Monday, March 31, 2014

The Philip Glass Series (Part 6 of 8): Film, Songs from Liquid Days, and Ravi Shankar

In conjunction with the Philip Glass residency at the University of Virginia from March 31st to April 2nd, I have created this series to highlight the music, history, and impact of this American composer.

For those who missed it: Part 5 - Completing the Portrait Trilogy

Despite rising to fame through his operas, the general public probably knows Glass best as a film composer.  This all started in the late 1970s, when Godfrey Reggio arranged a meeting with the composer.  Reggio was working on a new film called Koyaanisqatsi, and he knew that Glass had the "quintessential sound" he was looking for:
So Philip said, the first time I met him, "I don't do film music.  Thank you, but no thank you," he was very busy.  So I didn't know what to expect.  So I just bothered the hell out of him, basically, in as appropriate of a way as I could...
So what I did was—this was way after I chose him in my head, I already had footage by this point—I brought it to the screening room, and I put up music from two people—[first from one composer] and then I put up the same [footage] with Philip Glass's "North Star."
And the difference was palpable and immediate, and I think he came there just to satisfy his friends and get me off his back, and when we finished he said, "Well, when do we start?  It looks like a great idea."
It's worth mentioning, however, that Glass had previously composed for some TV projects, most notably Sesame Street.  In 1979, Cathryn Aison had put together a storyboard involving circles for the show, and had hired Glass to compose the music.

In 1982, Koyaanisqatsi was released.  The film became a cult hit, and once again, Glass was finding a new audience for his music.  The film featured time-lapse footage of landscapes and metropolitan areas, highlighting how the presence of human beings has radically affected the ecosystem.

Glass and Reggio would go on to work on five more films together.  The first two, Powaqqatsi and Naqoyqatsi, completed the "Qatsi trilogy," and the latest is a film from 2013 called Visitors.

But back in the mid-1980s, Glass was still hard at work composing for a variety of mediums other than film.  In 1984, a year after the premiere of Akhnaten, Glass was commissioned to write a piece for the Olympics that would take place in Los Angeles that year.  The Olympian represented a change in compositional style that had its roots in the album Glassworks from two years prior, essentially making pieces shorter and developing a theme at a quicker pace to make the work more accessible for a broader audience.

This compositional style was applied to Songs from Liquid Days from 1986.  The "song cycle" (as Glass likes to call it) involved collaborating with Paul Simon, Laurie Anderson, Suzanne Vega, and David Byrne for the lyrics, as well as performers such as the Kronos Quartet, Linda Ronstadt, Bernard Fowler, and The Roches.

Shortly after Songs from Liquid Days was released, Glass was approached by another film director, this time Errol Morris.  Morris was working on a documentary on Randall Dale Adams, a man that was falsely convicted for murdering a cop.  The music for the film has been called "one of the most influential piece of film music of the last 30 years."  Errol Morris has explained that this is because "Philip does 'existential dread' better than anybody.  It's the ideal music for creating emotion."  We can feel this "dread" with the opening scene.  Although the action doesn't come until around 4 minutes, we can easily perceive that something bad is going to happen.

In 1989, Peter Baumann, the founder of Private Music, approached Glass and Ravi Shankar about possibly collaborating on an album together.  The meeting they arranged in Los Angeles was the first time in over twenty years since they last saw each other.  Although they were both initially skeptical about working together, Baumann made the suggestion that they each write a few themes for the other person to arrange and orchestrate.  According to Shankar, "that struck us both as something we could do."

The final result was the album Passages, and it ended up peaking at #3 on Billboard's Top World Music Albums chart.  In Ravi Shankar's biography, Glass explained why the album proved to be so successful:
The reason why I think Passages works so well is that when I listen to those four pieces we did together, I don't know whose music I'm hearing.  We didn't want one of us to write a piece and the other to embellish it; we wanted to do something that more profoundly linked the process of writing and imagining.

As we have clearly seen, Philip Glass is a man with many musical hats.  However, as we attempt to cover the next 20+ years with the following installment of the Series, we'll discover that Glass had many more pieces to write, especially symphonic music.

Composing America - Lark Quartet's study in contrasts

Composing America
Adams, Bolcom, Copland & Moravec
The Lark Quartet
Bridge Records

The Lark Quartet's latest release is a broad sampling of American string quartet music -- and it's broad in many ways. First, it ranges from the  1928 modernism of Aaron Copland, through the minimalism of John Adams, the populist sound of William Bolcolm and ending with the more formal writing of Paul Moravec.

It's also broad in it's inclusion of performers. the selections from "John's Book of Alleged Dances" (John Adams) features percussionist Yousif Sheronick. Bolcom's "Billie in the Darbies" has the quartet accompanying baritone Stephen Salters. The Moravec work is a Piano Quartet,  which the quartet performs with pianist Jeremy Denk. Only eight minutes of the program, Copland's "Two Pieces for String Quartet" are for sting quartet alone.

And all of it's to the good. The variety of styles, forces, and sounds make this an interesting album to listen to straight through. The Lark's clear, straight-forward sound seems perfectly suited to this material.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

The Philip Glass Series (Part 5 of 8): Completing the Portrait Trilogy

In conjunction with the Philip Glass residency at the University of Virginia from March 31st to April 2nd, I have created this series to highlight the music, history, and impact of this American composer.

For those who missed it: Part 4 - Einstein on the Beach

Although Einstein on the Beach made Philip Glass an overnight sensation, the initial fame didn't result in a radical change in his life.  Glass went back to work as a taxi driver and plumber.  He later recalled an "uncomfortable" experience from this time period:
At that time I was earning a living as a plumber and had gone to install a dishwasher in a loft in Soho.  While working, I suddenly heard a noise and looked up to find Robert Hughes, the art critic of TIME magazine, staring at me in disbelief.  We had met before, and he knew me at sight.
"But you're Philip Glass!  What are you doing here?"
It was obvious that I was installing his dishwasher, and I told him I soon would be finished...
"But you are an artist," he protested.  "I won't permit you to work on my dishwasher!"
I explained that I was an artist, but that I was sometimes a plumber as well, and that he should go away and let me finish my job.
Although Einstein was a huge success, it still left both him and Robert Wilson in debt, $90,000 worth of debt.  For opera buffs, this should come as no surprise.  Opera companies rarely make a profit from productions, and often rely on benefactors to pick up the tab.  However, Glass and Wilson had no benefactors.

So, Glass continued with his plumbing and taxi driving.  He was also still composing, and during the initial tour of Einstein in Europe, he was approached by Hans de Roo, director of the Netherlands Opera.  Hans asked if Glass was interested in writing "a real opera," one that would be performed by a traditional orchestra, and Glass accepted.  They met again in the spring of 1977, and began planning out the work.  It would be based on the life of Mahatma Gandhi during his years in South Africa, and be called Satyagraha, the name Gandhi gave to his nonviolent civil disobedience movement.

Time is utilized in three distinct ways throughout the opera.  The first takes the audience through Gandhi's involvement in the Satyagraha movement from 1893 to 1914.  Secondly, the three acts and their corresponding scenes provide a "dawn-to-night setting" that places all events in a single day (Act I occurs in the morning, Act II in the afternoon, and Act III at night).  Lastly, Glass wanted "to have each act presided over by a historical figure connected to Gandhi," representing the "'three times'—past, present, and future."  These figures would be Leo Tolstoy, Rabindranath Tagore, and Martin Luther King, Jr.

The opera was premiered on September 5th, 1980, and like Einstein, it was a huge success.  "The first day tickets went on sale, a line formed around the theater at 7:30 in the morning."  In the end, all nine of the performances in Holland would sell out.  For Glass, this was a moment of reflection:
Again, I saw an audience filled with young people, many of them obviously completely new to opera... If there are no audiences for new operas, you certainly can't prove it by me.
In the summer of 1979, before the premiere of Satyagraha, Glass had a meeting with Dennis Russell Davies, a rising American conductor.  Davies had been initially sought to conduct Satyagraha, but would be unavailable for the performances.  In spite of this, Davies was interested in conducting the German premiere in Stuttgart.

It was during this meeting that the idea of an operatic trilogy was born.  Specifically, Davies wanted to have the trilogy performed in Stuttgart.

The problem now would be finding a subject for the final opera.  In the end, Glass settled on the Pharaoh Akhenaten (Glass would end up using the spelling "Akhnaten"):
Akhnaten completed the trilogy in many satisfying ways.  First of all, Akhnaten, like Einstein and Gandhi, had changed forever the world into which he was born.  In the case of Akhnaten, it was through the imposition of a radical new state religion upon fifteenth-century BC Egypt.  His idea of a simple, universal deity for all mankind was not warmly accepted by his people at the time (to say the least), and his brief seventeen-year reign... ended when both he and his religion were overthrown... but the main point for me was that Akhnaten had changed his (and our) world through the force of his ideas and not through the force of arms.
Creating a storyline for the opera would prove to be a challenge, since certain details of Akhnaten's life have remained a mystery to historians.  For Glass, this would serve as a point for creativity:
Back in New York, I explained my idea to Shalom [Goldman, a specialist in the ancient Near East who was helping with the libretto]: an opera about Akhnaten based upon fragments with the missing bits intact, as if it were.  His face lit up, and at the end he exclaimed, "Ah!  Singing archaeology!"
The final result was three acts following the "rise, reign, and fall of Akhnaten in a series of tableaus," concluding with an Epilogue set in the present.

The premiere ended up being quite the occasion:
When the curtain came down, I joined the company on stage with Achim [Freyer, the stage director], his wife and Dennis Russell Davies.  The audience was cheering and booing.  This went on for quite some time.  I think they actually were booing and cheering at each other, and I distinctly saw one fellow vigorously clapping and loudly booing at the same time.  Dennis and Achim seemed very pleased with the uproar.  When I pointed out the opposition in the audience, Dennis smiled broadly and said to me (we were still taking our bows on the stage), "Yeah, it's kind of like a sport over here."
Achim wagged his finger approvingly at the boos and said solemnly, "Very important!"
And in fact, everyone did look like they were having a wonderful time.
Along with the controversy, Glass definitely had something else to be proud of: he was finally making money off of his own music.

Part 6 - Film, Songs of Liquid Days, and Ravi Shankar

Friday, March 28, 2014

Silverman: Between the Kiss and the Chaos - beyond genres

Between the Kiss and the Chaos
Tracy Silverman
The Calder Quartet

There's nothing like a composer performing his own music. Especially when it's so dependent on the performer's artistry. Electric violinist Tracy Silverman manages to not only bridge the worlds of classical music and rock, but does so in a way that makes the blending sound effortless and natural.

The title track is a concerto for electric violin and string quartet. Silverman makes the most of the contrast between electric and acoustic instruments, as well as blending them together so effectively one can't separate them. Each of the five movements uses a different artist (and a signature work by them) as a starting point for Silverman's explorations.

Personally, I thought the second work on the album, "Axis and Orbits," to be even more interesting. This set of four pieces is written for solo electric violin and loop pedals. I've sat through plenty of live performances where the musician first sets up the loops and then starts into the work. It's not always pleasant. Silverman has too, apparently, and has been careful to incorporate the loop-building process into the composition. So from the moment you hear sound, the music has begun. Silverman accomplishes his goal so artfully that one sometimes isn't aware that it's just one person playing -- and playing live. I can think of more than a few guitarists who could learn from his example.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

A joyful, tuneful way to start your Friday

This week's Vivace begins with another in our occasional series of rarely-heard symphonies by Sir Hubert Parry: the Symphony No. 3 in C-Major, "The English" symphony. 

After 7 o'clock, we'll hear one of those fine flute concertos by Antonio Rosetti, and a Mozart horn concerto - some delightfully tuneful melodies. 

In the 8 o'clock hour, we have a rarely-heard Trumpet and Oboe Concerto by Johann Hertel, as well as music by Salieri and Sarasate, and an unusual arrangement of a well-loved favorite by Johann Sebastian Bach. 

As ever, I look forward to the pleasure of your company on Vivace, 6-9 am, right here on WTJU-Charlottesville.

You can also replay the program anytime from the WTJU archives. This program will be available for replay through 4/11/14.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Joyce Yang: Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1

Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No. 1; The Tempest
Joyce Yang, piano
Odense Symphony Orchestra; 

Alexander Lavarev, conductor
Bridge Records

It seems every pianist has to record the Tchaikovsky 1st, and Joyce Yang's no exception. So how does her interpretation stack up against the others? In this live recording, Yang seems to approach the work from a fresh perspective, presenting the music on her own terms.

Yang avoids the temptation of bombastic drama. She can play with plenty of power, but it's always under control. Her fluid technique was especially well-suited to the lyrical middle movement, which seemd to take on a warm glow somehow.

Because it was a live performance, one could hear little irregularities that are missing in studio recordings -- such as Yang's occasional grunts and sharp intakes of breath. Rather than distract, to me they added to the intensity and authenticity of the performance. I had no doubt that Yang was fully committed to the music she was playing.

Included on this release is another Tchaikovsky work, The Tempest, Op. 18 -- a welcome relief from the usual fillers. This 1873 tone poem is based on Shakespeare's play of the same name. While similar in sound to Tchaikovsky's "Romeo and Juliet," the relative unfamiliarity of the work keeps the drama and big tunes sounding fresh and exciting.

As good as this disc is, I do have one quibble. The recording sometimes sounds a little hollow, especially when the full orchestra's playing. Some of the detail of the ensemble gets washed out (although it returns in quieter passages).

Monday, March 24, 2014

The Philip Glass Series (Part 4 of 8): Einstein on the Beach

In conjunction with the Philip Glass residency at the University of Virginia from March 31st to April 2nd, I have created this series to highlight the music, history, and impact of this American composer.

For those who missed it: Part 3 - The Move Back to New York

Philip Glass first met Robert Wilson in 1973 at an after-party following a performance of Wilson's The Life and Times of Joseph Stalin...
My first reaction to Bob's work—in the case of Stalin, an unending meditation in movement and images...—was immediate.  I loved it.  I understood then, as I feel I have ever since, his sense of theatrical time, space and movement.  These were the essentials of Bob's work as I saw them then.  His extraordinary use of light developed as a major ingredient over the next twelve years.
Although Glass doesn't remember the details of this encounter, it resulted in a series of meetings in 1974 between him and Wilson.  Every Thursday for lunch, they would get together in New York City and discuss collaborating.  As the meetings progressed, they knew they wanted to base their work around a historical figure.  Charlie Chaplin, Adolf Hitler, and Mahatma Gandhi were among the ideas that came up, but once Wilson suggested Albert Einstein, everything "immediately clicked":
As a child, Einstein had been one of my [Glass'] heroes.  Growing up just after World War II, as I had, it was impossible not to know who he was.  The emphatic, if catastrophic, beginning of the nuclear age had made atomic energy the most widely discussed issue of the day, and the gentle, almost saintlike originator of the theory of relativity had achieved the 1940s version of superstar status. 
Throughout this process, the poet Christopher Knowles was gradually introduced.  Christopher, at the age of fourteen, would be the foundation of much of the texts within Einstein.  Wilson had worked with Knowles previously, and had been struck by his originality.  Knowles had a neurological impairment that resulted in him seeing the world in "different, out-of-the-ordinary ways."

Lastly, Lucinda Childs would be introduced as the lead choreographer.  With Einstein not having a storyline, and instead revolving around the dancers on the stage, her job was an important one.  The opera featured lengthy dance settings that, much like Glass' music, slowly evolved over time.

As stated earlier, Einstein on the Beach has no storyline.  Instead, there are key scenes that are surrounded by "Knee Plays," or interludes.  These scenes have striking imagery, while also involving a small number of actual items on the stage.  For instance, the first "Train Scene" involves a train that slowly makes its way across the stage, a bar of light that slowly descends from the ceiling, and a mostly stationary metal plank where a boy occasionally turns a lit-up cube.

If this all sounds very ambiguous, then you aren't alone.  As Glass has stated, this was the whole point of the production:
In a sense, we didn't need to tell an Einstein story because everyone who eventually saw our Einstein brought their own story with them... The point about Einstein was clearly not what it "meant" but that it was meaningful as generally experienced by the people who saw it.
However, they had little chance of getting the monumental 4+ hour production performed in a theatre within the United States.  Robert Wilson approached the Metropolitan Opera and the National Endowment for the Arts, and both said that Einstein wasn't meant for a "conventional theatre."

Instead, they were approached by Michel Guy, the Minister of Culture for France at the time, to have the premiere at the Avignon Festival.  Afterward, there would be a two-week run at the Autumn Festival in Paris.  On top of this, the French government would pay for these productions.

Einstein became a major success throughout Europe, touring not only in Paris, but also Hamburg, Venice, and other major cities.  "Word had gone out that something unusual had taken place."  Eventually, the success of the opera led to the Metropolitan Opera agreeing to have the work staged back in America.  Robert Wilson fondly remembers being approached by Jane Hermann, who was in charge of special events at the Met:
She said, "well, maybe as a special event we could bring it to the Met."  But they wanted me, Robert Wilson/Byrd Hoffman Foundation [Wilson's organization] to produce it on their day off.  They would allow me to rent the house on a Sunday, with triple time wages!?  I was bankrupt, I had no money.  I said, "let's go for it."
In the end, the risk was worth it.  The Met was sold out for its performance on November 21st, 1976, and "by popular demand," another sold out performance was scheduled for the following Sunday.

What the audience saw and heard was unlike anything that had been performed at the Met before.  The music started while the audience members filed into the theatre.  The sound of the organ rang deep in the hall, as the notes "A - G - C" slowly repeated themselves.  Over time, the music sped up, and once the chorus positioned themselves in the orchestra pit, they started singing number patterns while Lucinda Childs and Sheryl S. Sutton recited:
It could be a balloon.  It could be Franky.  It could be very fresh and clean.
All these are the days my friends and these are the days my friends. 
This continued on and on, often involving fast-paced and rhythmically intricate patterns while chords floated by.  One spectator recalled the "grip" the music had on the audience:
There were no intermissions.  The work continued relentlessly in its grip on all of us in that packed house.  Suddenly, at a point some four hours into the opera there occurred a completely unexpected harmonic and rhythmic modulation, coupled with a huge jump in the decibel level.  People in the audience began to scream with delight and I remember well that my body was covered in goose bumps.
As the production reached its conclusion, sealing the fate of all those who were involved, Samuel M. Johnson spoke the final lines of the opera:
The day with its cares and perplexities is ended, and the night is now upon us.  The night should be a time of peace and tranquility, a time to relax and be calm.  We have need of a soothing story to banish the disturbing thoughts of the day, to set at rest our troubled minds, and put at ease our ruffled spirits.
And what sort of story shall we hear?  Ah, it will be a familiar story, a story that is so very, very old, and yet it is so new.  It is the old, old story of love.
Two lovers sat on a park bench, with their bodies touching each other, holding hands in the moonlight...
Part 5 - Completing the Portrait Trilogy

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Richard Wagner: The Last of the Titans - a flawed look at a flawed man

Richard Wagner: The Last of the Titans
by Joachim Köhler
Translated by Stewart Spencer
New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004

Few historical figures have had as much written about them as Richard Wagner. Despite the library shelves groaning with books about the Bayreuth Master, Joachim Köhler has added to the hoard with almost 700 pages of text, splendidly translated by Stewart Spencer.

Wagner receives little sympathy from Köhler, and little attention is paid to the music. Instead, Köhler puts Wagner on the psychoanalyst's couch and repeats ad nauseam the litany of Wagner's antisemitism. That Wagner resented and even hated the Jews as a race is hardly news, but Köhler only touches on the many Jews with whom Wagner was friendly and who admired his work.

Wagner's difficult, even traumatic childhood is well-known. Köhler's strained efforts to read Wagner's childhood demons into the operas is not particularly enlightening. While his analysis of the libretti is sometimes insightful, he neglects almost completely any commentary about the music (there are no musical examples).

That is strange because he recognizes that Wagner's innovative use of the orchestra inevitably puts the singers at a disadvantage. Even at the Festspielhaus in Bayreuth, with its amphitheater seating, darkened interior, and orchestra pit buried under the stage, the theatrical elements of the operas still often predominate. Köhler sees Parsifal, the scoring of which is as luminous as the libretto is obscure, as an exercise in sexual obsession, a perspective which ignores the explicit Christian references in the text.

Wagner was the musical colossus of his age, and his successors for decades thereafter either counted themselves among his acolytes or struggled to escape his shadow. Probably no other composer, Beethoven perhaps excepted, had a more profound impact on his contemporaries. But Wagner is too often judged by those who, like Köhler, put more emphasis on what Wagner said than on what he did. Wagner profoundly affected the course of 19th Century intellectual life, musical and otherwise. (See Jacques Barzun, Darwin - Marx - Wagner - Critique of a Heritage). But that "titan" of the title of Köhler's book hardly emerges from this biography.

Köhler does cast some new light on the baleful influence of Wagner's widow Cosima. She became, late in Wagner's life, not only his wife, muse, and amanuensis, but also the CEO of "Bayreuth, Inc." In her eyes and those of her family who succeeded her as keepers of the Bayreuth grail, Wagner's work was an enterprise that it was her duty to preserve intact.

 Wagner was a great artist, but in many ways an appalling human being. Still, for those of us who love his art, his many character flaws are forgotten as soon as we enter the world that he created. (See M. Owen Lee, Wagner: The Terrible Man and His Truthful Art).
 - WTJU Opera

Friday, March 21, 2014

Kabalevsky Cello Concertos - Serious music

Dmitri Kabalevsky
Cello Concertos 1 & 2
Colas Breugnon Suite
Torleif Thedeen, cello
NDR Radiophilharmonic; Eiji Oue, conductor

Dmitri Kabalevsky is pretty much known for just one work -- "The Comedians' Gallop." But there's much more to this Russian composer, as this new release demonstrates.

The two concertos, are serious compositions that showcase the solo instrument in a somewhat traditional fashion. Though written 15 years apart, and for different soloists, both concertos are quite similar in sound. Both feature languid slow movements supported by lush harmonies, both require the cello to nimbly skitter around in the fast movements, and both let the solo instrument sing out in the opening movement (and show off a little, too). 

For those who like the "Comedian's Gallop," the Colas Breugnon suite, which rounds out the disc, delivers more of the same. Taken from the incidental music to a play, the short movements in this work are brimming with good natured hi-jinx. It reminded me quite a lot of Prokofiev's 1st symphony -- and with good reason. Kabalevsky was tasked with completing and orchestrating Prokofiev's Op. 132 Cello Concertino after his death.

Cellist Torleif Thedeen plays with a warmth and sincerity well-suited to these compositions. And he has no trouble executing the technical challenges Kabalevksy throws in along the way. My only complaint is the recording itself, which to my ears sounded a little out of focus. The ensemble has a smooth, blended sound, but missing some of the detail.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Celebrating JS Bach and three other musical birthdays!

On March 21st, 1685, Johann Ambrosius Bach, the director of the musicians of Eisenach in Germany, and his wife, Maria Elisabeth, welcomed their eighth child, Johann Sebastian Bach. 

Less than a month earlier, Georg Frederic Handel had been born less than 100 miles away.  The two boys grew up to be the guiding musical lights of the Baroque period.   We'll celebrate Bach's birthday in fine style this week on Vivace.

There are also three other remarkable anniversaries:  the debut of the Great Symphony No.9 in C-Major, by Schubert, a performance of which will fill our first hour;  the first performance of the String Quartet No. 13 in B Flat Major, by Beethoven, which we'll hear after 8 o'clock, and the 75th anniversary of one of the most famous songs of the modern era.  We'll also have a piano concerto by Puccini, but not the Puccini you know.

As ever, I hope you'll join me for a show full of entertainment and surprises.  That's Vivace, this Friday, March 21, 6-9 am right here on WTJU-Charlottesville.

Sir Neville Marriner turns 90

Sir Neville Marriner, the world-renowned conductor and founder and Life President of the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, turns 90 in April.

He is to be honored with a special - and unique - concert at the Royal Festival Hall in London on Tuesday, April 1. The concert will consist of three works, performed by each of the Academy's three music directors. 

The current Academy Music Director, Joshua Bell, opens the evening’s program with the Introduction & Rondo Capriccioso by Saint-Saens. This is followed by Mozart’s Piano Concerto No.20 played by the recent Music Director and the Academy's Principal Guest Conductor, Murray Perahia. And finally, Sir Neville himself will conduct the orchestra in the Enigma Variations by Sir Edward Elgar, to conclude what will be an evening of joyous celebration of the past, present and future of the Academy. 

If you can't be at the concert in London on Tuesday evening, not to worry! The very next morning, Wednesday, April 2, WTJU's Classical Department will present a special show from 6-9 am: Sir Neville at 90, devoted to works conducted by Sir Neville Marriner, and during which the entire previous evening's concert will be reproduced with recordings by the exact same artists. 

There will also be an interview with Sir Neville just after 8 o'clock. Steve Myers will host this WTJU Special: Sir Neville at 90, Wednesday, April 2, 6-9 am, here on WTJU-Charlottesville.  We hope you'll join us for a very special program.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

American Grace: Orli Shaham's album of connections

American Grace
Piano music from Steven Mackey/John Adams
Orlie Shaham, piano
Los Angeles Philharmonic; David Robertson, conductor
Jon Kimura Parker, piano
Canary Classics

This album is all about connections -- and those connections help make this release such a strong program of contemporary piano music. Orli Shaham and Steven Mackey are close personal friends. His piano concerto "Stumbling to Grace" was composed for her, and in this recording, the performance is conducted by David Robertson, Orli's husband. These close connections facilitate communication, and to my ears, translate into a superior composition and performance.

The music is well-suited to Shaham's technique, and she plays with a deep understanding of the material. And the Los Angeles Philharmonic, led by Robertson, is right there with her. This concerto, as the name implies, is one with a destination in mind. Disjointed themes gradually coalesce over the course of the 26-minute work, stumbling towards a satisfying finale that pulls all the pieces together. Without a deep understanding of the structure and purpose of all these seemingly unrelated bits, the concerto could come off as rambling mess. In this case, though, composer, soloist, and conductor all seem to be of one mind, And the result is phenomenal.

The John Adams works included are also worth the price of admission. Shaham breezes through "China Gates" with metronomic precision tempered by an expressive delicacy. Hallelujah Junction, a work for two pianos, is another outstanding performance. Jon Kimura Parker and Orli Shaham are perfectly matched, sounding like a single uber-pianist.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Florielgium starts strong on Couperin cycle

Channel Classics SACD

Francois Couperin's 1726 work Les Nations consists of four sections, each one representing a different nationality: France, Spain, Imperial (Germany), and Piedmont (Italy). Each section is massive, consisting of a sonata followed by a suite. Florilegium performs the first two in this new release, with a second volume to follow L'imperiale and La piemontaise.

The ensemble strikes just the right balance in their performances. Couperin's music sounds refined and elegant, but not bloodless. Some of the dance movements are quite spirited (in a tasteful fashion), and melodies flow with easy familiarity that bring these works to life.

Rounding out the recording is Les caracteres de la danse by Couperin's contemporary Jean-Fery Rebel. As played by Florilegium, I can hear a distinct difference between the two composers. Rebel's dance suite sounds more lively and spirited, a little less refined, perhaps than Couperin.

The performances are first-rate, as is the recording. If you have a choice between the SACD and the download, I recommend the former. This is intimate music-making, and the additional detail revealed in the SACD (including the sound of the harpsichord action) just adds to the richness of the listening experience.

Friday, March 14, 2014

McTee: Symphony No. 1, Ballet for Orchestra

Cindy McTee: Symphony No. 1
Detroit Symphony Orchestra
Leonard Slatkin, conductor

If you're not familiar with this talented American composer,Naxos' new release provides a great introduction.

The album opens with "Circuit," a five-minute work that generates high-energy action from start to finish. By contrast, "Einstein's Dream" is a slow-moving atmospheric work for orchestra and electronics. Conservatively atonal, its evolving soundscapes are quite appealing, and draw the listener into its world.

"Double Play" was written for the Leonard Slatkin and the Detroit symphony Orchestra, and they perform it with confidence. The second movement is especially effective, bristling with jazzy, good-natured spirits.

McTee's Symphony No. 1: Ballet for Orchestra is just that -- a work of symphonic proportions that practically begs to be choreographed. Each movement has a dramatic narrative to it and a pulse that keeps the music moving constantly forward. McTee's carefully crafted melodies make her music easily accessible without resorting to triteness or cliche. This is a substantial work that merits revisiting.

Leonard Slatkin and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra know this music well, and it shows. Ensemble playing is clean and precise, the narrative flow of the music is clear, and the blend between instruments and sections seamless.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Vivace! A compilation of celebrations and cheerful classical choices!

The first performance of the String Quartet No. 13 in A Minor, the Rosamunde Quartet, D 804 by Franz Schubert took place on March 14, 1824. On the 190th anniversary of that debut, we'll start this week's Vivace with a sparkling performance of it.

Just after 7 am, we'll hear some music of Ernst Eichner, a rarely heard 18th Century German composer.  We will celebrate the birthdays of two famous composers: Georg Telemann and Johann Strauss 1 ...

... and as mathematicians and scientists celebrate National Pi Day, we'll have some special music for them at 8 o'clock.  Don't forget to eat some pie as you listen!

At about 8:30 am, we'll have a special treat for Gilbert & Sullivan fans as we celebrate the anniversary of The Mikado's first performance in London.

As ever, I look forward to the pleasure of your company this Friday for another fun-filled edition of Vivace, 6-9 am, right here on WTJU-Charlottesville.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Daedalus Quartet navigates easily through Perle String Quartets

George Perle
String Quartet 2, 5, & 8
Daedalus Quartet

George Perle created what he called "twelve-tone tonality," and the works on this release are all prime examples.

The earliest quartet on the album, Perle's second, also sounds the most tonal -- but that's a relative statement. Even though this is technically written in the key of D minor, the tonal center shifts about quite a bit. All in all, though, a carefully constructed work that moves along to its own internal harmonic logic.

The String Quartet No. 5 seems to continual shift back and forth between tonality and atonality. The underlying serial organization takes the work is somewhat unexpected directions. But its overall tonal character keeps the work grounded, making it sound exotic, rather than beyond the ken.

Perle's String Quartet 8 is more decided atonal in sound, although not entirely so. Perle creates an expressive work with a highly charged emotional atmosphere. Molto Adagio the earliest work on the album (1938), like String Quartet No. 8, seems very much influenced by Schoenberg's Verklärte Nacht. The dissonances are a little sharper in this work, though, giving it a harder edge than the eighth quartet.

The Daedalus Quartet performs these works in a straight-forward, no-nonsense fashion. Vibrato is tightly reigned in, and the ensemble has a clean, precise, transparent sound that admirably serves these works.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

The Philip Glass Series (Part 3 of 8): The Move Back to New York

In conjunction with the Philip Glass residency at the University of Virginia from March 31st to April 2nd, I have created this series to highlight the music, history, and impact of this American composer.

For those who missed it: Part 2 - The Early Years

In March of 1967, Glass found himself once more in New York City.  He and his wife at the time, JoAnne Akalaitis, had an apartment located on 9th Avenue and 23rd Street in the heart of the Chelsea neighborhood in Manhattan.  According to JoAnne, the art scene was thriving and "you could do anything."

Shortly after arriving in NYC, Glass attended a concert featuring the music of Steve Reich, including his famous Piano Phase.  Much like how John Adams was profoundly affected from hearing Glass' Einstein on the Beach, Glass heard Reich's music and decided to make a radical departure towards a "consonant vocabulary."

Now that Glass had a new musical language, he had to find a way to broadcast it to his fellow artists.  The opportunity presented itself during a meeting with Jonas Mekas, an avant-garde filmmaker.  As Glass describes it:
At that moment, I'm sure Jonas didn't know a note of my work, but when I described the music I was writing, he immediately invited me to give a concert at the Film-Makers Cinematheque.  And so, in September 1968, my new music had its New York debut.  It was, by the way, my personal debut as well.  (And wonderfully enough, this debut performance has just been released as an album.)
A number of pieces made their way into the concert, including Strung Out and Music in the Shape of a Square.  The first work's title comes "from the way the original manuscript score of some twenty pages was bound.  It unfolded in such a way that it could be 'strung out' around the performing space on music stands, or even pasted on the wall."  Music in the Shape of a Square is a play on Erik Satie's Three Pieces in the Shape of a Pear...
This piece was set up in a big square, each side about ten feet long.  On the inside was tacked Jon [Gibson]'s flute part; on the outside, [Glass'] part.  We began to play, walking in opposite directions around the square."
Altogether, it was "a very conceptual concert.  A very neat concert." And for Glass, this was an important moment in his career:
The audience was mostly artists, about 120 people... It was considered very successful but, more important, these were 120 very enthusiastic people.  The music meant something to them in terms of their own aesthetics, something they were familiar with.
Moving forward, Glass decided to form his own ensemble to perform his works.  In its early stages, the Philip Glass Ensemble was comprised of, among others, Kurt Munkasci, Richard Peck, Dickie Landry, Jon Gibson, Iris Hiskey, and Michael Riesman.  However, these individuals weren't just performing for free; Glass spent many years working as a plumber and cab driver to pay his musicians (which resulted in an amusing cartoon from Pulse! magazine); it wouldn't be until the age of 41 that Glass would receive any royalties from his own music.  In spite of this, Glass remembers it as a wonderful period in his life.  The ensemble allowed him to be independent of other music venues; "I didn't have to ask anyone's permission or approval.  I could just do what I wanted to do."

A number of conceptual works arose from this period (many of which were inspired by Boulanger's rigorous counterpoint training), including Music in Contrary Motion, Music in Fifths, Music in Similar Motion, and Music in Changing Parts.  However the piece that is still constantly performed to this day is Music in Twelve Parts, an epic study on repetition that is more than 3 hours long.

These lengthy performances often took place in SoHo lofts and art galleries.  The audience of 60-100 people would lay on the floor, while the ensemble sat in a circle in the middle of the room.  Out in the periphery, four large speakers broadcasted the music towards the center.  "Everybody was part of the same sonic experience."  Usually, about a quarter to a third of the audience would leave, while the others stayed, almost in a meditative state.  As Kurt Munkasci explains, the music had to end at some point...
What would happen is it ended suddenly... the audience would just sit there for a minute or two, and then would just applaud.  It's like they had a revelation.
It would be only a few years later that this expansive music would find itself not in someone's loft, but at the Metropolitan Opera.

Part 4 - Einstein on the Beach

Friday, March 7, 2014

Weinberg: Symphony No. 12 -- a fitting trubute

Mieczyslaw Weinberg
Symphony No. 12; the Golden Key
St. Petersburg State Symphony Orchestra
Vladimir Lande, conductor

Mieczyslaw Weinberg's 12th Symphony is subtitled "In Memoriam D. Shostakovich." It was composed shortly after the death of his close friend and colleague and is a fitting tribute indeed. Weinberg incorporates many musical gestures of his late friend in this work, yet remains true to his own musical voice.

The symphony starts with a powerful angular unison figure that recalls similar passages in Shostakovich's music. To my ears, many sections reminded me of Shostakovich's 5th Symphony, alternating with his Op. 110 Chamber Symphony. But none of this is pastiche. The orchestration may echo Shostakovich, but the melodic and harmonic content is Weinberg's. An effective tribute to a fellow composer.

By contrast, the second work on the disc, the Golden Key is a lighthearted, upbeat ballet suite. Sometimes the melodies go a little off the rails (like early Prokofiev), but that just adds a little spice. The music is very Russian in character, and Weinberg's vibrant orchestration at times sounds dazzling.

Vladimir Lande and the St. Petersburg State Symphony Orchestra turn in solid performances of these works. Lande doing a particularly effective job of bringing out the authentic emotion of the symphony.

This is the third Naxos release of Weinberg symphonies with this ensemble. I hope there are more to follow.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Raise a glass as you tune in this Friday!

We often celebrate musical birthdays and anniversaries, but I don't recall ever doing an entire show before in which every single work has significance in that regard.  This Friday, that's exactly what we have on Vivace.

We'll celebrate some major birthdays this week.  The first hour will be taken up with an entire performance of the ballet Daphnis and Chloe, as we celebrate the birthday of French composer Maurice Ravel, and later, we'll hear a short work performed by the composer himself.  We'll also celebrate the anniversary of the first performance of The Nutcracker Suite, with an unusual arrangement for classical guitar. 

At about 7:30 am, we'll begin a major celebration to mark the 300th anniversary of the birth of CPE Bach.

Just after 8 o'clock, we will reach out to the people of Ukraine with some special music, and in the final hour we'll also raise a glass to Dame Kiri te Kanawa, who celebrates her 70th birthday this week.

Party hats and champagne are not required, but are always useful to have on hand as you enjoy a sparkling, celebratory edition of Vivace this Friday, right here on WTJU-Charlottesville.  I look forward to the pleasure of your company.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Di Lasso Penetential Psalms - Expressive beauties

Orlando di Lasso
Setem Psalmi Poenitentiales
Dufay Ensemble

Ars Musici

The Seven Penitential Psalms are among the most emotionally expressive poetry in the Bible. So it's not surprising that Orlando di Lasso, master of expressive counterpoint, created works of extreme beauty in his settings of these texts.

These works would have originally been performed during Lent, a time of introspection. Di Lasso breaks each psalm down into sections, with each section getting a different treatment. This creates variety of both character and texture, allowing di Lasso work with the inherent musical implications for each section.

Taken as a group, the psalms invite self-reflection and examination. It's only on repeated listening does di Lasso's contrapuntal artistry become clear.

The Dufay Ensemble performs up to their usual high standards. The blend is seamless, and yet each individual line is easy to pick out. My only complaint is that the recording itself is a little dry. Although recorded in a church, the group is so close-miked that there's little ambiance at all. Di Lasso composed this music for the chapel of his employer Duke Albrecht V. To hear these works without some type of decay seems odd somehow.