Monthly Archives: October 2008

Paul Moravec

My latest CD mini-review for the WRTI E-newsletter. You can read all my CD reviews here.

Paul Moravec, Tempest Fantasy
Tempest Fantasy, Mood Swings, B.A.S.S. Variations, Scherzo
Trio Solisti, David Krakauer, clarinet
Naxos 8.559323

Moravec hits on all cylinders: soaring melody, intricate harmony, propulsive rhythm, complexity, transparency, intelligence, humor, and above all, beauty. Listen to Tempest Fantasy for piano trio and clarinet, the 2004 Pulitzer Prize winner. It’s not program music, but reflections inspired by Shakespeare’s play, and each one is a gem. Take a listen, and if you think that it would also make perfect ballet music, you would not be alone: ballet companies are dancing to it already.

Paul’s music is clear, unfussy, heartfelt, and always, always singing. If you think that describes an opera composer, you would not be alone: his first opera, The Letter, on a libretto by the music and drama critic Terry Teachout, is set for a 2009 premiere with Santa Fe Opera. In the meantime, do yourself a favor and check out this disc from one of the most articulate composers writing today.


At the Fleisher Collection I’m on an orchestra listserv and the ophicleide came up for discussion. (This is what happens on orchestra listservs.) Anyway, it’s a brass instrument in the bass/baritone range that has been displaced by the tuba, and I was arguing for its continued use, at least in the Berlioz Symphonie fantastique. The two tuba parts in it—unusual enough—Berlioz actually wrote for two ophicleides, and one ought to cut The Father of Orchestration some slack, I was thinking.

True, it’s tough to find the instrument nowadays, let alone a person to play it well, but if classical music was easy, anybody could do it and hey, I heard the Pottstown Symphony perform it last year with Jay Krush—an expert in historical brass performance—playing the 1st tuba part on ophicleide, and it was a revelation.

It was difficult to explain the very real effect the ophicleide had from within and on the brass section, but, contra an opinion someone had that it should never be used in a modern orchestra, I blustered that I’d write for one in a New York minute (blustering being something else that happens on orchestra listservs). I wrote, “The sound of the ophicleide is hard to describe: not quite piercing, not quite rough, not quite raw, but some of all that.”

That was OK but I was describing by negatives. I was thinking I could do better when the online Broad Street Review arrived with Ted K. Hechtman’s memorial to Levi Stubbs: “A voice that was smooth and pleading and as full of gravel as a quarry all at the same time.” (The BSR has since published my letter, a shorter version of this post.)

StubbsI thought, man, that’s the ophicleide!, and sent that line over to the listserv as the encapsulation of what I was trying to say. Whatever you may think about an inside-baseball discussion on obscure instruments (or whatever you may think of pop music being brought into an orchestral discussion), let me tell you: Stubbs (left) yawping “Bernadette” after that measure of silence shocks and thrills like the “March to the Scaffold” in Symphonie fantastique, the ophicleide caterwauling from the crowd, insanely growling and prodding and urging and threatening, almost but never quite, never ever, losing control.

So if you’re ever wondering what an ophicleide sounds like, just think of Levi Stubbs, and think of Bernadette, and that’ll get you there.

Thank you, Mr. Hechtman, and thank you, Messrs. Berlioz and Stubbs.

(In a New York minute, I’m telling you.)

But how can they control you, Bernadette, when they cannot control themselves, Bernadette?

How brightly shines

Michael Lawrence has posted some nice words, some awfully nice words, about Vespers at The New Liturgical Movement. It meant a lot to me when, referring to my setting of “Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern,” he said, “This is a tune that had gone sour for me—until I heard this performance.” I’ll have to ask him sometime what went sour and what could possibly have changed his mind from what I’ve done, but in the meantime I’m tickled as can be that some folks are enjoying the snippets from the premiere on YouTube; there are a few out there but I think this is the one Michael watched.

People commented on Michael’s post. I wrote this, which is also an update on the CD:

“I can’t say enough about Piffaro, The Crossing, and Donald Nally, all of whom brought this about. It’s a (quite remarkable, as I think about it) collaboration between two giants in their respective fields, an early-music instrumental group, and a new-music choir. We indeed recorded this in late July, which gave me a chance to do a little rewriting after the January 2008 premiere. We’re editing the recording now, and we expect an early 2009 release on Parma Recordings. This Vespers is my attempt to write a piece filled with the spirit of Renaissance-era German church music; it includes chorales and chant, and is played on the instruments of that time. My rewriting on this (especially on the Deo gratias), by the way, was itself inspired by my wife’s and my attendance at the glorious Colloquium in Chicago.”

And I’m not kidding about that last part; I wrote about it here. There were some middling changes I made throughout the Vespers after the premiere, but I did some major rewriting on “Psalm 27” and “Deo gratias,” and the Colloquium helped to re-plug me into some sacred electricity to finish those off. Don’t know exactly when the CD’s coming out, but it can’t be too soon for me.

The Celan Project

Donald Nally and The Crossing have wanted to work with the poetry of Paul Celan, and I’m delighted that they’ve commissioned me for one of the works for The Celan Project, their year-long series of concerts this 2008–2009 season. I’ve made the acquaintance of translators Pierre Joris and Rosmarie Waldrop, whose work I’m setting, and am greatly looking forward to the music of David Shapiro and Kirstin Broberg, the other composers collaborating in this project. What a poet Paul Celan is, and what a challenging and exhilarating voice he has. My piece is tentatively titled Where Flames a Word, and the text I’ve chosen includes two poems and some prose of his. Donald has permitted me to copy below what he’s written in the latest newsletter from The Crossing (go to their website at the link above to get all the news). It’s a fascinating essay by a brilliant artist I’m privileged to know. (I already told David Shapiro, though, that when he delivered his music months ahead of deadline, that…that’s just not right.)

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Paul Celan

It was a dark and stormy night—and the final hours of our three full days of recording sessions with Piffaro. Things had gone fantastically until mid-way through the afternoon session on the last day when one of those tremendous summer thunderstorms ripped through the Great Valley (where we were recording Kile Smith’s Vespers, which we had performed in January). This, and the temporary loss of power, forced us to take a long “storm” break. But, the thunder never fully receded and we had no option in our remaining session but to forge ahead, hoping that we would get the best takes between the loudest rumbles. (It also made us realize that Kile’s music is not as easy as we may make it look, and not intended for a stormy night!)

But this is not what this little “blog” is about; rather, the above tense and joyful time provided the setting for another of a conductor’s great joys—the moment I receive a new work that our ensemble has commissioned. For, while we were working on Kile’s new music, David Shapiro, another beloved composer in The Crossing family, showed up at St. Peter’s in the Great Valley to listen in and to hand me his first draft of It is time, the first of three new works being written for THE CELAN PROJECT in our coming season, all based on poetry of Paul Celan. This was a surprise, as composers are not by nature “early” people: the work is to be premiered January 4, so David had a delivery deadline of November 1, but this was July 23! (Usually composers call me a week before the due date and ask, “So when do you really need this?”) I told David that I was flying back to Santa Fe in the morning and had a whirlwind schedule heading back to Chicago to start our Lyric Opera schedule in a few days, so I would wait to look at the new piece until I had time to concentrate on it in Chicago—a blatant lie. A couple of hours later I was like a kid handed a present on Christmas Eve and told to wait till the morning to open it; I had David’s music spread out on my hotel room bed and was drinking it in.

A few years ago my friend Ardalan Keramati gave me a volume of Paul Celan poetry translated by Pierre Joris. Ardi didn’t realize that, years before, I had commissioned a new work on one of Pierre’s poems and knew first-hand his vision, sense of reflection, and language virtuosity—a perfect match for Celan’s elusive language, full of imagery, evoking sensations and emotions that leave much to the imagination because they are based on concrete realities that he purposefully loses in translation to art. Much of it is informed by WWII: Celan was born into a German-speaking Romanian Jewish family and lost his parents in the camps.

What Ardi does know is me, and this poetry moved and inspired me. My idea for THE CELAN PROJECT formed as much from Celan’s poems as from his writing about poetry. To another poet he wrote: “to that in your work which did not—or not yet—open up to my comprehension, I responded with respect and by waiting: one can never pretend to comprehend completely—that would be disrespect in the face of the Unknown that inhabits—or comes to inhabit—the poet: that would be to forget that poetry is something one breathes; that poetry breathes you in.” What an attractive invitation to musical composition, since perhaps the most difficult obstacle in setting words to music is taking the concrete and translating it into the abstract, all the while giving it a new definition through the strange ability of music to evoke often universally-recognizable emotions. (That statement may make some musicological friends wince, but I find it to be true.) When I introduced this work to our three 2009 commissioned composers—David Shapiro, Kirsten Broberg, and the above-mentioned Kile Smith—each leaped at the opportunity, dove into Celan’s oeuvre and came back with fantastic ideas. For example, from Kile Smith’s anticipated new work:

Before your late face,
a loner
wandering between nights
that change me too,
something came to stand,
which was with us once already, un-
touched by thoughts.

(“Before your late face,” trans. Joris, 1995)

With its pages strewn across the airport Marriott bed, the wind and thunder still playing outside the window, and the sounds of The Crossing fresh in my mind from four days of singing together, I imagined what David’s new work will sound like to our audience on January 4. I was hardly able to sleep, aching to sing this new music of a composer who has an amazing ability to establish a specific color and tone so that the listener has the feeling they are in the piece—have already been in the piece—and are a part of its emotional environment. From the opening nostalgic melody (Autumn eats its leaf / out of my hand / we are friends) to the haunting repetitive harmonies of the closing bars (It is time / it is time.), it is a painfully beautiful work that should not be missed. Please join us for it on January 4, as we kick off THE CELAN PROJECT—and then come back for the premieres of Broberg and Smith during our MONTH OF MODERNS, May 18–June 5. And, hope the thunder stays away.—Donald Nally

Brahms Requiem

My latest CD mini-review for the WRTI E-newsletter

Johannes Brahms, A German Requiem
Berlin Philharmonic, Berlin Radio Chorus, Simon Rattle, Dorothea Röschmann, Thomas Quasthoff
EMI Classics 65393

It starts in regions below your feet where basses and cellos and violas dwell, this irresistible lava-stream of a Requiem. With none of the thundering fear of Verdi’s, it begins in blessing and ends in comfort. Brahms chose the biblical texts himself, in German, and told a friend it might simply be called a “human Requiem.” Emphasizing peace over judgment, only Death is judged, leaving all else to glow with life.

Simon Rattle rightly decides not to deepen what is already profound. He instead concentrates Berlin’s sound: they don’t swing for the fences, yet the power intensifies. Even the satirical sixth-movement waltz at “Death, where is thy sting?” is not furious, as it often is, but is self-assured and practically en famille. The soloists shimmer, Quasthoff making his solos sound less oratorical and more like lieder. This is indeed a very human, very German, Requiem.