Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Review: Joseph Schwantner, Chaser of Light

Joseph Schwantner
Chasing Light; Morning's Embrace; Percussion Concerto
Christopher Lamb, percussion
Nashville Symphony; Giancarlo Guerrero, conductor

Two of these things belong together (but the third one's fine, too). That's a capsule summary of my reaction to this new recording of Joseph Schwanter's music from Naxos, "Chasing Light." This Pulitzer Prize-winning composer has been fascinated by light, and two of the works on this CD were directly inspired by it.

Morning's Embrace, according to the composer, "draws its spirit and energy from... intensely vibrant early morning sunrises." Schwantner's wide-open melodies and spare orchestration seem almost Coplandesque at time, which is not a bad thing at all. It's a warm, inviting work, fulfilling the promise of the title.

Chasing Light is another dawn-inspired work. In this case, Schwantner creates a tone poem describing the play of morning sunlight through a stand of trees. But the hammering tympani that start the piece let you know this won't be a quiet contemplation of nature. This sun's coming up like thunder. Schwantner's music simultaneously shimmers and pushes forward, as inexorably as the rising sun. The dramatic nature of this composition makes it seem almost like a soundtrack for an epic film.

While the Concerto for Percussion and Orchestra has nothing to do with light, it has everything to do with Schwantner's affinity for percussion. Commissioned by Christopher Lamb (who performs in this recording), this a brawny, full-blooded work that celebrates the musicality in all things struck. The first part sets the tone with various drums sounding out the melody that the orchestra picks up. The lyrical middle section is primarily for vibraphone and various tuned percussive instruments that create a haunting, and contemplative elegiac mood. The finale is as rhythmic and percussive as the first part -- only more so. It's great fun to listen to, and I suspect even more fun to watch in live performance.

Giancarlo Guerrero masterfully leads a Nashville Symphony that's on top of its game. The ensemble plays with conviction and authority, as if they had been performing these works for years. Christopher Lamb is an incredible percussionist, playing music that's an integral part of him.

Top-flight in every way.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

2011 "Proms" on WTJU

The BBC “Proms,” the well-beloved and preeminent British summer musical festival, started the 2011 season on 15 July and will run through 10 September. This season features 85 concerts, covering a wide variety of works, from the longest symphony ever written (Havergal Brian’s Gothic Symphony) to masterpieces of Renaissance composer Tomas Luis de Victoria.

The Proms, more formally known as the Henry Wood Promenade Concerts, began in 1895 and were initially held in the Queen’s Hall in London. The festival quickly became a venerated British institution. Henry Wood (knighted in 1911) conducted the concerts from the inception of the festival in 1895 until his death in 1944 (only three weeks earlier he had conducted Beethoven's Seventh Symphony at the Proms). After the Queen’s Hall was destroyed in 1941, the Proms were moved to its present location at the Royal Albert Hall in London.

Throughout the festival, I will be featuring selected works performed at the 2011 Proms during my regular show on WTJU, Classical Sunrise. So tune in Sunday mornings, from 6 am to 9 am, to WTJU 91.1 FM, or on the web at

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Review: Hummel at the Opera - Piano Arrangements by a Classical Master

Hummel At the Opera
Madoka Inui, piano

Like many virtuoso composer/performers of the day, Johann Nepomuk Hummel wrote arrangements and variations on popular melodies. And in that day (the early 1800’s), the best-known melodies were to be found in operas.

This collection features a number of Hummel’s operatic arrangements for solo piano. All show a wealth of musical imagination. Some of the source material is familiar to us today, such Mozart’s Die Entfuhrung aus dem Serail and Gluck’s Armide. Others are a little more obscure. In a few cases,  such as Hummel’s own fairy opera Eselshaut, his piano arrangements are the only surviving versions of the work.

As may one might expect, these variations and grand fantasias are full of attractive melodies. Compared to Liszt’s operatic transcriptions – or Beethoven’s “Diabelli Variations,” these works can seem a little tame. But Hummel’s inventiveness runs closer to  that of Mozart and Haydn. So while they’re  excessively showy, they’re all solidly constructed pieces of music.

Especially attractive is his variations of “Vivat Bacchus” from Mozart’s Die Entfuhrung. Hummel takes the aria through several permutations that vary in tone from humorous to serious.  I also found his simple counterpoint in the Grand Fantasi on Oberons Zauberhorn particularly charming.

Pianist Madoka Inui plays these works with precision and sensitivity. Her phrasing is impeccable, giving the music a sense of forward motion while maintaining a little of the emotional reserve characteristic of Hummel’s late-classical style.

Pleasant – and in some cases – thought-provoking arrangements that make for an enjoyable listening experience.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Review: ASO Moves from Strength to Strength

Theofanidis: Symphony No. 1 and Lieberson: Neruda Songs
Atlanta Symphony Orchestra
Robert Spano, conductor
Kelley O'Connor, mezzo-soprano

If they continue on the trend established by their first two releases, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra's ASO Media label may become one of my favorite labels. For their second release, the orchestra pairs two compositions by a rising and an established composer. Christopher Theofanidis is the (relative) newcomer, and the work is his first symphony. Peter Lieberson is the established composer, with his "Neruda Songs."

The Symphony was premiered by the Robert Spano and the ASO in 2009, and it's clear that they know this music intimately. Theofanidis's symphony is a study in contrasts. It starts out with a unison wind line that contains all the motifs for the rest of first movement. When the rest of the orchestra enters, its with a lush sound well-suited to the orchestra.

Some parts reminds me of Carl Vine's orchestral music, which is not a bad thing. Like Vine, Theofanidis writes melodically, in clearly defined structures that are easy to follow. This four-movement work is symphonic in every sense; dramatic, expansive, full of rich timbres and imaginative orchestration. For those who still think that modern music is only cacophony gone wild, Theofanidis' First Symphony provides ample proof to the contrary.

The second work on the release, is Peter Lieberson's "Neruda Songs." It's a good match for the Theofanidis Symphony. It also is richly orchestrated, with some distinctively Latino musical turns, in keeping with the Chilean poetry of Pablo Neruda. Lieberson originally wrote this orchestral song cycle for his wife, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. This recording features mezzo-soprano Kelley O'Connor, who brings her own interpretation to the work (that's her picture on the album art, BTW).

O'Connor's warm delivery and sensitive phrasing give this work new life. The "Neruda Songs" are personal love letters Lieberson composed for his wife. This performance turns them into something more universal, yet still deeply moving.

Two substantial 21st Century works performed with authority and conviction -- the Atlanta Symphony's self-released CDs just keep moving from strength to strength.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Review: Piazzolla - Tangos for Violin, Brass and Percussion - Steely Passion

Piazzolla: Tangos for Violin, Brass & Percussion
Quintetto di Ottoni e Percussion Della Toscana

Andrea Tacchi, violin

Astor Piazzolla was an amazingly prolific composer who technically only wrote one type of music – the tango. I say technically, because this student of Ginastera and Nadia Boulanger took the form farther than anyone else before or since, developing it into a pliable frame for his complex musical ideas.

This new recording from Naxos features some of Piazzolla’s better-known works, arranged for brass quintet, percussion, and (for some pieces) violin. Reimagining Piazolla’s compositions with this decidedly classical contemporary mix of instruments offers new insights into the music.

I wouldn’t recommend this disc as someone’s introduction to Piazzolla’s music, but for those already familiar with his output, it should be a welcome addition to their collection.

The disc features “Las 4 Estaciones Portenas,” Piazzolla’s take on Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons.” The solo violin serves up most of the Vivaldi quotes, while the brass ensemble primarily play Piazzolla’s additions. The contrasting timbres make this well-known work sound fresh.

Also included are Piazzolla’s most popular work, “Oblivion” and the three tangos he wrote for Amelita Boltar.
The Quintetto di Ottoni e Percussion della Toscana plays with tightly-wound precision. Percussionist Roberto Bichi nicely balances his performance between a popular music style (suitable for the tango’s origins), and a controlled, yet expressive playing of a classically-trained musician.

I’ve heard some Piazzolla recordings that make pleasant background music. This isn’t one of them. The brass bring an immediacy to the music that cannot be ignored.  And that’s a good thing. Piazzolla imbued his compositions with the passion and fire that was always part of the tango. This recording brings a new perspective to the music while remaining true to that vision.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Review: Remembering JFK - Two Views of History

Remembering JFK - 50th Anniversary Concert
National Symphony Orchestra; Christoph Eschenbach, conductor

This new release from Ondine is actually two historical musical documents in one. The first CD is a recording of the 50th Anniversary Concert held at the Kennedy Center with the National Symphony Orchestra lead by Christoph Eschenbach. This January, 2011 event took place 50 years after the January 19, 1961 Inaugural Concert for the president-elect, John F. Kennedy. The second disc has some excerpts from that historic concert.

The centerpiece of the 2011 concert is a newly-commissioned work by Peter Lieberson, "Remembering JFK, an American Elegy." Modeled along the lines of Copland's "Lincoln Portrait," the music blends quotations from JFK's speeches along with orchestral accompaniment that sets the tone for the words. It's an interesting work that sounds distinctively American, without being either crassly patriotic nor excessively maudlin. Richard Dreyfuss narrates with gravity and conviction. I'm used to hearing Kennedy's New England delivery, so I found Dreyfuss sounding a little too nasal for my taste. But that's just me.

The concert includes Leonard Bernstein's "Symphonic Dances from 'West Side Story," and his "Fanfare for the Inauguration of John F. Kennedy." The orchestra delivers effective performances of both these works.

The concluding work is Gershwin's "Concerto in F" with pianist Tzimon Barto. Barto plays with fire and conviction, but leans more towards a classical rather than a jazz-inflected performance. The Concerto has never enjoyed the popularity of the "Rhapsody in Blue," and the serious-minded interpretation it receives here may be part of the reason why. That's not to say Eschenbach and the NSO don't do the work justice, it's just that this is a very good -- rather than great -- performance.

The second disc features some commentary and performances from the 1961 Inaugural Concert held in Constitution Hall. Washington was paralyzed by a blizzard, and many of the guests (and performers) had difficulty making it to the concert. Even the President-Elect and First Lady had to walk to the event!

Color commentary from the Mutual Radio Network broadcast is included, and for me, that alone is worth the price of admission! Tony Martin, Bill Evanson, and Dorice Bell were professionals trained in a style of announcing that's now long out of fashion. Despite the chaotic nature of the concert that was somewhat improvised due to the weather, they remain unflappable, brilliantly describing the scene in clear, well-articulated sentences with every syllable rolling effortlessly and beautifully off their tongues.

And the music's a treat, too. Included is John La Montaine's work "From Sea to Shining Sea," commissioned for the event. Maestro Howard Mitchell and members of the National Symphony Orchestra (I don't think all the performers ever made it to the event)do a fine job with this pleasant occasional work.

Also included is part of Randall Thompson's "Testament of Freedom" a choral setting of Thomas Jefferson's writings, played with the composer in the audience! The work was to have been performed by the combined male choirs of the predominantly white Georgetown University Glee Club and the black Howard University Choir. A heavily symbolic performance that would have presaged an important stance of the new administration.

Unfortunately, the Howard choir was stuck in the snow, and so the work was only performed with the Georgetown U. Glee Club. The Glee Club sounds a little anemic -- those Howard voices were sorely missed. With the two choirs, I think the music would have had a greater impact. Still, the work's inclusion makes a nice compliment to disc one's "Remembering JFK."

The CD concludes with Earl Wild performing Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue." It's an interesting contrast to disc one's "Concerto in F." I don't know if Earl Wild is a necessarily a better technician than Tzimon Barto, but the music just seems to flow from his fingers. Wild captures the improvisatory nature of Gershwin's music, and manages to make this well-know work sound as if he's making it up on the spot. And the enthusiastic response by the audience confirms that this was indeed, a great performance.

Overall, "Remembering JFK" is a treasure. The commissioned works are welcome additions to the repertoire, the 2011 concert is immensely enjoyable, and the 1961 concert recording is a wonderful historical document to a truly exciting musical event.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The Naming Game, Part 3 - Tilted Titles

"Wachut Auf" by Bach. At least
that's what we call it.
The nomenclature of classical music is seen by some as a barrier to entry into the field. Some believe (both inside and out of the field) that  if you're not quite sure what "Concerto for flatiron in H-flat, Op. 999a" means, then, perhaps you're not smart enough to listen to it.

Well, yes you are. In parts one and two I explained the basics behind the naming of instrumental works. Since they usually just have a generic name, some type of numbering is necessary to tell them apart.

But what about vocal music? After all, songs in popular music all have unique titles. That's true. And those titles usually come from one of two places: either a key word or phrase from the chorus of the song, or an evocative title assigned by the composer(s).

Begin at the beginning, so none may sleep
Classical music works a little differently. Like instrumental music, most vocal and choral works originally didn't have assigned titles. So the practice evolved of referring to them by the first line or phrase of the text.

That's why Puccini's popular aria from "Turandot" is called Nessun Dorma. The phrase ("None May Sleep") is a repeat of the decree Princess Turandot has issued, that none may sleep until the name of the Prince has been discovered. The Prince echoes the call, which then leads into his aria of love. But since the first words he sings are "Nessun dorma," that's what the aria's called.

The same holds true with arias from oratorios and cantatas. "Are We Like Sheep" is a famous chorus from Handel's "Messiah." Ditto the "Hallelujah" Chorus -- so called because that's the first word sung.

And the pattern holds for unnamed larger vocal and choral works as well. Bach's cantatas all take their titles from the first line of text. "Wachet Auf" is the first line of his Cantata No. 140. Want to sing the second aria from that work? Then you're talking about Mein Freund ist mein!.

A Sense of Entitlement
Works can have titles assigned, of course. Most operas take their titles from the lead character, or the plot. And if a poem is set to music, the title of the poem usually becomes the title of the musical work as well. Schubert's lieder mostly follow this pattern, as do Schumann's.

Missa No Understand, Obi-Wan
Reciting titles for medieval and renaissance masses can make one sound like Jar-Jar Binks, but there's a reason for that nomenclature as well. The Roman Catholic worship service is known as a mass, or missa in Latin.

From about 1100 to 1600, it was very important to have liturgical music tied to tradition. So much so that composers usually uses an existing Gregorian chant as the basis for their composition. As time went on, other types of music were incorporated, including some secular (and in some cases pretty dirty) songs.

Titles for these masses always referred to the root melody the composition was based on. So the Missa L'Homme Armee is a mass based on the popular song "The Armed Man." Actually, several renaissance composers have a Missa L'Homme Armee in their catalog.

It's like the French have a different word for everything! - Steve Martin
The important thing to remember is that classical music has been composed for over a millenia in virtually every country in Europe, as well as most of the Americas, (and a few other places besides). Titles almost always come from the language of the text. So that's why you have German, Italian, French, and even Latin titles for works.

So the titles of these works isn't meant to obscure, but to provide additional clarity. You might not know what Christ Lag in Todesbanden (Bach's Cantata No. 4) means, but you at least you know it's a German work.

What next?
There are many other ways classical works are named. If any are puzzling you, just leave me a note in the comments field. I'll be happy to research your question and supply an answer. Classical names shouldn't be a barrier to the enjoyment of the music. It doesn't really matter what a work is called, just how it calls to you.

The Naming Game, Part 1, Opus 1! 

The Naming Game, Part 2: Cataloging Chaos