Sunday, March 29, 2009

Memories & Celebrations

This weekend’s program was called “Memories and Celebrations,” though I rarely don’t think much about marketing ploys and the music they’re meant to promote. For me this month, the Harrisburg Symphony’s ‘slogan’ was not in the music but in the experience. Not just the experience a listener in the audience would have, though. I sat in on all the rehearsals for this concert, arriving near the end of the Thursday afternoon one to hear them reading through the Serenade for Winds that Richard Strauss wrote when he was 17 and then staying through the end of the Dress Rehearsal Saturday afternoon.

The first symphony concert I ever attended was during the orchestra’s 33rd Season – considering their up-coming season will be their 80th, this was, yes, a long time ago. I was 13. This was on March 19th, 1963, 46 years ago almost to the week! Not only has my age gone up considerably since then, individual tickets that cost $44 today cost $3.40 for the same seat then. You could buy a whole subscription for those same seats – seven concerts (five by the orchestra with two concerts by guest orchestras, usually the Pittsburgh Symphony and the Cleveland Orchestra) – for $20.00.

True, gas cost $0.31 a gallon then but in 1962-dollars, that would probably be the equivalent of $4.48 in today’s income (assuming you have one). I don’t remember my folks complaining about “how expensive” gas was in those days: by comparison, it looked unacceptably high when it reached $4/gal this past year but given what the dollar would be worth today, it was actually more expensive then.

That first symphony concert I attended featured the cellist Raya Garbousova, a name probably unfamiliar to most listeners today but arguably one of the great cellists of that generation, just not as well known as Casals and Piatigorsky (Samuel Barber wrote his Cello Concerto for her – you can read more about her, here). She played the Dvorak Cello Concerto, not surprisingly, the one major cello concerto that gets heard (and requested) the most – well, it is the major cello concerto, after all.

Somewhere along the way, I had developed an interest in playing the cello, the main reason my parents took me to this particular concert. My father had met a woman who played viola in the orchestra (Dora Kanarr actually played in it since Day One at that very first reading session in 1930 even before it became an orchestra: she retired in 1984). She urged him to take me to a concert, since I was taking piano lessons and had begun to exhibit an interest in composing at the time. If I hadn’t been affected by music as a career possibility before, now I was hooked.

That following year, then, I started taking cello lessons when I was in junior high school. I remember asking my teacher if she could play the Dvorak Cello Concerto and she laughed, adding if she could, she wouldn’t be teaching strings in a junior high school. Bugging my folks for a cello the way most kids would badger them for a puppy, my dad found an old cello at a mid-town pawn shop which, as I recall, cost $80 (clearly, it was not a Strad). Though I never really exhibited any talent for the instrument and chose to focus more on composition and piano (in that order), I still have the cello though the last time I played it was probably 1972. Curiously, I find I am more comfortable today composing for the cello than any other instrument, including the piano.

Ironically, my first teaching gig was at UConn not far from where Garbousova was teaching at the Hartt School of Music in Hartford. She had started there only in 1970, four years before I moved to Connecticut but I never knew that at the time. Later, after I left UConn in 1978, a pianist friend of mine who lived and played in Hartford met her and had many wonderful stories to tell about her.

I also didn’t know that she had married a man named Kurt Biss and had a son Paul who married the violinist Miriam Fried.

This was another connection that slipped under my radar. Ms. Fried played the Beethoven Violin Concerto with the Harrisburg Symphony in January of 1984 – a concert I will never forget because we had a blizzard that day which kept both bassoonists in the orchestra from making it to the concert so I had to condense both bassoon parts – prominent solos for the 1st bassoon and important bass-lines for the 2nd – into a single part for the available Bass Clarinetist, Jim Dunn, who sight-read this concoction during the concert!

One of the newer talents receiving a lot of buzz in the classical music world the past couple of years is the pianist Jonathan Biss who is Miriam Fried’s son and therefore the grandson of Raya Garbousova.

It is, after all, a fairly small world in Classical Music, but the connections here – going back to the soloist at my very first orchestra concert – make me smile.

Last night, I smiled a lot to see so many young people in this audience, some clearly still in their single digits. (And, I should add, very well behaved, for those of you wondering about such things.) There were several in their teens as well, in a day when most people talk about 30-somethings as young people in the continually graying audience for classical music. I wonder if, 43 years from now, any of those kids will be sitting, possibly gray-haired, in a symphony audience somewhere?

In 1964, I started going in to hear some of the orchestra’s rehearsals, walking in as they rehearsed the final measures of the Franck Symphony’s first movement. My dad knew Al Morrison, a fellow pianist on the Harrisburg scene, who played percussion in the orchestra. He arranged for me to meet the conductor, Edwin McArthur, and I handed him a piece I’d written which they played at a Young Person’s Concert in November, 1964. I started studying harmony and composition with violinist Noah Klauss, the orchestra’s assistant conductor who also conducted the Youth Orchestra. Like soccer mom’s today, my dad drove me in for my weekly Saturday morning lessons and also to hear symphony rehearsals every month, regular parts of my education until I was off to college in 1967.

After moving back to Harrisburg in 1980, I became involved with the orchestra again, hanging out with some friends of mine who were now playing in it, including one of my best friends from high school, Vikki Moore, who not only “played third bass for the symphony” (as she described it) but was also the personnel manager. After writing program notes for them, I become the assistant conductor in 1983, having conducted a rehearsal of Mahler’s 1st as my “audition” the previous fall, and then eventually the personnel and orchestra manager when Vikki decided she didn’t want to deal with that any more and the job description was expanded. After a number of political straws, I left the orchestra and went on to spin CDs for the next 18 years. Aside from being a music person in a radio-person’s job, I found myself no longer regularly listening to music, just hearing it, and enjoying it a lot less, all of which had a hugely negative impact on my soul.

I’d attended concerts regularly since conductor Richard Westerfield moved them from week-nights to weekends in the mid-‘90s, but it wasn’t until a few months ago that I’d gone in to hear rehearsals again – those, for Mahler’s 9th.

But it was curious, walking in to hear the wind section playing the Strauss Serenade on Thursday, to realize 8 of the 13 wind-players on stage were people I’d worked with between 1980 and 1988, including a few I’d sat in on their auditions. In fact, 23 of the orchestra’s current players had been on at least one symphony pay-roll I’d filled out back in the ‘80s, though I’m counting principal violist Julius Wirth who I’d spent two seasons trying to recruit as a sub and finally got him scheduled to audition the week before I quit.

Looking around at some of the newer faces in the orchestra, some of them weren’t even born then...

Karen Botterbusch, the piccolo player who told me she had played the Shostakovich 9th with conductor Larry Newland his first season in 1978, was showing me pictures of her grandchildren, one of them now going to school (these were on the cell-phone: the brick-and-mortar photos were in her piccolo case backstage). Time and technology marches on.

Several other friends came by to chat and ask how I was doing, happy to see me again at rehearsals, “just like the old days.” In a sense, it did feel like coming home – having spent so much time growing up in that hall since that first concert in 1963 – but also because it was just a thrill to be involved in “live music making” again, even if I wasn’t making it myself. I never was a performer but did some conducting; more often, I’d consider myself a “performance facilitator,” I guess. I was asked about balance in the Mozart (a strange hall to check balance in, too) and several players asked me what this or that sounded like in the hall, grateful to know the Strauss blended beautifully, for instance, when on stage they had no idea.

And of course it was a thrill to hear all of this come together for the performance, sitting down as just another member of the audience. Ravel’s Tombeau de Couperin was ravishingly beautiful; pianist Tanya Bannister offered some of the most exquisite Mozart I’ve heard live in years, playing one of the most popular and beautiful of Mozart’s concertos; the Strauss was too short but a wonderful showcase for the wind section who blended like they’ve been playing full-time together for years; and the Shostakovich was just as exciting to hear as any major orchestra’s recording only here it was live and these were my friends on stage playing it.

There’s a lot more I could write about these rehearsals – the process itself is an interesting topic – as well as the concert, but it’s a cloudy Sunday morning in early Spring and other things (like copying my recently completed Violin Sonata) will spare your attention span for now.

- Dr. Dick

Friday, March 27, 2009

Music for the Soul: Finding Inspiration in Difficult Times

At the Market Square Concerts blog, I responded to several people who’d heard Lee Hoiby’s Sextet for Winds & Piano which the Dorian Wind Quintet & Stuart Malina played at Whitaker Center last weekend. There are several suggestions about some of his compositions that have been recorded which I highly recommend to anyone unfamiliar with his music or, having heard the Sextet, want to explore his music more.

The focus of this briefer post, no more than toe-wetting the topic, is about my finding some inspiration in music that has helped sustain me over the years. Perhaps these will also be inspiring, in these difficult times, to remind us that Art is not a luxury but a necessity, that as

Life beats down and crushes the soul... Art reminds you that you have one.
(-- Stella Adler)

One of Hoiby’s latest recordings, the Naxos collection of his songs called “A Pocket of Time,” includes a song that I’ve been listening to a lot. So I wanted to include these excerpts from that post.

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Some believe there really are only two types of music, whoever said it first – good and bad. I like all kinds of music but just because I like Elliott Carter’s music doesn’t mean I’m not going to like Lee Hoiby’s music. There are lots of modern “atonal” – gnarly, difficult – composers whose music I don’t care for just as there are a great deal of tonal – tuneful, accessible – composers whose music I also don’t care for. Perhaps a better way of delineating “good or bad” would be to say “sincere or insincere.” It’s not a degree of talent, either: it’s the ability to connect with a listener, an intangible talent that cannot be taught and which few of us learn.

As a musician always looking for reinforcement, two of the most inspiring works I’ve ever heard – the equivalent of artistic anthems crossing all national boundary lines – would be Schubert’s An die Musik (not just because it’s Schubert but anything called “To Music” should be listened to as a Daily Affirmation) – here is tenor Fritz Wunderlich with translation in the foot-notes –



...and the Composer’s Aria from Richard Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos, which got me through many low-points in my career. Here is Tatyana Troyanos singing it from a Metropolitan TV Broadcast in 1988 (an excerpt from the full production, the aria does not stop when it ends but immediately continues, unfortunately lopped off here).



To these, I’ve now added a third musical prayer – Lee Hoiby’s song “Where the Music Comes From,” the sixth song on this Naxos album, which I’ve listened to probably 10-12 times a day this past week. It’s not “about” music – in fact, music is only the first line – but it speaks perhaps to the importance of music as just one aspect of what sustains us. It’s the composer’s own text:
- - - - - - -
I want to be where the music comes from
Where the clock stops where it’s now.
I want to be with the friends around me,
Who have found me, who show me how.
I want to sing to the early morning
See the sunlight melt the snow.
And oh, I want to grow.

I want to wake to the living spirit
Here inside me where it lies.
I want to listen till I can hear it.
Let it guide me and realize
That I can go with the flow unending
That is blending, that is real.
And oh, I want to feel.

I want to walk in the earthly garden
Far from cities far from fear.
I want to talk to the growing garden,
To the devas, to the deer.
And to be one with the river flowing
Breezes blowing sky above.
And oh, I want to love.
-- Lee Hoiby
- - - - - - -

The song itself is as simple as it could be, three slightly varied strophes that begin with one of those circular accompanimental patterns that Schubert might have used to set the mood just before the voice enters. I could imagine the composer sitting at the piano, noodling around and coming up with this pattern, wondering where it could go and before realizing the clock had not indeed stopped, he had completed this song (if it took him hours of sweat to work out the details, it certainly doesn’t show).

If some of the other songs on this album – especially “The Lamb,” “In the Wand of the Wind,” and “Lady of the Harbor” along with the emotional impact of his “Last Letter Home” – hadn’t reminded me that Lee Hoiby is one of the finest composers of songs in this country, this one showed me why. It may sound no more modern than if Schubert had written it himself – aside from a characteristic modal inflection now and then – but it wasn’t written by somebody out to imitate Schubert’s style: it was written by someone who understands Schubert’s heart.

Jay Nordlinger’s witty liner notes quote Hoiby calling this “my Cat Stevens song” :-) and concludes with the observation
- - - - - - -
“I have heard a number of singers sing Hoiby songs. But the best singer of them, I have to tell you, is Hoiby himself – even now, even in his eighties. ...More than once I have heard him sing ‘Where the Music Comes From’ which, from his throat, becomes a personal prayer: a prayer for direction and growth. Once you’ve heard him sing it, the song gets under your skin. Of course, it gets under your skin anyway, as does so much of the music of this remarkable, individual man.”
- - - - - - -

One of Hoiby’s great champions was the soprano Leontyne Price, one of America’s greatest opera singers ever and who, early in her career, premiered Samuel Barber’s Hermit Songs, arguably the finest songs written by an American composer, and for whom Barber created the role of Cleopatra in 1966 for the Met-opening Antony & Cleopatra. For her, Hoiby wrote a set of songs called simply “Songs for Leontyne” which she included in her 1965 Carnegie Hall debut, a recording only recently issued on the RCA label called “Price re-Discovered.”

Two of those songs are included in the Naxos “Pocket” CD – along with the anecdote about Ms. Price and the composer performing the song “Evening” at a party. Afterward, the soprano told the composer “You played that awfully fast,” to which he replied, “That’s the way it goes, Leontyne.”

- Dr. Dick

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

A Concert of Classical Proportions: Focus on Mozart

This weekend’s concert with the Harrisburg Symphony features Tanya Bannister as the soloist in one of the most popular – in many opinions, one of the finest – of Mozart’s piano concertos. The concert takes place at the Forum on Saturday at 8pm and on Sunday at 3pm with a pre-concert talk given by Truman Bullard an hour before each performance.

Also on the program are Ravel’s Tombeau de Couperin, Richard Strauss’ Serenade for Winds and Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 9, all works inspired by the aesthetic ideals of the 18th Century (okay, officially Ravel’s memorial tribute is to a Baroque composer but it’s still mostly a “neo-classical” work). You can read my “up-close-and-personal” post about the Shostakovich here.

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Mozart had recently turned 30 and was riding the crest of his popularity from a very good year the year before. Getting ready for the Lenten concert series of 1786 (the best times in Vienna for concerts were during Lent and Advent), he composed three new piano concertos between mid-December and the end of March. The Concerto on this program is the middle of these three works.

The major work during this period of six months – both in terms of size and concentration – was the opera, The Marriage of Figaro, which he finished April 29th for a premiere two days later on May 1st. He had already taken time off from that project to quickly compose (and perform) The Impresario (completed February 3rd, with four whole days to spare before its premiere). A month later, he completed the A Major Piano Concerto, K.488 and on the 24th of March, the C Minor Piano Concerto, K.491.

Other works during these same few months included the Masonic Funeral Music, K.477, the E-flat Violin Sonata K.481 (completed 4 days before the Piano Concerto No. 22 in E-flat, K.482), several works either for Masonic services or Masonic friends’ parties, at least four “insert numbers” written for other composers’ operas and a revival of Idomeneo, with two new arias written on March 10th.

Volkmar Braunbehrens, in his now out-of-print bookMozart in Vienna,” estimates that the “purely mechanical task of writing it all down – quite apart from the creative work of composition – required that he fill an average of six pages [of 12-stave manuscript paper] per day.” Comparing this to a similarly productive period during his last year, 1791, when he wrote the Clarinet Concerto, Clemenza di Tito, The Magic Flute and what he completed of the Requiem, would have amounted to only 3 pages per day.

Creatively, it was also one of Mozart’s happier times. The joy of Figaro certainly permeates the A Major Concerto which sounds like it could have been contemporary with his writing the Finale of Act II, though I have no way of knowing what part of the opera he was working on when he was also writing the concerto. The dark but soulful slow movement – the key of F-sharp Minor is rare in Mozart’s catalogue – could easily be turned into an aria.

Whether the intense concentration of trying to find the musical solutions to the opera’s dramatic complexities resulted in creative over-drive or not would be hard to tell: he needed concertos for the Lenten Season and he had other obligations to fill (the Masonic Music for one, the additional “opera inserts” for another), so perhaps it was fortuitous that the music just flowed even more effortlessly out of him than usual.

In addition to composing, he appeared as a performer or conductor on seven occasions, had his own students (including a young man from England, Thomas Attwood, whose lesson books have survived), had another refugee from Salzburg, the oboist Josef Fiala and one of his better pupils, both trying to make a go of it in Vienna and both staying with Mozart’s family for weeks at a time, and he was busy with his Masonic lodge which was undergoing reorganization following the negative impact of the Emperor’s Masonic Legislation the previous year. A silhouette of Mozart, incidentally, graced one of the more popular calendars of the year 1786, just one indication of his popularity.

Ironically, after this outpouring of incredible music, his star faded quickly. Fighting against Salieri-inspired intrigues at Court, Figaro, based on a pre-Revolutionary French play that lampooned the aristocracy’s old-fashioned self-image and placed servants capable of out-witting them in the spot-light, played for only nine performances and wasn’t heard again in Vienna until 1789, by which time the French Revolution and the fate of the French nobility had erupted in the news.

At that first production, the Viennese nobility, for obvious reasons, didn’t care for it even though the Emperor thought highly enough of it to arrange a private performance at his summer palace and then for additional performances in Italy and in Prague, where it was sung at the wedding of his niece to the future King of Saxony.

Only in Prague was the work an immediate and lasting public success. As a result, Mozart agreed to write them an opera of their very own: the following year he would return with Don Giovanni.

Still, Mozart was able to give only one subscription concert that season instead of three – his best likely source of income – and the reaction against the more dramatic C Minor Concerto soured the public on his music which they regarded as too complex and ornate. Within months, he had become “yesterday’s news.” No wonder he would write his next great opera for another city and, meanwhile, start learning both French and English with the thought of leaving Vienna for new territories to conquer. It never happened, but that’s another story.

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Another story that occurred while he was working on the bright and lively Piano Concerto in A Major involved a court nobleman and government official and an older woman he had promised to marry but whom he then murdered in an attempt to steal her fortune to pay off his debts. This was no worse a murder than might have occurred at other times, but it became the sensation of the day (akin to today’s scandalous “Trials of the Century”). What was more shocking was the vehemence with which the Emperor intervened, going against his own laws, including the repeals of torture and the death sentence (revoked ten years earlier). The murderer was sentenced to a public execution, the first stage of which involved red-hot pincers being applied to his torso, then being led to a second near-by location where his body was to be “broken on the wheel” (his bones broken one by one starting at the legs and working toward the neck). This was regarded as a terribly medieval reversion from the Enlightened views of the day: if the crime was one thing, the shock of this sentence was quite another.

In all, this execution took four hours and occurred only eight days after Mozart completed the A Major Concerto. The first stage of the execution took place just a few hundred yards from where Mozart lived. That day, he composed the two new arias required for the impending revival of Idomeneo. Two weeks later, he completed the C Minor Piano Concerto which is usually described as “dark,” “tragic” or “demonic” but whether it was a response to the news of the day or just his attempt to balance the light and beauty of the A Major Concerto, we’ll never know.

Suffice it to say, Vienna found the C Minor concerto not to their liking. And Mozart’s star quickly set.

So meanwhile, enjoy the A Major Concerto, written at the height of innocence and success without ever knowing what was, metaphorically if not literally, just around the corner.

- Dr. Dick

Shostakovich & his (kind of) Classical Symphony

This weekend’s concert with the Harrisburg Symphony features pianist Tanya Bannister playing Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23 in A Major. Ms. Bannister had appeared last year with Market Square Concerts in a recital that featured Brahms’ take on Handel, works by Chopin and a new piece she’d premiered earlier that season by Christopher Theofanidis, “All Dreams Begin with a Horizon.”

This week - Saturday at 8pm, Sunday at 3pm at the Forum - Stuart Malina conducts a program that is essentially “classical” in its sound-world (you can read my up-close-&-personal post about the Mozart Concerto here). In addition to real Mozart, there is Richard Strauss’s Mozartean “Serenade for Winds,” written when the composer was 17, plus Ravel’s image of The Good Old Days, a suite of pieces originally for piano evoking the 18th Century Age of Couperin, one of France’s greatest Baroque composers. Each movement of his Tombeau de Couperin was originally dedicated to friends who died in World War I, making it a different kind of “memorial.”

No one has ever dubbed Shostakovich’s 9th, which concludes this program, his “Classical Symphony.”

For those who are familiar with his dramatic 5th, the huge war-time symphonies like No. 7 and No. 8, or the big brooding Mahler-like 10th, the 9th fits in like The Odd Man Out. Considering it was written right after World War II ended in the defeat of the Nazi Invaders (the Soviets called this “The Great Patriotic War”), most people expected a triumphant conclusion to the earlier War Symphonies, a victorious celebration of Soviet Power and a portrait of Stalin as Hero of the People. Plus, given Beethoven as a precedent, people felt it would also carry the weight of a “Soviet Artist’s Reply to Universal Brotherhood.”

Perhaps because the 9th was the first Shostakovich symphony I remember hearing when I was in high-school, I didn't have the benefit of comparison or any of the build-up of expectations. I was able to enjoy it for what it seemed to be on the surface: a symphony that pays a bit of homage to Haydn, especially in the first movement with lots of little quirks and twists, some obvious and some fairly subtle, making me think he was purposely out to do Prokofiev’s “Classical” Symphony his way.

But to those in its very first audience, sitting there in Leningrad (once again St. Petersburg) in November of 1945, it must have seemed a disappointment, considering all the advance buzz they must have been hearing.

After the 7th (written during the siege of Leningrad) and the epic tragedy of the 8th (written during the horrors of the Nazi occupation), Shostakovich himself described what would be his next symphony, already begun before the war was officially over but in the anticipation of its conclusion, as a vast work for large orchestra, chorus and soloists - in fact, very much like Beethoven's 9th - that it would describe in music the heroism of the Soviet people and the Red Army, that it could be described in one word – "Victory!" He discussed writing the opening movement with his students, even played some of it for them in 1944: one of them recalled it as "majestic in scale, in pathos, in breathtaking motion."

Then he stopped working on it for three months. Once he started it again – and apparently starting it over – he completed it in a little over a month. But now, it was nothing like what he had talked about before; the majestic music he had played was nowhere in sight. He described it himself as being totally different from the 7th & 8th Symphonies - light and transparent, by comparison. "Musicians will love to play it," he said, "critics will delight in blasting it."

One writer explained the sense of the audience at the premiere: “We were prepared to listen to a new monumental musical fresco, something that we had the right to expect from the composer of the 7th and the 8th Symphonies, especially at a time when the Soviet people and the whole world were still full of the recent victory over Fascism. But we heard something quite different, something at first astounded us by its unexpectedness.”

Still, the audience heard, according to another writer, something that “charmed the listener with such perfect form that it seemed as though every sound had been exactly matched and that every tinge of color and every secondary tone subordinated to a sapient purposefulness.” What that was, was another matter...

One critic wondered if this was a "respite" from his large-scale works and, given the tragedies of the war years, was this the time for a composer to be "going on vacation, to take a break from contemporary problems?" Another considered it "childish." Well, compared to a celebration over the defeat of Nazism, sure, but is that the music's fault or the critic's fault for presuming something the composer may not have been intending?

Not only did it not win the Stalin Prize that year, it was eventually placed on a "do-not-play" list, banned by the central censorship board of the Soviet government, removed from that list only a couple of years after Stalin's death. It is still one of his less frequently heard symphonies (other than the 2nd and 3rd which almost no one does anymore, anyway).

It seems a little slim to bear all that weight! But yet it got Shostakovich in a lot of trouble in the late-1940s. When his music was condemned by Stalin and the rest of the Soviet bureaucracy in 1936 following the success of his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District (which Mr. & Mrs. Stalin walked out on), he composed his 5th Symphony (also bearing expectations from Beethoven) which became subtitled "A Soviet Artist's Reply to Just Criticism." In 1948, when his music was again condemned, along with music by many of his colleagues, the problem was his being too much influenced by the West, especially the German symphonic ideal of... well, Beethoven, Haydn, Mozart and Mahler. This might be a typically political reaction (if not xenophobic) to the culture of "the enemy" but it took composers to task for not writing music that was "good" and "uplifting" for the Soviet people.

This time, Shostakovich's response, basically, was to not write at all. At least not any big grand public works likes symphonies or operas. He wrote string quartets for small performing groups and small, more elite audiences. He also wrote a set of preludes and fugues inspired by Bach - how German can you get? It wasn't until after Stalin's death that he wrote his next symphony which may have been the original 9th delayed, though instead of a tribute to Stalin and celebrating the victory of the Soviet people, it's more a portrait of a tyrant and the victory of the people who, like the composer, managed to survive the dark years of the Stalin Era.

But all that is far removed from the 9th Symphony, perhaps on purpose, at least in the outer movements. Here were have perky little tunes, a jaunty trombone dominant-to-tonic V-I cadence pattern to introduce the second tune (nothing terribly modern-sounding, here) -- all things that Prokofiev had done with his tribute to Haydn in his first symphony, the "Classical Symphony," written in 1917. But there are things here that go slightly... wrong: this is not the Classical well-ordered world we would expect from someone writing in an 18th Century style. Suddenly, measures start having extra beats or tunes wander off in unexpected directions. When the second theme should return as expected, the trombone dutifully plays his V-I cadence set-up but the orchestra just keeps going. And going. The trombone persists -- V-I... V-I... V-I! V-I-V-I -- and things get more intense until - ah! - finally, the theme returns. You can just sense the sigh of relief. It's a joke worthy of Papa Haydn himself.

But the middle movements are full of pathos and the darker side to all this. There is no humor hidden in here and even when what passes for a scherzo gets going, it eventually collapses into the darkness again.

Both the second movement and the brief next-to-last movement (if it isn’t really an extended introduction to the finale) are like soliloquies in this darkness – perhaps very suitable for people who were looking back privately on the death and devastation they experienced in the recent war. The scherzo is perhaps Shostakovich’s most spritely, almost inconsequential and circussy before it evolves into the stentorian brass chords of the next movement without a break. Though it is purely subjective, to me it sounds like an official committee interrogating an individual or, to use an earlier precedent of Beethoven’s, from his 4th Piano Concerto, “Orpheus and the Wild Beasts.”

The last movement then begins with an almost what-the-heck shrug of the shoulders as the bassoon, without a break, turns from severe pathos to chuckling merriment, starting off a finale which also includes quotations from his 1st and 6th Symphonies (now what might be the significance of those?) before reaching an exuberant but not protracted ending.

A question had come up on Facebook (believe it or not) when a musician friend (and former member of the Harrisburg Symphony) asked for serious replies about what made Beethoven’s “Eroica” sound heroic.

A lot of comments followed about Napoleon, about simple triadic themes, the fact it was in E-flat Major (like the “Emperor” Concerto and Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben, “A Hero’s Life”) and so on. I threw my professorial weight into it (“serious” replies, after all) that it didn’t, in fact, sound “heroic” at all except we are programmed to think it does after long familiarity with it and its title.

Simple triadic themes (and there was nothing heroic in the earlier uses Beethoven made of the triadic theme of his last movement) nor the key of E-flat Major would have little to do with it, by themselves (and Beethoven never called his piano concerto “The Emperor,” btw), though his greatly expanded sense of form may have been inspired by Napoleon’s larger-than-life nature (even if one can only “experience” form in hind-sight). If he were writing a musical portrait of Napoleon – it was originally dedicated to him – why would he have written a funeral march in the 2nd movement? And so on. Bruckner’s 7th Symphony has lots of triadic themes and greatly expanded structures but no one associates heroism with it – but of course it’s in E Major, isn’t it...

Well, along comes Shostakovich’s 9th – anticipated as a musical portrait of Stalin the Soviet Hero – which IS in E-flat Major, also has triadic themes, even a surprise out-of-key experience at the end of its first theme, just like Beethoven’s has; the 2nd movement (one could say it’s like attending a funeral) has a theme that is also triadic. While the structure in Shostakovich’s symphony is not “expanded to epic proportions” (would that automatically turn it into an epic?), it is much clearer than Shostakovich’s usual symphonic rhetoric and certainly closer to 1800 than to 1945. Shostakovich’s 9th clocks in under a half-hour, closer to one of Haydn’s London Symphonies, rather than the Eroica’s 45-50 minutes or Shostakovich’s own earlier symphonies which often surpass an hour’s length.

So in many ways, Shostakovich’s 9th may be the opposite of Beethoven’s 3rd (if not his 9th) or perhaps it’s Beethoven’s Eroica up-side down (comparing more than just the themes) – could that fit in with Shostakovich’s image of Stalin the Dictator puffed up as Hero?

The composer was famously tight-lipped about any kind of extra-musical suggestions in his music - he's gone from being viewed in the West as a party hack to being a closet dissident writing secret anti-Communist programs into his symphonies - but where the 9th fits into all this is anybody's guess.

But that's what make art Art. Socratic indulgences included, the great thing about Art is it can be all of the above or none of the above and still be Great Art.

- Dr. Dick

Monday, March 23, 2009

A Visit with Lee Hoiby

It’s probably been almost 30 years since I’d last seen Lee Hoiby, despite the infrequent letters, e-mails and phone calls over the intervening decades. I’ve heard recordings of his music and on too few occasions heard some of it live. So it was great he was able to come down to attend this past weekend’s performance at Market Square Concerts with Stuart Malina playing Lee’s Sextet for Winds & Piano with the Dorian Wind Quintet.

At first, it didn’t look like he was going to make it but then, a few days before the concert, he was able to change his schedule and come down. Ellen Hughes and the Market Square Concerts Hospitality Committee went into action and arranged for Lee and Mark to stay with Martin & Lucy Murray.

E-mails and phone calls traveled back and forth, including a line I forwarded to Ellen from Lee in which he figured, after estimating the length of the drive from their place along the Delaware River, he would need “a good long nap before the concert.” Considering Lee just turned 83 last month and I was unaware of any further details of his state-of-health, there was some concern about things - would a friendly but large dog be capable of knocking him down, for instance.

They would arrive sometime on Saturday and return the next day.

Before the concert, we met them for dinner at one of the better known restaurants downtown not far from Whitaker, a proximity that could come in handy if we were running late.

Lucy was joking that she had tentatively reminded Lee about maybe wanting to take a nap and he said very robustly, “No!,” eyeing the grand piano, “I want to play four-hand duets!” And so instead, they played Ravel and Schubert!

Though I had not met Mark before, I recognized him from the publicity photo accompanying the new recording of The Tempest which I’d just received a couple days before: he was the librettist for the opera, adapting Shakespeare’s original text and therefore more than just Lee’s collaborator in life.

I first corresponded with Lee around the time Samuel Barber’s Antony & Cleopatra was premiered at the overly grand opening of the grand new Lincoln Center home of the Metropolitan Opera. One of the many issues the critics heaped on the composer concerned his setting Shakespeare’s original text, for some reason (there were many other issues I won’t go into here that turned this work into a disaster only somewhat mitigated by its gorgeous but now overlooked music) so I found it surprising that here Lee had since set two more Shakespeare plays – The Tempest and, more recently, Romeo & Juliet – with Mark adapting the original texts. Lee looked at me in surprise: “Why not?! They’re some of the most beautiful words in the world. What more could a composer ask for?”

As we worked out way into the restaurant, he said “you know, for some reason, people say iambic pentameter is the hardest to set to music, but I’ve always found it very easy...” The thought trailed off as we were ushered toward our table.

As the server put the bread in little upright cornucopias and sprinkled olive oil on small plates, talk focused first on cooking and then combined cooking with music as Lee told us about the one-act opera (or musical monologue) he had done with actress Jean Stapleton, better known as the long-suffering TV wife of Archie Bunker but who, despite her singing [sic] on the show, actually had a very good voice. Called Bon Appetit!, it set one of Julia Child’s recipes to music – adapting one of her TV cooking shows’ episodes about the making of a French chocolate cake (however one says in French “to die for”). (Checking on-line for links, I also discover Mark adapted the text for this and for its companion piece, “The Italian Lesson,” based on a classic Ruth Draper character sketch.)

Julia Child came to see one of the performances and went backstage as soon as it was over. During the bows, Lee was meekly sitting on-stage at the piano waiting for “Julia” to come out to take her bow but the Stage Julia and the Real Julia were having too much fun talking off-stage to be bothered by taking bows.

At this point, it was time to settle on a wine. No one had yet decided what entrees to order and, given my lack of culinary prowess, talk of whether it should be red or white much less any further delineation (the menu also described them with adjectives like “juicy” and something that struck me as the equivalent of “chunky”) flowed right over my unimbibulous head. It was then decided to order a bottle of Pinot Noir.

Examination of the menu filtered through further conversation, ranging from Lucy’s founding of Market Square Concerts 27 years ago to the arts scene in Harrisburg today in general, from Mark talking Lee into writing an opera on Romeo & Juliet (he had first passed on the idea – it’s been done before – until Mark put some sample lines in front of him which Lee quoted from memory and which I cannot even remember, but which immediately brought to the composer’s mind how well these lines could be set to music), then foundering on my attempts to finish copying my violin sonata.

The server came back with a question about the wine, long after most of us would have expected to be drinking it. She seemed confused about what had actually been ordered, mentioning some entirely different wine much less familiar to me than your basic Pinot Noir (alas, they have four different kinds of Pinot Noir on the menu).

Noir, though, appeared to be a stumbling block. Noir: she chewed it over like maybe it was one of those “chunky” wines, pronouncing it as if (a) she’d never heard the word before and (b) it had three syllables. Then someone pointed to it on the menu for her as I might do for fear of mispronouncing the dish and ordering instead a grilled tractor.

We realized by now we had forty-five minutes before the concert and had now spent slightly less than forty minutes sitting down to the table and settling the issue of The Wine. There was some confusion about the Buffet – you could order it separately as a meal but yet it came with every entree. The way things were going, we jokingly wondered if we could order an entree, eat the buffet-that-came-with-it and take the entree home with us? We were assured everything we ordered could be ready in 10-15 minutes (“it’s the pizzas that take the longest”), no problem. Still, three of us opted for the Buffet à solo.

Conversation continued as salads and soup were served. By now we had moved on to our mutual radio experiences – Lucy working years ago as a volunteer at WMSP, the classical music station originally associated with Market Square Presbyterian (the MSP of the call-letters), mine in years spent at our local NPR station and Mark, currently announcing at their local NPR station (I thought he said as a volunteer though there’s not that much difference in the pay scales). We traded horror stories and humorous anecdotes.

There was talk, as we looked around waiting for the entrees, about theater in London and concerts in Harrisburg. Lee talked about being surprised by hearing something on the radio in the middle of the night that so startled him and here it turned out to be a quartet by Haydn who, we all agreed, was full of many surprises and very much underrated.

From there, we moved on to Schubert who also often had his surprising turns, placing unexpected notes that made you, playing them, want to check where you were, exactly. Lee remarked about one song by Schubert – “Gute Nacht!” – how it started with a downward C Minor arpeggio (the only clip I could find on-line that didn't start in the third measure is sung by tenor Peter Pears) but in the last verse, he switches it to C Major (and here he demonstrated the two) creating such a magical effect that always left him with a tug at the heart (or a lump in the throat, I forget, but the reaction was comparable). It reminded me why Lee Hoiby is such a fine composer of songs and setter of words.

Lucy wasn’t sure which song it was and I, geek that I am, suggested “Isn’t that one of the songs from Schöne Müllerin?” to which Lee replied “Uhm... yes, I think so,” but doubtful, too kind to correct me that, as I discovered later, it’s the first song of Winterreise (I’ll take Schubert Lieder for $1,000, Alex – BRAAP, sorry).

By this time, the entrees arrived. We now had less than half an hour before the concert began. Fast food it is not, but those of us who had ordered the Buffet made quick work of what turned out to be various salads and antipastos (which I always think should be antepasto if it’s supposed to be “before” the meal rather than “opposed” to it, but I digress: clearly, I do not belong in such a restaurant). After debating if it would be improper to show up late (Lee’s piece at least was on the second half), conversation was now consumed by more important matters.

With 12 minutes to kill, the final details were quickly despatched and we hurried off to the concert hall. By this time, those of us who had ordered the buffet noticed, too late, its well-stocked dessert corner.

“Running Late” now translated literally. Martin, Lucy and Lee charged on ahead. The last thing I wanted to see was a headline in the morning paper like “Composer Has Heart Attack Running Late for Concert.” Mark, N and I, after one last look back at the desserts (“Local Would-Be Composer Has Heart Attack After Snarfing Down Trayful of Cheesecake”), brought up the rear.

For the concert itself, you can read my post, “The Composer in the Audience” over at “Dr. Dick’s Market Square Concerts Blog” (the name has now been expanded upon request).

After the concert, there was little chance to talk. Meeting Stuart Malina, Lee thanked him for his performance. Stuart had conducted a short work of Lee’s some years ago but neither could quite remember or place what it might have been. I had brought with me my copy of The Tempest which I then asked both him and Mark to autograph – I rarely bother artists for their autographs but having both the composer and the librettist here and with the disc being brand new and all, it was too good to pass up, even though they had to cramp their signatures to fit the little bit of space left in the margin. I’m hoping, now that The Tempest is available for others to hear, finally, it might prompt some opera company to look into their collaboration on Romeo & Juliet which was completed in 2004 but is still looking for its first performance (Lee says “it’s the best of the lot,” and he’s written a lot of operas).

And he is currently working on some new choral pieces – one for the Harvard Glee Club, as I recall, which reminded me of one of the first pieces of Lee’s I’d heard, the choral anthem on John Donne’s “Ascension” with its full brass and organ written for the National Cathedral (“powerful enough to knock me out of my socks,” I think I said) and starting off the cathedral’s long unavailable dedication recording. We talked about computer software – the one he originally started using is no longer in business so he’s switched over to Sibelius which he likes very much – and in the few minutes remaining before we parted ways, several other things like how he and Mark take a 45-minute walk every day.

When I thought he might be tired after a busy day, he said “No! My mind is all jazzed - I couldn't get to sleep now.” Clearly, this is a man for whom age is a state-of-mind.

With any luck it won’t be another 30 years before I’d see him again – that would make me almost 90 and make him even more amazing than Elliott Carter is now. Age has not withered him nor would custom stale his infinite variety (to turn a phrase) but frankly, by then, neither of us could probably much handle “running late.” Well, me, anyway...

The next morning before they left, Lee sat down at Lucy’s piano and played through several Chopin etudes, his daily routine. And then, they were off.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

A Pocketful of Time: Music over the Years

This weekend, the Dorian Wind Quintet – joined by the Harrisburg Symphony’s ever-busy conductor, pianist Stuart Malina – will perform a work I’m eager to hear, the Sextet for Wind Quintet and Piano by Lee Hoiby. The Dorian Quintet premiered it with the composer at the piano almost 30 years ago and recorded it in 1995 on the Summit label, but I’ve never heard it, even though I first ‘met’ the composer back in the 1960s when I was a high school student.

You can read my post at the Market Square Concerts Blog about this Saturday’s 8pm concert at Whitaker Center – with a biographical sketch of the composer – but here, I want to tell a more personal story, especially since (unlike some people) I don’t meet too many composers.

When I was in my teens, my dad came home from work one day saying he met a composer that afternoon on his lunch break - a rather unexpected person to meet on your lunch break in Harrisburg even then - a young man who studied with a composer I’d heard of but had not heard his music before. He was friends with two of my favorites, then - Samuel Barber and Gian-Carlo Menotti. Hoiby had studied with Menotti and had written operas of his own.

Of course, my dad, being the proud father he was, told this guy all about me wanting to become a composer (still do) and having had a piece or two played by the Harrisburg Symphony by then. The man suggested I bring some scores in so he could pass them on to his teacher who lived near Mt. Kisco NY, not far from Capricorn, the home of Barber and Menotti.

So the next day, I went in and met this young man – I don’t recall his name, now, but something very New England-sounding, someone probably in his 20s – and gave him an envelope with some copies of a few of my pieces to show to Mr. Hoiby. I didn’t expect much of a response and can’t imagine what kind of impression it must have made on him. I don’t even recall what I sent since at that time I didn’t have a lot of music (still don’t) under my belt.

I got a very nice letter back with compliments and encouragement, including the very strong suggestion that I should study counterpoint, something my music clearly lacked. This old skill, the art of manipulating independent voices (or polyphony) into a harmonic and melodic fabric, was crucial to giving music a good solid foundation. For the most part I was writing what would be called “homophony” – melody accompanied by chords – which I thought was just fine. Anything remotely contrapuntal in my music would have been accidental and the product of simply imitating someone else.

Anyway, a series of letters continued back and forth for the next few years. I had heard Samuel Barber’s Antony & Cleopatra when it was broadcast live from the Metropolitan Opera at its world premiere in 1966. I loved the music (I even bought the vocal score when I had the chance) and was very upset at all the negative commentary that followed the premiere, overshadowed by Zeferelli’s outlandish production and all the overblown pomp and ceremony of the opening of the Met’s new home at Lincoln Center.

I’m not sure how often I wrote once I started college in 1967, but I thought of him often, his support for me very important to my continuing to compose and study, especially when I was including a unit on counterpoint in the theory classes I was teaching at the University of Connecticut in the mid-1970s. He was right about how important it was, though I still hadn’t had any actual training in it myself, even with three years of study and two compositional degrees from the Eastman School of Music. In Europe, it’s a rigorous element of a composer’s basic training even if doing all the exercizes is no more exciting than doing a cross-word puzzle. But just as a cross-word puzzle sharpens your brain, counterpoint exercizes sharpen your musical skills. (Is this the place to say I have no patience for cross-word puzzles?)

Then I moved into New York City in 1978, following a wild goose-chase of a dream that evaporated when the money started to run out. There were no jobs available that I could fill and I wasn’t in the mood to become a waiter – New York City was the kind of town where most of the waiters were either struggling musicians or actors – and I ended up playing piano for some ballet classes at the New York School of Ballet run by the dancer and teacher Richard Thomas, a gig I got only because I knew his son, the actor Richard Thomas. I made $90/week and paid $425/month in rent. I was never very good at math, but that, too, is another story...

Anyway, one weekend I was looking through the New York Times and noticed that Lee Hoiby was making his concert debut as a solo pianist that Sunday afternoon. I thought this was unusual since he’d always been playing a lot but mostly accompanying singers, not giving solo recitals. Here he was, in his early 50s, now, and he decided he was going to do this, and picking a program with enough challenging repertoire on it to fill two programs!

I had a friend from UConn who’d come in to visit that weekend and I recall we were up until, like, 5am and then I had to get him to Grand Central to catch a train early in the afternoon. There was some doubt about my getting to the recital in time and then staying awake, but I just made it. It was at a large church somewhere (I got lost trying to find it) and well attended. As I recall, Schumann’s Carnaval was just one of the works on the 2nd half... and I thoroughly enjoyed it, the personal association aside.

So I decided to go up to him in the receiving line, congratulate him and introduce myself. Keep in mind, we had never done anything but correspond in letters – no meeting, not even a phone call.

“You probably don’t remember me, but I took a correspondence course in composition with you starting about 14 years ago.”

When I mentioned my name, he looked at me with a big smile and asked “So did you ever take counterpoint?”

“I was teaching it, last year...”

He invited me to join the party that would be gathering at his apartment afterward, some friends dropping by for a reception at his Greenwich Village apartment - actually a beautiful penthouse. I remember sitting in the living room and looking south toward the Statue of Liberty then looking west at the sunset which, if you were sitting down, you didn’t have to see New Jersey beneath it. We chatted a great deal, catching up on old times. And kept in touch.

Lee had always complimented me on my calligraphy: whatever my music sounded like, at least it looked neat. However, making a living as a copyist can be pretty boring. I mean, even copying my own music is torture, the musical equivalent of doing the dishes after cooking and eating the meal. It doesn’t pay well, but it would’ve paid better than I was making (or not making) elsewhere.

Not long after I’d made arrangements to move back to Harrisburg – things at home also made more sense that I help my mom take care of my dad whose health was getting worse – Lee called me and wanted to know if I’d be interested in working as a copyist. Uhm... It turns out a friend of his was looking for someone new for a big new project coming up and he suggested me. His friend was John Corigliano and the new project was something about a new opera for the Met (which turned out to be The Ghosts of Versailles)... sigh... (what if...)

Meanwhile, settled back in Central Pennsylvania, I saw the PBS broadcast of Lee’s opera, Summer and Smoke (back in the days when PBS broadcast such things), not long after I’d seen a touring production of Tennessee Williams’ original play.

The next round of correspondence occurred in the ‘90s after Lee and his partner left Manhattan for the wilds of “upstate” New York (which means anything further north or more west than Yonkers). He described it as a village on the Delaware River not far beyond the place where New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania meet. He converted the barn (I think it was the barn) into a composing studio which had a view of his own private waterfall.

The next wave caught up through more modern technology – e-mails following up on best wishes for his 80th birthday in 2006, even a subsequent phone call. He was still writing, the waterfall was still falling. Both of those observations seemed very natural.

Recently, he set to music the last letter Pfc Jesse Givens wrote from Iraq, first as a piece for the men's choir Cantus, then as a solo song. I posted the YouTube video (in which, I suspect, the composer is the off-screen pianist) over at the Market Square Concerts Blog. Even listening to just the last moment of this song - setting the lines Go outside look at the stars and count them. Don't forget to smile - is enough to bring a lump to my throat. He knows how to connect.

Earlier this month, I e-mailed him to invite him down to hear this weekend’s performance with the Dorian Quintet but unfortunately he’s very busy and would be unable to. But he asked me to send his love to the Dorians and his “thanks to Mr. Malina for all his hard work.” (Lee, being a fine pianist, did not write a slouch piano part.)

He also informed me he has two new CDs – one, a collection of songs on the Naxos label, “A Pocket of Time” which came out in late January and a complete recording of his opera The Tempest on the Albany label released just the day before he e-mailed me! So of course I immediately tracked them down and ordered both of them. (You can hear one of those ridiculously brief sound-clips of The Tempest here.) They should arrive by Friday, maybe earlier if I’m lucky.

And so this weekend’s performance will bring this post ‘round to some 44 years or so. Needless to say, I am looking forward to it!

- Dr. Dick

Monday, March 16, 2009

Talking with Shulamit Ran before a World Premiere

It was a last minute thing, finding out Shulamit Ran would be here for the concert Saturday night when Concertante would give the world premiere of the work they’d commissioned as part of their “1 + 5 Project.” So after talking to Zvi Plesser, the “1” in the “1 + 5” combination for this piece, Friday afternoon, I called the composer on Saturday and invited her to drop in on the pre-concert talk I was giving if she had the time. As it turned out, she was delighted to do so. I warned her that there might not be many people there – once there was over 40 but another time there was 7 – but she said “Oh, I know how that goes.”

They were rehearsing the piece when I got there – and I was concerned they might not be done in time for the talk – so I stuck my head in the door and listened a bit. My reaction was “wow!”

Shulamit Ran is a busy composer with pieces being commissioned and performed far and wide. But as often happens with contemporary composers, it’s not always easy to hear their music. This was not the first piece of hers I was hearing but the first one I was going to hear live. There’s a big difference between listening to it unfold before you in a live concert and listening to a recording of it by yourself. Being one of the first people to hear it anywhere in the world is also very exciting: you never know what you’re going to get – it’s as close to gambling as a music lover can get.

So what I heard in those few minutes as they worked over a couple of sections – an added fermata here someone didn’t have written into the part, watching the dynamics there to balance better with the cellist – was exciting to hear knowing (a) it was the first time I was hearing anything from this piece but also (b) I was hearing a bit of it even before the audience would hear it in its official first performance.

And I knew from that sampling I would like this piece. As a composer myself, I was thinking “okay, we’re on the same wave-length, here,” stylistically speaking. Even though I can enjoy music written in many different styles, this was music that spoke to me more closely. I was, as they say, “psyched.”

*** ***** ******** ***** ***

As I was ready to start my talk – I had spent a few hours putting a script together about Mozart and Mendelssohn in case she was unable to make it – she walked in the door ready to go. In a few minutes, then, I began by telling the audience, even though Mozart and Mendelssohn were unable to be here tonight, Shulamit Ran is – and that we had a rare opportunity of not only hearing a brand new piece by an internationally acclaimed composer right here in our own musical back yard, but also hearing about it from the composer herself.

This was the second world premiere by an internationally acclaimed composer to be heard in Harrisburg in two weeks – Philip Glass’s Violin Sonata was performed at Market Square Concerts on February 28th – and several people in the audience here had heard that performance, too. It makes you begin to think that maybe we’re not such a provincial small-town state capitol, after all.

We began with the last stage of the creative process – what is the title and where did it come from? The program book was printed up before the season actually began and so her work is listed as “Commissioned Work” since at press time it hadn’t been finished yet much less given a name.

She explained as she was working on it, she didn’t know what she was going to call it. As she was nearing its completion, one title came to mind – not even a “working title” – but she didn’t want to mention what it was. Finally, the title “Lyre of Orpheus” appeared out of nowhere, even though the music had nothing to do with the ancient Greek myth – how Orpheus goes into the Underworld to bring Eurydice back to life only to lose her again; or, as the legend concludes, with Orpheus, playing his lyre and taming the savage beasts of the forests, is torn apart by Maenads, the wild women under the influence of Bacchus, his body parts floating down the river but his lyre still playing.

Looking back over what she had just composed, she could see the emotional points that might correspond, here and there, maybe not in chronological order but enough to give a sense of this timeless story of love lost, found and lost again. One of the reasons these stories survive in modern culture is because they are timeless and can be appreciated in any number of ways because of their universality.

Even though the story was not in her mind when she composed the piece, a listener might still be able to hear details of it reflected in the music. For a couple of generations growing up on the likes of Walt Disney’s Fantasia or more recent MTV music videos where music was represented in a visual medium meant to enhance (or “explain”) the aural one, I joked it would be interesting to poll the audience afterward to discover what they thought the story was, where it fit the music – what the music was “about.” We could get several different interpretations!

If coming up with the title was the last step of the creative process and the first step was receiving the commission, I asked her what the second step was, getting it started.

She was given a deadline of February 1st to deliver the finished score and parts for a performance six weeks later. She completed writing it in December of 2008, but then the work has to be copied. So within this time-frame, she set to work.

Rather than just being given a blanket commission to write anything at all, she said, she was given certain parameters or limitations to work in – it was for six players and the idea was to feature one of those - why they call it “1 + 5.” She was supposed to highlight the playing of cellist Zvi Plesser. How she was going to do that was up to her.

The “easy way out” might be to write a mini-concerto – put him up front like a soloist with the rest of the group forming a small orchestra. But it’s a chamber music group, not a chamber orchestra, so she wanted to be more mindful of the interplay between equals that makes chamber music what it is – the give-and-take, collaboration and state-of-mind that makes it different from just being music for a small number of players. In that sense, she knew she wanted to have the cellist play in certain parts like a soloist but at other times as part of the group, also giving other players prominence at certain times (even in the few minutes I heard in rehearsal, in addition to the cello’s lyrical lines there were solos for the first viola and the first violin).

One of the things an audience-member may feel before a premiere is “dread of the unfamiliar.” Not knowing what style the composer is writing in may cause some uncertainty – that’s part of the gamble. So we talked a bit about her style.

She explained that while she’s trying to write in a 21st Century way, the music combines elements of a certain intellectual approach to its structure but always with the sense that music is an emotional experience - we respond to it emotionally.

I mentioned Harold Shapey, an important Chicago-based composer who was a mentor of hers and, like many important composers, one not all that well known to the general American public. He had been described as a “radical traditionalist,” meaning that he used traditional means to express his musical ideas in a “radical” way. I asked her to explain what that was and if it applied to her own music (which I felt it did).

“If someone wants to call me a ‘radical traditionalist,’ I would gladly accept that,” she said. Essentially, it means there are chords that move in certain expected ways – “everything is about ‘tension and release,’” the whole concept behind dissonance in 19th Century music – but the chords will sound different by themselves than chords from Beethoven or Brahms might sound.

Music – or at least music involved with harmonic motion – moves from one point to another and draws you along with it. Dissonance is like spice and helps propel a chord toward its resolution. While there may be a lot of difference between the sound of Vivaldi and the sound of Brahms, if you get beneath the “surface language,” you’ll discover that in most ways they’re very similar, maybe even the same, no matter how simple or complex the style.

Hearing Mozart before Lyre of Orpheus may make them sound like different worlds, I said, but in reality they are just two different ways of doing the same thing: creating a musical world to which you can respond on different levels, both intellectually and emotionally. There are phrases in Mozart that move from here to there – there will be phrases in Ms. Ran’s piece that will do the same thing, essentially, not the way Mozart would do them but comparable (after all, they were written 230 years apart).

(Interestingly, in the context of the concert, I found Mozart’s sense of dissonance and release much closer to Ms. Ran’s style, especially in that incredible slow movement, more than Mendelssohn’s style which was written only 183 years ago!)

During the course of this conversation the composer and I were having, I saw the cellist sneak in on the side. Zvi Plesser said he wanted to hear what we were talking about but I decided later to put him to work.

Zvi talked about the process – choosing the composer (the first of these six commissions was performed two seasons ago, so this has been an on-going process in addition to being a long wait), then out of nothing, receiving the completed work in the mail and holding the score in his hands, then playing through his part to hear what it sounded like and then, after everybody’s had a chance to practice their individual parts, getting them together to read through it so he could get an idea how it all worked together, hearing the piece take shape finally as they work out the details. In a sense, it’s just like they might do with something by Brahms but only here there are no recordings or other performances to guide them. It was a very elastic process, figuring everything out on your own. Then a few days ago they had their first rehearsal with the composer present and their last rehearsal just a few minutes ago. In all, they’d been working on the piece for about a week.

But the process wasn’t finished yet: though the commission may have been announced over two years ago, it wasn’t finalized until the audience has heard it. That, Ms. Ran said, is the continuum, going from what she had in her mind, getting it down on paper, then having the performers interpret what she’d written to lift it (as she extends her hands forward to the audience) off the page so the listener can hear it. Only then is it “complete.”

Twenty minutes later, the concert began and after the Mozart, Shulamit Ran’s Lyre of Orpheus was complete.

And we in Harrisburg PA were the first to hear it.

I'll post about the performance itself a little later.

- Dr. Dick

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Concertante: Arranging Mozart

Concertante's program last night began with a work by Mozart - or at least an arrangement of it. These are some of my notes intended for my pre-concert talk, along with those about Mendelssohn's youthful Quintet in A Major which you can read here.

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In the days before there were copyright laws, the idea of arranging someone else’s music – what today would be called “copyright infringement” – was pretty normal. In one letter, Mozart apologized that he’d had no time to write because, in addition to the composing and performing he was involved in, he also had to arrange some highlights from his latest opera because if he didn’t do it, somebody else would – and beat him to the money that could be made with the amateur music market.

In the early 19th Century, long before there were TV sets or CD-players, people made their own music. It was part of a woman’s education, particularly, that she should be able to play the piano or sing pleasantly enough to entertain her husband and their guests after they’ve finished the dinner she’d cooked and put the kids to bed.

It wasn’t uncommon for cultured young men to be proficient on one or more instruments. Even a generation later, the household that Franz Schubert grew up in had a family string quartet – the father, a school-teacher, played the cello; the oldest son played 1st violin, another brother played 2nd violin and Franz, who also played the violin, usually played the viola.

As I’d been told in my student days, the Moravians – even after they set up their communities in Pennsylvania - might have a set of stringed instruments hanging on the wall of, say, the barber shop so that the men could take them down and make music together while waiting their turn – rather than reading magazines or watching TV, or playing with their iPods and iPhones.

And some of these amateurs must have obviously been of a very high quality. Most of Franz Schubert’s piano music, for instance (except for the last three piano sonatas) were written not for the concert hall but for the amateur, home-music-making audience – not just the reams of dances he turned out but also the impromptus and Moments Musicaux, the sonatas and, of course, one of the favorite forms of musical social interaction in those days, lots of piano duets.

Even late in the 19th Century, gentlemen would get together to play string quartets like these serious-looking men in 1889 (see left). Dvořák, for instance, played quartets with some of his neighbors. One summer, when I was living in Connecticut (more recently), I heard some wonderful sounding Brahms coming from the living room of a friend’s house: she explained it was her husband, a well-known doctor, getting together with some of the university’s medical students to play quartets!

In Mozart’s day, this “middle-class” market was just beginning to open up. Before then, it might have been the aristocratic court musicians – whether it was a small-time nobleman who might have a piano trio in his employment or a big-time nobleman like Prince Esterhazy who had a whole orchestra and an opera theater in his employ (with a fellow named Haydn to run it). Perhaps it was the change in the economy during (but especially after) a generation of Napoleonic Wars – probably that more than the French Revolution and the down-sizing of aristocrats across the continent – but by Schubert’s day, in the 1820s, there was an Esterhazy cousin, a Count, who hired Franz Schubert for a couple of summers to be their one-man music staff. Rather than conduct symphonies and write operas for his employer, he was expected to teach his two daughters to play the piano, to play for their evening’s after-dinner entertainment as well as compose works they could all perform, whether it was piano duets for the daughters, or part songs when they would gather ‘round the piano to sing songs written with 3 or 4 voice parts, especially pleasant when friends dropped by for visits. If a friend with a particularly pleasant voice was visiting for a week, Schubert was expected to produce a number of songs that would impress the guest and leave him feeling pleased enough to tell his friends how wonderful his experience was, visiting the Esterhazies. In fact, it was one of these visitors, a Baron Schönstein (with a fine baritone voice), who received the dedication of something Schubert composed that year, a set of 20 songs known as Die Schöne Müllerin.

So Schubert was a kind of status symbol – like having the best stereo speakers on an expensive sound system or the latest technology on your latest gadget. For Schubert, it was a kind of networking: hopefully the visitor would also spread his own name far and wide among his friends so they might go and buy his music to perform it for themselves. “Buying” was the operative word, here – the amateur market accounted for the largest part of Schubert’s meager income, and in fact many composers of his generation.

What does all this stuff about Schubert’s employment record have to do with Mozart?

Schubert was employed by the Esterhazies in the 1820s but Anton Steiner’s arrangement billed as Mozart “Grand Sestetto concertante” was published around 1808 - 17 years after Mozart’s death. A few years earlier, someone made a piano trio arrangement, as well. If no one was concerned about ripping him off when he was alive, who was going to bother with copyright infringement after he was dead?

And so while you’re listening to the members of Concertante playing this music tonight, imagine that 200 years ago, you might have been playing it yourself if technology hadn’t ruined the social interaction of friends making their own music!

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Mozart composed his Symphonie Concertante for two soloists - violin and viola – with an orchestra. The idea of a symphonie concertante was a particularly French one – a combination Symphony-Concerto featuring two or more soloists. It was one of the most frequently composed “forms” in Paris in the 1770s and into the early 1800s. Even Johann Christian Bach wrote several symphonies concertantes for his London audiences, they were so popular. But really, it was nothing more than the old Baroque concerto grosso – exemplified by J.C. Bach’s father, Johann Sebastian Bach’s six “Brandenburg Concertos” – dressed up now in Classical Period clothes.

(Incidentally, the term symphonie concertante was used by the French to describe what they regarded as their creation. Across the rest of Europe – and in most modern-day writings, you’ll see it listed in the Italian as sinfonia concertante. It’s also that sense of “concerto-like” playing in an ensemble that gives the ensemble you’re going to hear play it its name.)

Presumably, Mozart wrote two of these symphonies concertantes while he was in Paris trying to find a job. There’s an interesting mystery behind the one he wrote for four winds which, even today, cannot be fully authenticated as Mozart’s but who else could have written it? It’s even available in two different versions but there is no copy of it in Mozart’s handwriting that’s survived.

Anyway, he wasn’t very successful with his job hunt – but then he wasn’t fully engaged in the search either since, free of his father’s ever-watchful eye for a change, Wolfgang, now in his early 20s (when his middle name might well have been changed to Randy), was more interested in finding a wife. Stopping in Mannheim on the way, Wolfgang fell in love with one of the opera singers there, Aloysia Weber. When his father got wind of this, he sent an urgent letter to his wife who had gone along as the official chaperone, to get their son off to Paris quickly before anything serious happened.

It was her one brief moment in the spotlight of her son’s biography – and she became ill and died while they were in Paris. Without a job, with no substantial income from the trip and with his mother’s body left behind in an unmarked grave, two months later Wolfgang returned to Salzburg to face his father’s wrath since it was clear – at least in Leopold’s mind – that his wife died through his son’s negligence. Wolfgang had been away from home for 18 months.

There is a question whether he wrote this Symphonie Concertante in Paris or on his return trip, having stopped in Mannheim where he had stopped to visit before, a court that had one of the finest orchestras in Europe where every player was capable of being a soloist, it was said. Certainly, he began composing a symphonie concertante for piano and violin there, but dropped it after 120 measures and left it incomplete. (By the way, his opera singer girl-friend had cooled considerably toward him by this return trip – ironically, Wolfgang would later marry her younger sister, Constanze.)

It’s also possible he may have written this work after he returned to Salzburg but that seems unlikely since by now he had been demoted – due to his long absence – from the court’s concertmaster to the chapel organist where his job was now to supply the brief “Church Sonatas” and short masses for the Archbishop’s service. He would have had little need for a concert vehicle for himself, especially where things in the French Fashion would have had little or no vogue.

His treatment of the two soloists – never really a solo “group” but a true “double concerto” with them each playing solos, answering each other’s lines – is however not typical of the French love of simplicity and more light-hearted entertainment. Certainly, the slow movement of this piece goes way beyond the emotional limits the French would have found acceptable. On the academic side, it can find its roots in the old-fashioned opera seria style of the day. In its heart-wrenching sadness, we might assume Mozart was thinking of his mother, but we’ll never know. To paraphrase Lucy Miller Murray’s notes, the irony in this piece is that we can listen to this work and know that while he couldn’t find a job, rejected by the successful composers of the day, his music survives today, regarded more highly than any work written by those who turned him down.

- Dr. Dick

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The third photograph above, by the way, is a print made from a famous family portrait of the Mozarts, painted the year after the disastrous trip to Paris when the mother, Maria Anna Pertl Mozart, died. Wolfgang shares the bench with his sister Nannerl, playing a duet (notice the hands crossing) while their father Leopold, a violinist, stands behind the piano. On the wall between them is their mother's portrait painted a few years earlier: no longer with them, she could at least be included in spirit.

Mendelssohn at Concertante: A Bicentennial Salute

Usually, giving a pre-concert talk, I don’t get the chance to have the composer there to talk to about the music on that program. In the case of Concertante’s performance last night, aside from the fact Mendelssohn and Mozart had been long dead, it was unexpected that Shulamit Ran, the composer who’d been commissioned for the most recent work in their “1 + 5" Project, would be attending the concert, much less be able to drop in at the pre-concert talk (and my assistant, Otto deLoup, only found out about this the day before, anyway). I’ll post separately about the World Premiere of her Lyre of Orpheus, but I wanted to include my notes on the two works by Mendelssohn and Mozart – especially since I didn’t get to deliver them at the talk: when you have a living composer to talk to, the dead ones can speak more for themselves.

One of the hallmarks of Concertante’s programming is to present something familiar along with a less familiar work by a well-known composer and then something that might be a discovery for most of the audience. Mendelssohn and Mozart are certainly well known names and though Mozart’s “Grand Sestetto” that opens the program may be not-so-well known, the music is probably quite familiar – it’s an arrangement of his Symphonie Concertante for Violin & Viola. Mendelssohn may be one of the most popular composers around but his Quintet isn’t as well-known as it ought to be – and nothing can any more unfamiliar and a discovery to an audience than a piece that no one else has ever heard before – and tonight, Harrisburg gets its second World Premiere in two weeks.

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2009 is the Bicentennial of the birth of Felix Mendelssohn - born on February 3rd, 1809 - one of the more popular and best-loved composers from the 19th Century – best known for his Violin Concerto, the Italian and Scottish Symphonies, the music he composed for “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (think Wedding March), the Octet for Strings and a little tune beloved of cartoons that’s always used to herald the arrival of Spring, one of his Songs without Words called “Spring Song.”

One of the works we’ll hear tonight, his String Quintet in A Major, Op. 18, isn’t as well known as any of these, especially considering a work he’d written in October the year before, the much more famous and more extroverted Octet in E-flat Major, or another work he composed in the summer of the same year he wrote the Quintet, an overture he sketched while sitting in the family garden reading Shakespeare.

It’s amazing to consider that by the time Felix Mendelssohn wrote this string quintet, he had already composed a violin concerto, a piano concerto, a concerto for violin and piano, two concertos for two pianos, three piano sonatas, two violin sonatas, a viola sonata, a clarinet sonata, three piano quartets, six comic operas and a dozen string symphonies, not to mention the Octet for Strings – all between the ages of 11 and 17, the year he wrote this String Quintet and the Overture to “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

It’s also amazing to consider how works written at the same time in his life could go on to become generally regarded as masterpieces, while another pieces written at almost the same time never quite caught on with the public. Every time I hear this quintet, it ends up getting compared to the Octet, as in “if he'd never written the Octet, this would be a really good piece.” By itself, it is a very good one - especially for a 17-year-old - and one that deserves to be heard more often.

Felix Mendelssohn was growing up in the quiet city of Berlin in Northern Germany, the capital of Prussia, in what was a cultural backwater at the time, compared to Vienna, the Austrian Capital far to the south. In the year Mendelssohn composed his String Quintet, Beethoven was working on his last string quartet – he would die in March of the following year – and Schubert, little known beyond a handful of friends and lovers of songs, was writing his last string quartet as well (he would die about 20 months after Beethoven).

His grandfather was a famous philosopher, Moses Mendelssohn, and his father, Abraham, a successful banker, first in Hamburg, then, after they fled the Napoleonic Wars and the French Occupation’s “reign of terror,” in Berlin – Felix was 2 years old then and his sister Fanny was 6. Both children would later show extraordinary musical talent: while visiting Paris on business, Abraham found a piano teacher for Felix, now 7 years old, a woman who had been highly esteemed by both Haydn and Beethoven.

That was also the year that Abraham Mendelssohn had his children baptized, primarily because of the anti-Semitic regulations in Prussia but also because it was a kind of “Enlightenment” thing-to-do, reconciling Jewish and Christian beliefs with the ruling philosophy of the day. In honor of the children’s sponsor (Abraham himself waited another six years to convert), they added the name “Bartholdy” so sometimes you will find him with a hyphenated name, Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy. These days, it’s usually dropped.

The Mendelssohns turned their spacious home - with its garden and rather substantial music room – into a salon that saw guests like the writer ETA Hoffman, the philosopher Hegel, the poet Heine, one of the Brothers Grimm (collectors of the fairy tales, then something new and startling) as well as musicians like Carl Maria von Weber, Ludwig Spohr and the most powerful composer in Berlin at the time, Gasparo Spontini. They secured music teachers for both children and hired musicians to form an orchestra that played occasionally on their Sunday afternoon musicales. Fanny played the piano, Felix both the piano and the violin – and both children conducted, Felix (today he'd be called a tween-ager) having to stand on a chair to be seen by the players. His composition teacher, Friedrich Zelter, loved Bach – which fit in with Abraham’s preferences (he didn’t care much for the avant-garde music of Beethoven) – and Zelter introduced the boy to his friend, Goethe who was one of the greatest German poets of his or any other generation. When Goethe was a child, he had heard the still younger Mozart play and was very impressed – but in his old age, he was much more profoundly moved by the 12 year-old Mendelssohn’s talents.

The Octet, written when Mendelssohn was 16, was written for his violin teacher’s birthday. The teacher, Eduard Rietz, played the 1st violin part and Felix played one of the other violin parts. The next year, he wrote a string quintet – with two violas in the standard fashion of the day. This was also written for he and his teacher to play – and Mendelssohn also played the viola, by the way. For some reason, this work did not have a slow movement... but when Mendelssohn was in Paris six years later, he found out (on his 23rd Birthday) that his violin teacher had just died at the age of 31, and so he composed a memorial tribute to Rietz, adding the Andante movement to this Quintet. So in a rather odd way, we’ll hear music Mendelssohn composed when he was 17 with the inserted 2nd movement written when he was 23.

And then I’ll leave you to figure out, after you listen to it, why this work never quite caught on with the public like the Octet written before it or the Midsummer Nights’ Dream Overture written after it...

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Watching the performance (rather than just listening to it), I had a rather unexpected epiphany about this piece - not its critical worth or its place in the canon, but rather something going back to that first performance when Mendlessohn and his teacher first played the piece for his family and their Sunday afternoon guests. You can read about it here (once I get it posted).

You can read about the Mozart here - and about the world premiere of Shulamit Ran's Lyre of Orpheus here (likewise).

- Dr. Dick