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.

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