Wednesday, April 22, 2009

An Earth-Day Journal

Another Earth Day rolls around though it was yesterday, in a warm sunny lull between a rainy Monday and a stormy Tuesday afternoon, I managed to plant some seeds and pot up some pachysandra and euonymous that I’d been rooting over the winter. The few strands I’d trimmed off the euonymous last fall, a low bushy, vine-like version of the plant, is now all I have left after the deer, ignoring the fact it was touted as being “deer-proof,” nibbled it to the ground where it has yet to resprout. The forsythia are fading, the leaves now adding a tinge of lemony green to the once solid golden mounds in my back yard. The neighbor’s magnolia tree whose scent made it almost pleasant to walk to the mailbox to pick up my junk-mail, has passed its prime, shedding its thick milky-white petals onto brown-turning heaps on the grass.

With the milder weather, it’s good to see plants I had been afraid had died over the winter were actually showing signs of life. The clematis out front is already full of leaves and dozens of buds (usually it has 10-15 flowers on it; last spring it had 104) but the three varieties of wild milkweed I’d planted to be a refuge for monarch butterflies had so far not materialized. The oak-leaf hydrangea I planted last fall has managed to survive, pinkish-red nubbins that will gradually unfurl into these huge leaves.

In the back, the white bleeding heart was one of the first to emerge (I quickly put a peach-basket over it so it wouldn’t becomes someone’s lunch) and now the astilbe which looked like it had died last fall is sending up spindly red shoots. The peonies are back, mostly in places where they won’t do well any more. When they were planted 50 years ago, it was sunny but now the dogwood overshadows everything and they will get little sunlight once its leaves come out, including the one surviving deep red one, part of the original stock my mother had brought from her mother’s first house where it was planted in 1919 (it didn’t bloom last year, but I’m afraid to move it to a better spot for fear of killing it outright).

The “beauty berry” bush, with its iridescent purple berries that the birds love, so far shows no signs of rejuvenation. The two different kind of hosta and the “lamb’s ear” I’d planted near it, however, seem to be on the verge of life. It depends how tempting they look in Nature’s Cafeteria in this land where the deer and the jackalope play...

It’s been an on-going challenge once the deer nibbled down the epimeium after it started sprouting. Planting seeds in starter-pots seems pointless to me but at least if they germinate, they have a better chance of making it to seedlings than if I planted them directly into the ground. Last year’s lush carpet of pre-pubescent alyssum and impatiens were mowed down by rabbits in less time than time-lapse photography could’ve recorded their sprouting. Then I bought plugs of already grown plants to plant there instead: they lasted a day.

I joked about using lady-bugs to control aphids and praying mantises to control grasshoppers, but I’m not sure what I would use to control the squirrels, rabbits and deer. Perhaps a puma but then what would I use to control the puma population? Fire-arms do not strike me as a terribly green solution, regardless of the legality of firing them in my own back-yard.

The other night, sitting in the darkened living room with the drapes closed after watching the 11pm news (with some report of another escaped criminal a county away), I heard the scrape of a porch chair pushed back against the picture window and wondered if I really wanted to open the drape to see what was there. I’ll assume it was rabbits frolicking on the porch who bumped against it or maybe a deer coming up to see if the drive-through window was open ("Got any house-plants in there?").

This morning I looked out to see pile of – let’s assume – rabbit-barf on the porch with the remains of what can only have been an iris once growing twenty feet away. Fortunately, there were many shoots to choose from, so this was less devastating than it might have been had it been the lone white bleeding heart recently freed from its peach-basket protection. I’m wondering if I should clean up the barf or move it over closer to the iris bed to remind them, “see, this is what this plant makes you do.” But like little children they’ll probably have to check it out one more time, at least, to see if it does it again.

All of the trees in my yard were planted within the first year my parents had built this house. In fact, the biggest silver maples in the very back had been saplings on the field when we bought it and, unfortunately, my mother decided we should try to keep them – free trees, you know. Unfortunately, there are now three other clumps of silver maples across the yard and we have dealt with this nemesis of “whirrly-gig” propeller seeds in the spring and the copious quantities of leaves in the fall clogging up rain-gutters. I’m wondering how much it would cost to take them out – they’re all huge – especially now that dead branches are constantly falling into the yard: one three-foot branch was impaled in the grass, sticking almost straight up most of the winter (this photo, right, was taken in February, looking toward the parent clump that in 1959 had been a small sapling).

But then the yard would seem so much less without trees there. I had joked when I was a kid and had to mow the grass (about 3/4s of an acre was huge to a teen-ager even on a riding mower) that if I ever lived here in the future, I would plant nothing BUT trees until it killed all the grass. So it seems odd now to be thinking about removing trees...

Considering the Japanese Maple is turning 50 (we were told it might live 25-30 years) and the two dogwoods have also lived well past their standard shelf-life, I wonder what to plant in readiness? At my age, with all due apologies to Joyce Kilmer, I would probably never see full-grown trees there again.

Then there are the forsythia which originally came from a bush we’d been given by my father’s mother. Most nursery-bred forsythia seem to be sterile and don’t spread, making nice little accent shrubs along the house or round bushes in the middle of the yard. This one, probably a forest-born weed that had been growing too close to their back door, soon took over our back yard. That first summer, we planted it in what was then the bare eastern corner at the back of the house. Somehow it started growing in the northeast corner of the yard. Trimming it one fall, Mother kept a bunch of branches cut into three foot lengths, for some reason, stacked in the garage for several years before she thought they would make great stakes in the vegetable garden she was going to put in in the northwest corner of the yard, growing peppers and tomatoes and, alas, zucchini.

I think this lasted three or four summers before the amount of work it took to raise them far outweighed the frustration of either eating all the zucchini or trying to give them away. She would forget to harvest them for a few days only to find they had developed into potentially lethal weapons. Since the rabbits didn’t seem to eat these plants, I figured we could use the zucchini to club them to death. If you just turned them into compost, no doubt the seeds would sprout and soon we wouldn’t be able to see the house for zucchini vines. Anyway, even before the garden expired, the stakes from the forsythia – the ones that had been kept in the garage for several years – had sprouted and spread like the undead. And now there are two vast clumps on the western side of the yard that clearly have an agenda of their own. Beautiful for the month of April, they create a vast wooded network for squirrels and rabbits, protection for the birds from overhead hawks and ample space for a complexful of catbirds to nest in.

In the mid-80s, N and I came out to chop down the original forsythia which had by then, a storey tall, taken over the corner of the house. N’s dad brought out his saws and clippers and, of course, the “chipper” for turning tree branches into sawdust. This project took the three of us most of the day and I was exhausted before we were even half-way through, though N’s dad, then in his mid-70s, was still going strong as the sun began to set. As I look around the yard 25 years later, I figure that original pre-sawdust forsythia was maybe 1/12th of what there is out there now... and it’s still growing and spreading from the original stump which no chemical seemed capable of killing.

Meanwhile, one of this spring’s project is staring me in the face: reseeding the vast patch of brown where the geothermal system was installed last August. I have not yet calculated the increase in my electrical usage to heat the house this winter compared to the previous winter’s expenses with the old oil furnace, but I was glad to be able to declare “30% of the installation cost” on my federal taxes last week – or rather, the “up to $2,000" part of it which was really less than half of that 30%. But still, comparing that to the 0% amount allowed by Pennsylvania, I’m not complaining.

Amidst the calls of birds – does it mean something different when a call of a falling perfect fourth repeated four times is answered by an inversion of those same pitches but repeated five times? – I hear the cry of the lawn-mower as I sit on my bench under the Japanese Maple and work my way slowly past the half-way point of David Copperfield (only because of time dedicatable to reading, not for any lack of enjoyment). Floyd the Pink Flamingo (an original 1955 Florida souvenir, not any cheap modern plastic imitation) is now back in place after migrating to the living room for the winter.

Once again the Earth has gone full-circle, constantly renewing itself as it has done for centuries and eons, by whatever means man has devised for the telling of time. I drive through my community which I remember was mostly farm-land fifty years ago and is now chock full of houses – though I can still see the pond not far away where we used to swim when we were kids, now home to mallards and geese and the occasional passing white egret. I look at the topographical map my grandfather gave me that was printed in 1899 and though many of the basic roads are already there, the place seems unrecognizable otherwise.

This area had been settled in the 1750s, woods and fields before it became farmland. And now some 300 acres of nearby woods, fields and farmland are being turned into townhouses and McMansions, just one of the most recent development projects in the vicinity. The impact on the region’s traffic and infrastructure is one thing but I wonder about the deer, for instance, whom I’d never seen in my back yard before: why are they stopping by now? Probably because their fields have been foreclosed and they have to move on? Maybe I should not worry so much about them eating a few of my plants...

- Dr. Dick

Friday, April 17, 2009

Another Blog!

Well, I've started another blog this morning - in addition to the one for Market Square Concerts, there is now one for the Harrisburg Symphony where I've posted about the up-coming concert next weekend with Puccini's Tosca, including the conversation Stuart Malina and I had earlier this week about the opera, and also about the YouTube Symphony with Harrisburg Symphony bassist Devin Howell was one of 96 players chosen from around the world, performing this past Wednesday at Carnegie Hall (you can even see a video of the first half of the concert - I'm waiting for them to post the second half, so check back later).

Meanwhile, it was announced yesterday that composer Lisa Bielawa has won this year's Rome Prize and will be spending her time in the Eternal City writing a new work for Market Square Conccerts which will be premiered on the February Concert of the 2009-2010 season! You can read more about that, here.

Meanwhile, it's a gorgeous sunny WARM spring day and I'm going out on my back porch to spend the afternoon reading... and shooing away the rabbits and the deer who are eating my plants... ah, nature...

- Dr. Dick

Monday, April 13, 2009

Rites of Spring

Once past the groundhog, then past the Vernal Equinox and finally by the time I begin to feel like it’s actually Spring, once the forsythia are in bloom and I can tell whether some of the plants in my garden will make it back for another year, I think of all the “Spring Music” that easily comes to mind and that, for 18 years, I had programmed abundantly through the hope of March and the showers of April – from symphonies by Schumann or Britten to songs by Schubert or (without words) by Mendelssohn – and one work stands out for me: Igor Stravinsky’s ballet, Le sacre du printemps or, as we know it in English, The Rite of Spring.
From the original Russian, the title (not pictured above, btw) translates more accurately as “Sacred Spring” but somehow the idea of ritual became part of the title and it has become part of my spring ritual, as well.

My first encounter with this music, one of the most significant works for the 20th Century, was in a cartoon. Walt Disney’s Fantasia, to be exact. I don’t remember when I first saw it – probably when I was in 2nd Grade, about 7 or 8 years old. Classical Music was not new to me: I had heard Bach’s Toccata & Fugue in D Minor or Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony before, somehow, but I had never SEEN them before. I remember my mother thinking the Night on Bald Mountain was simply too scary for a child my age but the thing I remember most about the movie was the dinosaurs.

A couple of years later, after my folks gave me a collection of 12 LPs called “Music of the World’s Greatest Composers” which included The Rite of Spring, I could only listen to it thinking of dinosaurs. Otherwise, the music didn’t make sense, not like Beethoven’s Eroica or even Wagner’s Prelude & Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde which were also included in this collection. Eventually I realized what Disney did to the music – going back to the opening at the very end and all that – had nothing to do with Stravinsky’s original story, that of a young girl (what did a 9-year-old know of virgins?) who dances herself to death as a sacrifice to the God of Spring. Funny, but the violence of the fighting dinosaurs was okay, but the human drama would have been too much, no doubt. Given the beauty of Disney’s animation even then, I wonder what an actual setting of the Sacrificial Dance would have looked like?

As often as I heard the music, through recordings or concert performances, I actually never SAW the ballet danced till I was 27. I was teaching in Connecticut and a bunch of friends and I decided we just had to go to the Metropolitan Opera in June of 1976 to see the production by the American Ballet Theater. It was choreographed by Glen Tetley and though it was fairly abstract, it still essentially followed the essence of Stravinsky’s plot. The opening of Part Two, the night scene, was a long (and brightly lit) pas de deux with Martine van Hamel and Clark Tippet that was far more beautiful than anything I had ever imagined with this eerie music. The other thing that was rather surprising: the Chosen One, the virgin who dances herself to death, was a man.

I have no idea how you prove he’s a virgin. We were sitting in a balcony box near the front of the stage, looking down on the dancers. After the Chosen One was writhing on the ground and then ran across the stage to throw himself down a few seconds later over there, you could see the complete outline of his body marked in sweat on the floor.

As the wild rhythms of the Sacrificial Dance grew to a goose-bump inducing, eye-widening frenzy, the other dancers pounced on the Chosen One as if they were going to tear him limb from limb. Four men hoist his now limp body above the crowd - there is that amazing silence - and then, on the last crashing chord, he flew up above the stage, what seemed to be higher than our 2nd balcony seats, his arms spread wide like a crucifix, frozen into a pin-spot followed a second later by a black-out.

I was so startled by this, I almost fell over the balcony railing into the pit below. To be very honest, nothing has ever given me that same visceral response in a live performance. Even the best concert performances pale – ho hum – by comparison.

Two more times that summer, I drove down from Storrs to New York to see that production. The information I can find on-line mentions Baryshnikov danced the opening night, but in all three performances, I never saw him dance the role (he had only defected to the west two years earlier and was quite the rage, then). The name I remember is Charles Ward.

After moving into New York, I saw two more productions of the ballet. One, for some reason, I can’t recall. The other was by a touring company from Germany with a famous dancer/ choreographer whose name I cannot remember, either, but this production was clearly from his Alley Oop period, as a dancer friend of mine described it. Instead of an abstract setting with leotards or body stockings, this was more realistic, taking Stravinsky’s original scenario very much to heart. To a point.

In this case, the Chosen One is danced to death by the High Priest (the famous dancer/ choreographer) who is dressed in a shaggy bear-skin over-the-shoulder affair that would have annoyed the politically correct Geico cave-men no end. At the very end, standing on a rock (was it in front of a cave?) high above the wildly gyrating crowd, the High Priest throws the girl up in the air, she lands straddling his shoulders, spinning around as he turns his back to us (this, during that momentary silence) so that, on the final chord, she suddenly falls backwards, as if hanging with her feet around his neck, arms splayed and the whites of her eyes visible from the second tier of seats!

The only thing I remember about the third one – a literal telling of the story but not so realistically staged or costumed – ends with four long-bearded sages each carrying a long staff who close in on the Chosen One during her final dance, getting imperceptibly nearer to her as she becomes increasingly more terrified. By the end, they have her confined in a narrow space between them, almost hiding her from the audience. At the end, the four sages raise these staffs on the flutes’ up-beat, poised over the dancer in that frozen silence, then on the final chord bring them crashing down as the lights black out, a brutal sacrifice in the old sense of the word.

The sheer physical athleticism required by the music may well make up for any shortcomings in the choreography in general. Bejart’s famous 1970 production (which I did not see) seems to start among germinating rodents before turning into the Sex Olympics. Pina Bausch’s version (I found only the final scene on-line) appears to take place at a singles bar where the dancers in the background seem totally uninvolved as the Chosen One who seems more like the Rejected One convulses before finally keeling over (if Janet Jackson’s wardrobe malfunction disturbed you, you may want to skip this one).

But Nijinsky’s original choreography (more the cause of the riot at its 1913 premiere rather than Stravinsky’s music) has been reconstructed by the Joffrey Ballet. I recently found it complete at YouTube (of course), dividing (badly) the two parts of the ballet into three segments. But it will give you an idea of the power of the ballet. Keep in mind how this must have looked in Paris in 1913 – when people had never seen anything like Martha Graham or Modern Dance or gratuitously overdone psychological symbolism and people must have been wondering what happened to the tutus and all those graceful pliés and leg extensions. Ignore the fact many of the costumes make them look like Dilbert’s Elbonians.

Spring in Russia arrives with a violence unknown in other climates as the frozen soil suddenly erupts with a great upheaval and cracking of the ice. This, I think, is actually described near the end of Part One – in the middle of the second screen, below – after the Ancient Sage kisses the earth and the music erupts into a frenzy of upward motions.

What surprises me most about this choreography is how well it suits the music, more than just physical actions set to very physical music. There is a great deal of stamping as if the dancers feet become another percussive extension of the orchestra, as well as hand-clapping and even thigh-slapping: the dancers are not only seen but heard. In the final dance, the Chosen One may be limited to a series of repetitive gestures in a very small physical space stage center – and it is not easy to stand still so long in that tense position before her dance even begins – that emphasizes her supplication to the gods, her life in return for a good crop, but also her personal fear of death in such a bargain.

Screen 1 (Beginning of Part 1)
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Screen 2 (End of Part 1 - Beginning of Part 2)
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Screen 3 (End of Part 2)
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Stravinsky’s music has been subjected to a wide range of interpretations – realistic, psychological, violently symbolic – and some of it perhaps a great deal of silliness beside. Though at first I thought this next one was one of the sillier ones (for all its athletic virtuosity) it is one of the more fascinating I’ve seen if only for the question “how do you choreograph horses?!”

Yes. Horses. This is a performance with dancers and horses and very often dancers ON horses, filmed in 2002 in an arena with L’Orchestre de Paris conducted by Pierre Boulez. The dancers are members of Zingaro, the choreographer goes by the name of Bartabas (you can read more about him, here). Of course there is also the practical concern, thinking what dancer wants to be rolling around on a dirt floor when horses, cantering about, answer Nature’s call, but leave those thoughts aside. The horses make their entrance about four minutes into the ballet. The pure white horses during the night scene that opens Part Two are themselves the dancers. Then in the final dance, watch the build-up as the Chosen One is selected.
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After that, there is nothing more to say.

- Dr. Dick

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Caught Between Seasons, Between Works

It is that time of year when I look forward to leaving Winter behind and welcome warmer weather, though it may take a while before Spring finally asserts itself enough to make me feel totally comfortable with the change of season. Flowers help.

There was a patch of “aconites,” tiny wild-flowers growing near the edge of the yard that had begun blooming even in late March, delicate green leaves with buttery-gold flowers. So I transplanted some of them to my little garden spot off the back porch where I could see them better, where they were quickly eaten by the deer. But at least it was a sign of spring-to-come, and that was enough to make me feel better about things.

This year, it is also a time when I find myself “between works,” an awkward state I haven’t experienced often over the past couple of decades, after having finished one composition but not yet started on the next one or made the decision just yet what it should be. In addition to blogging about the Guarneri Quartet for Market Square Concerts, I have been trying to get my thoughts organized to get back to some creative work.

The Violin Sonata is not only completed but copied, finally – the old-fashioned way – mailed off and now officially received. Since it started life as a single piece for John Clare and I to play before growing proportionally into a few more, dedicating the whole thing to him out of friendship for having brought it into being seemed natural. I mailed it off on Wednesday in time for him to receive it on his birthday Saturday! Having turned 39 – now entering the Jack Benny Decades, complete with the urge to play Kreutzer’s 2nd Etude and “Love in Bloom” – John now looks ahead to another project ofr his next birthday: a recital of violin and piano pieces written especially for him by composer-friends. Though we’d played the first piece almost 3½ years ago, I was still concerned I might not finish mine in time for his 40th... Whew...

But whereto next? Having finished the Sonata on February 28th, I wanted to focus on copying it before I got distracted by something else – the full score for the songs, “Evidence of Things Not Seen,” has yet to be completed – but in the past few weeks, the itch to write started manifesting itself in stray thoughts while I’m trying to focus on copying. Afraid to say “Go away, I’m busy,” because there was a time (many years’ worth) such thoughts never came, I started dutifully trying to figure out where things would go.

Having heard some of Lee Hoiby’s beautiful songs and thinking of them as models of simplicity and directness as well as extremely well-written piano parts – all aspects my music lacks – I thought it might be time to go back to write some songs with piano. I don’t think I’ve done this since I was in college: any vocal music since 1971 had been with chamber groups or orchestra.

Usually, I dislike reading poetry not for any dislike of the art but because it usually means I want to set them to music and that usually means a whole series of legal hoops to get (and usually pay for) permission to do so. The one time I asked a poet for permission, back in the late-70s – Richard Thomas, the actor and also a very fine poet – he offered to write some new poems specifically for me that I could set before they would be published, thus avoiding that particular hurdle: this coincided with a sea-change of a style change for me, along with other major events undermining my life at the time, and instead of songs with piano, they became songs with guitar (which I’d never written for before) and turned out to be among the worst things I’d ever written in my life. And so they, along with that and other similar projects, were set aside.

But what texts, if I’m looking for something in Public Domain? My musical affinities do not normally attract me toward 19th Century poets – and then, even if I chose earlier poets like Michelangelo or Petrarch, I would have to deal with paying rights to use English translations. When I was at Eastman, I even learned enough about Chinese to be able to translate some of Li Po’s poetry myself rather than rely on published translations, all still under copyright. These became my Seven Songs from the Middle Kingdom for soprano, mezzo-soprano and chamber ensemble which I conducted at Eastman in 1973, my studently answer to George Crumb’s Ancient Voices of Children.

But once I started reading some possible sources – getting out my grandfather’s 1905-ish copy of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, for one – I started thinking “if you want to work on your piano-writing skills, why not just write piano pieces?”

Off and on, I had seriously considered writing a collection of short pieces for solo piano. It would make sense, maybe even something I could play myself, since I have nothing to show when people ask me to “sit down and play something,” the typical “roll over/sit up” response many people have when composers admit to being composers. These would be short, like etudes but setting up creative challenges for the composer, not the player (unless that player is me, in which case, yes, anything is a technical challenge).

So as soon as I started jotting down some ideas, what started coming to mind was – a piano quintet...

Now, there is no reason for me to write something for piano and string quartet. If I write piano pieces or songs, there are ample opportunities for performance, thousands of models no one may think about when hearing them, but when someone hears I’m writing a piano quintet, suddenly there are a small handful of works – like Brahms, Schumann, Dvořák and Shostakovich, much less Schnittke or Adès – to be compared to, to be accused of trying to replace, to fight for space on a program.

While listening to the Harrisburg Symphony rehearse Shostakovich’s 9th Symphony or the Guarneri Quartet play Kodály, I found myself jotting down ideas for a piano quintet. There are 35 different possible combinations for these five instruments that I can use in the course of the structure. How can I make that structure work? I’m not writing down notes, yet – I’m writing down shapes, forms, details, framework. Once any of those make sense, bam! I’m sunk...

So far, the Piano Quintet is winning...

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Moses, the Valkyrie, the Passion & Patelson's

Normally, I do not listen to music around the house. I mean, sit down and LISTEN to music. After 18 years of being out-of-place in the radio business, I am no fan of aural wall-paper. When I was a student and still discovering many works that I had as yet never heard before, I had the radio on all the time, whether I was paying attention to it or not. If I could, I would stop and focus on it when something that caught my attention. Eventually, especially when I was composing, it was difficult for me to listen to other people’s music when I was trying to coax my own stuff out of my brain and on to the page.

Saturday, however, I chose to sit down and listen to the Metropolitan Opera broadcast of the 2nd installment of Wagner’s epic Ring of the Nibelung. I missed the 1st episode, Das Rheingold, the other week, but I intend to settle into the remainder of the series – and to follow the live performance with my Dover edition full-scores. So yesterday, I listened to Die Walküre while five of the cats acted out the Ride of the Valkyries across the living room floor (and furniture and walls)... Next week, Siegfried, and the following week, wrapping it up with the end of the world, Götterdämmerung.

One tradition of the last several years was playing Handel’s Israel in Egypt before Passover and Bach’s St. Matthew Passion on Good Friday. There are few radio-friendly works that capture the intensity of these religious holidays and probably none to match their settings, especially Bach’s telling of the events leading up to the Crucifixion, even for those of little faith.

Once, I scheduled Bach’s St. John Passion just for variety and got a complaint about that gospel’s anti-Semitism which therefore implied Bach was anti-Semitic for setting it and we were anti-Semitic for broadcasting it. So for several years, the decision was which recording of Bach’s St. Matthew to play and how many recordings of a work – even one of the Great Works of Western Art – that you’re likely to play only once a year could a radio station library afford when shelf-space was becoming very dear? Some listeners wanted to hear Osvaldo Golijov’s Passion according to St. Mark but couldn’t understand it was illegal to broadcast it without paying a hefty fee, something called “Grand Dramatic Rights,” with an even heftier fine if caught doing so without having obtained the special license.

So this year, no longer limited by these radio restrictions, I listened to two different works entirely, ones I could never play on the radio because more people would have turned it off than choose to listen to modern works that challenged their ears with anything remotely unfamiliar.

On Wednesday night, when my Jewish friends would be sitting down to their Seders, I listened to Arnold Schoenberg’s opera, Moses und Aron. With the full score. (I am such a geek...) (The image at left is one of the composer's sketches from the Scene with the Golden Calf.)

When I was in 11th grade back in 1966, I’d bought my first recording of this work – the old Rosbaud recording on Columbia, I believe the first complete recording (originally a live radio broadcast of the world premiere staging from Zurich in 1954) and at the time probably the only one available. I’d found it in a store in Philadelphia when I was down visiting a friend and chose it, despite never hearing a note of it, over the Flagstad recording of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde though I knew the conductor of the Harrisburg Symphony, Edwin McArthur, who’d been Flagstad’s accompanist in the ‘30s (one degree of separation). This discovery became a scene in my novel-in-progress, Echoes in and out of Time, so I should perhaps post that segment here rather than go into more detail, now, but suffice it to say my initial reaction was not very positive (“I spent $14.99 for this?”). But eventually, after I came back to it and acclimated myself to it, even that same recording, it eventually become one of my favorite operas.

Stagings of it are rare. I’d gone to New York City to see two different productions of the work staged by New York City Opera (was it 1990?) and later (finally) by the Metropolitan Opera (in 1999). At one point, I stopped in at Patelson’s and debated buying the hard-bound full-score, one of those bright yellow Schott editions, which they had on a 2nd floor shelf. But I decided I could not afford it. In 1998, realizing how important a work it was to my musical up-bringing, I decided I could not afford not to buy it. So I did. For $100.

(It may be a coincidence that in November, 2000, I completed the first piece I’d completed in over 16 years.)

Now I own four different recordings of Moses on CD (though I can only find three at the moment - perhaps the other one I was thinking of is a still-unpacked LP). I listened to one of two I have conducted by Boulez which I’d also bought it in 1998. I also have one from Naxos, but not the DVD recorded live in Vienna. Here is an excerpt from the DVD’s opening scene, courtesy of the ubiquitous You-Tube (the scene is between Moses and the Voice of God from the Burning Bush which does not, contrary to what it might look like, take place in a train station...)
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Even today, I still remember the excitement I experienced the first time I heard Krzystof Penderecki’s St. Luke Passion, listening to its first recording (released barely a year after its world premiere) and newly arrived at the Susquehanna University Music Library. Sitting there 42 years ago, my ears encased in bulky old-fashioned headsets plugged into the back of a bulky old-fashioned record player, I was amazed that any mind could have found a way to create sounds like this and translate them into something that could be played by standard instruments and voices unenhanced by any electronic technology then the rage. It became one of the most ear-opening experiences of my creative life, this discovery.

I heard Penderecki’s St. Luke Passion a year or so before I heard all of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion which was written around 1727 or so. I first heard the Bach live in the early ‘70s when I was a graduate student at Eastman but have never heard the Penderecki live. On the other hand, I had the chance to meet Krzystof Penderecki and hear a brand new work of his, a Partita for harpsichord and orchestra, which received its world premiere at Eastman, something I could never do with Johann Sebastian Bach unless I would have started doing some fairly serious drugs then the rage (a friend of mine tried LSD once and listened to The Rite of Spring, telling me he met Stravinsky. “He's dead,” I said. “Could've fooled me,” he said.)

Here is an excerpt from the St. Luke Passion - the a capella setting of the Stabat Mater in Part II - found, naturally, on You-Tube, the Land Where You Can Find Anything: I wish I could find some of the Crowd Scenes - they are amazing! (For a brief sample, go here and listen to Track 10!)
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Listening Friday night to the recent Grammy-nominated recording on Naxos, it occurred to me I might have the score somewhere in my own library. I remember it – the Schott edition with its bright yellow cover – but once I started going through at least those I’ve unpacked (and finding other bright yellow Schott scores), it must have been that afternoon I stood in Patelson’s reading through it from cover to cover, taking mental note of its notation – how he put those amazing sounds on paper to be recreated by live performers – and wondering if I could afford the cost. I forget what that was but considering at the time I was living in New York City making $95/week playing piano for a few ballet classes and paying $495/month rent – I never said math was my long suit – it was an easy decision to just look through it and put it back on the shelf. I was not the only musician who would treat Patelson’s as a non-lending music library, browsing through scores for reference rather than buying them. But the memory of looking at the score was so powerful, I went through my rather disorganized library to look for it and realized I must never have bought the score, whatever it cost.

So it is sad to realize, in connection with these two works so significant in my life, that the Joseph Patelson Music House, just behind Carnegie Hall and a mecca for musicians around the globe, is going to be closing next week, a victim of on-line shopping but more significantly of the current economy. (Update: you can read the New York Times article here.)
I have often referred to Patelson’s as the Best Little Score-House in New York. Some people would wait at the Carnegie Stage Door to meet great conductors or performers after a concert, others chose to hang out in Patelson’s when they’d be in town because quite likely they would end up there during their stay. In addition to running into friends of mine there who now played in major orchestras around the country, I also ran into (quite literally) Samuel Barber, turning around in one of their cramped aisles to find he was trying to squeeze behind me. And in turning around, I stepped on his foot. I was too embarrassed to bother him for an autograph but I later did get him to sign my vocal score of his Antony & Cleopatra, a score I had bought during one of my first visits to Patelson’s a decade earlier.

Looking through an Elliott Carter score one afternoon, I overheard one of the guys answering the telephone, telling the caller “yes, we have one of the largest collections of contemporary music in... yes... ah... yes, actually, we do have some songs by Barry Manilow...” Twitters (in the old-sense) all around.

Another time, someone was trying to track down a copy of the Kodály “Buttocks Pressing Song.” Assuming it was one of those odder folk-dances, he spent several minutes trying to locate it on the shelves, in the back-stock, even in any catalogue. Admitting defeat to the caller, he found out what she really wanted was an old English dance-hall song, “Could I but Express in Song.” (I’m not making this up. It may be the music store equivalent of having Prince Albert in a can.)

After moving back to Harrisburg from there in 1980, no trip to New York City was complete without at least one stop at Patelson’s. The last time, a little over a year ago, was a disappointment. It was not less cramped but seemed to have less to offer. I had a long list of scores and books I wanted to look for. They had none of them in stock. A month or so later, I ordered nine works by Elliott Carter through their on-line division and they had seven of them in stock which made me feel infinitely better.

When I heard they were closing their doors soon, I called the 800-number to see if they had any of a short list of works I hoped they might still have in stock, including Penderecki’s “St. Luke Passion.” They did not.

Patelson’s opened their doors in 1939. I had been going there frequently since the mid-1960s, probably on a weekly basis during the two years I lived in Manhattan. I had so many of their distinctive gray envelopes, I started keeping my old manuscripts and sketches in them, filing them away on my shelves. Most of my piano music, practically all of my scores (at least the new ones) and many of my “technical” books came from Patelson’s, my study (and formerly my childhood bedroom) too small to contain them all, now.

Saturday, April 18th, 2009, will be the last day the store will be open. I almost feel I should go to NYC just to say good-bye.

- Dr. Dick

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Update: Several people told me "April 18th" would be the closing date but the New York Times article says the owner, Marsha Patelson, daughter-in-law of the founder, has no specific closing-date in mind beyond shutting the store by the end of April.