Thursday, December 16, 2010
Since I wrote last Saturday about Elliott Carter celebrating his 102nd birthday with a new work given its world premiere in Toronto, I thought today I’d tell you about a new work that received its world premiere this past summer, a brand new symphony by Ludwig van Beethoven.
The only difference is – this is fiction.
Well, it might seem obvious, but I just wanted to be sure we’re all on the same foot (bunions aside).
This is an excerpt from The Doomsday Symphony, a music appreciation thriller which I began sketching over the summer and started writing in mid-October. During the month of November, it was my NaNoWriMo project where the goal was to write an additional 50,000 words by the end of the month (piece of cake). Even at 90,000 words, it’s not finished yet and, though friends have asked me about it, it’s also not ready to be posted at Thoughts on a Train.
Unlike my earlier attempts -- The Schoenberg Code and The Lost Chord – this one is not a parody of anything written by Dan Brown. While it would be difficult to say it is entirely “original” – now, there’s a philosophical red-herring – despite the occasional parody, let’s just say in The Doomsday Symphony, I’m on my own.
First of all, to explain – most of the story takes place on Harmonia-IV, one of a series of parallel universes that is neither exactly Heaven nor Hell where, our hero Dr. T.R. Cranleigh [later changed to T. Richard Kerr] discovers, the population consists mostly of dead musicians or people who once considered themselves musicians, even some music critics (though for these latter it’s probably the equivalent of Hell).
This is the after-life home of many of the great composers – others may reside on Harmonia-V, some fewer on Harmonia-ii6 while others ended up, through some kind of cosmic deception, on Harmonia-vi but I digress – who, contrary to what we might assume, continue to compose and occasionally hang out, discussing music over their beers, at Stravinsky’s Tavern. In these various parallel universes, by the way, interlopers from The Other Side (like Cranleigh) are called Trespassers though the popular slang is Zoombies, from the Greek word ζωή (zoe) meaning “life.”
The plot involves two villains, each with their independent villainies. In the one that initially draws our hero (a know-it-all musicologist who knows a great deal about very little) to Harmonia-IV, Dr. Klavdia Klangfarben, a trained forensic musicologist, has been hired as an agent by SHMRG’s CEO, N. Ron Steele and his Director of Office Supplies and Classical Music, the would-be composer Manfred (or “Man”) Kaye. They want to “kill off the great composers of the past” in an attempt to corner the market in the music licensing business.
Through her thesis advisor, the great Danish musicologist Frøkken Bohr, Klangfarben has discovered that a legendary parallel universe where dead composers go exists and can be accessed through a time-gate located in a field outside the abandoned mining town of New Coalton in Eastern Pennsylvania.
Once there, with the help of a lawyer and former musician named Abner Kedaver who counted among his clients Brahms and Mahler, she manages to find the hand-held time-traveling devices the Harmonians use to travel back in time. This way, she can affect the lives of composers like Bach, Wagner, Mozart and Beethoven not by killing them before their prime but by in some way altering their lives so they never achieve the greatness that we revere them for.
Without them, other composers would not have been influenced by them because, as we know them, they would never really have existed. What would Brahms be without Beethoven, for instance? And so it affects music in a more long-range way than it might initially seem.
In this way, then, by talking a 20-year-old Bach into accepting Dietrich Buxtehude’s job offer to stay in Lübeck as the resident organist – an offer which included marrying his eldest daughter, ten years his senior – Bach might never have gone to Leipzig, would be unlikely to have fathered some twenty children, and would probably have developed into a very fine composer on the level of Buxtehude but probably only one as well known today as Buxtehude – a great composer, perhaps, but not a Great Composer, if you get my drift.
The second plot involves a mild-mannered assistant conductor named Rogers Kent-Clarke (who once studied with conductor Louis Lane) who, following Cranleigh, finds himself in the middle of Harmonia-IV, meets Gustav Mahler and hears him telling people about his latest symphony in which (a kind of counterpart to his 2nd Symphony, the Resurrection) he describes the End of the World.
With a series of increasingly dissonant chords – similar to the three fateful chords of his 6th Symphony which some call the Tragic – carefully placed structurally throughout the course of this ninety-minute-long work, Mahler is convinced the last chord will bring about the destruction of the universe. A philosopher and apocalyptic cult-leader named Siegfried Schweinwurfer (translated literally from the German as War-Peace Pig-Thrower) therefore dubs it the Doomsday Symphony. Kent-Clarke makes up his mind to steal the score, return to Earth with it and become famous for discovering and premiering a new Mahler symphony – in essence, becoming a SuperConductor.
The rather serious side effect of his ambition, unfortunately, could bring about the destruction of the world in 2012, another plot that Cranleigh and his associates - now including Harmonian Detective Milo Smighley and the detective from Pennsylvania who got involved in investigating something completely different at the beginning of the story, Jenna Sainte-Croix - must solve before the novel's end.
Hence, the title of the novel – since I thought Bach to the Future wasn’t quite as effective.
Anyway, at this point, early in our story, the Universal Philharmonic – under the direction of a conductor whose name I have not yet chosen – is preparing the premiere of Beethoven’s latest symphony, his 39th. This is the opening sequence from (quite coincidentally) Chapter #39, at the first rehearsal held in Einstein Hall.
= = = = = = =
The DOOMSDAY SYMPHONY - CHAPTER 39
The music was so calm, so self-assured and, above all, so beautiful. From the expansive opening, magisterial yet thoroughly human, there was no doubt on any of their faces this would be Beethoven at his best. Here was a new masterpiece and this orchestra was the first to bring it to life. Every one of them sensed the honor.
And the responsibility.
They followed [Maestro] implicitly, watching the years melt away from him. The crotchety old man, frail yet still in his prime, became the music – likewise calm, self-assured and even, in a way, beautiful.
They knew that Beethoven had been working for over a decade on this symphony, starting the sketches even before he had begun the last one. That one had disappointed many, though the composer held his ground.
"What is it with critics bad-mouthing my even-numbered symphonies," he continually groused. "Can't they tell they're all good, each in their own way?"
Even if you considered his posthumous career, now over 180 years and thirty symphonies later, Beethoven still managed to come up with different responses each time he came face-to-face with what he called "the Symphonic Question." He'd gone much farther than Haydn – even a thousand symphonies later – had ever done. Mahler himself would be much affected by this one.
And how he hated sitting there in Stravinsky's Tavern having to deal with Mahler and those endless discussions about "What is a Symphony?" It was enough to make him miss the old days of the conversation books!
What started out like a slow introduction, despite the tempo indication of Allegro non troppo (not too fast), gradually unfolded as the first theme, the violins playing the notes of a triad – slowly undulating arpeggios – which the solo horn then picked up and, playing them in faster rhythms, turned into a gradually unwinding melody supported by flutes and clarinets. This melody, more than just a triad, served as its own harmony. What sounded like a chord progression turned into sequences of this melodic-harmonic cell flowing so seamlessly, you could overlook how simple it really was.
But that was Basic Beethoven. A common device from his mortal symphonies, he expanded it to greater and more complex lengths in his 13th, 27th and 35th symphonies, yet never losing that sense of sublime simplicity. His famous small cells, the building blocks opening his 5th or 21st symphonies, became larger, like durable structural beams spun out of diamonds.
And it wasn't only his own works where you sensed this. Without Beethoven's examples, the symphonies of Brahms and Bruckner, Mahler, Shostakovich or Sibelius would all have been very different works, each finding significant influences there. Even those "anti-symphonies" by Berlioz and Liszt found inspiration in Beethoven's "Pastoral," at least metaphorically, implying some dramatic story told across its surface.
But Beethoven argued these were only "surface elements." You needed to dig down to find the structural architecture that supported the surface: in lesser composers, symphonies like that usually fell flat because it lacked this support.
It didn't matter whether listeners could "hear" this or not – and by that he meant "hear it and consciously point it out," talking technically the way a composer might talk about it – that wasn't the point. It was something subconsciously understood, a realization satisfying the listener without necessarily knowing why; unsatisfying, much the same way, when it was lacking.
Studying the latest music written over the past century, Beethoven had become disturbed by the sound of some trends composers were following but he understood them as direct reactions – pro or con – to his own ideas.
If Schoenberg ordered pitches in the technical way serialism implied, he was doing so because he understood the organic importance of inner structure.
Though he wasn't pleased initially with Alex Ross's statement, "Beethoven got it wrong," in his otherwise wonderful book, The Rest Is Noise, he understood it was all a reaction to him, impossible if he'd never been.
First, the orchestra "ran" each movement through non-stop to get a sense of it before going back to fix some technical details. Basically, for a first rehearsal, everything was progressing smoothly, nothing requiring them to stop. They might need to clear something up that hadn't come across quite so clearly, but on the whole he was feeling pretty confident.
Used to having the composers sitting in on later sessions of the rehearsal process, Maestro [Name] was even more nervous than usual. Beethoven was quite well known as a notorious stickler, not one he'd risk disappointing.
If his musicians weren't "on the needles and pins of extreme anxiety," as he put it, he himself was feeling close to nausea, ready to break out in a sweat at the least chance of complication. While it was deemed an honor to premiere a major new work by Beethoven, many conductors often wondered, "was it worth the aggravation?"
The one trumpet player missed his cue and came in a beat late but managed to catch himself, making the necessary correction so that he, the conductor and Beethoven were probably the only ones who noticed. Otherwise, the first movement's read-through had gone splendidly, only a few other things needing touched up here and there, but otherwise quite impressive.
There was that spot leading up to the scherzo's trio they'd have to go back and work on – something in the cross-rhythms between winds and strings before the trombones entered – but the second movement went surprisingly well.
Throughout the rehearsal, [Maestro] expected to be interrupted by the composer at any moment, but there was nothing – not even a cough. Was it possible that Beethoven had already left? Hadn't he liked it at all?
Then from the darkness of the auditorium, there was enthusiastic applause from their lone audience. Beethoven, usually quite reserved, was shouting, "Bravo! Superb!"
"So with that, everyone – good job! Let's take a break," he smiled, "ten minutes. No, we're ahead of schedule – make it twenty."
Stepping down from the podium, [Maestro] looked like a much younger man than before.
Very few rehearsals in recent memory had gone this well. [Maestro] was often reticent with his praise so between that and hearing Beethoven yelling "Bravo" from the hall was enough to put smiles on everybody's faces.
Marsha Funebre, the personnel manager, was clapping everybody on the back, wishing she had champagne to pass around backstage instead of plain soda.
= = = = = = =
From there, the plot continues.
Two members of the orchestra are secret agents working for the Security Division of BHUIA, the Bureau of Harmonian Universal Intelligence Agency (formed from two previous but redundant organizations, the Bureau of Harmonian Intelligence and the Universal Intelligence Agency).
Agents Rondo Sharrif, the principal horn player (a young Palestinian musician who had been killed in an attack by a suicide bomber on his way to a rehearsal with the West-East Divan Orchestra), and violist Roger Babbitt (whose initial appearance, running late for the rehearsal, is very much like the White Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland) are summoned to appear as witnesses in the trial where Judge Willa Fortune will preside over the case against Dr. Cranleigh and his associates, Trespassers wrongly charged with the plot to kill the Great Composers (who, of course, wonder what’s the point, since they’re already dead) while Klangfarben runs free to next attack Mozart.
Incidentally, like many names in The Doomsday Symphony, Rondo Sharrif, such a fine player his friends call him “Horn Solo,” is an anagram, in this case of Harrison Ford (who, of course, was Han Solo in the original Star Wars).
But there is more to this excerpt than meets the eye – just as there is usually more to the music than meets the ear – but I’ll get into that in another post.
Update: In the spring of 2011, I completed the novel, The Doomsday Symphony, and posted it on the installment plan (making it a serial novel) which you can read, beginning with this introductory post. If you've already read this post, you can just click on ahead to the first installment.
Saturday, December 11, 2010
According to this article in the Toronto Star, the New Music Concerts ensemble, led by flutist and long-time Carter advocate and collaborator Robert Aitken, Carter was unable to attend the performance but for what reasons, I'm not sure.
Talking with Aitken several weeks ago, the composer had said "If I feel then as well as I feel now, I'll go anywhere!" But many things can happen at this time of year – weather, transportation as well as health issues. (I'm also trying to imagine Carter dealing with the TSA scans and pat-downs...)
This past June, Carter attended the world premiere of his recent song cycle, setting poems of Marianne Moore, "What Are Years?" at the Aldeburgh Festival.
The world premiere in Toronto last night was the Concertino for Bass Clarinet and ensemble, written late last year for his long-time assistant, Virgil Blackwell.
Here is an interview recorded with Carter a month ago – Blackwell is also present for some of it. The production uses a lot of un-Carteresque ambient sound as well as clips of works by other composers who've influenced him as well as tantalizing snippets of his own works plus a kind of time-line where you might hear a bit of a piece Carter wrote in a certain year followed by something from Beckett's "Waiting for Godot" written that same year, or a historical speech or announcement about some major news event.
In all, it's a very good introduction for people who are not familiar with his style, may not in fact like his style but could understand his approach to his music – how he writes it but more importantly how he thinks about it as he's writing it.
Despite its legendary complexity, his music does not start out to be "complicated." As I've tried to explain to people who are put off by the fact you can't tap your toe to it, the "complexity" is a way of approximating what he's hearing – how the instruments, for instance, are expressing their personalities (he often talks about how the players are characters who have ideas and reactions, who may discuss things and who may change their ideas and opinions over time), how these elements overlap in time and how their rhythms interact with each other sometimes by seeming not to interact, the way we normally think of it, but often exist on separate planes simultaneously.
And if you think about it, despite his well-known way of expressing himself which often sounds much like his music – playful, often tangential, sometimes stuttering to find the right word or idea – he doesn't sound bad for a man a month shy of turning 102!
That fact alone is enough for people to take notice of him – "wow, the man's 102 years old, imagine that!" – but the fact he's also busy composing and looking forward to the next piece is also amazing. Since his late-80s, he has become even more prolific than he had been when he was considered on the tail-end of his career after 70.
His earliest music reflected a lot of what was going on around him in New Music before World War II. The "Holiday Overture" and the two ballets "Pocahontas" and (for me, especially) "The Minotaur" as well as his "Symphony No. 1" would all be typical of the American Scene between the wars – sounding like a mix of Copland and Ives, perhaps – but there are lots of fingerprints of the more mature composer already in these works.
After the war, with the Piano Sonata – to me, a work that would fit into any recital program as well as Liszt's monumental sonata – things started taking on a different turn. The Cello Sonata plays off this "time-counterpoint" where the cello is flexible but the piano more rigid and often moving at a different "pace" than the sound of the cello. Also, in one sense, the cello is "romantic," emotional and varied, while the piano is more "classical," stricter sounding and structural, the bones of the piece whereas the cello is the skin, the heart, the soul of the piece.
It wasn't until the First String Quartet that Carter reached his "true voice." This work, composed famously in the isolation of the Arizona desert where the sense of time – an all-important facet of his style – is very different from living in New York City. Not only is it his most expansive work, the quartet flows with an organic quality that is like life itself.
By this time, he was in his early-40s, considered a "late-bloomer" compared to other composers who'd found their voice at a much younger age.
The music he wrote in the '60s and '70s – like the Concerto for Orchestra or the Third Quartet (which is really two duos playing two often different but simultaneous pieces, each duo even playing a different number of movements) – is his most complex and was viewed at the time as "Late Carter." The man, after all was in his mid-60s. Most commentators, looking for a pigeon-hole description, referred to these pieces as his "Late Period," as Beethoven's "Late Quartets" are Beethoven at his most complex.
I met Carter by accident standing on line to get tickets for a performance celebrating his impending 70th Birthday which included all three of the string quartets. He was there to pick up some tickets for friends of his – rather than calling and having them reserved. We talked briefly – when I told him I had been teaching at the University of Connecticut, he said "Oh, UConn – Charlie Whittenberg teaches there. He's a very fine composer." (When I told Charlie that, later – he was always having severe self-esteem issues – I remember him sitting back and sitting up straight with an expression that really struck home with him. I can only hope it helped him in his final years – he died not long after that.)
So the general attitude was, Carter, now 70, would do what most composers do when they reach retirement age – write less, rest on his laurels, and perhaps focus more on teaching or being an Elder Statesman in the New Music World.
But not so with Carter. Since the 1980s, when he was 75, he began a whole new wave of creativity, probably the most prolific period of his life. While many of these may be "miniatures" and solo pieces, there are several concertos, a few large-scale orchestral works, two more string quartets, songs and song-cycles, and, most surprisingly, his first opera, "What's Next?" which he composed for performances during his 90th Birthday celebrations!
Carter's biographical entry at Wikipedia has a partial list of works, of which over 75 were written after he turned 75.
Not many composers have a "Post-Late" Period...
Elliott Carter has long been a favorite composer of mine and his birthday is something I celebrate the way other music-lovers might observe Beethoven's or Mozart's birthdays. Today and over the next few days, I will be listening to several recordings – some of them, with scores – starting with another of my favorite works, his "Variations for Orchestra" – the full score I ordered last week through Barnes & Noble On-Line arrived in the mail just an hour ago, just in time to help me celebrate the composer's 102nd Birthday.
In the next few days, I will try to post some video-clips (the wonder of YouTube) of some of his works, including an exciting performance of his Cello Concerto (written in 2001) by Dane Johansen, a Juilliard student who chose it for his Concerto Competition Diploma, recorded at a dress-rehearsal with the Juilliard Orchestra conducted by a long-time Carter champion, James Levine.
Or this performance by Pierre-Laurent Aimard of a brief solo piano piece, "Catenaires" which Carter composed as one of many works to be premiered during the world-wide celebration of his 100th Birthday.
The vitality of this music is stunning regardless of its complexity – and then when you consider Carter was 92 when he composed the Cello Concerto and 97 when he wrote "Catenaires," it is even more stunning.
Happy Birthday, Mr. Carter – and ||: many happy returns :||
- Dick Strawser
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Photo credit: The header photo of Elliott Carter, which I found unattributed on a few different internet posts, was probably taken during a pre-concert interview, I suspect from the DVD accompanying Naxos' 100th Birthday Celebration disc featuring Robert Aitken and members of the Toronto-based New Music Concerts Ensemble.
Wednesday, December 01, 2010
Not that I have anything against LL Cool J (he's great on NCIS: Los Angeles) but there isn't enough Benadryl in the house for me to sit through even two minutes of Justin Bieber, so I'm just scouring the web-site waiting for the list of nominees to be posted because, like, I rather doubt Hilary Hahn's going to be playing the 3rd Movement of Jennifer Higdon's Violin Concerto on the TV show (wouldn't that be great!).
Anyway, the winners will be announced on February 13th, 2011, at 8pm – about 73 days from now, if you're counting down.
(UPDATE: for the Winners, follow this link.)
Here are the nominees in the Classical Division: congratulations to everyone whose recording was nominated!
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95. Best Engineered Album, Classical – An Engineer's Award. (Artist names appear in parentheses.)
Daugherty: Metropolis Symphony; Deus Ex Machina -- Mark Donahue, John Hill & Dirk Sobotka, engineers (Giancarlo Guerrero & Nashville Symphony Orchestra) [Naxos]
Have You Ever Been...? -- Robert Friedrich, engineer (Turtle Island Quartet, Stefon Harris & Mike Marshall) [Telarc]
Mackey, Steven: Dreamhouse - David Frost, Tom Lazarus, Steven Mackey & Dirk Sobotka, engineers (Gil Rose, Rinde Eckert, Catch Electric Guitar Quartet, Synergy Vocals & Boston Modern Orchestra Project) [BMOP/sound]
Porter, Quincy: Complete Viola Works - Leslie Ann Jones, Kory Kruckenberg & David Sabee, engineers (Eliesha Nelson & John McLaughlin Williams) [Dorian Sono Luminus]
Vocabularies - Steve Miller, Allen Sides & Roger Treece, engineers (Bobby McFerrin) [Emarcy]
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Corigliano: Violin Concerto 'The Red Violin' (Michael Ludwig, JoAnn Falletta & Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra)
Daugherty: Metropolis Symphony; Deus Ex Machina (Giancarlo Guerrero & Nashville Symphony)
Rachmaninov: Symphony No. 2 (Leonard Slatkin & Detroit Symphony Orchestra)
Tower Of The Eight Winds - Music For Violin & Piano By Judith Shatin (Borup-Ernst Duo)
Tyberg: Symphony No. 3; Piano Trio (JoAnn Falletta & Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra)
Wind Serenades (Gregory Wolynec & Gateway Chamber Ensemble)
Britten's Orchestra (Michael Stern & Kansas City Symphony)
Chambers, Evan: The Old Burying Ground (Kenneth Kiesler & The University Of Michigan Symphony Orchestra)
Dorman, Avner: Concertos For Mandolin, Piccolo, Piano And Concerto Grosso (Andrew Cyr, Eliran Avni, Mindy Kaufman, Avi Avital & Metropolis Ensemble)
The 5 Browns In Hollywood (5 Browns)
Mackey, Steven: Dreamhouse (Gil Rose, Rinde Eckert, Catch Electric Guitar Quartet, Synergy Vocals & Boston Modern Orchestra Project)
Meeting Of The Spirits (Matt Haimovitz)
Two Roads To Exile (ARC Ensemble)
Adams: Nixon In China (Marin Alsop, Tracy Dahl, Marc Heller, Thomas Hammons, Maria Kanyova, Robert Orth, Chen-Ye Yan, Opera Colorado Chorus & Colorado Symphony Orchestra)
Debussy: Le Martyre De Saint Sébastien (Jun Märkl & Orchestre National De Lyon)
Dohnányi: Variations On A Nursery Song (JoAnn Falletta, Eldar Nebolsin & Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra)
Harris: Symphonies Nos. 5 & 6 (Marin Alsop & Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra)
Hubay: Violin Concertos Nos. 1 And 2 (Chloë Hanslip, Andrew Mogrelia & Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra)
Messiaen: Poèmes Pour Mi (Anne Schwanewilms, Jun Märkl & Orchestre National De Lyon)
Piazzolla: Sinfonía Buenos Aires (Daniel Binelli, Tianwa Yang, Giancarlo Guerro & Nashville Symphony Orchestra)
Ries: Works For Flute And Piano (Uwe Grodd & Matteo Napoli)
Roussel: Symphony No. 1 (Stéphane Denève & Royal Scottish National Orchestra)
Shchedrin: Concertos For Orchestra Nos. 4 & 5 (Kirill Karabits & Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra)
Stamitz: Flute Concertos (Robert Aitken, Donatas Katkus & St. Christopher Chamber Orchestra)
Strauss, R: Josephs-Legende; Rosenkavalier; Die Frau Ohne Schatten (Orchestral Suites) (JoAnn Falletta & Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra)
Marina A. Ledin, Victor Ledin
Brubeck: Songs Of Praise (Lynne Morrow, Richard Grant, Quartet San Francisco & The Pacific Mozart Ensemble)
Cascade Of Roses (Janice Weber)
Gnattali: Solo & Chamber Works For Guitar (Marc Regnier)
If I Were A Bird (Michael Lewin)
Kletzki: Piano Concerto (Joseph Banowetz, Thomas Sanderling & Russian Philharmonic Orchestra)
Porter, Quincy: Complete Viola Works (Eliesha Nelson & John McLaughlin Williams)
Rubinstein: Piano Music (1852-1894) (Joseph Banowetz)
Rubinstein: Piano Music (1871-1890) (Joseph Banowetz)
20th Century Harp Sonatas (Sarah Schuster Ericsson)
Mahler: Symphony No. 2 (Bernard Haitink, Duain Wolfe, Miah Persson, Christianne Stotijn, Chicago Symphony Chorus & Chicago Symphony Orchestra)
Prokofiev: Romeo And Juliet (Valery Gergiev & London Symphony Orchestra)
Shchedrin: The Enchanted Wanderer (Valery Gergiev, Evgeny Akimov, Sergei Aleksashkin, Kristina Kapustinskaya, Mariinsky Chorus & Mariinsky Orchestra)
Strauss, R: Ein Heldenleben; Webern: Im Sommerwind (Bernard Haitink & Chicago Symphony Orchestra)
Strauss, R: Eine Alpensinfonie (Bernard Haitink & London Symphony Orchestra)
Tchaikovsky: Rococo Variations; Prokofiev: Sinfonia Concertante (Gautier Capuçon, Valery Gergiev & Orchestra Of The Mariinsky Theatre)
Wagner: Parsifal (Valery Gergiev, Gary Lehman, Violeta Urmana, René Pape, Evgeny Nikitin, Alexei Tanovitski, Nikolai Putilin, Mariinsky Chorus & Mariinsky Orchestra)
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Bruckner: Symphonies Nos. 3 & 4 - Mariss Jansons, conductor; Everett Porter, producer; Everett Porter, mastering engineer (Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra) [RCO Live]
Daugherty: Metropolis Symphony; Deus Ex Machina - Giancarlo Guerrero, conductor; Blanton Alspaugh, producer; Mark Donahue, John Hill & Dirk Sobotka, engineers/mixers (Terrence Wilson; Nashville Symphony Orchestra) [Naxos]
Mackey, Steven: Dreamhouse - Gil Rose, conductor; Rinde Eckert; Catch Electric Guitar Quartet; David Frost, producer; David Frost, Tom Lazarus, Steven Mackey & Dirk Sobotka, engineers/mixers; Silas Brown, mastering engineer (Boston Modern Orchestra Project; Synergy Vocals) [BMOP/sound]
Sacrificium - Giovanni Antonini, conductor; Cecilia Bartoli; Arend Prohmann, producer; Philip Siney, engineer/mixer (Il Giardino Armonico) [Decca]
Verdi: Requiem - Riccardo Muti, conductor; Duain Wolfe, chorus master; Christopher Alder, producer; David Frost, Tom Lazarus & Christopher Willis, engineers/mixers (Ildar Abdrazakov, Olga Borodina, Barbara Frittoli & Mario Zeffiri; Chicago Symphony Orchestra; Chicago Symphony Chorus) [CSO Resound]
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Bruckner: Symphonies Nos. 3 & 4 - Mariss Jansons, conductor (Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra) [RCO Live]
Daugherty: Metropolis Symphony; Deus Ex Machina - Giancarlo Guerrero, conductor (Terrence Wilson; Nashville Symphony) [Naxos]
Mackey, Steven: Dreamhouse - Gil Rose, conductor; Rinde Eckert (Catch Electric Guitar Quartet; Boston Modern Orchestra Project; Synergy Vocals) [BMOP/sound]
Salieri: Overtures & Stage Music - Thomas Fey, conductor (Mannheimer Mozartorchester) [Haenssler Classic]
Stravinsky: Pulcinella; Symphony In Three Movements; Four Études - Pierre Boulez, conductor (Roxana Constantinescu, Kyle Ketelsen & Nicholas Phan; Chicago Symphony Orchestra) [CSO Resound]
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Berg: Lulu - Antonio Pappano, conductor; Agneta Eichenholz, Jennifer Larmore, Klaus Florian Vogt & Michael Volle; David Groves, producer (Orchestra Of The Royal Opera House) [Opus Arte]
Hasse: Marc' Antonio E Cleopatra - Matthew Dirst, conductor; Jamie Barton & Ava Pine; Keith Weber, producer (Ars Lyrica Houston) [Dorian Sono Luminus]
Saariaho: L'Amour De Loin - Kent Nagano, conductor; Daniel Belcher, Ekaterina Lekhina & Marie-Ange Todorovitch; Martin Sauer, producer (Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin; Rundfunkchor Berlin) [Harmonia Mundi]
Shchedrin: The Enchanted Wanderer - Valery Gergiev, conductor; Evgeny Akimov, Sergei Aleksashkin & Kristina Kapustinskaya; James Mallinson, producer (Orchestra Of The Mariinsky Theatre; Chorus Of The Mariinsky Theatre) [Mariinsky]
Sullivan: Ivanhoe - David Lloyd-Jones, conductor; Neal Davies, Geraldine McGreevy, James Rutherford, Toby Spence & Janice Watson; Brian Pidgeon, producer (BBC National Orchestra Of Wales; Adrian Partington Singers) [Chandos]
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Bach: Cantatas - Nikolaus Harnoncourt, conductor; Erwin Ortner, chorus master (Bernarda Fink, Gerald Finley, Christian Gerhaher, Werner Güra, Julia Kleiter, Christine Schäfer, Anton Scharinger & Kurt Streit; Concentus Musicau Wien; Arnold Schoenberg Chor) [Deutsche Harmonia Mundi]
Baltic Runes - Paul Hillier, conductor (Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir) [Harmonia Mundi]
Haydn: The Creation - René Jacobs, conductor; Hans-Christoph Rademann, choir director (Julia Kleiter, Maximilian Schmitt & Johannes Weisser; Freiburger Barockorchester; RIAS Kammerchor) [Harmonia Mundi]
Martin: Golgotha - Daniel Reuss, conductor (Judith Gauthier, Marianne Beate Kielland, Adrian Thompson, Mattijs Van De Woerd & Konstantin Wolff; Estonian National Symphony Orchestra; Cappella Amsterdam & Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir) [Harmonia Mundi]
Verdi: Requiem - Riccardo Muti, conductor; Duain Wolfe, chorus master (Ildar Abdrazakov, Olga Borodina, Barbara Frittoli & Mario Zeffiri; Chicago Symphony Orchestra; Chicago Symphony Chorus) [CSO Resound]
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Daugherty: Deus Ex Machina - Giancarlo Guerrero, conductor; Terrence Wilson (Nashville Symphony) Track from: Daugherty: Metropolis Symphony [Naxos]
Dorman, Avner: Mandolin Concerto - Andrew Cyr, conductor; Avi Avital (Metropolis Ensemble) Track from: Dorman, Avner: Mandolin Concerto; Piccolo Concerto; Concerto Grosso; Piano Concerto [Naxos]
Kletzki: Piano Concerto In D Minor, Op. 22 - Thomas Sanderling, conductor; Joseph Banowetz (Russian Philharmonic Orchestra) Track from: Kletzki: Piano Concerto [Naxos]
Mozart: Piano Concertos Nos. 23 & 24 - Mitsuko Uchida (The Cleveland Orchestra) [Decca]
Porter, Quincy: Concerto For Viola & Orchestra - John McLaughlin Williams, conductor; Eliesha Nelson (Northwest Sinfonia) Track from: Porter, Quincy: Complete Viola Works [Dorian Sono Luminus]
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Chopin: The Nocturnes - Nelson Freire [Decca]
Hamelin: Études - Marc-André Hamelin [Hyperion Records]
Messiaen: Livre Du Saint-Sacrement - Paul Jacobs [Naxos]
Paganini: 24 Caprices - Julia Fischer [Decca]
20th Century Harp Sonatas - Sarah Schuster Ericsson [Dorian Sono Luminus]
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Beethoven: Complete Sonatas For Violin & Piano - Isabelle Faust & Alexander Melnikov [Harmonia Mundi]
Gnattali: Solo & Chamber Works For Guitar - Marc Regnier (Tacy Edwards, Natalia Khoma & Marco Sartor) [Dorian Sono Luminus]
Ligeti: String Quartets Nos. 1 & 2 - Parker Quartet [Naxos]
Porter, Quincy: Complete Viola Works - Eliesha Nelson & John McLaughlin Williams (Douglas Rioth; Northwest Sinfonia) [Dorian Sono Luminus]
Schoenberg: String Quartets Nos. 3 & 4 - Fred Sherry String Quartet (Christopher Oldfather & Rolf Schulte) [Naxos]
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Ceremony And Devotion - Music For The Tudors - Harry Christophers, conductor; The Sixteen [CORO]
Dinastia Borja - Jordi Savall, conductor; Hespèrion XXI & La Capella Reial De Catalunya (Pascal Bertin, Daniele Carnovich, Lior Elmalich, Montserrat Figueras, Driss El Maloumi, Marc Mauillon, Lluís Vilamajó & Furio Zanasi; Pascal Bertin, Daniele Carnovich, Josep Piera & Francisco Rojas) [Alia Vox]
Trondheimsolistene - In Folk Style - Øyvind Gimse & Geir Inge Lotsberg, conductors (Emilia Amper & Gjermund Larsen; TrondheimSolistene) [2L (Lindberg Lyd)]
Victoria: Lamentations Of Jeremiah - Peter Phillips, conductor; The Tallis Scholars [Gimell]
Whitacre, Eric: Choral Music - Noel Edison, conductor; Elora Festival Singers (Carol Bauman & Leslie De'Ath) [Naxos]
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Ombre De Mon Amant - French Baroque Arias - Anne Sofie Von Otter (William Christie; Les Arts Florissants) [Deutsche Grammophon]
Sacrificium - Cecilia Bartoli (Giovanni Antonini; Il Giardino Armonico) [Decca]
Turina: Canto A Sevilla - Lucia Duchonová (Celso Antunes; NDR Radiophilharmonie) [Haenssler Classic]
Vivaldi: Opera Arias - Pyrotechnics - Vivica Genaux (Fabio Biondi; Europa Galante) [Virgin Classics]
Wagner: Wesendonck-Lieder - Measha Brueggergosman (Franz Welser-Möst; The Cleveland Orchestra) Track from: Wagner: Wesendonck-Lieder; Preludes & Overtures [Deutsche Grammophon]
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106. Best Classical Contemporary Composition – A Composer's Award. (For a contemporary classical composition composed within the last 25 years, and released for the first time during the Eligibility Year.) Award to the librettist, if applicable.
Daugherty, Michael: Deus Ex Machina - Michael Daugherty (Giancarlo Guerrero) Track from: Daugherty: Metropolis Symphony [Naxos]
Henze, Hans Werner: Appassionatamente Plus - Hans Werner Henze (Stefan Soltesz) Track from: Appassionatamente Plus Lulu-Suite [Cybele Records]
Lindberg, Magnus: Graffiti - Magnus Lindberg (Sakari Oramo) Track from: Lindberg: Graffiti; Seht Die Sonne [Ondine]
Pärt, Arvo: Symphony No. 4 - Arvo Pärt (Esa-Pekka Salonen) Track from: Pärt: Symphony No. 4 [ECM New Series]
Shchedrin, Rodion Konstantinovich: The Enchanted Wanderer - Rodion Konstantinovich Shchedrin (Valery Gergiev) Track from: Shchedrin: The Enchanted Wanderer [Mariinsky]
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Meeting Of The Spirits - Matt Haimovitz (Amaryllis Jarczyk, Jan Jarczyk, John McLaughlin, Dominic Painchaud, Leanna Rutt & Matt Wilson) [Oxingale Records]
Off The Map - The Silk Road Ensemble [World Village]
Roots - My Life, My Song - Jessye Norman (Ira Coleman, Steve Johns, Mike Lovatt, Mark Markham & Martin Williams) [Sony Classical]
Tin, Christopher: Calling All Dawns - Lucas Richman, conductor (Sussan Deyhim, Lia, Kaori Omura, Dulce Pontes, Jia Ruhan, Aoi Tada & Frederica von Stade; Anonymous 4 & Soweto Gospel Choir; Royal Philharmonic Orchestra) [Tin Works Publishing]
Vocabularies - Bobby McFerrin [Emarcy/Universal]
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While I'm happy for those that were nominated, I am especially bummed to see Jennifer Higdon's Violin Concerto with Hilary Hahn absent from this list. Oh well... It's a great work and a very fine recording -- it's a winner in my book... for what that's worth...
Anyway, there they are -- tune in Feb 13th, 2011, to find out who the Grammy Winners are!
- Dick Strawser
Wednesday, November 17, 2010
November is "National Novel Writing Month" when authors and would-be authors around the world sign up for the challenge of writing 50,000 words toward a finished rough-draft of a novel.
If anybody's wondering why I'm not answering e-mails, hanging out on Facebook or blogging, I've been trying to write at least 1,667 words per day and so far doing pretty well: today was the 17th Day and I've already written 41,950 words or 84% toward the total word-goal.
This 'brief' synopsis of The Doomsday Symphony is adapted from the "novel profile" posted on my NaNoWriMo page:
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While I'm usually a very serious guy when it comes to my music or the books I read for enjoyment (I mean, come on: Henry James, Proust, Thomas Mann?) but I've been intrigued by the "mystery/thriller' genre lately, writing two humorous musical parodies of Dan Brown's latest hits, "The DaVinci Code" (which became "The Schoenberg Code") and "The Lost Symbol" (which became "The Lost Chord.")
This time, I decided I'd write an original "Music Appreciation Thriller" that involves a parallel universe called Harmonia-IV where Dead Composers go and continue writing, an evil villain intent on wiping out the masterpieces of four great (if dead) composers through time-traveling, and the theft of a new symphony by Mahler that, if its premiere is scheduled for December, 2012, will help bring about the destruction of the Earth, and an intrepid retired ex-college professor and composer intent on surviving having gotten sucked into this maniacal caper in the first place. Considering the Mahler symphony, I've decided to call this one "The Doomsday Symphony."
The main villain is Forensic Musicologist Dr. Klavdia Klangfarben who, despite having studied with Dr. Frøkken Bohr, is unable to find reasonable employment in her field (been there, done that), has obtained a "Femme Fatale for Hire" license via an Internet university. With her side-kick, a Viennese lawyer from the late-19th Century named Abner Kedaver, they undertake a project, "Operation Fate-Knocks-at-the-Door," for SHMRG, an evil corporation intent on controlling the entire music industry, headed by CEO N. Ron Steele where failed composer Man Kaye is the Director of Office Supplies & Classical Division.
The Mahler score is stolen by an ambitious but no longer young mild-mannered assistant conductor named Rogers Kent-Clarke (who studied with the conductor, Louis Lane) who's looking for a vehicle that will make a splash for him and jump-start his already long-delayed career.
And the disappearance of a local man in a small town in the Poconos leads Detective Jenna Sainte-Croix to the site of a mysteriously abandoned old coal town where she finds herself pulled through a Time-Gate that takes her – like the others – into the parallel universe of Harmonia-IV. There, hanging out at Stravinsky's Tavern, she meets her counterpart, Detective Milo Smedley, once a friend of Charles Dickens, who is investigating the theft of Mahler's score on The Other Side, and they fall in love.
In the midst of all this is our hero, Dr. T. Rutherford Cranleigh, who knows an awful lot about very little and about whom there is not much to say.
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Let's leave it at that, for now – I've got to get back to writing...
- Dick Strawser
Monday, November 01, 2010
Unfortunately, two other things have happened recently (actually, three...):
(1) My current old computer is on the fritz: having recently (and injudiciously) upgraded my Linux operating system to the newest version in order to be able to access one of my regular web-site destinations whose Flashmatazz software required up-grading to their newest version, I discovered that my computer cannot handle certain aspects of Linux's "Lucid Lynx" and have, once it started crashing on me, created instead a Livid Luddite.
(2) My "lifetime guarantee" for a low-price deal from my ISP apparently had been signed by Tony Curtis who died the day I received notice from said ISP that my $15/month deal was being phased out and converted over to a phone/cable/internet package for a mere $99/month. Since I rarely use my phone and I want to watch less television (with my digital antenna), not more, this is really not something I'm interested in, so I now will have to find a new ISP that will fit my needs not to mention my budget. Thank you, Verizon, for that.
(3) On top of that, I began dealing with symptoms that quickly turned into my annual Change-of-Season Cold or Flu on October 9th. While there were occasional days of less flu-ishness (or less severe symptoms), basically I was trying to cope with headaches, body-aches, joint pain, nasal congestion and/or coughing (but not sneezing, lung congestion and other joys-of-the-flu) for twenty-one days, during which I could barely concentrate on anything more than sitting, zombie-like, in my recliner. Needless to say, I didn't feel like going out to shop for a new computer or even do battle with (cough, hack) internet providers on the phone. I also felt I didn't want to be risking infecting innocent bystanders like Typhoid Barry though I noticed that didn't stop other people: on Day 19, I made a quick trip to Borders, amply supplied with cough medicine and cough drops, only to find myself needing to move away from five different people who were coughing or sneezing without covering their mouths, but I digress...
And since the computer frequently crashed while I was trying to post installments of The Lost Chord, it became very frustrating, especially once I realized that I'd put off creating a few important graphics for clues I needed, now, and that I could not figure out how to do them in Linux, though I'm not sure I could've done them in Windows, either: it probably was going to have to be a work-it-out-by-hand-and-then-scan-the-bastard until I realized one of my cats, no doubt the self-styled Director of Wireless Technology, had pretty much turned the old scanner into a nice serving tray.
And, since it's NaNoWriMo time again – National Novel Writing Month – and my plan is to get 50,000 words of a new music appreciation thriller, "The Doomsday Symphony," written by November 30th, this is not really how I wanted to be spending my time, right now.
Once these assorted conundra are resolved, The Lost Chord will resume.
My apologies for the inconvenience to those of you who've been reading it (I thank both of you).
Monday, October 11, 2010
Which is pretty much what I'm feeling like, this Monday morning – Columbus Day holiday not withstanding. Unfortunately my lost weekend was not the result of hedonistic celebrations (not that Columbus Day is one of the greater holidays on my social calendar) but rather the siege of the Annual Change of Season Cold. Or possibly the flu, since it was more wall-to-wall aches and pains than acres of mucous and great fields of snot.
One of my routines on a Sunday is to prepare the Monday installment of "The Lost Chord," but between the frequent crashing of the computer, then the incessant crashing of my immune system, that will have to take place either much later this afternoon or, more likely, tomorrow.
I have also been hard at work this last week getting a new "music appreciation thriller" started called "The Doomsday Symphony," working on the back-story of one of the villains, Dr. Klavdia Klangfarben and her side-kick Abner Kedaver. She is a recently graduated forensic musicologist from Claxon University where she studied with Dr. Frøkken Bohr but, unable to find any work in her chosen field and after working at fast food restaurants and Walmart, takes on on-line course with Phil Noir to earn her FFH License – Femme Fatale for Hire which is how she ends up working for N. Ron Steele, the CEO of SHMRG (one of the more nefarious organizations in the classical music business). After describing her, walking along NYC's 6th Avenue on a hot July day, as neither too tall nor too short, not too svelte nor too voluptuous, dressed despite the heat in a coal-black leotard with coal-black stilettos heels that made her platinum wig beneath the floppy coal-black hat, flounce as she walked. "Her partner, Abner Kedaver, being invisible, was harder to describe." You get the drift...
But for now, the weekend continues – back to the recliner and another dose of DayQuil. Maybe at the end of the day, I will feel a tad closer to being human.
Monday, September 06, 2010
Perhaps because it's Labor Day, thinking about how the original meaning of the holiday has, like many others, been overlooked and forgotten in the end-of-summer celebrations, but I was reminded of this passage from Jan Swafford's wonderfully readable biography of Johannes Brahms. He mentioned the income Brahms earned from popular works like his “Lullaby,” something he'd initially composed for friends on the birth of their son, and how during the 1860s and '70s many things he'd composed – from the Hungarian Dances (piano duets written for the amateur market) to the Requiem (composed with amateur choruses in mind) – brought in sufficient income to provide “for an independent creative life few composers have ever enjoyed.” For comparison:
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"Bach was employed by courts and churches, who worked him like a slave. Handel was a freelancer who went bankrupt several times before his comfortable old age. Haydn spent most of his career composing for one aristocratic family with whom he had the status of a servant. Mozart lived independently [of such patronage] but had to perform and teach for much of his income. Beethoven received support from the aristocracy and early in his career was a keyboard virtuoso. Schubert mostly lived off friends. For much of his life, Wagner existed largely by extracting funds and services from admirers, tradespeople and King Ludwig of Bavaria, and slipped out of town when creditors caught up with him. Robert Schumann had a small inheritance supplemented by paid positions, journalism and Clara's performing.
"None of those composers earned so extravagantly from publishing their works as Brahms did, and none except Wagner, in his fifties, reached the position Brahms reached in his thirties – composing what he wanted, when he wanted, prospering without ever accepting a commission to write a piece. By Brahms' time, a living like that had been made at least conceivable by the enormous growth of the audience for classical music and the tens of thousands of pianos in bourgeois parlors, all of them requiring material from light to heavy."
[Johannes Brahms (A Biography). Jan Swafford. Vintage Books 1997. excerpt, pp.344-345, 1999 paperback edition]
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I'm not sure a “composers' union” would have brought about anything comparable to the protection of the working class, the institution of at least a minimum wage or to having health and retirement benefits, but I was also reminded of a story I'd heard a living composer tell an audience about how much he earned from his music.
It was back in the late-'70s when I was living in New York City and I attended a pre-concert talk, possibly a panel discussion, in which Elliott Carter (then pushing 70) mentioned that the one work of his that brought in the most income for him was his Variations for Orchestra, mostly from European concerts and radio broadcasts (he made a sly reference to the fact – even then – how unlikely it would be for an American classical radio station to air it).
(You can hear a student orchestra from Tanglewood perform this in 2008, here, conducted by Stefan Asbury.)
He mentioned how much the commission from the Louisville Symphony had been and how long it took him to compose it, completing it in 1955 after having sketched at it since 1953. He figured – given the time spent on it and the amount he was paid to write it – he was basically being paid something like $0.25 an hour. I don't recall exactly – the point is, it wasn't much money, even then.
At this point, Carter paused while we pondered this discrepancy between Art and Reality when he added, after once pointing this out to an audience, there was this bejeweled matron draped in furs who stood up and took him to task. “Mr. Carter,” she said quite aghast, “you mean to tell me you write for MONEY?!”
- Dick Strawser
Saturday, September 04, 2010
Update: interestingly, Concertante will be performing Mozart's Quintet and a quintet by Anton Stadler on the first program of their new season - 8pm, Friday Sept. 24th at the Rose Lehrman Center, Harrisburg Area Community College - along with Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time.
Update to the Update: It turns out the source I'd seen for this performance by Concertante mentioned three works. But the website listed the Mozart as " Mozart's Clarinet Quintet in A, Stadler's Quintet" which was then transcribed into the press release without the italics, making it look like they were also going to play a quintet by Stadler. Though Concertante is well known for discovering unusual versions of standard works or little known and unknown pieces to add to their repertoire, there seems, alas, to be no Clarinet Quintet by Anton Stadler...
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We often tend to think of music “in a vacuum” and sometimes even listen to it that way. It's easy to forget that real people wrote this music for real people to play – that what we consider “Art” was once the result of a human being not very different from us (except for this... talent) who for some reason decided to compose this piece we're listening to.
There is one very important connection between the two clarinet quintets on this evening's program, as it happens – and it's a family relation.
Carl Maria von Weber's father was Franz Anton von Weber (a poor military officer turned musician & opera impresario who had no real legitimate claims to the 'von' in his name). Franz Anton was the half-brother of Fridolin Weber, a bass who sang and worked as a copyist & prompter at various opera houses, especially in Munich where he raised four daughters, all trained as singers. One of them, Josefa, went on to become a famous soprano who would create the role of the Queen of the Night in Mozart's “The Magic Flute.” Another of Fridolin's daughters, Constanze, married Mozart – so, since she was a cousin of Carl Maria von Weber, that would make Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Carl Maria von Weber cousins-by-marriage.
But wait – there's more! Mozart died when Weber the composer had just turned 5. There had been a visit in Vienna when the not-quite-2-year-old Carl Maria von Weber played with the 4-year-old Karl Thomas Mozart, Wolfgang & Constanze's son. Constanze enjoyed the company of her aunt though Genovefa, her uncle's second wife, was actually 2 years younger than she was. As Jane Glover writes in her biography of “Mozart's Women,” Genovefa Weber became “somewhat elliptically entwined with the Mozart family.”
Because when Weber was 12, Genovefa brought him to Salzburg to study with another Salzburg court musician, Michael Haydn (younger brother of Franz Josef) who had been a colleague and friend of Mozart's and his father Leopold's. But during that time, she died suddenly of tuberculosis and, to help out her family, Constanze offered to have her buried in the Mozart family grave.
Now, a quick word about this grave.
Mozart died in Vienna where laws about burial practices were different – it was considered modern and ecological, given the limited amount of ground space available for cemeteries. Everybody except the aristocracy was buried in unmarked graves with 'economy coffins' to save on wood, a practice which gave rise to reports of Mozart's burial in an unmarked pauper's grave. Then, after a certain number of years, these graves were dug up, the skulls placed in crypts under the church and the rest of the bones reburied along the cemetery walls so that new bodies could be buried and... well, processed. This was not the situation in Salzburg where the Mozart family had a small vault at St. Sebastian's.
Now, you may remember that Leopold Mozart was violently opposed to his son's marriage to Constanze – he was convinced the whole Weber family was a pack of thieves out to steal the potential fortune his brilliant son would no doubt earn (but failed to do so).
In the Mozart Family Grave are buried Leopold, his mother-in-law (his wife, having died in Paris, was buried there, likewise in an unmarked grave), his grand-daughter Jeannette (Nannerl's oldest child who died at the age of 16) – but not Wolfgang himself. When Constanze remarried and then moved to Salzburg, she allowed Genovefa Weber, Carl Maria's mother, to be buried there – and then by the 1840s her husband, herself and two of her sisters who'd come to Salzburg to live with her. As a result, Mozart's sister Nannerl (who also never got along with Constanza or her family) decided she'd rather be buried somewhere else. So ironically, Leopold gets to spend eternity surrounded by a whole pack of Webers but no other Mozarts...
Mozart wrote his clarinet quintet in 1789 – the year after Toddler Carl Maria visited the Mozarts in Vienna – and Weber began his in 1811 when he was 25 though, because of a busy schedule and other commitments, it wasn't completed until four years later.
So though while only 22 years, basically, separate the two works, the fact one was written 11 years before 1800 and the other one begun 11 years after 1800 makes for a world of difference: for one thing, 1800 is a convenient but arbitrary dividing point between musical styles that had already begun to change toward the end of the 18th Century's Classical Era but would – at least as far as the music that has come down to us in the standard repertoire – change dramatically with the beginning of the 19th Century's Romantic Era.
For one thing, Beethoven happened: in 1800, he had finished his first six string quartets and written his first symphony – by 1803, when he wrote the Eroica, we tend to feel music was never the same. Though if you check what most other composers were writing at the time, that's not really the case – they, however, have not survived in the repertoire, most of them: Beethoven did.
So we have Mozart's Clarinet Quintet – all very decorously 18th Century in its classicism, well-balanced and abstract yet beautiful to the ear – and Weber's Clarinet Quintet of about 22 years later in its romanticism which might bring jovial Mendelssohn more to our minds than brooding Beethoven. Keep in mind, Beethoven wrote his far-from-brooding 7th Symphony while Weber was working on – or putting off finishing – his Clarinet Quintet. Weber's attitude towards Beethoven's 7th – with that famous repeated passage whipping up the end of the 1st movement – was that here, Beethoven was now clearly “ripe for the mad-house.”
There are two distinct differences you'll hear in these two quintets, almost back to back – Weber's Quintet is what you might call a “pocket concerto,” a showcase for the clarinet with the accompaniment of a string quartet. Who has the big tunes and much of the spotlight? Who's playing “chuck-chuck-chuck-chuck” accompanimental patterns supporting the melody? Mozart's was a more in-grained work of chamber music and though the clarinet is prominent, it is always “first among equals” (considering in most classical quartets, 2nd Violin and Viola were never equal to the other half anyway).
It would be very difficult to add something like a clarinet to a string quartet and make the clarinet subservient. Even when composers would add a piano which is more percussive to the strings' legato sound, the piano, by its legacy as an accompanist in sonatas and trios, can be both soloist and accompanist as well as part of the mix. It's not so easy with a clarinet. Mozart's sound-balance is very difficult to achieve – Weber, in a sense, took the easy way out.
The fact that there are only a few great Piano Quintets is also relevant to the idea of the Clarinet Quintet – at least as far as “great music” or recognized standard repertoire is concerned. Compared to the Piano Quintets by Schumann, Brahms, Dvorak and Shostakovich and maybe Cesar Franck (one that should be heard more often) as well as two by Fauré, there are really only two “great” Clarinet Quintets – the Mozart and... the Brahms.
Now, Brahms' Quintet is a late work of his – in fact, he'd come out of self-imposed retirement to write it – and ironically, it was composed 100 years after Mozart's death. Not only is it inspired by Mozart's quintet, you could say it's “modeled” after it so closely that, if you were to hear them back-to-back (or side-by-sdie), you would hear similar shapes and textures in the way Brahms opens his, compared to Mozart's opening. In the slow movement, Brahms even uses the same melodic shapes as Mozart's 1st movement opening, the same pitches transposed to a different key, a starting point perhaps but almost as if he were writing an homage. And yet it all sounds very late-Romantic and genuinely Brahms. In a drop-the-needle test with just a few seconds' sound-byte, however, it wouldn't be impossible for some to react quickly and get them confused.
In 2008, I heard the world premiere of a clarinet quintet by an American composer who would never be mistaken for either Mozart or Brahms. Yet when I heard Elliott Carter talking about this new work of his, he said he first studied the quintets of Mozart and Brahms before he began working on his own. Does that mean it's going to sound like either of them? No, not at all, but there are characteristics of theirs that “inform” Carter's approach to his new piece – the roles the different instruments might play, the ways they combine, in fact the different combinations you can make out of the different instruments.
Though this work may never enter the standard repertoire, it was very well received at its premiere which, by the way, took place shortly after the composer turned 99 – he had finished it three months before his birthday and apologized for not remembering all the details people were asking him about it: as he put it, “I finished it four months ago and I've written several pieces since then...” And pushing 102, now, he's written several pieces since then, including a new wind quintet and a song cycle premiered just a couple of months ago – sort of the balancing side for Mozart and Weber whose combined age is only 74... (Add Schubert to this combination, and the total would be 105 years.)
But thinking about the two quintets on tonight's program, I was also thinking about these other two I'd mentioned – the ones by Brahms and Carter. Why are there so few clarinet quintets? What brought these about?
I suppose it would be easy to point out that the great piano quintets were for the most part written by pianists: Schumann, even though by then he could no longer play, wrote it for his wife Clara, one of the greatest pianists of the century); Brahms and Shostakovich were fine concert pianists. Other than John Adams, I can't think of any major composer who was a clarinetist. Instead, Mozart, Weber, Brahms and Carter found their inspiration in the playing of great clarinetists.
When Mozart wrote his quintet, the clarinet was only a recent addition to the orchestra. Before that, it was primarily found in “dance bands” and hadn't yet evolved into what we know as the clarinet today. There was an early 17th Century Baroque instrument called the “chalumeau” which had basically just the lower register of a modern clarinet. By expanding its middle and upper registers around 1700, and the sound was so bright, it was called “the little trumpet,” the word 'Clarino' the Italian word for trumpet. Even though the instrument makers soon tamed this hybrid into the mellower sound we're familiar with, it still kept its trumpet-like name.
Though it was used in the opera pit, the clarinet was not standard in the orchestra until around 1790. Mozart used it occasionally in his last piano concertos and symphonies. In fact, because Vienna had such fine wind players, the wind writing in these concertos was a remarkable addition to the Mozart Sound. One of those wonderful wind players was a clarinetist named Anton Stadler, one of Mozart's Masonic brothers and a close friend who had arrived in the Imperial capital of Vienna around the same time Mozart did.
In the mid-1780s, Mozart was writing music to be played in the home of one of his more affluent friends, the botanist Nicholas Joseph von Jacquin, several pieces involving clarinet and the alto-member of the family, the basset-horn (which is neither a horn nor a dog with big brown eyes). In 1786, not long after he completed “The Marriage of Figaro,” he composed the so-called “Kegelstatt Trio” for clarinet, viola and piano – written to be played at the Jacquins. The piano was played by daughter Frantziska Jacquin (one of Mozart's piano students). Mozart played the viola and Anton Stadler, the clarinet.
A few months later, in January of 1787, the Mozarts went to Prague for the triumphant performances there of “The Marriage of Figaro,” traveling with an entourage that included Anton Stadler.
The next year, after a fairly fallow six-month period that involved an extended trip to Berlin in the hopes of finding work – or at least some remunerative performances and commissions – Mozart completed the Clarinet Quintet with Stadler in mind, entering it into his thematic catalogue on September 19th, 1789. Earlier that summer, for no reason whatsoever, apparently, he composed his last three symphonies in the space of about six weeks. And soon he would begin a new opera, “Cosi fan tutte.”
It was during these last years of his life that Mozart, dealing with frequent money problems – he was a genius as a composer, but like many, had issues with reality – was borrowing from his masonic brothers, especially the banker Puchberg. But when he had a little money himself, he would help out his friends, if possible, and we know he loaned money to Stadler around the time he was writing the Clarinet Concerto for him in 1791. Stadler, a struggling musician, had borrowed money from Puchberg before and the banker had to sue him for repayment in the mid-1780s.
In 1791, there was another trip to Prague, this time for the coronation opera, “La Clemenza di Tito.” Stadler went along as a kind of musical secretary but primarily as a ringer for the orchestra, playing the difficult clarinet part Mozart had envisaged for the opera. The main reason he chose not to stay in Prague professionally had to deal with the lack of a high level of talent there: Prague was, after all, a provincial capital without the international resources and fine players that were available in Vienna. Besides, most of the aristocracy who'd support the arts in Prague spent much of their year living in Vienna, anyway.
And so, when Mozart returned from the not quite so satisfying experience with “La Clemenza di Tito” (which the new empress called a “porchería tedesca” or “German swinery”), Mozart composed his Clarinet Concerto for Stadler who then premiered it in Prague on October 16th to great acclaim. Seven weeks later, after the premiere of “The Magic Flute,” Mozart was dead.
But Stadler favored his own hybrid version of the not-yet-standardized clarinet, extending the lower end of the range, something now called a Basset-Clarinet. The problem is, this instrument never caught on and when the concerto was eventually published after Mozart's death, someone arranged the part so the lowest notes could be played on the now-standard instrument. Ever the free-lance musician dealing with financial concerns, Stadler eventually pawned the manuscript score he owned, and so without Mozart's original copy, reconstructing it has always been conjecture.
But even in the Quintet, listen to how Mozart uses this lower range of the instrument. Stadler was actually the second clarinetist in the imperial court orchestra – his brother Johann played first clarinet – so his position gave him more opportunity to work on the lower register. Was Johann Stadler a better musician because he played 'first'?
A contemporary critic wrote of Anton Stadler's playing: “I would not have thought that a clarinet could imitate the human voice so deceptively as you imitate it. Your instrument is so soft, so delicate in tone that no-one who has a heart can resist it."
And since it was Anton who became good friends with Mozart, it was probably the friendship that had a great deal to do with the music he composed for him – not just “who's the best player around.”
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Anton Stadler died in 1812, the year after Carl Maria von Weber, now 22, wrote two clarinet concertos and a concertino – and began a quintet – for clarinetist Heinrich Bärmann who at that time was about 27 years old. They had met in Mannheim while Weber was on a concert tour and he was much impressed with this fine orchestra's fine clarinetist. A few months later, Weber arrived in Munich for some performances at the opera there, and it was arranged for a concert of his music be performed before the music-loving king. It turned out their new clarinetist was Heinrich Bärmann and so in two-weeks' time, Weber quickly composed a short concertino for this performance in April.
It was such a success, Weber – in town to write a new opera – composed two full concertos for Bärmann – the first in May, the second in July – and he was at work on a quintet for clarinet and strings when his schedule took him back on the road. It wasn't until four years later that he and Bärmann met up again and so Weber decided to finish the quintet, completing it the night before the concert!
By this time, the clarinet had evolved a little further than it had been in Stadler's day: rather than just seven keys and old-fashioned finger-holes, the clarinet now had a more intricate system of keys like the modern instrument which allowed one to play faster and more intricate passages. The works Weber composed for Bärmann joyfully explore this expanded virtuosity. Such music would not have been playable 20 years earlier.
Other composers wrote for Bärmann, as well – Mendelssohn wrote two short concert pieces for clarinet and basset horn for him and his son in exchange for dumpling dinners – while Mendelssohn composed, the Bärmanns cooked, giving new meaning to the expression “Will Write for Food.” Gioacomo Meyerbeer, almost exclusively an opera composer himself, wrote a quintet for him as well as did many lesser lights who are now lucky to be footnotes in the history books. Like most virtuosos of the day, Bärmann composed a few works for himself including one that has long been attributed to the young Richard Wagner.
There is a charming connection, now, between Weber and Bärmann – and Brahms.
Though Brahms'd confessed he'd tired of the musical rat-race and retired at the age of 57, it was the sound of a clarinet that lured Brahms out of retirement the following year to write, eventually, four works that are masterpieces in the clarinet repertoire – first, in 1891 both the trio with cello and piano and then the quintet, and three years later, the two sonatas. And all because he'd first heard Richard Mühlfeld play Weber's F Minor Clarinet Concerto which had been written only because Weber was fascinated by Heinrich Bärmann's playing.
(In the photo above: critic Eduard Hanslick, left; Johannes Brahms, center; Richard Mühlfeld, right.)
To the late 20th Century, now... back in the '80s, I remember visiting a friend of mine in upstate Manhattan and listening to his next-door neighbor, a young clarinetist who had just joined the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. Charles Neidich was playing Weber. He would later teach at Juilliard and become one of the most prominent clarinetists in the country. Unfortunately, I wasn't inspired to compose something for him nor would he have been likely to play it, either – but he has played a lot of clarinet music by Elliott Carter including giving the New York Premiere of the concerto Carter had composed in 1996 for Pierre Boulez and his contemporary ensemble in Paris. Hearing Neidich play it cemented a solid musical relationship, as much as a composer in his 90s hangs out with a bunch of performers.
On stage at the quintet's premiere, then, Carter talked about his new Clarinet Quintet which Neidich and the Juilliard String Quartet had commissioned from him, getting in line with everybody else who wanted a new piece by a man who was going to be very busy as he turned 100. It was the musicians' idea to approach Carter specifically for a quintet. When asked if he tailored the piece to suit the players' personalities, he said he was quite familiar with the Juilliard Quartet who've played and recorded all five of his quartets but he joked that “well, no, if you mean did I keep a photograph of Charlie on the desk while I was composing, no... A composer has to write for other performers than the one he's writing it for – other people have to play it, too.”
He went on to talk about certain technical things a player can do that he as a composer can make use of – one was Neidich's ability to sustain long tones in the low register, something the clarinet can do very well. So there's a section where the strings are playing certain moving figures in the upper register and in the bass are these long sustained tones in the clarinet, some of them stretching out for 20-30 seconds (as an example, check out 4:14 into this clip). So if another clarinetist who'd be interested in playing the piece can't handle that – what they call “rotary breathing” comes in handy, too – well, then it's just like someone saying “I can't play scales or arpeggios that fast.” It seems like the exact opposite of something flashy but it's a difficult technique and it makes an incredible sound when you hear it.
(The work was included in Bridge Records' Vol.8 of Carter's music, performed by Neidich & the Juilliard Quartet.)
So that's something in the way a performer can inspire a composer. This Clarinet Quintet also led to another new work Carter composed for Charles Neidich – a woodwind quintet which was premiered a few months after Carter turned 101. Perhaps next year, maybe he'll get around to writing him a sonata...
Anyway, those are some points to think about while you're listening to these two clarinet quintets – how the composers came to write them, who they were written for and who first played them – and how these ideas remain practically unchanged in the 220 years or so since Mozart wrote his quintet.
We can listen to this music as a work of art to inspire us with its beauty or as something to simply entertain us – but it's also interesting to think of the music as the product of a life, the result of friendships and the relationships that develop between real people, not just notes on a page.
It's the performers' responsibility to bring these notes “to life” – and it's ours to receive them and make them part of ours.
- Dick Strawser
Wednesday, July 28, 2010
Perhaps someone with knowledge of our own local facts and figures could come up with the Pennsylvanian Equivalent of these British observations:
Arts Subsidies in Great Britain (that is, government moneys budgeted for the Arts) amount to 0.07% of the total budget's expenditures which in turn amounts to about 17 pence (roughly $0.26) per person per week.
This is basically “less than half the cost of a pint of milk” per person, depending on the market value of milk in this country or the rate of exchange between American and British currencies on any given day.
One of the big financial issues in the UK has been their equivalent of the Bank Bail-Out.
“According to Mervyn King, the Bank of England governor, the size of the bank bailout is 'breathtaking' at close to £1 trillion. Not many of us even realise how big a trillion is. A million seconds takes 11.5 days; a trillion takes 31,709 years.”
If each person in Great Britain were to shoulder up this debt with a “one-off payment,” it would cost them “a mere £16,666.66.” Blogger Daniel Bye estimates that, at the rate of a ½ pint of milk per week, should keep a British subject in milk through the year 4780.
Other similes could be made in measurable terms: say, in height with “a small book compared to three Everests,” or in time with “how long it takes to read this paragraph compared to the time it takes to run the Tour de France (including sleep).” The popular media love making sports analogies so in this instance, we could kill two birds with one stone.
Since the British Cultural Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, thinks the Arts should look more to philanthropy for their support, wouldn't it be great if he and the other 21 millionaires in the British cabinet would ante up “the Arts Council's £58m grants budget, used to fund work by new and emerging artists”?
But then there is also the argument that perhaps the Arts can actually be economically feasible when you consider that, as the Department of Culture, Media & Sport (as it's known in Britain) responded to one blogger's question, in “2008, Arts Council England spent £100m on theatre [and] the VAT [Value Added Tax] receipts from London theatre alone were worth £75m.” How much additional tax revenue was generated by theatres outside London?
And of course, considering the corporate defense for Wall Street Bonuses or the recent get-away parachute of about $18 million handed to Tony Hayward of BP, how do these compare with the typical annual income of a free-lance musician or actor in this country?
It is, of course, easy to say “there is no more money” or that “we're trying to find money for education and health care” or that "I don't like classical music therefore it is not important," but does the cutting of a comparatively small amount that severely wounds the Arts in our communities make a viable argument?
Even conservative politicians would have difficulty buying a strategy that cuts something that at least makes money.