. Interchanging Idioms: January 2009

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Update: Violin Concerto

Writing this Violin Concerto has been an interesting project. After reviewing the recording from the concert last June and going over the scores, parts and comments from the performers, I started writing this new work with the idea of further honing my compositional skills. And I think it not only worked, but I ended up with a new piece that is much stronger than the compositions from just a year ago.

1st Movement - Bad Things Happen
2nd Movement - Grief in Suspension
3rd Movement - Moving Beyond

Now that it's finished, or at least to the point of shopping it around, I proud to say there are at least 2 professional violinists considering it. The only drawback is finding an orchestra, but we're working on that too.

Scores are available on request.

Opera Review: Plonsey hits a high note, while Pekar drones on

Harvey Pekar and Dan Plonsey wrote a jazz opera, “Leave Me Alone!”, which premiered in Cleveland on the 31st of January. I was fortunate to have been included in the premiere as the production was simulcast on the web by Real Time Opera and Oberlin College of Arts and Sciences. As an ex-Netscape engineer, I am always thrilled to find new groups pushing the scope of the internet and although streaming video isn’t necessarily new, providing the world the opportunity to see the premiere of a new opera is a very worthy project.

That said, perhaps the first thing I should say about the production is that this review was greatly hindered by the technology. Streaming video has come a long way what with high speed routers and fast connection speeds. I am a huge fan of BBC’s iPlayer and the content that is as good as watching the programs on television. However, Real Time Opera’s production of “Leave Me Alone!” probably would have been better served to have been time delayed to allow for caching the video which would have provided smoother viewing. Easily half of the production I can't review simply because it was too spotty, too jerky to give any impression of either the music or the lyrics. Even the scenes I did get a good sense of, music and words were lost and that provided a real challenge in really understanding the flow of the piece. This is very unfortunate because it means my review is limited to what I could hear.

What I did hear: The piece begins with a loud screeching sax, in very avant-garde style jazz. From what I could understand later of the libretto, avant-garde jazz is a focus of this opera, so the start was fitting and yet off setting. It felt as if I had no idea what to expect and that was exactly what the music needed to say. Harvey says in his artist statement this opera is “about the problems faced by turn of the 21st century artists in general.” So, 'unsettling' music set the mood perfectly.

The opening scene is a monologue by Harvey Pekar reading from a page while free jazz floats in the background. Is this opera? Well, it’s avant-garde certainly. The music is interesting flowing naturally behind the monologue even though Harvey’s monologue was delivered haltingly (intentionally).

I found it odd the vocal quartet used hand held microphones since Dan Plonsey, who also appeared on stage, used a hands free microphone. If they spent enough money making this production web cast, they should have spent the money to have wireless hands free microphones. If they were worried about sound quality, the net took care of that (high fidelity over the internet just isn't quite there yet, particularly in live feeds).

The first vocalist was the tenor (There is no web program, and the Credits page is incomplete so forgive me where I don’t have names), who displayed excellent skill with some really difficult vocal work. The music was fast and all over the place, verging on acid jazz. While it made the words difficult to understand (part of that owing to the technical difficulties too), it was thrilling to listen to. However, occasionally the tenor went into the stratosphere and the vocal quality completely gave out. The lyrics didn’t seem to need the pyrotechnics so I question the use of the extreme registers. It didn’t work for me.

The next number was actually a duet between Dan and his wife Mantra Ben-ya'akova Plonsey, “God Damn it. I can’t find anything.” This number had great character, but not particularly good vocal quality. It felt as if the characters were playing themselves (which they were); the music and lyrics worked well together to bring the characters to life. The bebop jazz style gave the scene a fun, frolicking lilt to a really rather edgy scene, basically an argument between a husband and wife as they prepare their house for guests.

The opera then progressed into a painful song with large leaps in register. At first I felt it was an interesting technique of the vocalist being slightly out of tune, as some jazz styles use this with great effect. It’s not your typical bel canto opera style, but then “Leave Me Alone!” is not your typical opera. However, as the opera progressed I came to realize some of the vocalists were just out of tune, ever so slightly. Not always, but not consistent with the style of music either. To their credit, they are students. Still, it is disappointing, particularly when some songs, like “employing systematic elements” are really wonderful numbers.

“Employing systematic elements” incorporates some really nice counterpoint, and the female vocals were lovely. At one point, the bass was pressed to go a bit low and, like the tenor earlier, felt a bit strained (and out of tune). Overall a really nice song. This was followed by a lovely duet. Musically it was wonderful, but it didn’t seem to add meaning to the words; too often the words and music seemed at war with each other, neither being memorable. “Nice Reviews” is another stunning female duet which moved into “No one would notice” which gave us a chance to hear some really fine vocal quartet work. The vocal quartet music was perhaps Dan’s best work in the opera, strong, lyrical, understandable and very interesting. The only problem with “No one would notice” was during the verses when there was so much text it was impossible to follow (even when there weren’t technical glitches).

While some music didn't fit the words well, this was not true of the entire show. “I started to write” presented unison singing which matched the words beautifully. As the piece developed (and Dan obviously was interested in writing something more) the music devolved into more counterpoint quartet singing, again, a real highlight of the show. Other numbers which really hit the mark were “Stolen Time” and “I can’t get to sleep.” In the later number, the bass and mezzo really shine. Then the tenor comes in for a tight trio that didn’t last near long enough. The music really captured the sense of the thoughts in an overactive mind. “What is it?” was another number performed by Dan’s wife. While she wasn’t quite in tune, the piece was really fun.

Overall the music was really interesting. While it didn't always match the lyrics, it was all really good jazz. About half way through there seemed to be a lack of ebb and flow to the opera. So much of the music was at a set pace. There were different styles of jazz, but no real shift in the pace of the music or the mood. But, just as I felt this the opera started to flow. Harvey’s wife Joyce Brabner gave a monologue about how intrusive fans are and yet wanting recognition for their work. Hmmmm, sounding a bit schizophrenic. The music underneath was perfectly understated.

As the opera comes to an end, we are presented with a dialog between Dan and his wife. There is music in the background, but the words are not sung. No, I don’t believe all words have to be sung to constitute an opera. However, if you start and end the production with spoken words, and have large sections of spoken words throughout the piece I think calling it an opera is probably not correct. It wasn’t really a musical either (as that tends to inspire images of Rogers and Hammerstein or Sondheim). Perhaps it is best described as an art piece, with music and words.

At one point the opera speaks about the avant-garde artist having a hard time. But, isn’t that the point of being an avant-garde artist, off the beaten path? If these artists are not pushing the bounds of society, then they’re not really avant-garde. It’s only years later when the good stuff remains that it becomes mainstream and those who follow are the ones who make the money. Harvey complains “you gotta eat, man” speaking about the need for artists to be paid for their work and yet speaks disparagingly of mainstream artists. You can’t have it both ways, Harvey.

Like “An American Splendor” (2003), the movie about Harvey Pekar, “Leave Me Alone!” is in some respects auto-biographical. There are numerous references to Harvey’s life, making the movie, after the movie, writing the opera and other random thoughts. But then, this is Harvey’s writing style. His comic books, which is what originally brought Harvey fame, with the occasional “Nice Review”, are focused around Harvey’s life, so the plot (what I could follow) was somewhat expected. Yet, he makes a comment during a taped telephone conversation with Robert Crumb, “A buck is a buck.” It feels like Harvey is complaining about being bothered by all the attention his film got him and yet, he is more than willing to grab a buck (and more fame) with an opera about himself. If you don’t like the fame, don’t write about yourself. And if you think what you’re saying is “honest” then why all the complaining? This didn’t feel like an opera about art, about ordinary people getting involved and taking art back from the academic community. This felt like Harvey screaming “Look at me” with Dan writing some wonderful music for it.

Two New Classical Music CD Releases

The Royal Flemish Philharmonic turns in powerful performances of three great 20th-century masterpieces on two new recordings for naïve’s sister label, ambroisie, for release in the U.S. on January 27, 2009.

The first release features Shostakovich’s landmark Symphony No. 5 conducted by Jaap van Zweden (pictured), the long-time concertmaster of Amsterdam’s famed Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, whose rapid rise in the world of conducting – he left his position with the orchestra in 1995 after 16 years – includes a prominent new post in America. He took over the music directorship of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra in the 2008-09 season, where he is winning consistent acclaim for his intensely expressive performances. Van Zweden also began his tenure as Chief Conductor of the Royal Flemish Philharmonic in the 2008-09 season.

Shostakovich wrote his Symphony No. 5 in D minor, Op. 47, between April and July 1937, and the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra premiered it in Leningrad on November 21, 1937, under the direction of Yevgeny Mravinsky. The work was a huge success, and is said to have received an ovation that lasted more than 40 minutes. Still one of Shostakovich’s most popular works today, the symphony was written soon after a highly critical story ran in the state newspaper, Pravda, which attacked the composer’s modernist approach to music. It is subtitled "A Soviet Artist’s Response to Just Criticism", but many contemporary commentators believe that the piece is a veiled attack on Stalinism.

Ambroisie’s second release for January 2009 features Belgian-born violinist Yossif Ivanov (pictured), again with the Royal Flemish Philharmonic, which is this time conducted by Pinchas Steinberg. Acclaimed as "a player of impressive authority and presence" (the Strad), and "one of the top violinists of tomorrow" (Diapason), Ivanov has already, at the age of 21, assembled an impressive list of musical prizes and concert appearances. When he was only 16, he won First Prize at the Montreal Intern ational Musical Competition, followed two years later by a Second Prize, as well as the Prize of the Public at the Queen Elisabeth Music Competition in Brussels. Ivanov was named as the Echo Rising Star by the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels for the 2005-06 season, and, as part of that prize, performed a recital tour in venues including Carnegie Hall, Musikverein Vienna, Concertgebouw Amsterdam, and Symphony Hall Birmingham. In April 2007, he made his highly acclaimed London debut, with the London Philharmonic Orchestra under the direction of Marin Alsop. Ivanov studied with Zakhar Bron in Lübeck, Igor and Valery Oistrakh at the Royal Conservatory of Brussels, and with Augustin Dumay at the Queen Elisabeth College of Music. In 2006, Yossif Ivanov’s first CD on the ambroisie/naïve label, featuring sonatas by Franck, Ysaÿe, and D’Haene, was awarded a Diapason d’or de l’année, the most important record industry award in France.

Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-75) originally wrote his Violin Concerto No. 1 in 1947 and 1948. He was still working on the piece at the time of the Zhdanov decree, and in the period following the composer's denunciation the work could not be performed. It was finally premiered by its dedicatee, David Oistrakh, on October 29, 1955, with – like the Fifth Symphony – the Leningrad Philharmonic under Mravinsky. The concerto has a dark brooding central core and is a musical representation of the composer’s troubled relationship with the state.

Béla Bartók (1881-1945) wrote his Violin Concerto No. 2 between 1937 and 1938 and dedicated it to the Hungarian violin virtuoso, Zoltán Székely. Although Bartók was filled with serious concern about the growing strength of Fascism at the time, the composition is generally lyrical and optimistic in tone. It was premiered by Székely at the Concertgebouw, Amsterdam on March 23, 1939, with Willem Mengelberg conducting the Concertgebouw orchestra.

Friday, January 30, 2009

New Music: "A Sweeter Music" by Sarah Cahill

Under the title "A Sweeter Music" Sarah Cahill commissioned 18 composers, both established and up-and-coming, to write pieces on the themes of peace and war. Sunday's recital at the Hertz Hall on the UC Berkeley campus introduced 10 of them, accompanied by video counterpoint on three screens from Cahill's husband, John Sanborn. The title of the project came to Cahill serendipitously when she encountered this quote while reading the text of Martin Luther King's Nobel Prize acceptance speech: "We must see that peace represents a sweeter music, a cosmic melody that is far superior to the discord of war."

In a blog by SFMike, "My real favorite of the concert was "There Is a Field" by Jerome Kitzke where he had Sarah play the piano, recite poetry (3 Whitmans, 1 Rumi) at the same time, drum on the head of the piano, shout, and sing/scat. She was fabulous and fearless with all of it, shifting as rapidly as the music from mournful to rocking and back again."

Joshua Kosman, of the San Francisco Chronicle, gave Cahill's performance this review,

Sweetness was in fact the reigning spirit - there was plenty of pacifism and gentleness on display, and not much, perhaps, in the way of protest or outrage. But the music, helped along by the impassioned force of Cahill's playing, amounted to a persuasive and varied investigation of the subject.

To this taste, the afternoon's most dramatic offering was Jerome Kitzke's "There Is a Field," a vividly theatrical suite of pieces based on poems by Walt Whitman and Rumi. Cahill declaimed these texts amid various whoops and war cries while performing music that was hyperactive and reflective by turns, and Sanborn's montage of Mathew Brady's Civil War photographs made an eloquent accompaniment.

Frederic Rzewski's "Peace Dances" took a similar tack, bursting with energy at one moment and then subsiding into austere melodic play at the next. Rzewski is a ferocious brand of pacifist, whose political views take on a muscular musical cast.

Lisa Hirsch, a blogger for San Francisco Classical Voice, posted her review agreeing with SFMike and Joshua Kosman, "The two longest and most complex works on the program, Frederic Rzewski’s Peace Dances and Jerome Kitzke’s There Is a Field, were also among the most musically satisfying. Peace Dances, like many of Rzewski’s other works, incorporates a wide swath of vernacular music, including nursery tunes and folk songs from many countries, but the surfaces and structures are so intricate that on first hearing those themes were not easy to discern. Nonetheless, the dense and often contrapuntal music, written in vastly contrasting styles, demanded, and got, the audience’s attention."

Sarah played only half of the commissioned works, to leave more World Premieres for the people in New York, Boston, Houston and Chicago. Here is the complete calendar.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

NY Premiere of George Benjamin’s Duet with Piano and Orchestra February 6th

George Benjamin is a British composer who studied with Olivier Messiaen at the Paris Conservatoire during the second half of the 1970s. His latest work, Duet for piano and orchestra was originally premiered in the UK by the Cleveland Orchestra with Pierre-Laurent Aimard, as well as performances in the US and at Switzerland ’s Lucerne Festival, London ’s BBC Proms, and in Cleveland , respectively. Finally the piece comes to New York at Carnegie Hall on February 6, during the Cleveland Orchestra’s week-long residency in the city. Conducted by the orchestra’s long-standing music director, Franz Welser-Möst, the concert will be Aimard’s second Carnegie appearance in as many days.

The Financial Times described Aimard as "a ferociously intelligent musician, and full of sharp insights," and his sovereignty in the fields of contemporary music and Bach is internationally acknowledged. To have four such opportunities, to present an important new work like Benjamin’s to as many new audiences, is the kind of honor bestowed nowadays on only the most esteemed performers. After September’s U.S. premiere in Cleveland , the Akron Beacon-Journal wrote: "Aimard … is a whiz at contemporary music and a communicative performer no matter what he plays," and went on to describe Benjamin’s Duet as "an intriguing and skillfully crafted work," before concluding: "This compelling performance by soloist and orchestra deserves many more listenings."

In an interview on YouTube, George Benjamin describes the piece as a flock of starlings, using the orchestra to move through the sound world as a single entity, occasionally taking on brief sections which are very melodic and tonal and then moving into a complex section which are layered and multi-faceted. The only piece of Benjamin's I have heard is his viola duet Viola, viola, which resembles Iannis Xenakis. There are also elements of late Messiaen in the complex layers of sound with moments of tonal bursts. For lovers of this style of music, the concert should be real treat.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Composer Michael Hersch to Receive World Premiere in Washington , DC

The world premiere of Last Autumn, a major new work for saxophone and cello, will be the centerpiece of a concert devoted to music by award-winning composer Michael Hersch. Presented by the Left Bank Concert Society, “Music of Michael Hersch” will take place on Saturday, January 31 at 7:30 pm at the historic Dumbarton United Methodist Church in Georgetown , Washington , DC. Last Autumn will be performed by Gary Louie on saxophone and Evelyn Elsing on cello, alongside two piano works – Two Pieces for Piano (2003) and Suite from The Vanishing Pavilions (2006) – that the composer will perform himself. A “Meet the Audience” reception with refreshments will follow the concert.

Hersch began composing Last Autumn in 2005. Commissioned by the Washington Performing Arts Society, the work is based on fragments of poetry by the late W. G. Sebald, a German novelist and poet who died in 2001. His work, which often simultaneously intertwined themes of biography, literary history, poetry, and cultural critique, often the savage nature of man, was a complex web of haunting landscapes.. For this world premiere performance, the 22 movements of Last Autumn's Book I will be performed in their entirety.

In 2006, Hersch gave the world premiere of The Vanishing Pavilions in Philadelphia , drawing a rave review from the Philadelphia Inquirer, which found the 145-minute-long work to be “actually a model of clarity and economy if you can handle the reality Hersch’s music embraces. Overtly or covertly, The Vanishing Pavilions is about the destruction of shelter (both in fact and in concept) and life amid the absence of any certainty. And though the music is as deeply troubled as can be, its restless directness also commands listeners not to be paralyzed by existential futility.” As for the performance, the composer “conjured volcanic gestures from the piano with astonishing virtuosity” – in short, “the evening felt downright historic.” Like Last Autumn, The Vanishing Pavilions is based on fragments of poetry, this time from British poet Christopher Middleton, with whom Hersch collaborated. The immense solo piano work, from which the Suite is excerpted, has recently been released on the Vanguard Classics/Musical Concepts label as a two-CD set, again with Hersch as pianist. The composer likewise premiered his Two Pieces for Piano in 2003 in Rome on the Romaeuropa Festival, recording the work on an album of his chamber music from Vanguard.

Named “one of the most fertile musical minds to emerge in the U.S. over the past generation” by Andrew Clark in the Financial Times, Michael Hersch was born in 1971 in Washington, DC, and raised in Virginia. He studied at the Peabody Conservatory of Music in Baltimore and the Moscow Conservatory, and is currently on the composition faculty of the Peabody Conservatory. In 1996, at age 25, he was awarded First Prize in the American Composers Awards for his composition Elegy (1994). The work was featured in a performance conducted by Marin Alsop at Alice Tully Hall in 1997. Later that year, Hersch became one of the youngest ever recipients of a Guggenheim Fellowship in Composition. He won the prestigious Rome Prize (2000), the Berlin Prize (2001), and both the Charles Ives Scholarship (1996) and Goddard Lieberson Fellowship (2006) from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Hersch’s work has been conducted in the U.S. and abroad under leading conductors including Mariss Jansons, Marin Alsop, Robert Spano, Alan Gilbert, James DePriest, Carlos Kalmar, and Gerard Schwarz. The second CD of his works to appear on the Vanguard Classics label was selected by the Washington Post as one of the most important recordings of 2005. The album features Hersch, who is also regarded as one of today’s most gifted pianists, performing his own music alongside works by Morton Feldman, Wolfgang Rihm, and Josquin des Prez. A CD of Hersch’s orchestral works, including his Symphonies Nos. 1 & 2, was released in the fall of 2006 with Marin Alsop conducting the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra on the Naxos American Classics series.

Cello Scrotum: a rash of humour

Photo by Carey More
Will Pavia reported today in the TimesOnLine that "Cello Scrotum" is a hoax, a supposed mallady that affects cellist with a rash in the genital area.

Never mind that this dermatalogical ailment seemed unlikely, given the posture of the average male cellist, the condition was named in the British Medical Journal, and thereafter in an array of reviews of musician’s aches and pains.

Nearly all such reviews referred to a letter to the journal in 1974 from John Murphy, husband of Dr Elaine Murphy, who noted that he had once come across a case of cello scrotum. But Dr Elaine Murphy, now Baroness Murphy, has now admitted that the letter she drafted with her husband was a hoax, a practical joke that the couple have been "dining out on" ever since.

In May 1974, Elaine Murphy -- now Baroness Murphy -- joined with John Murphy in submitting a hoax letter to the British Medical Journal (BMJ), which often publishes correspondence from doctors about unusual cases. Their letter was in response to a doctor's missive about a condition called "guitar nipple." It described a painful irritation among three young classical-guitar players, which happened when the edge of the guitar was pressed against the breast and eventually inflamed a nipple.

Perhaps there are other illnesses cellists need concern themselves with, but feel secure that their scrotums are safe from harm regardless the hours they play with the instrument between their legs.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Tour Program Features World Premiere by David Ludwig

Each season, Curtis On Tour brings the extraordinary artistry of the world-renowned Curtis Institute of Music to audiences nationwide, with tomorrow’s leading musicians performing alongside celebrated alumni and faculty. This year the Curtis On Tour ensemble includes eight students and two faculty members: double-bassist Harold Hall Robinson and composer/narrator David Ludwig(pictured). The 2008–09 season of Curtis On Tour begins with a free recital on Wednesday, February 18 in Field Concert Hall at the Curtis Institute of Music.

The program features the world premiere of David Ludwig’s From the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, a song-cycle based on the thousand-year-old quatrains of the Persian poet and scholar Omar Khayyám. Written for mezzo-soprano and an ensemble inspired by the instrumentation in Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du soldat, the work combines the sensual nature of Khayyám’s poetry and the spirit of eleventh-century Persia with a contemporary-music setting.

As well as this new work, the program also includes three pieces by Stravinsky: his L’histoire du soldat, with David Ludwig as narrator. The Philadelphia performance and selected tour performances also include Stravinsky’s Divertimento for Violin and Piano and Three Pieces for Clarinet Solo.

Following the February 18 concert in Philadelphia, the 2008–09 Curtis On Tour ensemble will travel for several weeks across the country, performing at the Rockport Opera House in Rockport, Maine on February 21; Minskey Recital Hall in Orono, ME (February 22); Temple Judea in Coral Gables, FL (February 24); the Library of Congress in Washington, DC (February 26); the Samueli Theatre in Costa Mesa, CA (March 7); the Henry Chapel in Seattle, WA (March 15); Community Music School in San Francisco (March 16); and the Mondavi Center for the Arts in Davis, CA on March 21 and 22. Full details of all the concerts are below.

The Curtis On Tour performances embody the remarkable traditions of The Curtis Institute of Music, where individually tailored study with a faculty of leading musicians has nurtured a long line of great performers, from such legends as Leonard Bernstein and Samuel Barber to current stars Juan Diego Flórez, Alan Gilbert, Hilary Hahn, Jennifer Higdon, Leila Josefowicz, and Lang Lang. One of the world’s leading music schools, Curtis provides full-tuition scholarships to all of its students, ensuring that admissions are based solely on artistic promise. Students at this intimate, Philadelphia-based conservatory "learn by doing": performing frequently and often collaborating with their teachers. Curtis On Tour embodies this winning combination of youthful exuberance and seasoned artistry.

Thomas Hampson to Sing Title Role in Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin

Thomas Hampson first sang the role of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin at the Metropolitan Opera on September 25, 2001, to great acclaim; the New York Times wrote, “Thomas Hampson is moving from strength to strength … . His Onegin was truly fine. His voice has deepened and taken on more power, and his connection with his roles seems ever more profound.” Hampson returns to the Met on January 30 for a run of seven performances (through Feb 21) opposite the luminous Karita Mattila as Tatyana, conducted by Jirí Belohlávek.

Performing in Russian, one of at least ten languages that he sings fluently, the versatile American baritone portrays Alexander Pushkin’s unlikeable hero, as interpreted by Tchaikovsky in his 1879 opera. Opera News had this to say about Hampson’s performance of Onegin in 2001:

Robert Carsen’s spare but richly poetic 1997 production of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, sung in Russian, returned to the Met on September 25 in much-improved condition, due to new casting. Thomas Hampson’s subtly calibrated yet increasingly intense singing and acting in the title role made the most difference in upgrading the presentation. He seemed to miss nothing, capturing fully the anti-hero’s suavity in the first scene, his gentle and friendly yet firm and humiliating rejection of Tatyana’s love in the third scene, the conceit toward the party guests, as well as the blind rage at Lensky’s insults in Act II and the equally blind insanity of his futile pursuit of Tatyana in the last act. All this was sung with flawless discipline and charismatic, even glamorous tone." [Jan 2002]

It is unusual for the protagonist of such a deeply romantic opera to be so unlikeable, but the tragedy of the haughty man’s undoing – and his complete comprehension of his errors – makes for superb operatic drama.

In December, Hampson made his role debut at the Metropolitan Opera as Athanaël, opposite Renée Fleming in Massenet’s Thaïs. He recorded this opera with Ms. Fleming for Decca and previously performed the role with her in this same John Cox production at the Lyric Opera of Chicago in 2002. The New York Times found that for Hampson’s latest Met performances "he was in top form," and the Financial Times wrote, "Hampson sings the susceptible monk Athanaël with incisive urgency, verbal point, and unexpected power."

Thomas Hampson’s next New York appearance will be at the Met’s 125th Anniversary Gala on March 15, when he will perform the final scene of Wagner’s Parsifal with Plácido Domingo. Between the Onegin performances and the Met Gala, Hampson sings two performances of Mahler’s quintessentially Romantic song-cycle Songs of a Wayfarer with the Orchestre de Paris under Christoph Eschenbach.

John Adams World Premiere of His New String Quartet

"FOCUS!" festival will highlight the world premiere of John Adams String Quartet No. 2 at Juilliard on January 29, by the St. Lawrence String Quartet. Adams will join fellow California composers Pamela Z, Pauline Oliveros, Gabriela Lena Frank, and Morton Subotnick this Tuesday, January 27, at 7 PM, at the school's Peter Jay Sharp Theater, for a special panel discussion moderated by Sachs. The discussion precedes a concert of music that includes the New York premiere of works by Frank, Subotnick, and Terry Riley.

A major highlight of the festival is the world premiere of Adams’s String Quartet by the St. Lawrence String Quartet on Thursday, January 29. This two-movement piece, written for the SLSQ, is Adams’s second full-length work for string quartet and contrasts with its predecessor, John’s Book of Alleged Dances, which Kronos Quartet premiered in 1994, in that it does not include electronics. The concert begins at 8 PM in the school's Peter Jay Sharp Theater. Prior to the concert, at 6 PM, the composer will sit down for a public conversation with Robert Marx in the school's Morse Hall.

Another highlight of the festival will be its culminating event: a semi-staged production of Adams's groundbreaking 1990 opera, The Death of Klinghoffer. The composer will conduct the Juilliard Opera Center in this special performance in Peter Sharp Theater on January 31, beginning at 8 PM.

For a complete calendar of events, visit juilliard.edu. There's also more on the festival in the Juilliard Journal, at juilliard.edu/journal, including an overview of California's musical history by the festival's director, Joel Sachs, and a feature by Lisa B. Robinson on John Adams, focusing on The Death of Klinghoffer.

Note: I recently received notice I was not selected for an interview at Juilliard, so I won't be attending this school for my Master's studies. Hopefully, in a few years, they will afford me the same invitation as they have to the above composers, to participate in a composers discussion with the release of new works.

Producer Credits Determined for Best Picture Nominee

Beverly Hills, CA — Producer credits for Academy Award® Best Picture nominee “The Reader” have been determined by the Producers Branch Executive Committee of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The official nominees for the film are Anthony Minghella, Sydney Pollack, Donna Gigliotti and Redmond Morris.

Because four producers were listed on the credits form submitted for Oscar® consideration and Academy rules allow for only three producers – except in “a rare and extraordinary circumstance” – to be nominated and potentially receive Oscar statuettes, a meeting of the executive committee was necessary. In the end, the committee determined that the circumstances of “The Reader” – in which the two original producers (Minghella and Pollack) both died partway through the process – met its definition of “rare and extraordinary” and that all four submitted individuals should be named as nominees.

Academy Awards for outstanding film achievements of 2008 will be presented on Sunday, February 22, 2009, at the Kodak Theatre at Hollywood & Highland Center®, and televised live by the ABC Television Network. The Oscar® presentation also will be televised live in more than 200 countries worldwide.

SF Opera: Three World Premieres

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — The San Francisco Opera plans to commission new operas by American composers Christopher Theofanidis, Mark Adamo and Jennifer Higdon.

The announcement Monday coincided with the release of the schedule for 2009-10, conductor Nicola Luisotti's first as music director. The company canceled a planned new production of Britten's "Peter Grimes" and a revival of Puccini's "La Boheme" because of finances.

Theofanidis' work will focus on heroism and the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001. It will have a libretto by Donna DiNovelli and is planned to premiere in September 2011. Adamo's opera, "The Gospel of Mary Magdalene," is scheduled to open in June 2013 and will have a libretto by the composer. Higdon's opera, with a libretto by Gene Scheer, is to open in the autumn 2013. The subject was not announced.

A book I want to read: Taruskin's The Danger of Music - and Other Anti-Utopian Essays.

Tom Service of the Guardian wrote a review of the book "The Danger of Music - and Other Anti-Utopian Essays" by Richard Taruskin. According to the review:

The book is full of broadsides against the lazy thinking of musical establishments: the modernist juggernaut that Taruskin sees as hijacking critical thinking about music in the academy in the mid-century, the sort of kneejerk reaction that, "if it's difficult and nobody likes it, it must be good"; the emerging practices of early music, and the idea that what Roger Norrington and John Eliot Gardiner were up to in the 80s amounted to "authenticity" - Taruskin's elegant and brilliant rebuttal is that they are modernists, performers whose Beethoven and Mozart is of our time, not of the 18th or 19th centuries; and above all, the facile assumption of music's much-vaunted universality, and its supposed status as the highest and most ethereal of the arts. On every page, Taruskin reminds you how messy, dirty, and yes, dangerous, the works of western classical music and their reception have been.

These are the sorts of things I've been trying to say about Modern Classical Music and obviously no where near as elegantly done, or as substantiated. Still, it's nice to think that what I have been thinking isn't so far off from what other's far more respected in the field of musicology have been saying for 20 years.

Monterey Symphony: Classical Music from Mexico

Two internationally renowned classical musicians are coming to Salinas California next month as the Monterey Symphony pays tribute to symphonic music from Mexico. Conductor Carlos Miguel Prieto (pictured) and his father, renowned cellist Carlos Prieto, will perform Saturday, Feb. 14, at Sherwood Hall, 940 N. Main St. in Salinas.

Carlos Miguel Prieto, a graduate of both Princeton and Harvard, was voted "conductor of the year 2002" by the Mexican Union of Music, and he was named music director of the Orchestra Sinfonica Nacional de Mexico (National Symphony Orchestra of Mexico). "I'm always looking to present positive role models," said Joseph Truskot, executive director of the Monterey Symphony. "This is a side of Mexican culture many people may not be aware of."

The concert will consist of a cello concerto composed by Federico Ibarra especially for the elder Prieto. The suite from redes (fish nets) will also be performed. Silvestre Revueltas, arguably Mexico's greatest classical music composer, wrote the musical score for Fred Zinnemann's 1934 film "redes," which tells the story of 1930s Mexican fishermen fighting for their rights.

Here is a sample of Federico Ibarra's Piano Sonata 6,

ten minutes of a very enjoyable, tonal and yet very modern piece.

Here is Simon Bolivar conducting "Sensemayá" by Silvestre Revueltas,

written in 1938, 4 years after the film score for "redes."

It should be an exciting concert giving a glimpse of contemporary Mexican classical music.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

BAFTA Nominations: Music

The British Academy Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) Award nominations for Music are:

    * Alexandre Desplat

    * Hans Zimmer
    * James Newton Howard

    * Benny Andersson
    * Björn Ulvaeus

    * A. R. Rahman

    * Thomas Newman

For those that know me, there will be no surprise that I am not cheering for Mamma Mia!. The music is entertaining, or it was back in the day and the film and stage production were a huge hit in the UK. However, as fun as it might be, it doesn't fit in the category for best film music. Dark Knight is another film that I feel ought to be given the pass in terms of music. I hope to see Benjamin Button this next weekend and will probably take in both Wall-E and Slumdog again just to refresh myself with the music.

Marketing isn't Everything

I surf the net on a daily basis looking for news stories, new operas, classical music and film scores - petty much any interesting story in relation to music. Back on the 1st of October, I found news of a New Opera - coming to film, Repo: The Genetic Opera. There was press covering the soon to be released film, a pretty nice website with sound bites and games to create a fan base and the hype in the film, music & goth magazines was growing exponentially. In terms of modern marketing, this film was hitting all the buttons!

As of the first of the year, the film has only grossed $150,000, partly due to a very limited release (only 8 screens initially) and partly due to the lack of crowds at the cinemas where it was released. Pre-screening reviews were good, but that was before the film was finished. When it made it to the cinema, the reviews were poor at best - some of them were bloody cruel, but then it is a bloody film. Fans seem to love it, though - or at least the online reviews suggest this.

There has been a lot of comparison with The Rocky Horror Picture Show which also did poorly in its initial release. But today, that film has garnered $139,876,417, mostly due to a cult fan base that will go to see it whenever it's in town. The most recent releases of Repo seem to be trying to generate this same sort of cult following, using a traveling show to tour the country.

What have they done? Well, if you look at Google News for anything to do with the film, you'll find there is something in the press nearly every day since the first of the year. The amount of stead press coverage is unbelievable. Local papers will cover the event when the touring show comes to town and as a result national magazines continue to run articles about the film. Most of this kind of advertising is free - the best kind.

Now the film is coming out on DVD. The hope is the hype will generate a flurry of DVD sales. During the road shows they were even so bold as to ask people to not download the film from the internet as they really need to see a profit from the DVD sales. Yes, film piracy hurts the industry, but this sort of bold admission leads me to believe they are getting desperate. Their fans are the kinds of people who are internet savvy and likely will download copies of the film, even more so now that the film makers look frantic for funds.

Repo is still a long ways away from breaking even - and an even farther distance from being anywhere close to the cult hit of Rocky Horror. Kudos to the marketing crew for Repo. They have done an outstanding job. It's just not enough to save the film.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Sarah Chang in the UK

Sarah Chang performs with the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Joji Hattori

Sarah Chang is recognised the world over as one of classical music’s most captivating and gifted performers. Last October Sarah performed the world premiere of the Violin Concerto by composer Christopher Theofanidis, commissioned by the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra specifically for Sarah.

Joji Hattori is one of the leading Japanese musicians of his generation and has enjoyed a very varied career as a musician, firstly as a concert violinist, an activity which has developed into directing chamber orchestras, conducting symphony orchestras and finally operas. He has been Associate Conductor of the Vienna Chamber Orchestra since 2004 and during the 2007/08 season served as Principal Resident Conductor of the Opera House in Erfurt, Germany.

The Philharmonia Orchestra was founded in 1945, primarily as a recording orchestra. It is made up of more than 80 musicians giving around 40 concerts in London and over 60 concerts a year at its Residencies and other venues around the UK, in addition to its touring work all over the world. Its community and education programme brings thousands of young people into contact with the Orchestra. It is the world’s most recorded orchestra with over 1000 releases to its credit.

To book tickets contact the Philharmonia Orchestra.

Tuesday 5 May 2009, 7.45pm, The Anvil, Basingstoke
Wednesday 6 May 2009, 7.30pm, Bedford Corn Exchange, Bedford
Thursday 7 May 2009, 7.30pm, Royal Festival Hall, London
GRIEG Peer Gynt, Suite No 1
BRUCH Violin Concerto No 1 in G minor
BRAHMS Symphony No 1

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Musicians are still amazing, live or otherwise

There are lots of reports that the version of "Air and Simple Gifts", which was performed by Cellist Yo-Yo Ma, violinist Itzhak Perlman, pianist Gabriella Montero and clarinetist Anthony McGill at the President's Inauguration, was actually a pre-recorded version to which the musicians played insync to. I'm not sure why this is such big news; it's not like they were pretending to play something someone else had actually performed (ref: Milli Vanilli).

The quartet recorded the piece and then made a decision, due to weather, to have the pre-recording piece broadcast because it would be impossible for their instruments to be in tune. What benefit would have been served by having the performance something less than amazing? It's still a lovely piece of music, the musicians are tops in their field, and they did play what we heard - just what we heard wasn't quite the same as what they actually sounded like on the day.

Oscar Nominations

Achievement in music written for motion pictures (Original score)

“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” (Paramount and Warner Bros.),Alexandre Desplat
“Defiance” (Paramount Vantage), James Newton Howard
“Milk” (Focus Features), Danny Elfman
“Slumdog Millionaire” (Fox Searchlight), A.R. Rahman
“WALL-E” (Walt Disney), Thomas Newman

Achievement in music written for motion pictures (Original song)

“Down to Earth” from “WALL-E” (Walt Disney), Music by Peter Gabriel and Thomas Newman, Lyric by Peter Gabriel
“Jai Ho” from “Slumdog Millionaire” (Fox Searchlight), Music by A.R. Rahman, Lyric by Gulzar
“O Saya” from “Slumdog Millionaire” (Fox Searchlight), Music and Lyric by A.R. Rahman andMaya Arulpragasam

This is a really good list of music. While there has been noise for nominating the music from "Dark Knight", "The Changeling" and "Frost/Nixon" I don't think any of those were of the quality of what we have here. It is disappointing that Nico Muhly didn't get a nod for "The Reader" but as it was his first film score, I'm not surprised he was passed over this year. I've not see “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” or “Milk” as yet, but both scores were done by established composers. John Williams has no offerings this year, but then he had a piece performed at the inauguration, so he's been busy elsewhere (and 2 Spielberg films due out in 2011).

Complete List of Nominations

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Opera Review: Dust

Robert Ashley wrote a trio of operas playing at La Mama E.T.C. Annex in New York this month, Dust, Celestial Excursions & Made Out of Concrete. "My characters are ordinary people," Ashley explains. "I am interested in their profoundly good qualities. They just happen to be ordinary people who are spiritually divine." These operas are staged in a new retrospective that will also feature performances by pioneer video artist/choreographer Joan Jonas and keyboard player “Blue” Gene Tyranny.

Ryan Tracy of the New York Press doesn't feel Dust necessarily qualifies as opera, "I think I can resist conceding that Dust is an "opera" without diminishing the good that the work does do." He did very much enjoy the performance.
The music is fresh in its way, and big in scope. Ashley divides the piece using relatively conservative formal structures. In the first part, while each character is reminisces, the other performers chant in a delicate, Berlioz-like recitative. The effect is meditative, and your mind sort of weaves in and out between paying attention to the words and just being swept along the current of the chanting. New music icon Joan La Barbara's story about surprising two beefy gay dudes humping in a park was the only narrative I managed to follow from beginning to end.
A contrapuntal quintet is mesmerizing. Little phrases like "...stop the whole thing..." and "...they play these songs..." punctuate the phrases, while also pushing the music forward to the next place. As the attention of your ears is being pulled around from one performer to the next, your eyes follow in a delay. Jacqueline Humbert's comfortable and relaxed manner gets props.
The last major section is divided into four songs, each with a sad little hook ("Don't get your hopes up," "One more time," "It's easy," "There's nothing wrong with you") that sticks in your head, if only for having been repeated so many times. (Even as I write these words, the music comes instantly to mind.)

There was a mention of Celestial Excursions by Steve Smith of the New York Times, but it was less a review and more just a statement of what to expect. "Mr. Ashley’s abstract score, supervised by the sound designer Tom Hamilton, guitar twangs, electric-bass burps and jazzy keyboard figures (improvised by the pianist (Blue) Gene Tyranny) float and ricochet over moody electronic strains. The vocals, though more spoken than sung, frequently allude to the nostalgic strains of old pop songs."

No mention of Made Out of Concrete appears in the news. All three operas continue to play in repertory through this week La MaMa in the East Village.

Opera Review: Skin Deep

Opera North (Leeds, England) premiered a new operetta (read light-hearted) by composers David Sawer and lyricist Armando Iannucci, Skin Deep, on January 16th. Set in the clinic of cosmetic surgery guru Doktor Needlemeier, Skin Deep is a satire on a world where staying young and beautiful is all that matters, whatever the cost. Iannucci is famous for his witty TV writing and Sawer is well known for his craft in music, so the mixture should be a light-hearted romp for an evening of comedy and satire.

Ron Simpson of What's On Stage felt, "Skin Deep is a pleasant entertainment, but somehow there’s not quite enough of anything: tunes, funny lines, momentum, satirical bite, even the power to shock... Much of the most interesting music is in the orchestra." While Simpson felt the orchestra was one of the most interesting aspects of the evening, Andrew Clark of Financial Times couldn't agree less, "Sawer strangles Iannucci’s wit. His music lacks fluency, tunefulness, charm, qualities that enabled Johann Strauss, Kurt Weill and other great operetta composers to get under their audience’s skin."

Clark Continues:

The score proceeds in staccato lurches and rhythmic jerks, with the sort of constant changes of metre that must have had everyone groaning in rehearsal. The choruses are jaunty but the seesawing solo lines lack distinction. Sawer is too stuck in a post-modernist mould to animate a traditional ‘number opera’, especially in the final act where the comedy wears thin and operetta morphs into grand opera.
Andrew Clements of the Guardian felt the problem was the libretto, "It's hard to see what Sawer's music could have done to rescue this contrived, feeble plot, with humour not far removed from a Carry On film. However, under conductor Richard Farnes, Opera North do it proud musically. While Rupert Christiansen from the Telegraph wrote:
Even more problematic is the score. Sawer is clearly a highly gifted composer. Stravinskyan clarity and economy underlie his ideas. He offers a fine ear for orchestral texture and thoughtful word-setting. There is some particularly beautiful choral writing. He doesn't fall into Broadway cliché.

But, oh dear, how sorely his music lacks the smile, lilt and exuberance that are fundamental to operetta. It's all so carefully pared down, so tightly organised and so cautiously paced that it never takes off and allows itself to have fun. Bar by bar, it's arrestingly fresh and clean, but nothing is catchy, memorable or touching. If Sawer has never listened to the finale to the first act of Iolanthe, he should.

Charlotte Higgins of the Guardian somewhat disagrees with her co-worker Clements saying, "...though he perhaps puts it in sterner terms than I would have (I don't think it's a "limp piece" though it somehow failed fully to ignite)...Sawer's music was crystalline, the orchestral playing wonderful, the conducting meticulous, the singing excellent. A final word on Skin Deep – do go, if you can. It is never boring, it is often extremely funny, and Sawer's music is a delight."

The opinions vary, which means this one really has to be seen so you can judge for yourself. I think I agree with Ms Higgins, "do go, if you can." While I did not get the chance to see the opening weekend, Opera North has numerous more performance in Leeds, and then off to London. It may not be the next Mikado, but then again, this was opening weekend and it may just need some time to shine.

Update: Air and Simple Gifts by John Williams

Here is the premiere of Air and Simple Gifts, composed by John Williams for the President Obama's Inauguration. Tim Smith of the Baltimore Sun says:

The "air" at the start of the roughly four-minute piece strikes a sober note, as if to recall the many challenges facing the country. The soft, slow, rather bittersweet theme, begun by the violin and soon picked up cello and piano, gives way to another, very familiar melody from the clarinet -- the gently uplifting Shaker hymn, "Simple Gifts," which was used so indelibly by Aaron Copland in his 1944 ballet score Appalachian Spring. Williams quotes that passage almost verbatim, and goes on to put the hymn tune through a very Coplandesque treatment before bringing the mood back down to earth with the opening material.

I agree with one of the comments on Tim's article:

I guess wish they had just played the Copland, a much better piece and one that makes the Williams not only a little trite but also unnecessary.
What Williams wrote is a lovely piece, but as it quotes Copland almost exactly, it's rather a variation of rather than something new. There are so many wonderful hymns that could have been arranged in a Coplandesque way and achieved the same effect.

Note: If you watched the inauguration on BBC (as I did) you didn't get to hear the first minute of the musician's performance for the commentary droning on.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Film Music: Che

Alberto Iglesias wrote the original music for Steven Soderbergh's "Che", the double length biopic about Argentine revolutionary Ernesto 'Che' Guevara staring Benicio del Toro. The film, being shown in 2 parts, has been receiving rave reviews. Part II hasn't arrived in the UK yet, so I can only comment about the music for Part I.

The Cuban Revolution of 1959, led by Fidel Castro, was a huge turning point for Cuba and its relations with the US. 'Che' Guevara was instrumental in the revolution and the relationship of Cuba with the rest of the world. His memoirs of the period are what Soderbergh used as a reference for his film.

Post revolution was also a huge turning point for many Cuban musicians as many of the night clubs and music establishments that catered to the US tourist and servicemen were shut down, the focus of music was shifted from Cuban Latin styles to classical music and many musicians fled the country to find a place where their freedom of expression would be more accepted. So, while post revolution was a time of significant change for Cuban music, Cuba has such a strong sense of style, it rather surprised me to find Alberto Iglesias didn't use anything recognizably Cuban.

There are moments where Che is moving through the jungle that sparse flute and drum are used, rather giving the effect of perhaps tribal or indigenous music. Other times, during the battle scenes, there are booming orchestral segments. Neither of these had anything resembling the vast array of Cuban styles in Latin rhythms. As the credits scrolled I listened to many of the "themes" replay and sat shocked at the lack of Cuban feel to the film.

In some of his previous films, "The Kite Runner" (2007) and "Volver" (2006) the music was spectacular. "Volver" very much has a Spanish feel capturing the small town rough cafe music one might hear from the culture represented in the images. "The Kite Runner" was another film where the music captured the culture extremely well, using flute, voice, middle eastern instruments and drums to highlight the images on the screen. However, "Che" doesn't feel Cuban, nor does it feel "Argentinian" or Latin American in any way, save perhaps the tribal/primal flute segments. By not capturing the Cuban feel, the film could have been set anywhere.

Perhaps Soderbergh and Iglesias wanted to create a timeless, universal feeling to the film. Well, they failed. They failed to give us any sense of who Che was and the culture he was in. The shifting of events in time, jumbled movement from 1964, to 1962 to 1956 to 1958/59 combined with the lack of any Cuban feel to the music left me with no more real understanding of the person of 'Che' than I had going in.

England follows El Sistema model

A new project has been created in England to help children in the most deprived areas of England to participate in music programmes - in the form of a symphony orchestra. The organisation, In Harmony, is chaired by world renowned cellist Julian Lloyd-Webber. In Harmony is inspired by the hugely successful Venezuelan project El Sistema and encurages participation in music which can have huge persoanl benefits for the children involved, providing opportunities to grow and develop, both socially and musically.

LA Opera postpones `Il Postino' world premiere

The Los Angeles Opera has postponed the world premiere of Daniel Catan's "Il Postino." The Spanish-language opera, based on the 1994 movie, was to have starred Placido Domingo. The project, announced in July 2005, had been scheduled to open the 2009-10 season.

Domingo, who's also the company's general director, says it would have been financially irresponsible in the current economic climate to program a world premiere in the same season as the Ring Cycle. Instead, the season will open Sept. 12 with a revival of a 1996 production of Donizetti's "The Elixir of Love."

The company will present the first complete Los Angeles staging of Wagner's Ring Cycle in three full cycles May 29-June 26, 2010.

Monday, January 19, 2009

New Music for the Inauguration

John Williams, who has been nominated for more Academy Awards than any other person as well as written an olympic theme has been tagged for providing new music for the inauguration of Barack Obama today, “Air and Simple Gifts,” a four and a half minute piece for classical quartet. Clarinetist Anthony McGill, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, violinist Itzhak Perlman and pianist Gabriela Montero comprise the illustrious group to perform the new piece. Mr Ma and Mr Perlman chose the ensemble.

The instrumentation is the same as Messiaen's “Quatuor Pour la Fin du Temps” (“Quartet for the End of Time”) but is similar to Copeland in style. “We wanted something that could reference America, the president-elect’s fondness for Copland, something that’s both uplifting and solemn, that traverses time but is also quintessentially American,” Mr. Ma said. Mr Williams reportedly created a hymn-like piece which will interpolate the ‘Simple Gifts’ melody from Copland’s 1944 ballet ‘Appalachian Spring’ in its mid-section.

Construction Continues, Cancels Concert

Edinburgh's Usher Hall is STILL under construction and will be well into May. There the the Scottish Chamber Orchestra is forcd to cancel its Edinburgh performance of Haydn’s The Seasons at the Usher Hall. The concert was scheduled to close the Orchestra’s Edinburgh Season on 14 May.

The Orchestra has recently been informed by the City of Edinburgh Council that delays to the redevelopment of the City’s Usher Hall mean that the venue will not be ready for use as scheduled. Unfortunately, in this instance, it has proved impossible for the SCO to find an available alternative venue for the performance and the Orchestra has, therefore, had to take the decision to cancel.

The SCO will be contacting all customers this week to offer a complete refund for their tickets, or an exchange for a ticket and courtesy coach travel for the performance of The Seasons at Glasgow’s City Hall on the following evening, Friday 15 May. The performance in Glasgow will be conducted by SCO Principal Guest Conductor, Olari Elts, and features soloists soprano Elizabeth Watts, tenor John Mark Ainsley and baritone Roderick Williams.

New Audiences for New Music

Getting an audience into a classical music concert isn't always about play Beethoven or Mozart (although these are pretty standard crowd pleasers). Sometimes it's about taking a new look at music, playing something that we may not think of as classical music, but doing it in a classical format. Pop orchestras have been doing something like this for a while, but the attitudes about what a pop orchestra should play is changing and so are the arrangements.

Peter Brennan, a Canadian musician and arranger for Jeans ’n Classics brings together a classic rock music with orchestral arrangements. His band plays music that was popular in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s. A traditional orchestra pops concert presents music that was popular in the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s. Other composers (myself included - see below) are using modern styles and hip-hop beats in their original work, incorporating video or dance to expose a broader audience to the orchestra. Groups such as Jeans ’n Classics bring out the similarities between classical music and well-written pop songs by re-orchestrating them. Some rock bands, like Nirvana, are adding orchestras to their pieces to fillout out the sound. All of this is bringing a younger audience into familiarity with classical instruments and sound.

There is also a new generation of musicians from Juilliard School in New York City or the Berklee College of Music in Boston who are moving in a new direction for classical musicians. This new generation of classical artists possess all the technique necessary to tackle Brahms or Beethoven, but they would rather perform innovative repertoire that blurs into genres from hip-hop to electronica, rock and beyond. They might substitute with the New York Philharmonic, play a concert with a pop group or join other colleagues in some hybrid ensemble in between, equally comfortable in any format. Fans follow them from "gig" to "gig" creating a cross culture blend where a concert audience is perhaps just as comfortable in jeans and untucked shirts as a pop audience is with dressey casual.

from Kyle MacMillan of the Denver Post
Jumping genres defines the life of Rob Moose, 26, a graduate of the Manhattan School of Music, who had no desire to follow the traditional route of a classical musician, in his case probably auditioning for an orchestra position somewhere. Instead, the violinist and guitarist tours with the indie rock band Antony and the Johnsons, gigs with the Orchestra of St. Luke's in New York and performs with two genre-busting groups he helped found — Osso and yMusic. "Once you have a taste of that kind of (multifaceted) performing experience, it's hard to go back, because it feels much more unique," Moose said. "I feel like there's more freedom of expression in it. "I don't really think, 'Now, I'm playing a classical violin part and on the next song I'm going to play a slightly improvised guitar part.' It all feels like a part of my vocabulary."

My own first string quartet attempts to take a page from the anthem rock bands of the late 70's. While the music is not specially covers of any tune, it is definitely inspired by the bands of Styx, Journey, Yes, Kansas and Led Zeppelin. The first movement, "Taken for Granite" allows for some classical techniques to emulate power chords, distortion and intricate lead guitar solos. All three movements take a look at different aspects of the anthem rock style of music and yet are linked by the classical development of motivic ideas and written for a classical string quartet. The above is from a live performance by the Edinburgh Quartet in June 2008.

The point of all this cross blend of musical styles is to bring together the kinds of music, we as musicians love. The result is getting audiences that love one style familiar with another. As the pollination continues the flowering of new music is only going to continue as will the audiences.

New Work by Magnus Lindberg to premiere with New York Philharmonic

Finnish composer Magnus Lindberg, the new composer-in-residence at the New York Philharmonic, is to have a world première of a new commissioned work at the orchestra’s opening night gala at Avery Fisher Hall on September 16th.

This will be the first time for many decades when the Philharmonic’s opening night gala begins with a brand-new, never-before-heard piece written especially for the occasion. The new work by Magnus Lindberg will be performed three times in New York and several times during the orchestra’s upcoming tour to Asia.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Update: Nico Muhly and "The Reader"

The soundtrack for "The Reader", music by Nico Muhly, has been released and available on Amazon. Zach Freeman wrote a review of the music here and says much the same thing about music as I did in my previous post.

And Muhly delivers the goods. With a score consisting of roughly 50 minutes of stripped-down, “less is more” music, Muhly has created the kind of score that expresses passion and emotion with a relatively gentle and gentle delivery. The majority of the album seems to consist of a few strings and a piano. The back-to-back tracks “Go Back To Your Friends” (one of the longest of the album) and “Not What I Expected” (one of the shortest of the album) provide some of the most expressive bits of the album, pushing the strings into faster and more emotional rhythms, though most of the album is more subdued and contemplative. Muhly doesn’t seem to be one for excess, choosing instead to use a light collection of music to express heavy dramatic scenes. It’s an impressive juxtaposition and works remarkably here.

Film Music: Defiance

James Newton Howard has a number of successes in film music, as a performer, orchestrator, score producer and composer. He collaborated on "Dark Knight", orchestrated "Unbreakable", composed the music for "The Village" and "Michael Clayton", and these are just a few of the hundreds of films he's worked on. His latest film score is that of "Defiance" staring Daniel Craig, a true story about three Russian Jewish Brothers who helped save hundreds from the holocaust living in the Belorussian woods during the war.

Due to the subject matter, it's difficult not to compare the music with John's Williams "Schindler's List" (1993) which used a solo violin in a Klezmer style. Klezmer music is a Eastern European Jewish style of music which immediately creates the flavor of the culture. The solo violin laments over the top of the score, adding to the dark nature of the film. Occasionally the film has jocular moments, and these are played off well with the use of lighter Klezmer dance elements. Over all the music is as expected and in many respects pleasant, but nothing really highlights the film as I feel it should.

There is one scene where a clarinetist is shown (and appears in the music), but the use of the clarinet is so brief it hardly gives us time to enjoy the music, or create the mood. The scene continues on, as does the music, but without the very stylized clarinet playing which I felt could have added so much to the feeling of joy at a wedding. In numerous other scenes, the solo violin theme comes over the top. It is well played, but somehow it is missing something, perhaps stylistically, perhaps melodically. I am not an expert in Klezmer music, but when I listen to the traditional Klezmer music, versus "Schinder's List" versus the "Defiance", the later film doesn't quite maintain the feel of either the source music or the other film. "Schinder's List" captures the essence of the traditional music perfectly.

Howard's use of Joshua Bell as the solo violinist, over the orchestra was expected as Bell is the current premier violinist in film. Williams, who won the Academy Award for his "Schindler's List" score, opted for Itzhak Perlman, considered by some to be the greatest violinist of the day. Whether Bell has overtaken Perlman is open for debate, but in comparing the two films, Perlman had the more deft touch for the music. There is a sadness to Klezmer music, which, even during joyous dance tunes, has a sorrow unlike other forms of cultural music. Perhaps it is Perlman's cultural ties with the music, perhaps it is the music itself. Whatever the case, the music for "Defiance" doesn't quite make the connection. It's good, lovely, enjoyable, but not quite right.

Friday, January 16, 2009

What is Folk Influence in Classical Music?

Chip MichaelI don't consider myself a pianist (and neither does anyone who's heard me play), - but I do spend a fair amount of time at the piano working on my compositions, improvising themes, variations, counter melodies and chord progressions. Much of what I like is influenced by jazz musicians of the 60's, 70's and 80's, so improvising seems to be a natural extension of this style of music.

My wife, Eddie Louise, grew up listening to Country music, and so her own particular style is influenced with more of a traditional folk feel. If you listen to our classical compositions you definitely get a sense of folk influences on Eddie's music, while mine tend toward jazz influences (as you might expect). Both of us also are influenced by classical music, Eddie tends to enjoy Mozart and Debussy as I veer toward Shostakovich.

Our mutual love of Aaron Copland is one place where our classical sides mesh. His folk/Americana stylings appeal to my wife, for myself (like the jazz music I listened to,) Copland was a composer I enjoyed in my youth and so the music became an interest all on its own. Or maybe it's the bold style of his "Fanfare for a Common Man" (performed by practically every high school band in the US and where I first played it) that is in many respects like Shostakovich's 5th and 7th Symphonies that resonates with me. The fact remains, while Copland created the Americana sound - he used an American folk hymn in "Appalachian Spring" - no one considers his music folk music, but rather folk influenced. On the other hand, when Copland attempted to wed Jazz and classical, the results were viewed unevenly and with suspicion by both the critics and the composer himself.

When studying Bela Bartók, I spent a fair amount of time learning about his use of folk themes in compositions. Numerous composers have done similar things, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Dvořák... the list goes on. Many modern composers have followed suit, yet I find it interesting that the accepted references hearken back to folk music with rural elements. Bartók was utilizing themes from small villages, music that was integral to the small social groups of the more remote regions, created for the purpose of social interaction. He did this in an effort to preserve these themes, and in some way immortalize them. Is the rural nature of the music what makes it acceptable to use in classical composition?

To better examine this question we start with the definition of folk music:

folk music – noun
    1. music, usually of simple character and anonymous authorship, handed down among the common people by oral tradition. 2. music by known composers that has become part of the folk tradition of a country or region.

By that definition, isn't jazz a form of folk music, music that has become part of a country or a region? Jazz is certainly considered an American music creation even though there are jazz artists around the world now. Perhaps then the same can be said of Rock, which certainly has its roots in both jazz and country music (and country music, at least the country music of say 60 or 70 years ago) is certainly folk music. Blue Grass is definitely folk music (American roots music) and yet, isn't it also a form of jazz? Ragtime and Dixieland are both forms of jazz and also folk music.

Another mutual love for my wife and I is the music of George Gershwin. He was a master of melodies, which my wife adores and also steeped in jazz which really gets my foot tapping. His music was very popular during our formative years and was often performed in concerts, used as advert music and themes for television shows, shown on the Saturday afternoon films and his musicals were regularly performed.

Perhaps the most popular jazz influenced classical piece is George Gershwin's ""Rhapsody in Blue", (IMHO) a great piece of music. It is influenced by ragtime music as well as Cuban clave rhythms (which are also the backbone of 1920's dance craze The Charleston). Because "Rhapsody in Blue" is completely composed it has moved away from the true jazz form (which typically has elements of improvisation), but the style of the music is definitely jazz influenced. Paul Whiteman, who asked George Gershwin to write a "jazz concerto", was hoping to expand the definition of classical music, and to make classical music more accessible to the general public.

Analyzing "Rhapsody in Blue" shows the piece is not a simple ii, V, I chord progression, but utilizes a number of classical concepts and takes others (like moving the opposite direction around the circle of fifths) and turns them about. It has numerous dance like themes and yet, it isn't a dance piece - the tempo shifts too often to be good dance music. Analysts argue whether this is a classical piece with jazz influence, or a jazz piece with elements of classical styling. Leonard Bernstein said it's "not a composition at all [but] a string of … terrific tunes … stuck together with a thin paste of flour and water."

What "Rhapsody in Blue" did do is encourage other composers like Ravel, Stravinsky and Milhaud to explore jazz influence in classical music. So, is jazz a form of folk music? By extension, is the inclusion of jazz elements in a composition the use of folk idioms? Gershwin's music is very popular in the US so does that mean it is folk influenced, or does the popularity of his music make it folk music of its own right? I struggle with the concept of what is folk music and thereby what it means to write folk influenced classical music. When is it acceptable to use "folk" references in classical music compositions, and why does the use of other forms of music styles not have the same acceptability?

Edgar Meyer wrote a Violin Concerto for Hilary Hahn which incorporates folk elements in the composition. The music is lovely and definitely classical music, with a sense of the folk or Americana (the sound attributed to Copland and the use of American folk idioms). My own violin concerto is influenced by jazz, but not the jazz of Gershwin's era (Louis Armstrong, Jellyroll Morton and Bix Biederbecke) but of the composers I listened to in my youth - Dave Brubeck, Chic Corea, Chuck Mangione, Doc Severinsen, Grover Washington Jr., Thelonious Monk. These were performers/composers who were writing music that was for me very much folk, a music of the people, influenced or created out of a sense of social interaction.

The 1st and 3rd movements of my concerto have a fair number of jazz chords/progressions and rhythms that give them a feeling of being something out of the Brubeck/Corea era of jazz. Even so, some of the rhythmic elements go beyond, and some of the harmonies in the 2nd movement are influenced by Witold Lutosławski and cluster chords.

My violin concerto is completely composed, so the "solo" sections (or cadenzas) are not improvised but "scripted". Like Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue", my violin concerto then falls out of the realm of jazz and into the classical. But why does writing it out make it classical, or improvising make it non-classical? Mozart did not write out the cadenzas in his concertos. Is this because he expected the players to improvise? Does that mean Mozart's concertos were more like jazz pieces where the theme is played, then the soloist takes over???

Certainly Bach's music is written, but we know Bach's ability to improvise at the keyboard eas crucial to how much of his music was written. Beethoven and Liszt often gave performances of improvised works along with their written compositions. So, is improvising a classical or non-classical art form?

I suppose the attempt to label things is part of the problem. The moment a label is created - a definition as to what constitutes something - there is always something that steps outside the definition and becomes something new. Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" was definitely something new. I hope my violin concerto has the same effect, creating a new sense of what's possible on the violin while incorporating modern jazz elements into a classically written piece.

My violin concerto:
    1st Movement
    3rd Movement
It's a work in progress and the 2nd movement isn't finished yet. If you'd like a copy of the score, please drop me a note.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Economic Downturn hits Baltimore Symphony

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra laid off five of its 67 administrative employees and changed one full-time position to part-time yesterday in an effort to reduce expenditures. Those moves, along with a decision not to fill certain open staff positions, will save the BSO about $500,000.

"We can see that the economic downturn is going to be a lot more prolonged than we had expected," president/CEO Paul Meecham said. "We're trying to do everything we can to cut costs and raise money, without cutting quality onstage."

The BSO has seen a decline in single-ticket sales and government grants this season. Meecham said smaller gifts of $500 or less are down about 30 percent from last year. And since Sept. 1, the orchestra's endowment has dropped 23 percent in value, to about $47 million.

- according to Tim Smith, Baltimore Sun

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Programmes for Howard Assembly Room at Opera North

There will be a ten day opening celebration for the new Howard Assembly Room. Some events are free. Tickets for all other events are £10. Attendance at all events, free or at £10, requires a ticket. Here is what's on for the first week.

Friday 16 January, 5.30pm
Iannucci and Jones on ‘Skin Deep’
Free event only for Skin Deep ticket holders
Ahead of the world premiere of Skin Deep, award-winning writer and broadcaster Armando Iannucci (Knowing me, knowing you…with Alan Partridge, The Thick of It) in conversation with leading opera director Richard Jones, providing some insight to their creation of a satirical opera about cosmetic surgery.

Saturday 17 January 8pm
Joanna MacGregor: Pictures at an Exhibition
Tickets £10
One of the world’s most wide-ranging, innovative and imaginative musicians, pianist Joanna MacGregor performs an eclectic programme that includes Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, six mazurkas by Chopin, six dances by Bartók and Bach’s French Suite no.5.

Sunday 18 January, 8pm
I Fagiolini, Monteverdi: Flaming Heart
Tickets £10
This internationally-renowned vocal ensemble brings together a rich variety of Monteverdi’s secular music, from a capella madrigals to intimate duets and grander works with strings. Flaming Heart demonstrates Monteverdi’s genius for expressing powerful emotion through music of matchless beauty.

Tuesday 20 January, 7pm
Peter and the Wolf: film directed by Suzie Templeton
Tickets £10. Free to under 18s.
This Oscar-winning animated film of Prokofiev’s classic musical tale is accompanied live by the Orchestra of Opera North.

Tuesday 20 January, 4.30pm – 6pm
Family Workshop
Tickets £3 to adults, free entry to others.
Families can explore the themes of Peter and the Wolf in this fun movement workshop.

Wednesday 21 January, 1.45pm talk followed by 2.30pm rehearsal
What really goes on during an orchestral rehearsal? Hear about preparing for a performance and then attend a rehearsal of Richard Strauss’s epic opera Elektra, conducted by Opera North’s Music Director Richard Farnes.

Thursday 22 January 5.45pm
Twilight: Prokofiev Plus
Internationally acclaimed flautist Kevin Gowland and pianist Annette Saunders play John Ranish’s early baroque Sonata in B minor, Gaubert’s Deux Esquisses and Prokofiev’s Sonata No. 2 in D major.

Thursday 22 January 8pm
Fflur Wyn and Andrew Tortise: Wolf’s Italian Songbook
Tickets £10
Soprano Fflur and Baritone Andrew Tortise, sing from Hugo Wolf's Italian Songbook. Intensely romantic, Wolf set this collection of 46 poems to deeply touching music which evokes the joys and frustrations of young love.

Friday 23 January, 5.45pm
Twilight: Amrit Sond in Concert
The unique sound of Grammy Award Winning Guitarist Amrit Sond whose use of new acoustic techniques alongside elements of world music, jazz, classical and folk, creates an energising new musical experience. In association with SAA-UK

Friday 23 January, 8pm
Rory Bremner.
Tickets £10
A few days after President Obama’s inauguration, Rory Bremner presents a special one-off evening of topical satire on all things, followed by a unique opportunity to join the UK’s leading satirical comedian and impressionist in conversation on the subject of humour and politics.

New Opera House for Opera North, Leeds

photo by Richard Moran

For the first time in over twenty years, the culturally curious from Leeds and beyond will have the chance to experience the Howard Assembly Room and the adventurous and eclectic programme that is planned for it. From 16 January 2009 the much anticipated venue, the first to be run by Opera North, will showcase an international and diverse range of chamber-sized work including film, classical music, spoken word, world music, folk, jazz and music theatre based in the cool northern edge of the city.

With much of the building restored to its original Grade II* listed Victorian splendour, The Howard Assembly Room marks the final phase in the restoration of Leeds Grand Theatre. The opening programme gives a taste of what’s in store for Leeds audiences.

Highlights include:

  • Joanna MacGregor: ‘Pictures at an Exhibition’ – one of the world’s most wide ranging and innovative musicians makes a rare appearance in Leeds.
  • I Fagiolini, Monteverdi: Flaming Heart - This internationally-renowned vocal ensemble demonstrates Monteverdi’s genius for expressing powerful emotion through music of matchless beauty.
  • Into the Little Hill – a new production by the acclaimed Opera Group, featuring the London Sinfonietta, this darkly magical operatic retelling of the Pied Piper fable is in Leeds for just two nights.
  • Rory Bremner – one night ‘audience with’ one of the UK’s sharpest comedians.
  • United Visual Artists (UVA) and Amenity Space - two new light commissions by outstanding artists for Opera North. ‘Chorus’ by the acclaimed UVA in association with Mira Calix will create a kinetic sound and light installation inside the Howard Assembly Room and Amenity Space will make a transformational difference to the new glass bridge with their permanent light installation ‘Trace’.
  • Armando Iannucci - award-winning writer (I’m Alan Partridge, The Thick of It), in conversation with opera director Richard Jones, about ‘Skin Deep’, a new satire on cosmetic surgery.
  • Tiger Lillies in concert: ‘The Songs of Shockheaded Peter and Other Gory Verses’. Extraordinary trio with a cult following all over the world celebrate their 20th anniversary in Leeds.

A rehearsal venue for the award-winning Orchestra of Opera North by day, the 350-seat Howard Assembly Room has the flexibility to allow performers, artists, students and audiences to experiment. With the aim of showcasing the best of contemporary work and nurturing young talent drawn from a broad range of artistic disciplines, the Howard Assembly Room brings new energy to the thriving cultural scene in Leeds, with the hallmark of quality for which Opera North is known.

New Artistic Director/General Manager for New York City Opera

The Board of Directors of New York City Opera has announced the appointment of George Steel as the company's new General Manager and Artistic Director. Mr. Steel is expected to assume his responsibilities as of February 1, 2009.

A respected, accomplished and innovative figure in the American performing arts, Mr. Steel is best known for his outstanding eleven-year tenure as Executive Director of the Miller Theatre at Columbia University, from 1997 to 2008. Under his leadership, the theater became known as one of New York City's leading showcases for early and modern music and multi-disciplinary programming.

"George Steel is both a brilliant artistic producer and a highly effective institution-builder," Susan Baker, Chairman of the City Opera Board, commented. "He is also someone with a deep commitment to the historic mission of New York City Opera, in both its adventurous programming and its dynamic educational initiatives and audience outreach. We are confident that his strong, visionary leadership will take City Opera to a new level of artistic achievement and popular success."

"It is an enormous honor, and an enormous responsibility, to be asked to participate in building the future of New York City Opera," George Steel stated. "My goal is to help 'the People's Opera' renew its indispensable mission as an important producer of early opera, a proponent of American singers and new works, a force for rediscovering vital but lesser-known works, and an originator of visionary productions of classic repertoire."

Mr. Steel took primary responsibility for fundraising, financial and personnel management, marketing, publicity, and facility planning at the Miller Theatre, while programming 60 to 80 events a year in music, opera, dance, film, theatre, and intellectual discussion. He also initiated commissioning projects and developed collaborations with major national and international cultural institutions, including New York City Opera.

Mr. Steel, who is 42, has most recently served as General Director of The Dallas Opera. He is also known for his earlier work as Managing Producer of the Tisch Center for the Arts at the 92nd Street YW-YMHA (1995-97) and as the founder and conductor of two respected New York City music ensembles, the Gotham City Orchestra and Vox Vocal Ensemble.

Film Music: Igor

Patrick Doyle did the music for the animated film "Igor". He has credits for the music in a number of films, "Nim's Island", "Eragon" and even "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire" although for that film he used themes by John Williams who had established the initial Harry Potter theme. He was nominated for an Oscar for both "Hamlet" (1996) and "Sense and Sensibility" (1995), so he is a respected composer in the industry.

However, listening to the music in "Igor" you get the idea that much of the music was canned, pre-programmed for the scene rather like a laugh track. When the King's carriage is shown, there is a fanfare but nothing special. When the subject matter gets dark, the music sounds like it was pulled from any number of 50's style black and white horror films, or when there is a love interest the sappy music is sweet, but generic. While I was watching the film, before I researched the composer and his credits, I felt the film music was so much an after-thought that I was surprised to find such a major name associated with it.

The drop in music is even worse than the score. The "tunes" selected had only vague references to the action on the film. At one point a tune, "The Bigger the Figure" (Louis Prima) is played while the "monster" dances around. Yes, the monster is a large woman, but what the song is saying is that large women are the preference, and yet the film actions suggest she is NOT what Igor wants. Maybe the director was trying to foreshadow events, but if so he failed. It this was Doyle's suggestion, it was a bad one.

Overall the music didn't work. It didn't take away from the film (not that there was much to take away from), but it certainly didn't add to it either. In all the music felt as if it was filling a contract obligation and nothing else.