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.