Saturday, April 28, 2012

Two conductors; two tempi

A few weeks ago, during one of my many sojourns to the Quad Cities, I happened to catch the final two movements of Mozart's G-minor symphony.  At the conclusion, the announcer mentioned the ensemble and the conductor in a "well-mannered" performance.  So I have now learned that "well-mannered" means slow--dreadfully slow.  Interestingly enough, one of my mentors at UW-Madison, in a performance of the same work, took "all of the repeats," including those in the minuet and trio.  I was thinking that it would prove to be dreadfully long; it wasn't--in fact, it made a lot of sense.  Long story short, the well-mannered performance was dreadful (and presented by a major conductor--let's call him "A"--and orchestra).

Fast forward a couple of weeks to an evening performance on public radio which included the Schubert "Great" C-Major Symphony (I'll avoid the "number" because of all the evidence that seems to prove that it is number 8, even though everyone calls it number 9).  Conductor "B" began the stately horn theme in what seemed to be a brisk tempo, BUT there was no accelerando into the "dotted" theme.  So many conductors "interpret" in the latter that actually performing what Schubert wrote seems wrong.

Same lesson from Conductor "C," having heard performances of the opening of the Holst E-flat suite taken too slowly and then speeding up with the woodwind entrance.  Wrong, wrong, wrong--it's the same tempo throughout:  he wrote allegro moderato (I'm thinking--my score is not in front of me).  Thus, just like Schubert: one must take the opening faster than one thinks is "right" in order to maintain Holst's intentions.  It's as simple as that.

As for Mozart, he once said something to the effect that good musicians will be able to figure out the right speed for his work.  As another mentor once said, "if it seems right, it is."  I have to hope that I am never accused of a "well-mannered" Mozart performance.

UPDATE:  On further reflection, I was thinking of an on-air discussion I had yesterday with Barney Sherman of IPR.  We were talking about a recording we were about to play featuring Eugene Corporon and the amazing North Texas Wind Symphony.  Asking if I knew the conductor and his work, Barney's question took me back over 20 years to a conducting symposium at the University of Northern Iowa.  I had just conducted what I thought was a sumptuous reading of Grainger's Irish Tune from County Derry.  The playing and the expression were both astonishing and I was on cloud nine at the conclusion.  No problem, right? was "well-mannered," i.e. it was so slow that the tune didn't sing.  Lesson learned; if anything, people now tell me I take it on the fast side.  Of course, even without a text, it needs to sing!

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Slow news week in the heartland


I am appearing this evening on Quad Cities public television WQPT at 6:30 p.m.  Their program is entitled "The Cities."  Talking with host Jim Mertens about the upcoming QCWE concert, we taped on Tuesday afternoon--I think I'm the "fluff" piece.

Tomorrow (Friday) I'll be reaching out to a much wider audience, chatting with Barney Sherman on Iowa Public Radio Classical at 10:15 p.m.  We'll also be talking about the concert (which will be delayed-broadcast across the state in the next couple of weeks) as well as other issues related to bands and band music--especially in Iowa.

I suspect that I may be preaching to the choir. 

Saturday, April 21, 2012

We now have a conducting "Hall of Fame"

On April 5, Gramophone magazine announced on its website the winners of its first annual "Hall of Fame" for classical musicians.  The criteria seems slim at best:  "Each spring we will admit new honourees – artists, producers, engineers and record executives – as voted for by Gramophone’s readers and visitors to its website. An initial list was drawn up (it was not comprehensive and all the omissions and suggestions have been notes for the next wave of voting) and voting took place over the past few months."  The categories include conductors, singers, pianists, string/brass players (sorry woodwinds), and ensembles.

It would be quite easy to challenge many of the choices in each category (although I was overjoyed to see Jussi Bjorling appear among the singers!), my focus is--of course--on the conductors, which includes a number of the "usual suspects."  They are (in alphabetical order):

Claudio Abbado
Sir John Barbirolli
Daniel Barenboim
Thomas Beecham
Leonard Bernstein
Pierre Boulez
Wilhelm Furtwangler
John Eliot Gardner
Nikolaus Harnoncourt
Herbert von Karajan
Carlos Kleiber
Otto Klemperer
Sir Simon Rattle
Sir Georg Solti
Arturo Toscanini

Surprise!  I disagree with some of the inclusions (and there may be a surprise or two among my own choices--or non-choices, as the case may be).  The list is obviously Eurocentric, consisting of only one American and few that have held major positions on this "side of the pond."  And while I may strongly disagree with von Karajan's politics, there is no discounting his contribution to the body of recorded classical music (setting aside his immense ego, of course).

That being said, it is difficult for me to include Barenboim amid this list of giants.  Again, my feelings here must be jaded by his personal decisions--namely abandoning his wife, Jacqueline du Pre, after her diagnosis of multiple sclerosis.  BUT--musically speaking--I did hear a number of his performances with the CSO and there were just too many times when he was just going through the motions.  And programing?  Don't get me going...Even the players will note that the "Danny" that they ended up hiring was not the same guy that had appeared so often as a guest (read Donald Peck).

Is Boulez listed because of his work as a conductor or a composer?  That is difficult to state as he was a major musical figure (as composer, not conductor) when I was an undergraduate, over 30 years ago.  As for Rattle, should he be listed in this Pantheon?  One has to truly wonder how his efforts will withstand the test of time.

As for those who are grievously missing, we must include Szell (how did he not make the first cut?), Stokowski (say all you may, but he brought classical music into the 20th century mainstream, probably at a time when needed most), and Walter.  And I've hardly waded into the deep pool of the great Hungarians of whom I have previously noted.

This is the problem with "lists".  For as many artists as appear upon them, there will be countless dissenting opinions as to who should be included.  Maybe that's just what makes the whole exercise just that much more interesting.

For the complete Hall of Fame, read here, and don't get me going on the pianists...

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

QCWE 26th Season: a conclusion

The Quad City Wind Ensemble finishes its 26th season on Sunday, April 29 at 3:00 p.m. in Allaert Auditorium on the campus of St. Ambrose University.  This is, without doubt, the most challenging program that we have prepared in my five years as music director.  Program notes are included below:

Leo Delibes
Even though he earned the praise of Tchaikovsky, speaking of him more favorably than Brahms, Leo Delibes (1836-1891) is known today for a handful of works:  his penultimate opera, Lakme, and two ballet scores, Coppelia and Sylvia.  It was the latter work that Tchaikovsky would write, ". . . what charm, what wealth of melody! It brought me to shame, for had I known of this music, I would have never written Swan Lake."  Delibes use of almost Wagnerian leitmotivs throughout the score, combined with his prodigious use of the brass instruments, would make this score among the most unique (and possibly troubled) of its time.
William J. Schaefer’s excerpt from the score includes the a small portion of the Prelude and the entirety of “Les Chasseresses” (The Huntresses), scored with a blaze of brass (particularly the horns), truly reminiscent of Delibes’ original score.

 A son of Australia, Percy Aldridge Grainger (1882-1961) remains today one of the most significant (as well as novel) composers for the wind band. Although his contributions include significant numbers for piano and voice as well as the orchestra, it is in the “band world” where he has achieved his lifelong acceptance.  A highly accomplished pianist, he was held in highest regard for his interpretation of the Piano Concerto of Edvard Grieg, with whom he prepared the work shortly before the composer’s death in 1907.
Originally written for the piano as a birthday gift to his bellowed mother in 1911, Grainger said of the piece 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.”  He subsequently scored the work for two voices, harp, and string orchestra; violin, cello and piano; theater orchestra, small orchestra and this 1918 version for wind band.  The tune would also appear in other Grainger compositions, including his Gumsucker’s March.
Colonial Song did not originally receive critical acclaim; in fact, Thomas Beecham wrote in 1914, "My dear Grainger, you have achieved the almost impossible! You have written the worst piece of modern times.”  It may be that this commentary led Grainger to rework the score for band following World War I and a significant part of the band’s basic repertory was born.

Philip Sparke (b. 1951) wrote Dance Movements on a commission from the United States Air Force Band and was first performed by that ensemble at the Florida Music Educators Association Convention in January 1996.  It subsequently won the 1997 Sudlow International Wind Band Composition Competition.  Of the work, the composer writes:
The four movements (played without a break) 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 theme 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 specific dance analogy, but I think it can be 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.


Nothing is truly known of the impetus for The Fairest of the Fair.  Composed for the Boston Food Fair of 1908 (and the only march that Sousa would write that year), it is said that he was inspired by a pretty girl he had seen at an earlier fair, the date and location of which remain a mystery.  Still, it remains one of the Sousa’s most “fair” compositions, full of life, verve, and particular tunefulness.


David Holsinger
David Holsinger’s (b. 1945) musical path began with fifteen years of service as music minister, worship leader, and composer in residence to Shady Grove Church in Grand Prairie, Texas.  In 1999, he joined the music faculty at Lee University, Cleveland, Tennessee, where he is the Conductor of the Lee University Wind Ensemble and teaches conducting and composition.  (His biography also notes that he is an avid model railroader!)
Holsinger has written hundreds of works, primarily for the wind band and is one of our most widely performed composers.  His primary publisher, TRN, notes of his style: “Much of Holsinger's music is characterized by unrelenting tempos, ebullient rhythms, fluctuating accents….poly-lineal textures, vigorous asymmetrical melodies, and high emotional impact. His adagio works are as intransigently passionate as his allegros are exuberant!”
Commissioned by the Beta Nu chapter of Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia (Central Methodist College, Fayette, Missouri) in 1984, Liturgical Dances bears the subtitle, “Benedicamus Socii Domino” (Let us all, as companions, praise the Lord.)  Rather than an established programmatic nature—like many of his other works—this piece is, in Holsinger’s own words, “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.”

Eric Ewazen
A member of the faculty of the Julliard School since 1980, Eric Ewazen was teaching a music theory class several miles uptown from the area that would forever be known as “Ground Zero.”  The event that would eternally alter our nation’s consciousness and even innocence dramatically changed the lives and livelihood of America’s largest city, as an almost deafening silence engulfed the streets of New York.  But then, “a few days later,” writes Ewazen:
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 citizen 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 11, 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.

Charles Tomlinson Griffes (1884-1920) was the most famous American representative of the impressionistic school most closely related with Claude Debussy.  The exotic and mysterious sounds that he heard during his European studies also included the influence of Russian composer Alexander Scriabin as well as an unpublished one-act drama, Sho-jo, one of the earliest works by an American composer to show direct inspiration from the music of Japan.
His 1919 Poem, written for solo flute and orchestra, was among his last published works.  The New York Tribune would note of the work’s premiere, “Compositions for the flute, even when played by such a splendid musician as Georges Barrère do not as a rule give rise to wild enthusiasm, yet yesterday's audience applauded the work and the soloist for several minutes.” The Poem clearly demonstrates Griffes’ growing penchant to use a more abstract and structured musical style whose language became deeply complex.

Arturo Marquez
           A renowned Mexican composer, Arturo Marquez’s (b. 1950) musical style employs musical forms and styles of his native country and incorporates them into his primarily orchestral compositions.  The son of a mariachi musician, he would spend his late childhood in the U.S.A. (near Los Angeles) before returning home to attend the Mexican Music Conservatory.  Subsequent studies include a composition scholarship presented by the French government, a Fulbright Award, and an MFA from the California Institute of the Arts.
            Based on the music of Cuba and the Veracruz region of Mexico, Marquez’s series of eight danzones are among his best known compositions.  Inspired by a visit to a ballroom in Veracruz, his 1994 Danzon No. 2 (unlike some other works on our program) focuses on the accents rather than the time signatures.  It thereby presents a precision in every measure that remains constant. Of particular note, Danzon No. 2 was included on the program of the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra conducted by Gustavo Dudamel (now conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic) on their 2007 tour of Europe and the United States.  Oliver Nickel’s 2009 transcription for wind band captures all of the excitement of the original.

Astonishing Pictures

On Tuesday evenings I find myself returning from rehearsals with the Black Hawk College/Community Band in Moline, IL.  Iowa Public Radio's 9 PM offering is Bill McLaughlin's Exploring Music, a program I enjoy greatly for the host's interesting variety of topics.  This week?  The Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Bill concluded last night's episode with a 1951 recording of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition (in the Ravel orchestration of course).  The conductor was a young Rafael Kubelik, who would be run out of town on a rail by the conservative critics who were not ready for his "modernistic" programing (McLaughlin noted that, in Kubelik's tenure, the orchestra presented no fewer than 75 pieces the orchestra had never performed.)  Needless to say, his Pictures is enlightening, highlight many aspects of the work that I had never considered.  Tempi were radically different than the norm and the colors--what colors!  The first notes one hears are played by the incomparable Bud Herseth, then just beginning his tenure with the CSO.  "Backing him up" are a couple of guys named Farkas and Jacobs--not a bad brass section indeed.  I only wish I knew the identification of the saxophone soloist, who played with a particularly French sound unlike is heard anywhere else.

I had previously forgotten that the CSO had offered its podium to Wilhelm Furtwangler right after the war.  Unfortunately a cabal formed against him and many significant soloists indicated that they would never appear with the orchestra if WF was the music director.  One has to ponder what kind of possibilities would have awaited that great American orchestra with (at the time) one of the world's significant interpreters.  Of course the CSO eventually ended up with a guy named Fritz Reiner and he did a pretty good job...

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Would that orchestra concerts were this much fun...

From the Czech Phil, via Norman Lebrecht:

Our music making a splash in Berlin

Long have I complained of the dearth of American music presented by our nation's orchestras especially when on tour to Europe.  My own (limited) experience is that audiences from Karlsbad to Pskov are thrilled about the music of our country primarily as it is so unknown to them and their "home" ensembles, dedicated primarily (I suppose) to dead white European males.

This good news comes from Musikfest Berlin 2012 of the Berliner Festspiele, August 31 to September 18.  The program is largely American and includes John Adams Nixon in China as well as Porgy and Bess.  This from the festival's news release:

Opening Musikfest Berlin 2012 on 31 August will be the premiere appearance in the Philharmonie of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra under the direction of Kent Nagano and with Thomas Hampson and Chen Reiss as soloists. This festival upbeat is dedicated to the grand old man of American music, Charles Ives. This year’s program penetrates deeply into the world of American music. Offered will be works by Samuel Barber, Aaron Copland, Morton Feldman, by Schoenberg, Stravinsky, and Rachmaninov, as well as Stockhausen’s “Hymnen mit Orchester,” dedicated to the American people, and Hans Werner Henze’s “Cuban” 6th Symphony. The Ensemble Modern and the Junge Deutsche Philharmonie will present “Apartment House 1776,” a pivotal work by John Cage in a production prepared exclusively for Musikfest Berlin.

Also appearing on the festival will be the St. Louis Symphony under the baton of its very talented conductor, David Robertson.

It looks like a late summer trip to Berlin is in order!  For more information, see here.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

They're giving away our secrets..."the maestro's mojo" indeed

From the New York Times:

“If you imagine trying to talk to somebody in a totally foreign language, and you wanted to express something to that person without the use of language, how would you do that?” the British conductor Harry Bicket said. “That’s really what you’re doing.”

“You can do everything right and be of no interest at all,” said James Conlon, the music director of the Los Angeles Opera. “And you can be baffling and effective.”

The conducting master Jean Morel, taught that the right hand and wrist should be “thoroughly self-sufficient,” said Mr. Conlon, a Morel student; it should “do everything — time, expression, articulation, character — so that you could then apply the left hand and withhold it at will.”

“Basically the hands are there to describe a certain space of the sound and to shape that imaginary material,” Mr. (Yannick) Nézet-Séguin (Conductor-designate of the Philadelphia orchestra) said. That imaginary body of sound sits in front of the conductor, between the chest and the hands, he added. “It’s easier when there is nothing in one hand.” He started using a baton when he began guest-conducting at major orchestras, because they were more used to it.

In an interview Mr. (Valery) Gergiev suggested that waggling his hand, which he called a habit, might have derived from playing the piano. “I’m a pianist, and sometimes I ‘play’ texture,” he said.
A baton can work against a singing sound, he added. “Most difficult in conducting is to make the orchestra sing, and this is where both hands have to basically help wind or string players sing.” Hitting the air with a stick, he said, is like fencing: “I don’t think it helps the sound.”  (I don't agree; of course, I've seen video of Gergiev using a toothpick--literally!)

The entire article can be seen here.  Frankly, I find it a basic waste of time.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

What (at least part of) the rest of the world listens to...

Uematsu--video game composer.  Better than Barber?

Britain's "Classic FM" recently announced its listener favorites for the past year.  Two Americans made the cut:  Samuel Barber (Adagio for Strings) and George Gershwin (Rhapsody in Blue).  The list follows:

1.Rachmaninov – Piano Concerto No. 2
2.Vaughan Williams – The Lark Ascending
3.Vaughan Williams – Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis
4.Beethoven – Piano Concerto No. 5 (’Emperor’)
5.Mealor – Wherever You Are
6.Mozart – Clarinet Concerto
7.Elgar – Enigma Variations
8.Beethoven – Symphony No. 6 (’Pastoral’)
9.Beethoven – Symphony No. 9 (’Choral’)
10.Elgar – Cello Concerto
11.Bruch – Violin Concerto No. 1
12.Jenkins – The Armed Man: A Mass for Peace
13.Allegri – Miserere
14.Holst – The Planets
15.Pachelbel – Canon
16.Uematsu - Final Fantasy VII
 17.Barber - Adagio for Strings
18.Tchaikovsky – 1812 Overture
19.Vivaldi – Four Seasons
20.Dvorak – Symphony No. 9 (’From the New World’)
21.Saint-Saens – Symphony No. 3 (’Organ’)
22.Handel – Messiah
23.Mozart – Requiem
24.Beethoven – Symphony No. 7
25.Faure – Requiem
26.Sibelius – Finlandia
27.Grieg – Piano Concerto
28.Gershwin – Rhapsody in Blue
29.Beethoven – Piano Sonata No. 14 (’Moonlight’)
30.Mascagni – Cavalleria Rusticana

There seem to be all too few surprises here... (Who the heck is Uematsu?)  And the Allegri Miserere?  Please....

Thursday, April 5, 2012

"The Orchestra" Needs a Steve Jobs

Do we know what is desirable?
Announcing the introduction of the iPhone in 2007, Steve Jobs said, “Every once in a while a revolutionary product comes along that changes everything. … One is very fortunate if you get to work on just one of these in your career. Apple’s been very fortunate it’s been able to introduce a few of these into the world.”

This is an unmitigated understatement if there ever was one.  Say what you will about Mr. Jobs and his business practices (of course people seem to enjoy finding a "dark side" to success), he has introduced technological advances that we did not realize were possible, but now don't know what we would do without:  this being written from my four-year-old MacBook, a computer of which I have been eternally happy (unless my Firefox chooses to crash).

What has this to do with "The Orchestra?"  Well......?

For some reason I've found myself on the mailing list of one of our regional symphonies.  Actually I still get mailings from the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, where I've attended one concert, and that more than ten years ago.  The season brochure for this ensemble (entitled "The Music Speaks") includes of course a message from the Music Director, who shall remain anonymous.  Maestro X writes, "Symphony audiences in _____ know what they like....They like music that speaks to them....People go to concerts to hear music, familiar or not, which moves them."  Whether intentional or not, the MD has chosen to take the (SURPRISE!) familiar road.

The orchestra's programing for the 2012-2013 "classical" season consists of seven sets of concerts, containing 22 works.  Mozart and Beethoven are each represented twice.  The remainder of the composers are dead European males, save Jennifer Higdon; the orchestra is playing Blue Cathedral, probably her most famous work.  The most contemporary of the rest?  Well, there is Bartok and Shostakovich....

This is an orchestra in a highly culturally-educated community.  It seems to me a sad commentary that the band can't play a premiere, especially in a town boasting a large university (upon which the orchestra relies for many of its musicians.

"The Orchestra" (as a whole) needs a Steve Jobs, an innovative individual to lead us to the possibilities that exist for the contemporary ensemble.  The death knells for classical music continue to resound as we very simply are not replacing our aging audience with a younger one.  MTT has done the job for a long time, but that's only in San Francisco...we need an MTT in the Heartland and beyond. 

 “We think the Mac will sell zillions, but we didn’t build the Mac for anybody else. We built it for ourselves. We were the group of people who were going to judge whether it was great or not. We weren’t going to go out and do market research. We just wanted to build the best thing we could build.  When you’re a carpenter making a beautiful chest of drawers, you’re not going to use a piece of plywood on the back, even though it faces the wall and nobody will ever see it. You’ll know it’s there, so you’re going to use a beautiful piece of wood on the back. For you to sleep well at night, the aesthetic, the quality, has to be carried all the way through.” ~ Steve Jobs