Friday, November 07, 2008

Another Busy Weekend

It’s not that there’s been a lot going on – though this weekend will be busy – but I just haven’t gotten around to blogging about anything, even the Election which was a truly amazing experience to participate in and then “witness” on television (one of the few reasons I bothered watching TV since the debates).

(It amused me to see lines and lines of people going out to buy newspapers the next day to keep them for posterity, a souvenir of history: how many people went on-line to the New York Times website to take a screen-capture for their archives?)

Saturday afternoon, it’s the HD Transmission Live from the Metropolitan Opera of John Adams’ recent opera, Dr. Atomic, which I’d blogged about last month. It’s going to be showing at a theater just a couple of miles from my house, so I’m definitely going to be there for the 1pm ET broadcast. It’s being shown around the world as well, so maybe you can find a place near you (follow this link to find out). At many of these same locations, there’s an encore broadcast scheduled for Wednesday Nov. 19th at 7pm ET, for those of you who will miss this weekend’s transmission or who, like me, want to see it twice.

From there, it’s into the Forum for the second concert of the season by the Harrisburg Symphony which will feature principal oboist Alicia Chapman playing a delightful concerto by Bohuslav Martinu, a 20th Century Czech composer best described as “neo-classical” whose harmonic openness, rhythmic sense and folksy tunefulness remind me a bit of what Aaron Copland might have sounded like if Copland had been born in Prague, not Brooklyn. Martinu, born in the bell-tower of a small-town church, eventually became a more cosmopolitan composer, living much of his life in Paris and, during World War II, in the United States, absorbing along the way various trends, including jazz. Homesick while living here, he never returned to Czechoslovakia which had become a Communist state after the war. He wrote his Oboe Concerto in 1955 while in southern France, four years before he died in Switzerland. I’m looking forward to hearing Alicia again – I think this is the fourth time she’s been a soloist with the orchestra since I was the personnel manager back when the orchestra first hired her umpteen years ago!

One of the great and certainly one of the most popular symphonies in the repertoire concludes the program, Beethoven’s 7th Symphony – which I would love to write a few thousand words about but unfortunately I just don’t have the time these days, so I’ll settle for just 362.

Beethoven wrote his 7th and 8th symphonies together and always felt the 8th was the better piece but it was the 7th that became wildly popular with those interested in contemporary music around 1812. One of them was not Carl Maria von Weber who felt the repeated bass passage near the end of the first movement was evidence that Beethoven was “now ripe for the mad-house.” Beethoven’s tunes are less important that the rhythms behind them: they’re often built on repeating single notes or simple patterns but it’s the rhythm that becomes the main feature, propelling the whole symphony, even in the march-like slow movement which seems to have no tune at all. Richard Wagner later famously called it the “apotheosis of the dance” and, after writing that "if anyone plays the Seventh, tables and benches, cans and cups, the grandmother, the blind and the lame, aye, the children in the cradle fall to dancing," supposedly danced his own version of the symphony before friends with no less than Franz Liszt at the piano (now, THERE’S an image...).

Another interesting thing about Beethoven’s most joyful symphony – how can you not tap your foot and smile during this piece, especially in the frenzied abandon of the last movement? (okay, so Clara Schumann’s father thought Beethoven must’ve been drunk when he wrote it) – is putting the time it was written together with something else that was going on in his private life – his very private life. This is the episode of the “Immortal Beloved” to whom he wrote (but maybe never sent) that famous letter that was found in his desk after his death (perhaps he’d kept a rough draft of it?). We have no idea who she is, though most Beethoven scholars (and then some) have their own ideas – there was even a Hollywood film speculating about it, though one can be pretty sure she was not one of the film’s candidates, his sister-in-law!

So here was Beethoven, obviously very much in love and very secretive about it – why? – and writing this wildly happy, ecstatic, in-your-face joyful music so removed from the gentility of what music used to be a decade earlier. Just a thought...

A romantic secret – though ultimately revealed – is behind the other work on the orchestra’s program – originally chamber music by Arnold Schoenberg, written in 1899 but not premiered until three years later, making it, officially then, a 20th Century work (only barely). It was odd to have chamber music telling a story – and the program was a shocking one, inspired by a poem about a woman, walking in the moonlight with her lover, confessing to him she is going to have a child that has been fathered by another man, something her current lover accepts graciously, that her child will become their child and so both he and the child become transfigured - hence the title “Transfigured Night” or, in the original German “Verklärte Nacht.” But if Schoenberg, who was 25 when he wrote the work, had called it just “String Sextet,” he probably would have still ended up in a good deal of trouble.

For all the bad press that Schoenberg has gotten in his life-time and beyond (he is still the official whipping boy for those looking for someone to blame about the state of modern music even today), this piece may come as a surprise if you’re just discovering it. It is lush, romantic, melodic, densely harmonic full of rich triads that sound not very different from other music that was going on around the same time – think Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler, descending from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. It is not traditionally tonal but it is by no means ATONAL, which implies there is no sense of harmonic resolution to a central structural key the way we think Beethoven writing in A Major. As chromatic as “Verklärte Nacht” is – chords that you expect to resolve one way veering off in different, unexpected directions until you have no idea where the original harmonies were headed – it uses real chords that real people would have been really familiar with... except one. It’s described as “an inverted ninth chord” but it doesn’t fit into any easily excusable dissonances like passing tones or deceptive resolutions (all of which Beethoven used and composers before him) – even Wagner’s “Tristan Chord” can be explained as the contrapuntal layering of dissonances eventually resolving to a less-dissonant dominant-7th chord – and so therefore listeners were outraged. Yes – outraged! “The pages of Tristan freshly smeared over.” Fistfights broke out. Huh...

Last season, PBS broadcast one of Rob Kapilow’s “What Makes It Great” programs involving his discussion of Schoenberg’s sextet complete with examples and his reading of the original poem line-by-line over the music it’s associated with, followed by a straight-through performance of the piece. It was called, humorously enough, I Can’t Believe It’s Schoenberg!

Today, the work is often heard in this original sextet version – in fact, Concertante will be playing it here in May, 2009 – but Schoenberg also transcribed it for string orchestra which makes the musical lushness more luscious, the romantic emotionalism more ardent. It is this more frequently heard version of the piece the Harrisburg Symphony will perform this weekend with Stuart Malina conducting – Saturday evening at 8pm and Sunday afternoon at 3pm. Timothy Dixon from Messiah College is scheduled to give the pre-concert talk an hour before each performance.

Then for me, on Sunday afternoon, it’s in for Theatre Harrisburg’s production of “The Sound of Music,” one of the most beloved of musicals which I’m looking forward to seeing because I know this company will present a marvelous production of it, but I know that I will need to get out lots of different CDs of mine to drum out all the ear-worms I’ll have stuck in my head for the rest of next week, tunes I don’t mind hearing during the course of the show but which, really, on their 1,000th repetition inside your head before 24 hours have passed, begin to get a little annoying. Still, any composer would envy the ability to creep into the audience’s subconscious like that, really...

Meanwhile, I’m trying to work on my novel for this year’s NaNoWriMo – since November is National Novel Writing Month and I’ve decided to take the challenge. During the first week so far, I’ve managed to reach 25% of the goal – a total of 50,000 words (not counting the 1,484 I’ve written so far for this post) – but I really do need to get back to it. It’s fascinating to discover how much easier it is to procrastinate while writing fiction than it was while composing music... sigh...

- Dr. Dick

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