Tuesday, January 3, 2017


Everybody wants in on the act.
He doesn't have the Dude's hair, however...

For several years now, I've been blogging. Much of the impetus arose from the dissertation process. Now, I write because it keeps my brain engaged, and I attempt to develop arguments that are well supported by the evidence. If people choose to read these few words each week, all the better.

Somewhere along the line, I seem to have become overwhelmed with my disdain for the "management vs. the worker" conundrum. This blog strayed from no discussion of either the score nor the podium (except in discussing the musical chairs of the profession). I know that I've stirred more than a few pots and have to hope that some of this may have been ever-so-slightly influential in decisions made, initiatives moving forward, and people simply deciding to work together.

But mostly, things have been negative, so it's a new year and time for WOW. This brings us full circle to the reason behind the title: talking about the score, and sometimes about the conductor's approach to it. WOW is the "work of the week" and will focus mostly on the wind repertoire. Why? In my own study of the music I teach and conduct, I realize that nothing in the music history books gave any shrift to this medium.

Take Karel Husa, who passed away on December 14, 2016. He was a giant in the wind medium, and his Music for Prague, 1968 is a monument to the repertoire. Husa won a Pulitzer in 1969: for Prague you say? Nope. A string quartet...And this is just the beginning.

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My intent here is to highlight one or more works that I deem (I suppose that some of the "movers and shakers" in the profession might agree, but that doesn't matter) to be, for whatever reason, a WOW kind of musical expression and experience. To that end, our very first WOW is:

Gustav Holst: Suite in E-flat (1909), possibly the first true masterpiece for the modern wind band. It is unfortunate that no one has seen fit to publish Holst's original source material because a performance clear of all the "clutter" would be a wonder to behold.

I own several scores, condensed, full, and even a copy of the manuscript. It's interesting to see what's missing from any of the published sources: this note from the composer: As each movement is founded on the same phrase, it is requested that the Suite shall be played right through without a break...

Holst and Vaughan Williams out hunting for tunes...
I've engaged in many discussions with (apparently, unknowing) conductors and players over which of the Holst suites is superior. The answer is simple (the E-flat). The material, although sounding at times like the folk tunes that Holst and his colleague Vaughan Williams collected in the countryside, is entirely original. AND, all of the movements is based upon the simplest of motives: three pitches, mostly presented in their original "set". So simple and yet so genius.

The "set" is expressed in its entirety in the first movement, the Chaconne, a paean to countless ground bass forms (one of the best known being "Dido's Lament" from Purcell's Dido and Aeneas). Holst achieves a balance here with 16 versions of the tune; a few times it is inverted, and there is some harmonic elision toward the close.

To me, Holst's ability to finish the movement in much the same way as he began, albeit with vastly different orchestration--and dynamic--is another sign of a brilliant mind at work. One must recall that Holst was well versed in Eastern philosophy and taught himself to read Sanskrit. His interest in astrology and mythology had a direct bearing on his most popular work, The Planets. Of course, this is not the Gustav Holst of that galactic suite; this is Holst, the trombone player.

The second movement has that catch-all title, "Intermezzo," and begins with a pair of E-flat clarinets announcing the tempo and rhythm (two instruments are necessary). The theme is similar to the chaconne except that it carries upward after the three notes of the set.

There is a bridge in the clarinets (and tambourine) that leads to the second theme.

Note the "extra" pick-ups in the first measure. This theme is very similar to the opening, except much different in rhythm (all the note values are doubled) and character. At the close, Holst combines all the elements: opening, bridge, and second themes, in (for want of a better word) a particularly cute conclusion.

Despite my bias toward the Chaconne, the march may surpass it in concept and construction. Here, Holst gives us a theme in inversion. Note the difference below:

 A sudden and smashing chord in A-flat takes us to the trio, itself Holst's homage to Elgar's "Land of Hope and Glory" and based on the original material (seen below with the countermelody)

But again, and most glorious of all, is after a mysterious build-up, and even some snarling of teeth, both tunes emerge in perfect counterpoint, bringing to a close the WOW work that ushered in a new age of composition for the wind band.

And here's a link to a local community band and its version of the March: https://youtu.be/UskLkC8tRM4t

Frederick Fennell, founder of the Eastman Wind Ensemble, and an authority on so much of the wind band repertory reminds us over and over that band music like this--so forward thinking--so artistic--did not exist until Holst wrote it down.

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And from our Middle East desk:

Zubin Mehta
In 2018, Zubin Mehta is stepping down at the Israel Philharmonic, ending 55 years of association, the last three decades as "Music Director for Life". Israeli news source Haaretz notes that 

Despite Mehta’s flourishing international career, his relationship with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra is unique – each is greatly associated with the other. Although the Philharmonic has strong management and musicians, Mehta’s departure is likely to cause a shake-up requiring a reorganization, new music, and a new identity.

Excellent orchestra. Not particularly a place one would want to live--in more ways than the obvious. Israel is moving toward becoming a pariah in the international community. Not thinking I'd want to take that one on.

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