Thursday, February 19, 2015

Cesar Franck and his Single Symphony

This weekend's concerts with the Harrisburg Symphony and Stuart Malina open with a Latin American dance by Mexican composer Arturo Marquez, continues with a "Spanish symphony" that is really a violin concerto by Edouard Lalo with soloist Augustin Hadelich returning to Harrisburg for the performances, and then concludes with one of the great Romantic symphonies from the late-19th Century.

The concerts are Saturday at 8 and Sunday at 3 at the Forum in Harrisburg. The pre-concert talks with Assistant Conductor Gregory Woodbridge begin an hour before each performance.

You can read more about the Lalo and listen to clips of the Symphonie espagnole as well as some performances by Augustin Hadelich in this earlier post.

(Incidentally, the Harrisburg Symphony Youth Orchestra will be giving their Winter Concert on Monday, February 23rd at 7pm at the Forum, with a performance of the complete "New World Symphony" by Antonin Dvořák. You can read David Dunkle's article for the Carlisle Sentinel, here.)
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Cesar Franck at the Organ, 1885
Like Lalo, César Franck's reputation in the concert hall is based on only a few works, his only symphony, one of the great “war-horses” of the repertoire, the Violin Sonata, and the Symphonic Variations for Piano & Orchestra. It might be surprising to realize these were all written in a span of three years, between 1885 and 1888. Considering he died in 1890, it's almost as if, once he had achieved success, his career, barely begun, was cut short at the age of 67.

Franck's Symphony in D Minor is one of those works that is easy to play badly. I have heard more performances where I was convinced the conductor thought it should be nicknamed “La turgide” or “Le tedieuse” (which are not French for turgid or tedious)... It's not just the tempos – the famous 2nd movement is not a true slow movement: it's marked Allegretto, a moderate tempo – but also understanding where his harmony is headed, often converted into a mass of directionless chords with no tension to resolve, merely spinning to fill time. It can make a world of difference.

So, I was happy to find this recording on YouTube with Kurt Masur and the New York Philharmonic. I hope it will give you a more positive feeling about Franck's symphony than the one I've grown up with...


(The 2nd movement begins at 17:09, the finale at 27:06.)

This is a three-movement symphony – not the usual four-movement format – where the middle movement takes on the roles of both slow movement and scherzo. There's nothing particularly “jocular” about Franck's scherzo section (as indeed, some of Brahms' scherzos are more laid-back intermezzos) but it gives you the necessary contrast between the dramatic first movement and the triumphant third.

English Horn (left), Oboe (right)
The most famous complaint against the symphony at its premiere – it was not well received – was its use of the English horn (an alto oboe, basically), a voice perfectly suited to the range and mood of the 2nd movement's main theme (listen to the clip above, beginning after 17:09). Traditionalists, even in 1888, were shocked – shocked, I say – at its appearance in the orchestra. Symphonies didn't have English horns in them!

Others were uncomfortable with Franck's melodic and harmonic language, very chromatic in a dark and slithering way. Where most tunes are built on a mixture of step-wise and triadic motion, Franck's often creep up or down half-step by half-step, as if the melody unwinds rather than unfolds, coiled around close but often remote-sounding harmonic motion.

You may also hear people talking about its “cyclical” form which has nothing to do with slowly-spinning harmonies. Basically, this refers to themes from previous movements being restated in the last movement. While most of Franck's themes germinate from similar sounding motives – the very opening reminds people of the questioning motive of Beethoven's last quartet, “Must it be?” – in the manner of Franz Liszt's “thematic transformation” (particularly in his tone-poem, Les preludes). But Beethoven had brought back previous themes in last movements (most famously to open the 5th Symphony and, with a different approach, in the finale of his 9th), something Anton Bruckner, another organist-composer, was doing in his latest symphonies (he had completed his 8th by 1887 but it wasn't performed until 1892).

When I mentioned to Stuart Malina last year that I've never been fond of the Franck, he immediately responded with his usual enthusiasm that he has always loved the piece. Given his ability to communicate that sense to his audience, I'm looking forward to his changing my mind.

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Young Cesar Franck
If Edouard Lalo's first lasting success came when he was 50, Cesar Franck was also something of a late-bloomer, though not for lack of trying.

Not quite 7 weeks older than Lalo, Franck was born in Liege, Belgium (then part of the “United Netherlands”) and following his first concerts there at the age of 12, his father was intent on turning his boy into a child prodigy along the lines of Mozart. The subsequent assault on Parisian audiences went unnoticed by the press but he stayed to begin his son's studies with those who taught the likes of Berlioz, Liszt and Gounod.

Had his father hoped for great things from his son? After all, he had named him “César-Auguste” and what child would want to go through life with the name “Caesar Augustus,” something the critics were quick to pounce on.

Young Franck produced a prodigious amount of music, most of it overlooked, but the disaster of his oratorio Ruth in 1846 prompted him to focus more on becoming an organist and teacher rather than a composer or concert pianist. That and his interest in marrying a woman his father thought “unsuitable” led to a bitter break with his family when he was 23 – and to the composer dropping the imperious “Auguste”...

As an organist and a practical-minded choir director, he sometimes supplied a number of pieces the position required out of necessity. In 1872, he composed the Panis angelicus which is still frequently performed and recorded. Franck would turn 50 that year.

His talent for improvisation led to a more serious attempt at resuming his latent compositional interests. One might say he was a composer who had an Early Period and a Late Period but no Middle Period. Eventually, when he was appointed the organ professor at the Paris Conservatoire, his organ class became an unofficial composition seminar that year, especially with his newly arrived student, Vincent d'Indy.

Franck then completed an oratorio, Redemption, which, badly performed, was a flop, leading to bitter disappointment. He would later revise it but this version wasn't performed until six years after the composer's death by which time, perversely, it was hailed as a great success!

But he continued to compose – his constantly evolving harmonic language especially inspired by having heard the Prelude to Wagner's Tristan und Isolde. He wrote a considerable number of organ works but also some large-scale choral works like Les béatitudes (already begun in 1869) which he completed in 1879. His Piano Quintet, which he'd already been working on at the same time, was eventually premiered in 1880 with none other than Camille Saint-Saëns at the piano.

Unfortunately, they were stylistic opposites, Saint-Saëns the conservative and Franck among the Liszt-inspired avant-garde. Though he played brilliantly, Saint-Saëns made no secret of his dislike of the work: when Franck handed him the score with a dedication to him, one story goes, Saint-Saëns left it behind in the dressing room. Another story indicates Saint-Saëns sight-read the piece at the concert and became visibly more uncomfortable with the music as it went on (and it is over a half-hour long). He then stormed off the stage, ignoring the applause and the composer's effusive thanks for a “brilliant performance.” The work was certainly “ultra-expressive” emotionally and so harmonically advanced, people said it would make them blush to hear such “erotic” music coming from a church's organ loft.

Still, he persevered. In 1886, he composed two works – the Violin Sonata in A Major (one of his most successful peices) and an openly sensuous orchestral tone-poem, Psyché (as in the myth, “Cupid and Psyche”). A festival of his latest works the next year was jointly conducted by the composer (not a terribly effective conductor) and the unsympathetic Jules Pasdeloup, one of the leading conductors in Paris, yet the composer seemed to be the only one involved who was not embarrassed by the performances.

Then he began sketching what would become his first symphony and another opera. By this time, he was... 65!

As it turned out, it would be his only symphony.

At the time, his career as a performer was on the rise: in addition to weekly improvisation concerts at his church, he was now becoming recognized, once again, as a concert pianist. Psyché was revived and successfully received. He was working on a number of works for organ and had a cello sonata on the back burner.

As the story goes, he was on his way to give a lesson in the summer of 1890 when he was hit by a bus. That's not quite accurate as he was in a horse-drawn cab which was hit by a horse-drawn trolley, but most people seem to think he was run over by or at least knocked down by this trolley. He received enough of an injury that he had a fainting spell but still proceeded to his student's house. Later, walking became painful and there were other health issues that forced him to cancel lessons or going to concerts. In the fall, he resumed his Conservatory schedule but soon caught a cold which developed into pleurisy and pericarditis, whether or not his immune system (as we would call it today) had already been weakened by the after-effects of his accident. He died, then, a month and two days before his 68th birthday.

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There has always been a cultural antagonism between France and Germany (or rather, the German-speaking lands united by language if not by politics), visible during the Baroque era in the keyboard pieces of Rameau and Couperin compared to the works of Bach and which continued through the Classical and Romantic eras.

German music was generally considered more technical in terms of form, harmony and, especially, counterpoint and in general was considered to be more abstract and intellectual. The French viewed their music (if not their art in general) as more entertainment, more sensual (as in, oriented toward the senses) and more involved with surface appeal than integral structure (for instance, one of the hallmarks of the French Baroque, the detailed intricacy of melodic ornamentation).

These are, of course, generalities. Even more of a generalization would be comparing German (especially Prussian) punctuality (what was I reading lately where a German character was apologizing profusely for being a few minutes late?) to a certain French laissez faire vagueness. This might be more evident in French impressionism versus German abstraction or, musically, in the so-called impressionistic music of Debussy compared to the atonality and serialism of Schoenberg. The symphony, by nature, was German and the French had very little interest in its structural complexities: most French symphonies would be more like Berlioz' Symphonie fantastique, barely a symphony at all by Germanic standards (compared to Mendelssohn) or the sprawling literary canvases of his Romeo et Juliette or of the cosmopolitan Franz Liszt's based on Dante and Faust.

In fact, between the time Robert Schumann wrote his last completed symphony, the Rhenish, and Brahms finally completed his 1st, there are no major symphonies in the repertoire written between 1850 and 1876, not counting early symphonies by Bruckner or Tchaikovsky or those by composers rarely heard on modern orchestral programs like Raff or Berwald. 

In France, there are no symphonies of any consequence between Berlioz writing in the 1830s and Saint-Saëns' 3rd Symphony (the “Organ” Symphony) of 1886. There are, however, two “symphonies” by Frenchmen to be mentioned – Edouard Lalo's Symphonie espagnole which is really a violin concerto (and which is on the first half of this weekend's concert) written in 1873 and the Symphony on a French Mountain Air by Franck's pupil Vincent D'Indy which is a work for piano and orchestra (if not technically a concerto) based on French folk songs which dates from 1887.

Saint-Saëns was considered a reactionary composer in his day who, because of his interest in Germanic forms like the symphony, was often referred to as “the French Beethoven.” In France, this was not necessarily considered a compliment.

Then, in 1888, César Franck completed his Symphony in D Minor – three years after Brahms completed his 4th, the same year Tchaikovsky wrote his 5th, a young conductor named Gustav Mahler completed his 1st and a year before Antonin Dvořák wrote his 8th. For the French, Franck was too much influenced by the harmonies of Richard Wagner (who died in 1883) and Franz Liszt (who died in 1886) on the one hand and his expansion of classical structure inherited from Beethoven on the other.

Just for chronology's sake, I'll close by mentioning that four years after Franck died, a Frenchman named Claude Debussy composed his Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, one of the first major works in the new school known as “impressionism” with its vague sense of harmony and its thoroughly French view of the beautiful surface.

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Despite its tepid reception except from his supporters, Franck wrote to a friend immediately after its premiere, “What a lovely sound it makes! And what a splendid reception it had!”

When another friend asked him, considering the opening's similarity to Beethoven's “Must it be?” motive and the triumphant ending, if the symphony had been inspired by some literary work or dramatic idea (as many mid-19th Century symphonies would have been). He replied “No, it is just music, nothing but pure music. At the same time, while composing the allegretto, especially the first phrases of it, I did think – oh, so vaguely – of a procession in the olden times.”

Then he added, “I have been very daring, I know; but you wait till next time, I shall go much farther in daring then!”

Unfortunately, he did not live long enough to have a next time...

- Dick Strawser

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Violinist Augustin Hadelich Returns to Harrisburg

If you've heard Augustin Hadelich play Mozart and Beethoven concertos with us in seasons past, you'll already know this weekend's performances are not to be missed. This visit, he'll be playing an old favorite, the “Symphonie espganole” by Edouard Lalo. Also on the program, the Danzón No. 2 by Arturo Márquez and, on the second half, the great Symphony in D Minor by César Franck.

The concerts are this Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 3pm at the Forum.

If you haven't heard Hadelich before, then here are a few videos to get you up to speed, thanks to YouTube: first, a general introduction in which he's playing bits of Paganini's Violin Concerto in D as well as the Lalo Symphonie espagnole and Sarasate's Ziguenerweisen (“Gypsy Airs”); the second clip promotes a recent recording released last March of the violin concertos by Jean Sibelius and Thomas Adès.
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Hadelich was born in Italy of German parents though he became an American citizen this past September (you can read about his playing “America the Beautiful” at his naturalization ceremony, here).

So it's appropriate he's playing a French composer's “Spanish Symphony” that's really a violin concerto.

Edouard Lalo's Symphonie espagnole hardly needs any expert analysis to explain the work to its audience (actually, I don't think any music needs expert analysis to explain it to its audience though some background material might be informative enough to enhance the experience of hearing it).

And it hardly needs any more an endorsement than the comment made by composer Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky, writing to his friend and patron, Mme. von Meck, about the piece when it was still “new music” and then knowing the influence it had on him:

“Do you know the Symphonie Espagnole by the French composer Lalo? The piece has been recently brought out by that very modern violinist, Sarasate. It is for solo violin and orchestra, and consists of five independent movements, based upon Spanish folk songs. The work has
given me great enjoyment. It is so fresh and light, and contains piquant rhythms and melodies which are beautifully harmonized.... Lalo is careful to avoid all that is [routine], seeks new forms without trying to be profound, and is more concerned with musical beauty than with traditions.”

He had come across the piece while recuperating in Switzerland when his friend and former student, Josef Kotek, a violinist, returned from a trip to Berlin with an armload of new scores, including this piece by Lalo which had been premiered three years earlier. Tchaikovsky played through the piece with Kotek and was so delighted, he decided to put aside the piano sonata he was composing and start a brand new work, a violin concerto which he finished in less than a month.

If you're not already familiar with this very popular concerto, here are its five different movements played by five different performers.

1st Mvmt, Allegro non troppo - Anne Akiko Meyers, NHK Orchestra of Tokyo, Marek Janowski –

2nd Mvmt, Scherzando – Zino Francescatti, New York Philharmonic, Dmitri Mitropolos –

3rd Mvmt, Intermezzo (which is sometimes omitted from performances or recordings, for some reason) – Henryk Szeryng, Monte Carlo Philharmonic, Edouard van Remoortel –

4th Mvmt, Andante – Itzhak Perlman, L'Orchestre de Paris, Daniel Barenboim – (please ignore the illustrations which, other than being by the Spanish painter, Goya, have nothing to do with the music and may prove disconcerting....)
(with the most obvious inspirations for Tchaikovsky's concerto)

5th Mvmt, Rondo, Allegro – David Oistrakh (1955), Philharmonia Orchestra, Jean Martinon –

There's an old joke that some of the best Spanish music is by French composers – pointing to Ravel who wrote his Bolero on a Spanish dance and his even more Spanish-flavored Rapsodie espagnole among other pieces; Debussy's Iberia, George Bizet's Carmen, and of course Lalo's Symphonie espagnole

One could argue the blood lineage for Ravel, whose mother was Basque, and for Lalo, whose family originated in Flanders (the Dutch-speaking part of what is now Belgium) in the 16th Century, descended from Spaniards who lived there during a particularly low period in the Low Countries' history when Belgium and Holland were called “The Spanish Netherlands.” It appears, according to Lalo's son, that their Spanish heritage was reinforced by several of the men marrying women from Spain, though none of the general biographical references I can find about Lalo even mention his mother...

He was born in Lille in the northernmost part of France, close to the Belgian border, his father a military man who had fought under Napoleon. Though Lalo's musical interests were at first encouraged – he studied violin and cello at the conservatory in Lille – when he wanted to pursue it as a career, his father put his militaristic foot down and so young Edouard, at the age of 16, ran off to Paris to pursue his dream!

It was also for the great Spanish violinist, Pablo de Sarasate, that Lalo wrote this symphony-concerto, and it was probably more a bow to Sarasate's nationality than it was an out-pouring of the composer's ethnic roots.

If anything, this work is less a symphony, at least as we think of it, but in France during much of the 19th Century, the symphony as a form was unpopular, especially after the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. Between Berlioz' Symphonie fantastique (by no means a typical symphony even for the 1830s) and 1873 when Sarasate premiered Lalo's latest work, there were few symphonies by any French composers in the repertoire.

I'll get more into that with the one and only Symphony by Cesar Franck which concludes this concert program.

Lalo initially pursued a career as a performing musician, playing in orchestras (some conducted by Berlioz) and forming a string quartet, playing the viola, then later the 2nd violin, which through the 1850s championed forgotten or unknown works (at least in France) of works by Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Mendelssohn and Schumann. During this time, he composed his own string quartet as well as two piano trios (a medium long neglected in France), plus two symphonies which he apparently destroyed. All of this looks more to German influences than French and it may go a great way to explain why he was also completely overlooked as a composer.

Discouragement was increased in 1866 when (now 43) he composed an opera for a competition that not only failed to win the prize but, despite some interest in Paris and Brussels, was never performed. Not surprisingly, bits of this opera showed up in at least five works later on.

Following the disaster of the Franco-Prussian War which brought down the 2nd Empire of Napoleon III, the French government pumped money into the national arts scene, hoping to revive interest in French art (music, theater, and dance especially), similar to an organization that supported painters a decade earlier. This had a major impact on Lalo despite his being considered “too Germanic” as a composer.

His first real success, then, was a Violin Concerto in F Major which was played by Pablo de Sarasate who liked it enough to request another work which became the Symphonie espagnole and not the Violin Concerto No. 2 in D Minor. It became an immediate success – and there's not a bit of Germanness in it from beginning to end. It remains his most frequently performed work.

Curiously, there were two other works for violin and orchestra that tried to ride the Symphonie's coat-tails – a Fantasie norvegienne of 1878 (later adapted as an orchestral Rhapsodie norvegienne) and, the following year, the Concert russe or Russian Concerto. Like many sequels, these fell flat at the box office.

Incidentally, once Camille Saint-Saëns began producing symphonies in Paris, Lalo once more tried his hand at a real symphony in the symphonic tradition in 1886. And that brings us to Cesar Franck and his Symphony in D Minor. You can listen to a complete performance of the symphony and find out more about its biographical background in this second post, here.

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But first, a bit of an encore from violinist Augustin Hadelich. Here are video clips of him performing a work by the violinist Pablo de Sarasate based on “Gypsy Airs,” known in German as Zigeunerweisen with pianist Akira Eguchi.


and while we're at it, why not another encore – the 24th of Nicolo Paganini's 24 Caprices for solo violin.


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A historical footnote.

Harrisburg Symphony, November 1931
Lalo's Symphonie espagnole was first played by the Harrisburg Symphony at its second concert ever – in November, 1931, conducted by George King Raudenbush. This photograph is the oldest known photo of the Harrisburg Symphony which gave its first concert on March 19th, 1931.

Sadah Shuchari, 1928
The soloist was Sadah Shuchari and though I can't tell you too much about her, her real name was Sadie Schwarz, she was born in 1908 in Connecticut, and she graduated from Juilliard. In 1928, she made a recording for the Victor company of Glazunov's Mélodie arabe and Kreisler's Sicilienne and Rigoudon with piano accompaniment. There's a New York Times review (which I can no longer access) of a 1931 performance, a month before her Harrisburg appearance, in which she performed Wieniawski (I'm assuming the 2nd concerto).

Though I can't locate it now, I recall reading her performance of Brahms' Violin Concerto with no less than the New York Philharmonic conducted by Willem Mengleberg in 1928 after she was awarded the Schubert Centennial Prize was essentially more than she could handle (but she was, at the time, a 19-year-old student). A Penn State newsletter includes a listing for a recital there which, when I checked the date, must've been when she was 12 years old. Later, she would go on to teach and perform in Dallas.

Okay, and now, on to Cesar Franck. (To be continued...)

- Dick Strawser

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Mozart's Cold Weather & Mendelssohn's Sunny Italy

Vienna's Mozart Monument - in the snow...
This weekend's Masterworks Concert features Stuart Malina playing Mozart's Piano Concerto in D Minor (K.466) and Bohuslav Martinů's Sinfonietta La Jolla - you can read more about both of these works in the previous post - as well as conducting the Italian Symphony by Felix Mendelssohn on the second half - tonight at 8pm and tomorrow at 3pm. Assistant Conductor Gregory Woodbridge will assist by conducting the Martinů. Dick Strawser offers the pre-concert talk an hour before each performance.
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So you think it's cold, now?

When Mozart finished writing the D Minor Piano Concerto Stuart Malina both plays and conducts this weekend, “Vienna suffered a cold spell that lasted until the beginning of March, with heavy snowfall and temperatures so low that several people froze to death.”

Farm Show Weather aside – and that usually meant nasty amounts of snow in years past – a high barely 20° is one thing (at least Sunday's is expected to, if we're lucky, reach the Freezing Point), but the wind chills we've been experiencing across much of the country bring to mind that meteorological villain from last year, Paula Vortex...

While I'm not sure if musicologists have studied the impact of Central Heating on Concert Halls in late-18th Century Vienna, Volkmar Braunbehrens continues describing that cold February of 1785 in his book, “Mozart in Vienna”:

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“Despite the weather, Mozart's piano had to be taken out of the house to a concert every other day. ...In late March and early April there was again heavy snowfall, and Leopold Mozart [who was visiting his son at this busy time] contracted a severe cold. Yet attendance at the opera, theater, and [Masonic] lodge functions continued, all in miserable weather.”
– (Volkmar Braunbehrens: Mozart in Vienna (1781-1791). R. Piper, Munich, 1986. Timothy Bell, translator)
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Two friends shooting the freeze...
Knowing Mozart himself was dealing with bitter cold temperatures 230 years ago might not make us feel any better today, but certainly the music on this program should help warm us up as we head into the Forum or make the drive home. I rather doubt any carriage the Mozarts had access to back then was any warmer than a modern automobile.

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Mendelssohn was not only inspired by his visit to sunny Italy in 1830 to write what became his 4th Symphony – for once, the nickname “Italian,” so obvious, was given to it by the composer – much of it was composed while he was there.

That summer, Mendelssohn had begun another long, leisurely tour comparable to his trip that took him to England and Scotland the year before, where he'd stood in Mary Queen of Scot's chapel in Edinburgh and wrote down a theme that eventually found its way into his “Scottish” Symphony and where he experienced an enormous cave off the coast of the Hebrides where he wrote a letter home and added a theme that soon became the opening of Fingal's Cave.

Returning to the Continent, he was already at work on a new symphony – the one, however, that would become known as the “Reformation.”

After stopping in Weimar to visit Goethe, the 21-year-old composer left Munich where he composed his 1st Piano Concerto and then, by way of Milan where he met Mozart's son Karl who was a diplomat living there (and whose friends had very low opinions of Shakespeare's comedies, the lowest reserved for A Midsummer Night's Dream), arrived in Venice in early October. He went to Bologna and Florence with the idea of spending the winter in Rome where he arrived at the beginning of November.

View of the Cathedral of Florence, late October, watercolor by Felix Mendelssohn

“Like all fugitives from the dank north,” according to George Marek's biography, Gentle Genius: the Story of Felix Mendelssohn, “he marveled at the blue skies of Tuscany, the wealth of flowers still blooming, the opulence of the villas and palaces.”

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(...in this YouTube posting, chosen more for the images than anything else, the name of the conductor is not mentioned: it appears to be the Budapest Philharmonic and, if you follow enough links, a recording conducted by Rico Saccani)
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Once settled in Rome, he wrote home about his “small, two-window house on the Spanish Steps, No. 5. The sun shines warmly the whole day long. In my room on the first floor there is a good Viennese piano. ...When in the morning I come into this room and the sun sparkles brightly on my breakfast (in me a poet was lost), I feel wonderful at once. Is it not late autumn? Who at home would dare to ask for warm, clear skies, grapes or flowers? After breakfast, I set to work, I play and sing and compose until midday. After that, the whole immeasurable Rome lies before me like an exercise in enjoyment.”

And it was here – then – that he began work on the greatest souvenir one could imagine from such a journey, his Symphony in A Major, the one called “The Italian Symphony.”

One of the things I'll mention in my pre-concert talk an hour before each performance will be another detail of his visit to Rome – how he met the young French composer, Hector Berlioz, who was revising his newest work, which, rather than being called “Symphony No. 1 in C Major, Op. 14,” has always been known as the Symphonie fantastique.

This caricature of Berlioz was drawn in Rome, so at least it's a fairly representative view of that composer at the time he and Mendelssohn were sitting in the taverns drinking wine and sharing their views on Shakespeare and modern music. Some sources indicate the caricature is Mendelssohn's own, but others don't mention it, so I'm not really sure. Regardless of their aesthetic differences, they became good friends and Berlioz always championed Mendelssohn's music to the readers of his Paris newspaper and Mendelssohn frequently conducted Berlioz's music in Germany and London even though he professed to not understanding it.

Curiously, it took Mendelssohn a while to finish this symphony of his: while in Rome, he'd left the slow movement go, hoping to find some inspiration when he went even further south to visit Naples (which he did). But still, the work wasn't completed until he returned to Berlin, struggling with it until 1833. Though he conducted it several times, he never published it, meaning to revise it. He did re-work the first movement but always meant to get back to the rest of it. He never conducted it in Germany and in fact never published the work in his lifetime, always dissatisfied with it!

Odd, for a work so many music-lovers as well as critics find to be, in a word, “perfect.”

– Dick Strawser

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Mozart, Martinů - and Mendelssohn, too

(This weekend's program includes a familiar piano concerto by Mozart and a frequently played symphony by Mendelssohn as well as a little-known work by Bohuslav Martinů. This post is about the Martinů and the Mozart. You can read more about Mozart and Mendelssohn in this post.)

If the idea of “Farm Show Weather” is enough to strike fear in your heart, at least the forecast isn't calling for any snow (knock on plastic-laminated artificial wood substitute). And it is supposed to be warmer on Sunday, even though the forecast high is only at the freezing point...

So if this cold weather has you thinking about taking a trip to warmer places (which at this point might not include Florida), join us this weekend for a concert that starts off in Southern California and ends up in sunny Italy!

And Stuart Malina will be back on the piano bench for one of Mozart's most famous piano concertos.

You can come in out of the cold this Saturday at 8pm or Sunday at 3pm at the Forum in downtown Harrisburg – in fact, come by an hour early and warm up with my pre-concert talk before each performance!

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Bohuslav Martinů
If you're like the average classical music lover, you may have looked over the selections on this weekend's concert and thought, “Martin Who?”

Mozart and Mendelssohn certainly need no introduction, but what about this other guy – and what's he doing in La Jolla?

It's the bonus on this program – not just a little-known delight by the equally little-known and generally delightful Czech-born composer Bohuslav Martinů, but a mini-piano-concerto to open the concert with the maestro at the keyboard, as if he needs a warm-up before playing one of the major concertos in the repertoire.

Anyway, in 1950, Martinů composed a short new work for the Musical Arts Association of La Jolla, California, a coastal suburb of San Diego. It was premiered there that fall. They'd asked him for a work for chamber orchestra that was “short, light-hearted, and tuneful” and he responded with what isn't quite a full-blown piano concerto with small orchestra (it's usually described as a “concertante” piece in which the piano, more a part of the orchestra, has a part not quite as soloistic as a traditional concerto). And so he entitled the piece “Sinfonietta La Jolla.”

There's a good performance from a live concert I wanted to post but they managed to lop off the last movement's final few seconds – !!! – so instead, here's a sequence of clips of each individual movement (sorry, just cover art for the graphic – no orchestra to watch...).



( This is a recording with the State Chamber Orchestra of Žilina in northern Slovakia, conducted by Jan Valta, with pianist Maria Singerova, available on the Red Note OMP label. There are other and possibly better recordings available but this is what I could find on YouTube today.)

So, who is Bohuslav Martinů? (And, btw, the ů is a diacritical mark in Czech much like the ř we see (or ought to see) in Dvořák; called an “overring,” basically it means the u is pronounced long, as in fool, when, otherwise, it would be short, as in push).

He was born in the village church tower, where his father was the town watchman and tower keeper. This was an apartment 193 steps above the street so, considering the 12 steps in my home's stairway, I'm guessing that's like a 16th-floor walk-up! But you can read more about his biography, here.

Martinů (2nd/ L), Family & Friends
A prolific composer, Martinů would be classified as a “neo-classical” composer, his style direct, his textures lean and his language well structured but easily discernible and, comforting to those who don't know his music, tonal.

I add this because many people I've known, when faced with an unfamiliar composer from the first half of the 20th Century – one who hails from Central Europe, came of age in Paris in the '20s and went on to teach at no less an intellectually daunting place like Princeton – might assume the worst. Call it “musical profiling.”

And if you want to find out how Stuart Malina discovered Martinů's music, ask him at the “Talk Back” Q&A session after the concert!

By the way, while the “Sinfonietta La Jolla” can be conducted from the keyboard, Stuart told me that he decided – as if the Mozart wasn't challenge enough – to have assistant conductor Gregory Woodbridge stand on the podium in this one (well, more than just stand there...).

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While I'm sure Woodbridge would rather be doing the Mozart, concertos in Mozart's day were designed to be “conducted” by the soloists because conductors hadn't yet been invented, at least in the sense we think of them today. Orchestras were not as big as they are now and the sense of chamber music's intimacy was easier to manage.

It still amazes me (even if it didn't surprise me) to have seen Stuart conducting Mendelssohn's 1st Piano Concerto from the keyboard (as this practice is generally called) – not to mention his party piece, Gershwin's “Rhapdsody in Blue” – and turning it into a grandly expanded piano quintet with maybe fifty or more players rather than just four...

That's one of the things I've always enjoyed about their collaborations – this orchestra knows how to listen (very important in chamber music not only for entrances and balance), they know how to anticipate what Stuart as a conductor might now do as a soloist, and they know he has the confidence in them to leave them on their own when his hands are otherwise involved.

First of all, it's a piece he says he'd grown up playing, “one of my two or three favorites. It’s been in my head a long time.”

So what is this “Piano Concerto No. 20 in D Minor, K.466”? It doesn't have a nickname which is surprising, considering its dramatic nature, so this number, this key and this odd “K.466” thing all sounds very intimidating.

The K. numbers in Mozart are a way of identifying individual pieces in the catalog of his complete works put together by a fellow named Köchel. While there could be a number of concertos in the key of D Minor – there aren't, in this case – the #466 narrows it down to one specific work. In fact, musicians often break these titles down into bits of code – “oh yes, we're playing 466 this weekend!”

What is the importance of the “key,” the pitches around which a piece is composed? We often make the overly simplistic distinction that a major key sounds “happy” and a minor key sounds “sad,” though a lot more would go into recreating that sense in a listener's response to it.

D Minor was a key that had a very specific “sound” for Mozart and he associated it with a specific emotion, one very dramatic and often very dark, even demonic (the fact I'm using all these “d”-words is not a coincidence). Just listening to the opening of this concerto, if you could do so with Viennese ears atuned to the mid-1780s, you would also probably find it disconcerting and... what's a word for “off-putting” that begins with d...?

The Viennese liked their music to entertain them. For one thing, they didn't expect to be required to think while listening to music. And they certainly preferred their music with “happy endings.” That's why most of the music being written at this time was written in major keys. Minor keys were just too sad and serious and, after all, who wants to deal with that when you're out to be entertained?

Mozart
Mozart wrote 27 piano concertos – only two are in minor keys: this one and No. 24 in C Minor. Neither were very popular with Viennese audiences at the time.

Mozart also composed over 41 symphonies, though most of them are not the “major works” we usually expect a symphony to be. But of those symphonies, only two are in minor keys – and they're both in G Minor, which was another key that had emotional implications for Mozart. This was his “tragic” key – and I doubt if someone transposed Pamina's heart-rending aria “Ah, ich fühl's” to F Minor it would have the same emotional impact (at least to Mozart).

The first movement of this concerto is definitely sinister, uncertain – these odd syncopations, the ominous rumblings in the bass (remember also the opening of Beethoven's “Funeral March” in his Eroica Symphony) and the deep register all create a mood.

Curiously it's a mood he would recreate in his opera Don Giovanni two years later where the key of D Minor is associated with the supernatural Statue of the late Commendatore who comes back from beyond the grave to claim his murderer's soul – how spooky is that?!

The 2nd Movement is decidedly a contrast but even in the middle of this lyrical diversion is a dramatically contrasting middle section – in the key of G Minor.

The 3rd Movement begins with a dramatic upward gesture – a cliché of the era known as a “Manheim Rocket” – that sets off an uncertain and troubled-sounding finale. Yet within this group of ideas we hear something comparably child-like and decidedly “happy.” It will eventually be this idea the concerto concludes with, ultimately a happy ending, almost as if Mozart were winking at the audience, sitting through all this drama, to say “see? It's only make-believe, after all.”

In this performance, Daniel Harding conducts the Mahler Chamber Orchestra with pianist Lars Vogt:

(The 2nd Movement begins at 14:10; the 3rd, at 23:10.)
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It's not surprising that, in the 19th Century with its blood-and-guts emotional response to music – called “Romanticism” for lack of a less vague word – both this D Minor Concerto and Don Giovanni were two works that kept Mozart's reputation alive.

And then there's the Requiem – a work left incomplete at his death at the age of 35 – which you would expect to be “sad” but which is also in D Minor. Coincidence?

Curiously there have been associations suggested by arm-chair psychologists in the past century that each of these works have some association with his father, the easily abused Leopold Mozart.

But I'll get more into that at my pre-concert talk, an hour before each performance. (Have to leave something to talk about...)

Suffice it to say, Mozart's D Minor Concerto was a favorite of Beethoven's when he was a promising young piano virtuoso in Vienna in the decade after Mozart's death. He was just one of several pianists who left cadenzas for it in their works – others being Mozart's student Hummel (once one of the great pianists of his day and an equally acclaimed composer now forgotten) as well as Brahms and Clara Schumann, all of whom played this concerto frequently.

In this weekend's performance, Stuart Malina has chosen Beethoven's cadenza in the first movement and Hummel's for the finale.

So, what's a cadenza and why isn't it by Mozart?

Technically, the term comes from the “cadence” that is left incomplete near the end of (usually) the first movement of a concerto. “Cadence” is a harmonic progression of chords leading to the fulfillment of the tension it creates, establishing the home or “tonic” key (the root of classical tonality).

Usually, the orchestra “builds up” to the next-to-the-last chord which leaves the listener hanging – what will this chord resolve to? It is up to the soloist, then, to extend this anticipation further by improvising an extended passage based on the composer's themes. Each performer would thus create something virtuosic that would be different and, presumably, fresh at each performance. The object then was to end triumphantly on the tonic chord, bringing in the orchestra for concluding passage, wrapping everything up in a nice, neat package.

Now, Mozart wrote out cadenzas for some of his concertos, but not this one. Other performers, as I mentioned, wrote out theirs for posterity (or at least for their less adventuresome colleagues). Keep in mind Mozart was an acclaimed improviser and that was really what set Beethoven apart in his first years in Vienna – his skills at improvising virtuosic variation after variation on someone else's theme.

Today, when improvisation is a skill no longer expected in our soloists, it's traditional to play someone else's cadenzas. But that was not the original intent and well into the 19th Century it was a mark of the soloist's creative virtuosity to be able to make something like that up on the spot. These days, few performers are also composers. Enough said...

Oh, and another thing to mention. This was one of four concerts Mozart completed early in 1785 for a series of concerts during the Lenten season (most such public concerts were offered only during Lent and Advent). It was completed on February 11th and premiered two days later. In fact, Mozart's father wrote home that Mozart was so busy supervising the last-minute copying, he had no time to run through the last movement before the only rehearsal. Talk about “under the wire”...

- Dick Strawser

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Star-Cross'd Lovers: Part 2 with Bernstein's "West Side Story"

There's a place for you at the Harrisburg Symphony Masterworks Concert this weekend, “Star-Cross'd Lovers,” includes Shakespeare-inspired music by Leonard Bernstein and Sergei Prokofiev, works that may be familiar to most concert-goers. The concert is Saturday at 8pm or Sunday at 3pm at the Forum in downtown Harrisburg and conductor Stuart Malina will be giving the pre-concert talk an hour before each performance (as well as the post-concert talk-back Q&A and everything in between).

This post is primarily about Bernstein's "Symphonic Dances from West Side Story." You can read about Prokofiev's ballet, Romeo & Juliet, here.

Also on the program is a brand-new work no one's ever heard before, making it a responsibility for the performers – who can't just turn to a recording to hear “how it goes” – as well as the listeners. I wrote a little about Jeremy Gill and the whole idea of being a living composer (“making a living” is more than just “being alive”) in yesterday's post which you can read here.

But a word about our soloist, Christopher Grymes, the clarinetist for whom Jeremy Gill composed his Notturno concertante. You can read Mr. Grymes' biography here.

Christopher Grymes
You may be familiar with his playing with Concertante, the New York-based chamber ensemble, who performed regularly in the past here in Harrisburg, and with Market Square Concerts' Summermusic in past seasons where he performed in Quintets for Piano & Winds by Beethoven and Mozart with pianist Stuart Malina at Market Square Church.

In her column, Art & Soul, Ellen Hughes wrote about the up-coming concert.

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Gill calls [Christopher Grymes] an incredibly conscientious musician. 'He has the kind of musical personality that can make the work uniquely his own. With Chris and Stuart, my piece couldn't be in better hands.'

Grymes has had the clarinet part since May. 'I really like it, but I won't know what it sounds like until I hear it with the full orchestra,' he said. 'It's written beautifully for the clarinet.' He's memorized his part, which is quite a feat. 'It's easier when it's been memorized. I think it uses a different area of the brain. It's more “in the moment.” I've had to develop and broaden my technique, to get so much more athletic at the top range of the instrument than ever before,' he added.
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Leonard Bernstein, conductor!
For most music lovers of a certain age (which would be much of the traditional concert hall audience these days), Leonard Bernstein was probably an important influence on our musical awareness both as a conductor and composer, especially with his “Young People's Concerts” available on television starting in 1958, as well as works like West Side Story or his dramatic performances leading the New York Philharmonic whether it was Beethoven's 5th or Shostakovich's 5th.

Chances are good that more people are familiar with music from his West Side Story than might know any of the works by Bernstein's contemporaries and colleagues combined, composers whose works he conducted and often premiered.

West Side Story became a topic for discussion in 1949, though it wasn't until the mid-50s it began to take shape, a musical that takes Shakespeare's immortal couple, the “star-cross'd lovers” Romeo and Juliet, and translated them into modern Manhattan, placing them on the Upper West Side with feuding gangs – the Sharks and the Jets – replacing the feuding families of the Montagues and the Capulets.

Ironically, much of this neighborhood was leveled in the early-60s to build what would become Lincoln Center, the new home of more than just the New York Philharmonic. Bernstein was named the philharmonic's music director in 1957, the same year West Side Story received its world premiere on Broadway.

Dance was a major part of the show – and whether you've seen the show or the movie based on it, you get a sense of how challenging the choreography is and how integral it is to the show itself. So it seemed natural that Bernstein should take some of the “best tunes” and turn them into a suite just as any composer would do with a stage work.

Oddly, though, the suite from West Side Story isn't that kind of a suite, a collection of hummable excerpts meant to bring music from the theater into the concert hall so more people would become familiar with it, creating a different and longer shelf-life compared to those who might only experience it on the stage.

Bernstein chose what dance numbers and songs he wanted for this concert work and gave it to his colleagues Sid Ramin and Irwin Kostal to arrange and orchestrate. He called them “symphonic” dances not just because they were now to be played by a symphony orchestra but because, in the original sense of “symphonic,” they are developed beyond just being presented as charming tunes. They recreate the dramatic tension, perhaps, but also expand and evolve along lines the Broadway stage didn't have time for. Plus, it's basically in four parts, not quite movements, with a variety of moods and tempos, much like a four-movement symphony.

Here's a performance by Bernstein protege Michael Tilson Thomas, conducting the San Francisco Symphony at a Carnegie Hall concert in 2008:

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Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

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Leonard Bernstein was a talented pianist, often conducting concertos from the keyboard (before it was considered “historically informed”) and he may well have been one of the first great “cross-over artists” between classical music and the worlds of pop and jazz.

He was dynamic, brash, opinionated and often flamboyant and arrogant but certainly never bland. He brought us Mahler when nobody really listened to Mahler and he conducted the latest in new music whether it was the complex Elliott Carter or the complete opposite of complexity in John Cage and Earl Brown.

It may seem surprising to those of us who experienced the force of nature that was Leonard Bernstein then that, according to friends and family, he was not always the secure, flamboyantly self-confident artist we would've thought, one who had fame, fortune and an immense and seemingly unending talent.

Defining the idea of “eclectic,” drawing from classical traditions, from jazz and pop as well as Jewish music, both sacred and secular, Bernstein created a musical language that, despite its eclecticism, always sounded to me like Bernstein, the man who created “West Side Story” or “Chichester Psalms” or his wild and crazy “Prelude, Fugue and Riffs” or the Kaddish Symphony of 1963.

But deep down, while he conducted the newest works of the major composers of the day, he felt the pressure of not being one of them himself, not being accepted by them as part of a “big boys' club” as one family member expressed it in a special program broadcast on Public Radio, Leonard Bernstein: An American Life, an 11-part series narrated by Susan Sarandon. “The series culminates with a look at Bernstein's legacy: his final days are colored by his own sense of failure.”

He strove to write “serious” music that was complex and “original” but these pieces not only failed with the general audiences, it was not taken seriously by the composers he hoped most to “impress.” Inevitably, it led to a great amount of frustration and a creative roadblock, a tragedy, I thought, for a man who could not see how “original” something like West Side Story was, how sincere “Chichester Psalms” was or how brilliant Candide was (despite its tortured history of failure and revision, enough to rival Beethoven's Fidelio).

Bernstein in 1955
I wonder how many of these questions, these doubts – personal as well as artistic – would've been revealed in the memoir he was working on at the time of his death in 1990 at the age of 72. “The draft of his memoir, Blue Ink, having only existed in electronic form in a password-protected document that still remains unopened to this day, has become a poster-child in the probate community for the need of increased awareness of digital assets during the estate planning process.”

And yet music from West Side Story and Candide – both written before he was 40 – appear regularly in “serious” concert halls alongside the great composers he championed as a conductor – and more frequently, no doubt, than most of those composers he'd hoped to impress. Certainly, when it opened in 1957, there was never a musical like West Side Story and there's never been another one like it since.

- Dick Strawser

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Jeremy Gill's Notturno Concertante, World Premiere

Jeremy Gill
This weekend's concert with the Harrisburg Symphony and Stuart Malina features two works inspired by Shakespeare's "star-cross'd lovers," Romeo and Juliet - plus the world premiere of a brand new concerto for clarinet by Jeremy Gill with Christopher Grymes. You may have heard other works by the Harrisburg-born composer and heard clarinetist Grymes performing with his colleagues in Concertante (whose name figures in the title of the piece Gill wrote for Grymes: concertante means a work in which instruments are featured in a solo role, like a concerto) - as well as playing Mozart and Beethoven quintets with Stuart Malina at the piano in past "Summermusics" with Market Square Concerts.

The HSO Masterworks concerts are this Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 3pm with conductor Malina offering his insights into the music an hour before each performance. Between that and the post-concert "talk-back" Q&A session, you have ample opportunity to find out more about the music, the performers and, in this case, the composer of a new work.

While Leonard Bernstein's music from West Side Story needs no introduction and Prokofiev's ballet, Romeo and Juliet, has its own interesting back-story, I wanted to focus in this post on a work you've not had a chance to hear, yet. But first...

A Brief History of Living Composers...

During the first thousand or so years of the history of Western Classical Music, composers were generally employed by the Church and wrote mostly sacred music which was written down and stored in church libraries. Composers and performers of secular music – more like today's “popular” music – were supported by medieval noblemen, the feudal lords, but, being more profane, were of no interest to the church-dominated society, so it wasn't (usually) written down and saved. It's almost as if it never existed.

Jeremy Gill visits Bach's church, Leipzig, in 2009
Starting with the Renaissance around 1600 (not coincidentally, around the time the printing press was invented) and into the Classical era, up until about 1800, a mere two centuries, composers were more likely to be employed by the aristocratic courts scattered across the highly fragmented map of Europe. Think of Haydn and Prince Esterhazy or Mozart's father and the Prince-Archbishop of Salzburg who, alas, had little patience with the young Mozart's arrogance.

Then, with Beethoven following in Mozart's would-be footsteps, the image of the Romantic Composer, struggling to make a living, put the typical musician at the mercy of society, a kind of free-lance musical capitalism where, if you could sell your music to the public and convince people to buy tickets to come hear your concerts, you could make a living being a musician. But what was the difference between churning out hundreds of amateurish flute concertos for your flute-playing king (as Quantz did for Frederick the Great who was, as a flutist, more like Frederick the Okay) and Beethoven arranging 150 British folk songs for a London publisher because he needed the money?

A composers as famous as Brahms lived handsomely enough off the music he published (and one he didn't, a little lullaby you might've heard) while others, like Schubert, died in poverty for lack of a sustaining audience.

Then, somewhere in the 20th Century, composers – especially American ones – found that, in order to pay the bills, teaching music at universities was a little more steady (remembering the first American music department was established at Harvard in the 1870s – before that, would-be composers had to go to Europe to study). Academia then became the equivalent of the Church and the aristocratic Courts that had maintained composers in previous centuries.

If not a university, then, some other “day job” – like Charles Ives who ran a very successful insurance company in New York City which allowed him the income to compose the music he wanted to write but which few people wanted to perform (at the time).

As a composer teaching in college, I heard a lot of very academic music from composers who were more interested in writing for their colleagues' approval than for the average audience's. Some of this was exciting and challenging but a lot of it was... well, very academic.

The same could be said of a lot of the music turned out by hundreds of little court composers composing in little courts in 18th Century Germany, music that has – unlike Bach's or Haydn's – not withstood the tests of time and might be unknown today if producers of compact discs had not been desperate to find other stuff to record. Some of it is good, possibly refreshing; some of it, not so much.

Sometime around the 1970s, young composers wanted to get away from the academic world modern music had become and like everything else changing (or breaking) in the '60s and '70s (for those of us who can remember them), becoming a composer on your own was a new and usually challenging life style.

It still is, today, especially in a society that will gladly pay you Tuesday for a new composition today, assuming it succeeds – or better yet, offer to play your new work “for the exposure” rather than pay you for it, forgetting that composers like other people still have bills to pay and mouths to feed.

Free-lancing today often means cobbling together enough “gigs” to put food on the table and while that may mean playing in four different orchestras and other, smaller performance ensembles (December is an especially crazy time for musicians playing Christmas programs across the landscape) plus teaching private lessons and as an adjunct professor in a couple of different college music departments for little pay and no benefits, for composers it means being asked to compose a new piece and, most importantly, getting paid to do so – then hoping there's enough of a success with it that it'll be played again somewhere.

Today, a successful composer gets commissioned to write enough pieces, he or (finally) she doesn't have to write something unless someone pays for it in advance, rather than writing something and farming it out hoping to find someone who'll play it.

Jennifer Higdon, one of the busiest and most performed composers on the American scene today, has commissioning projects lined up years in advance and can pick and choose which ones she wants to fulfill. You may have heard her Percussion Concerto when it was played – twice in recent years – by the Harrisburg Symphony with Chris Rose, our principal percussionist, as the soloist. The commission to write that for its initial soloist, Colin Currie, came from three different orchestras and numerous financial organizations and new music projects.

Would she have composed a percussion concerto and shipped it around to various percussionists saying “Would you please please please play my new concerto?” Not likely. But now, people line up to ask her “would you please please please write me a new [insert instrument here] concerto?”

JEREMY GILL, his story...

Jeremy Gill was born in Harrisburg PA in 1975 where he studied oboe, piano and composition before attending the Eastman School of Music in Rochester NY where he earned his Bachelor's degree in composition (with distinction) in 1996 before pursuing his doctorate at the University of Pennsylvania which he received four years later. He studied with several great American composers, including George Crumb, George Rochberg, Joseph Schwantner, Christopher Rouse and Samuel Adler. On his own, in Academia, he taught at West Chester University, Messiah College and Temple University.

Jeremy Gill, with Lucy Shelton, members of Dolce Suono Ensemble
Not too long ago, he decided to take the leap from full-time academic teaching to being a free-lance composer, pianist, conductor and teacher in Boston. He's also a part-time visiting professor of music at Dickinson College in Carlisle but at the same time a Fellow of the American Opera Project’s “Composers and the Voice” program (based in Brooklyn, New York), where he composed solo songs for the resident singers and worked toward the production of his first opera.

Active as a performer and conductor, he has also been a pre-concert lecturer here with the Harrisburg Symphony is years past, with Philadelphia’s Dolce Suono Chamber Music Concert Series and most recently with the Boston Symphony.

In Harrisburg alone, I've had the chance to hear a number of Jeremy Gill's works including his Symphony No. 1 (which you can read about here when it was performed by Stuart Malina and the Harrisburg Symphony) and another orchestral work, “Novas,” the song cycles “Helian” and “Songs about Words” (this last, setting poems by Lucy Miller Murray), two string quartets, one called “25” and the more recent “Capriccio,” both played here by the Parker Quartet, and another one, “Variations” performed by the Casal Quartet, a set of piano pieces performed as tribute to Elliott Carter's centennial celebration called “Eliot Fragments (for Carter)” (in which the “Eliot” refers as a double reference to lines by T.S. Eliot) plus the “8 Variations and Toccata on Betzet Yisrael” for organ.

(You can sample many of these works with sound clips at the composer's website.)

It's possible I've forgotten something, but these, certainly, stick out in my mind as outstanding works and to say I'm looking forward to the new clarinet concerto, Notturno Concertante, should be obvious!

Quoting from Ellen Hughes' Art & Soul column in Harrisburg's Patriot-News, she asked Stuart Malina about this new piece:

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"Like Aaron Copland, Jeremy's work has become easier to grasp as he's matured. You could say that he is in the middle of his middle period," Malina said, with a hint of a smile. "This is a dramatic, accessible work without being banal – a great piece."

Gill agrees with Malina about the accessibility of his piece. "I've been changing generally in the past couple of years," he said. "In the past, I've thought a lot about the performers. Does the experience of playing my music feel good? Does it work well on their instruments? But recently I've been thinking about the audience in that way. I've always loved the great old music, like Brahms and Beethoven, so I began to ask myself, what do I want an audience member to feel while listening to my music?"

"In the past, my tendency has been toward introspection, but not in this piece. It's written for a big orchestra, and all of the players have a role, a moment when their instruments are showcased. And there's excitement, including a loud and satisfying ending," Gill said.

(you can read the entire article here.
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Of this latest work to be heard in his hometown – commissioned by the Lois Lerhman Grass Foundation for Christopher Grymes and the Harrisburg Symphony – the composer writes in his program note:

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Christopher Grymes
Roughly around the same time, in mid-2013, I received commissions to compose two wind concertos (Serenada Concertante for oboist Erin Hannigan and the Dallas Symphony and Notturno Concertante for clarinetist Christopher Grymes and the Harrisburg Symphony). I immediately knew that I wanted them to form a pair, and since wind instruments are historically associated with the outdoors, I decided to reference two popular, and closely related, Classical-era outdoor ‘forms’: the serenade and the nocturne. Both of these celebrate the natural world, with the serenade focusing more on the diurnal. Ever since reading James Joyce’s Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake I’ve loved the idea of composing a pair of works that explored day and night, and this seemed like the perfect opportunity to do so.

Notturno Concertante begins with the solo clarinet imitating its ancestor, the ‘chalumeau’ (literally ‘reed’), a melodic instrument of the late Baroque. Chalumeau is also the name of the lower register of the clarinet, so it is in this range that the soloist plays for the entire introduction. [...]

Balancing the chalumeau opening of Notturno Concertante, the ending focuses on the ‘clarino’ register of the clarinet. The clarinet’s early role in Classical repertoire was to play trumpet parts, and the ‘tiny trumpet’ appellation continues to apply to the upper register of the clarinet. This clarino coda is begun with offstage trumpets and drum, and the solo clarinet affirms its brassy history by playing short fanfares that are taken up by the orchestral winds.

These two sections, exploring the chalumeau (lowest) and clarino (highest) registers of the clarinet are bookends to the much more extended middle section of Notturno Concertante. They may also be heard as framing an extended dream sequence […] because Notturno Concertante is a ‘nocturne’ in the truest sense: a night piece that explores the internal world of the sleeper.

The middle, or ‘dream,’ part of Notturno Concertante is in sixteen short, continuous sections, and each is recognizable y the orchestral instruments it features (oboes and English horn in the first, muted trumpets in the second, etc.). Each section also features one category of pitches that remain the same within instrumental families: the winds always play chromatically, the brasses use whole-tone-based scales and chords, and the strings use the white notes of the piano keyboard (diatonic but not necessarily tonal). The percussion is mostly unpitched, and is always associated with the deep REM (Rapid Eye Movement) phase of sleep.

Taking a cue from Freud, who suggests in The Interpretation of Dreams that dreams are often psychic responses to physical events (one dreams of suffocating and awakens to find one’s face buried in the pillow), I have the clarinet always following the orchestra: in terms of its pitch and melodic content it is always reacting to what has recently happened, such that it is possible to imagine the orchestra as the body and the soloist the psyche of one sleeper.

The middle sections of the work suggest the four stages of sleep as it moves in and out of the REM state. […] As with real sleep, the sleeper is unaware that time has passed and returns to the waking life as if it were continuing without interruption.

What ultimately made me focus on the internal nocturnal world (rather than the natural nocturnal world, which is far more commonly encountered in music), was a dream relayed to me by Christopher Grymes, Notturno Concertante’s dedicatee. He dreamed of a clarinetist who could only play white notes but was so adept that people would travel far and wide to hear him. He remembered specifically a densely chromatic passage in Nielsen’s Clarinet Concerto in which the clarinetist ‘whitened’ the sound to great effect. This, of course, led me to include that very passage from the Nielsen (played correctly by the orchestral clarinets and ‘whitened’ by the solo clarinet in successive sections near the work’s center), and also to the idea of mixing pitch collections and having the solo clarinet always out of phase with the orchestra.
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You don't often get to find out about a piece of music you might hear right from the composer - imagine if Beethoven had given us a road-map to his thoughts about the Eroica? - and sometimes it may be more information than you think you need to enjoy it, but so much goes into how a composer conceives much less writes a piece - like the elements of clarinet history or the application of sleep and dreams (something we all can relate to) to the creative process - it gives us something else to think about as we hear something that no one has ever heard before.

- Dick Strawser

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Beethoven's Eroica: The Hero Within the Music

Another Heroic Monument
This weekend, the Harrisburg Symphony, conducted by Stuart Malina, presents Beethoven's Symphony No. 3 in E-flat, the Eroica, on its opening program of the new season. The concerts at the Forum are Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 3pm with Truman Bullard's pre-concert talk an hour before each performance. You can read the previous posts in this series - about the program in general (complete video performances included); about Beethoven and Bonaparte the Hero; and about hearing the Eroica for the first time. And they can be read before or after (but not during) the performance.

While Bonaparte – that is, First Consul Napoleon Bonaparte (born Buonaparte), not the Emperor Napoleon – was the impetus behind the Symphony in E-flat Major Beethoven began working on in 1802, I'm wondering if Haydn wasn't closer to the mark when he allegedly said, “He's placed himself at the center of his work. He gives us a glimpse into his soul. ...But it is quite, quite new – the artist as hero – quite new... Everything is different from today.” (– quoted as it was used in the BBC/Pro Arte film Eroica which was imbedded in the previous post.)

Haydn (from BBC's "Eroica")
The idea of the “artist as hero” is entirely antithetical to the “artist as craftsman” of the Classical Era of which Haydn is generally considered the ultimate example. Yet he had already begun pushing these boundaries, now that he had retired after nearly thirty years as a court composer for Prince Nicholas Esterházy and had few requirements to fulfill for his successor. He composed two immense oratorios – completing The Creation in 1798 and The Seasons in 1801 – and six monumental masses between 1796 and 1802, his last major works. And there is certainly something of the sublime far beyond the classical craftsman in these works.

Haydn teaching Beethoven
Beethoven arrived in Vienna in 1792, a year after the death of Mozart – whose own music, especially in things like his D Minor Piano Concerto and the opera Don Giovanni challenged 18th Century Classical proprieties with an abundance of Romantic emotions – and studied with Haydn until he left once more for London in 1794. Though their relationship was never friendly – in fact, Haydn treated the young composer with some disdain if not jealousy and didn't seem to take these lessons seriously (Beethoven refused to list Haydn as his teacher on his first publications because he felt Haydn had taught him too little; another composer, examining Beethoven's counterpoint notebook, found several errors that Haydn had not bothered to correct) – Haydn was, after all, the most celebrated living composer in Europe at the time. One could point out many similarities in their works – the opening of “Winter” in Haydn's Seasons and the introduction to Beethoven's 4th Symphony, both in the same key, for instance – but then the “common language” of 18th Century classicism was so “common,” it is difficult to say how much of this is influence or coincidence much less imitation.

But there was something so startlingly new in the Eroica for 1803, it's impossible not to ask “where did that come from!?”

Yet if we examine the symphony in terms of its overall structure, it turns out not to be that different from the models that inspired Beethoven's first two symphonies between 1800 and 1802: instead of a slow introduction, typical with Haydn, Beethoven uses two peremptory chords to get out attention (no chance to settle comfortably into “listening mode,” here), but after that, the overall concepts are not unfamiliar – just incredibly expanded, especially in the middle section's development which is the hallmark of Sonata Form (in the 18th Century, this might be so brief as to be no more than a digression, but in Beethoven, it becomes the dramatic focus of the struggle between leaving the tonic key and its eventual return.

This first movement – full of excruciating dissonances and nearly as long as any of Haydn's earlier symphonies entirely – is followed, as expected, by a slow movement, but again one of immensely expanded proportions and intense drama – a funeral march, no less.

Haydn's third movements are often earthy and more dance-like than the standard courtly minuet of his earlier works, but Beethoven's takes this peasant-like energy to a new and often frenetic level, a return to life after the slow movement tragedy.

Haydn's finales were often light-hearted, full of tricks or jokes, but also capable of hiding intellectual details, but none of them were ever as long or as commanding as the Eroica's finale: here, a set of variations on what seems to be a simplistic, almost inane idea later turns out to be the bass of a theme introduced almost as an afterthought, but simple or not, it is full of “learnèd counterpoint” and out-and-out fugues, the culmination of the intellectual.

And it was the tradition in the 18th Century approach to variations that the next to the last one would be in a slow tempo (a way to inform the audience the end is near) which is exactly what Beethoven does here except, again, it is greatly expanded, almost into a slow movement of its own. It becomes an emotional climax if not of the whole piece, then at least the second half of the symphony (nothing could be more emotional that that funeral march's final disintegration). And how to end it? With an uproarious “happy ending,” a triumphal dance that, to a proper 18th Century classicist, would be vulgar in the extreme, pounding away at the final resolution to the home tonic – repetitive but also drunk with joy!

The skeleton of the classical symphony is still there but the surface of it – its scope and dimensions and what activates it as a work of art – are almost unrecognizable, certainly on first hearing. Yet it is not so revolutionary as we tend to think, embedded in the past as it is.

So it is interesting to read someone writing about the “sublime” in music:

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“In music, only that can be sublime which exceeds the conceptual powers of the imagination: which appears too large and significant, too foreign and strange, for the imagination to grasp it easily...”

“The feeling of sublimity in music is aroused when the imagination is elevated to the plane of the limitless, the immeasurable, the unconquerable. This happens when such emotions are aroused as... prevent the integration of one's impressions into a coherent whole.”

– Christian Friedrich Michaelis, “Some Remarks on the Sublime in Music” (Leipzig, 1805) quoted in James Webster's essay, The Creation, Haydn's Late Vocal Music and the Musical Sublime in the Bard Music Festival Series, Haydn and His World (Princeton, 1997)
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It is interesting to read this because it very much describes the music we associate with the huge emotional – indeed, “sensual” – leap into 19th Century romanticism which, as any music student has been told, essentially began with Beethoven's Eroica in 1803. Outside of a close circle of friends of Prince Joseph Maximilian Lobkowitz, no one else heard this symphony until April, 1805, when it was first performed at Vienna's Theater an der Wien.

And yet Michaelis published his “Remarks” in Leipzig in 1805: had he been in Vienna and heard Beethoven's startling new music? It's almost as if he were describing the Eroica's impact on its listeners:

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“Firstly, by uniformity so great that it almost excludes variety: by the constant repetition of the same note or chord... by long, majestic, weighty, or solemn notes, and hence by very slow movement; by long pauses holding up the progress of the melodic line, or which impede the shaping of a melody, thus underlining the lack of variety. Secondly, by too much diversity, as when innumerable impressions succeed one another too rapidly and the mind is too abruptly hurled into the thundering torrent of sounds, or when (as in many polyphonic compositions involving many voices) the themes are developed together in so complex a manner that the imagination cannot easily and calmly integrate the diverse ideas into a coherent whole without strain. Thus in music, the sublime can only be that which seems too vast and significant, too strange and wonderful, to be easily assimilated by it.”

– Michaelis, ibid
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The first idea certainly seems to pertain to Beethoven's epic Funeral March – even to that mysterious, unexpected D# interrupting the 1st Movement's opening cello melody, though not a “long pause,” which holds up the progress of the melodic line and expands it in such a way, there is this harmonic hiccup before the phrase cadences where it's expected to.

And the second idea – too much diversity – is another element of Beethoven's development sections, one thing after another thrown at you – melodic fragments, harmonic implications, striking dissonances and rhythmic irregularities – before you're back on any kind of solid (expected) ground.

Yet Michaelis is no doubt responding to elements of Haydn's oratorios – especially The Creation which already begins pushing beyond mere craftsmanship: the opening depiction of chaos was, to an 18th Century listener, sheer chaos, harmonically; the appearance of Light a stroke of brilliance that, though obvious to us (especially tame compared to today's special effects we witness daily in television, movies and video games) was thrilling to first-time listeners.

But it's all about expectations and how they're met: how did Beethoven get from being the Student beginning his studies with Haydn at 21 to the Master who wrote the Eroica at 32?

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Cherubini & Muse (by Ingres)
It is tempting to write about the influences on Beethoven' style we don't usually think about, especially composers of his time whom we no longer know. There was a whole school of French artists active in post-Revolutionary Paris who painted, sculpted and composed on an epic scale, composers like Cherubini, an Italian transplant who became the leading French composer and dominated the musical style of his generation. Beethoven's sole opera, Fidelio, premiered in 1805, is based on a French "rescue" drama and heavily inspired by Cherubini.

But the musical style of Gossec, Gretry and Mehul was known to Beethoven whether or not he was aware of the paintings of David and Ingres. But this would take another sizable post of more interest to scholars than listeners, so let's leave that for now. It is, however, an area little written and less talked about in the Beethoven literature.

After producing six string quartets by 1800, his first symphony and a series of piano sonatas – including the very Romantic “Pathetique” in 1798 and the so-called “Moonlight” in 1801 (which could easily have been called the “Tempest” after its stormy finale) and the very next sonata, the placid “Pastoral” – Beethoven said to a friend, “I am only a little satisfied with my previous works. From today on I will take a new path.”

The next works he composed were the 2nd Symphony, the three violin sonatas of Op. 30 (dedicated to Tsar Alexander I), the “Eroica” Variations for solo piano which made use of a successful dance tune from his ballet, The Creatures of Prometheus of the previous year (a view of Creation from the perspective of classical Greek mythology, by the way), and the three piano sonatas that includes the very unusual one actually known as the “Tempest” (from a chance remark he made about Shakespeare's play when asked what its opening movement meant without ever really explaining how it applies). And then he started working out some new ideas for another symphony.

But something else happened in Beethoven's life that year.

A far from heroic-looking Beethoven walking in the woods
He had begun experiencing symptoms that indicated something was wrong with his hearing and the idea of a concert pianist, indeed a composer, going deaf came at a time just as Beethoven's reputation was growing, that his new pieces were bringing in a good income. He was nearly 30 – what did it mean if he would soon go deaf and all this would come to a sudden halt?

In October, 1802, in the midst of the last movement of the 2nd Symphony, Beethoven wrote a heart-rending letter to his two brothers, intended to be opened after his death, which is known as “The Heiligenstadt Testament.” In places, it reads like a suicide note.

He had been troubled by the first symptoms around 1796, enough to worry about it. In a letter to a friend back home in 1801, he wrote “I will seize fate by the throat; it shall certainly not bend and crush me completely.”

When he wrote his 5th Symphony – which he started sketching probably while he was working on the Eroica and had completed the opening movements before he'd begun the 4th Symphony – he used that famous motive he described to his student Ferdinand Ries as “fate knocking at the door.” This gives rise to the idea the symphony is clearly about Man overcoming Fate and celebrating a great victory in the finale. It doesn't matter if that Man is actually the man Beethoven because the music itself transcends whatever inspired it, but certainly his own experiences dealing with what Fate has dealt him – in this case, his deafness – might have given him the dramatic inspiration whether he's writing an autobiographical piece or not.

Another fanciful image of Beethoven
And just as the Hero of the Eroica Symphony probably isn't a musical portrait of Napoleon Bonaparte – after all, how do you make sense of a hero who has a funeral in the second movement when the hero it is supposed to be dedicated to is very much alive? – is it any more possible the struggle in this music is the first stage of Beethoven coming to terms with his own deafness, becoming his own hero in grabbing Fate, two quick knocks at the door to start the symphony on its way?

Perhaps not. It's always dangerous to read anything into what Beethoven may have been thinking because he never told anyone what was specifically on his mind – even the reference to the “Tempest” is so vague, it hardly begins to answer the question.

But whether it is a musical portrait of Beethoven – or more likely his state of mind – or of Napoleon Bonaparte, First Consul of France, is immaterial. You may hear great armies marching across battlefields in the first movement or hear in it a portrait not of Bonaparte but of Alexander the Great (as one writer insisted) but that may have nothing to do with what Beethoven was thinking about when he composed it.

What it comes down to is more like what Arturo Toscanini said: it is Allegro con brio, the tempo Beethoven gave to the first movement. It is about music and how it's put together: what you make of it is your own side of the equation.

- Dick Strawser