Moved to tears

liliesfield

Sidney Poitier as Homer Smith in Lilies of the Field

It makes me cry. Aaron Copland’s setting of “Shall We Gather at the River?,” from his Old American Songs, will do that to me, even though I’m determined, this time, that it won’t. It will. The baritone Ron Loyd told me that he sang it at his mother’s funeral and only now can get through it without breaking down. The funeral was five years ago.

“Shall We Gather” is a good song, perhaps even great, but would it be great because I cry? By itself, no. A parent cries, looking at a refrigerator-mounted stick-figure drawing, because of the artist, not the art. So we dismiss emotion as subjective, and therefore inappropriate for judging art. But should we?

Well, emotion is everywhere, and untangling it from judgment is difficult. I may love the song because I’m attached to the religious sentiments in it—except the sentiments aren’t particularly religious. “Saints,” “angels,” and “God” are in the original 1864 hymn by the Philadelphia-born Baptist minister Robert Lowry. Copland brought those over to his setting, but left out the verse with “Savior” in it. So the appeal is wide, nonsectarian, and only vaguely religious.

I don’t cry at “I Bought Me a Cat,” also from Old American Songs, but do I like it less than “Shall We Gather”? Maybe, but my preference may have little to do with the quality of the song.

Puppy love

Perhaps I cry because Copland’s music was my first classical music infatuation. Brahms was my first love, but Copland (along with Vaughan Williams) was puppy love. Sentiment has waned and waxed in the intervening decades, and I appreciate them more now, but I won’t deny that I’m a sucker for the sound of both composers.

I didn’t realize until much later that I loved the film Lilies of the Field largely because Jerry Goldsmith’s score sounded like Copland to me—before I knew of Copland. Sidney Poitier piloting his station wagon down that dusty highway to a bouncing bass line was a precursor—for me—of Billy the Kid. I saw the movie as a child but when I first heard Copland’s ballet (written 25 years before Lilies) in college I immediately thought of that station wagon and let out an audible “Ohhh….” Nothing against Goldsmith, who’s brilliant. Actually, though, there’s really no Copland in the film score. Just that sound.

But should I be making so much of tears? After all, there’s music I like more than “Shall We Gather” that does not make me cry. Mozart, for instance. I laugh at Mozart—I laugh because I’m incredulous. Truthfully, I have to watch myself at concerts where Mozart is performed, because I have an almost uncontrollable desire to giggle. He writes one unbelievably supreme melody, and then tosses in another one even more unbelievable. He doesn’t develop themes, he strings impossibly glorious tunes together, one after the other, which he really ought to just stop doing. And then I laugh.

Bach-struck

And then there’s Bach. With Bach, I don’t laugh or cry. No, with Bach, I give up. There is no composer more guaranteed to make me want to stop composing than Bach. The first bar, the first two beats of St. Matthew Passion and my chin hits my chest, my lips purse, my head swivels from side to side three or four times. Just…just, come on, cut it out, This Isn’t Fair.

Wait, I did cry once at Bach, at a Settlement Music School children’s recital. A little girl (not ours) sat down at the piano to play a Bach two-part invention. She haltingly worked through it, pausing here and there as she wrested the notes from her memory. All of a sudden the tears were flowing. Not hers; she didn’t seem upset at all as she discovered the ending and took her bow. I wiped my face during the applause.

So emotion is everywhere; how can we dismiss it? I think we shouldn’t. I don’t dismiss it any more than I dismiss objective judgment. Some like to dismiss objectivity, but their hearts aren’t in it. Bach isn’t better than the Beatles, they say, he’s just different. The best argument against that is this: They don’t believe it. I’m sure there are professors teaching that there’s no objective truth. Okay, hold up their direct deposit for two days, and you’ll find that This Isn’t Fair all of a sudden achieves metaphysical certitude.

Turning points and tuning points

A note is in tune or out of tune. It’s no good saying that there are dozens of ways to tune, that different tunings are enculturated, that an oscilloscope proves that nothing is perfectly in tune. Nobody knows when dusk turns into twilight (or is it the other way around?): so what? We could spend the rest of our lives arguing over when evening begins, but everyone believes in night and day.

So it is with good and bad. We know them objectively, and we feel them emotionally.

I heard Ron Loyd singing Copland because he was singing in my Psalm 46, for baritone, chorus, and orchestra. At the piano rehearsal two days before the concert I was looking over the pianist’s shoulder while she accompanied Ron in “Shall We Gather at the River.” There’s hardly anything on the page. The tune; the dotted notes; the descending bass line; a wisp of a reply over the singer, then under; that’s it. This is good, I thought. This is so good.

But with that I thought of all the emotions, of stick-figures and station wagons and dust and laughing, of day and night, of saints and angels, of infatuations and funerals and of chins hitting chests, and I looked at the page with nothing there, and I looked at the baritone singing.

And still I thought, this Copland, I thought, this is good. No need to cry, not this time, this is just good.

And then I cried.

The Taste of Bach and Harpsichords

Discoveries from the Fleisher Collection, Saturday November 1st, 2014 at 5 pm

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750). Concerto for Flute, Violin, Harpsichord in A minor, BWV 1044. Andrew Manze, violin (conductor), Rachel Brown, flute, Richard Egarr, harpsichord, Academy of Ancient Music. Harmonia Mundi 907283, Tr 7–9. 22:25

Bach. Concerto for Two Harpsichords and Strings in C, BWV 1061. Hank Knox, Luc Beauséjour, harpsichords, Arion, Jaap ter Linden. Early Music 7753, Tr 14–16. 16:46

Bach. Concerto for Four Harpsichords and Strings in A minor, BWV 1065. Raymond Leppard (conductor), Andrew Davies, Philip Ledger, Blandine Verlet, harpsichords, English Chamber Orchestra. Philips 4784614, Tr 13–15. 9:32

CoffeeBaroqueLet’s face it, the harpsichord is an acquired taste. In popular culture, never helpful for appreciating the fine or unusual, the harpsichord is shorthand for—at best—stuffy, rich, out-of-touch, let-them-eat-cake. That’s at best. At worst, it’s sinister. And that doesn’t even count Lurch on The Addams Family.

The harpsichord is a beautiful instrument that has often been misapplied. It has a delicate, refined sound, yet can help to keep the players onstage together. Indeed, before we stood conductors on their feet in front of everyone, they were often in the middle of the orchestra, seated at and playing the harpsichord.

But placing that plucked keyboard in a large hall with many instruments will bury the sound. We are left to wonder: If we can’t hear it, why is it there? The answer, of course, is that it shouldn’t be. Even large harpsichords need smallish rooms and a modicum of company. Then we can really hear its capacity for nuance and, yes, power.

Johann Sebastian Bach understood this, as he did so many things, and basically invented the harpsichord concerto, mostly for concerts at the local coffee house, Zimmermann’s. But calling them concerts doesn’t quite catch the flavor. Bach ran (along with the music in four churches, a school, and much else in Leipzig) the Collegium Musicum, a student musical group. Bach’s Coffee Cantata, the closest thing to an opera he ever wrote, was probably written for performance here.

Zimmermann’s had two rooms, the largest, about 26’ x 32’, the size of a large living room. This is where the harpsichord concertos of Bach were premiered. Newer recordings of Bach take this to heart. We can hear the tang of the strings, the colors of the instruments, the roar of crescendos as cataracts of notes tumble up and down the keyboard.

Since the harpsichord has no sustain pedal like the piano, and since the inner mechanism plucks the strings with the same force regardless of how hard one hits the keys, the only way to make it louder is literally to play more notes at the same time. Listen for this in Bach’s writing, and in these wonderful performances.

Bach cobbled together most of his harpsichord concertos from other works, rewriting other solo concertos into this format. Because some of his sons were still living at home and were excellent keyboardists, they may have played on some of these. The triple concerto (solo harpsichord, flute, and violin with string accompaniment) features the keyboard the most. The two-harpsichord concerto may be the only one that began life as an actual harpsichord piece. For the concerto of a quartet of harpsichords, Bach went not to his own music, but to Vivaldi’s, which he loved and from which he learned so much. It’s a Baroque battle of the bands, with the players trading arpeggios back and forth.

It’s easy to imagine the sheer fun Bach had writing and playing these at Zimmermann’s, alongside students, his sons, and a willing audience of coffee drinkers eager to hear the latest from the Leipzig Kantor. Now there’s a taste we’re happy to acquire.

If you’ve never seen four harpsichords together, here’s your chance:

On the first Saturday of the month Jack Moore and I host Discoveries from the Fleisher Collection on WRTI 90.1 FM in Philadelphia and on the all-classical webstream at wrti.org. We also broadcast encore presentations of the entire Discoveries series (now 12 years and counting!) every Wednesday at 7:00 pm on WRTI HD-2. For a look at all the shows, click here.

Network for New Music’s Exquisite Corpse

KileSmithExquisiteCorpseI was honored to be asked to celebrate Network for New Music’s 30th anniversary by composing, with 29 others, an exquisite corpse, along the lines of the literary parlor game of a whisper-down-the-lane story construction. Each of us had 48 hours last summer to write 6–8 bars of music, having only the last bar of the previous person’s effort to go by.

Jan Krzywicki administered everything, chose the order of composers at random (or so he claimed), and put the final score together for flute, cello, and piano. He also cobbled together 9-second videos we all sent in, each of us using just the last word from the previous submitter. The video and music orders were the same; none of us knew the order until the concert.

The performance was Sunday October 26th at the Settlement School on Queen Street, and has just been written up in the Philadelphia Inquirer by Daniel Webster.

Two aspects of the project delighted me. (1) The random positioning placed me immediately after my teacher, Maurice Wright (for the video, he stuck me with the word “dodecaphonically” or something or other, which I had to practice saying over and over before I hit Record, and which makes me also believe that he paid off Jan for the order). (By the way, he and I put our heads together at the reception afterward and agreed that our two musical offerings comprised the most inherently organic two-fer of the bunch, but we haven’t told anyone else, so it’s our secret.) Jan wondered if I had been inspired by the tango from Stravinsky’s Soldier’s Tale. I thought I had stolen something from Ravel.

It was funny to see how many of us (myself included) threw in a curveball at the end of our offering, but what was most lovely was (2) the very real sense of personality that came out of these snippets of music. It was astounding, actually, to see the names pop up on the screen and to hear the music. I smiled the entire time. The word I think I’m looking for is exquisite.

Thanks to Edward Schultz, Priscilla Lee, and Susan Nowicki, for their lovely and enthusiastic playing on flute, cello, and piano.

Jim Primosch would’ve won the video award, if there had been a video award, and if I had been in charge of awarding it. I have no idea what he said, as we were all laughing, but his full-face in camera, sunglassed, low-voiced hopping recitation called to my mind Gil Scott-Heron, Rod Serling, and the Unabomber.

Congratulations most of all to Linda Reichert, the engine and heart behind Network for New Music, on 30 years!

Pre-Halloween Suites on Now Is the Time

IannacconeLet’s have suites before Halloween on Now Is the Time, Saturday, October 25th at 9 pm at wrti.org and WRTI-HD2. A Prelude, Sarabande, Burlesca, and Gigue make up the Partita (just another name for suite) for piano by Anthony Iannaccone. Guitarist David Starobin loves playing the music of Paul Lansky for, besides being a wonderful composer, Lansky also plays the guitar and knows the instrument very well. The recipe for his Semi-Suite includes Putative Prelude, Aimless Air, Crooked Courante, Shameless Sarabande, Awkward Allemande, and Partly Pavane.

Philadelphia composer Harold Boatrite’s Lyric Suite for Piano is from his piano and harpsichord CD of a few years back, Sonatas & Suites. Andy Teirstein boils down a work for multiple strings, written for an outdoor procession, to a string quartet, for the final work on our program, simply, Suite.

from Paul Lansky: Semi-Suite 

PROGRAM:
Anthony Iannaccone: Partita
Paul Lansky: Semi-Suite
Harold Boatrite: Lyric Suite for Piano
Andy Teirstein: Suite

Every Saturday night at 9 Eastern, Kile Smith brings you Now Is the Time, all styles of contemporary concert music by living American composers on WRTI’s all-classical stream. Just go to wrti.org and click on the Listen: Classical button at the top of any page. In the Philadelphia area with an HD radio? Dial us up at 90.1 FM-HD2, or find all the frequencies here, from the Jersey Shore to the Poconos to Harrisburg to Delaware. Thanks for supporting American contemporary music on WRTI! 

Stephen Paulus

paulusIt has to be 30 years ago now; I was sitting in a cafe with composers Jennifer Higdon, Rob Maggio, Sylvia Glickman, and a fellow in town from Minnesota, who was advising us on a composer organization start-up. He was already well-known in composer circles as the one who, with Libby Larsen, began in Minnesota what became the largest composer service organization in the world, the American Composers Forum.

His name was Stephen Paulus. He died at age 65 on Sunday, October 19th. He had suffered a debilitating stroke on July 4th, 2013, saddening musicians and audiences everywhere. Now we mourn.

At that table, his enthusiasm and positive energy were contagious, but I remember most of all his kindness. His music reflects that, too. A few months ago I programmed a short work, his Prelude No. 3 for piano, on WRTI’s contemporary American music program Now Is the Time. “Sprightly” is Paulus’s subtitle, and it encapsulates what I always hear in his music—be it choral, orchestral, operatic. From his more than 500 works, what I always hear is simplicity (even with complicated materials) and melodic openness.

from Stephen Paulus, Prelude No. 3, “Sprightly,” Lara Downes, piano: 

(We’re re-broadcasting this show on Saturday, November 1st, 9 pm on HD-2 and streaming at wrti.org.)

This excerpt from his Organ Concerto, performed by Alan Morrison with the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia on January 19th, 2014, shows, through all the gnarled chromaticism and virtuosic display, an element of—what shall I call it?—friendliness.

Stephen Paulus Organ Concerto, Finale. Alan Morrison, organ, Dirk Brossé conducting the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia:

So I remember Stephen Paulus from his music, from his work as a composer advocate, and from that one meeting at a Center City restaurant 30 years ago. Some of us there were young, some of us, unbelievably young. Stephen was seven years older than I, but with seeming decades more experience, he looked like he was 17. Thirty years later, he still did: always smiling, always youthful. That was the only time I met Stephen Paulus, but people all over are saying the same things. He was always generous, always supportive, always working, always positive, and kind, kind, kind.

Read Minnesota Public Radio’s appreciation of the legacy of Stephen Paulus here.

Here is his Pilgrim’s Hymn, perhaps his most-heard work:

Rehearsing Psalm 46 in Montana

not this time...

not this time…

Having a great time with Allan R. Scott, Music Director of the Helena Symphony & Chorale, and with baritone Ron Loyd, preparing for the performance of Psalm 46 on Saturday, October 18 at the Civic Center in Helena. A piano rehearsal earlier today, followed by an interview on Montana Public Radio, and off to a full orchestra and chorus rehearsal tonight.

Ron Loyd sounds perfect for this, such a beautiful, intelligent, big, thrilling voice—a Verdi baritone is what singers call it. Opening the concert will be selections from the Old American Songs of Aaron Copland. Yet again am I reminded of how good Copland is, I mean, really, honestly, fully engaged and original. It’s the old problem of appreciating popular repertoire. These are sung all the time. There’s a reason.

Anyway, I’m reveling over the perfect match of Ron Loyd to the Old American Songs and to Psalm 46. Allan Scott is on top of every detail and is brimming with energy, imagination, and commitment to the music and the Symphony. I’m thrilled to be working with them. (Though no Dodge Ram for a rental car this time!)

The notes, choral score, text, and a recording of Psalm 46 are here, along with an explanation of how and why it came to be composed. I’m glad to report that I’ve forgotten most of the theoretical business behind the harmonic language of the piece, and I think it works just fine without anyone else knowing that, either, but since I went to all that trouble, that’s in the notes, too. If you read it, don’t say I didn’t warn you, but my hope is that it may be appreciated simply as a meditation on this Scripture.

The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.

The Consolation of Apollo premieres

earthriseStill soaring from the premiere performances of The Consolation of Apollo over the weekend, but in the meantime, kind words about it this morning from the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Donald Nally led The Crossing in the three concerts at two very different-sounding venues, The Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton (Fri., 10/10/14 and Sat., 10/11), and The Church of the Holy Trinity on Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia (Sun. 10/12). Combined with rehearsals at the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill, those constitute a whirlwind tour through three very different acoustics. The Crossing’s talent and musicality include a big dose of flexibility.

I’ve said it before, but they amaze me. I cannot overstate Donald’s alertness to sound, and the choir’s intuition and suppleness. On top of gorgeous singing and the ability to make everything sound easy! I love being in their company; they love their music and their mission and each other so much. Such an encompassing joy to work with them.

David Patrick Stearns said that this “dauntingly high-concept new choral work” “indeed has a future,” and called The Consolation of Apollo my “most consistently high-level work, though one in which the composer of his breakthrough 2008 Vespers is barely recognizable.” (I’ll need to sift through that, as the works from then to now are all one line to me! But I may be in a poor position to say.) It “arises from a clear vision and sure purpose without losing any of its otherworldliness.” Read here his entire review of it and the work with which it was paired (indeed, the reason for Apollo‘s existence), David Lang’s The Little Match Girl Passion.

The complete Apollo-8-astronaut-and-Boethius text, and my program notes, are here. Looking ahead to 2015, and January 4th and 5th concerts in Philadelphia and Wilmington.