Sunday, November 20, 2011

Surging Seas, Rabbits Out of Hats & the Rhapsody in Blue

You can go to concerts for years and never have any idea what’s going on “back stage.”

Then something happens and… well, like Saturday night with the Harrisburg Symphony’s “Masterworks Concert” Surging Sea when there’s a change – or two – in the program.

If you missed the opportunity to hear Saturday night's concert, there's still Sunday afternoon's concert at 3pm, if you're reading this in time (and don't forget Assistant Conductor Tara Simoncic's pre-concert talk at 2:00).

So what's this all about?

Well, the original soloist, Lisa Daltirus, was scheduled to sing Samuel Barber’s nostalgic Knoxville: Summer of 1915 and the three songs of Shéhérazade by Maurice Ravel and it’s unlikely both pieces would be in any given soprano’s repertoire.

Much less one who would just happen to be free the next day…

Singers being singers and the voice being what it can be, Ms. Daltirus turned out to be indisposed but unfortunately this was not determined until Friday night’s rehearsal, leaving only the dress rehearsal the next morning to find a solution for a concert taking place in less than 24 hours!

So, thanks to three little miracles, the concert went on not quite as planned but without any great inconvenience to concert-goers.

#1. Janice Chandler-Eteme (see photo, left) has Barber’s Knoxville in her repertoire – she lives in Baltimore – and she was available this weekend to come on short notice (to put it mildly) for the dress rehearsal. One other fortunate detail: she’d sung in Harrisburg for the Mahler “Resurrection” Symphony back in March 2006, so she and Stuart Malina had worked together before.

Unfortunately, she didn’t have the Ravel in her repertoire so the next challenge was to find a Plan B, if not a second singer.

So, Stuart, as he told us at the beginning of the concert, pulled out his “rainy day piece” which just happens to be George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.” However, this is a “rental only” piece, in the music biz, so it wasn’t something the orchestra just has lying around in its library or that you can order on-line and have it delivered in a few hours…

#2. It turned out the West Chester Orchestra had just played the piece and still had the music, not yet returned to the publisher. So before they sent it back, the Harrisburg Symphony Orchestra Manager, Sue Klick, another hero deserving of a medal, drove down to West Chester Saturday morning to pick up the parts and drive back to Harrisburg in time for the 11am Dress Rehearsal.

#3. The Harrisburg Symphony has a conductor who can play the “Rhapsody in Blue” at the drop of a hat AND conduct it all at the same time – from memory!

And Little Miracle #4 – did I say there were four miracles? – is that this orchestra has this kind of symbiotic relationship with its conductor where playing and conducting a concerto at the same time turns a full orchestra into one big chamber music ensemble which requires individual players to listen more intently to each other and anticipate what other musicians are going to do musically.


This is where you truly realize what Stuart means when he says he's the luckiest guy in the world. Not every conductor and orchestra could get away with this.

So the Barber went ahead as scheduled but with a different singer. And Gershwin’s cross-over masterpiece opened the second half.

Meaning Stuart had to deal with playing the Gershwin and then, a few minutes later, turn around and head back out on stage to conduct Debussy’s La Mer which is no easy piece and which could have benefited from more rehearsal time, considering what had been spent on the Ravel songs in the first place and then the emergency preparation for the Gershwin.

So, how did it all turn out?

Was it flawless? No, not really, but under the circumstances, to notice is to nit-pick. (There were lots of people in the audience who wouldn't even notice.)

Was it exciting? YOU BETCHA!!!

Talk about the difference between a live performance and a recording...

There are so many variables in getting from the planning stage for a concert a year ago to walking off the stage after it’s over.

Ironically, Stuart said he felt amazingly calm backstage during intermission – not even the usual sweaty hands that need to be dried off before you end up slipping around on the ivories.

And he said, with La Mer, the orchestra seemed so relaxed it was a bit of “who cares: what else can go wrong?” combined with a healthy dose of “we’ve gotten through other things that seemed unrealistic,” so this should be like (pardon the pun) a stroll on the beach.

What other things have the orchestra dealt with this season so far?

Well, they lost most of their rehearsal-time for the September 11th Anniversary Concert because Harrisburg was closed down due to the worst flooding since 1972.

Then the first rehearsal for the opening Masterworks Concert was cancelled because some bricks came loose backstage at the Forum and there was belated concern the building might be “unsafe” following the August earthquake that had rattled the area. And doing Prokofiev’s 5th on less rehearsal time is not how you want to open your season.

Most recently, there was the Halloween Snowstorm the day before the pops concert, “Scary Scores.” Nothing like dealing with falling trees and power-lines on your way to a concert of scary music (for the record, friends of mine in Connecticut had their Halloween concert cancelled and it still took some of them over a week to get their power back…).

Yes, it helped that Janice sang Barber’s Knoxville with the Baltimore Symphony and Marin Alsop a few seasons ago but it’s not an easy piece and isn’t something that just rolls out automatically once you sing the opening note. She listened to Leontyne Price’s recording on YouTube to get it into her head again while working at it before she drove up to Harrisburg, arriving at noon-time for the only rehearsal which concluded at 1:30 for a concert beginning at 8pm.

And yes, it helped that Stuart had played the Gershwin earlier this year and was planning on dusting it off after Thanksgiving for a December pops concert in Tampa.

And yes, it helps that the Harrisburg Symphony has the kind of confidence in itself and its conductor that something like just rolls off them like (no pun intended) water off a duck’s back.

So, yes, sometimes a lot of little miracles come together to keep alive that old familiar slogan, “The Show Must Go On.”

Now… what could possibly go wrong for the next concert???

Don’t… even… think… about it!

- Dick Strawser

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The photographs were taken by Harrisburg Symphony Marketing Director Kim Isenhour: the top photo was taken at the children's concert on Friday morning with Stuart Malina conducting the Harrisburg Symphony in, among other pieces, La Mer. The other two photographs were taken at the talk-back session following Saturday night's performance with Ms. Chandler and Maestro Malina.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Knoxville Summer comes to Harrisburg: Autumn of 2011

While the Harrisburg Symphony will be performing two orchestral works fore and aft on this weekend’s program – Alan Hovhaness’ Mysterious Mountain and Claude Debussy’s evocation of the sea, La Mer on Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 3pm at the Forum (with Assistant Conductor Tara Simoncic offering a pre-concert talk an hour before each performance) – there are two other works on the program which need little introduction from me to give you any background about them but I thought it would be good to hear some performances of them if you’re not already familiar with them.

Soprano Lisa Daltirus will be singing three songs by Maurice Ravel, a rare opportunity for you to hear Shéhérazade live – and one of (I think) the most beautiful works ever written by an American composer, the nostalgic Knoxville: Summer of 1915 by Samuel Barber, a Pennsylvania-born composer originally from West Chester and who attended the Curtis School of Music as a composition, piano and voice major.

On a damp, chilly November day, perhaps thinking of some nostalgic summer music might help stave off the inevitability of winter. (I am also thinking of Erica’s aria from Barber’s opera Vanessa, “Must the Winter Come So Soon?”…)

Here is one of my favorite recordings of the work, with soprano Dawn Upshaw and David Zinman conducting the Orchestra of St. Luke’s on the Nonesuch label.

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[“We are talking now of summer evenings in Knoxville Tennessee in the time that I lived there so successfully disguised to myself as a child.”]

It has become that time of evening when people sit on their porches, rocking gently and talking gently, and watching the street and the standing up into their sphere of possession of the trees, of birds' hung havens, hangars. People go by: things go by. A horse, drawing a buggy, breaking his hollow iron music on the asphalt: a loud auto; a quiet auto; people in pairs, not in a hurry, scuffling, switching their weight of aestival body, talking casually, the taste hovering over them of vanilla, strawberry, paste-board, and starched milk, the image upon them of lovers and horsemen, squared with clowns in hueless amber. A streetcar raising its iron moan; stopping: belling and starting, stertorous; rousing and raising again its iron increasing moan and swimming its gold windows and straw seats on past and past and past, the bleak spark crackling and cursing above it like a small malignant spirit set to dog its tracks: the iron whine rises on rising speed: still risen, faints: halts: the faint stinging bell: rises again, still fainter: fainting, lifting, lifts, faints foregone: forgotten.

Now is the night one blue dew. Now is the night one blue dew, my father has drained, he has coiled the hose. Low on the length of lawns, a frailing of fire who breathes . . . Parents on porches: rock and rock. From damp strings morning glones hang their ancient faces. The dry and exalted noise of the locusts from all the air at once enchants my eardrums.

On the rough wet grass of the backyard my father and mother have spread quilts. We all lie there, my mother, my father, my uncle, my aunt, and I too am lying there. They are not talking much, and the talk is quiet, of nothing in particular, of nothing at all in particular, of nothing at all. The stars are wide and alive, they seem each like a smile of great sweetness, and they seem very near. All my people are larger bodies than mine . . . with voices gentle and meaningless like the voices of sleeping birds. One is an artist, he is living at home. One is a musician, she is living at home. One is my mother who is good to me. One is my father who is good to me. By some chance, here they are, all on this earth, and who shall ever tell the sorrow of being on this earth, lying, on quilts, on the grass, in a summer evening. among the sounds of the night.

May God bless my people, my uncle, my aunt, my mother, my good father, oh, remember them kindly in their time of trouble, and in the hour of their taking away. PPP After a little I am taken in and put to bed. Sleep, soft smiling, draws me unto her: and those receive me, who quietly treat me, as one familiar and well-beloved in that home: but will not, oh, will not, not now, not ever; but will not ever tell me who I am.

James Agee

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Barber adapted Agee’s text, originally a prose-poem written in 1938 that would later become the “prelude” to his novel, “A Death in the Family,” which was left unfinished at his death in 1955. It was in 1947 that Barber set Agee’s poem to music, a time when his own father’s health was deteriorating.

Agee reminisces about a childhood memory when he was five years old, the last summer his father was alive. This may have prompted Barber’s selection of the text, thinking back on the times he had spent with his father, perhaps lying on the grass at that time of evening, when people go by… moments that you may never have again but will always remember. 

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Soprano Lisa Daltirus will be singing music of Barber and Ravel with the Harrisburg Symphony: here she is singing “Visi d’arte” from Tosca (ignore the fact the first two lines of the aria have been edited from the clip).
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Also on the program are Ravel’ settings written in 1903 (around the time Debussy was beginning work on La Mer) of three poems by his friend who went by the very Wagnerian name Tristan Klingsor (taken from two Wagner operas, the misunderstood hero from Tristan und Isolde and the sorcerer from Parsifal). In fact, Ravel and Klingsor attended all 14 performances of Debussy’s revolutionary new opera, Pelleas et Melisande when it was premiered in 1902.

While inspired by the 1001 Arabian Nights, this Shéhérazade (to use the French spelling of the name as opposed to the German used in Rimsky-Korsakoff’s familiar orchestral suite) tells no stories. By turns sensuous, voluptuous and evocative in oriental images, these poems find her traveling, thinking about how she will tell her tales. The second and third poems, much shorter, are “harem vignettes,” where the focus is on youthful passers-by outside the harem walls.

Here, mezzo soprano Marilyn Horne sings Shéhérazade with Leonard Bernstein conducting the French National Orchestra.
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La flûte enchantée and L'indifférent
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Quoting from Edward Lein’s program notes about the three poems:

On the surface, Asie appears to be little more than a catalog of exotic enticements available to travelers--but the music suggests that the narrator is someone who feels trapped in a mundane existence, with the only likely escape found in reading the adventures of others.

La flûte enchantée is a straightforward depiction of romantic yearning as it relates how lovers, separated by constraints of servitude, discover that they can still form an immediate connection through music.

At first reading, L'indifférent comes across merely as a libertine eyeing a would-be conquest; but through the music one is left instead with the impression of a traveler isolated in a foreign land hoping to make any sort of human contact to overcome deep loneliness, but who seems somehow emotionally powerless to interact. It becomes almost as though Klingsor, when heard through the amplification of Ravel's music, has captured in a few lines what Thomas Mann related in his 1912 novella, Death in Venice.

You can read more about the songs at Lein's website.

-- Dick Strawser

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Debussy's Surging Sea

This weekend, the Harrisburg Symphony sets sail with Claude Debussy’s La Mer, three symphonic studies depicting the sea at various times of the day. The program also includes other evocative works by Alan Hovhaness - his Mysterious Mountain - and Samuel Barber's Knoxville: Summer of 1915 along with Maurice Ravel's exotic song cycle, Shéhérazade.

The S.S. Malina sails from the Forum on Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 3pm with a pre-concert talk given by Assistant Conductor Tara Simoncic an hour before each departure.

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Visiting the wild coasts of French Brittany in his youth, the novelist Marcel Proust wrote of the sea at his mythical Balbec:

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[With the radiant sun upon the waves] that leapt up one behind the other like jumpers on a trampoline… the snowy crests of its emerald green waves, here and there polished and translucent, which with a placid violence and a leonine frown, to which the sun added a faceless smile, allowed their crumbling slopes to topple down at last, [one morning it was a] transparent, vaporous bluish distance, like the glaciers that one sees in the background of the Tuscan Primitives. On other mornings… the sun laughed upon a water of a green as tender as that preserved in Alpine pastures… less by the moisture of the soil than by the liquid mobility of the light… It is above all the light, the light that displaces and situates the undulations of the sea, [with the sun’s] tremulous golden shaft scorching the seas topaz-yellow, fermenting it, turning it pale and milky like beer, frothy like milk… as if some god were shifting it to and fro by moving a mirror in the sky. [I was] impatient to know what Sea it was playing that morning by the shore, for none of these Seas ever stayed with us longer than a day. The next day there would be another, which sometimes resembled its predecessor. I never saw the same one twice.

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Proust was not the only author ever to be captivated by the limitless and changeable sea, nor was Debussy the only composer to come under its spell, but Proust, writing of his experiences with the sea along the English Channel coast in the 1880s, seems like a reasonable introduction to the music Debussy composed, having spent some of that time along the English Channel coast in 1904 (for the record, Proust’s Balbec – in reality, Cabourg – is south of the Siene; Debussy’s Pourville, near Dieppe, is north of it.

Debussy composed his musical portrait of the sea between 1903 and 1905 (he may have started some sketches in 1902). He began working on it in the town of Bichain which is actually far inland, perhaps a hundred miles southeast of Paris toward Switzerland, in the historic region of Burgundy. But much of the time he was working on it, he was staying in Pourville (see photograph of Debussy taken that summer in Pourville, though not looking out toward the sea).

Finishing it March, 1905, he spends the month of August on the English side of the Channel, at Eastbourne, and on August 7th he is correcting the publisher’s proofs in advance of the October premiere in Paris.

La Mer may be the longest orchestral work by Debussy, the closest thing we have to a symphony by him, but a symphony in all its Germanic essence would be antithetical to Debussy’s aesthetic. He subtitled it “Three Symphonic Sketches for Orchestra,” a suite, basically, the symphonic in this case referring less to the extended ‘development’ of ideas usually associated with a symphony.

The first movement is entitled “From dawn to mid-day on the sea,” and the final movement is the “Dialogue of the wind and the sea.” These are comparable to the substantial outer movements one might find in a symphony. The middle movement is a light, scherzo-like movement, almost a waltz, entitled “Play of the waves.”

But Debussy is not concerned about themes and developments and modulations and harmonic schemes like Beethoven would be – even though most of the material evolves out of the primal intervals – the perfect 5th – that open the work, a kind of reverse-Beethoven’s 9th, in a way, but just as cosmic (or, perhaps, oceanic).

As marine biologist and conservationist Rachel Carson noted, like the sea itself, the surface of Debussy's music hints at the brooding mystery of its depths, and ultimately the profound enigma of life itself – after all, mankind carries the primordial salt of the sea in our blood.

Here is Riccardo Muti conducting the Berlin Philharmonic in this 1994 video recording. (The work is complete in one clip.)

(please ignore the fact the poster from Japan refers to the work as La Mar... it happens, on the internet.)
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Debussy was a very visually oriented composer. Many of his works are small musical miniatures with evocative titles – think of “Claire de Lune” (Moonlight) or “Girl with the Flaxen Hair.” In fact, there are series of short works simply called “Images.” His studio was full of prints of paintings or those postcard-like souvenirs one might find at a museum – images which, given the vagueness of his harmonic style and almost anti-melodic approach to sound earned him the title “Impressionist.”

Usually, we tend to think of “Impressionism” in painting as soft and flexible, playing more with light than substance. This is easy to induce musically by the use of non-traditional scales, especially the whole-tone scale which has no harmonic function we associate with tonality, especially the strong functions of chord progressions like the dominant to the tonic resolution that gives it a satisfying, structural coherence. In several works by Debussy – think Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun or, again, “Claire de Lune” – the harmonic vagueness is matched by softer dynamics and even though there are climaxes, they are almost understated.

This is not the style in La Mer. This is at times very muscular music even though it may lack the harmonic bite some feel longer forms need to create forward motion. “Motion” here is like the motion of the sea, as Proust described it in the quote from “In Search of Lost Time” at the beginning of this post, vibrant and colorful – above all, colorful. This is not the French equivalent, sitting on the beach looking out across the sand, of the English pastoral school derided as the “Cow-Looking-Over-the-Fence” school of music.

In fact, Debussy would probably have had little patience with this "soft" approach to music: as a music critic, a career he followed briefly in the few years before he composed La Mer, he reviewed a work by Frederick Delius (usually considered an English Impressionist) as "very sweet, very pale - music to soothe convalescents in well-to-do neighborhoods."

And La Mer is anything but soft, sweet or pale.

Debussy may focus less on melody as he is on the “tracery and ornamenting” of a line much in the way Bach, that most German of composers, might have done, with a grace and suppleness both melodically and harmonically of his beloved Chopin (his first piano teacher was a big fan if not officially a student of Chopin’s). Debussy was just as influenced by the stylization of nature as seen in the landscape prints from Japan, particularly Hokusai whose “The Hollow of the Wave off Kanagawa” which he had in his studio and which adorned the first printed edition of Debussy’s score. But he was also influenced by the “infinite arabesques” and complex counterpoint of the Javanese gamelan, a unique and exotic sound-world he first heard in 1889 at the Universal Exposition in Paris.

Other influences, perhaps surprisingly, come from Russian composers at a time when Russian music was little known in Western Europe, especially Mussorgsky and his opera, Boris Godunoff, especially his spontaneity and freedom from traditional academic formulas (which caused many to consider Mussorgsky untrained or untrainable and even led his friends, like Rimsky-Korsakoff, to “clean up” many of his scores). He described these as “successive minute touches mysteriously linked together by means of an instinctive clairvoyance.”

In one of those serendipitous moments in music history, I love pointing out the one degree of separation between Tchaikovsky and Debussy – Nadezhda von Meck was a wealthy widow who was not only Tchaikovsky’s generous patron and musical confidant, she hired some musicians to form a piano trio when she visited Paris and traveled with them, taking them back to Moscow for two years where they lived in her house and played music for her and her friends. The pianist – whose additional responsibilities involved playing piano duets with her and giving her daughters lessons – was Claude Debussy.

He was 18.

While in Moscow, young Debussy would have been exposed to a great deal of Russian music, no doubt, though I’ve never read anything he has said about, for instance, seeing Boris Godunoff. Still, knowing that Mussorgsky’s opera didn’t make it to Paris until Diaghilev’s Russian Season in 1908, how else can you explain so many “revolutionary” concepts heard in Debussy’s opera, Pelleas et Melsiande which he began work on certainly by 1892 and which was premiered in 1902?

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Here is a chronological time-line of events in Debussy’s life during the time he was composing La Mer.

Some biographical background, first: Debussy married a poor seamstress named Rosalie (“Lily”) Texier in 1899, after having had a series of mistresses. Only five years later, in 1904, Debussy was already living with Emma Bardac, the wife of a wealthy banker who had earlier had an affair with Gabriel Fauré and whose daughter, Helene, was the inspiration for Fauré’s “Dolly Suite.”

But life sometimes gets messy and Lily did not take well to the idea of a divorce. In fact, in October of 1904, Lily attempted suicide by shooting herself in the stomach, and as the details became public, most of Debussy’s friends withdrew from him. In fact, much of the reaction against La Mer when it was premiered a year later had as much to do with the public’s distaste for the scandal as it did with its confusion over the music.

All of this, of course, is going on in the “background” while Debussy is composing La Mer (or is it the other way around?).

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In June, Debussy writes his last article as a music critic and in July signs a contract with the publisher Durand for a set of Images for piano, including three pieces for two pianos which, in 1908, becomes the Images pour orchestre.

Between July 10th and October 1st, Debussy stays at Bichain (in Bourgogne, about a hundred miles southeast of Paris), his third visit there. During this holiday, he begins work on La Mer and completes the piano pieces Estampes and works on preparing the full score of Pelleas et Melisande for publication (the opera was premiered in April, 1902).

October 14th, he signs a contract with Durand for a second opera, Diable dans le beffroi (The Devil in the Belfry), inspired by a story by Edgar Allan Poe which he thinks he will finish in May, 1905 (he never does).

November 15th, his “Prelude to ‘The Afternoon of a Faun’” (completed in 1894) is programmed on two separate concerts in Paris.


On January 9th, Ricardo Viñes premieres Estampes and on the 16th, Debussy accompanies a singer in the first performance of two songs, including one called La Mer.

During April and May, Debussy composes his “Two Dances for Chromatic Harp and Orchestra,” the Danse sacrée and the Danse profane.

Between August and mid-October, Debussy and his mistress Emma Bardac (the wife of a wealthy banker) stay in cognito at the Grand Hotel in Jersey, then goes on to Pourville on the Normandy Coast (see photo), working on La Mer and correcting proofs for the publication of Masques and Fêtes galantes, also reworks L’Isle joyeuse.

On the 13th of October, Debussy’s wife, Lily, attempts to commit suicide by shooting herself in the stomach. The news appears in the papers on November 4th and many of Debussy’s friends withdraw from him.


On March 5th, 1905, he completes the first draft of the score of La Mer and it will be published in July, made available to the public in November with its brightly colored cover after the Japanese artist, Hokusai (see photo).

On May 4th, Emma Bardac divorces her husband Sigismond; she is a few weeks pregnant.

In June, Debussy publishes Suite bergamasque for piano with its famous slow movement, Claire de lune. The work was composed in 1890 but Debussy did not finish it for publication until this time.

On July 17th, Debussy signs an exclusive contract with his new publisher, Durand and is also placed under a court injunction to pay Lily a month income of 400 francs (which will be paid through his publisher).

From the end of July through the end of August, Debussy and Emma Bardac stay in Eastbourne, England, spending a few days in London before returning to Paris.

On August 2nd, the Civil Court pronounces the divorce of Claude and Lily Debussy. He figures he has, perhaps, two friends left.

On August 7th, he is correcting the first proofs of La Mer

On October 15th, La Mer is premiered at Concerts lamoureux with conductor Camille Chevillard. Debussy complains that the orchestra is under-rehearsed and the conductor is more fit to tame wild beasts than conduct musicians. The next performance, on October 22nd, is better received.

On October 30th, Emma Bardac gives birth to Debussy’s daughter, Claude-Emma, always known as “Chouchou”.

--- Dick Strawser
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The quotation from Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, now usually more accurately translated as In Search of Lost Time, is from the second of seven volumes, ”Within a Budding Grove” or ”In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower”, in the chapter “Place-Names: The Place,” translated by Scott-Moncrief and Kilmartin, published by Random House

Monday, November 14, 2011

Alan Hovhaness & the Mysterious Mountain of Echmiadzin

This weekend’s concert could be called “From Sea to Shining Sea and Purple Mountain’s Majesties” except it’s rather awkward as marketing tools go. Claude Debussy’s La Mer depicts the sea in all its beauty and awesomeness, and the opening work on the program – Alan Hovhaness’ Mysterious Mountain – depicts… well, the mysteriousness and awesomeness of mountains.

Stuart Malina conducts the Harrisburg Symphony Orchestra – with guest soprano Lisa Daltirus in Samuel Barber’s “Knoxville: Summer of 1915” and Ravel’s three songs from the 1001 Arabian Nights, Shéhérazade – Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 3pm at the Forum in downtown Harrisburg. There’s a pre-concert talk an hour before each performance with Assistant Conductor Tara Simoncic.

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There is something that has always been ardently spiritual about this work to me – the very sound of it, much less the title which is borne out in the composer’s oft-quoted explanation:

“Mountains are symbols, like pyramids, of man’s attempt to know God. Mountains are symbolic meeting places between the mundane and the spiritual worlds. To some, the ‘Mysterious Mountain’ may be the phantom peak, unmeasured, thought to be higher than Everest, as seen from great distances by fliers in Tibet. To some, it may be the solitary mountain, the tower of strength over a countryside — Fujiyama, Ararat, Monadnock, Shasta or Grand Teton.”

Here are three YouTube clips of the complete work – the first movement with the Akron Youth Symphony, recorded in 2007 (though I suspect the contrabassoonist is a ringer – understandably: not many youth orchestras would have a contrabassoon player, much less one already exhibiting male pattern baldness).

The 2nd and 3rd Movements are audio clips (with mountain-appropriate illustrations) from the recording with Gerard Schwarz conducting the Royal Liverpool Orchestra.


Even though this is easily Hovhaness’ most popular work, he did not particularly care for it and even told one interviewer in 1961 that “I go out of the hall whenever it’s performed.”

Most people are surprised to discover a work written in 1955 – at the height of post-war academic serialism that has given modern music such bad press – to be so accessible. While it’s a beautiful and evocative piece of music, it’s not exactly representative of Hohvaness’ output. As he himself has put it, “I have written much better music and it is a very impersonal work in which I omit my deeper searching.”

It came about because Leopold Stokowski, who’d conducted Hovhaness’ 1st Symphony, wanted a new work for his first concert with the Houston Symphony but when the composer sent him a brief fanfare called “To a Mysterious Mountain,” Stokowski said he wanted something more substantial and so Hovhaness responded with a three-movement work which he called his Symphony No. 2.

The implication is that it had been written earlier or perhaps put together from previous pieces (the second fugue in the middle movement came from his 1st String Quartet written in 1936). Most sources say it was composed “by 1950” and orchestrated in 1955 for Stokowski.

Stokowski asked if it had an opus number – “people like opus numbers.” When the composer said he hasn’t catalogued his works, Stokowski picked No. 132 out of the air, asking if he thought that would give him enough room for his earlier works. “Sure, that should be okay,” Hovhaness said.

“Oh, and I like your titles,” Stokowski told him. “Give it a title.” So he decided to call it “Mysterious Mountain.”

That story may sound disappointing to many listeners who hear the majesty and spirituality of great mountains and the expansive grandeur of nature in this music – and it’s not clear his admiration for mountains in general wasn’t behind the original composition – but mountains (and nature) have certainly featured in much of Hovhaness’ later music: there are other “mountain” symphonies – No. 20, “Three Journeys to a Holy Mountain,” No. 46 “To the Green Mountains,” and No. 50 inspired by Mount St. Helens, specifically, then No. 60 “To the Appalachian Mountains,” No. 66 “Hymn to Glacier Peak,” and his last symphony, No. 67 written in 1992, “Hymn to the Mountains.”

Though it is the work that put Hovhaness on America’s musical map, it’s also interesting that he never got paid for writing it.

(Digression No. 1: about the title, I am reminded of Krzysztof Penderecki’s work, one of the most frightening, searing pieces I’ve ever heard, called “Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima.” Despite the intensity of the music and the power of its title, it was originally called 8’37” (its duration) – the idea of the Threnody was completely an afterthought.)

(Digression No. 2: about Hovhaness not getting paid for his 2nd Symphony, I am reminded of a comment by Elliott Carter (who will be celebrating his 103rd Birthday next month), talking about how much (or, more precisely, how little) money he received for composing his Variations for Orchestra, written the same year Hovhaness’ 2nd Symphony was premiered, which amounted to his earning $0.25/hr. While people in the audience nodded at the inhumanity of this, the way we regard artists financially, he said a woman wearing furs and dripping with jewels stood up and huffed disappointedly, “Mr. Carter! You mean to tell me you write for money???”)

- Dick Strawser

P.S. The title of this post refers to Echmiadzin which is actually a city in Armenia and was chosen, its Harry Potter-esque rhythm aside, not because of any relevance to Hovhaness' symphony though he did later compose a symphony he entitled "Etchmiadzin." Hovhaness's father was an Armenian born in what is now Turkey (then, the Ottoman Empire) and his original family name was Chakmakjian but the composer later decided to change it (since, he said, no one could pronounce it, anyway) to Hovaness after his grandfather's name (with the accent on the first syllable) but then Americanized it - that is, adapted it to suit the standard American mispronunciation - to Hovhaness (with the accent on the second syllable).