Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Adolphus Hailstork: An American Port of Call

Adolphus Hailstork: An American Port of Call
Virginia Symphony Orchestra
JoAnn Falletta, conductor

American composer Adolphus Hailstork has been quietly building up an impressive catalog of well-crafted works. This new collection brings some of them to light.

Hailstork's Symphony No. 1 is an expansive work with plenty of energy. Hailstork's melodies are always tuneful and rhythmic, which makes this symphony sparkle. For the most part, the work's thinly orchestrated. In some ways it's more of a symphony of small instrumental groups rather than a big ensemble.

Whtiman's Journey is a large-scale work for orchestra and chorus. Whitman's a quintessentially American poet, and Hailstork's open, Coplanesque composition brings out that aspect of poetry. It's a warm, elegiac work that's a satisfying blend of words and music.

An American Port of Call shares some characteristics of  William Walton's Portsmouith Point. both are short orchestral works depicting a busy seaport. Hailstork's composition has all the energy of a bustling waterfront, with different musical themes moving back and forth in crosscurrents. A splendid curtain-raiser.

Hailstork draws on his African-American heritage for Three Spirituals. Although there's some jazz inflections in this work, Three Spirituals is first and foremost a concert piece for orchestra. The melodies may be familiar, but Hailstork develops them in interesting ways that, while symphonic in nature, remain true to the character of the source material.

Fanfare on Amazing Grace is an imaginative treatment of this well-known (and perhaps over-performed hymn). The tune provides the starting point from which he builds a superstructure of original material, that reveals new insights about this melody.

Adolphus Hailstork lives in eastern Virginia. The Virginia Symphony, is a hometown  ensemble, well familiar with Hailstork's music. Under the direction of JoAnn Falletta, this regional orchestra turns in credible performances. Sometimes the ensemble playing isn't as precise as it needs to be, but that's a minor quibble. It's a joy simply to hear these works played.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Mark-Anthony Turnage Orchestral Works: Great performances by the LSO

Turnage: Orchestral Works
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Various conductors and soloists

Mark-Anthony Turnage was the London Philharmonic Orchestra's composer in residence for five years, and this is the third volume of his works written for the ensemble. The recordings are all take n from live performances, which gives them an added sense of freshness and energy.

On Opened Ground is kind of a disjointed jazz-flavored concerto for viola. The music moves in fits and starts with the viola (Lawrence Power, soloist) popping in and out in surprising ways, while still providing most of the melodic content. Sometimes it seems like the soloist and orchestra are playing two different pieces, then there's a sudden shift, and it turns out all to be part of Turnage's plan.

By contrast, Texan Tenebrae is an emotionally wrought little gem. It grew from Turnage's opera Anna Nicole, and is a work contemplating the death of the Texas Playmate-turned-trophy wife. Turnage effectively uses dissonance to both ratchet up the emotion and suggest that, despite the placid nature of the music, all is not right

Turnage composed the Lullaby for Hans for his mentor Hans Werner Henze. This string orchestra work pays fitting homage to Henze's style. The ensemble drifts about in thick chordal clouds of sound, sounding ethereal, and -- despite the dissonances -- strangely restful

The clarinet concerto Riffs and Refrains would make a great companion piece to Bernstein's "Prelude, Fugue and Riffs." Both works take the sound of the jazz clarinet, and jazz motifs and recast them as building blocks from contemporary classical works. In Turnage's case, the piece is prone to sudden bursts of energy, followed by slow sections that seem to be holding the motion of the music back (but only for a little while). Michael Collins effortlessly switches back and forth from classical to jazz playing, making this an effective work that brings together both worlds.

Christian Tetzlaff fearlessly performs the violin concerto Mambo, Blues and Tarantelly. The opening section sounds like an angular version of the mambo from West Side Story, and the other parts equally traditional and aggressively modern.That's not to say it's not original music -- it is. Tetzlaff is completely invested in this complex music and turns in a highly focused performance.

If you're already purchased the first two volumes in this series, then you need only know the quality hasn't wavered. If you're looking for an introduction to Turnage, this disc can provide a nice overview of his orchestral writing.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Books on Music: Nine top picks

The death of pianist and author Charles Rosen in New York on Dec. 9 represents a loss to the world of classical music. His recordings of the music of Debussy, Beethoven, and John Cage were especially distinguished. His book The Classical Style (1972), which won the National Book Award, is a model of scholarship and insightful commentary on the music of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. It is among the most enlightening and enjoyable books on music of the last several decades, although the scholarship and musical analysis can be formidable at times for the non-specialist. Fortunately, Rosen's books, of which The Classical Style is the earliest and still perhaps the most distinguished, are not alone in supplying pleasurable reading, not to mention instruction, to every lover of classical music.

The Rest Is Noise (2007) by Alex Ross, music critic of The New Yorker, is a witty, elegant, and beautifully written survey of music composed in the 20th Century. His analysis is well-considered, and his judgments are measured. The depth of analysis tends understandably to thin out somewhat as the century nears its conclusion. Still, there is no better introduction to the music of the last century for specialist and non-specialist alike.

Winnifred Wagner (Eng. Trans. 2005) by Austrian author Briggitte Hamann is a biography of the wife and early widow of Richard Wagner's son Siegfried who became heir to the family legacy of leadership of the Bayreuth Festival. Even more, it is a history of the Festival and its uncomfortable relationship with "Wolf," Adolf Hitler, Bayreuth's patron and nemesis. Wagner's music has always been bound up with politics, but through Winnifred's leadership the Festival managed to survive its Nazi ties, more or less intact, into the postwar era. The book is beautifully written and elegantly translated from the German by Alan Bance. For the dedicated Wagnerian, it is an uncomfortable tale.

For composer biographies, none come more highly recommended than Verdi (1993) by Mary Jane Phillips-Matz. This book is destined to become the last word on the life of the great Italian Romantic opera composer. Along with Julian Budden's three-volume The Operas of Verdi (1991), little more is to be added to our understanding and appreciation of the works of the greatest Italian opera composer of the last half of the 19th Century.

Although scores of volumes have been written about the life and works of Mozart, there is no finer study of his life and cultural environment than Mozart: A Cultural Biography (1999) by Robert W. Gutman. His Mozart is not only a musical genius, but a cultured, generous, and humane man. Mozart lived during a time when the role of the composer was evolving from a servant of the privileged aristocracy to a public figure who was required to appeal to the general public. The world will be forever indebted to 18th Century Austria for having produced one of music's most profound and enduring creators.

For the lover of opera who appreciates learning about the art form in its social and historical context, The Gilded Stage (2009) by Daniel Snowman is indispensable. He places opera in historical context, explaining how opera's themes, libretti, and performance practice were informed by the historical events that attended its creation and performance.

For pure pleasure, few collections can equal A Season of Opera (1998) by Fr. M. Owen Lee, a collection of his lectures and commentaries from the Saturday afternoon broadcasts of the Metropolitan Opera. His commentaries are personal and insightful, always expressed clearly and with great understanding of the works and the operatic form in general.

Finally, a topic often neglected is the acoustic environment in which opera, recitals, and concerts are performed. Two books, one primarily for the nonspecialist and one directed at the specialist, aim to remedy that shortcoming. Site and Sound: The Architecture and Acoustics of New Opera Houses and Concert Halls (2012) by Victoria Newhouse is a beautiful book worthy of a coffee table that features wonderful photos of some of the world's newest concert halls and opera houses (many of them in China). But beyond the photos, the commentary reflects a keen appreciation of the acoustic properties of these new halls, many of which, despite the advances of technology, fail to equal the sound quality of our greatest older opera and concert venues.

For the specialist, Concert and Opera Halls: How They Sound (1996) by Leo Beranek is indispensable. The author is a world renowned acoustic consultant, and the book was published under the auspices of the Acoustical Society of America. For the reader who wants to know why some halls sound better than others, Beranek has some of the answers.

The foregoing is by no means an exhaustive list of distinguished books about music, but it will provide a starting point for the avid music lover and listener.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

In harmony with 12 12 12

Today is December 12, 2012. For some, that makes it National Aircheck Day (1-2, 1-2, 1-2). For others, 12/12/12 means its the perfect time to celebrate dodecaphonic, or 12-tone music.

And that's all the excuse we need to post this ad from conductor Matthias Bamert. Enjoy! (testing, testing, 1-2, 1-2)

Bach's Evenings at Zimmerman's Coffeehouse

Bach Sonatas for Flute & Obbligato Harpsichord
Evenings at Zimmermann's Coffeehouse
Robert Stallman, flute, Edwin Swanborn, harpsichord
Bogner's Cafe

The subtitle of this release aptly describes the disc. In 1730's J.S. Bach spend a significant amount of time at Zimmermann's Coffeehouse in Leipzig. It was one of the regular performing venues for the Collegium Musicum, which he directed (and wrote music for). Most of his instrumental music of this period were written for this group, including the four flute sonatas in this release. By no means are these major works. Of course, it is Bach, so the sonatas are well-crafted, but the music is intentionally light and simple. This is more the Bach of "Air on G String" than the Bach of the Cello Sonatas.

Robert Stallman performs on a modern flute, but that just gives the works additional charm. The music mostly stays in the lower part of the flute's register, and Stallman produces a very warm sound on his instrument. The result is some attractive playing and a pleasant listening experience overall. Edwin Swanborn provides tasteful accompaniment on the harpsichord. The keyboard obbligato helps move the music along without sounding overly busy or fussy. An attractive program of music played with just the right tone to keep the proceedings light and entertaining -- as perhaps they were in Zimmermann's over three centuries before.