Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Boom-boom pow?

They do rock concerts now?
....So goes the headline in Monday's Des Moines Register announcing the upcoming season (its 75th by the way) of that city's Symphony.  The blog's author, Michael Morain, is listed as an "arts reporter" but, judging by the content of several of his reviews, my suspicion is that his training may be in the "perspiring arts."

Boom-boom pow.  What the hell does that mean?  Executive Director Richard Early mentions that, “We haven’t had a season with so many blockbusters for some time."  OK, I might buy that (depending on the definition of "blockbuster") but where is the book-boom pow?

Here's the season line-up for 2012-13:

September:  Scheherazade and "Nomade"
  Korngold:  Overture to Captain Blood
  Wagner:  Preludes to Act I and II, Lohengrin
  Steve Heitzig:  World Premiere
  Rimsky-Korsakov:  Sheherazade

I'm all for trotting out some "real" film music; Korngold isn't heard enough--anywhere.  But who/what the hell (I seem to be using that word a great deal) is "Nomade" (and I've tried to look it up!)

October:  Symphonie Fantastique
  Dukas:  Sorcerer's Apprentice
  Bruch:  Violin Concerto No. 1
  Berlioz:  Symphonie Fantastique

Well, this one will succeed in putting butts in the seats, but what's new?  Program notes will undoubtedly refer to Mickey Mouse, Fantasia, and a general rehashing of the Berlioz's opiate-induced program for S F.

December: Liszt and the Italian
  Humperdinck:  Music from Hansel and Gretel
  Liszt:  Piano Concerto No. 2
  Mendelssohn:  Symphony No. 3, Italian
  Liszt:  Piano Concerto No. 1

The only thing that I could imagine that's worse than a program including one Liszt concerto would be this one.  I'm trying to figure out the logical connection between the concertos and the other pieces.  Quite frankly, I'm baffled.

February:  Nadja Plays Mendelssohn
  Wagner:  Music from Die Meistersinger
  Mendelssohn:  Violin Concerto
  Franck:  Symphonie in d-minor

They really need to send out more Wagner?  And Nadja (as in Solerno-Sonnenburg) has long-championed the Barber concerto.  Granted, this is the dead of winter in Iowa and the "snow birds" have yet to return so this is a sure-fire winner.  (Personally, the Franck is an underperformed masterwork, probably because--at the one--it was an over-performed masterwork.)

March:  Beyond the Score--Tchaikovsky 4
  You got it: one piece.

Apparently the Des Moines band is working "in cooperation with the Chicago Symphony."  I don't know what that means other than the CSO is coming up with the creative material and the DMSO is copying it?  Oh well, another barn-burner....

April:  Carmina Burana--Celebrating All things Drake
  Brahms:  Academic Festival Overture
  Krommer:  Concerto for Two Clarinets
  Orff:  Carmina Burana

Maybe this is the boom-boom.  If you've heard Carmina Burana once (or had the "pleasure" of singing it) you've gotten everything you're ever going to get out of this bombast.  I just tire of constant retreading of three-strophe poems (with no change in orchestration or texture).  Snore.  And again, how does Brahms or poor Franz Krommer fit with this?  I'm sorry; I hate concerts that don't make sense.  This one was drawn from a hat.

May:  Grieg Piano Concerto and Mahler 5

Guess what's on this program?  Well, Finlandia has been tossed into the mix to make for a Scandinavian first course followed by a lone Teutonic entree.  I would have striven to put together a less nonsensical program and thrown a Sibelius symphony on the second half.  Of course, Mahler 5 is hard; Finlandia is not (I've performed it with youth orchestras).  Could be a challenge to pull it all off.

They've even put together a season video on YouTube.  Listen and weep:

And, lest I forget, there are also:

Yankee Doodle Pops, on the State Capitol grounds

New Year's Eve Pops, Music of the Beatles (and they have what to do with New Year's?

Here's a piece from the maestro's biography: "Guinta has the the Music Director of the Des Moines Symphony for twenty-three years and is currently riding the crest of the most successful era in the Orchestra's rich history.  He has transformed the Orchestra into one of the finest regional orchestras in America."

Nowhere does it mention his 17-year stint "up the road" as MD of the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Symphony, an orchestra that practically worshiped the guy and went through several searches and at least three failed directorships to replace him.  They're deserving of much better...
I must be in an Andy Rooney kind of mood.  And I still have no clue was boom-boom pow means...



Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Conducting is conducting

Carlo Maria Guilini
The evening before my most recent Wind Ensemble concert I decided to attend someone else's performance--something I certainly do not get enough opportunities to do.  I usually have to plan days or weeks ahead and then hope that I still have to energy to "go out" after a busy week.

This happened to be a "conglomeration" kind of ensemble consisting of members from five different educational institutions.  Hence there were five different conductors (and, at times--I thought--five different ensembles).  The repertoire was made up mostly of respectable high school literature, with the most difficult work(s) in the easy to mid grade four range.  Each of the five conductors led two works and the concert clocked in at just about one hour, a good timing given the venue (a gymnasium of course!)

What struck me most of all (except for a personal comment I will choose not to mention) were the remarks offered by one of the conductors.  He referred to himself as an "orch dork" meaning that he considered himself cut more from the orchestral cloth.  He also indicated that he had begun as a "band geek" so he really wasn't that uncomfortable.

First of all, these kinds of comments are patronizing: to both the audience and to the players in front of him.  Whether intentional or not, it appeared as though he was "lowering himself" to the level of wind band conducting, implying that there is something "special" about leading an orchestra.  Frankly, there is something special about leading any kind of musical ensemble, be it a small church choir or the New York Philharmonic.  Everyone is gathered for the same purpose: to make great music together.  Let's face it, the only difference between a middle school orchestra and the Chicago Symphony is lots and lots of practice and a much better performing venue.

And the difference between conducting a middle school orchestra and the CSO?  If the conductor is a true musical communicator--nothing.  Personally I conduct choirs, bands, and orchestras pretty much the same way.  I have the same exacting standards on every group that I have the pleasure of leading.  The only difference is the age and abilities of the players and the repertoire placed before them--which should be reflective of their age and ability. 

The BIG I use a baton?  Yep, with every ensemble.  I firmly believe that most conductors who choose not to are uncomfortable with our "instrument" or are too lazy to adapt their "technique" to its use.  Some conductors (many from the choral side) insist that they cannot achieve the kind of legato and lyrical line they desire with a baton.  In my mind, they have not spent enough time trying to do so.  There is an idea going around that it takes 10,000 hours to fully master a skill.  It probably does take at least that long to become a conductor, but I insist that much of that time involves mental preparation and score study.  The technique?  It is, more or less, an outgrowth of that mental preparation and developing salient gestures to communicate your ideas (i.e. "interpretation" although I hate that term) without the use of words.

It's about becoming comfortable in your shoes (or the body that God has given you).  At times I have been jealous of fellow conductors who are tall in stature.  But I have been taught by at least one of them that the tall conductor must always work to look graceful, lest his/her presence look cumbersome from both sides of the podium.

There is a specific method and "way" of conducting, regardless of the medium.  It's called conducting.

The natural

Danny Kaye w/the St. Louis Symphony, 1965
On these pages I have chronicled "the greats" in composition, conducting, singing, etc.  It was several months ago now that I finally agreed with the prevailing wisdom that Carlos Kleiber was the greatest conductor of all time.  While he allegedly led fewer symphonic performances in a lifetime than Gergiev does in half a year (something like 88), his innate ability to make such effortless music has much to be admired.  The fact that he was a frequent return visitor to the Vienna Philharmonic (whose players are responsible for selecting conductors) certainly says a great deal.

While knocking Kleiber on other grounds, Norman Lebrecht has this to say of Kleiber's abilities:  "Kleiber had a knack for striking a tempo that felt ‘just right’, nowhere more so than in the Beethoven Fifth Symphony where, in a Vienna Philharmonic recording for Deutsche Grammophon in 1975, he struck a perfect balance of the ominous and the numinous. Remarkably, he did so at a metronome marking that was just eight points off the head-over-heels 108 which the composer had erratically inscribed in his score, a lickety-split misguidance that commonly dashes literalist interpreters onto the rocks of musical ridicule. In a century of symphonic recording, only Toscanini, Giulini and Kleiber have ever got away so fast in the Fifth. Of the three, Kleiber sounds measurably the most relaxed and correct."

Here is a fine example of Kleiber's art.

I am the first to admit--or insist--that the "art" of conducting must be natural.  The successful conductor cannot put on airs in his/her technique.  Many are the conductors who appear to be leading an inner "recording," almost completely devoid of a connection with the ensemble.  Here the "maestro" leaves it up to the players to make the performance occur.  If one reads Donald Peck's (former principal flute with the Chicago Symphony) fine book, The Right Place, The Right Time, you will discover stories of famous conductors actually "learning" their music on the podium.

As for a totally natural conductor who perfectly communicates the intent of the music, I offer this, as well as this, and here, where he succeeds in poking fun at members of our conducting profession as well as the conventions therein.

Here's a link to the whole show.  Compare Mr. Kaye's performance to that of then-NPO conductor Zubin Mehta.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Friday morning with Bach and my tax returns

Happy birthday, Fred!
While it is the birthday of the great Czech nationalist, Bedrich Smetana (1824-1884), I have actually spent most of my morning with J.S. Bach.  Last evening, Barney Sherman, morning host on Iowa Public Radio, promised listeners his "favorite Goldberg's."  As it turned out I got and early warning and found out that we'd all be offered a performance recorded live in Basel in 2001 by Andras Schiff.  It did not surprise me to discover that Schiff is Hungarian-born (yet another great artist from that tiny country!)

Here's a bit of a Schiff performance discovered on YouTube..

Andras Schiff
Honestly I have never listened to the Goldberg's in their entirety.  But, as I took the morning to e-file my tax returns, I used Bach as my background music.  It was, I must admit, extremely difficult paying close attention to my work with such astonishing music (and a superb performance) playing at me on the computer.

The British music critic, Conrad Wilson, has written of the work:

The ear is constantly misled by the fact that, as one astute commentator has observed, the canons tend to sound like variations and the variations like canons.  What hardly any of them ever sounds like is the serene, sweet-toned, gravely dancing sarabande performed at the start, upon whose unhurried strains the entire work is based.  These, it soon becomes apparent, are not variations in the Mozart manner, whereby a them is exquisitely decorated but remains for the most part easily recognisable [sic] What Bach, by a method familiar to jazz-lovers, here prefers to do is to employ the bass notes of the theme as the source of his inspiration rather than the theme itself.  The result, far from being tuneless, is a cornucopian outpouring of melody.

For this reason, people today are perfectly content to sit back and let the music was over them.

Yes, I feel suitable cleansed.

Thank you, Barney.  Thank you, Mr. Schiff.  And thanks especially to Mr. Bach.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

MEASURING UP (part three)

On August 25, immediately after denigrating many of my conductor colleagues, I decided to at least ponder a critique of my own programing.  Therein I wrote:

It only seems appropriate that I put my own programming to the is generally agreed that the modern wind band lacks the depth of the repertoire when compared to the symphony orchestra....
Whereas the literature of the concert band/wind ensemble is less broad than its orchestral counterpart, it is probably as deep due to the outgrowth of activity in [both the artistic and] educational realms and the many contemporary composers (starting particularly in the 1950s) who have deemed that the wind band is a legitimate medium for important composition.  This is a worldwide phenomenon, with compositions spanning the globe.  Always important for its many different schools of march compositions, serious works are constantly coming from Europe, particularly the low countries.  The far east, and particularly Japan, is increasing in productivity, where composers are creating exciting and challenging works for the outstanding youth wind groups of that country.  And, of course, the amount of wind music produced in the United States--in difficulty levels from very easy to vastly challenging--is definitely unsurpassed.

Thus, the wind conductor must be cognizant of his/her repertoire; there is no room for "early music specialists" or contemporary ensembles:  the wind conductor has to know it all.  Many in the field are constantly searching for the newest works, sort of a backlash to the "old days" in which much of the band's programming relied on transcriptions of orchestral works.  It is no more viable to play only original works for band as it is to totally ignore transcriptions, marches, etc.  The repertoire is both deep and eclectic, and our programming must recognize this.

For the complete post, see here. 

Of course I am pondering this closely on the heels of what was a highly successful performance of the Quad City Wind Ensemble.  As luck(?) would have it, one of the works I programed never arrived from our vendor so I had to insert a different piece in its place.  The work I selected, Francis McBeth's Kaddish, ended up resulting in a change of my thematic focus; what was "A Sweet Serenade" became simply "Journeys."  It took the focus from the potentially cheesy to the profound and resulted in a program that I feared might be too esoteric for our sometimes conservative audience.  I have to be scorned for shortchanging our supporters' sensibilities for the concert was received as well as any we have offered.

But I must stay on task.  For our closing performance I have chosen my own tried and true theme: Songs and Dances.  While this is not at all the first time I have used this theme, all of the music we will play is new to my own repertoire (save for one piece on which I played percussion last summer).  So I believe it safe to say that I am offering myself as much of a challenge as the performers.

We will open with "The Huntresses" from Leo Delibes (1836-1891) ballet, Sylvia, in an arrangement by William A. Schaefer.  The work premiered in 1876 in Paris and did not achieve immediate fame; it was not until a 1952 revival by the Royal Ballet that it earned a place in the repertory.  Mr. Schaefer is a master transcriber and his version captures much of the excitement of the orchestral original.

Percy Grainger
We move immediately from the dance to the song, and what a beautiful song it is!  Australia-born Percy Grainger (1882-1961) spent a significant part of his 20s collecting and transcribing English folk songs.  Many of these would find their way into his many compositions for wind band (as well as chorus and orchestra), but his gorgeous Colonial Song is an original work, written first for piano in 1911 and later transcribed by the composer for "military" (as opposed to brass) band in 1921.  Of the work, Grainger wrote that it was “an attempt to write a melody as typical of the Australian countryside as Stephen Foster's exquisite songs are typical of rural America.”  While the venerable Sir Thomas Beecham would state upon first hearing, “My dear Grainger, you have achieved the almost impossible! You have written the worst piece of modern times," the haunting melody would become part of the basic band repertoire by the 1980s.

Philip Sparke
Four Dance Movements by the British composer Philip Sparke (b. 1951) fill out the bulk of the first half of the program.  This 1995 work was commissioned by the U.S. Air Force Band and obviously has a slew of notes!  The movements, played without pause are I. Ritmico, II. Molto vivo (for the woodwinds), III. Lento (for the brass), and IV. Molto ritmico.  Of the work, Sparke writes, "The four movements are all dance-inspired, although no specific dance rhythms are used. The first has a Latin American feel and uses xylophone, cabasa, tambourine and wood block to give local colour. The second woodwind movement uses a tune that had been plaguing me for some time and is, I suppose, in the style of an English country dance. The brass movement was composed without a specific dance analogy, but I think it can been seen as a love duet in classical ballet. The fourth and longest movement has, I hope, cured me of a ten-year fascination, almost obsession, with the music of Leonard Bernstein and I will readily admit that it owes its existence to the fantastic dance music in West Side Story."

John Philip Sousa probably wrote no more tuneful a march than The Fairest of the Fair, composed for the Boston Food Fair in 1908.  Enough said. 

David Holsinger
The second half of the program consists entirely of music of the America's, beginning with David Holsinger's (b. 1945) Liturgical DancesThis work was commissioned in 1981 by Beta Mu Chapter of Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia to honor the chapter's 75th anniversary at Central Methodist College. Unlike many of Holsinger's other works, Liturgical Dances is not programmatic, but rather a reflection of the composer's memories of his student days as a brother in Beta Mu. The music is both poignant and exuberant, "classic" and "modern", rambunctious and reflective. It pays tribute to Men of Music, not only for their dedication to a vocation, but also for their passion to the medium. The composer's tribute is probably best summed up in the subtitle, "Benedicamus Socii Domino" - Let us all, as companions, praise the Lord!

Eric Ewazen
Eric Ewazen (b. 1954) has been a member of the faculty at the Julliard School since 1980 (not a bad gig to get when you are 26!)  Ewazen reflects on the catastrophic events leading to the composition of Hymn for the Lost and the Living"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."

Arturo Marquez
The program will include a guest soloist (to be determined) but the program concludes as we began--with a dance, albeit a riotously different one, the 1994 Danzon No. 2 by Mexican composer Arturo Marquez (b. 1950).  This incredibly popular work is often called (along with Moncayo's Huapango) the second national anthem of Mexico.  It has become even more well-known thanks to the amazing Simon Bolivar Orchestra of Venezuela, which included it on their 2007 European tour.  Yes, I'll readily admit it--I stole this one from the repertory of "The Dude," Gustavo Dudamel of the L.A. Philharmonic.

So, how do I stack up? Our repertoire for this concert is international, with works from France, Great Britain, and Mexico.  A large portion of the program is American.  In all, the program covers historical perspective and styles dating from 1876 to 2001.  In all honesty, I'll have to say, not bad; not bad at all....  

The Dude--if only I had his hair!