Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (c. 1525 - 1594)

Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina -- quite a mouthful. Actually, the composer was born in the town of Palestrina (not far from Rome); hence, "da" or from Palestrina. In his home town, he would have been known as Giovanni Pierluigi, but to the rest of the world, he was simply Palestrina.

He was arguably the most outstanding composer of his time and the leading musician of the Counter-Reformation. He composed about 104 masses, more than anyone else in the history of music, and almost half of which were published in his lifetime.

He also composed more than 300 motets, as well as numerous hymns and several settings of the Magnificat and the Lamentations of Jeremiah. His first book of masses was published in 1554 and was dedicated to Pope Julius III, who rewarded Palestrina by appointing him to the Sistine Chapel, the Pope's personal chapel. Famously, Palestrina composed the Missa Papae Marcelli to commemorate the reign of another pope, Pope Marcellus II, who, however, reigned for only 3 weeks in April 1555.

I played the Missa Papae Marcelli performed by the Tallis Scholars on my regular show on Sunday morning, Classical Sunrise (6 to 9 AM).

Today, I'll be hosting "Portrait of the Artist" from 5 to 7 PM, with Palestrina as the featured artist.

To whet your appetite, here's the Gloria from that work, performed by the Oxford Camerata, directed by Jeremy Summerly.

Contemporary Classical - worth contemplating

Anne Midgette wrote an excellent article recently in the Washington Post providing an introduction to new music for the novice. Contemporary Classical: A Primer explores some of the major trends, such as minimalism, neo-traditional, and alt-classical. As she explains:
If you’re a longtime orchestra subscriber, you may be passionate about Brahms but leery of the unfamiliar names and sounds that occasionally emerge onto concert programs. And chances are, whatever you like, you are equally passionate about what you don’t like. This is not a “best of” guide, but rather an aide to orientation: Whatever your individual taste, these are pieces worth exploring.

In addition to outlining the three trends, she also includes a list of suggested works at the end of the article that I found quite good (and even had some surprises for me).

Not all the composers are dead. They're not all European, and they're not even all male. And the music they're writing is far removed from the prickly dissonances of mid-Twentieth Century avant-gardists that everyone seems to assume is still the norm for new music.

So here's the question: what would you like to hear more of on WTJU? Minimalist composers like Steve Reich and John Adams? Neo-traditionalists like John Corigliano and Jennifer Higdon? Alt-classical composers such as Nico Muhly and Mason Bates?

Of course, if you listen to my program, "Gamut" you'll probably hear all of the above and then some. But there's a lot to like in new music, and someday, some of those work will be considered standards of the repertoire.

Anne Midgette provides a great place to start your musical exploration, and we promise to help you along your journey!

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Gaga about the Fugue

A new video based on a very old tradition has been making the rounds. Italian composer Giovanni Dettori has composed a fugue based on a motif found in Lady Gaga's song, "Bad Romance." Composers have been using popular music for contrapuntal fodder for centuries -- sometimes to the disapproval of their audiences (or patrons).

The French folk song "L'Homme Armé" was extremely popular in the 1400's. And the shape of the melody lent itself very well to contrapuntal treatment. As a result, quite a few composers of the time used the song as a basis for their mass settings. So when you see a sacred work titled "Missa L'Homme Armé," then you know this highest form of religious music was based on a pop song.

Which takes us back to Dettori's fugue. As you can see (and hear) from the following video, it's a thorough treatment of Gaga's motif. This is counterpoint as championed by Bach, and if you pay close attention, you'll hear the thematic material transformed as it's played against itself, stretched, condensed, and even reversed.

And while the composition's a lot of fun, it also stands on its own merit. If you've never heard Lady Gaga, or knew of the origin of the theme, it's still an enjoyable fugue.

But just for reference, here's the music in its original context.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Review: River of Light: American Short Works for Violin and Piano

River of Light: American Short Works for Violin and Piano
Tim Fain, violin;
Pei Yao Wang, piano
Naxos American Classics 8.559662

Usually a recital disc of short violin compositions, known as “miniatures,” will include works by 19th and early 20th century composer-performers such as Fritz Kreisler, Niccolò Paganini, Pablo de Sarasate, and Henryk Wieniawski. With this album, violinist Tim Fain aims to “bring the tradition of the ‘short piece’ into the present.”

And by the present, he means roughly the last 60 years, for only one of the pieces performed is by a composer who is deceased (Ruth Shaw Wylie’s Wistful Piece, composed in 1953). Fain premiered many of the works (or arrangements) performed on River of Light, so you get the sense he is deeply committed to this repertoire.

The disc begins with a lyrically understated aria for violin and piano by Kevin Puts (whose body of work has been growing nicely, and whose fanfare, Network, was featured on a high-energy sampler of American compositions on the inaugural release by the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra’s record label, CSO Media.

Then Fain makes use of his excellent technique with Knee Play 2, an excerpt from Philip Glass’s 1976 opera, Einstein on the Beach. His performance in this arrangement is simply electric, both capturing the hypnotizing and change-prone qualities of the composer’s music.

Aaron Jay Kernis’s Air for Violin and Piano is no mere trifle. The adjectives to which one could attribute to it are well-deserved: melodic, tender, and expressive, and heart-wrenching. The long lines which the violin has to sustain are thrilling to hear. Fain and Wang interpret this material well. Richard Danielpour’s River of Light would not be out of place in a movie score: that is, a score which is deeply foreboding and evocative of dark beauty in its character.

It is nice to hear William Bolcom’s Graceful Ghost Rag transformed into a bon-bon for violinists to enjoy—why should pianists have all the fun? Jennifer Higdon even manages to write a melody worthy of some of the great composers of the repertoire, with her Legacy.

The longest work on the disc, The Light Guitar, is by New York-based composer Patrick Zimmerli. For a work for solo violin in three movements, it does everything a good solo work should do: highlight a soloist’s musical abilities, require expressive playing, and display high-energy virtuosity in the outer sections. Indeed, the fast third movement mirrors what is so infectious of bluegrass music, which moves back and forth between agile melodic figures, and is punctuated throughout by double and triple stops, open strings, and movement by parallel intervals. Maybe he should look up mandolinist Chris Thile and put together a show.

Fain and his trusty colleague, pianist Pei Yao Wang are worthy partners for this material. Fain has crafted an album of violin and piano music which deserves to be further explored by more violinists. One can hardly wait to hear what their next project will be. The disc will be released on the Naxos American Classics label on August 30, 2011.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Review: Farinelli the composer

Farinelli: The Composer  
Jorg Washchinski, male soprano
Salburger Hofmusik; Wolfgang Brunner, conductor 
New Classical Adventure

“Farinelli the composer” is a fascinating release. Carlo Broschi (AKA Farinelli) was – by all accounts – the greatest castrato opera singer of his day, and perhaps of all time. But because Farinelli conquered the stage 200 hears before sound recording technology, we only have contemporary descriptions of his voice to judge the extent of his talent.

Fortunately, in addition to being a singer, Farinelli was also a composer. Like many virtuosos of his day, he wrote music exclusively for his own  performances -- primarily arias. Baroque opera singers were expected to improvise around the written score, and Farinelli was no exception. Of course, such improvisations are ephemeral. But just as a Miles Davis composition can provide insight into his improvisational style, so too does Farinelli’s arias give us a better idea of what his voice was capable of, and how he was likely to improvise in performance.

The arias on this release are of great historical interest, which is not to say they’re without compositional merit. Even though the orchestrations are run-of-the-mill, Farinelli was a better than average composer with a real gift for melody (not surprisingly). The vocal lines he wrote for himself are full of unusual twists, turns, and leaps that could trip up a lesser singer.

Sopranist Jorg Waschinski is more than equal to the task, and does an outstanding job with this material. No matter how talented the countertenor, the range is always a little more constrained than that of a true castrato. Nevertheless, Waschinski soars through the upper register seemingly without effort, delivering a clear, full-voiced sound.

If you’ve seen the movie “Farinelli” then you know of the man’s reputation. But the voice you heard was a digital blend of different singers. In this release you hear an actual singer delivering Farinelli’s music to the best of his formidable ability. And the humanity of  Waschinski's voice makes all the difference.

Although we can never really know what Farinelli sounded like, this recording of his music brings us a little bit closer.

Highly recommended for anyone interested in Baroque or Classical era opera.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Ah, Bach!

Why do our volunteers give up their time to present programs of carefully-selected music for you? Well, here's a partial answer.

Rob Nowicki was hosting "The Early Music Show" on August 8, 2011, and aired a particularly strong lineup of music from Telemann, Graun, Purcell.... and Bach. 

Ah, Bach! 

Rob aired Bach's Cantata # 169 “Gott soll allein mein Herze haben” BWV 169,  from a Harmonia Mundi release featuring Bernada Fink, mezzosoprano; Frieburger Barockorchester; and Petra Mullejan, director.

After the program, he found the following voicemail from an anonymous caller, whose voice trembled with emotion.
“I am so happy to have heard this wonderful-not wonderful-magnificent!-ecstatic! divine! music…….The Bach has been beyond description-I am enchanted by it!  I wish to send to the man who has been taking care of it all blessings-blessings on him and many, many thanks.  Good bye.”
We know we air great music that can stir the soul. It's wonderful when we receive an occasional acknowledgement.

If you'd like to hear this soul-stirring program, it's available for on-demand listening from our online tape vault. But you need to act soon -- our archive only holds programs aired in the past two weeks, and after that, this show will be lost to the ages.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Review: Comfort music from Franco Ferrara

Franco Ferrara
Fantasia tragica
Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma; Francesco La Vecchia, conductor

Franco Ferrara was many things: a brilliant pianist and violinist, a teacher, a conductor -- and a composer. Ill health forced him to give up public performance at age 47, so the bulk of his reputation these days rests on those who studied conducting with him, such as Roberto Abbado, Andrew Davis, Riccardo Muti, among many others.

This new release from Naxos, Fantasia tragica, features four world premiere recordings by this master musician. Ferrara certainly isn't the first 20th Century conductor who wrote music. There's George Szell, Jose Serebrier, Wilhelm Furtwangler, and (of course) Gustav Mahler. Ferrar isn't quite on the level of Mahler, but his works are more tightly constructed than Furtwangler's.

Francesco La Vecchia and the Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma present four world premier recordings of Ferrara's music. They provide an excellent reading of this material, giving the listener a great introduction to these unknown works.

This is accessible and appealing music, indeed! While sitting clearly in the 20th Century, Ferrara's compositions stay safely with the bounds of tonality. To my ears, the compositions sounded somewhat like mid-career Shostakovitch, without the Russian accent.

That's not to say this a a bad recording -- far from it! Ferrara has some original music ideas, and his intimate knowledge of how an orchestra works allows him to come up with some very effective and moving tonal colors. In a way, it's sort of like comfort food. Ferrara doesn't challenge, but rather reassures with his music.

I found the Fantasia tragica particularly appealing. Like Ravel's "Bolero," the work gradually builds in volume as more instruments enter the mix. But there's no driving percussion here -- just a long, beautifully-crafted melody that moves inexorably upward, winding its way through the orchestra.

This would be a great disc to give to someone who's ready to move beyond the basic repertoire. There's still plenty of touchstones with the familiar, but the spark of originality Ferrara brings to his music makes the exploration worthwhile.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

WTJU Needs You!

Have you ever listening to a program on WTJU, like "Gamut" for example, and thought to yourself I could do better than that guy.

Well, you're probably right. And, if you live within a reasonable commuting distance, you have a chance to prove it. WTJU is looking for new volunteers for our classical department.

Every announcer you here on WTJU is a volunteer. We're all different ages, and come from widely different backgrounds, but we all have one thing in common: we're all passionate about the music we play. If you're the type of person who's always urging your friends to check out this recording or that performance, then you're probably good announcer material.

Don't worry about the technical stuff -- we'll train you on that (it's actually pretty easy, and it gets easier with practice). All we need are folks who love classical music and want to share that love with the community.

Sure, some of our announcers have some music degrees (and a few even work in the field), but that's not important. Any classical musical enthusiast is welcome -- and many times our "amateurs" have provided the most insightful and engaging programming aired on WTJU.

Not quite sure how to pronounce Szymanowski? No problem -- we have pronunciation guides (and sometimes I even use them).

So why should you volunteer? The biggest reason I think is this -- you get to program your own show. Most radio stations (public and commercial) use playlists. The DJ comes in, plays what's on the list when it's scheduled to run, and that's that. That's OK if you're paid to babysit an automated system, but it's not very rewarding as a voluntary activity.

AT WTJU, it's much more hands-on. It's up to you to pick the music and decide what goes on the air when. There are some simple guidelines to follow, but within them, you're free to do as you will. Imagine having your friends come over to your home for a classical listening party, with you as host. That's about what being on WTJU is like.

And because each announcer is only on for one show once a week (except when we fill in for others), the time commitment isn't too demanding.

If you like what you hear on WTJU and want to help it continue, please consider volunteering. And if you listen to "Gamut" and roll your eyes every time I start nattering on about something, you should really volunteer. WTJU needs you desperately!