Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Lost Chord: Red Herrings in Verdi Square

In the pursuit of almost any solution, there are always several possibilities how you could arrive at one – clues that might lead you closer to it or, if misinterpreted or incorrectly realized, further away from it.

While I could describe ways of approaching certain political goals at the present time – whether it's health care, the environment, the economy, greed on Wall Street or the Wars on Terrorism – I'm thinking specifically of my Music Appreciation Thriller, “The Lost Chord” which is a full-scale parody of Dan Brown's “The Lost Symbol” (if anybody still remembers that one, it would seem to have fallen off the face of the earth, compared to the roaring success of its predecessor, “The DaVinci Code” which I parodied in my earlier “The Schoenberg Code”).

Aside from the question “Why write a parody of a book that has already slipped below the cultural horizon,” I was still dealing with ways of translating Brown's myriad clues into musical equivalents in the pursuit of... well, whatever it was that sparked “The Lost Symbol” in the first place: truth, beauty and the Masonic Way? Only in my case, instead of Masons, I'm dealing with musicians – composers, especially – and rather than the perversion of knowledge and wisdom in the wrong hands, the attainment of creative enlightenment and its perversion in the wrong hands. In other words, truth, beauty and the artist's way.

While Aaron Copland had spoken of a composer seeing the piece he's going to write “whole, in a flash” or something to that effect – whether it was his belief or he was stating it as one possible belief, I don't recall, nor, foot-notally speaking, do I remember exactly where this came from (“What to Listen For in Music”?) – I also thought of Elliott Carter's ideas on inspiration. In an interview with John Tusa in his “On Creativity: Interviews Exploring the Process,” Carter told him

- - - - -
“if there is inspiration, it's not something [for me] that comes at the beginning of the piece. It comes in the course of writing it. The more I get into the piece, the more the inspiration – well, I don't know exactly what inspiration means – but I would see more clearly and with more excitement and more interest new things...”
- - - - -

And so, writing “The Lost Chord” has been a similar kind of process. I began without knowing exactly (and in many cases, not even approximately) how I would translate all of Brown's clues or the details of his plot into something musical that I could use in mine. But as the work unfolded and I thought about where something was leading (or not), there came to me various ideas that I would check out, follow, discard or expand on.

Sometimes, this whole process has amazed me – and yet, I'm the one writing it! How often this happens in the music I compose is one thing (there, it seems second nature to me) but the amount of creative serendipitousness in writing this novel has been surprising.

Of course, I'm following Brown's story very carefully – this is a very literal parody, even down to certain lines (for instance, Brown begins one chapter, when a character trips over a wire and goes flying, “Katherine Solomon knew she was falling... but she couldn't figure out why.” I begin the parallel segment, where my character falls through a trap door into the basement below, “LauraLynn Sullivan figured out she was falling... but didn't know why.”) – so the problem is not coming up with plot details, though I find many times it's a limitation or what might be called a “creative constraint.”

(In one sense, saying I'm composing in a serial style with such-and-such a 12-tone row is considered a “creative constraint.” So, for that matter, is saying “I'm writing in a tonal style in D Major,” but never mind that for now.)

The problem is finding these “musical equivalents.”

The other day, I posted a segment of a scene that takes place in Verdi Square, an actual location in Manhattan (see photo, left, looking toward the Ansonia Hotel at 73rd & Broadway). It parallels the stake-out scene in Brown's Chapters #93, #97 and #99 that takes place in Franklin Square, an actual location in Washington D.C. Now, in Brown, the address “8 Franklin Square” becomes a clue, though tracking down the location is a red herring since the actual reference is to an 8x8 Magic Square devised by Benjamin Franklin – finding that permits one to reassemble the diagram broken into 64 different little squares into something that becomes more of a metaphorical map.

Though it was wonderful to be able to include my parody of Abbott & Costello's “Who's on First?” with Yoda Leahy-Hu and her ICA agents in this scene, the actual role of Verdi Square was still a sticking point – or a point that had me stuck for ideas. Where to go from here?

I had no number prefacing Verdi to create something like an address. I didn't want my red herring to be as literal as the Brown herring. But what was the point of having the scene at Verdi Square if it didn't have a more effective role in reaching (or obscuring) the actual solution?

Instead of writing out “Verdi Square” as Brown did with Franklin, I had decided to make the clue an outline of a box with the name “VERDI” inscribed inside. At the lower right hand corner were the words, “Falstaff enters here.”

So far, I had figured my final clue – the answer to Brown's diagram on p.373 in Chapter 101 – would be a similar kind of matrix that needs to be “re-ordered” to discover its meaning, or at least get you one step closer to its possible meaning.

Serial composers – that is, those who write music based on Schoenberg's “system of composing with twelve tones” – use a 12x12 matrix or magic square where the 12 notes of the “row” (or source set for the piece's melodic and harmonic material) can be plotted in the “original” format (across the top, left to right) or in the “inversion” (down the side, top to bottom), which also allows you to follow the “retrograde” or “retrograde inversion” of these forms by following the “row” or column in the opposite direction.

But the connection of Verdi with a serial 12x12 matrix was more than a stretch. Verdi was not only not a serial composer, it would be difficult to imagine he even influenced a serial composer. I tried creating a matrix out of the “Enigmatic Scale” he used for the “Ave Maria” in the Four Sacred Pieces written at the end of his career, but that was only seven notes and led nowhere.

And then I remembered how Georges Perec built his novel “Life: A User's Manual” on the Knight's Tour, a classic chess puzzle: how do you get a knight with its L-shaped pattern to move across the chess-board and eventually hit every single square once and only once? In fact, I had already used this idea in setting up the structure for the different segments of another novel I had started (finally) to write in November of 2008 called “Echoes in and out of Time.”

Now, a chess board is an 8x8 square. Perec's square was 10x10 as was the one I used for “Echoes.” How could I construct one that was 12x12? Not only did I find a bunch I could model mine on, by several permutations I was able to get the knight to begin in the lower right-hand corner, just where I wanted Falstaff to enter. Where it landed 144 moves later, ending its gambit, would be a critical point in interpreting the final arrangement of the individual squares of the pictogram. Whatever would be on that square would essentially be the destination of this “map.” (That, I've already figured out but I don't want to give it away, you know, not just yet...)

Okay, so Verdi wrote an opera called “Falstaff,” about Shakespeare's fat knight from “The Merry Wives of Windsor.” That gives me the clue that the knight begins his “tour” on that particular square: the lower right-hand corner.

But the stake-out scene involves telling the villain Tr'iTone that he must enter Verdi Square at the southeast entrance. There are expectations perhaps for a scene like the one at Herne's Oak in Verdi's final scene.

While another clue – a limerick written out in mock-Greek – mentions Dante, the Fifth Circle (presumably of Dante's Inferno) and an entrance guarded by an immobile spider, most of this clue is ignored in typical red herring fashion. Buzz Blogster, for instance, is convinced it will lead to Shelob's Lair which means it's guarding the Two Towers as in Tolkein's “Lord of the Rings,” but alas New York City's two towers were destroyed on September 11th, 2001.

Supposedly saner heads overlook Dante and the Circle as well but suppose there must be a stone (immobile) spider on the base of the Verdi monument in Verdi Square (presumably near the carving of the character Falstaff) that will, like a secret entranceway, open to reveal the portal leading to the location of the “old secrets” (the equivalent of Brown's masonic “Ancient Mysteries” that sets “The Lost Symbol” in motion).

Two things happened in my trying to squirm my way out of this one.

One was I still lacked the prologue which introduces an important statement that comes back in one of the final chapters: Brown's villain, Ma'lakh, tells us “the important thing is to know how to die.” How would this work for a musician trying to achieve the ultimate in Creative Insight? Suddenly – literally an “aha!” moment – I was writing a line about a suffering artist when it occurred to me: Tr'iTone intones “the important thing is to know how to suffer [for one's art].”

The second thing was a parallel discovery to anything that might enhance my location at Verdi Square.

When I lived in New York City in the late-70s, Verdi Square was not a place you'd want to hang out. It was known better as “Needle Park” for its heavy drug traffic. In fact, I'm not even sure I knew it was named after Verdi and I never once saw the statue to Verdi that had been erected there in 1906 the whole time I lived there, walking through that neighborhood or using the 72nd Street subway station. Given that lack of awareness of the area, how would I ever come up with a building in the area that would be the equivalent of the bizarre Shriner's building on Franklin Square in Washington D.C. that becomes a major herring as this scene unfolds in Brown's original?

Now, I had tried to base everything I needed to do as far as research and fact-checking was concerned in this story by using the internet – mainly because Brown's hero, Robert Langdon, makes a snide remark that “googling is not research.” I have friends in New York City I could easily ask (read “pester”) for landmark details &c – and there are some I may still need to track down (and a few I know are just plain wrong but, hey, it's also fiction: I'm not writing a kind of tour guide like Brown did in his three Langdon novels).

So I started googling addresses around Verdi Square and found three buildings with musical connections in the immediate area.

On 73rd Street is a 14 story building called the Sherman Square Studios where the “apartments” were designed as sound-proofed musicians' studios. In 1934 one tenant could even install a pipe organ; in 1956, Samuel Barber held a party there to preview his new wind quintet “Summer Music.”

(Curiously, I discovered this is a building comparable to another one built by the same developer at 86th & Central Park West called Hotel des Artistes which included spacious studios for painters and sculptors back in the 1930s. A friend of mine lived there in an apartment once occupied by Alexander Calder who left behind a massive bronze sculpture when he moved out. When I lived in NYC, I often visited there: just inside the vestibule, Calder's grand lady had become a coat rack – telling this story incensed a friend of mine who complained about the trivialization of art until I reminded him how he liked to listen to my radio program while he read the paper. The living room, by the way, was two stories high and the bedrooms formed a kind of mezzanine overlooking it. An amazing space.)

Opposite the northwest corner of Verdi Square on 74th Street is the famous Ansonia Hotel, an ornate pile of French confection where some great names in the world of music once stayed, ranging from Caruso to Toscanini to Stravinsky. It was interesting that in several references to the hotel's history, musicians' names were the only ones mentioned. A friend suggested this was because of the proximity of Lincoln Center, ten blocks south, but I reminded him that Lincoln Center was opened in the mid-1960s, long after the reign of stars like Caruso or Toscanini would have been traveling to Carnegie Hall on 57th or the old Met on 39th in the early decades of last century.

But it was the building just next to it that caused me, quite literally, to gasp. Before I clicked on that link, I'd never heard of it, yet I walked near there quite frequently during the two years I lived in the area!

I was hoping to find something that could have some significance with a secret organization – presumably of musicians and hopefully with something better than the Sherman Square Studios or I'd have to make something up.

The “Level Club” was built in the 1920s as a private club for members of the local Masonic lodge. In fact, its “byzantine” or “neo-Romanesque” architectural style incorporates several secret masonic symbols into the building's façade.

The perfect red herring for this scene! The ICA agents (my equivalent of the CIA) are looking for something associated with “an order,” with “old secrets” and a mystical society. Having a masonic building right around the corner from Verdi Square was better than I could have imagined – the pun, of course, tying in with Brown's original secret organization – and probably better than something I might have created myself if I were concocting an imaginary cityscape.

So now, there was one last bit of “clue” to contend with, here: tying VERDI in with my 12x12 matrix which will be solved by figuring out a knight's tour.

In his own lifetime, Verdi's name became a rallying cry for Italians seeking independence from the Austrian Empire which controlled the northern half of the Italian peninsula. Those seeking independence wished to create an Italian kingdom led by the king of Sardinia, Victor Emmanuel. But any mention of his name or their cause was liable to result in arrest. Someone discovered that VERDI could be an acronym for “Victor Emmanuel, Re d'Italia” (Victor Emmanuel, King of Italy) and so people could run around screaming “Viva Verdi!” and the Austrian police could only assume they were just crazy about this guy who wrote operas.

Coming up with something musical that could be applied to a 12x12 serial matrix spelling out Verdi's name was another matter.

Scrolling through a few glossaries of serial terminology this afternoon, I quickly came up with

Rows (of)
Dodecaphonic (i.e., 12-tone)
Integers (using numbers instead of pitches)

The fact that it makes no real sense is fine – like much technical gobbledegook, the point is to be as obfuscatory as possible. That someone into esoteric theoretical terminology would get this would be lost on people who love music but may not understand the technical details, the same way people who drive cars during the course of their every day existence might not be able to construct an internal combustion engine from scratch but can still manage to drive.

Thus VERDI inside a box doesn't mean “Verdi Square” after all – it points to a 12x12 square of numbers like a 12-tone matrix with a suggestion for Falstaff (a knight) to enter (to place 1) in the lower right-hand corner.

And so I'm now one step closer to finding “The Lost Chord.”

- Dr. Dick

Saturday, April 24, 2010

A Composer Makes Himself Perfectly Gliere

If you thought some of the names I've been coming up with for characters in my novel, “The Lost Chord,” were groaners - like Yoda Leahy-Hu and Wanda Menveaux - this post may explain a lot.

It was sometime in the mid-70s when I was teaching at the University of Connecticut that I first saw this and it was “old” then. It had been re-printed in something like the Musical Quarterly's “letters” section but since then I've stumbled on it a few times on-line, occasionally updated with newer composers' names.

So I've added a few more myself (including myself) to bring it up to 118 puns...

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

A Composer Makes Himself Perfectly Gliere

You can Telemann by where he likes to live. I just Toch a trip Orff into one of the Wilder areas Fauré Wieck, and to be Verdi Franck, it nearly drove Menotti.

I know opinion Varese, but even Vivaldi urban noises, the Bizet traffic, de Falla engines, as well as knowing there are Weill Mennin the streets Callas enough to knock your Bloch off, I couldn't resist the urge to Galuppi home early Satie, and I Haieff to say I Still prefer the Mitropoulos.

The Boyce were Sor that I had Gibbons up and succumbed to the Riegger of the Field so easily, but frankly, my dear, I don't give two Schütz.

I was practically Krein from my Severacs and all the Paine brought on by that brief time in the countryside! All the Tree Spohrs made me sneeze until my Brain Herz. When you're a Walker in the Wood, it can be a real Balbastre and get your Crotch all in a twist. For me, it was a Röntgen experience. My Buns were dragging Long before I was Abel to get home.

Even the sounds got my Dandrieu up. Let me Liszt some of them: the Rorem of the wind, the constant Birtwistle, the Lipatti-Patti-Tippett-Glinka-Poulenc of the rain on the roof, the Gluck-Gluck of the Hahn, and every morning a woodpecker or some other Byrd Chopin holes in a Thuille. It's all Grieg to me.

My only company was a Thorne Busch, a Partch of poison Ives, a Little Braun Babbitt, the occasional Biber and sometimes a Wolf, but not much Moore. It was scary when you Hurd the Ruehr of a distant mountain Lyon. Maybe for a Forrest Grainger it was Fine, Haydn up in a Tower somewhere - it may even be the Katz Milhaud, but I could have died of Borodin.

A friend suggested my making this Tureck. "Abegg your pardon," I said to him, "but what did I ever Dutilleux?" I will not go Offenbach to those Götterdämmerung Hills again. I would leave them Ligeti split! They Suk! I've had it with this Scheidt. What the Fux do I Care?

Another friend suggested next year I go to the Beach instead. So I gave him the Finger.

No, I don't like the Ruggles life, with nothing to Cooke on but a Coleman stove. It Puts the Carter before the horse. It's nice to stop by the Barber shop around the Koerner or visit the Baker down the Street. Plus I like a good Mehul - a little Suppè, some Szigeti, maybe Munch on some Salome while I raise a Glass at my local Taverner, then maybe have a little lime Schubert afterward (even if they don't always brush the Crumbs off the table). Plus I like to Locatelli while I'm Eaton Maderna at night. Is that Eskin for Egk in Meyerbeer?

Let me make myself Clare: for me, living the Pastoral life would be the Straw,ser, that Bruch the Kamal's Bach.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Busy Concert Weekend in Central PA

There are a number of concerts this weekend if you're looking for some classical music to help you enjoy the spring weather (of course, being April, it is scheduled to rain most of the weekend, but then we could actually use the rain, this time).

Either today or tomorrow is traditionally observed as the birthday of William Shakespeare. We know he was baptized on April 26th, 1564, so the assumption is he was born 2 or 3 days before; there is also the tradition that he died on his birthday, April 23rd, 1616. So, what perfect way to celebrate the Bard's Birth (or Observe his Death) than by attending a program of poetry and music by the Bard and his contemporaries with Market Square Concerts, Saturday at 8pm at Market Square Presbyterian Church?

Parthenia, one of the best regarded early music groups in New York City, will be joined by Jacqueline Horner (originally from the vocal quartet Anonymous4) and actor Paul Hecht who'll be reading the poetry.

The complete program is listed on my post at the Market Square Concerts blog, here.

In Lancaster, guitarist Ernesto Tamayo will be performing at the Pennsylvania Academy of Music, tonight (Friday) at 7:30pm, a program based on his latest recording, El poema de la rosa. The André Mehmari Trio performs at the Academy on Saturday night at 7:30 with a program of Brazilian-influenced jazz.

In York, pianist Gretchen Dekker will be joined by Harrisburg Symphony concertmaster Odin Rathnam for a recital Saturday at 7:30pm at the 1st Baptist Church of York that will feature sonatas by Mozart & Beethoven plus work by Piazzolla, Liszt, Mendelssohn and Kreisler.

And then on Sunday, there's more to choose from.

Violinist Carl Iba and pianist Randy Day will be presenting a program as part of the recital series at the United Methodist Church at 64 W. Chocolate Avenue in Hershey, Sunday at 3pm. The program will include music by Bach, Beach, Bruch and Kreisler, among others.

The State Street Academy will conclude its season of Sunday afternoon concerts with a program at 4pm in its home at the St. Lawrence Chapel on State Street near Front. Pianist Jonathan Kadar-Kallen will include works by Bach, Prokofiev and Liszt on his program. Kadar-Kallen, currently a sophomore at Messiah College where he is pursuing a Bachelor of Music degree in piano performance and composition, is also the organist and choir director for the Mater Dei Latin Mass at St. Lawrence Chapel.

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

If listening to music is important to you, support the arts in your area by attending live performances - and telling your friends about them. Next week, please take the time to write to your state legislators about the importance of the arts to you and to your community as we begin the annual state budget process which traditionally tries to eliminate all state funding for the arts from the budget before some eventual agreement is more or less reached.

- Dr. Dick

Thursday, April 22, 2010

The Lost Chord: The Stake-Out at Verdi Square

Considering it's Earth Day, I know I should post about something appropriate – like living with geothermal heating & cooling and how much money I've saved after not having to buy fuel oil all winter even though it has added to my electric bill, which is another but by no means nearly as economically engrossing (or grossing out) a detail. The plan is, after spending four hours trying to write a reply to a friend through where we'd just reconnected after 43 years, and running into numerous issues with length, cutting/pasting and various code and format errors, I just want to get out, enjoy the sun and plant some green things in my back yard – hopefully, green things the deer and the rabbits won't eat, if there is such a thing...

Anyway, last night, I wrote a scene for “The Lost Chord,” my Music Appreciation Thriller parody of Dan Brown's “The Lost Symbol,” so I thought I'd include some of it for you today.

By now, Dr. Dick (in Brown, that would be Robert Langdon) has uncovered some clues in an attempt to find some composers' “Old Secrets” – the equivalent of Brown's Masonic “Ancient Mysteries” – even though he actually hasn't figured any of them out, yet. Contact has been made with the villain, Tr'iTone (a.k.a. Dr. Iobba Dhabbodhú), who has agreed to meet his informant, the architect V.C. D'Arcy, at Verdi Square (instead of Franklin Square in Brown's story). We have already met the International Composer's Association's Director of Security, Yoda Leahy-Hu (the equivalent of Brown's CIA Chief, Inoue Sato) and several of the agents, many of whom are listed below.

This, then, is an excerpt from Chapter 14 of “The Lost Chord.”

*** ***** ******** ***** ***
There is a tiny patch of grass and trees between 72nd & 73rd Streets where Broadway and Amsterdam Avenue intersect that most people could easily overlook as they hurry to and from the subway station there. Even fewer might know it is called Verdi Square and that the statue hidden within its trees is a monument to the great Italian composers of operas like Aida or La Traviata.

... In the 1960s and '70s, the park had fallen on bad times, a frequent haunt of drug traffickers known better locally as “Needle Park.” Imagine what addicts shooting up in the statue's shadow would have thought if they were suddenly to hear strains from Verdi's most popular operas emanating from speakers suspended among the trees: that at least had been one of the plans bandied about to help make the area safer. It wasn't until 2002 that the park found renewed life with the building of a second entrance to the 72nd Street subway station and the park was redesigned and landscaped.

On this November night, the air was crisp and the park almost completely empty despite the steady post-midnight traffic coming and going nearby. In the hurried drive uptown, V.C. D'Arcy had been outfitted with a “wire” while wireless Cobra headsets, SWAT-team mics and receivers, were outfitted for Chief Leahy-Hu and several officers from the NYPD's WHACKO Division [an unofficial acronym for Weirdos, Hoods, Assholes, Crooks, Killers & Others] wearing scruffy night-camouflage and ready to take down someone already described as a Human Hulk [who so far fits into almost all of those various categories].

The van parked casually on 72nd just west of Broadway as various agents quietly fanned out across the park's immediate vicinity. Officer Jane Watt was sent to cover the corner by the old Renaissance fortress on 73rd Street that was now the Apple Bank along with [Dolly-Sue] Apache and [Emil] Tesorro while Agent Elise Eidonneau joined Officer Barb Dwyer who was hanging out with the late night crowd over at Gray's Papaya at 72nd & Amsterdam. Agent Tamara Bumdier went over to where Officers Wanda Menveaux and DePuis LeJour were posted in front of the Chase bank just below the Ansonia, one of the more ornate old buildings in the neighborhood. Basically, they had the place more or less surrounded: it would be very difficult for someone as large as Dr. Iobba Dhabbodhú was reported to be to slip through their efficiently executed net.

D'Arcy checked over the sheet of paper he'd been handed and took a deep breath before sauntering off toward the southeast entrance. Leahy-Hu was delighted to see such great cooperation between her ICA agents and the NYPD officers, seating herself discreetly on a bench by the subway station's entrance. There, she had a good view of much of the park before her. Detective Telly Ho stayed back in the van, coordinating things with ICA's dispatcher, Agent Aida Lott.

“Showtime,” Leahy-Hu said into her mic, “everybody's in place. Now – we just wait for the Big Guy.” She lit a cigarette and surveyed the scene with studied indifference.

Meanwhile, Detective Ho was trying to explain to Agent Lott the distribution of the various wireless headsets.

“You mean you can't remember which ones you assigned to which agents?” Lott was trying not to sound superior for all her organizational skills. “Who's on first?”

Ho checked his board. “Yes.”

“I mean the Agent's name.”


“The one on first.”


Agent Lott was getting more and more annoyed. “Right, what's the agent's name with the first headset?”

“No, Watt's on second.”

“I'm not asking you who's on second!”

“And I told you, Hu's on first!”

“You tell me – I don't know...”

“Eidonneau's on third.”

“Wait... what?”

“No, I've already told you Watt's on second.”

“Look,” she said, “you got a fourth headset?”


“Would you tell me the name of the Agent you've assigned to the fourth headset?”

“Tamara.” He smiled – he had a soft spot for the beautiful Tamara Bumdier.

“No, I need to know it tonight! Who's on the fourth headset?”

“Hu's on first – How many times have I told you that?”

“I dunno...”

“Eidonneau's still on third: it's too late to switch.” He was getting irritated, now.

“Look, the agent on the first headset should be the one giving the orders. So who's giving the orders tonight?




Leahy-Hu took a long slow drag from her cigarette, confident that everything was under control. She was still waiting for a call from [cryptographer] Haydn Plainview and hopefully Agent [Rhonda] Voo would be calling her soon from W.68th Street: they should have gotten there by now.

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

To be continued... some day...

Dr. Dick

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Brahms' Lullaby & his Symphony No. 2

When I was in 6th grade, I sat within arms' reach of the shelf where the encyclopedia was kept. If the teacher asked a question and I didn't know the answer, I would reach over, grab the appropriate volume and look it up. It didn't exactly make me Mr. Popular in the days before we had words like "geek," but it got me in the habit of thinking "no, I don't know the answer - hang on, let me check."

So tonight, at his pre-concert talk with the Harrisburg Symphony, conductor Stuart Malina was talking about the similarities between the 2nd Theme of Brahms' Symphony No. 2 and his overly familiar Lullaby. Then he asked me if I knew anything about Brahms ever publicly admitting to quoting the Lullaby in the symphony.

I hadn't, so of course, as soon as I got home, I dug out a few books, ranging from Grove's Dictionary to Jan Swafford's imminently readable biography.

1,149 words later, you can read it here on the Harrisburg Symphony Blog.

- Dr. Dick

Friday, April 16, 2010

Apres-15th Tax Day

As usual, I managed to finish my taxes with plenty of time to spare, dropping them off at the local post office by 6pm yesterday (this is actually earlier than most years).

I did have one problem, however, trying to figure out this form...


1. ______.00 Total Income Eligibility from Line 14 of PA Schedule IDK
2. _____ Number of Dependents claimed on Line 27c of PA Schedule BFF (include number of Icelandic refugees fleeing the bad economy there who were living with you between 12:01am and 5:59pm, December 31, 2009)
3. _____ Number of fruit-bearing mango trees growing in your back yard (see instructions for PA Schedule LMFAO)
4. _____ Number of dancing chickens you own (you will also need PA Schedule SNA-FU if number is greater than 2 but less than 15; if entering 16 or more, you will need PA Schedule NIMBY)
4a._____ Number of dancing chickens you own who also play the oboe (refer to Pa Schedule PWN, Part C3-PO) Do not enter number of dancing chickens you own who also play the viola as that is totally incongruent.
5. _____ Average number of hours spent daily on Facebook (multiply the number of hours you just sit there waiting for someone to comment on your status by the percentage found in Internet Overulitization Tables/Social Networking from p.41 of PA Schedule ST-FU)
6. _____ Number of times you have gone to Borders Books and Music only for coffee (use Worksheet found on p.134 of PA Schedule *$)
7. _____ Number of times you had to listen to some Right Wing Blowhard on a Radio Talk Show during your car-pooling commute (if you do not car-pool, please use PA Schedule FU-BAR)
8. _____ Adding only those positive numbers in lines 2-7, determine the percentage of your Empirical Continuability Allowance and enter it here (use tables on p.74b of instructions for PA Schedule WTF)
8b. ____ Multiply Line 1 by Line 8.
9. _____ If line 8b is greater than line 1, send it to us.
10. ____ If line 1 is greater than line 8b, send it to us.
11. ____ If line 8b is half the square root of the next prime number after the figure you entered on line 1, send it to us anyway.
12. ____ If you want the State Department of Revenue to determine your tax liability, send us everything you've earned and we will figure it out for you.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Listening to Jennifer Higdon's Violin Concerto


Which actually sounds like it could be a title of one of Jennifer Higdon’s works but it was my initial reaction to hearing her Violin Concerto when it was first broadcast on-line from the BBC with the performance by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic. The soloist was Hilary Hahn, the violinist for whom the work was composed, and that performance – officially the European premiere, as I recall – was recorded for Deutsche Grammophon and is scheduled to be released in September 2010, paired with the Tchaikovsky concerto.

Earlier today, it was announced that Jennifer Higdon's Violin Concerto won the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2010!

You can read her own thoughts on winning a Pulitzer, posted at the New Music Box, here.

Going through some old files in my computer, I came across this unfinished post about the Violin Concerto which I'd started last June. I had blogged about it when it was announced the concert in England would be broadcast on-line - you can read it here - and it includes a video clip of violinist Hilary Hahn interviewing composer Jennifer Higdon about the piece.

Though I was unable to make the performance in Baltimore, I did get a chance to hear the British performance twice while it was available on-line at the BBC. And the following observations describe some of the most memorable passages of the work. Without a score, I'm guessing how things might be scored: she has a knack for finding ingenious sound-combinations and ways of writing something that blossoms (or explodes, depending on the tempo) from something that might seem “easy to figure out.”

The opening of the Percussion Concerto is a case in point. Low tremulous chords on the marimba gradually expand as other similar percussion instruments are introduced – without seeing the score or watching the performers, you might think “how is he DOING that?!” when in reality, it's part of an artful ruse. But it also incorporates the soloist into the orchestra – and vice versa – in ways that traditional concertos didn't always seek to explore. Traditionally the idea has been more often one of a “contest in sound between the soloist and the orchestra.”

The Violin Concerto is another such approach from its magical opening to the expansion of the soloist's cadenza back into the full orchestra before the first movement ends, through a gorgeous slow movement before ending with a driving finale that must be as close as a violinist can get to riding a racehorse to the finish line.

Here are my observations from last June's broadcast of Jennifer Higdon's Violin Concerto with Hilary Hahn and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, conducted by Vasily Petrenko:

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... the toy-shop opening with the soloist’s harmonics and the (I’m guessing) glockenspiel (sounds like it’s being played with knitting needles, a very delicate wind-chimey sound, something I definitely wanna crib)

... I love how she creates a sound-world that draws you in without being adamant or narcissistic about it. The Percussion Concerto opened up in a similar way, with a low tremolo in the lowest register of the solo marimba – just the kind of sound to make you sit and go “what? How’d she do that?”

... under this, a long flowing line in the solo violin (so who’s playing the harmonics?) emerges and expands rhapsodically as more instruments join the texture – more with lines and sustained notes, but then the opening harmonic pattern becomes a backdrop in the woodwinds and percussion

... this being a concerto and one by Jennifer Higdon (whom one early critic described as “Bartok on speed”), it soon becomes rhythmic and lively, but still growing out of that opening sound and fabric, building gradually and taking you with it. She may alternate between these two moods, but however she Her timing is impeccable.

... However you view modern tonality versus modern non-tonality, one of the things I love about her style is not being afraid of spiky dissonance but always conscious of what makes standard classical music (whether it’s 18th Century classicism or 19th Century romanticism) move forward – the presentation of tension (the dissonance) and its resolution, a release that could be a seemingly normal major chord or maybe not but always moving further ahead under its own innate logic.

… there’s a passage at the end of the cadenza I’m wondering if it’s all in the solo violin part – playing over a sustained drone on a low string, I hear what would have to be left-hand pizzicatos alternating with an occasional bowed artificial harmonic, all set up in a rhythmic pattern that could be played by one person but sounds like 3 lines of different sonorities. Just when I thought “maybe it is possible – after all it’s part of a cadenza,” the solo violin extends into a long rhapsodic line with the sustained drone, the harmonics and the pizzicato notes all, clearly, played by other players and instruments, leading into a nocturnal rumination that brings the movement, for all its virtuosity, into a peaceful rhapsodic close, not unlike its opening.

...first movement is almost 15 minutes long. It's given a subtitle, “1726,” which seems like it must be commemorating some event in that year but in reality refers to the address of the Curtis School of Music on Rittenhause Square in Philadelphia where Ms. Higdon teaches and Ms. Hahn was a student.

…the ending of the slow movement is another of those moments: after long lyric lines surge to a climax as different strands begin to build a linearly dense texture, its resolution begins with an ascending line in the violin against descending block chords in the winds. This eventually settles on a sustained mid-range A Major triad while the violin pulls slowly higher through an A Minor scale to cadence on a high E, another jaw-dropping bit of magic worthy of a composer as sensitive as Schubert.

... the second movement, subtitled “Chaconnie,” is about 13 minutes long. The finale, subtitled “Fly Forward,” goes by quickly in slightly under 5 minutes.

(You can hear a 3-minute excerpt on NPR's web-site, here.)

As it turned out, I originally put this post aside to come back to it again the next day and listen to the music again, but between some mild computer trouble and then being unable to get the BBC clip to play the next day, the file was no longer available to listen to, so I was unable to finish writing about the concerto... Bummer! I am certainly looking forward to hearing the recording when it comes out this fall.

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It's no secret I'm a big fan of Higdon's music, ever since I first heard her Concerto for Orchestra back in 2002 when it was premiered by the Philadelphia Orchestra during their Centennial Celebration. When she got the call asking her if she'd consider writing such a piece, she at first thought this was a joke: but it was very real and they were very serious about it. To add more pressure, it was scheduled for a concert that was to be attended by representatives from orchestras all over the country who were in town for the American Symphony Orchestra League conference (at some point, perhaps even before then, it changed its name to its current name, the League of American Orchestras).

Noting the passionately supportive audience response (long standing and cheering ovations at each performance) and the dazzling critical acclaim it was met with, many members at the conference took this news back to their orchestras and within the year, seven other orchestras were scheduled to perform Jennifer Higdon's Concerto for Orchestra, something very rare in the life of a new work, even by a major composer.

She quickly went from being a respected teacher at Curtis not well known outside the area to becoming the closest thing to a Superstar new music has had in decades.

I have since attended additional Philadelphia premieres of her Percussion Concerto and a concerto for violin, chorus and orchestra called “The Singing Rooms.” However, I was unable to make it Baltimore to hear the Violin Concerto when it was given its East Coast Premiere last June, nor could I make it to Washington to hear her Piano Concerto when it was premiered, either.

In Central Pennsylvania, the Harrisburg Symphony has played three works by her, most recently 'SkyLine' from “CityScape,” the Percussion Concerto and, before that, “Blue Cathedral.” The Lancaster Symphony gave her their Composers Award in March of 2008 and performed the middle movement from “CityScape,” called “river sings a song to trees.” This past January with Market Square Concerts, Harrisburg heard the Cypress Quartet play the string quartet she'd written for them called “Impressions.”

From her website, you can tell – just by looking at these three commissions – she is not resting on any laurels. She's certainly one of the busiest composers on the planet.

“Jennifer Higdon is writing a concerto for the group eighth blackbird and orchestra. The work, On a Wire will be premiered in June by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, Robert Spano, conducting, and will also be featured by the ASO during the 2010 National Conference of the League of American Orchestras. Other commissioning groups will be announced soon.

“The Grand Tetons Music Festival, Donald Runnicles, Music Director, has commissioned Higdon to write a work to be premiered during the 2011 Festival.

“The San Francisco Opera has commissioned Higdon to write an opera to be premiered in Fall of 2013.”

And those are just a few of the pieces on her desk for the near future...

- Dr. Dick

Photo credit: Candace DiCarlo

Jennifer Higdon Wins a PULITZER PRIZE

It was just announced today that Jennifer Higdon won the Pulitzer Prize for Music this year for her Violin Concerto which had been premiered by Hilary Hahn last season!

You can read about it here at New Music Box! I'll post more about it later.

The London performance had been broadcast on-line and I had a couple of chances to listen to it during the week it was available “on-demand.” It's a wonderful piece and I'm very much looking forward to the recording being released sometime late this year – hopefully sooner than later!

(So excited!)

- Dick Strawser 

Photo credit: Candace DiCarlo