his conscientiousness and artistic perfection.

The young Strauss grew up--like Mozart--surrounded by music and showed his preferences for various instruments at an early age: the horn would bring smiles to his face, while he reacted to the violin with tears (maybe it was the player?) His earliest studies included the piano (from age four) and he began learning the violin when he was eight. And yet, he maintained forever his love for dad's instrument and would eventually compose two of the finest concertos for the horn.

He would be grounded in the classics, hearing Der Freischutz and Die Zauberflote when he was only seven. Attending a large number of concerts, he was drawn to the music of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, while he shared his father's intense hatred for Wagner. Of Mozart's music, he would state:

...The abundance of the ideas, the harmonic richness, and yet the sense of proportion, the marvelous, lovely, tender, delightful ideas themselves, the delicate accompaniment. Yet one can't play anything like that anymore! All you get now is drivel; either twittering or brash roaring and crashing or sheer musical nonsense. With Mozart, with few means, says everything a listener could desire to be refreshed and truly entertained and edified, the others use all the means at their disposal to say absolutely nothing.

Strauss's homage to Mozart is demonstrated by his first acknowledged masterpiece, the Serenade, Op. 7. In its instrumentation, it bears distinct resemblance to Mozart's Gran Partita, K. 370a. While basset horns were no longer in fashion, Strauss includes two flutes. The rest is the same: pairs of oboes, clarinets, bassoons, four horns and a single bass instrument (string bass or contrabassoon.) While very little is known of the circumstances surrounding the composition of the Serenade, it was the first Strauss work performed in public. von Bulow, who led that premiere, stated at the time, "The Serenade, Op. 7 by Richard Strauss exhibits the virtuosity of our players in the most brilliant light. I make no qualifications regarding its acceptance." The conductor was more than willing to put his money where his mouth was, for he would perform the Serenade no fewer than seven times over the next two years.

The work is classical in its form, nearly a perfect example of sonata-allegro. Strauss demonstrates some of the orchestrational prowess that would bring him fame (and actually it did with the Serenade). But enough of my talk; here's the piece, performed by members of the Czech Philharmonic. There are lots of recordings to be found through a simple Google search, including a nice job by our own U. S. Marine Band. But for me, I like the earthy sounds of the Central and Eastern Europeans.

Need sublimity in your life? Here goes:

Thursday, February 23, 2017

WOW! It's Carnaval!

Just a few weeks ago, I (and many others) received an email from a colleague in the music business announcing that the Alfred Music Company, one of an increasingly dwindling number of publishers, was going to allow H. Owen Reed's La Fiesta Mexicana to go out of print and become permanently unavailable.


These kinds of business decisions are being made every day. Yes, it's expensive to keep inventory on the shelves. There are definitely advantages to getting things out of the door before the tax man cometh. And Alfred is not alone. Another firm, Hal Leonard, which seems to own practically everything else, is especially egregious. But that's another story for another day. Back to La Fiesta (without mentioning Alfred--at least for a few moments).

The composer, H. Owen Reed, was trained at Louisiana State University, where he received Bachelor's and Master's Degrees in Music AND a B.A. in French! From there, he moved on to the Eastman School, earning a Ph.D. in composition in 1939. Post-graduate studies included work with Roy Harris, Bohuslav Martinu, Aaron Copland, and Leonard Bernstein. That's a pretty decent pedigree.

Reed's earliest masterwork was the result of a Guggenheim Fellowship that took him to Mexico for six months in 1948-49. An immersion into the native music of that country eventually led to La Fiesta Mexicana: A Mexican Folk-Song Symphony. Herein, Reed interweaves aspects of Aztec, Roman Catholic, and mariachi music, often quoting tunes verbatim, into a work of profound depth, imbued with rhythmic invention, and colorful orchestration.

About the first movement, "Prelude and Aztec Dance," Reed tells us:

The tolling of the church bells and the bold noise of fireworks at midnight officially announce the opening of the fiesta (opening pages of the score). Groups of Mexicans from near and far slowly descend upon the huge court surrounding the old cathedral–some on foot, some by burro, and still others on bleeding knees, suffering out of homage to a past miracle.

After a brave effort at gaiety, the celebrators settle down on their serapes to a restless night (No. 1) until the church bells and fireworks again intrude upon the early quiet of the Mexican morn.

At midday, a parade is announced by the blatant blare of trumpets (No. 5). A band is heard in the distance (No. 6). The attention is focused on the Aztec dancers, brilliantly plumed and masked, who dance in an ever-increasing frenzy to a dramatic climax.

II. Mass

The tolling of the bells is now a reminder that the fiesta is, after all, a religious celebration. The rich and poor slowly gather within the walls of the old cathedral for contemplation and worship. The closing of the movement is especially poignant: an offstage horn intones a chant, signaling the final benediction, which is answered by the "congregation" in a final "Amen."

III. Carnival

Mexico is at its best on the days of the fiesta, a day on which passion governs the love, hate and joy of the Mestizo and the Indio. There is entertainment for both young and old–the itinerant circus (first part of the movement), the market, the bull fight, the town band, and always the cantinas with their band of mariachis on the day of days: fiesta.

La Fiesta Mexicana is, with little doubt, among the outstanding musical tributes to that country ever composed, regardless of medium. With great skill, Reed worked to honestly portray the native tunes in their original incarnations (I will admit, that the Quad City Wind Ensemble has played around with the rhythm in one of the mariachi melodies to sound more authentic.)

But what of Alfred Music? With pressure from their customers, they have relented and agreed to continue publishing this great work AND are combing through their holdings to free other outstanding wind pieces from the bondage of the dreaded POP (permanently out of print).

La Fiesta Mexicana is included on this weekend's concert of the Quad City Wind Ensemble ( Along with Moncayo, Marquez, and others, it's going to be great fun! So, in you find yourself in Iowa.....

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

A belated WOW: Reveling in a "Rusty Squeezebox"

I began this post on Mozart's birthday (January 27). Once I had written way too much (my discussion had gotten extremely technical and academic), I trashed it. So here is another try.

"On the page, it looked nothing. The beginning simple, almost comic. Just a pulse. Bassoons and basset horns, like a rusty squeezebox. And then suddenly, high above it, an oboe. A single note, hanging there, unwavering. Until a clarinet took over and sweetened it into a phrase of such delight! This was no composition by a performing monkey! This was a music I'd never heard. Filled with such longing, such unfulfillable longing, it had me trembling. It seemed to me that I was hearing the voice of God."

F. Murray Abraham as Antonio Salieri
Thus begins the first discussion (and the appearance) of Mozart's music in the multiple Academy Award-winning film, Amadeus. The piece? Serenade, K. 371 (370a), better known as the Gran Partita. In seven glorious movements and clocking in at about 50 minutes, it is Mozart's longest purely instrumental composition.

It is part of a wind music tradition dating back centuries, from public tower concerts, known as ablassen, to the court bands maintained by many of the wealthy patrons of the Classical era. Beginning as sextets (pairs of oboes, horns, and bassoons), the introduction of the clarinet established what would become the standard wind octet. Composers would write original music for these Harmoniemusik ensembles, and scores of arrangers would take up the tunes of the popular operas of the day. The sounds of Figaro, Don Giovanni, Magic Flute, and much more filled the streets as well as the opera houses.

But Mozart took the ensemble several steps further, writing for pairs of oboes, clarinets, and basset horns, four horns, two bassoons, and contrabassoon (or contrabass). The sonic possibilities here are much more numerous, and Mozart exploits them to the fullest.

It has been surmised that Mozart wrote the Gran Partita as a wedding gift to Constanze in 1781. However, given that Emperor Joseph II founded his famous wind group in 1782, as well as other contradictory evidence, I posit that it was written sometime between 1783 and 1785. But, in terms of WOW, that is totally unimportant. 

The first movement is in true Sonata-Allegro form, within an amazing introduction. That, in itself, sets the stage for what is to come. Played by a Scottish "band" here it is:

Jumping ahead to the third movement (the "rusty squeezebox"), it is easy to become enraptured by the glorious sounds. The impact of the basset horns is beyond measure; with all of these darker-hued colors, we are awash in richness. Here we are with Sir Neville Mariner and the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields.

There are many joys that await listeners with an hour to spare. And here are some selected recordings.
  • The Vienna Philharmonic Players, Furtwangler (1947)
  • Amadeus Winds, Hogwood
  • London Winds, Michael Collins (2010)
  • Netherlands Wind Ensemble, De Waart (2011)
and many, many more. Check out www.arkivmusic for details.


Wednesday, February 1, 2017

A photo of WOW! Polished gems hidden from sight.

I am currently working on editing a brief study on anti-German sentiments during World War 1. This particularly pertains to musicians and musical organizations. While the travails of the Boston Symphony and its Music Director, Karl Muck, are relatively well known, equally as heinous were events in Chicago (more on that sometime later).

While researching one of the "principals" in the scandal, I came across mention of recitals held in the "Music Hall, Fine Arts Building." The building I know well as the home of the Fine Arts Cafe as well as Bein and Fushi, one of the world's premiere dealers in high-end string instruments. The hall? I'll admit I know practically nothing at all, although the building used to house a low-end triplex for art films and other entertainments.

Renovations have taken place; the triplex is gone, and the original hall--known as the Studebaker Theater--has been restored. Walking down Michigan Avenue (as I have done countless times) you'd never know it was there.

And down the street, around the corner, and across from the Hilton is this splendid palace.

The Merle Reskin Theater of DePaul University
(formerly the Blackstone Theater)
I know that I'll be checking these out the next time I'm in the city. They are full of history and now, returned to their glory.