Thursday, November 28, 2013

Why I Am Thankful Jacques Jolas Had Coffee in Harrisburg One Day

A couple weeks ago, I ran into friend and frequent symphony board member Bill Murray at the Midtown Scholar Bookstore (we were there to hear HSO concertmaster Peter Sirotin and principal cellist Fiona Thompson perform fairy tales set to music with narrator Cary Burkett, part of a Little Scholar program with Market Square Concerts).

We were standing in an alcove where I was looking at books by and about James Joyce, particularly his Ulysses, when Bill expressed the not uncommon view that Joyce was (as I think he put it) “not my cup of tea.” Ulysses may be one of the most significant books of the 20th Century but it is also probably one of the least read (and even less understood) “great books” in the repertoire.

Now, for fans of literature, this expression (“my cup of tea”) resonates with a famous episode from Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time (usually mistranslated into Remembrance of Things Past), when the narrator dips a madeleine, a small breakfast cake, into a cup of tea. The scent and flavor unleash an episode of “involuntary memory,” taking him back to his childhood and his great-aunt's kitchen. From there, basically, this whole enormous seven-volume novel unfolds.

It wasn't until later that I figured out why this stuck with me throughout the next few days until I recalled a number of seemingly isolated facts.

Cornelius Rogers, in his 75th Anniversary history of the Harrisburg Symphony Orchestra, mentions this little-known fact, an anecdote I had not heard when I had been looking into some of the early history of the orchestra myself when I was its assistant conductor and orchestra manager back in the 1980s. I recently came across it in passing.

Now, I knew Jacques Jolas was the piano soloist at the first concert the orchestra gave in 1931, playing Robert Schumann's piano concerto, and I knew he was (so to speak) instrumental in how the orchestra came about. But I wasn't aware exactly how:

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One evening, after Jolas had returned to Harrisburg, he and Alice Decevee Mitchell [a pianist and former Juilliard student of his who would also be greatly involved in organizing the orchestra] were visiting the Emerald Street home of the well-known Harrisburg piano teacher, Mary Barnum Bush Hauck. While sitting around the kitchen table having coffee [not tea, as I remembered], Jolas, who had numerous contacts with Harrisburg musicians, said to Mitchell, “why can't we start an orchestra in this town?” to which she replied, “Oh, and who will we get to direct the orchestra?” Jolas said, “I know of a talented young individual in New York, George King Raudenbush.”
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And that is how and where the orchestra was born and how that first concert under Raudenbush (who remained the conductor until 1950) came to pass!

This kitchen conversation occurred before 1929, when Jolas and Ms. Mitchell began raising the necessary funds to start an orchestra. Keep in mind, this was during the Depression. In November of 1929, Jolas played Beethoven's G Major Piano Concerto and some Chopin solo pieces on a concert in the 17th Season with the Reading Symphony.

Jacques Jolas, despite his French name, was an American-born musician, born in New Jersey but grew up in the ancestral Alsace-Lorraine region of France, returning to the United States when he was 15. He earned a living playing the piano for silent films in movie theaters in New York City (shades of Shostakovich). Later, as an American private in World War I, he played the piano at a reception honoring Gen. Pershing.

He was the younger brother of Eugene Jolas. And here our story digresses from Harrisburg.

Eugene & Marie Jolas, 1927
In 1926, Eugene married Marie MacDonald from Louisville, KY, and their daughter Betsy was born later that year in Paris. Eugene became a writer, poet and editor, and Marie taught at l'Écôle Bilingue in Neuilly.

Together, they founded a famous literary magazine called transition, “an International Quarterly for Creative Experiment.” One of their contributors was the Irish-born writer, James Joyce, also living in Paris, whom they met that same year, 1926. Joyce sent them the early chapters of a seemingly inscrutable novel called, uncreatively, Work in Progress.

Joyce & Eugene Jolas, 1938
According to one of the many on-line Joyce biographies, “the Jolases showed Joyce nothing but kindness, generosity, sympathy, and understanding. Were it not for their support, there's a good chance [Joyce's] book might never have seen the light of day.”

Eventually, it became Finnegans Wake.

So, here is where these seemingly unrelated confluences of time and space came together when Bill Murray and I met over James Joyce's books at the Midtown Scholar on November 18th, 2013.

James Joyce had completed Finnegans Wake on November 13th, 1938, five days and 75 years earlier.

Eugene Jolas and his wife's significant support for Joyce (whom they'd met in 1926) and for his last novel helped make possible one of the most significant (if even less understood) novels of the 20th Century.

And Eugene Jolas's brother, Jacques Jolas was, in 1928 or so, in Harrisburg, sitting in a home on Emerald Street, asking why we couldn't have an orchestra in this town!

This is a string of coincidences - degrees of separation, if you will - that perhaps even Joyce would have smiled at.

Marie Jolas, 1977
You can read an account of Marie Jolas attending a concert of songs familiar to James Joyce which took place on June 16th, 1977 (the story of Ulysses takes place on June 16th, 1904, and since the Ulysses-figure of the novel is Leopold Bloom, June 16th is, to literary fans, known as Bloomsday).

She said the last time she had heard many of these songs was when James Joyce sang them to her himself.

Marie Jolas was 84 at the time of that concert and died almost ten years later.

Here is a recording I stumbled upon quite by accident while doing what I euphemistically call “research” while writing a novel of my own.

It is a piano roll of Maurice Ravel's Gaspard de la nuit (like Finnegans Wake, a nighttime fantasy that many of its first hearers considered almost as bizarre as Joyce's book) recorded by Jacques Jolas in 1927 – the year before he was having coffee and wondering about the future Harrisburg Symphony!

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And that is something all music-lovers in Harrisburg can be thankful for.

Happy Thanksgiving,
Dick Strawser

P.S. Incidentally, while I had known of Betsy Jolas, one of the leading French composers of the late 20th Century, and have heard some of her music before, I had never associated her with the Jolas behind the Harrisburg Symphony. She is, in fact, his niece - the daughter of Eugene and Marie Jolas!

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Suite Sounds: Richard Strauss and the Would-Be Gentleman

In September, Stuart Malina talked about this month's Masterworks Concert during a pre-season preview at the Midtown Scholar, describing (briefly) the phenomenon that is John Cage's 4'33'' which opens a concert called “Suite Sounds” (you can read more about the Cage, here) which includes a suite from Richard Strauss' music for a 17th Century French play, Le boursgeois gentilhomme, a suite of lute pieces from around 1600 revived by Ottorino Respighi in his Ancient Airs and Dances and the 5th of the “Brandenburg” Concertos by Johann Sebastian Bach which features soloists the now officially full-time [no longer acting] concertmaster, Peter Sirotin, principal flutist David diGiacobbe and guest harpsichordist Arthur Haas.

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Well, that concert is this weekend, already, Saturday at 8:00 and Sunday at 3:00 at the Forum with Dr. Timothy Dixon offering the pre-concert talk an hour before each performance. Tickets start at $12 and you can buy tickets at the door if you don't already have a Masterworks subscription.

Students & children receive a 50% discount off single ticket prices. (Students should present a valid student ID card.) Student Rush tickets are available on a limited basis 30 minutes before each Masterworks performance at a cost of $10.00 per student with a valid student ID card.

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The Would-Be Gentleman
The story behind Richard Strauss's music for Moliere's play, Le bourgeois gentilhomme, is a long and complicated one. It was part of a large project that combined an adaptation of a play originally produced in 1670 (complete with incidental music and choreography) and a half-hour chamber opera that was the evening's culminating entertainment.

Unfortunately, it proved too long for the audience (a 45-minute reception between the play and the opera didn't help) which consisted primarily of people who were there either for the play or for the opera but who didn't seem to be interested in both. Rather than have the opera performed to a half-empty house, Strauss and his collaborator Hugo von Hoffmansthal broke it up into two separate pieces: one, an orchestral suite from the play; and, secondly, an opera that could be produced on its own.

The opera is Ariadne auf Naxos, based on a classic Greek myth (with humorous touches courtesy of Moliere's plot).

The incidental music for the play is not so well known and may not sound too much like the Strauss you're familiar with from the great tone poems of his youth – Ein Heldenleben or Also sprach Zarathustra – the blood-curdling operas of the first decade of the 20th Century, Salome and Elektra, or the lush beauty of Der Rosenkavalier's final trio (from 1910) or the “Four Last Songs” (from 1948) you might have heard last month with the Harrisburg Symphony and Janice Chandler-Eteme (you can read about - and hear them - here).

The play is a comedy about a man named Monsieur Jourdain whose father made a fortune as a cloth merchant: his own goal in life is to be accepted as an aristocrat, overcoming his middle-class background. The original French title is difficult to translate (so it usually isn't) since a gentleman cannot be bourgeois: to the class-oriented society of 17th Century France, the two are mutually exclusive. The best English translation would be “The Would-Be Gentleman.”

We follow M. Jourdain through his preparation for a great dinner complete with a fencing lesson, a fitting with his tailor (trying out the aristocrat's new clothes), the entrance of a middle-class young man whom his daughter is (unfortunately) in love with (disguised as the son of the Turkish sultan, Cleonte will later trick Jourdain into allowing her marriage), all interspersed with courtly dances suitable for a noble entertainment fit for a king.

(In fact, in Moliere's original, King Louis XIV would not have been just a member of the audience: he loved to dance and would have participated in the performance himself.)

The concluding dinner is replete with the bleating of sheep (quoting the appropriate moment from his earlier tone-poem, Don Quixote) when the lamb course is served (at 3:30 in the last clip, below), and bird-calls for some of the other dishes Jourdain's cook presents to impress his guests.

Here is a performance of Strauss' suite with Vladimir Jurowski conducting the Chamber Orchestra of Europe:

The Overture:

M. Jourdain's Minuet:

The Fencing Master:

The Dance of the Tailors (in which M. Jourdain models his elegant new clothes):

M. Jourdain tries on his new clothes

Lully's Minuet:

The Courante:

Cleonte's Entrance (after Lully):


The Dinner:

You'll notice a number of things about this music. First of all, it's written for quite a small orchestra by comparison to the huge orchestras normally used by Strauss and his contemporary Gustav Mahler only years earlier, often exceeding 100 in number. This work is scored for pairs of winds, only three brass instruments, a few percussionists, and a relatively small string section plus a very prominent part for the piano. There are virtuosic solos for many of the instrumentalists, especially the concertmaster in the Tailors' Dance (which represents Jourdain trying out his new clothes), the trumpet and trombone in the previous movement's joust with the fencing master along with many other spotlights throughout the piece.

Another thing you might notice is the style. And the name of Lully, the leading French composer of the 17th Century who wrote the original music for Moliere's play in 1670. Strauss incorporates some of Lully's music directly or imitates its style.

This evocation of a past and largely forgotten era is something fairly new, particularly considering the other direction modern music was taking at the time with Stravinsky's Rite of Spring and works by Schoenberg breaking down the traditional tonal language of the 19th Century.

We tend to place anything that sounds old under the banner of the “neo-classic” school whether it sounds Classical or Baroque or Renaissance, evoking the clarity of Mozart and Haydn, the counterpoint of Bach and Handel or – as in the case of Respighi's “Ancient Airs and Dances” also on this program – even earlier music from around 1600.

But there's one thing to mention.

While the “first neo-classic piece” is usually said to be Stravinsky's resetting of music presumably by Pergolesi in his ballet Pulcinella in 1917, Strauss' score for Le bourgeois gentilhomme is originally from six years earlier. It's often dated 1917 because that was when he published the two separate pieces – suite and opera – but the original production of the play with its operatic finale was given in October of 1912, the music completed the year before!

So Richard Strauss, by being old-fashioned, created something completely new by delving back into the distant past for his inspiration whether he was aware it was “revolutionary” or not.

Eventually, the idea of trotting out old music in new ways became so common-place, one critic dismissed it as the “Grave-Robber School of Music.” Stravinsky had his Back-to-Bach moment with the “Dumbarton Oaks” Concerto (the opening sounds so much like Bach's 3rd “Brandenburg” Concerto), a Back-to-Handel moment with his opera, The Rake's Progress, and even a Back-to-Tchaikovsky moment with his ballet, The Fairy's Kiss.

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It's interesting to realize that once Strauss and von Hoffmansthal agreed to work on this original project in 1910, Strauss was impatient to begin on the opera. He was very busy with several new productions of his recently premiered opera, Der Rosenkavalier, which, compared to the biblical and Greek stories of his earlier operas, was Strauss's “take” on Mozart's Marriage of Figaro.

To keep himself occupied while Hoffmansthal worked on the opera's libretto, Strauss wrote his “Alpine Symphony,” a vast tone-poem (and only a symphony in name) complete with one of the great thunder-storms of music, written for a huge orchestra of over 100 players (not counting 12 offstage brass). He'd been thinking of this for years and had already begun writing it when he received the news that Gustav Mahler had just died in May, 1911. More or less complete, it wasn't ready for its premiere until after Le bourgeois gentilhomme had been completed, premiered and withdrawn.

It is difficult to imagine these two works occupying the same composer at the same time! (Check out the last five minutes of this video-clip – with a Venezuelan Youth Orchestra, no less!)

Richard & Pauline Strauss and their son, Franz: 1910
Also, this portrait of the composer at home: Strauss may have been an irascible man to deal with in rehearsals, but he was infamously meek in front of his wife, Pauline, a former opera singer. His life was dominated by her idea of domesticity: nothing was done without her direct supervision, from the cooking to the cleaning (guests were required to wash their hands and comb their hair before dinner) to the protection of her husband's schedule.

He would wake at 9am and be in his study to start composing at 10 following breakfast. Then, taking a break at mid-day, he would take a walk around their villa's grounds followed by lunch, then a half-hour nap, another shorter walk and then three more hours' work at his desk before dinner. However, this didn't stop Pauline from interrupting him one afternoon, while he'd been in the midst of his opera, Elektra, to tell him to walk into town "to fetch the milk as the maid was busy."

One time, in a cab, while Pauline was "systematically reproaching" her husband in her usual fashion, the cabby turned to him and asked, "Are you going to stand for that?" Strauss meekly shrugged his shoulders. The cabby recommended instead he should "throw the cow out." (There is no mention of the cabby's tip.)

To a friend, the composer wrote,

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I work in the summer, very coolly, without hurrying, without emotion, and slowly. Invention takes time, if it is to lead to something new and exciting. The greatest art in the inventive process is the art of waiting... I compose everywhere, taking a walk, driving [actually, the chauffeur is driving; he is riding...], during meals, at home or in noisy hotels, in my garden, in railway carriages. My sketchbook never leaves me.
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Shortly after writing this, his friend Hugo von Hoffmansthal, who had written the libretto for Der Rosenkavalier, suggested two new works - one, based on the myth of Ariadne abandoned by Theseus on the Isle of Naxos; the other, a fairy-tale that would eventually become the opera Die Frau ohne Schatten (The Woman without a Shadow). Eventually, as Ariadne took shape, he suggested prefacing it with a comedy, something perhaps by Moliere...

- Dick Strawser

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Suite Sounds: I Hear What the Caged Bird Doesn't Sing

The Harrisburg Symphony's next concert is called "Suite Sounds" and Stuart Malina will conduct two Suites - one, Richard Strauss' throw-back tribute to the 18th Century with music for Moliere's play, Le bourgeois gentilhomme (The Would-Be Gentleman) completed in 1917;the other, Ottorino Respighi's "Ancient Airs and Dances" (Suite No. 1) - in addition to the 5th of Johann Sebastian Bach's Brandenburg Concertos. But I'll be posting more about these works in the near future.

The concert is Saturday, November 9th at 8pm and Sunday, November 10th at 3pm at the Forum in downtown Harrisburg. There's a pre-concert talk with Dr. Timothy Dixon of Messiah College an hour before each performance.

The program opens with a short work by American composer John Cage that is all about sounds. It's one of his most important works - 4'33'' (which is pronounced "Four Minutes, Thirty-three Seconds").

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John Cage at the Piano
Years ago, when I was a crass graduate student, I was having dinner with a guest composer at a fancy restaurant where they had on display one of those odd musicians who made something of a living by playing the piano and singing requests.

It was not that I didn't like her selections even if I didn't particularly care for the way she was performing them, but the volume was too loud and so I decided to make a request, since the waiter ignored me when I asked if they could turn the sound system down.

“Would you sing John Cage's 4'33'', please?”

Other musicians who were there that evening got the joke and laughed. Our songstress was somewhat confused and chose to ignore me as well.

The piece by John Cage, however, is not a joke.

Because it seems simplistic in its premise – a musician (or several musicians) sit there, playing nothing for four minutes and thirty-three seconds – most people describe it as four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence.

But they're missing the point: what the musicians reveal by not playing is what other sounds might be going on around us (or inside us) that we would otherwise miss.

Silence, philosophically, does not exist in our concert halls (or in our daily lives). I am sitting at my desk thinking about what to write next and I hear the faint hum of my computer, the distant (but not distant enough) dull (but not dull enough) white-noise of passing cars and trucks on the highway a ¼ mile away, the mail truck which has just driven past my house (again? that's the second time in a half-hour) and, oddly enough, one of my cats sleeping on the chair beside me who is snoring. And just as I type that, a neighbor across the street has started using a leaf-blower on her front yard. My stomach just growled (time for lunch).

But is that music?

"This is not a pipe"
This illustration of a famous (or infamous) painting from 1929 by the Belgian painter René Magritte, La trahison des images (Ceci n'est pas une pipe) or “The Treachery of Images (This is Not a Pipe)” is a visual approach to the challenges behind Cage's idea.

Of course, the average person is going to look at it and say “but it is a pipe.”

No, technically, it is a representation of a pipe, not a pipe itself.

Well, that's treading it pretty fine, isn't it?

But that's the idea behind the “treachery” of the image Magritte is warning us about: knowing the difference between a pipe and an image of a pipe.

“Just try filling it with tobacco” was Magritte's response to the inevitable argument, the artistic equivalent of “put that in your pipe and smoke it.”

Which brings us back to Cage who, in the 1940s, after having studied with Arnold Schoenberg in Los Angeles (I know, doesn't that just blow your mind?), was stretching definitions much the way the surrealists of Europe had been doing already for decades, stretching the definition of what could be considered art.

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What is music?

Normally, a definition of music would include statements like these:

(1) – sounds that are sung by voices or played on musical instruments
(2) – the art or skill of organizing sounds into something that contains melody, harmony and rhythm
(3) – an agreeable sound

Most music that we think of will naturally fall into one of these definitions. But, like Magritte's pipe, adhering to these definitions limits us to the possibilities of other... well, possibilities.

It also leads us into the temptation of viewing anything we don't like as “not music.” And yet what was music to one generation might not have been music (by this argument) to a previous generation. We forget that a lot of people thought Bach's music terrible in his day and that Beethoven, in his 7th Symphony, was considered “ripe for the madhouse.”

Times change, tastes change: all you have to do is look in your parents' yearbooks. Or if you're old enough, your own...

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John Cage and Cat
As for John Cage's still controversial work, what brought this about? What made him think of it?

There had been other pieces in which “silence” had a rather significant role long before Cage wrote his 4'33'' in 1951.

One of Erwin Schulhoff's “Five Picturesques” for piano, the one called In futurum, was notated entirely in rests – while the pianist sat there and played nothing, the pianist also has to count like crazy. That was in 1919.

In 1897, Alphonse Allais, a friend of Erik Satie, himself known for his culture-tweaking sense of humor, composed a funeral march for a deaf man that consisted of 23 blank measures. (Cage admitted at the time he was not aware of this piece, despite his great fondness for Satie.)

Perhaps Cage's first ideas were more humorous: in two of his songs, he directs the pianist to play the instrument with the keyboard cover closed. He told an audience in the late-40s he wanted to compose a piece that would be 3½ to 4½ minutes long (the standard length for a piece of “canned” music) and then he'd sell it to Muzak, the purveyors of elevator music. He'd call it something like “Silent Prayer.”

But then, in 1951, Cage entered an anechoic chamber at Harvard University. Have you ever been in one of these? Technically, they are more than sound-proofed which merely keeps (or at least is supposed to keep) outside sounds outside. But this room is constructed so the floor, walls and ceiling absorb any sound that could echo around inside it, sounds you might create while sitting there.

Presumably, there are no sounds to be heard in such a room.

But Cage heard two distinct sounds, one high and one low.

The engineer explained to him that the high sound was his nervous system in operation and the low sound was his blood circulating through his body. He could hear them internally and because all other sounds externally were masked, it increased his awareness of sounds that would otherwise go unnoticed.

Even in a place where there should be no sound, Cage heard sounds.

In his 1961 book, “Silence,” Cage writes, "Until I die there will be sounds. And they will continue following my death. One need not fear about the future of music."

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What will you hear when you listen to the entire Harrisburg Symphony play John Cage's 4'33'' in the fine acoustics of the Forum?

Oh, that's right: because it was premiered by pianist David Tudor in 1952, it's usually considered a piano piece, but Cage said it was for “any instrument or combination of instruments.” That way, it doesn't need to have credit given to an orchestrator.

It's also in three movements of different lengths, if it's going to be done correctly.

The question still remains, “is it music?” Or is it a philosophical work that challenges us to reconsider what is the nature of music?

I think I'll leave that as a rhetorical question.

Dick Strawser

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Who's Afraid of the Rite of Spring?

This weekend, the Harrisburg Symphony, conducted by Stuart Malina, opens the new season with their first concert  – Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 3pm at the Forum in downtown Harrisburg (with a highly-recommended pre-concert talk with Truman Bullard free to ticket-holders an hour before each performance).

Tickets are available starting at $12 at the door and student tickets are 50% off before the concert.

The program opens with one ballet, premiered in 1912, and closes with another, premiered in 1913 - not a large time-frame - but music that may seem (at first hearing) a world apart. Ravel's Daphnis & Chloe is lush, gorgeous and evocative with an exciting finale – while Stravinsky's Rite of Spring may seem chaotic, harsh and provocative with an exciting finale.

In between are some of the most gorgeous songs ever composed – and yet, as lush and emotional as they are, they were composed in 1948 – the Four Last Songs by Richard Strauss with soprano Janice Chandler-Eteme (who has sung Mahler's 2nd and Barber's Knoxville: Summer of 1915 with us in past seasons).

You can read more about Strauss' last songs in this earlier post, here.

While we might joke about “seeing” a concert, this is one to “see.” It will involve one of the largest orchestras you're likely to see shoe-horned onto the stage of the Forum: 105 players with a larger than usual contingent of woodwinds and some additional instruments rarely encountered live – like the gentle sounds of an alto (sometimes called a “bass”) flute, or the added depth of a bass trumpet – which will leave no room for dancers. These are “concert performances” of music originally heard in ballet theaters but considering most of the orchestra pits I've ever played in, it amazes me there'd be one large enough to hold 105 players, some wielding pretty large instruments!

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Igor Stravinsky
One hundred years ago, the world first heard Igor Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring and it surprises me that, a century later, the title itself is still enough to cause fear in the hearts of some concert-goers. It has that kind of reputation.

Yet, as often happens with unfamiliar music that may appear “formidable” to some – a single Mahler symphony on a program can likewise seem daunting – invariably the general audience response is extremely enthusiastic.

There is no doubt The Rite of Spring is a powerful work. I think an adjective that best describes it would be “visceral.” It may not be a “pretty” work but it is a dramatic and exciting work.

When the Harrisburg Symphony first performed this music in 1989, under the direction of music director Larry Newland – it was the boldest challenge the orchestra had yet taken on – I remember talking to the parents of a friend of mine (they were probably the age I am now) and asked if they “liked” it and they both said “no, I had no idea what was going on.” To them, it lacked the melodies they enjoy in Beethoven or Tchaikovsky, the beautiful harmonies they expect from most classical music whether it's Mozart or Wagner – and “really, wasn't the rhythm a bit much?” “Couldn't tap your foot to it?” “Well, no, could you...?”

It's a challenge to take in for the first time if you're listening to a recording and know nothing about the story of the ballet, what is “motivating” the music you're hearing.

Basically, unlike your typical love-story plot involving a princess or a flock of swans, this is about a community in pagan times celebrating the arrival of spring, choosing a virgin who will then be sacrificed to propitiate the gods who, if they look favorably on this ritual, will grant them a bountiful harvest in the fall.

What's “pretty” about that?

(And if someone wonders about programming spring music in an autumn concert, don't forget the weather this week is being described as “summer-like.”)

Before the curtain would go up (the opening several minutes of music is like an “overture” or “prelude”), we hear sounds of the awakening of the earth – a primeval song arising from the ground beneath our feet, perhaps, in that famous bassoon solo: so unearthly sounding even today, it must strike listeners as “what kind of instrument is that?”

Have you ever watched those stop-action time-elapsed films that show the germination of a seed and the resulting seedling that emerges from it? In a sense, that's how I hear the opening of this music: a bit of an image which perhaps quivers a bit in anticipation then gradually unfolds and proceeds to reveal itself, ever-changing, ever-similar but rarely the same.

To this are added other lines of sound, seemingly unrelated: an English horn fragment, deep clarinets supporting the texture, a clarinet cry, a rapid morse-code like call from an oboe, some quaking from two bass clarinets, a chorale of flutes, twittering piccolos, rhythmic pulses that seem to have no relationship to what's going on around them.

It's not unlike waking up on a spring morning and hearing the sounds of birds which are rarely known to sing in four-part harmony in ¾ time. As with the arrival of spring, it sounds like a whole new world.

And I'm not sure the audience in Paris, on May 29th, 1913, was quite ready for it, either.

In Russia – where Stravinsky grew up, born on a country estate where he would spend part of his childhood – spring arrives suddenly, unlike the way we're used to in our region of the world where it seems to creep endlessly out of the frozen wastes and snows of winter and may occasionally slip back and forth until eventually we're aware things are becoming green again.

In Russia, spring can also arrive with a kind of violence – the frost covering the ground breaks open (we might be more used to this when dealing with pot-holes in our roads) and the ice covering ponds and streams may crack and heave upwards with a resounding noise that can be heard for miles in the middle of the night, a phenomenon the locals call “the ice-break.”

This is what I hear as the first part of the ballet concludes with the “Adoration of the Earth” – the ending which isn't really an ending comes to a sudden stop. And the anticipation can be frightening. “What will the future yield after this?”

The first half of the ballet is all fun-and-games – teams of boys compete, girls dance, the Old Sage (the village's high priest) is ushered in to remind us there is a serious side to these festivities, and he calls upon the gods as he blesses the ground.

The second half of the ballet is now the serious side of the story, the reason for the festival – the propitiating of the gods with a human sacrifice.

It is night. Where frenzy was the focus in the first part, concentration of purpose is now the focus of the second.

The selection of the “Chosen One” may be a little atypical from your usual ancient culture – the village's virgins dance slowly in a mysterious circle. One girl stumbles – not once, not twice – and this is taken as a sign. She has been chosen.

With that, the villagers then begin to celebrate the coming sacrifice. We return to a sense of frenzy but where the first part was chaotic and seemingly disorganized, musically, now it is like communal frenzy.

The girl stands in the center, immobile, shaking with fear, as everyone whirls around her, pounding the earth and gesturing wildly.

If you imagine this music from the viewpoint of the sacrificial victim, it can be some of the most frightening music you can imagine.

Hardly likely to be full of romantic melodies and soaring harmonies. This is brutal music – and it matches the violence of the story.

This being a ballet – instead of being torn open by knives and her blood strewn all over the ground, her heart held aloft as an offering to the gods (as might have happened to a sacrificial victim in the Aztec civilization in the 1500s) – she dances herself to death to a series of violently repetitive rhythmic patterns that never seem to repeat themselves, building to a horrific climax.

Then, at the end, a sudden deafening silence, a wisp of smoke in the flutes and then a crashing chord. She is dead. The gods have their sacrifice. The world can now continue for another year.

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So, keeping that story in mind, listen to this concert performance of the ballet with Michael Tilson Thomas conducting the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra.

Part One, “A Kiss of the Earth” (in the composer's original Russian):

The Awakening of the Earth – at 3:30, “The Augurs of Spring, Dances of the Young Girls” – at 6:38, the steady repeated rhythms and the joyful folk-song-like fragments abruptly turn into the “Ritual of Abduction” – at 7:57, this now becomes the “Spring Rounds” which continues into the next clip.

The “Round Dances of Spring” continues, beginning almost caressingly then builds to a climax – at 2:55, the dance is disrupted by war games in “The Ritual of the Two Rival Tribes” – at 4:40, a slow procession builds up with the arrival of “The Oldest and Wisest One,” the high priest – interrupted by a mysterious chord (at 5:20), where the Old Sage bends down to kiss the earth – at 5:41, this then erupts into “The Dancing Out of the Earth” in which the community responds to the priest's blessing with a religious ecstasy building to the musical equivalent of the “ice-break” heralding the arrival of spring.
= = = = =

Part Two, “The Exalted Sacrifice”:

It is night. The curtain goes up to reveal (at 4:32) the “Mystic Circle of Young Girls” as they walk endlessly in their circle – at 7:04, one of them stumbles; and again (at 7:25), she stumbles – then at 7:42 she is taken from the circle: she becomes The Chosen One and is honored by the villagers...

At 0:37, the mysterious “Ritual of the Ancestors” begins as the men of the village circle the Chosen One who at 4:14 begins her Sacrificial Dance, the famous “danse sacrale,” dancing herself to death by the final chord.

*** ***** ******** ***** ***

So yes, following an evening of delightful romantic ballets with music by Carl Maria von Weber, for instance, the audience that night in Paris a century ago was not prepared for this.

And yes, let's get it out of the way – there was a riot.

I was joking about – having seen the celebrations around the 150th Anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg – if we would have “re-enactors” to celebrate the 100th Anniversary of the Rite of Spring's historic premiere.

The trouble is, there is so much mythology woven into this event, it's hard to tell which if fiction and which were simply the results of different factions in the audience. The stalls (the cheap seats) were filled with people who were there to be entertained. They probably knew nothing about what to expect and the sounds they heard were nothing like anything they'd heard before.

Let's face it, even if you've never heard the Rite of Spring before, you've heard more dissonant music simply by watching movies and television – but there it's in the background and – oh, guess what? – it supports the visual element you're primarily focused on, the foreground.

But a hundred years ago? Not a chance!

I can't imagine, sitting in that theater, not being confused at the beginning of the music – if the curtain didn't go up until 3½ minutes into this seemingly unorganized, chaotic disturbance that was being called music. And then, once the curtain did go up, to be seeing dancers dressed like that, dancing like that!?

Keep in mind, most people's image of ballet (then as now, probably) is young women in tutus wearing pointe-shoes where the extension of bare arms and legs was about as close to erotic art as many men in the audience could get and remain respectful (as great paintings often celebrated the nude body as art), this in an age where a woman in public showing a bit of ankle was considered scandalous.

The Original Dancing Virgins from The Rite of Spring, 1913
Then to see this – dancers draped head to foot in primitive costumes – their bodies completely hidden from view (I mean, aren't they supposed to be virgins? Shouldn't this be at least a little salacious?) And, in the foreground, an old woman hunched over, carrying a bundle of sticks, who suddenly leaps in the air, gesturing wildly as if struck by an electric spark who then begins hobbling around the stage?

From 1987 reconstruction
Who wouldn't have laughed?

And we're only a few minutes into a ballet that will be a little over a half-hour long.

The cat-calls and whistles – and those who wanted to listen or who were excited about something so amazingly new shouting back at them – were supposed to have been so loud, the dancers on the stage could not hear the orchestra in the pit in front and below them. Nijinksy, who had choreographed the ballet – many were disappointed this great star of the day was not dancing in it (that's what many thought) – stood in the wings, shouting out the count so his dancers could keep together.

And yes, Stravinsky recalls his growing mortification when all this began, shortly to get up from his seat, work his way out to the aisle (and telling someone who was booing “Go to hell!”) to witness the debacle from backstage.

It is said that the cat-calls began when the Grand Old Man of French Music, the conservative Camille Saint-Saens (born eight years after Beethoven died and who was now in his late-70s), got up and stomped up the aisle, muttering something about “that's no way to treat a bassoon.” The truth is, Saint-Saens wasn't even at the premiere of the ballet: he attended a later performance.

Some argue that Diaghilev himself – the man whose ballet company was presenting this performance – had arranged a clacque to start the riot (once begun, it would take on a life of its own) simply to create a success de scandale. And if that were the case, he succeeded – because ever since, the first thing anybody says about the music is “it started a riot.”

(By the way, Truman Bullard, professor emeritus from Dickinson College, did his doctoral dissertation on this very riot and is often quoted in discussions and other writings about this historic events. He will be giving the pre-concert talk an hour before each of the HSO's performances, so you can find out what research has proven to sift fact from myth.)

Well, actually, a lot of new music provoked often vociferous reactions from the first-night audiences. Schoenberg organized several concerts in Vienna or Berlin where booing during the performance led to fist-fights and the calling of police. Another seminal work of the 20th Century – Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire premiered in 1912 – was met with a similar riot.

In fact, if you read the accounts, Claude Debussy's Prelude to “The Afternoon of a Faun” started a riot at its premiere in 1894, only nine years earlier than Stravinsky's premiere.

What?? That gentle, gorgeous diaphanous music???

Yes – but it was because of the choreography.

The story of the ballet itself was controversial: the erotic dreams of a faun (part animal, part human) who, by the end of the nine-minute scene, was pantomiming the act of... well, masturbating to his fantasies! (To this gentle, gorgeous diaphanous music???) And that's what caused the riot, not the music.

But the way people talk about, you'd think it was the music people were reacting to.

We forget that the piece of music itself is only part of the experience in both cases: music to accompany the dance, in this case, and to hear people natter on about the “Riot of Spring” is to ignore the fact that, the newness of the music aside, the choreography and the costumes as well as the disappointed expectations of the audience might have had something to do with it.

Yes, people were and continue to be startled by this music. It has a power to astound listeners to the point its reputation frightens them. And while it might not be to everybody's liking (especially those seeking light entertainment), there's no denying its power and the impact it had on 20th Century music.

Elliott Carter, a composer used to having people walk out of his concerts, attended the American premiere at Carnegie Hall in January, 1924, when he was 15 with a vague interest in music, listening to a piece of music given its world premiere only 10 years earlier.

Here, Carter reminisces about his experiences hearing new music as a student in New York City, recorded shortly before he turned 100 himself – he died a year ago a few weeks before his 104th birthday and was still composing, by the way:

He loved it for any number of reasons but he's often quoted as saying he wanted to write music like that, music that was powerful enough to drive people out of the hall not because he wanted to annoy them (which he and many other contemporary composers were accused of doing), but because the music was so visceral that it could create such a strong reaction that people would respond that way.

*** ***** ******** ***** ***

But it wasn't just a one-night stand: there were five further performances of the ballet over the next two weeks – relatively peaceful but always a bit on the edge. Puccini, the composer of such lyrical masterpieces as Tosca and La Boheme, attended the second performance three days later and described the choreography as “ridiculous” and the music “cacophanous” – “the work of a madman. The public hissed, laughed – and applauded.”

When the Ballet Russes took the production to London (considering Paris was the center of “what's it,” London was a cultural backwater for new art), the Times' critic was “impressed how different elements of the work came together to form a coherent whole,” though not as enthusiastic about the music itself: complaining that the composer had sacrificed melody and harmony for rhythm he wrote, “If M. Stravinsky had wished to be really primitive, he would have been wise to... score his ballet for nothing but drums.” A ballet historian described the "slow, uncouth movements" of the dancers, which he thought were “in complete opposition to the traditions of classical ballet.”

A concert performance in Paris less than a year later – without the dancers – was met with considerable enthusiasm.

Here is a scene from a BBC dramatization of the Paris premiere that, like any kind of account must rely on fiction as much as fact to fill in the details. But it will give you an idea what “might” have happened – and it incorporates a recreation of the original choreography and costumes to give it at least some semblance of historical accuracy.

*** ***** ******** ***** ***

And what about that original production?

Here is a performance by the Joffrey Ballet of the historic reconstruction of the original sets and costumes but most importantly (and the most difficult to recreate) Nijinsky's original choreography from a 1987 broadcast:

Many in my generation were first introduced to this music through Fantasia, one of the most magical films Walt Disney ever created, but though he chose to end with The Rite of Spring, instead of “pictures of pagan Russia” as Stravinsky imagined it, we see dinosaurs – from the famous battle between the T-Rex and the stegosaurus to the cataclysmic earthquakes that brought their age to an end.

Disney's Dinosaurs
Curiously, when Disney informed Stravinsky of his plans to incorporate his ballet into his film, assuming he would be honored to have his music made available to a wider mass audience, the composer was immediately opposed to the trivialization of his music. Disney (or agents from his studio) reportedly then informed him it didn't matter whether he approved or not because there was no copyright treaty with Russia and so therefore they could use it if they wanted to without his permission.

More curiously, then, when I went to search on-line for scenes from this movie, many of them came up as “withdrawn” because the Disney Studio was defending its use of copyright material (its images). Did they not see the irony, here?

I had to admit, as a kid of 7 or 8 when I first saw this movie, I was in love with dinosaurs and thought this was incredible! Now, looking back on it, I dislike what Disney did to the music – at the end, going back to reprise the opening bassoon solo? – and after seeing several productions of the ballet (which you can read about here, included in this post from 2009 on my other blog) – it seems quite tame (though I still tear up at the death of the Stegosaurus) but for several years, I found thinking of dinosaurs made it easier for me to come to terms with the challenges of this music. Now, I no longer need the visual crutch to appreciate the music alone.

Another way of "seeing" the piece, especially for those who cannot read musical notation much less follow a very complex score, is to follow one of those fascinating "animated graphical" scores: here's a complete performance of the ballet score:

= = = = =

If this music is new to you, I think if you see the images of this production – as the music “looked” to its first audience – or this "animated score," it may help you listen to and appreciate the music as a more total experience. It has a specific structure, dramatically, though it's not like a Beethoven symphony: like most dramatic, theatrical music, the music exists on the skeleton of its drama but contains all the elements of music we expect in Western art, even abstract art (music that is purely music).

There is tension (a good deal of it, created in various ways) which is then released (in various ways) or which explodes (as the end of the first half) into non-resolution, creating further anticipation. Only at the end is this tension resolved – in one of the most astounding final chords ever written!

By now, The Rite of Spring has become standard repertoire, a war-horse, that can be performed in concert halls and ballet theaters around the world, whether it needs to be trotted out to celebrate its birthday anniversary or not.

But it still has the power to frighten people and I can understand that. But I could also say that, if a hundred years after Beethoven wrote his Eroica Symphony, a work that is often given credit for turning the 18th Century into the 19th, imagine if people still were afraid to go into a concert it was programmed on in 1903 - given everything that happened in between?

If you can turn on your TV and watch, say, NCIS with its car bombs and physical violence (ooh, look, he just got slugged with a tire-iron, cool!) or go to the movies for the latest action-thriller, chances are there's little in The Rite of Spring that could frighten you, musically or dramatically.

It is amazing how violent our entertainment has become – not to mention how our children amuse themselves with computer games. I'm not saying listening to The Rite of Spring is going to be the same experience but it can certainly relate – and if you accept that it doesn't have to be the musical equivalent of Last Man Standing (or at least Last Virgin Standing), it can really be a very amazing thing to experience.

Really – there's nothing to be frightened of. And if you don't like it after you've experienced it the first time, perhaps another attempt at familiarity will help make it easier the next time, if you accept it according to its own terms.

Dick Strawser

Monday, September 30, 2013

Richard Strauss and the Last of His Songs

This weekend, the Harrisburg Symphony begins its new season of Masterworks Concerts on Saturday, October 5th at 8pm and Sunday, October 6th at 3pm, with a program that includes the Four Last Songs by Richard Strauss.

Richard Strauss was 84 when he composed a set of songs he did not call his “Four Last Songs.” That was the doing of his publishers but it made sense: at the time, they were not only his last songs, they were his last completed works.

Janice Chandler-Eteme & Stuart Malina in 2011
Janice Chandler-Eteme returns to Harrisburg to sing them with the orchestra and Stuart Malina on a program admittedly of 20th Century Music – the other works on the program are Ravel's ballet Daphnis and Chloe (premiered in 1912) and Stravinsky's epic Rite of Spring (premiered in 1913). These songs were composed in 1948 but not premiered until 1950.

Despite being written when they were, a casual concert-goer may be surprised to find they are 20th Century (a.k.a. “modern”) works at all. Certainly, compared to what was going on during the past century with works by Schoenberg and Stravinsky, Bartók or Elliott Carter – or even Philip Glass and John Adams – these sound very old-fashioned, indeed.

Late in his life, Brahms, of course, was complaining about the cess-pool modern music was headed toward with these new works by the then young Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler (a conductor Brahms very much admired; as a composer, not so much).

Alfred Stieglitz's portrait, 1904
Certainly, Strauss had set people's ears on edge with passages in Don Quixote (the bleating of sheep, really?) or the screaming textures and psychological drama of Salome which had proved such a shocker in 1905 on any number of levels.

But around the time other composers were going even further afield, moving past the harmonies and modulations of Richard Wagner's Tristan into a realm devoid on tonal and eventually even harmonic references to anything familiar – something that seemed to occur around 1911 between Debussy's Jeux (which contained no melodies in the traditional sense and a more intense tonal ambiguity than his Impressionistic style had attempted before), Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire and especially Stravinsky's Rite of Spring – Richard Strauss returned to Mozart.

The whole idea behind Der Rosenkavalier, premiered in January, 1911, was to do his version of Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro, even though his music may sound quite different from Mozart's own. But it already a world apart from Strauss's immediate past with the shrieking intensity of his Elektra, premiered two years earlier.

This return to the aesthetic of the past would be more pronounced in his music for Moliere's play, Le bourgeois gentilhomme which the symphony will perform at November's concert which harkens stylistically back to the late-17th Century, although always sounding like Richard Strauss (at least to us, in hindsight).

Strauss, 1947
The Four Last Songs, grouped together and given that name by his friend Ernest Roth, an editor at the publishers, Boosey & Hawkes, are not performed in chronological order – in fact, the order itself is still being debated, so you may find recordings or performances with a different sequence. Still, it's pretty hard to not end with Im Abendrot (“At Sunset”) even if it was the first of the songs to be written.

Here are four different singers with each of Strauss's songs, followed by translations of the texts:

= = = = =
Lucia Popp, London Symphony/Michael Tilson Thomas (1993):

In shadowy crypts / I dreamt long / of your trees and blue skies, / of your fragrance and birdsong. // Now you appear / in all your finery, / drenched in light / like a miracle before me. // You recognize me, / you entice me tenderly. / All my limbs tremble at / your blessed presence!
= = = = =
Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Berlin Radio Symphony/George Szell (1965):

The garden is in mourning. / Cool rain seeps into the flowers. / Summertime shudders, / quietly awaiting his end. // Golden leaf after leaf falls / from the tall acacia tree. / Summer smiles, astonished and feeble, / at his dying dream of a garden. // For just a while he tarries / beside the roses, yearning for repose. / Slowly he closes / his weary eyes.
= = = = =
Beim Schlaffengehen (Falling Asleep)
Gundula Janowitz with Berlin Philharmonic/Herbert von Karajan (1971):

Now that I am wearied of the day, / my ardent desire shall happily receive / the starry night / like a sleepy child. // Hands, stop all your work. / Brow, forget all your thinking. / All my senses now / yearn to sink into slumber. // And my unfettered soul / wishes to soar up freely / into night's magic sphere / to live there deeply and thousandfold.
= = = = =
Im Abendrot (At Sunset)
Renee Fleming, London Symphony/Christoph von Dohnanyi (London Proms, 2001):

We have through sorrow and joy / gone hand in hand; / From our wanderings, / let's now rest in this quiet land. // Around us, the valleys bow / as the sun goes down. / Two larks soar upwards / dreamily into the light air. // Come close, and let them fly. / Soon it will be time for sleep. / Let's not lose our way / in this solitude. // O vast, tranquil peace, / so deep in the evening's glow! / How weary we are of wandering – / Is this perhaps death?
= = = = =

These are very personal songs, their subject aside, given the composer's age and awareness of his mortality. His wife, Pauline, had been a soprano – and most his great roles and his songs were written for sopranos. His father, Franz, had been one of the greatest horn players of his day. Is there a nostalgia recalling his father's horn playing in all the great horn solos that permeate these songs? (The composer's son, by the way, was named after his father.)

But more direct are the quotations from one of Strauss's earlier works, the tone-poem Tod und Verklärung (“Death and Transfiguration”) recalled in the final moments of Im Abendrot.

There are other quotations and references to works by his idols – for instance, the Adagio of Beethoven's 3rd “Razumovsky” Quartet, Op. 59/3 – but “for Strauss's admirers at least,” Matthew Boyden writes in his biography of the composer, “the melancholy of Eichendorff's verses” in Im Abendrot, “allied to the soaring pathos of the music, is almost unbearably sad.”

And, I would add, immensely consoling.

*** ***** ******** ***** ***

Many listeners have no idea how old a composer may have been when he or she wrote a particular piece: usually it has no bearing on the music itself, but often it can be rather surprising to know Mendelssohn was 17 when he wrote the Overture to Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream or that Beethoven was 57 when he died (having passed that age, myself, I'm now tempted to add “was only 57...”).

When American composer Lou Harrison wrote his 4th Symphony in 1990 and called it his “Last Symphony,” he was 73 and would live another 13 years. Someone asked him what he would do if he decided he would write another symphony. “Then I would call that one my “Very Last Symphony.”

Does it matter that Beethoven wrote his “early” string quartets around the time he was pushing 30 – Schubert, after all, only lived to be 31 – or that Elliott Carter was still composing when he died last year at the age of 103?

To most people, probably not, but to someone who's interested in the stories behind the music – whether it helps “explain” the music is not the point: nothing but listening (and listening actively) can “explain” music, if even that is possible (and besides, even then, the more you listen to it, the more you might discover in the music) – there has to be something going on here. After all, composers are people, too, and have the same kind of things to deal with as normal people.

So Richard Strauss had been one of the great composers of the late-19th and early-20th Centuries, starting off as a prodigy who could write a masterful horn concerto for his father when he was 17 that is still a major part of any horn-player's repertoire. He wrote a series of tone-poems like Till Eulenspiegel and Ein Heldenleben (“A Hero's Life”), then a series of operas: the scandalously modern Salome and Elektra and then, around 1911, reverted to a Mozart-like nostalgia in Der Rosenkavalier.

After a successful career, then came World War II which created additional problems, particularly for his reputation. He's often been condemned as a Nazi sympathizer because, unlike many other composers, he did not leave Germany nor did he speak out against Hitler's government and policies.

Yet his son had married a Jewish woman and in order to protect her and his two half-Jewish grandsons, Strauss had to be fairly conscious what he could and could not do.

Still, there was something about having one of the greatest composers of the day representing if not the government, the culture of the German nation. And so both sides treaded lightly around these issues. Had Strauss's daughter-in-law been the daughter-in-law of probably any other composer, she would probably have been sent to a concentration camp as millions of others had. Had Strauss spoken up against the Nazis, she might have, anyway...

While that's not the topic, here, it is part of the background and cannot be ignored. To think of any composer writing in the midst of such an environment is one thing; to imagine the Four Last Songs came out of that, in a sense, is almost unbelievable.

*** ***** ******** ***** ***

Strauss was in his mid-70s when the war began. He had, essentially, viewed himself as an old man who would probably not write much more. When the war was over and he had composed one of the saddest pieces of music ever written in honor of the city of Dresden, destroyed in the Allied bombing – Metamorphosen – he was now in his 80s.

After the war, American soldiers arrived at his villa in southern Bavaria (the legendary Garmisch-Partenkirchen) and Strauss met them on the steps, announcing himself as “Richard Strauss, the composer of Rosenkavalier and Salome.” The commander put an “Off Limits” sign on Strauss' lawn.

There was an American soldier named John deLancie, an oboist who before the war was the principal oboist of the Pittsburgh Symphony and later of the Philadelphia Orchestra, who met Strauss and talked “shop” with him during the occupation and eventually asked him to consider writing an oboe concerto. Strauss dismissed the idea but later completed one by the end of the year. It is perhaps one of the most Mozartean pieces he ever composed.

Matthew Boyden in his biography describes life for Strauss during his final years, a period sometimes referred to as his “Indian Summer.”

Skipping ahead a couple of years after the war, a tour had been arranged for Strauss in October of 1947 with a Strauss Festival in London, giving his music a chance to be heard again so Strauss the composer could earn some respect and Strauss the conductor could earn some money. The month before, he and his wife relocated to a hotel in Montreaux, Switzerland, which remained their “home-base” until they returned to Garmisch-Partenkirchen in May, 1949.

Thomas Beecham conducted a suite from Le bourgeois gentilhomme, (a work the HSO will be playing on its November concert), a scene from an early opera (premiered in 1901) and Don Quixote. A second concert included Ein Heldenleben and Macbeth and the final scene from the opera Ariadne auf Naxos.

A week later, the 83-year-old Strauss himself conducted a program with the tone-poem Don Juan, the Burleske for piano and orchestra, waltzes from Rosenkavalier and the Sinfonia domestica. As he waited backstage to begin the concert, he said, “So the old horse ambles out of the stables once more.”

There were two broadcast performances of Elektra with Beecham and then Strauss made his last appearance at the festival conducting Till Eulenspiegel on a program where Adrian Boult conducted Mozart's “Jupiter” Symphony and Holst's Planets. Strauss left London two days later with ₤1,000 in his pocket and returned to his wife in Montreaux at the end of October.

The next month, he experienced the first signs of a bladder infection but despite the pain and in defiance of his doctors' advice, he set about composing again, no doubt more fully enlivened by the experiences in London. He wrote a delightful “Duet-Concertino” for clarinet and bassoon which Radio Lugano's orchestra premiered the following April.

But then “Strauss appeared to shrink into himself.” Other than thoughts about a children's opera written for his grandchildren (The Donkey's Shadow), “his sketchbooks remained closed.” Instead, he began reading – Goethe and Nietzsche, and the theoretical works of Wagner the composer, but all this only reminded him of what German culture had lost during the war and “his depression spiraled.”

In the new year, his son Franz tried to cheer him up and “almost in an aside he told him to stop brooding and write some songs, suggesting that since many of the country's opera houses had been destroyed [in the war] there would be an increased demand for concert music.”

The year before, Strauss had copied the text of Joseph von Eichendorff's poem “Im Abendrot” (At Sunset) into a diary, beneath a newspaper clipping he'd pasted in it about the destruction of Dresden.

“The poem tells the story of an old couple who, after a lifetime together” – not unlike he and his wife Pauline who'd been married, now, for 53 years – “look to the sunset and ask, 'Is this perhaps death?'”

He'd set the poem then but, after his son's advice touched him, he returned to it and completely reset it, not just as a song for voice and piano but with the accompaniment of the full orchestra, and completed it in May.

Then he got out his volume of Herman Hesse poems and chose four that he liked, creating a cycle of songs all dealing with the subject of death.

He completed “Frühling” (“Spring”) on July 18th, “Beim Schlaffengehen” (“Going to sleep”) on August 4th, and “September” on September 20th.

He never finished the fourth of Hesse's poem he had selected.

*** ***** ******** ***** ***

In June, he had been cleared by the de-nazification tribunal, exonerated as much by the circumstances as his admiration he was held in by the world as much as the Allies' wish to demonstrate “forbearance and humanity.” It was unlikely at his age – 84, now – they would expect him to endure prison or forced labor. His property nor any of the “harvests of his collaboration” with the Nazi government “were seized in reparation.”

Then, in December, he underwent bladder surgery and his recovery was slow and painful. He wrote to a friend, “I have actually outlived myself.” He studied scores by Mozart and Beethoven (particularly, the late quartets) and Wagner's Tristan. He began sketching a choral work based on one of Hesse's poems and read volumes of Greek philosophy (in the original Greek). He spent a lot of time reminiscing – his wife, Pauline, had begun her memoirs.

It wasn't until May 10th, 1949, that the Strausses returned to their Bavarian home and many friends were surprised to see how much he had aged. “His eyes, once described by [his friend and librettist Stefan] Zweig as the 'most wide-awake in the world,' were huge and watery; his hearing was now seriously impaired (he told [the conductor] Karl Böhm that everything was a [half-step] higher) and many pictures taken at the time how him straining to hear his photographer.”

But at times his face could still light up. Though he had been advised to rest, he wanted to attend rehearsals in Munich (an hour away) for a new production of Rosenkavalier which Georg Solti was conducting. Overcome by this, he asked to conduct the “Presentation of the Rose” scene at the end of Act II and the glorious trio and duet that concludes the opera. Fortunately, someone was on hand with a camera and caught the Act II finale on film.

Preparing for his 85th birthday, a film crew shadowed him, now, for a documentary film to be called A Life in Music. He was caught playing a bit of his opera Daphne at the piano and walking about the villa.

Henrietta Schirach, a member of the film crew, later recalled,

= = = = =
“Strauss enjoyed it hugely. Neither the chaos of cables nor the bright lights disturbed him. He had never seen a sound film in his life.” [She was] struck by his silky, tender skin. His blue eyes... blinked suspiciously as he faced the crowd of people. Suddenly he stopped. It was the spotr on which the urn with his ashes was [later] to stand.”
Boyden: Richard Strauss (p.366)
= = = = =

A month later, he was driven to Munich by the American Military Governor so he could conduct the “Moonlight” music from his last opera, Capriccio with the Radio Orchestra as part of the documentary.

He never conducted again.

Another month passed and Strauss was now ill and confined to his bed, nursed by his son Franz and Alice, his daughter-in-law. He told them “I hear so much music.” When Alice brought him manuscript paper, he was to tired and unable to write anything down.

Talking to a friend, he reminisced about many things:

= = = = =
“I think I did a good job of conducting Wagner's works.” He described at length a scene from Siegfried after the Idyll [Forest Murmurs] where “a powerful animation must begin and continue through to the end and all the slow tempi must be taken only in a relative sense, but hardly anyone does that... You know the passage I mean?” Then he lifted his arms and began to conduct it, singing the orchestral melody in a loud voice. “The face,” [his friend wrote later], “is slightly flushed; his shining eyes are gazing far, far beyond the walls of the room. Now he is leaning back on the pillows, his eyes moist with tears. 'You must forgive me,' [Strauss] says, 'but when you lie here so alone and there is so much to think about you become a little sentimental.' Then he is silent for a long time...; softly his voice sounds again... 'Grüss mir die Welt' – where does that come from?'”
Boyden: Richard Strauss (p. 367).
= = = = =

His friend thought perhaps Walküre but Strauss said, “No, no, that's not it – somewhere else...” Actually, Grüss mir die Welt (Greet the world for me) is from Tristan, Act I, perhaps Strauss's favorite opera - Isolde's farewell in scene 4.

A few days later, Strauss whispered to Alice, “It's a funny thing, but dying is exactly like I composed it sixty years ago in Tod und Verklärung [his famous, early tone-poem, Death & Transfiguration].”

Uremia, angina and constant pain “wore the old man down,” Boyden writes, and then following a series of “increasingly severe heart attacks, he died at 2:12pm on September 8th, 1949.”

Pauline, who had been his beloved if often combative wife during their long marriage, “no longer complained,” Boyden writes; “there was nothing left to fight for.” She would sit on his deathbed and weep and died eight months later, only nine days before Wilhelm Furtwängler conducted the world premiere of her husband's Four Last Songs with soprano Kirsten Flagstad.

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Here, Kirsten Flagstad sings Strauss's Last Song recorded at the world premiere performance (some sources indicate it was from the dress rehearsal which others say is incorrect), May 22nd, 1950:

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Considering these songs had been composed more than a year before his death, it surprises me that they weren't rushed out for their premieres almost immediately. I've never found any explanation why Strauss or his family or his publisher never did anything with them.

More surprisingly, these were, in fact, not the last thing he composed. Malven, a very brief and rather inconsequential song, was composed for one of his favorite singers, Maria Jeritza, who had performed so many of his great soprano roles. It's a slight piece for voice and piano setting a rather inadequate poem about garden flowers (the title refers to a rose-mallow) by a Swiss novelist, Betty Knobel, which one source describes as “not being worthy of the honor.” He wrote it in late November 28th, 1948, a full two months after completing “September” and, with an effusive dedication, sent it off to Jeritza who stored it in her safe with her other mementos. No one was aware of its existence until 37 years later, after Jeritza died in 1983.

Even then, it took a while till it was first heard in public – at a New York Philharmonic concert in 1985 with Kiri Te Kanawa. Apparently, the manuscript only became available to them days before the concert, but the composer's grandson, Christian, was able to be in the audience.

So here is an audio clip of Richard Strauss' “Very Last Song.”
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It may not be even close to the rapturous beauty of the only slightly earlier songs, but for anyone interested in an artist's “final thoughts,” interesting, nonetheless.

– Dick Strawser

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

The 2013-2014 Season: Hear the Preview!

The Harrisburg Symphony's new season gets underway the first weekend in October and will include seven “Masterworks” Concerts at the Forum. Stuart Malina conducts each concert and this post is just an introduction and overview to each program. Closer to the specific concert-time, I'll be posting more information about the music, the performers as well as video clips (if they're available) of each piece.

All concerts are Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 3pm at the Forum in downtown Harrisburg's Capitol Complex and each performance is preceded by a pre-concert talk an hour before.

OCTOBER 5th & 6th:
So, we'll begin with a concert aptly titled Rite of Spring because, with Stravinsky's epic ballet on the second half, what else could one call it? While the entire season is called “Hear the Color,” this is a very colorful program with two ballets famous for their orchestral colors and a set of songs by a composer who was a master at creating orchestral colors, himself.

The concert opens with the sound of flowing water and a beautiful sunrise that opens the third act of Maurice Ravel's ballet, Daphnis & Chloe. We're playing the “2nd Suite” which is really a concert adaptation of Act III of the entire ballet. Just to give you a bit of background to the story, Daphnis is a shepherd who falls in love with Chloe who, in the 2nd Act, is abducted by pirates and rescued by the god, Pan (the inventor of Pan's Pipes but also the source of our word “panic”). The 3rd Act's “plot” can be summed up as “General Celebration after Chloe's Return.” But the music is a lot more interesting than that.

Here's a concert performance of the entire 2nd Suite with Gustavo Dudamel conducting Venezuela's Simon Bolivar Youth Symphony:
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Though the stage of the Forum is small enough (at least in terms of its depth) and there is no pit, you won't see any dancers for this ballet. But just to give you an idea, here's a performance of the ballet's final scene with the Royal Ballet in Frederick Ashton's choreography:
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You may have heard soprano Janice Chandler-Eteme in November, 2011, when she came in at the last minute to sing Samuel Barber's Knoxville: Summer of 1915. This time, she's back with four ravishing songs composed for voice and orchestra by Richard Strauss.

Now, he didn't call them his “Four Last Songs” because... well, who knew? But since they were the last songs he composed when he was 84 the year before he died, they've become known as “The Four Last Songs.” Actually, there was to be a fifth, but Strauss was unable to complete it before his death. There are three songs setting poems by Hermann Hesse all dealing with the process of dying. He had already composed a setting of Joseph von Eichendorff's “Im Abendrot” (“At Sunset”) earlier that spring, but because of the nature of the poem and the conclusion of the song itself, it's usually performed as the last of the Four Last Songs even though it was the first of them to be composed. The last music he completed is officially “Beim Schlafengehen” (“Going to Sleep”).

In this video, soprano Renee Fleming sings “Im Abendrot.” (You can read the translation of the poem here.)
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recorded with Claudio Abbado at the Luzerne Festival in 2004.

We don't really need an anniversary to program Igor Stravinsky's ballet, The Rite of Spring (also known by its French title, Le sacre du printemps) but since it was first heard on May 29th, one hundred years ago, why not celebrate its centennial? It is one of the most significant works for the start of 20th Century Music and in addition to its colors and unique technical aspects, it brought rhythm and the percussive use of the orchestra into the possible palette a composer could use. Before then, melody and harmony had been the primary aspects of 19th Century music – there is not much in the way of tunes in this piece, but you can't escape its colors and, above all, its rhythms.

Especially in the ending, the famous “Sacrificial Dance.”

The story takes place in ancient pagan Russia and a village is celebrating the advent of spring and with it, the need to propitiate the gods to give them a good crop and a bountiful harvest. To this end, they must sacrifice a virgin who, then, dances herself to death (at least, that's what she does in this ballet: less bloody, that way...).

Here's the opening of the ballet with Michael Tilson Thomas conducting the San Francisco Symphony in a live concert broadcast:
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If you find yourself at a loss – missing your Beethoven or Brahms – think of being outside on a day in early spring: what do you hear? Birds, perhaps, and maybe insects – not as individual songs and sounds but perhaps as a growing texture, becoming more complex and shifting depending on where your attention lies. That's sort of what Stravinsky seems to be doing with his instruments.

Here's the final scene, the Sacrificial Dance, in one of those “animated graphical scores” that help listeners who can't read music to follow what's going on (and make it easier even if you do):
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In the next post for this concert, I'll post three versions of the complete ballet for you: a live concert performance; this animated score; and then the ballet as it might have looked if you'd attended that famous (or infamous) first performance 100 years ago as the Joffrey Ballet reconstructs the original production's scenery and costumes and, most importantly, Vaclav Nijinsky's amazing choreography. Trust me, if you've never seen this before, it will be an eye-opener just as the music so often can be an ear-opener even for those who've heard the work before.

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NOVEMBER 9th & 10th

This concert is called Suite Sounds if only because there are two suites on the program. A suite is a collection of excerpts from a larger work (perhaps highlights or more famous selections) or it can be a collection of otherwise unrelated pieces. The Suite from Richard Strauss' incidental music for Moliere's play Le bourgeois gentilhomme is a selection of highlights and the Respighi “Ancient Airs & Dances” is a collection of Renaissance and Early Baroque lute pieces arranged for orchestra.

Those are the “suites.” But the sounds, perhaps, are very different, especially considering the opening work on the program, another important work for the 20th Century not because of what it sounds like but because of how it made us think about music and sound in general.

Now, I don't want to give away what seems to be the “gimmick” in John Cage's 4'33” (which is pronounced “Four Minutes & Thirty-three Seconds”) but it was written for any instrument or instruments but since it was first performed by pianist David Tudor in 1952, it is usually considered a piano piece. But an orchestra can play it, too.

The standard definition of music is “organized sound.” We try to distinguish between sound that is music and sound that is noise. But John Cage wasn't sure music needed to be so “organized” as it used to be – he would champion an improvisatory approach usually called “chance music.” And much music in the early 20th Century incorporated non-musical sounds in a piece of music: not just the sirens of Edgar Varese's Ionisations or the banging of percussion (or the use of instruments percussively, like in Stravinsky's Rite of Spring), but also Paris taxi horns in Gershwin's American in Paris or the singing of a nightingale by way of a recording in Respighi's Pines of Rome.

So I've already spent more time talking about this piece than it might take to play it. The musician(s) sit and play nothing – nothing – for four minutes and thirty-three seconds. Silence? In a sense, but there is, scientifically, no such thing as “silence,” really. As Cage said, following the premiere, about those who didn't understand the piece:

They missed the point. There’s no such thing as silence. What they thought was silence, because they didn’t know how to listen, was full of accidental sounds. You could hear the wind stirring outside during the first movement. During the second, raindrops began pattering the roof, and during the third the people themselves made all kinds of interesting sounds as they talked or walked out.

So what will you hear in the acoustics of the Forum?

The music Richard Strauss composed for Moliere's classic play, Le bourgeois gentilhomme sounds nothing like the Strauss of the Four Last Songs composed in 1949. In fact, this sounds nothing like what Strauss was writing before 1909, with his blood-curdling operas, Salome and Elektra, or his gigantic tone poems like Also sprach Zarathustra and Ein Heldenleben, all very familiar works.

Somewhere around 1911, several composers started breaking away from the past in ways that shocked the public – but Strauss (who'd “been there/done that”) went in the opposite direction, inspired more by his beloved Mozart than what was going on among his contemporaries. It was as if he ignored everything that had happened since Mozart – Beethoven and Wagner, especially, much less his own music.

The action of the play takes place in the home of a “would-be gentleman” who, having made his fortune, is trying to act like those who've inherited theirs. He throws a lavish party. That's all you need to know: there are dances for the tailors and the servants as the evening is prepared – even the dinner gets its own music. But it sounds so different – like French music of the Baroque period, when the play was originally written. In fact, Strauss even uses some of the compositions of Jean-Baptiste Lully who wrote the music for Moliere's original production in 1670!

Here's a bit of the opening music with Vladimir Jurowski conducting the Chamber Orchestra of Europe – gone are the huge orchestras with vast string sections and incredible washes of sounds that we might be familiar with from his earlier tone poems: this is Strauss in his “neo-classical” mode (though we might call it “neo-Baroque” in a way), writing between 1911 and 1917 before he finally finished the music (and an opera that went with it!). Incidentally, this was being written in Germany at the same time Stravinsky was in Paris and Switzerland composing The Rite of Spring.
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Meanwhile, in Italy at the same time, Ottorino Respighi – best known for his large-scale music portraits of Rome, The Pines of Rome, The Fountains of Rome and Roman Festivals – was discovering lute music from around 1600, give or take a decade. He liked them so much he thought he would arrange some of them for a small orchestra so that other people could hear them. In those days, before recordings and the proliferation of “early music groups,” this music was almost totally unknown. While it's Respighi's clothing, the music is originally by Simone Molinaro, Vincenzo Galilei (better known because of his son, Galileo Galilei, the famous mathematician and astronomer), Michael Pretorius and good old Anonymous.
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Johann Sebastian Bach hardly needs an introduction to even the most casual music-lovers, but he's not often heard in symphony concerts any more, especially since these “period instrument” groups or other ensembles specializing in “historically accurate” performances have put us off hearing music originally composed for a handful of players being played by orchestras of 75 to 100.

Perhaps Bach's most famous “orchestral” works are his Brandenburg Concertos – six of them, in all, and each one a different instrumentation. The famous 5th Concerto features a solo group of a flute, a violin and a harpsichord with the “orchestra” which might have been played four or five players. Surprisingly, it's also possibly the first “keyboard” concerto – the harpsichord, predecessor of the piano, was usually relegated to the background – necessary and ever-present (which is one reason it's called “continuo”) but rarely getting a chance to shine as a soloist. Accompanist, yes; part of the ensemble, of course. And this is no delicate sliver of a concerto to accommodate the usually pale sounds of your typical harpsichord: it's quite a long work and it's the keyboard player who gets to show off in a honkingly huge cadenza near the end of the first movement – just like any pianist might get to do a century later in the days of Beethoven and Liszt.

Here's one of those early music ensembles, La petite bande, playing the first movement of Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 in D Major:
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JANUARY 11th & 12th:

We throw a spear into the new year, 2014, with a short work by American composer Michael Torke called, appropriately, Javelin, composed for the opening of the Summer Olympics in 1996 (wait... what? That's right!) Now, as it happens, it's not always possible to find performances of everything on YouTube – despite its abundance of cat videos and footage of would-be child prodigies playing “Chopsticks”). I wasn't able to find a good performance with good sound (with orchestra) of either Javelin or a reasonable facsimile, Bright Blue Music. Maybe I'll have better luck by the time the concert rolls around...

Another ballet on the program and another of those works that shocked its audiences when it was first performed in the so-called Roaring '20s. If people had trouble with Stravinsky's music and Nijinsky's choreography when The Rite of Spring hit the stage, Bartók's music was one thing but the story of a prostitute used by thugs to lure victims into their lair to rob them was quite another – especially when you consider the last would-be victim, the Mandarin of the title, refuses to die when the thugs try to kill him. In fact, his wounds only begin to bleed when the girl kisses him – and he dies.

The first time I heard this music, when I was in college, the opening practically pulled me up out of my seat. It was a live performance with George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra playing a concert up at Bucknell University's gymnasium (before they had a concert hall) – I've never heard anything quite like that performance.

Here's the opening of the suite from this ballet with Claudio Abbado and the London Symphony in an over-produced broadcast from 1986. The actual performance begins at 2:32 if I can't get the clip to start there automatically (you may want to avoid the boring announcer at the beginning, but hey...):
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The second half of the program is one of the great Romantic piano concertos from the 19th Century, the second one Brahms composed and one that was inspired by two separate holidays in Italy. That's probably most evident in the last movement, which I've selected for this preview. The whole concerto is enormous – about 50 minutes long – and unlike the typical 3-movement concerto, Brahms added a short scherzo (if you can call it that) after the vast expanse of that opening movement. The concerto is sometimes described as a Symphony with Piano Obbligato, and it require a special touch to balance such piano writing against Brahms' symphonic orchestration.

Here's a young Russian-American prize-winning pianist, Kirill Gerstein, with Gustavo Dudamel and the Simon Bolivar Youth Symphony in the finale of Johannes Brahms' Piano Concerto No. 2:
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Our soloist is a young German prize-winning pianist, Markus Groh, who was here six years ago to play Beethoven's 3rd Piano Concerto (a work that had a lot of influence on Brahms when he was writing his 1st Piano Concerto). Here's a TV interview (with English subtitles) with Markus:
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FEBRUARY 8th & 9th:

This program opens with a special occasion: the world premiere of a work by Steve Rudolph especially commissioned to celebrate our maestro's recent 50th Birthday. Of course, now, he has to learn to play it and conduct it, too, so it's perhaps a double-edged birthday present. Of course, we don't have any audio or video of it yet – it hasn't been completed yet and Stuart hasn't seen it yet – but you can hear the first performance anywhere of these piece in February, 2014, with Stuart Malina and the HSO at the Forum.

So, why else would a program in the month of Valentine's Day be called “Romancing the Cello”? Well, it's one of the great Romantic concertos of all time and certainly the most famous and popular cello concerto in the repertoire. And Zuill Bailey, our soloist, is making a return appearance to Central PA, familiar to fans of past seasons with Next Generation Festival and Market Square Concerts as well.

Here's a video of Zuill coaching a student in the opening of the concerto:
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...and from Telarc recent recording with Zuill and the Indianapolis Symphony conducted by Jun Markl, here's the 2nd Movement from the concerto:
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Beethoven completed nine symphonies – and while they're all masterpieces, some of them are more popular than others: the 9th because of its universal message and inspiring finale; the 5th because... well, does it need a reason? And of course the heroic Eroica and the celebratory 7th, probably one of the happiest creations from any genius.

The 4th of Beethoven's symphonies is, alas, one of those that doesn't get as much attention as the others so here's your chance to hear it live. This performance of the complete symphony is taken from a DVD that includes both the 4th and the 7th, and while I'm not going to tell you don't listen to the 7th, you can sample the 4th here with the legendary Carlos Kleiber: the performance begins at 0:53 after that long walk down the steps, and ends at 34:32.
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MARCH 22nd & 23rd

This program begins with a French composer I wasn't familiar with when I saw the name on the brochure, but I went to YouTube and found several of his pieces available there. Unfortunately, the movement “Aleph” from Guillaume Connesson's Cosmic Trilogy which opens our March concert is not one of them (though there is a recording of it available commercially). But to give you an idea of what the composer sounds like, here is a clip of his piano concerto called “The Shining One” written in 2009:
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The cosmos aside, the Schein of Schein on Chopin is the legendary pianist and teacher, Ann Schein, who may not (but should) be a familiar name despite her career as a teacher and performer. This concert is part of a special combination with Market Square Concerts: she'll perform a solo piano recital a week after the symphony concert at Whitaker Center featuring music by Ravel, Liszt and Chopin.

In this concert, she'll be performing the F Minor Piano Concerto by Frederic Chopin and here's an audio-clip of a performance of its last movement she made in 1960 when she was 20 years old:
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Here, she plays Chopin's Ballade in F Minor at Aspen last year:
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Sergei Rachmaninoff may be a 20th Century composer by his dates, but he is a Russian romantic in the tradition of Tchaikovsky. He wrote three symphonies, the first of which was one of the great disasters in the history of bad premieres (but not for the music, apparently, though Rachmaninoff never published or performed the work again) and the second of which went on to become a very popular work despite its enormous length. The 3rd has not benefited from the 2nd's fame and, first heard in 1936 in Philadelphia, it was too conservative for people who expected something a little more contemporary in the 1930s, and too modern for people who preferred their music to sound like Beethoven and Tchaikovsky. Well, it's a great work – and Stuart Malina loves it. Judging from his performance of it here a few seasons ago, I think you'll understand why it should be heard more often.

Here's a recording with Vladimir Ashkenazy conducting the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsertam from 1997:
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APRIL 12th & 13th

We hope you'll save a place for Elijah in your calendar when the Susquehanna Chorale and the Messiah College Concert Choir directed by Linda Tedford join Stuart and the orchestra for one of the great choral works of the 19th Century, Felix Mendelssohn's oratorio, Elijah.

I'll save the background material for the concert post, but here are two short excerpts that will give you an idea of what to expect. The 1st is just the last few minutes of the work, from a 2010 performance with Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos conducting the Boston Symphony and Tanglewood Chorus:
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...and one of the arias in Mendelssohn's trademark simplicity with the legendary alto, Kathleen Ferrier, singing “Oh, Rest in the Lord”, recorded in 1946 (keep in mind, this was right after the ordeal of World War II):
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MAY 17th & 18th:

Going "Out with a Bang" would seem a given, considering a concerto featuring a stageful of percussion instruments and a big noisy symphony like Tchaikovsky's 5th. But the concert opens with some quiet music – in fact, the only thing quieter this season would be John Cage's 4'33”.

Aaron Copland's Quiet City was initially conceived for incidental music for a stage play in which a young man plays a bluesy trumpet on the roof of his New York apartment building (keep in mind, his cowboy ballets notwithstanding, Copland described himself as “just a Jewish boy from Brooklyn”), answered in the distance by the night-time silence of a sleeping city – and an English horn.

Here's a performance by an orchestra from another great city, the Santa Cecilia orchestra from Rome, conducted by Antony Pappano:
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One of the works we've gotten a lot of requests to bring back was the Percussion Concerto by Jennifer Higdon which our principal percussionist Chris Rose played a few seasons ago. It was the first performance by a soloist other than Colin Currie for whom she'd written it and she was so impressed by Chris' performance, she arranged the work for band – and he's since played it with his “other gig,” the President's Own Marine Band.

So they'll be back to end our season – we're hoping Ms. Higdon can join us, but she's amazingly busy (and just a couple weeks ago, finished her first opera, a setting of Cold Mountain, two years in the making), so I make no promises, but Chris Rose will be back to play her Perucssion Concerto on this program.

Here's a video of a concert with the University of British Columbia and soloist Jeremy Lawi – I love the camera work so you can get a great idea of just what kind of instruments the soloist is playing: the set-up itself is amazing. And then you get to hear it, too.
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While Tchaikovsky and his 5th Symphony probably don't need much of an introduction, one of the more popular symphonies in the repertoire and one of those "Fate" symphonies like Beethoven's 5th, Mahler's 5th, Shostakovich's 5th and also, for that matter, Tchaikovsky's 4th but unlike its predecessor which gives in to fate and the hero is defeated, Tchaikovsky ends his 5th with a victory celebration. Here's a clip of the finale with Valery Gergiev conducting the Mariinsky Theater Orchestra:
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And if that's not “ending with a bang,” I don't know what is!